1. “County Line” – Susto. Susto is one of the very best alt-country acts working today, and if you don’t know that you haven’t heard their stuff yet. Let this nigh-on-perfect tune serve as your introduction.
2. “King” – The Amazing Devil. This incredibly intense song wrings every last drop of emotion out of dramatic vocal performances, a cinematic lyrical set, and a churning full-band acoustic performance. Cello has rarely sounded so incredibly vibrant and necessary in folk-rock. The video that accompanies the tune is equally impassioned; it’s a rare thing that the video enhances the experience of listening to the song, but this one totally does. Highly recommended. Their album comes out Monday, so if you’re in London you should check their release show out. If it’s anything like this video, it promises to be a wild affair.
3. “Window” – Stephen Douglas Wolfe. Saxophone and French horn are not common inclusions in a woodsy folk tune, but Wolfe makes them sound totally natural. Between them and the bassist going absolutely bonkers (you go!), this sounds almost more like Anathallo than it does Bon Iver, but fans of both will find much to love in this tune.
4. “Dancing in the Dark” – Josiah and the Bonnevilles. This song is infinitely coverable: I would listen to almost anyone cover this tune. The fact that Josiah and the Bonnevilles are my favorite new band of the year makes it even more excellent.
5. “Standing” – Melody Federer. This singer-songwriter/indie-pop tune has a melodic maturity that stands up against Ingrid Michaelson, Sara Watkins, and Sleeping at Last. It has gravitas while still remaining light; it’s a very rare balance that is to be celebrated.
6. “Why Don’t You Call Home” – Deni Gauthier. Sometimes all you need is a great falsetto and a tiny guitar riff to steal hearts.
7. “Sunset Road” – Kathryn Overall. Here’s a folk-pop tune about contentment, local beauty, and home played in a low-key, no-frills, earnest way. I broke into a smile, and I think you will too.
8. “Under a Rose” – Dylan Addington. Always space in my heart for a folk-pop tune with a catchy vocal melody and stomping percussion. Fans of The Lumineers should be all up on this.
9. “The Captain” – Adam Topol. Fans of the easygoing acoustic joy of Dispatch and Guster will find a lot of love in Topol’s swaying, airy, summery tune.
10. “Catch Your Fall” – The River South. The iconic shuffle-snare is employed to great effect here, providing the backbone for a delicate love song. The keyboards, bass, and dual vocals fill in the warm, comforting vibe.
11. “White Sky” – Lilla Clara. A solemn, emotionally powerful tune that sucks all the air out of the room.
12. “Between the Bars” – Andrea Silva. Elliott Smith cannot have very much added to him, but reinterpretation keeps a legacy alive. This cover features a great vocal performance, too.
13. “Once Upon a Child” – Eleanor Murray. Tape hiss, nylon strings, room reverb, and an arresting alto vocal line come together for a deeply affecting tune.
14. “Loss” – Paul Sweeney. This contemplative solo guitar piece has a consistent motion in the melodic line that makes the song both evocative and emotional.
15. “Improvisation I” – De Martenn. This solo piano piece explores a dark blue mood; it feels like the street corner late at night, when you know no one is around but it still feels like something is going to happen. It’s peaceful but not serene; there’s some undercurrent going right there under the surface. You look twice; no one is there either time. You’re a little disappointed, but but also relieved. You walk home. You sleep well.
Anathallo had a profound impact on my understanding of what indie rock should sound like. The early years of the band featured highly orchestrated arrangements, melodies that were catchy as much due to their complex rhythm as hummable qualities and surprising songwriting turns. Indie rock has moved away from this sound, but I have not. I’ll still up any band that gives me unexpected songwriting moves.
The Hague is on my good list in that regard. The band’s songs are nothing if not unpredictable. Whether ratcheting up to a crushing rush of guitar or dropping down to group vocals and tapped cymbal, the band plays with the ideas of how pop songs should work. To wit: those two parts I noted happen next to each other in “I’m Sorry.”
What sets The Hague apart from the pack and into Anathallo-excellent territory is patience in letting things unfold and excellent guitar work. All three tracks on the Stark House EP feature quick-paced, distinctive guitar runs that sound wonderful. They’re more prominent on “Valkyrie” and “I’m Sorry” than “California Curse,” but the goodness is present throughout. There are strings in and out of each piece. The tunes rock as well as quirk. That’s just awesome.
This type of indie-rock is embedded in my mind as Chicago-style, even if it’s not true. This is because of the way I view Chicago: less cut-throat than New York, less image-conscious than LA, less hip than Austin, less socially conscious than Portland, less jaded than Seattle. The Chicago of my mind is a place where smart guys have day jobs and also play rock shows of unusual music that they wrote in the basement with their friends. Someone played french horn/violin/other, because he had the instrument and he wanted to.
(Chicagoans are shaking their heads. Whatever. I’ve been to your city. It’s awesome. Let me compliment your hometown with half-truths if I feel like it.)
And that’s how I view The Hague (who were until recently tagged with the ironic moniker “And Then I Was Like, What?”, which only strengthens my opinion): A bunch of guys just doing their thing, even though they are in fact from Portland. And their thing (currently, the Stark House EP) is great. Check them out if you miss Anathallo or indie rock circa 2005 in general.
Do you like happiness? Good. Do you like exuberance? Good. Do you like giddiness? Great, because that’s the level of enthusiasm you’ll need to take in Jacob’s List. Their EP Corks and Screws is as optimistic as Anathallo, as exuberant as The Format and as frenetic as Jack’s Mannequin.
It’s piano-based indie pop, that much is sure. And they’re ecstatic about something, that much is also true. There are handclaps, group singalongs, woo!s and guitar solos. The best example of this is “Claire,” which even manages to pack in some Hold Steady-esque story-song lyrics delivered in a distinctly Craig Finn-ian drawl (albeit more melodic). I swear, if it’s not on your next mixtape, a unicorn will explode into a dozen little rainbows.
But right after they establish that they’re the second coming of The Unicorns (with a piano), they toss in a stomping rock aside. Did I mention it’s the title track? Yes, Jacob’s List knows how to keep a listener riveted. The acoustic-heavy “Tall Tall Grass” sounds like the best things that Annuals have been able to pull off, and “Bloodlines” is eight frickin minutes long. Needless to say, it is awesome.
Jacob’s List know how to throw down an EP. Corks and Screws establishes them very firmly in my mind as a band to watch. No one can make music this exuberant and technically proficient only to stay in a garage. Someone get this band to SXSW! Stat! Until then, I’ll be over here, smiling giddily, listening intently and petting the unicorn.
I came into an appreciation of folk music at about the same time the folk revival was beginning to gain prominence (roughly four or five years ago). I was finally lucky enough to catch a thing at its peak; it seems I always go back and discover the goodness of a thing after the fact (point: I saw Death Cab for Cutie on their Plans tour, the Mountain Goats on their Get Lonely tour, Coldplay on its X&Y tour, and Guster on its Ganging up on the Sun tour; all of which were one album after their best album). But this time, I’m on the edge with the rest of the people rocking out to Mumford and Sons, because folk finally reclaimed energy.
La Strada’s New Home does Mumford and Sons one better. Instead of just being a folk band on speed (which, as M+S’s immense popularity shows, is quite alright), they’re a folk band on speed eating an indie band. It’s like gentler Beirut with a guy who can sing; it’s like Arcade Fire with acoustic guitars. This album is so incredibly hip and current that I’m afraid I’m not cool enough to review it. But I reject that notion, because the songs are brilliant. These songs aren’t just for the cool; they’re for people who like anything related to pop music.
“The Traveler” features a bouncy drum line, a mini-orchestra and a jaunty vocal line. The smooth quality of the vocals is immensely reassuring from the beginning of the album; he has the best elements of many different vocalists. His ability to convey emotion without oversinging recalls Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard; his effortless delivery recalls people with gifted voices like Novi Split’s David Jerkovich. The fact that he meshes so well with the band makes me think of the National, even though their voices seem separated by (several?) octaves.
The ragged yet gentle rhythms of “The Traveler,” plus the immensely reverbed guitar solo, strings, trumpets, tubas, and keys make for a richly ornamented, impossible-to-dislike song. There’s tons going on here, but as in an Anathallo song, it all works together. Even when they kill the beat, punch up the accordion and turn the song into a Parisian street waltz (not kidding), it sounds amazing.
Then they kick into “Wash On By,” which brings a indie-rock surge of energy to their still-instrument-heavy mix. This song will make you move, as well as yell and cheer with the band. The rhythms, which are distinctly foreign but not exactly easy to pin down, simply bring the house down. I wish I could be in the audience for a performance of “Wash on By.”
Then there’s the title track, which for once is appropriately chosen. I hate it when bands don’t choose the right title track, but this one is far and away the most memorable track of the album (and you thought I’d lavished all the exuberant praise I had in me? naaa). The song is sparse, but it’s not sparse in the lack of instruments; they use the instruments sparingly, locking them in together to pull a distinct and certain mood out of the tune. The word masterful is not an exaggeration of this tune’s quality.
The whole thing is held together by the vocals, again, which are glorious and command several beautiful melodies. The brass band and strings contribute significantly to this tune. You will be singing “Hello strange familiar, you’re my new home; oh, wha-o, wha-o wha-o.” Trust me, it looks goofy there, but you’ll know exactly what I mean when it happens. You will be powerless to resist it.
My highest praise for an album is “I could write a small book about this album.” And it is very, very true of New Home by La Strada. I didn’t even get to talk about the lyrics, the art, the rest of the tunes (and seriously, that’s a tragedy to me, because “Baptism” and “Where You Want to Go” and “Go Forward” are all wonderful and worthy of covering). All I can say is, for your own good, buy this album. It will improve your mood for weeks.