Minimus the Poet‘s Empathy EP is driven by evocative drums and punchy guy/girl vocals. It’s no surprise the EP opens with 14 seconds of toms before vocals and light guitar come in: the indie-rock sextet’s percussion gives more than just structure and rhythm to the tracks. In tunes like the title track and “Lightning Rod,” the mood is dictated by the kit’s contributions. The motion of “Empathy” fluctuates with the drumming patterns; “Lightning Rod” sees the rest of the band play off the consistent, complex beats.
The guy-girl vocal harmonies are part of the tension there, and they shine throughout (“Molasses,” “Rust”). The vocalists both temper and empower the drums: on “Rust,” the vocalists in several places sing directly over the drumming with the rest of the band (acoustic guitar, electric guitar, piano) out. It’s a fascinating pairing that gets at the core of Minimus the Poet’s sound. If you’re into driving indie rock with folky overtones, give Empathy a try.
If alt-country was an antidote to the musically and lyrically whitewashed pastorals of Hot Country, Burnside & Hooker‘s All the Way to the Devil adheres to the third option: aggressive country. By the time that we’ve made it to the end of track six, people have been murdered (and/or framed for murder, and/or dragged to hell), souls have been sold to the devil, and several bad breakups have occurred. (There are eight more songs to go.) To accompany these tunes of the West’s seedy side are tunes that sound like country mashed up with hard rock–the apex of which being “Momma Said,” which is essentially a Joan Jett song that includes no acoustic instrumentation whatsoever.
“Mistaken” is more indicative of their general approach: there’s a clearly recognizable ominous western guitar chassis, outfitted with searing electric guitar and garnished by Rachel Bonacquisti’s ferocious vocals. (No one dies in this one, though.) Bonacquisti’s impressive roar is a staple throughout these 14 tunes, as she can create a menacing howl or a sultry come-hither. All the Way to the Devil is the crunchy, seedy, violent music that would be playing in Wild West saloons, should they still exist in 2015. (That’s a compliment, lest anyone in Burnside & Hooker take that the wrong way and track me down.)
Before alt-country, though, there was Laurel Canyon country–that laid-back, California-born style that was as indebted to sunny vibes, highway driving, and beach surf as the high desert. Rob Nance‘s Signal Fires is a perfect example of the warm, relaxed style. (Dawes is also plying a version of the sound recently, although All Your Favorite Bands has a significantly more somber vibe than Nance’s latest.) Just because you can turn it on and chill out doesn’t mean that the songwriting is lazy or slacker-y; on the contrary, Nance’s songwriting here is tight and clear. With acoustic-laden recordings this transparent, every mistake would have shown up–no fuzzed-out, heavy-reverb guitar to hide the faults.
No, Signal Fires is the work of a musician paying deep attention to his craft. Just check out opener “No Gold” for an example: there are few better examples of sun-dappled country that I’ve heard. Elsewhere Nance focuses more on his husky low-tenor voice than sprawling song structures; “Landslide Town” and the title track are just as good for the choice. Nance pays homage to his forebears with the traditional country tune “On My Way,” and it fits nicely between the jazzy “Shelter” and the more upbeat “Dear Shadow.” Signal Fires is an album that can keep you company on no-deadlines journeys and lackadaisical afternoons–it’s an impeccably written and recorded album that succeeds in sounding like it wasn’t that much work at all.