Zach Winters‘ Monarch is a gentle, calming, delicate album of pristine singer/songwriter work reminiscent of Sleeping at Last. Winters’ modus operandi is to develop a single quiet element into a whole array of sounds without ever crossing the threshold into noisy.
The lack of kit drums throughout much of the album helps greatly in building this lush, soothing sound: strings, voice, two guitars, and auxiliary instruments can still sound intimate if there’s no snares and cymbals marshaling them forward. Instead, the sounds and songs here unfold tenderly, one part after another. This is not a pop album; these songs are not built for instant gratification. Monarch sets the mood for an hour, or a day, or a week.
The high points, insofar as can be picked out from the gorgeous whole, are the swells where Winters exercises his arrangement skills: the title track soars as Winters puts everything he has into the six-minute tune; “Deep Deep” shows his “poppiest” vocal melody, which makes the song sound like a lost Josh Garrels tune. “Meant” is a beautiful love song that calls up the closest Sleeping at Last comparisons, while “Tonight” is one of the warmest tracks I’ve heard in a while. Monarch is a romantic wonder in the literary and literal senses of the world: the emphasis on beauty appeals to those eloquent novels and poetry of yore, while lovers of all types will find a sonic analogue to tender affection. Highly recommended.
Naïm Amor‘s Hear the Walls is also quiet, but in a different way. Hear the Walls is a stark, enticing album that relies on mystery and intrigue. The album’s allure starts with its lyrics: the songs are sung in both English and French, giving some of these songs the mystique of a foreign tongue. The ones that do appear in English draw on lightly reverbed guitar, distant arrangements, and whispered vocals to create their enticing moods.
Lead single “No Way Back” is one of the most full arrangements, incorporating prominent strings and a second guitar into the mix. The result is a tune something like Joseph Arthur or an acoustic Teitur might make: a mature, full-bodied song that just happen to be quiet. Follow-up track “Cherche Dans la Brume” features Andrew Bird-style whistling into a tune that’s far more tense than the small arrangement should be able to create. There are some lovely moments, such as the beautiful closing instrumental “Learning America”; the overall impression, however, is one of intrigue.
Amor’s offerings here are equally as mood-creating as Zach Winter’s, but in a very different way. The quiet tension throughout the release makes me look always just around the corner, waiting for the next element to emerge. If you’re into serious music a la Andrew Bird, Patrick Watson, or Joseph Arthur, Hear the Walls will provide a treat.
Bells and Hunters wastes no time announcing that they are something different. By 1:25 into the opener (which is also the title track) of Weddings and Funerals, the band has given listeners a spacey intro; a garagey, overdriven guitar riff; rapid-fire ’90s-style female speak-sing; a trumpet line; some accentuated guitar arpeggiation; and a pop-punk- inflected breakdown. This is not what you normally listen to, unless there are some No Doubt B-sides that sound like this in your catalog. This weird-but-cool garage-rock takes an even weirder turn in the next track: “73” is a slow-paced alt-country tune whose only connection to the previous tune is the particular style of guitar picking. (They even bring in a male vocalist halfway through, mixing it up more.) Bells and Hunters are not afraid to experiment.
Those two tunes show good extremes of Bells and Hunters’ sound, as the rest of the album sees the band combining those two sounds liberally. (They do hit the distortion pedal at the end of “73,” but it still sounds like Old 97s-style alt-country instead of garage-rock.) “Bird” starts off with dainty sounds and jaunty rhythms–like an Andrew Bird piece–but incorporates some majorly Weezer-esque guitar stomp by the end of the tune. Highlight track “Mercury” starts off with some ominous guitar picking and tom beating before bringing in a spaghetti western trumpet line, fusing the intensity that they bring with their garage-rock to a quieter arrangement. (Never fear, though: they let the drums go nuts on the cymbals, dirtying up the sound almost as much as the fuzzbox would.) “Planes” is basically a finger-picked folk song blown out by a garage-rock band. It sounds awesome, if a bit foreign to ears unaccustomed to it.
Bells and Hunters’ sound is an exciting and interesting one, exploring spaces between genres. I’ve mentioned Steven Hyden’s dictum about the future of music before (“a future where all music sounds like everything at once“), and it seems that Bells and Hunters are ready for that bold future. This is a creative, inventive, interesting take on two different genres. If you’re up for something unusual, check out Weddings and Funerals.
The Old 97s are a touchstone for Time Travels‘ sound as well. Where Bells and Hunters reminded me of Rhett Miller and Co.’s louder bits, Time Travels reminds me of the band’s softer side. Secret EP puts the emotive side of alt-country on display, with opener “It is.” leaning heavily on a remorseful, emotive vocal performance. Frank McGinnis has the soaring tenor pipes for the adult alternative genre, and the sweeping crescendoes of “It is.” do swing toward the Matt Nathanson/Goo Goo Dolls/Ben Rector style. But instead of getting mushy and cloying in their more upbeat stuff (like Matt Nathanson has a tendency to do), Time Travels takes after Ben Rector by sticking to a more upbeat, staccato, rock-influenced style in the title track.
The rest of the five-song EP leans closer to the emotive power-pop of the opener, with admirable vocal turns in “The Eye” and “Wraith” (check that falsetto!). “Wraith” also has some nice bass work, which I particularly like. Time Travels have two very different directions they can head from the Secret EP, so it will be interesting to see if they veer off on a path or keeping splitting the distance. Until further information is available, I’ll enjoy the upbeat “Secret” and lullaby-esque “Orange you glad I didn’t say banana?”
Even though Todd Kessler‘s band is called The New Folk, the sound of Sea Fever is closer to the ornate acoustic pop of Andrew Belle and David Mead. Although some might balk at this, this is no qualm with me: I’m a fan of this style when it’s done well. And Kessler does it well, neatly balancing complex arrangements with a vocals-centric focus. At times this leads him into very precise, Andrew Bird-esque territory (“First Sip,” “Intangible”)–especially with the plucked violin that these tunes employ.
Tunes like “Zen Lunatics” and “Holes in the Floor” sit other end of the spectrum, employing crunchy distorted guitars and stomping rhythms. It’s not rock, per se–the theatrical “Holes in the Floor” employs careening, burlesque horns–but it’s certainly not delicate indie-pop either. The most memorable turns come when Kessler splits the difference, toning down some of the more intricate arrangements while also not going full-on pop blast. “Oh Brother” and single “Hallelujah” live in this space, and it’s a good one for him.
Kessler’s pop hooks and arrangements are both very strong, making Sea Fever a release that fans of thoughtful pop music definitely should invest time in. I look forward to seeing what Kessler comes up with next.
I can’t believe it’s been almost two weeks since I posted. Crazy times. Here’s a bunch of quick hits to clear my slate and get back to lengthy reviews I am such a fan of writing.
The fractured melodies and herky-jerky energy of Good News-era Modest Mouse meet the moody ponderousness of Tom Waits’ work in More Than Skies‘ I Am Only Above The Ground. The lyrics are far more positive than either party is accustomed to writing, making the album a unique experience of positive-to-wistful lyrics led by a raspy singer and backed by an enthusiastic band that often breaks out into group vocals. Instrumental chops abound (“Introduction,” “The One Who Wanders Is Not Lost”) and the melodies shine (“Life Declines at Twenty-five,” the title track), but it’s the exuberant “We’re Getting Older” that will stick in your mind and heart. Highly recommended for fans of a full-bodied folk sound that’s still raw and real.
Nonagon‘s People Live Everywhere EP offers up technical post-hardcore that’s big on dissonant melodies, tempo changes, odd time signatures, and shouted vocals. The unusual juxtaposition of guitar lines in opener “Vikings” should tip you off that this is loud music to appreciate with your brain as much as your body. You can definitely mosh to it (the dissonant “Fresnel Lens,” the manic “The Swifts”), but it’s the atypical rhythms and melodic ideas in “Fadeout” and the aforementioned “Vikings” that get me. Nonagon’s working at a high level here.
The Woodrow Wilsons‘ Devil Jonah focuses more on mood and arrangement than hummable melodies, making their acoustic amalgam much less of a traditional “folk” album and more of a chamber-pop album. “I Love the Atlantic” is a beautiful tune that experiments with tempo and arrangement for effect, while “Anthropomorphics” is a jubilant tune with a horn chorale in it. Songs like “The Ocean is Rising to Meet You” and “Heat” play with the conventions of songwriting to great effect. Male and female vocals lead the band in turns, only lending more variety to the album. The highlight is the tense, emotive “The Size of My Fist,” which calls up what Andrew Bird might sound like if he had an interest in conveying emotions. On the whole, fans of The Decemberists and old-school Sufjan Stevens will find much to love in The Woodrow Wilsons.
We love Hoodie Allen at Independent Clauses, largely because of his way with samples. Even though his new EP All American does not include any samples, the original beat in “No Interruption” has the same buoyant flair that he previously appropriated out of other people’s music. It’s an impressive transition, and one that has me hoping and thinking about all the directions he could take his sound now that he’s making songs instead of flipping songs. (Live instruments? Eh?) “No Interruption” has me excited for the rest of the EP, and that’s what a good lead single should do. Buy it on iTunes, and here’s the vid:
There’s generally three types of reviews: the good review, the bad review, and the average review. The bad are simple to write; when something is bad, you immediately know why (bad vocals, poor rhythm, not interesting, etc). Good ones are a little harder, because you have to figure out what it is that you like so much. But the hardest ones to crank out are average reviews. It’s hard to not make the writing wishy-washy when the feelings toward the record are actually wishy-washy.
See, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with Patrick Park’s Come What Will. It has solid acoustic folk songwriting with a crack band behind him. His vocals are solid, and his melodies are hummable. His lyrics are decent, and even his album art is really good. But not a thing sticks once the album is over. The whole thing just slides right out of short term memory.
“Silence and Storm” recalls a more emotive Andrew Bird, while “You Were Always the One” would make Josh Ritter proud. “Blackbird Through the Dark” will please country traditionalists with its gentle snare gallop, choir background singers, and swaying strum. The duet with a female vocalist on “Starry Night” is also well-done.
There’s not really any bad tunes here, as all of them stick to their mid-tempo, fingerpicked guns. But, as I said earlier, there’s not much here that evokes strong positive feelings either. It’s an enigma to me; Patrick Park has all of the parts that he needs to succeed. They just didn’t get combined right on this album. I hope that he continues to write and hone his craft, as I feel he has talent. He just didn’t hit a home run on this go-round.
Carl Hauck is a folksy singer who sounds like Andrew Bird if Andrew Bird knew how to have emotions. All of Bird’s work suffers from a disaffected whimsy; it seems that Bird takes bemusement from everything he’s singing and writing about, but does not actually engage with it. Thankfully, Carl Hauck takes the best parts of Bird’s amalgam, adds some of his own, and slathers emotion on it to create Counter Intelligence.
That’s not to say that this is a Damien Rice-esque wailer of an album (not that Damien Rice is bad, but it’s a fair bet that there will be wailing in a Rice album). Hauck’s voice and songwriting are both very pristine, distinct and precise. The lyrics that Hauck produces are all understandable due to his easy tone and clear pronunciation. This is great, because his lyrics are solid. Whether storytelling (“The Rebel”), reminiscing (“Schmaltz”), or speak-singing semi-stories (“Zhuangwho”), you can clearly discern what Hauck has to say.
What’s great is that even though his lyrics are solid (the anti-war “The Rebel” is probably the best anti-war diatribe I’ve heard this year), he doesn’t have to hang his hat on them. His music is just as clever, witty and talented as his tongue. He primarily plays the acoustic guitar, and it’s from that instrument and its melodies that much of the emotiveness of these tunes is drawn. But the acoustic guitar doesn’t bear the whole burden: piano (“The Rebel”) and dreamy electric guitar (“Herrick, You Devil”) make occasional appearances. The extra instruments work perfectly in the context of his folk songs; they fill in gaps instead of taking over songs.
“Herrick, You Devil” is especially enhanced by its extra instrumentation; the eerie feel that Hauck and a female back-up vocalist create is mimicked by the dreamy, cascading guitar. It creates an overall feel of impending dread that only ratchets up higher when they kick in heavy reverb on a piano and the vocals; it turns Hauck and his foil into ghostly apparitions, drawing the song into the transcendent. “Herrick, You Devil” is a highlight track that you probably won’t hum; the mood will just stick with you and the reverb will take up residence in your head.
There are other highlights as well: the oft-mentioned “The Rebel” is a ten minute epic that swoops and leaps through various styles in its story, but it all holds together in a memorable way; “…And Their Hair Looks Like Flocks” invokes the meandering guitar lines of Elijah Wyman. “They Come in Flocks”, which is the companion (at least in title) to the previously mentioned piece feels vaguely like a Nick Drake piece in mood.
Carl Hauck’s folk songs do have nods to many other artists, but the completed product is distinctly Carl Hauck. The album feels tight and cohesive, as there is no letdown between tracks. Each of the songs unfold their own treasures, and because each is a little different, the album travels at a consistent pace. The album is ultimately held together by his clear, distinct vocals, as it’s a real treat to hear them. I would recommend Counter Intelligence to anyone wanting to hear some precise, emotive folk.
As a significant portion of the staff is at Austin City Limits, with the most of our other members pining to be there, a list is in order.
Bands Stephen Carradini is Most Excited to See at ACL
5. Daniel Johnston. I am not so much interested in his music as I am in actually witnessing him. Read my post here for more details. In fact, reading that essay again, I really recommend you do read it.
4. The Low Anthem. I really, really can’t wait to hear “Charlie Darwin” live. It’s a heart-breakingly beautiful song. The fact that the Low Anthem will be the first band I see at ACL makes it all the more desirable.
3. K’Naan. I have never been to a rap show where I actually knew the material. This, paired with the fact that K’Naan seems effortlessly effervescent, should prove to make an out-of-this-world show.
2. Bon Iver. The only folk artist who has intrigued and excited me more in the past year is Joe Pug. And I listen to lots of folk. I hope there’s a full band, because “For Emma” without the trumpets would make me sad, and defeat some of the joy of that song. Maybe he can jack the brass section from Los Amigos Invisibles.?
1. The Avett Brothers. This is more of a pilgrimage than a dedication to their music. “Ballad of Love and Hate” and “Murder in the City” (neither of which will get played, I think) are two of my most favorite songs in the world, and because there’s a slim glimmer of a chance that one or both may be played, I’m hustling on over for the entirety of their set. Also, I hear they rip it up live, which will be fun.
What is it that makes pop music such a fitting background for philosophical and hyper-literary lyrics? This question comes up regularly for listeners of The Decemberists, Modest Mouse, Andrew Bird, Sufjan Stevens and the like. And the question has come up again while listening to Library Voices.
This ten-piece pop collective hails from Saskatchewan, Canada. Their Hunting Ghosts and Other Collected Shorts EP stays true to its bookish name, combining pop culture references, narrative structure, philosophical musings, and existential confusion with musical styles from uptempo, guitar-driven pop to ethereal pieces with delicate instrumental textures. Their Myspace says they sound like “drunk kids talking too openly and too honestly.” I’d have to agree, except these drunk kids are hip, have read lots of books and are probably drunk on craft beers and red wine. (After all, they have appeared in The New Yorker.)
The opening track “Step off the Map and Float” begins with some Nintendo-like sounds, a lighthearted group count-off to twelve, and then jumps into an up-tempo pop song whose chorus–“Your existence is a pinprick/On a paper continent/The patron saints all patronize me”–is tinged with just enough resignation and anguish. But, it is ultimately ebullient: “So step off the map and float.” This track is a balanced showing of their sound, which features clean guitar, multi-part vocals, and an array of quirky elements that at the same time both thicken the song and lighten the sound.
“Kundera on the Dance Floor” features a syncopated rhythm section (including a saxophone) and a sort of character vignette of the “golden girl.” She wears a Tom Waits t-shirt, is “piss drunk on red wine and melody,” and quotes Dando and Kafka. Library Voices’ sharp lyrics and the catchy melodies do exactly what pop lyrics and melodies should do: get stuck in your head and make you thankful for it. Oh, and as a consequence of singing the educated lyrics to yourself as you walk down the street, you get to be introspective and consider, among other ironies and tragedies of life, “the unbearable lightness of being.”
Yet at times Library Voices’ literary leanings can come off as too overt. The somewhat underwhelming “Things We Stole From Vonnegut’s Grave” is just as list-like as it sounds. Abstract items of contraband such as “consciousness of the human condition” and “a taste for science fiction” provide the list with some intrigue. Either way, it is impressive and humorous to listen to the band reel off obscure Vonnegut references, and they certainly leave no doubt that they read a lot of the man’s works. Musically it is one of their more unusual pieces in that its harmonic structure lies outside of the realm of traditional pop. It is only striking in contrast to their other songs. The factual lyrics are impersonal at worst, but the song works within the overall aesthetic of Library Voices in that themes often found in Vonnegut stories regularly show up in the band’s original lyrics. For instance, in “Love in the Age of Absurdity,” the band takes a somewhat prophetic tack, questioning the seeming normality of pop culture givens such as social networking and reality television and stirring the listener to examine his or her place.
“Hunting Ghosts” and “The Lonely Projectionist” are easily the most in keeping with the title of the EP. Both are extensive narratives, and “Hunting Ghosts” is unique in that it features soft, female lead vocals. This quiet, ethereal song contains tighter backing harmonies, more reverb, and a deftly-written string section to create the more intimate texture of this song. The narrative-confessional lyrics add to such a texture. Instrumentally, “The Lonely Projectionist” shares similarities with the other pieces, such as an extensive use of organs and synths, with the bass and drums driving the song forward. However, this song is their best-arranged piece; the instrumental elements of the song move seamlessly together through a larger range of dynamics and moods. About two-thirds of the way through the song they take a chance on a bridge that veers away from the earlier part of the song, and it is a most pleasant surprise. The lyrics narrate two parallel existences of loneliness, and this more oblique approach to existential questions sounds less cathartic.
Library Voices pull off their sound and the pop collective aesthetic with just the right amount of ease. It isn’t polished, but it isn’t chaotic, and doesn’t seem forced. Hunting Ghosts and Other Collected Shorts EP makes me eager for a full-length album. –Max Thorn
Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.