It’s release season, which means that there are literally more things coming out than I can possibly review. The way I can best make sense of this is by dropping massive singles lists and then augmenting with reviews of the very best stuff. So here’s part one of a massive amount of singles.
MAXIMUM SINGLENESS (cheery part)
1. “Rahh!” – Pepa Knight. I’m generally anti-congas, but Pepa Knight makes them sound so delightful in this jubilant indie-pop/pop gem.
2. “Murphy’s Law” – Clockwise. JUST START DANCING NOW. ALSO GET READY TO CLAP. SUMMMMMEEEEERRRRRRR
3. “Suns Out Guns Out” – Concord America. Garage rock needed a shot of the Beastie Boys’ mid-’80s total abandon, and Concord America delivers.
4. “Melody” – Plustwo. This song was a hit in 1983, at the tail end of disco. Now it’s been redone and re-released. Since it sounds pretty much like it could have been written today, it’s now time to say: DISCO IS ALIVE, FOLKS.
5. “Gold Soundz” – Ray and Remora. Respectin’ their indie elders with a low-key indie-electro verzion.
6. “Dirty Mouth“- Killing Kuddles. Here’s a folk song that just couldn’t contain all the raucous energy it had, so it turned into a punk song. Excellent slice of folk-punk here, complete with wicked guitar solo.
7. “Faucet” – Samuel Cooper. Tons ‘o dudes doing the hazy-indie-pop thing, but not so many can do it with such endearing vocal tone and strong melodies.
8. “Running Game” – Awning. Melding ’90s pop to gentle electro to acoustic-pop, Awning are doing something a little different than the rest of us.
9. “When You Call” – July Child. Sometimes R&B is too limp for me, but the energy and strong vocal performance here make this track wistful without being wimpy.
11. “Better Ride” – Curtin. Sometimes I hear a song and think, “damn, s/he must have been writing songs for a long time.” This chill alt-country tune just smacks of experience and expertise. Absolutely gorgeous.
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April is my busiest month of the year, so I’ll most likely not get as much posting done here as I’d like. But I’m giving it all my effort. Here are five tunes that I’ve been jamming to.
A Small Collection, etc.
1. “The Stone” – The Gray Havens. No matter how far afield I go, I always come back to folk-pop. This takes a grand, sweeping approach to the genre (not unlike I and Love and You-era Avett Brothers), capping off a giant crescendo with a cascade of “ohs” counterpointing the chorus. It’s a fun, peppy, carefully-constructed track that has me excited for their upcoming new album.
2. “Spero” – Cindertalk. IC fave Jonny Rodgers is now Cindertalk. His first release under the name is a haunting, powerful track that relies on his fragile voice and an impressive arrangement of his ethereal tuned wine glasses. There’s a vinyl that will be on sale during Record Store Day–you should check that thing out.
3. “Postworld (The Sun Explodes)” – Manuka Piglet. Were you looking for 13 minutes of psych-folk freakout about the cosmic end of things? Or maybe you were looking for a clarinet solo? Or both? Ambitious, impressive, a little bit nuts.
4. “XOXO” – Swordface. Wiry indie-rock that doesn’t take its talents or melodic prowess too seriously. I heard there’s an emo revival on? This probably counts.
5. “How Terrorism Brought Us Back Together” – Challenger. IC fave Challenger is bringing its ’80s-influence electro-pop back around again, and this one kicks it off with a bouncy track that features strikingly direct vocals and melodies. Throw this one on the car stereo and let that top down.
St. Even is that rare record that is captivating in its vocal melodies, arrangements, lyrics, and album art design. Captivating me with one of these things is enough to score a rave review, but this self-titled record from the nom de guerre of singer/songwriter Steven Hefter gives me everything at once. This quirky, lovely, challenging record is a surefire bet to be on my Top 10 of the year list.
His vocals are warm and engaging: his emotive baritone can sound pain-stricken, hopeful, and confident all in the same song. His years of writing and performing have earned him a quiet control of his range, which makes the melodies that he chooses to go for seem effortless. Even at his dour, Dan Mangan-esque moments, he’s got a little bit of a wry smile going on. The performances are memorable in their distinctness; his is not an interchangeable voice, and these are not disposable performances. Many of the melodies are beautiful not only for their well-craftedness, but for their earnest, nuanced, often subtly-imperfect performances. They’ve got character.
The arrangements are also full of life and verve: Hefter doesn’t like to have each instrument play straight through the song. Instead, he fits parts together like a jigsaw puzzle, making a sprawling chamber orchestra/New Orleans Jazz line into an awe-inspiring musical Rube Goldberg machine. This creates a joyful uncertainty, giving the listener little clue what wonder will be behind the next corner. Will it be the jubilant New Orleans piano of “Don’t Hold Your Breath”? The woozy horns of “Until Now Forever”? The odd rhythms of “Home Is Where You Hang Your Head” that make it feel as if the whole song is leaning forward? Hefter keeps you guessing in the best way. You will sing along with songs that don’t seem like you should be able to sing along; Hefter can make complex things fun, and fun things complex.
The “fun things complex” really comes into play with the lyrics, the weight of which is incredible for a singer/songwriter album that’s written in major keys and with intricate arrangements. Not many would layer another layer of depth onto what’s already going on, but Hefter goes right there in “Been a Little Better,” “Until Now Forever” and “Homesick.” His ruminations on the struggles of life feature lines that stick out in the best of ways, grabbing my attention and making me think about them. Because much of their gravitas comes from their delivery, I won’t spill them here, but I can point you toward “Until Now Forever” and “Really Real” for places where this might come upon you.
The art for the album is beautiful as well, with the case arriving in a burlap bag with gorgous print on both sides. The case itself has art too, which keeps proving that Hefter is really special in his attention to detail and that Gorbie International is a doing a wonderful thing for music. The other record label that put out this record is Party Damage Records, which only has five releases under its belt, but is already climbing my list of labels to watch. They opened up their catalog with the excellent dance-oriented indie-pop of Keep It Safe by Wild Ones; they’ve moved on to recognizing the immense talents of St. Even. Hard to argue with that track record.
St. Even is a sophisticated, intricate, beguiling album that gave me an immediate kick but kept the rest of the iceberg submerged. With some careful attention, the rest of the beauty became apparent–and I’m still discovering it with current listens. Absolutely wonderful. Highly recommended.
A couple weeks ago I featured Adam Rich‘s Kickstarter on DIY Ditty. (Side note: I have not forgotten DIY Ditty. It will be back in May.) Rich wanted to reissue his now 20-year-old debut album Virgin Freak on CD for the comparatively mini sum of $125. He ended up with $184, and so, lo and behold, Virgin Freak is out in the world on disc.
The album itself is composed of mostly instrumental rock tracks, with an acoustic tune and a vocals-led song rounding out the set. There’s some nods to grunge (“Weaving,” “The Friendlies”), old-school metal riffing (“Nasally Impaired”), early ’90s funk/rock sound (“Rhet Ro”) and a tune that’s some combination of all of that (“Psycho John”). It’s a fun listen, especially if you’re a fan of the early ’90s. (Also, if you’re a fan of joke-metal/joke-rock, you’ll enjoy the goofy “Psycho John” immensely.) Fans of early ’90s rock sounds, DIY projects, and/or low-to-mid-fi recording should check out Virgin Freak.
Pop/folk/country is a near-ubiquitous mash-up right now, but it’s only because there’s so much ground to till there. Suzie Brown‘s songs combine the catchy melodies of acoustic-pop, the deft guitar-playing of folk, and gentle country arrangements that incorporate pedal steel and minimalist drumming.
The title track (and opener) of Almost There combines these three influences for a sprightly, warm, enjoyable tune. “Sugar Blues” picks up some country attitude and pairs it with adult alternative backup singers for a neat juxtaposition. Her cover of Fats Domino’s “I’m Gonna Be a Wheel Someday” also gives the album a burst of energy: even though there’s a jubilant New Orleans Jazz vibe to her rendition, it remains recognizably folk/country. Brown can genre-mix with the best of them, and that gives Almost There an exciting, adventurous feel.
“Own Little Show” is a spare, romantic country ballad, the type that you could imagine being written in the ’40s, ’70s, or today. “Everywhere I Go” is a straight-up pop song that feels like a lyrical and melodic sequel to “Cecilia” by Simon and Garfunkel. “Fallen Down” plays up the folky fingerpicking for a sonorous tune. So even though Brown mixes genres often, she can go traditional too; that diversity gives a lot of spunk to the album.
Brown’s unadorned, beautiful alto voice helps keep consistency throughout the diversity of the album. Brown feels completely at home in her voice, having found a range and a melodic style that serve her well. She clearly has worked hard on songwriting, and she sounds natural in the songs she has written. It’s a hard thing to do, but Brown has accomplished it well here.
Brown has plenty of tricks up her sleeve, which is why Almost There is so delightful. There’s plenty going on in each track and throughout the album, but the album never feels disjointed. If you’re a fan of Laura Stevenson, Laura Marling, Laura Veirs, or female singer/songwriters in general, you should check out Suzie Brown.
Before we get to the surreal video clips, here’s an absolutely surreal performance. I will never tire of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” and Jenny & Tyler (and guests!) do an incredible rendition right here. Jenny & Tyler is one of the most on-fire acts I know of right now.
A lot of artists want to make surreal music videos, but Elliphant’s latest clip is one of the few that succeeds. The visuals are unsettling without being graphic, perfectly fitting the tense electro-pop of “Revolusion.”
Grant Valdes’ “Lord, Don’t Take the Sun” clip gives a herky-jerky, also-surreal take on building a fire. I know it sounds pedestrian, but it’s compelling.
& Yet gives a strong studio performance of a forlorn chamber-pop tune as part of the Fastback Sessions. It’s not surreal, really, but I wanted to include it anyway. It’s my blog, I do what I want.
If you’ve got 11 minutes for three freak-folk songs from Matthew Squires and The Learning Disorders, then you should check out this video. Squires and a cellist perform amidst a half-finished boutique, complete with mannequins. Suitable space for Squires’ fractured, surreal visions.
Busy day: here are some MP3s to get you through it.
1. “Tom Hanks” – Their Planes Will Block Out the Sun. With new members comes a new sound: Their Planes replaced their lead singer with a guy/girl duo, and it gives the sound a warmth that was never before a priority. It’s still got some icy, spiky edges to the indie rock, but those edges are significantly ground down. Very appealing track from Their Planes.
2. “Only Your Love” – Bondage and Discipline. Mid-80s pop that gives equal time to sequencers and piano. Summertime is coming!
3. “Dograces” – Dub Thompson. Beck? Is that you? Did you eat a garage-rock band? Are you collaborating with the Beastie Boys? What is happening? Are you okay?
4. “New Wave” – Varsity. Female-fronted guitar-pop at its most infectious. Get happy, y’all.
5. “Letters” – Nick Foster. Bright, earnest pop-folk with gospel influences? Yes, please.
I’m thrilled by the new: new songs, new places, new tastes, and new ideas. One of my favorite things about Independent Clauses is that I get to hear the cutting edge sounds as they are happening.
But sometimes I want something comforting and familiar–I’ve listened to Josh Caress’ Letting Go of a Dream probably more than 100 times. Josh Caress’ way with melody and mood are two reasons that I love his record so much, but another is that Letting Go sits in the timeless genre of singer/songwriter. You don’t have to be in that genre to become timeless, but it sure helps.
Ordinary Elephant is firmly situated in a time-honored folk/bluegrass milieu. Their songs sound new and old at the same time: songs I’ve never heard, but wrapped in a style and arrangements that are very recognizable. Crystal Hariu-Damore’s alto pairs with Peter Damore’s tenor over acoustic guitar, banjo, and stand-up bass. The songs on dusty words & cardboard boxes are essentially warm blankets of sound: you can wrap yourself up in them without effort. You don’t have to penetrate any gnarly lyrical difficulties or quirky arrangements; you can just enjoy the songcraft. It’s kind of like a folk version of The Weepies.
“damage is done” is a perfect example of this songwriting style. It’s a mid-tempo tune that contrasts a chipper banjo line with a world-weary vocal performance from Hariu-Damore. The resulting mood is easy-going but a little melancholy; a good “summer porch, warm afternoon” song. Not giddy, not morose–somewhere between, in that muddle and mix. “the great migration” features a violin and mandolin, giving it a fuller flair; closer “could have” is a bright, major key song.
You can pick anywhere in the album to start and you’ll be treated to comfortable, calm, organic tunes. If you’re looking for wild fits of fancy, this is not your jam. If you’re looking for earnest, honest folk music, dusty words & cardboard boxes is going to give you what you’re after. For fans of old-school Caedmon’s Call (when Derek Webb was still in it), stand-up basses, Gillian Welch, and the phrase “good ‘ol fashioned.”
My favorite hymn rewrite project, Page CXVI, knows its strengths. On Lent to Maundy Thursday, the trio creates cohesive and enveloping moods through attention to musical detail. Page CXVI is led by Tifah’s expressive alto; she knows how to use her range and tone to great effect, and it shows on some powerful performances here. The bass tone is especially notable on the instrumental side; there’s a lot of thought going into those details, and it makes an overall better album.
The striking, pensive arrangements neatly guide the listener through the somber lyrics; even at the high, triumphant moment of “This Blessed Day,” there’s still notes of sadness and tension. This is an album of hard-wrought celebration, of praise in honor of that which was most difficult. The tone reflects both ends: Lent to Maundy Thursday never becomes overly gloomy or giddy. This is a measured, thoughtful work celebrating and accompanying a complex time in the Christian calendar.