Jon Bennett‘s A Saint’s Book is a modest, unassuming folk EP that packs a way bigger punch than it would seem. None of the seven songs here break three minutes; none feature more instrumentation than Bennett’s fluid fingerpicking, slightly gritty vocals, and occasional whistling. Yet within these parameters, Bennett spins observant, literate tales that recall The Freewheeling Bob Dylan. The speedy guitar performance and talking-blues vocal style of “Ukiah” most call up the Dylan of old, but there are traces throughout of a similar unadorned, rough-around-the-edges glory.
“Scotty in the Trees” and “The Dressmaker” both create memorable character sketches in a remarkably short span, with the latter managing to work in the phrases “whale baleen” and “a glass of absinthe” in meaningful ways. Bennet’s lyrics have a much different bent than The Mountain Goats’, but both songwriters pack a lot of development into few phrases. The slight, sprightly instrumental “Flood” shows off Bennett’s guitar skills, too.
If you’re looking for a new singer-songwriter to charm your old-school folk-loving ears, you should definitely check out A Saint’s Book. It’s a remarkable release.
1. “Evergreen” – The Tomes. This moving track pits a clear-eyed vocal performance and swift fingerpicking against a swooning violin and delicate piano performance. The results are light and yet weighty; dramatic, yet intimate.
2. “Modesto” – Jon Bennett. This creaky speakin’ folk made my heart leap in recognition and desire, reminded me of Jeffrey Lewis and Bob Dylan. What else do I need to tell you to get you to listen to this?
3. “Unpuzzle Me” – Kate Copeland. There’s something ghostly and close about the mandolin and vocal pairing here that comforts me.
4. “No Mercy in the Night” – Natalie Lurie. Lurie’s harp is insistent, her voice is glorious, and the arrangement frames it all perfectly to sound like a female-fronted Barr Brothers.
5. “Heroin Strings” – Jack Conman. The perfectly-recorded drums here sound just north of empty cans in a big room, which gives this ominous tune a bit of an extra pop. Conman’s vocal performance is also particularly evocative and moody.
6. “The Big Surprise” – Trickster Guru. Elements of Carrie and Lowell run through this moody, death-pondering track.
7. “Long Way Back” – Terri Binion. From the jaunty old-school country vibes, you wouldn’t know that this is a track about a tragic death of a wife and the attempts to cope with that.
8. “Fear of Music” – Tobie Milford. Fans of Antony and the Johnsons will connect with Milford’s theatrical vocals, complex orchestral arrangements, and intensely dramatic moods.
9. “Up There Listening” – Jordan Prince. Back porch picking on a banjo and guitar with Prince’s sweet, charming voice making the tune even more endearing.
10. “Child of the ’70s” – Derek Clegg. Evocative of flower-power folk (Jackson Browne! James Taylor!) but subverts the script by being a song about growing older. It’s like Ben Folds’ “The Ascent of Stan,” but chiller and more accepting of the realities entailed therein.
11. “I Will Follow You” – RIVVRS. Ah, home sweet home: tom thump, “hey,” upbeat strum, romantic lyrics, catchy melodies. This one’s for everyone who just loves a good, honest, earnest folk-pop tune.
Arts Fishing Club‘s self-titled debut EP shows off the many skills of Christopher Kessenich. In just over 20 minutes, Kessenich blows through southern rock, troubadour folk, and Damien Rice-esque roaring ballads. Through it all, Kessenich delivers memorable melodies and tight production that point to more great things in the future.
Kessenich’s nom de plume Arts Fishing Club evokes a pastoral sort of image, and the album art reiterates it. The music isn’t quite as rustic as both would imply: while highlight “Rarin’ to Roam” has a sonic lineage stretching way back through folkies like John Denver and Bob Dylan, the arrangement and production are bright and modern. The verses and chorus melodies stick with me, and the whole thing comes off as a mature, polished folk-pop track. If AFC goes this way, there’s a world of Lumineers fans that would be all about this. But Kessenich can howl with the best of them, as “Bottle of Wine” is a sad-hearted ballad that ratchets to a huge, dramatic ending–he could move this direction too.
For those not intrigued by earthy troubadour folk or acoustic ballads, “Ground She Walked” and “Take a Walk” let the distorted guitars fly. They’re still grounded in acoustic songwriting, but they’ve got a crunchy edge that evokes the acoustic/grungy vibes of the mid-’90s. Kessenich morphs his voice once again into a grittier tone and a more attitude-heavy delivery. Some people’s experiments clearly show which avenues should or shouldn’t be pursued, but his project has a lot of avenues available to it after this EP. With talent to spare and room to sonically roam, Arts Fishing Club has a lot going for it.
Devin James Fry is working through some identity issues right now: last year’s Headwater Songs came out under his own name, this year’s Jump Into the Fire 7″ came out under the Salesman moniker, and Four Dreams is from Devin James Fry and the Name Sayers. The opposite is true of the sonic spaces depicted in these releases: Fry has been honing his sound meticulously, and Four Dreams sharpens all his ideas to fine points. “I Touch My Face In Hyperspace Oh Yeah” and “Upbringing” focus on his noisier realms: the former marryies clanging, angular guitars to driving rhythms and howling baritone vocals to create a uniquely frantic environment; the latter is a composed mostly of Fry’s haunting vocals and complex percussion–also a unique mood. Fry’s version of rock music is untethered from the normal lineage and bonafides, creating a genuinely exciting aura. The enthusiasm of the Jump Into the Fire 7″ lands here, on this side.
The other side of Fry’s mental map shows up in “Pearl Made, Gold Stayed” and “Wheel,” where he lets his softer songwriting shine. Even when writing something intended to be quiet, Fry keeps the tension and motion present–“Pearl Made, Gold Stayed” shows off his signature guitar style and thumping percussion in a different setting. It’s ultimately a moving tune in the emotional sense as well: “life pays in pearls, not gold / and you know how pearls are made.” “Wheel” ends the collection by picking up where Headwater Songs left off (“Oh Lord, I am a wheel of Colorado sand”) and creates a delicate, flowing environment with his guitar style and vocals that is distinctly his own. If you’re not on the Devin James Fry train yet, you need to be: he’s making gems over here. Four Dreams is a definite contender for your end-of-year EP list.
It’s a tricky thing to go electric: ever since Dylan pretty much mastered the art, all artists who attempt it since are necessarily living in his shadow. I’ve been a big champion of Wolfcryer‘s acoustic work, so it’s with great interest that I listened to his “Go Out and See the World” / “St. Anthony” single.
The release offers a slice of his melancholy, baritone-led troubadour work backed with a rollicking folk-rock tune that gives a taste of what a louder, electric Wolfcryer would sound like. The latter starts off with a frenetic acoustic strum, then barrels on as bass, electric guitar and drums crash in. Matt Baumann’s vocals are higher and faster to fit the rock backdrop, and they sound great in that range. A wailing harmonica and a crunchy-yet-melodic guitar solo cap off the sound in great fashion. It seems like an extension of Wolfcryer’s sound instead of a total re-invention: the sound is strong, tight, and crisp without forsaking the grit and earnestness of Baumann’s A-side (and previous work). “Go Out and See the World” is the quieter of the two offerings, a tune laden with empty-room-reverb and carrying all the gravitas that Baumann’s voice can convey. It’s a beautiful tune.
It’s no small feat to keep the emotional weight and the songwriting depth that Baumann brought to his solo work while changing milieus. If Wolfcryer is able to consistently pull off that trick, one that he nailed in “St. Anthony,” then things are looking bright indeed. It never hurts to be great at loud songs and soft ones.
Lee Reit‘s self-titled record is largely played on a nylon-stringed guitar. In addition to adding a gentle sonic quality to the tunes, those strings import Spanish and Latin American connotations to the nine songs included here. When Reit’s evocative vocal tone and narrative vocal delivery are added in, the result is an engrossing, calming album full of intriguing tunes.
Opener “Dream Another Night” gives a good look at Reit’s guitar playing and his suave, subtly dramatic baritone vocal tone. The rolling fingerpicking is underscored by an insistent, shuffling, brushed drumbeat that would fit in a country tune; the constant press forward creates a tension against the guitar line and Reit’s easygoing vocal delivery. That tension holds even when Caitlin Marie Bell takes the mic for a verse; it’s a pleasant sort of push and pull that engages me in the tune.
There are Spanish vibes in “Dream Another Night,” both sonic and visual. The sonic ones aren’t as pronounced as they are in later songs, but the choice of all-white clothes for the band in the video gives the clip a light, airy feel that makes me think of relaxing languidly in a Spanish vineyard. (We’re honored to premiere the video above today!) “The Pleasure of the Fall” has a dusky Spanish nightclub vibe–not Ibiza, but 1920s literary expat Spanish nightclub. (The distant trumpet and sighing strings reinforce the initial thought.) “Visions of Eternity” amps up this style by incorporating Dylan-esque, cryptic, religious/political/social commentary and ratcheting up the minor-key drama. “Thanks for the Lessons” calls back to that Spanish vineyard, while also pointing toward Parachutes-era Coldplay work.
Most of the tunes on the record benefit from the control Reit has of his voice. “The Pleasure of the Fall” allows him to accentuate different points of the narrative by modifying the register and tone of his voice, from light and high to low and serious. It sounds like a simple transaction, but it’s not: there’s a significant, mysterious gravitas that he’s able to conjure up with the vocal shifts. He’s also great at delivering phrases and words, filling particular ones with meaning just by inflecting them in a certain way (“Thanks for the Lessons” and “Grace Alone” in particular, although it’s evident everywhere).
It’s not all Latin American vibes–“Grace Alone” is folky, even with hints of blues and gospel vibes. The fast-paced, keys-laden “Here, As in Heaven” has a speak/sing, Lou Reed/CAKE thing going on, which presents a very different angle on Reit’s songwriting. But in general, this is a walking-speed, unhurried album. “Wheel Within a Wheel” and “Shangri La,” the chronological center of the record, are flowing, relaxed tunes that make me want to go on a low-stress beach vacation–they’re indicative of the overall response I have to the record.
Lee Reit’s self-titled record is one that can be appreciated for its beauty immediately and for its subtlety over multiple listens. Like John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats (although in a very different milieu), Reit has developed his voice to be a fine-tuned instrument for delivering melodies and lyrics that stick in my head and keep me coming back. You could cover a Lee Reit song, but you wouldn’t sing it the way that he does. That’s a distinctive mark. If you’re into slowcore acoustic (Mark Kozelek, Songs: Ohia, Mojave 3) or thoughtful acoustic work (Josh Ritter, Joe Pug, Jason Isbell), you’ll enjoy Lee Reit’s work.
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.
Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.