1. “Firefly” – Brave Bones. The vocal enthusiasm of folk-punk bands bolted onto the hypercharged alt-country of The Old ’97s? Sign me up.
2. “The Pilot and the Flying Machine: Part Two” – Ben Bedford. The hardest thing about being a blogger is the X factor. What makes a song good? Sometimes you can break it down to a guitar line, a vocal line, an auxiliary instrument, the lyrics, or the overall mood. Sometimes we throw a RIYL band at it to help you figure out whose X factor this band’s is most like. But not this time. Bedford brings it all together here for an excellent acoustic tune that stands on its own, no comparison artists needed.
3. “Whispers of the Night” – Rowan McGuire. The intricate, delayed guitarwork here is totally mesmerizing.
4. “Thunder Road” – Adam Hanna and The Class of ’18. I’m of the opinion that doing any cover well is hard, and covering iconic tunes is exponentially harder. Hanna successfully reinterprets the Boss in an acoustic vein by delivering a solid vocal performance and choosing good instrumentalists. He doesn’t try to thoroughly reinvent it (a smart move), and the results are good.
5. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” – Freedom Fry. This band chooses the “completely reinvent” method of covering an iconic song, turning the monumental grunge tune into a major-key indie-pop jaunt with reggae rhythms. You have never heard “Teen Spirit” like this before. Mad props.
7. “Inside Your Heart” – The Two Romans. Or if you’re not down for tropical vibes, maybe you can go for ecstatic hoedown folk, Twin Forks-style. This is the sort of song that makes you why we liked this type of song in the first place, before a lot of people got all folk’ed out.
8. “Hattie Barlow” – Jack Hotel. If you drew a triangle with bluegrass, old timey music, and modern folk-pop at the corners, you’d find Jack Hotel in the middle. Those who like their folk with lots of fiddle sawing, banjo rolling, and acoustic strumming will be into this. Alternately, if “holler” is a positive term to you, also apply within.
9. “Fiery Eyes” – Prinz Grizzley. “Prinz Grizzley” is a name for a TV show host, a rapper, or a country singer–we got the last one. The horns in this song bring a memorably bouncy enthusiasm to this mid-tempo alt-country jaunt.
10. “White Lies” – Darryl Rahn. Sometimes I want to write “It’s just really good” and leave it at that, but I suppose you want me to tell you that the vocals sound like Brett Dennen reappropriated into a sped-up Rocky Votolato song. Or you could go with “It’s just really good.” Either way.
11. “Wounded Wing” – The Duke Spirit. This ballad-esque song seems like it was written for maximum gravitas: heavy piano, distant atmospherics, solemn alto vocals, and a Mark Lanegan guest spot. Rad.
12. “I’m Not This Layer of Skin” – Yvonne McDonnell. It successfully combines ancient and modern: A brash vocal style with traces of traditional British folk tone leads this emotionally engaging fingerpicked folk tune that features melodies equally reminiscent of the UK’s traditions.
13. “Leave” – Sea Offs. A tone poem of a song, floating beautifully off in the distance, making me carefully reconsider my surroundings, like the most freeflowing moments of Bowerbirds.
1. “Sync” – Cloud Castle Lake. If Sigur Ros ate a marching band and a prog rock outfit, they still probably couldn’t make this genre-exploding post-rock track. This is some of the most eclectic, beautiful songwriting I’ve heard in a long time.
2. “L.A.M.P.” – A.M. Stations. If you’re on the train that post-rock doesn’t have enough of punk’s energy, then this pounding instrumental track will leave you clapping.
3. “Blood Mirage” – Crown Larks. If you’re concerned that post-rock isn’t weird enough, then Crown Larks’ fractured, wild, sprawling tunes will comfort you. This is one of those bands where you feel bad for all the instruments involved because of the intense, atypical sounds being wrung out of the poor pieces of metal, wire, wood and cork.
4. “Steady Waves” – Cross Record. Pensive and dark, gentle and harsh, like Bowerbirds on an electro bender (even though it feels like these may be all organic instruments manipulated in unusual ways).
5. “Open Season” – Youth Model. Muse would be proud of the move to layer a 1950s PSA about the atomic bomb over the intro to this dark, theatrical rock song about paranoia. Actually, Muse would be proud of pretty much everything in this song.
6. “Coshh” – The Vryll Society. Here’s a highway song for a cosmic, religious, post-consciousness realm.
7. “Take My Hand” – Palmas. And if you go surfing in that cosmic, religious, post-consciousness realm, you can flip on this perfect soundtrack.
8. “Golden Lion” – The Besnard Lakes. ’70s rock’n’roll updated to sound tight and modern, but with just enough guitar haziness to be a little reality-fuzzing.
9. “One Block Bar” – Rett Smith. Here’s some electric blues that don’t sound like The Black Keys. The gritty, urgent noise here is much more earthy and raw than the stadium-rockin’ Keys.
10. “Bruises” – Bells and Hunters. Do you need a stomping, riff-heavy rock track in your life? Of course you do, especially if it has great female vocals on top of all that.
Ryan O’Reilly’s gorgeously-shot video for “Northern Lights” plays out like a wintry Moonrise Kingdom. The high-drama, piano-led singer/songwriter tune fits perfectly with the video.
Some bands know how to create gravitas out of the same old instruments. There’s nothing unique about the instrumentation in Lowland Hum’s “Odell,” but they wring heartbreakingly powerful indie-rock tunes out of it (a la a catchier Bowerbirds). The video is a perfect foil to the song, pulling the heavy and the light out of everyday experiences.
The swift fingerpicking of Caitlin Marie Bell’s “Mama” is filled out with a gentle alt-country arrangement that calls to mind Laura Stevenson’s immediately-engaging work. Bell’s evocative voice leads the way through the arrangement, resulting in one of the best new songs I’ve heard this year. I’m very much looking forward to more from Bell.
Laura and Greg’s pristine, bell-clear, minimalist songwriting is similar to The Weepies. The terrific video is a lovingly hand-drawn animation that will make you want to watch it over and over.
I don’t usually write live reviews, because I think it’s weird to describe something that categorically isn’t available for someone to hear. It’s also rare for me to write reviews where you can’t hear at least a single to know what the music sounds like. So you’ll have to bear with me on this one, because I’m about to review one of only two performances of the as-yet-unrecorded Ari Picker composition Lion and the Lamb.
You might know Ari Picker better as the songwriter of the now-retired orchestral folk outfit Lost in the Trees. Since the end of his previous project, he’s turned his eye firmly to orchestration. Lion and the Lamb is a classical work for 11 musicians: string quartet, french horn, saxophonist, pianist, drummer, bassist, and two vocalists. The classical and indie-rock performers that made up the temporary crew included Phil Moore of Bowerbirds, who opened the show with a solo set composed largely of new material. (“It’s my first show in two years,” he announced, but his formidable vocal and songwriting skills didn’t show rust.)
Lion and the Lamb is broken up into eight sections, which range from quite short to long, flowing pieces. Each is, to varying degrees, a tone poem: a piece of music set up largely to convey a feeling rather than to advance a certain motif or theme. As a result, the sections tend to feel less like “songs” and more like “movements.” This is critical to understanding and enjoying Lion and the Lamb; those looking for catchy melodies (even of the classical variety) will not largely feel at home here. If you sit back and let the mood wash over you, you’ll be in a much better place to enjoy the work.
The mood is a peculiar one: fit to Rainer Maria Rilke’s devotional poetry collection Book of Hours, the music delivers dissonant exuberance. “Beauty No. 1 (Descend)”–a complex title for a complex work–opens the set with a gently dissonant piano form consisting of slowly-moving bass notes strung together in a legato style. It is one of three Beauties, including the titular section; the “Descend” pattern is reprised in the last section. A great amount is packed into the opening, so it’s important to listen carefully.
The unexpected dissonance is an integral part of the melodic structure of the whole work: these tunes largely fall in minor keys and play with the listener’s expectation of dissonance. By the time the closing section “Autumn Day / Descend reprise” arrived, the dissonance had been largely normalized in my ear: it felt expected, even warm and comforting. It speaks to strong composition skills that Picker was able to develop that mood from jarring to pleasant throughout the work.
“Beauty No. 1” is instrumental; half of the eight do not feature lyrics. The wordless sections allow the string quartet, horn, and piano to take over the heavy lifting: Picker spends a lot of time layering and building in these pieces. “Chords” in particular sticks out as a successful piece, memorable for its ultimate sonic collage.
When the vocals do appear, they are often accompanied by drums, bass keys, and saxophone; “Panther” and “Sound Will Be Yours” were particularly excellent in this vein. The polyrhthymic drumming and intricate saxophone patterning lock in together, creating an exciting, eyebrow-raising sound. The bass supports these complex rhythms, grounding the whole song. The vocalists layer their notes on top of this controlled chaos, singing dramatically in powerful, enthusiastic tones. With the quartet, horn, and piano melded into this mix, the sound becomes a wonder to behold. The drumming in “Panther” is especially blood-pumping, while the frantic saxophone contributions there and elsewhere are riveting. An indie-rocker might say that it is well-orchestrated post-rock without v/c/v structure; a classical artist might say they are highly stylized, dramatic tone poems. Whatever you call the music, it is beautiful in an unusual way.
Picker’s arrangements straddle the border between indie-rock and classical: some melodies weren’t repeated enough for indie-rock standards, while the noisy kit drumming might rustle some classical feathers. But for the open-minded listener of music, this was a rare, unique offering. Picker said that he hopes to record the work, as well as write more in this vein–I hope that occurs. The complex beauty requires the stretching of the ear and mind a bit, but connects with the heart and emotions quickly. May that tension ever continue.
Opener “Waking Up Again” is a precise-yet-earthy fingerpicked indie-folk tune reminiscent of Bowerbirds or a darker Weepies; it’s a perfect vehicle for Hearn’s warm, comfortable, unaffected alto. The arrangement and her voice mesh perfectly, creating one of my favorite songs of the year so far. It’s a mature, assured track that kicks the album off in the best way possible. It may be the biggest hill on the rollercoaster in terms of excitement, but it’s not the only exciting twist and turn Hourglass has in store.
“Can’t Help Myself” is an old-school pop song built on a plunked piano and breezy vibes; “The Oak Tree” features a dramatic alt-country vocal line that’s inflected with elements of modern singer/songwriter arrangements–note the motifs playing in the background of the chorus, a solid pop songwriting element. “Please Don’t Take My Love” starts with electronic beats before seguing into a low-slung ballad with anthemic touches (reverbed vocals!). With that, you’ve made it a third of the way through the album. (Please keep your hands inside the vehicle.)
The rest of Hourglass settles into a piano-fronted singer/songwriter vibe, from dramatic lead single “Volcano” to the gentle “Annie” to the earnest “Long Summer.” Throughout it all, Hearn’s vocals are engaging, enveloping, and compelling. Her songwriting is a strong foil–the melodies never become cloying or maudlin, and the structures seem bright and fresh. But it’s Hearn’s vocals that shine most in Hourglass. If nothing else, you must check out “Waking Up Again,” but I highly recommend the whole album.
1. “The Giving” – Matthew Squires and the Learning Disorders. Squires plays the traveling troubadour here, finding “poverty and magic all around me” in a New Orleans full of found sound, delicate guitar, his signature vocal style, and fitting trumpet.
2. “Red” – Mt. Wolf. Here’s a slow-burning, tension-releasing amalgam of acoustic guitar, beats, and falsetto that sounds like Bon Iver 2.0. Mmm, mmm, mmm.
3. “Heart” – Pistol Shrimp. The falsetto-filled acoustic version of this dance-rock banger sounds somewhere between Ben Gibbard and Ben Folds, which is pretty impressive. Maybe they should do this more often.
4. “Odell” – Lowland Hum. Afflicted, pastoral, theatrical indie-folk has previously belonged in my mind only to Bowerbirds. Move on over, Bowerbirds–Lowland Hum are here with a beautiful tune in that very specific mood.
5. “Cops Don’t Care pt. II” – Fred Thomas. Thomas follows up his epic debut single with this one, which is a lot simpler musically but just as powerful lyrically.
6. “Other Suns” – Magic Giant. With mandolin, cello, and harmonica, Magic Giant is doing their best to act the folk part of their folk rave name in this mid-tempo ballad.
7. “Love or Die” – Magic Giant. I know I just put them in this list, but this Lumineers/Twin Forks stomp-along is just too much fun to pass up.
8. “If It Don’t Kill You” – Family Folk Revival. Get that outlaw alt-country feel on and enjoy this low-slung, rootsy jam.
Folk music can sound like any season: spring (The Tallest Man on Earth), summer (Josh Ritter), fall (The Head and the Heart), and winter (Bon Iver). Matthew Oomen is from Norway, and his acoustic-led singer/songwriter tunes definitely take inspiration from the arctic surroundings and lean into the wintry side of things. In contrast to Bon Iver’s impressionistic emoting, the strengths of Oomen’s Where the Valley Is Long lie in spacious arrangements, distinct rhythms, meticulous performances, and crisp production.
“Master’s Row” opens the album with precise, separated acoustic guitar and banjo fingerpicking, stating very quickly what sort of album this will be. Oomen comes in with gentle whispered/sung tenor vocals, then brings in a swooping cello. The overall effect is a romantic, wintry vibe: the space in the arrangements gives room for listeners to breathe, and the gentle mood has wistful, amorous overtones. The song would fit perfectly in a day where you cuddled up with your lover next to a warm fire as snow falls.
The rest of the songs doen’t stray far from that mood, creating a warm, open, resonant album. “Called to Straw” is one of the slowest on the record, leisurely creating a beautiful atmosphere with the banjo, guitar, and dual-gender vocals. “Camp Hill” is an instrumental track that excellently displays the melodic gift that Oomen has. Some may find that the dominant fingerpicking style can result in some difficulty of differentiation between the tunes, but the specific mood of the album is so consistent that it’s just as good to me as a whole unit as in individual bits. Where the Valley is Long is a beautiful, enchanting, comforting album of pristine singer/songwriter folk. Fans of Young Readers, The Tallest Man on Earth, and Joshua Radin’s early work will find much to love here.
Jesse Marchant‘s self-titled record is far more masterful than a debut would usually be, because Marchant has released several albums under the JBM moniker. (I’m particularly fond of Not Even In July.) Marchant’s first offering under his real name brings his powerful brand of serious music to great results at two different poles. When I first reviewed Marchant’s live show earlier this year, I compared him to a mix of Gregory Alan Isakov and Jason Molina. Here he largely separates those influences, splitting his wistful/romantic and churning/tension-laden elements into different tunes.
I was originally attracted to Marchant’s music for his quiet tunes, but his noisier offerings are just as compelling here. The muscly “In the Sand/Amelia” relies on a seriously fuzzed-out guitar riff and heavy bass tones to create an emotional, powerful tune. He caps the song with a brief yet impressive bit of squalling guitar solo. “All Your Promise” has a bit of Keane-style dramatic flair to its intro, leaning on cinematic, back-alley tenion before settling into a quieter, synth-laden verse. “Adrift” starts off with a big pad synth and a serious drumkit groove; it doesn’t exactly resolve into a rock tune, but it’s pretty close.
But even “In the Sand/Amelia” has an abrupt return to quietness in its middle section. Marchant knows how to wring emotion out of a repetitive guitar riff, a mournful vocal line, and time, and that hasn’t changed here. Opener “Words Underlined” shows him in full form, building a six-minute experience out of a uncomplicated, gently strummed electric guitar. He’s still in Jason Molina territory there. He does turn his attention to less brooding tunes, like the upbeat “The Whip”–not nearing power-pop by any means, but Isakov fans will know the vibe intuitively. “Stay on Your Knees” has a bit more of a rock feel, but the swift fingerpicking pulls it from his Songs:Ohia pole closer to the Isakov one. But even within the song there are dalliances: synths appear, a piano section pops up, etc.
Marchant is building his own style here, and it’s working really well: he’s identifiable with other musicians but not copying them. Jesse Marchant is a satisfying album that should make fans of those not in the know and please those who have followed him as JBM. If you’re into musicians like Leif Vollebekk, Isakov, Molina or Bowerbirds, you’ll find a kindred spirit here.
Bunches of MP3s have come my way recently, and I’m happy to share some with you. Come back on Friday for the Spring/Summer mix!
1. “Reno” – Shareef Ali. Anti-folk, acoustic-punk, and country converge on this memorable, attitude-filled breakup tune. (Ali’s CD release show is tonight, if you happen to find yourself in San Francisco.)
2. “Blankets” – Matthew Fowler. Fowler has a smooth, soothing voice that sounds far more mature than his 19 years. Fans of Josh Garrels and Ray LaMontagne should take notice.
3. “The Lampolier” – Grover Anderson. As fall moves toward winter, let’s move from pretty singer/songwriters to the haunting, backwoods Appalachian murder ballad tradition. The production here is particularly notable.
4. “Down to My Soul (The Music)” – Kate Vargas. When a woman says she’s influenced by Tom Waits, that gets my attention. Vargas delivers on that promise with raspy, soulful, inspired folk full of banjo and danger.
5. “Strugglin’” – I Am the Albatross. This one also starts out as a Tom Waits-ian folk ramble, but it transforms into a Gogol Bordello folk/punk/polka blaster complete with vengeful religious imagery. All aboard!
6. “All Walks of Life” – Mike Dillon. I’m used to Mike Dillon’s unclassifiable madness played at 3 zillion BPMs. This unclassifiable madness includes a significantly chiller body before a naturally madcap coda but is no less weird: it still includes vibraphone, trombone, drums, and Dillon’s crazy vocals.
7. “Alta / Waterfall” – Fear of Men. Jangly indie-rock urgency married to the rich, dusky landscapes of Bowerbirds and the like.
8. “Blight ft. FatRat Da Czar” – We Roll Like Madmen. Very smooth, dark, crisp electro here. FatRat Da Czar raps some really nice flow over it, really making this track.
9. “Ruin” – Vedas. The PR for this one calls it a “hollow depletion of hope,” which makes me want to try and cheer them up. Their James Blake-ian electro-pop/R&B/indie/whatever stuff is definitely attractive, though. All is not lost, yo!
10. “Reset” – Maggie McClure. Here’s a cathartic, female-fronted, piano-based pop tune for those who never stopped secretly loving The Fray and The Goo Goo Dolls.
11. “RaVe (feat. Kris English)” – Cloud Seeding. Is it folk? Is it electro? The lines keep getting fuzzier. Either way, this one is a lithe, easy-moving track.
12. “There Was a Time” – Corea Blue. Lo-fi can always get grittier, y’all. Props to this track for creating a zen-like mood and tone while using tape hiss as an instrument.
I usually like to get this post to a nice round number, but I didn’t get it there this year. Here’s what my year sounded like, y’all! This post isn’t ranked; instead, it’s a playlist of sorts. My ranked post will come tomorrow.
Genre names exist to quickly allow someone to identify whether they’ll be interested in a band. But the baggage they carry is conflicted: saying “acoustic pop” can clue in fans of John Mayer and Jenny & Tyler—and there’s a chasm between the two artists’ sounds. There’s an ocean between their ideologies, too, and that complicates things. Then comes the imported freight: “Acoustic pop” has become synonymous with the radio-created “genre” of Adult Contemporary (Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, James Blunt, Sara Bareilles). All of these things can be classified as acoustic pop.
Folk is even worse. Folk music, according to Ronald D. Cohen in Folk Music: The Basics, is “old songs, with no known composers.” However, American folk music has a distinct style and sound, as compiled by the Lomaxes. Indie-kids adopted this history through appropriation, and we ended up in a situation where “American folk” is immediately associated with Mumford & Sons and Fleet Foxes (one of whom is from England, and the which chose a name because it sounded English). And they don’t play folk covers, anyway.
So please bear with me; it’s genuinely difficult to explain what Bowerbirds‘ The Clearing sounds like. Our en vogue musical terms offer me little to explain how their incredibly moving music actually sounds. There’s chamber-pop, but this isn’t sterilized like Andrew Bird. There’s orchestral-folk, but this isn’t characterized by its arrangements—even if they do make beautiful use of strings on opener and single “Tuck the Darkness In.” There’s singer/songwriter, but the Bowerbirds’ sound is made of two equal partners and a full instrumental range; this is a true collaborative effort. But enough hedging and complaining about what it is not. I’ve shot around the subject enough that perhaps you’ll be able to put together a composite after this statement:
The Clearing is a wide, sweeping, gorgeous palette that externalizes intimate, difficult emotions through atypical song structures and beautiful melodies.
The main instruments are piano and guitar, but distorted synths provide the highlight of “In the Yard” and organ is the critical sound in “This Year.” “Overcome With Light” is the only song that even sounds remotely close to something that could be canonized and in 100 years be a song without author; its glorious, stately majesty becomes the core of the album, because it encapsulates the emotion that the album is trying to build out. The world is a difficult place, full of tension and struggle; but even though that, there is beauty, and wonder, and worth.
The divide between high art and low art is a complex question that deserves its own post, but this piece resonated with me on one point that the author thinks defines “high art” (and I think defines “good art,” which are not the same): “Complexity of the responses to the works’ emotions, which sometimes have no name.” Saying that The Clearing is a beautiful orchestral-folk album is not only potentially confusing, it’s selling the album short in numerous ways. There’s no easy handle for what this music sounds like to me nor what it conjures up in me, and that’s good. There’s a unique vision here that transcends my pre-formatted ideas to confine it, and that’s what the best art forces me to do: I have to hear and think in different ways, albeit slight, to process and inhabit the piece. (And even slight change is significant in our era of filtering out what we dislike by removing it from our social feeds.)
The Clearing is immediately accessible in some ways: “Tuck the Darkness In” is deeply affecting from the first listen. The rest of the album unfolds its joys in multiple listens; I would recommend that you stick around for those as well.