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.
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.
Christa Wells‘ music is weighty without feeling heavy, as the singer/songwriter balances heft and grace with ease on Feed Your Soul. Wells relies on smooth arrangements and incredible vocal performances to create and sustain that tension. Songwriters like Sara Groves are the best comparison for Wells’ sound: mature, grounded songs with strong melodies and a melancholy streak.
When Wells delves into that sadness which looks longingly toward hopefulness, her songs soar. Closer “Being Loved” is a powerful tune distilled to a simple truth (“being loved is a hard thing to take/I will try”). “You Are My Defense” shows off the complete comfort that she has in her own skin, musically and lyrically. The opening of “Come Close Now” somehow balances being objectively gentle musically (piano/vocals/tapped drums) and subjectively crushing emotionally. Wells knows how to suck the listener in with a minimum of fuss, and that’s a deceptively difficult skill to master.
When Feed Your Soul heads in louder, funkier territory such as “Vanity Vanity” and the title track, the results are less immediately satisfying. I’d much prefer to keep hearing Wells play simple piano and level me emotionally with tunes like “For My Child” and “This Thing Is Not Going to Break You.” The exception is “The Way That You Love Me,” which funnels her emotional command into an upbeat love song much in the same way that Brooke Fraser turned out the wonderful “Something in the Water.”
Wells’ Feed Your Soul is a beautiful, soul-baring record that works with seemingly little effort. The amount of skill, hard work, and time that go into a record like that are almost never recognized, so I’m celebrating those elements here. Wells knows how to write a compelling song, and she knows that the way to turn it from “good” to “great” isn’t always to add more arrangement. I look forward to hearing more from Wells.
Caitlin Marie Bell does simplicity a very different way. At the extreme, the Americana singer/songwriter goes totally barebones by singing traditional murder ballad “Omie Wise” with only staccato percussion as accompaniment. Bell’s resonant alto voice sells the song perfectly, bringing an Irish flair to the work. Bell relies on her strong pipes throughout Blood and The Water, as she doesn’t employ anything more than a fingerpicked guitar, stringed bass, and gentle percussion to set the backdrop.
The most impressive thing about this spartan setup is not the live feel, but that Bell packs so much personality into the sound. Tracks like “River Song” and “Pallet on the Floor” slot her right in next to some of the giants of the genre both in sound and quality: the former pairs Bell’s lilting voice with the sound of a thunderstorm, while the latter displays a complex intimacy in lyric and vocal delivery. Both will stick with you long past their run time.
Both tunes spin together a small world in a few minutes–that’s hard for any songwriter to do, much less one who isn’t backed by a huge, involved band. The tunes on Blood and the Water possess a gravitas and maturity far beyond what I expect from a debut. These weighty tunes are very worth checking out for anyone who’s a fan of Gillian Welch, Lucinda Williams, Emmylou Harris and other female Americana singer/songwriters.
The best moments of singer/songwriter Steph Casey‘s Whisper and Holler fall on the “whisper” side of that equation: when Casey’s songs are stripped down to sparse acoustic guitar and voice, her work shines. “Heavy Warm Heart” and the title track are lent an immediacy by their simplicity, as it feels like Casey had the melodies burning a hole in her pocket and just had to get them out there. The delicate guitarwork and engaging vocal tone mesh beautifully, creating magic.
There are some more full arrangements that shine as well: lead track “Nice to Almost Know You” gives off a relaxed, back-porch vibe in its assured/regretful stance looking back on a failed relationship. “Kapiti”builds out a simple Jack Johnson-esque beach vibe into a highly enjoyable track. Both of those tunes fall right in line with the ethos that characterizes the highlights: take one thing and do it well. Added bonus: Casey is a Kiwi. (Australia and New Zealand are just excellent these days.)
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.