Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Cold Country / Matt Carter

August 1, 2013

ColdCountry

I gushed over Filbert’s Chronographic earlier this year because of its humble attitude toward music and lyrics. Cold Country‘s Missing the Muse EP reminds me of Filbert, because band leader Sean McConnell’s high tenor sounds like Daniel Gutierrez’s and the folky arrangements have an earnest, plaintive feel. The chamber-folk on Missing the Muse has a ragged, woodsy edge that sets it apart from pristine soundscapes like Bon Iver and well-produced hoedowns like Babel, although the album doesn’t stray far enough to alienate fans of those works.

The climactic finish of opener “What It Takes” features a fuzzed-out electric guitar dueling with a smooth harmonica, rumbling drums, glockenspiel, and distorted bass. The cavernous rumbling of the percussion keeps it from turning into a garage-rock tune and instead places it as an expansive, dramatic folk track. Even with the tune played out on a large screen, the tune feels intimate. That’s the primary tension in each of Missing the Muse‘s five tracks: the titular tune features an excellent guitar solo but carries a very personal sense of sadness; “My Bird of Paradise” is built on Fleet Foxes’ gentle guitar and harmonized vocals and also features a bass riff. The big arrangements never give way to an impersonal front and protect against being too hopelessly introspective. It’s a pretty impressive feat.

If you’re a fan of chamber-folk arrangements, then Cold Country’s Missing the Muse is required listening. These aren’t Mumford and Sons stomp-alongs, and they aren’t trying to be. The tensions that McConnell plays with are perfectly enough for fascinating listening, thank you very much.

Daylight

The great thing about EPs is that there’s no reason that all of the songs can’t be excellent. When working with 10-15 songs, there’s bound to be something that doesn’t appeal to someone, but three songs can be crafted to near-perfection. And so it goes with Matt Carter‘s Daylight EP: the tunes are expertly written, arranged, performed and recorded. Carter applies to the Ray LaMontagne school of singer/songwriters: the more romance can be piled into one tune, the better. “For You” introduces Carter’s lithe voice, with just a touch of LaMontagne grit, over gentle acoustic guitar, delicate piano, upright bass, and swooning violins. It is as gorgeous as you might imagine.

Carter doesn’t let up with “From a Payphone Stall” or the title track: both frame Carter’s vocal melodies in arrangements that have as little to do with dissonance as possible. These are beautiful, carefully constructed tunes: instead of coming off smarmy or James Blunt-ish, they are delivered with assurance and confidence. Carter knows what his strengths are, and he plays to them perfectly here, creating memorably gorgeous songs. I’m looking forward to much more from Matt Carter, as he has put a lot of skill on display here in just over 10 minutes.

Sfumato's folk album offers brain-expanding arrangements

September 28, 2012

When you know the rules, even the decisions you make to break them are made in relation to the rules. Sometimes this results in Jackson Pollock, but mostly it results in field homogenization that takes the mysterious x factor called “genius” to transcend. But if you never knew the rules to begin with, all bets are off–anything can happen.

Sfumato‘s These Things Between… is the folky embodiment of the latter phenomenon. Singer/songwriter Daithí Ó hÉignigh is “essentially a drummer” who decided to write and arrange a complex folk album. As a result, these 11 songs feature all sorts of sounds, rhythms and arrangements that I didn’t expect. I listened to this album for far longer than I usually do when writing a review, because it took a long time for me to figure out what was happening.

Because the homogenization of a field doesn’t just affect what musicians write, it affects how listeners hear. People are in love with Babel because it pulls off all the pop-folk moves perfectly; These Things Between… is a difficult listen for someone conditioned to hear music in that way. Even though the signifiers of folk are present (strummed acoustic guitar, pensive moods, emotive voice), what is a gospel choir doing in “Ostia”? “Mo ghrá” is in Gaelic? “Fly to Me” features a calliope-style organ; “Pound” accentuates unusual rhythms. This is a brain-expander, and goodness knows I need it after the musical candy that is Mumford and Sons, Avett Brothers and The Mountain Goats all releasing albums within weeks of each other.

After an eclectic start, the center of the album is a bit more standard. “The Past” incorporates bass guitar and organ drone in familiar patterns (Decemberists!), while “Song to Myself” shows off a wheezing saxophone in a style similar to Bon Iver’s Colin Stetson. By the end of the album, the unusual arrangements have returned: the title track is a heavily rhythmic tune that relies on conga drums, an unrecognizable instrument and Celtic-inspired strings. Still, the closer is solo acoustic track “I Was Hoping You Might…,” which reminded me of Damien Jurado in its starkness.

These Things Between… is perfectly titled, as its songs walk down the line between familiarity and otherness. There are detours to both sides, but overall it exists in a space that will challenge your conventional listening habits. If you’re into something a little outside your (and my) Mumfordy comfort zone, Sfumato should be one place to check out.

Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of instrumental music. We write about those trying to make the next step in their careers and established artists.

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