Jon Solo‘s Ornithology is the chill EP everyone wants to make but not everyone has the skill to pull off. Solo’s comforting voice, gentle arrangements, and careful album construction take the listener on a relaxing journey that is interesting in every track. “Audubon” is the centerpiece of the work, giving a tender retelling of the famed naturalist’s life. Surrounding it are four full tunes plus an intro and an outro that excellently frame the album. “I Don’t Know Why” and “She’s My Rome” are standouts in addition to “Audubon,” the sort of tunes that stick with you afterwards.
Solo uses all the standard tools of delicate folk-pop-indie music (guitar, piano, subtle accompanying instruments), but employs them all with a clarity and confidence that make the tunes pop instead of turn to heard-it-all-before mush. Ornithology is a “walking around Los Angeles with my hands in my pockets” record: one that invites you to wander around and see an extra shine that the music gives to things. It’s a beautiful collection that is very worth your time.
Ark Royal‘s self-titled EP takes a different folk tack: where Jon Solo plays gentle, urban, modern folk, Ark Royal draws from energetic, pastoral, traditional roots.
These Londoners are full of thumping percussion, multipart harmonies, and the sounds of the British Isles: “Delivered” has some early ’00s Brit-pop baked into its soaring arrangement, while “Fork End Road” sounds like Proto-Mumford (I say this approvingly) in its picking pattern, brash vocal style, and vocal melodies. “Penny” is for all the world an Irish ballad (although it appears they wrote this one themselves), while “Humble River” includes rhythmic clapping evocative of Irish and Scottish tunes in the midst of a modern, mid-tempo, piano-led ballad. Whether slow or fast, the tunes are full of life. If you’re into folk music from the UK and parts thereabout, you’ll have a great time listening to Ark Royal.
1. “Audubon” – Jon Solo. Here’s a gentle yet expansive sonic soundscape dedicated to the famous naturalist. The arrangement here is simple-sounding yet complex in its construction, which makes for great work.
2. “Taller” – Silas William Alexander. An intimate folk tune that has the gravitas of the best folk singers, an earnest vocal performance that reminds me of my long-lost Page France, and a wistful sweetness that’s irresistible. Alexander is one to watch.
3. “Young Romance” – Redvers Bailey. Makes me think of Juno, The Life Aquatic, Beirut, Belle and Sebastian, honest quirkiness (“I don’t try to do this, this is just how I sing”), and lots of good songs. Mile-a-minute lyrics, chunky chords, humble melodies–what more can you ask for in an indie-pop tune?
4. “Going Home” – Jesse Rowlands. We don’t write real folk tunes that much anymore, but here’s one about a Southern deserter (I’m guessing from the Civil War) who tries to get back to his home. The voice-and-guitar songwriting sounds way more full than just those two pieces. It’s an engaging, beautiful tune.
5. “Little Moment” – Luke Rathborne. Delicate guitar work always gets me; so does the confidence to create small, quiet pop songs. This tune just makes me smile.
6. “Someone to Love Me” – Jont and the Infinite Possibility. Do you miss early-eras Coldplay? Rush of Blood to the Head, Parachutes, etc.? You’ll love the full-band, wide-screen, acoustic-grounded pop-rock here.
7. “Strangers” – Brad Fillatre. The vocal performances in this alt-country tune are deeply affecting, all the more so because of the unexpected nature of the clear, yearning chorus melody in relation to Fillatre’s gritty, rough verse performances.
8. “Hymns” – Grado. A subtle but strong opening guitar line leads into a unique combination of rainy-day indie-pop, modern folk music, and upbeat indie-pop enthusiasm. There’s quite a lot going on here in what seems like a simple, confident tune.
9. “Gentle Giant” – Yankee & the Foreigners. Charming, woodsy, full-band folk for fans of Fleet Foxes, The Fox and the Bird, new-school Decemberists, and Beirut’s vocalist.
10. “Anchor Up” – Eric George. Walking-speed folk troubadour work with great vocals, a stellar production job, and a remarkably chill vibe.
11. “Anchor (Argentum Remix)” – Novo Amor. A For Emma-style Bon Iver vocal performance over fingerpicked guitar and piano chords gets an ’90s techno beat backdrop; to my surprise, it sounds totally rad.
12. “Believe in Me” – Jason P. Krug. A tender keys line (maybe kalimba?) and a swooning cello accompany Krug’s smooth voice and lyrics of Eastern mysticism; reminds me of the quieter Dan Mangan songs, in that there’s a lot of emotion but not a lot of melodrama.
13. “Fire Engine Red” – Robert Francis. Francis sounds completely assured and at home in this minimalist songwriting environment: with a few rim clicks, distant synths, and a rubbery bass line, Francis creates a distinct, careful mood. It gets even better when he layers his acoustic guitar over it.
14. “The Haunted Song” – Maiah Wynne. Wynne wrote a solo vocal piece, then performed it in a big empty space accompanied by claps, stomps, and creepy background vocals. At just over 1:19, it’s intriguing and unconventional.
15. “Fork End Road” – Ark Royal. Big harmonies, swift picking, and great strings–this song hits you with a lot right up front. Gotta love a track that captures you from the get-go. Things get better from there, too.
Stephen Carradini and Lisa Whealy write reviews of instrumental, folk, and singer/songwriter music. We write about those trying to make the next step in their careers and established artists.