Last time I checked in with B. Snipes, he was singing a pristine, delicate folk tune about death taking him on a tour of a city. So it was quite a surprise to find that American Dreameropens up with a wide-open, convertible-top-down, vintage American pop-rock tune. It’s a double surprise to realize that it’s the title track. (“We’re going somewhere new, y’all!”) I may miss folky B. Snipes, but his new direction is just as satisfying. If you’re into American pop, 1950-now, you’ll be all over this record.
After the blast of AM radio that is the opener, Snipes throws down a tune that’s an Isbell-style country rocker in the verses with a sunshiny ’50s pop chorus. It comes off a bit like Ivan and Alyosha’s work. The middle of the record hearkens back to a time when Roy Orbison was huge (“Amy, in Chicago”), country was turning into rock via pop music (“Sweet Eleanor”), and unironic sentiment was cool (“Easy Things,” which has a spiritual sibling in Jason Mraz’s non-rapping work). If you love the Avett Brothers at their most pensive, “Completely” will scratch an itch that probably hasn’t been touched much since “Murder in the City.”
The record is smooth, clean, clear, and deeply listenable. It’s a pop record shorn of the high glitz that the wall of sound and its children would put on the pop sound. They don’t make ’em like this much anymore.
But right when it seems like B. Snipes is ready to cap off a timeless-sounding record, he makes another shift. “Red White Blues” is a gentle yet concerned rebuke of political polarization couched in a tune that sounds like a mix of Bright Eyes, Sufjan Stevens, and the Arcade Fire. That’s a lot of referents to pack into one song, but there’s a lot of song to go around. It’s the easy highlight of the record, made all the more impressive because it still manages to hang with the rest of the record in mood despite being completely different thematically. The sonics here are louder, but they’re still in the same, very American vein. (Which is funny, because The Arcade Fire is Canadian.) The tune provides a fitting bookend to the opener, which puts faith in being an American dreamer; “Red White Blues” is full of practical exhortations about what we need to do to keep being American dreamers.
American Dreamer is an American pop record through and through. It draws from earlier eras of pop’s history but makes statements about our current condition through them. The songs are fun, pretty, interesting and thought-provoking. How much more can you ask for in a pop record? This is great work. Highly recommended.
EPs are becoming more popular than ever, and I love the trend: there’s no room for filler on an EP. As a result, a lot of artists brought their A game to the smaller format this year. Here’s to them:
1. Thanks for All Your Patience – Brother Moses. (Review) I spun this one the most often because the easygoing, almost effortless indie-rock vibe gave rise to some seamless, indelible melodies. Clean, tight, clever, and earnest, I gravitated to this one early and often in 2015.
2. On Separation – David Wimbish. (Review) Wimbish, frontman of The Collection, stripped out some of the intricate arrangements of his day job for a more intimate set of portraits that focused in on the lyrics. Elegant, haunting, and beautiful.
3. Loca EP – Valley Shine. (Review) Folk-pop can be a formula these days, but Valley Shine is all about exploding the formula with raw enthusiasm, brash melodies, and surprising pathos.
6. Regards – We are the West. (Review) A wisp of an EP that barely has time to meet you before it’s gone, but oh does it deliver: this Low Anthem-style Americana sounds like a warm blanket around my ears.
7. Joe Kaplow EP – Joe Kaplow. (Review) One of my favorite debuts of the year, as Kaplow showed off his versatility in several different acoustic-based styles. Looking forward to more from Kaplow.
8. Away, Away – B. Snipes. (Review) Another excellent debut that introduces Snipes’ low-slung troubadour singer/songwriter voice to the world, taking the lyrics of Rocky Votolato in a more Americana direction.
I review a lot of really good folk music here at Independent Clauses, but every now and then someone comes along who sits head and shoulders above the rest of the pack. B. Snipes is that rare breed, and the 5-song Away, Away is his calling card. From compelling lyrics to evocative melodies to clear-eyed production, there’s nothing on Away, Away that is out of place.
Some people try to establish a sound in an EP; others try to showcase their breadth. Snipes manages to do both here: while establishing himself as a storytelling troubadour through his lyrics and nuanced vocal delivery, he sets a surprising array of sounds around him in the arrangements. It’s a remarkable balancing act that establishes him as a high-talent artist to watch.
The cleverest trick Snipes pulls to accomplish this balance is to vary what you might expect in a track listing. Instead of starting with his loudest track and getting quieter, Snipes starts out with the intimate, stark, beautiful “Death Came Knocking.” The first half of the track features just a Snipes’ gravitas-laden voice, a bright acoustic guitar, and an upright piano to lend some bass to the proceedings; even when he adds in a banjo to fill out the sound, it still feels like you’re hanging out in Snipes’ living room. The tune itself tells of Death showing the narrator around town, talking about both the narrator and death’s lives. The chorus yearns for a beloved maternal memory–it’s uncertain whether the narrator or death sings the chorus. It’s this sort of subtle touch that gives Snipes’ work the depth that endears it to me.
Elsewhere Snipes shows off his arranging skills, including an open snare on the kit and wailing organ in the dramatic folk tune “Michael.” “Clark Gable Blues” has a 3/4 meter, giving the tune a plaintive, mournful, country waltz/blues feel. The lyrics of lost love and a swooning violin only help the country vibe. The title track and “My Home Town” have a more alt-pop feel, leaning toward Josh Garrels’ brand of twilit, sweeping adult-alternative. At its apex, “My Home Town” gathers steam into the sort of jubilant/morose chorus that Iron & Wine has perfected on his full-band records–the vocal melody seals the deal on it.
All of this is recorded and engineered excellently: the sounds pop out of speakers with astonishing clarity and ease. It’s not easy to engineer a record this bright, clean and clear without it getting a false-feeling sheen on it. B. Snipes and crew have really nailed the balance between clarity and emotive grit. It’s like a Ray LaMontagne album in that regard: it feels raw and passionate without actually sounding lo-fi. It’s a rare thing, and worth noting. Everything sounds gorgeous on Away, Away.
B. Snipes’ debut EP Away, Away is a remarkable release that shows off the beginnings of what could be something really amazing. With thoughtful lyrics, memorable melodies, and striking arrangements, B. Snipes establishes himself here. If you’re into Josh Ritter, The Avett Brothers, or any of the aforementioned bands, you’ll find much to love in Away, Away.
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.