There’s a wide diversity of sounds you can make with an acoustic guitar and voice; being able to sing Missippi blues doesn’t ensure that you can play Irish folk tunes. Some people work to become a master at one style, while others can absorb the core elements of a variety of sounds.
Joe Kaplow is the latter, as his sound is grounded in troubadour folk with influences from a variety of other acoustic genres. His self-titled debut EP showcases a singer/songwriter with a huge amount of promise, as his songwriting and distinctive voice offer great rewards to the listener.
“Bookshop Blues” opens the release with a fast, strummed folk tune accompanied by his own foot stomping. Kaplow’s insistent, urgent tenor dances over a tune that sounds perfect for busking: an earnest, upbeat tune that balances lyrical introspection and smile-inducing melodies and chords. He follows it up with the harmonica-and-swift-fingerpicking tune “How Old is My Soul,” which evokes the raw, pure sound of The Freewheeling Bob Dylan. It stays out of tribute range due to (again) the swooping vocals, which flip from tender to insistent on a dime. This ability to control his delivery calls to mind a less-abrasive Kristian Mattson of The Tallest Man on Earth, especially in the “oh-oh” conclusion of the tune.
Kaplow can unhinge his voice, too–both “It’s Me Girl” and “When I Open Up at Last” allow Kaplow to let it all air out. The banjo-led blues of “It’s Me Girl” sees him scrubbing grit and wail into his delivery to fit the mood of the tune, while “When I Open Up at Last” contains Damien Rice-style howls. “Give My Eyes” provides a respite between the two songs, a delicate pastoral tune that reminds me of a cross between Irish folk tunes and Justin Townes Earle’s American sounds. The addition of a female voice turns this duet into a highlight of the already-strong EP.
There’s a lot going on in this self-titled EP, but it all hangs together because of the bright, mid-fi production vibe. This is clearly a man and his guitar (on most tracks), as the occasional ambient room noise, gentle tape hiss and sound of foot taps show. But Kaplow’s not reveling in the tracks’ smallness–this feels like an earnest document of work, not a bid to participate in the bedroom-folk scene. (“When I Open Up at Last” is about as far from whisper-folk as it gets.) There’s no intentional obscuring, no reverb, no distance placed between the listener and the song. These songs are immediate–they grabbed me on first listen, and they still grab me ten listens on. That’s a credit both to the songs and the way they’re recorded.
Kaplow’s self-titled EP is an energizing listen. Whether it’s a slow or fast song I’m listening to, the music is exciting. Kaplow’s well-controlled voice is employed in a diversity of styles, making for a sprightly, fast-paced 20 minutes. It’s tough to pick out highlight tracks, because each has its own charms; I’m personally partial to “How Old is My Soul” and “Give My Eyes,” but someone who likes darker, dramatic music more than I could find “When I Open Up at Last” or “It’s Me Girl” to be their highlight. It’s a rare artist who can make memorable tunes in diverse idioms, and that bodes well for Joe Kaplow. I can’t wait to see how his next releases develop. Highly recommended.
1. “The Last Generation of Love” – The Holy Gasp. Hugely theatrical vocals, driving conga drums, stabbing horns, and an overall feel of wild desperation permeate this wild track. It feels like a lost ’60s bossa nova played at triple the speed with an apocalyptic poet dropping remix bars over it. In short, this one’s different.
2. “Hot Coffee” – Greg Chiapello. Somewhere between Brill Building formal pop songcraft and Beatles-esque arrangement affectations sits this perky, smile-inducing, timeless tune.
3. “Wake Up and Fight” – Gaston Light. If you’re looking for a widescreen folk creed, this tune builds from a single bass note to a fist-raised anthem. Gaston Light attempts to channel Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Conor Oberst, and more.
4. “Evil Dreams” – Elstow. ’50s girl-pop mixed with some 9 p.m. vibes and reverb = solid track.
6. “All This Wandering Around” – Ivan and Alyosha. Ivan and Alyosha are back with a chipper indie-rock song that will get you tapping your toes.
7. “Less Traveled” – Johanna Warren. A lilting soprano supported by low flutes and burbling fingerpicking developed into technical guitarwork that lifted my eyebrows. There’s a lot of talent going on here. I love what Team Love is up to this year.
8. “Folding” – Martin Callingham. Callingham has crafted the sort of tune that’s almost inarguable: it floats lightly on your consciousness, gently working its way through to the end of the tune. If Joshua Radin had gotten a few more instruments involved without going rock…
9. “Wild at Heart” – Trans Van Santos. Does Calexico have a patent of the sound of the high desert? Mark Matos hopes not, as the baritone-voiced songwriter of Trans Van Santos has a way with the guitar delays and reverbs of that venerable sound. Perfect for your jaunts to or from Flagstaff.
10. “Don’t You Honey Me” – Timothy Jaromir. Here’s a bluesy country duet with excellent come-hither female vocals, muted horns, and romance on the mind.
The next four MP3 posts are going to have impressionistic names, because I’m out of descriptive words after writing this many song reviews.
1. “Comin’ for Ya North Georgia Blues” – Eliot Bronson. Upbeat in a way that isn’t cloying, folky in that old-school Bob Dylan way, hooky as if it were folk pop (but it’s not). “Comin’ for Ya” is one of my favorite singles in a while. Bronson, it should go without saying, should be on your watch list.
2. “White Circles” – Stephen Ward. Got that traveling itch? The insistent acoustic strumming and yearning vocals here will make you want to hit the open road.
3. “Scaffolding” – Emilyn Brodsky. I can’t resist ukulele-led indie-pop, especially when sung with such disarmingly mature and comforting lyrics as these. Even though the ukulele leads, this never devolves into cuteness for cute’s sake.
4. “Said and Done” – Joe Con. Joe Con has a quiet assuredness in his vocal tone that gives his back-porch acoustic-pop/hip-hop (a la Mat Kearney, G. Love, and early Mraz) an immediately undeniable quality. This is a slick, slick tune.
5. “Ride It Out” – Elijah Ocean. There’s just something about an acoustic guitar, a piano, and a brush-hit snare that snags my heartstrings. Ocean’s world-weary yet hopeful voice just seals the deal.
6. “Lecimy” – Tara Fuki. Two women’s voices and two cellos comprise the base of this track. It’s a fresh, light, and unique track.
7. “Tapes” – Andrew St. James. The ragged passion of Joe Pug, the vocal swagger of Justin Townes Earle, and an x factor all his own.
8. “In Our Galaxy” – Andrew Foster. Like a Lovely Few song, Foster builds this song from a delicate guitar melody to a fully-realized tune that sings of the mystic, beautiful qualities of outer space.
9. “Balloon” – ErelPilo. Remember the twee, romantic charms of Chairlift? ErelPilo have that sort of doe-eyed, guy/girl romantic pop going on, but with an acoustic guitar instead of a synthesizer. The quirk is still there, though!
Hyper-literate story songs and Dylan-esque prophetic jams take time to write, but there’s high upside to anyone who attempts them. If you get good at that, you’re going to be really good: you have more syllables per line to make melodies with, more lyrical lines with which to be clever and interesting with, and more respect from this little corner of the blog world. Let me tell you about The Weather Machine‘s self-titled record, then.
The Weather Machine (band) comes out of Portland like some miraculous child of The Mountain Goats, Josh Ritter, and Andrew Jackson Jihad. Their 2013 self-titled record features the organic acoustic sound of Josh Ritter, meticulous wordplay similar to John Darnielle’s, and the occasional rambunctious energy that AJJ is famous for. For instance, there’s a three-song arc that revolves around stealing the crown of immortality from Satan himself that incorporates all of these influences into one of the more impressive suites this side of the Decemberists (because of course, being from Portland, there are instruments aplenty).
“Puppet” even starts off with similar picking style to Ritter’s magnificent “Girl in the War,” but turns with the vocal line into a plaintive plea for love. It’s earnest, passionate, and yet calm. “Back O’er Oregon” is even more powerful, again using understatement to convey heavy emotions. The gentle string arrangement, unassuming vocals, and quick guitar combine beautifully in a truly memorable track. “Galaxies!” pairs complex percussion work with an impressively complicated (yet not esoteric or snobby) set of lyrics for another highlight. “Leviathans Get Lonely” has AJJ angst and tempo all over it; you’ll be playing it loud and singing along (“CAUSE THIS COULD BE OUR TIME!”).
But the takeaway, the one you’ll be humming, is opener “So, What Exactly Does It Say?” A once-in-a-blue-moon melody combines with evocative, surrealistic lyrics (a la Joe Pug’s “hymns”) to provide the driving force for a track that features great guitar work, steel drums (?!), and a hypnotic groove that is very uncommon in folk. It might sound like I’m going overboard on this, but I’m not. The Weather Machine is a special album, and if the band can keep the quality up, they’ll be big (and soon).
1. “Whodunit?” – Gentle Robot. GR’s new album of indie-friendly alt-rock a la Silversun Pickups or Anberlin is a whodunit murder mystery. Gentle Robot deftly balances tenderness and aggression via strong lyrical and musical songwriting. Clever, memorable, and novel.
2. “Say Yes” – Afternoons. If you can resist belting out that chorus at the top of your lungs, this blog cannot help you. I’m serious.
3. “Gloria” – Backwords. Item Two: If you can stop yourself from belting out “I NEED GLOOOOOOORIA,” this is probably not the blog for you. Excellent song development from this crew.
4. “Love the Sea” – The Vigilance Committee. Grows from dreamy beginnings all the way to a rhythmically technical post-hardcore section, with some punk-inspired motion in the middle. I love ambitious songwriters.
5. “Midnight:Sixteen” – Tree Dwellers. TD has some weird post-rock/alt-rock/found-sound thing going on here. It’s the soundtrack to a really ominous “getting ready” sequence in a artsy futuristic dystopian action film.
6. “You Come to Kill Me?” – Happyness. Two minutes of pure slacker rock with impressive attention to lyrical detail. It doesn’t get repetitive, it doesn’t ask for much, it just wants to know if you’re there to kill him. Solid, bro.
7. “Monuments” – Haverford. My current favorite emo band mixes vocal desperation, dreamy guitars, and punk intensity for a swirling, whirling track. This release should get Haverford noticed by emo revivalists and more.
8. “Escape” – Dream Boat. The intensity of the forward motion that pushes through this psychedelic track makes it more than just a woozy psych jam or a four-on-the-floor stomper. Heavy vibes here, but good ones.
9. “Love Again” – JOA. Yearning, churning, moody indie-pop from the artist formerly known as Like Clockwork; much more atmospheric than the brash pop music he was previously producing. It’s got some down-tempo groove to it, too.
11. “January” – Silva. The breeziness of chillwave meets the celebratory vibes of Brazilian music in a fun, charming, beautiful track.
12. “Lovekill” – Anie. Opens with an asymmetric vocal line reminiscent of tUnE-yArDs before exploding into a pop-rock tune with high male vocals; it shifts back and forth from artsy to poppy throughout the track. Really interesting take here.
13. “Oh the Evil!!!” – Michael Leonard Witham. A Dylanesque yawp, pedal steel, brazen harmonica, and a perky overall mood? Yes. Let’s have some more of that.
14. “Shapeshifting” – Sam Joole. This warm, gentle, pristine arrangement that recalls William Fitzsimmons or early Joshua Radin feels lush and full, even though it’s rather stark. Wonderful track.
What we listen to says less about us than it used to, given the Internet’s ability to erode consistent listening patterns. But if what we listen to still says something about a person, then it should be noted that I am all about helter-skelter acoustic strumming with the most possible amount of words sung or spoken over it. If you throw down some la-la-las for a chorus, it’s all over. In other words, I’m all about literate folk-punk/indie-pop-rock like Jake McKelvie and the Countertops‘ Solid Chunks of Energy because so much is going on all the time.
McKelvie opens the appropriately titled 10-song salvo with “Mini Monster,” which sees the frontman singing as many words as possible over a pretty clean electric guitar, bass, and drum kit running at breakneck speed. Spitting everything from non-sequitur to Dylan-esque metaphor to puns to self-deprecating truth before bursting into a passionately jubilant “la” section for the chorus, McKelvie is either the motor or the sail. He’s the motor if you’re a fan of the “auteur with a backing band” theory, but he’s the one being pushed along if you’re of the “bands with band names are bands” school of thought. Doesn’t really matter which school you’re in, though–everyone can dance along to “Mini Monster” and feel good about themselves.
Elsewhere, McKelvie and co. get their Bright Eyes on, treating audiences to a quieter version of melodic machine gun vocal delivery. “Aside From Your Hair” is impressive not only for the number of words that are included, but for the fact that the band manages to wring a melody out of the delivery. The rhythm is possessing of its own, but the fact that you can sing along to certain parts is even more fun. “Woke Awake” has similar RIYLs, and is one of the most tender-sounding of the tunes. “Flock Hard, Lockhart” is a power-pop tune that relies more on gone-wild bass work and guitar riffing; “Time Is a Chew Toy” is beachy and kinda ’50s-ish, while still maintaining a brain-bending set of lyrics. “Lots and Lots and Lots of Money” is a straight-up punk song, ’cause why not close out the album that way?
Solid Chunks of Energy is a wildly entertaining album for lyric nerds and pop fans. McKelvie very clearly knows how to write a pop song and has decided to fill his with all sorts of unexpected magic. It just so happens that the magic happens with a very small set of instruments. Guy’s gotta tour somehow, you know? Fans of The Mountain Goats, Attica! Attica!, Bright Eyes, or other “wordy” singers of the indie-pop/alt-folk/folk-punk persuasion will have a new band to watch in Jake McKelvie and the Countertops.
1. “It’s All Over Now” – Blair Crimmins and the Hookers. Vintage-style New Orleans jazz/rag doesn’t get much more fun that this. I mean, spoons!! You know you love this already.
2. “Break Away” – Afterlife Parade. AP’s triumphant indie-rock is sounding more and more like U2 by way of The Killers with every release, and I’m totally down with that. You hit those soaring group vocal lines, and I don’t care who you sound like. Sing it.
3. “Silver Boys” – Holyoak. Do you wish that Grizzly Bear was a little less obtuse? Maybe that Fleet Foxes was a little more direct? Holyoak delivers the goods.
4. “White Noise” – The Hand in the Ocean. Heavy on the folk, lite on the indie; heavy on the warbling vocals, lite on Bon Iver beauty-croon; heavy on the banjo, lite on the kick drum.
5. “Ghostflake” – Owls of the Swamp. This piano-led, indie-folk take is as delicate and gentle as the title would suggest.
6. “Vermona” – Take Berlin. Formal pop songcraft and singer/songwriter fare are coming closer and closer together, as the rambling Bob Dylan impulses of yore are turning more toward Paul Simon’s beautiful structuralism. This track’s guitar and analog synthesizer show off that shift.
7. “Broken Arrows” – Tracy Shedd also shows off her formal songcraft skills, adding in a touch of ’50s pop vocal flair to the precise acoustic strumming and melodicism.
8. “The Kids and the Rain” – Alex Tiuniaev. New classical piano composer Tiuniaev opens his album Blurred with this moody, atmospheric, scene-setting solo keys piece.
Portland’s Wild Ones kept me company for the last legs of my Kickstarter journey (notably the handmaking mixtapes part). Their album Keep It Safe is a perfect summer album, so if you don’t have one yet, you can pick this one up. It’s mid-tempo indie-pop with some electro vibes: chill, but with enough head-bobbing propulsiveness that it keeps the wheels rolling in the car. When I turn it off, it feels like I’m turning off the mood in the room. It’s that pervasive in my mind.
Tracks like “Row” and “Golden Twin” let the female vocals dance breathily over a gently rolling keys-and-drums backbeat, augmenting every now and then with synths for flavor. The guitars flow in and out of the songs, never announcing their presence too hard or going unnoticed. It’s just beautifully executed indie-pop; the sort of album where every track works together and trying to pick singles is fruitless. You know, like how all the summer days run together? Jump on this.
In contrast, Cameron Blake‘s Without the Sound of Violence is surprisingly dark. The singer/songwriter has never shied away from heavy lyrical topics, but the music he couched those thoughts in was considerably buoyant (or at least hopeful). Without sees him match terse thoughts on social and political matters with similarly tense arrangements. Opener “Rugged Cross to Bear” sets the album in an ominous light, culminating in the mantra “hey, hey, hey, you better put your gun down/there ain’t nobody gonna hold you when the chips are down.” Choosing guitar as the lead instrument instead of his usual piano, Blake cultivates a heavy, tough feel to the tune. The sound continues directly into the title track, which includes a noise intended to mimic the sound of blades scraping as an interpretation of the lyrics. Even the fun, cheeky country hoedown “Cabin Fever” includes the love interest crying and being afraid. In short, this is not light summer reading.
So what is the end of all this heaviness? Blake uses the space to talk about hope, hopelessness, and steadfastness in the face of difficult times, whether that’s by singing from the perspective of Abraham traveling to sacrifice Isaac (“Abraham and Isaac”), channeling the perspective of a remorseful divorcee (the poignant, beautiful closer “Driftwood”), or getting Dylan-esque in lyrical structure for “Blood in Our Love.” That last track is my favorite of the album, as it ties the themes of the album to a piano-based sound that caused me to fall in love with Blake’s work in the first place. His performance is incredibly comfortable in “Blood in Our Love,” as he lets his voice loose to interpret the lyrics for him. It’s one of the only places that he gets unbridled in an album that’s marked by tight control over the arrangements; since the track doesn’t necessarily mesh well with the album musically (although it’s spot-on thematically), some may find it to be their least favorite. But I like it a lot.
Blake’s muse has taken him through some heavy places on Without the Sound of Violence, and he has come out with some memorable tunes for it. It’s definitely not dance music, but songs like “Driftwood” tap into deep, heavy emotions excellently. If you’d like to hear Josh Ritter do something darker, you may find your wish is granted in this album.
The Never Give Up Kickstarter officially ended yesterday, as I mailed out the last of the rewards and got covered on Cover Lay Down (which was a huge thrill). It was an incredible project that I’m extremely proud to have completed. We did the whole thing right at budget, too, which is exciting. The Lion of Tallasi contributed a really fantastic version of “Recycled Air” that put a whole new spin on the tune, and it ended up being one of my favorite renditions in the whole project. So it’s with great excitement that I tell you about the Lion’s debut album, God, Love, and Death. (And yes, the band did include the Oxford Comma. Take that, Vampire Weekend.)
The album is built off heavy folk strum and Matt Howard’s Conor Oberst-esque roar. A full band accompanies, but they are firmly supporters of Howard, who stands front and center throughout the record. The most prominent member of the band is Kristen Durrett, who provides vocal counterpoint in many of the tracks; the rest of the band makes sure that things keep pushing forward without drawing too much attention to themselves.
That forces all listeners to contend with Howard’s voice and lyrics as the make-or-break points of the band. Howard has the Oberstian roar, as I noted; but he goes farther back in the folk history to draw heavily off Dylan’s lyrics. “A Million Dark Roads” calls up the poetic stylistics of “The Times, They Are A’Changing” and “A Hard Rain’s A’Gonna Fall,” while the downtrodden, stark “Down to the River” reminds of some of Dylan’s more impressionistic work. Highlight track “Don’t Put Me in the Grave” is the catchiest tune of the lot, sounding like a lost track from the chipper sessions of I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning in melody and arrangement. An organ peals, a tambourine shakes, and a mandolin chirps out the instantly memorable melody. It’s an excellent song, and it’s placed right after the intro track as a sign of things to come. It’s not all protest anthem shout-alongs, as there are some love songs sprinkled through, too.
If you’re not down with Dylan or Oberst, then God, Love, and Death is maybe not for you. If you like either of those artists, even just a little, you definitely should listen to The Lion of Tallasi: you will find much to love.
One of my favorite things about Independent Clauses is developing relationships with young artists and writers. Declan Ryan is both: I covered his split EP with Josh Mordecai recently, and he has written for IC in the past. His new EP Introducing Close Calls marries his singer/songwriter sensibilities to a full band with great results.
Ryan comes from the Dylan/Oberst line of singers that allows the passion of vocals to trump their technical correctness. This is best shown in “Then Don’t Hipst,” which creates a spacious, open-highway feel to the tune for his voice to ramble around in. The first line of the song is “All my lovers name’s are on highway signs/so blow a kiss to the state line,” so the unfettered feel of the vocals perfectly interprets the lyrics. That’s gold. This spacious sound reappears in sparse closer “Two and Seven,” which calls up Two Gallants–another band that uses vocals in an unusual way. Some people aren’t into this style of vocals, but Ryan does it well; if you’re a fan of this sound, Ryan will be up your alley.
His band contributes well throughout, framing Ryan’s vocals and lyrics neatly without becoming the main focus. Opener “Manhattan Square” has a full arrangement, but never cranks any part so high that you don’t know who’s the main draw. The band also doesn’t play up the twang too much, relying on clean notes, straight rhythms, and gentle tones for most of the arrangements. It’s nice to hear an alt-country offering that starts from a different point than The Jayhawks or Old 97s, as this approach has a lot more in common with indie-pop and indie-rock. Still, the end result is strongly alt-country, even if it gets there an unusual way.
Declan Ryan’s Introducing Close Calls allows Ryan to stretch his musical legs and cover some new ground. With “Then Don’t Hipst” as a starting point, fans of alt-country with distinct vocals should find much to love.
Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.