Chris Jamison‘s Lovecraft is linked with horror via its title and album art, but the music is more relaxing than terrifying. Jamison has melded West Coast breeziness, old-school country vibes, the stark emotionalism of For Emma Bon Iver, and the melodic arrangements of modern folk into an engaging, acoustic-led album.
Jamison used to live in Austin and now lives in Arizona, which helps explain his particular mix of influences in a causal or at least correlated way; there’s a tension between sonic structures evocative of wide-open space and melodic immediacy reminiscent of Fleet Foxes in tunes like “The Mockingbird Song” and “Blue Melody.” There’s more than a little bit of old-school country kicking around in the mix as well: “Roadside Bar” evokes saloons and Crosby, Stills & Young soft country, while lead single “Juniper Blues” leans heavily on an organ and a break-up narrative for a traditional country tune. The muted trumpet there is an nice, unexpected touch that points to Jamison’s desires to work within constraints but also push the edges a bit.
“What About Tomorrow” is the most immediately impressive song on the record, combining Spaghetti western dramatic guitars, horns evocative of the desert, a breezy vocal melody, and a complex arrangement. The result is a fascinating blend of easy-going vibes, serious undertones, and instrumental chops. It’s like Jackson Browne got lost in the desert, started seeing things, and seriously reconsidered some aspects of his life.
Jamison’s warm, soft voice floats above all the arrangements, from the icy “Pedernal” to the gospel-tinged warmth of the organ-heavy “Old 81.” The variety of sounds that Jamison corrals on the record don’t ever make his voice sound out of place: instead, Jamison seems to collect the wild edges of the tunes with his gentle delivery. Whether it’s the funky “Always” or the trad-country “Waves of the Wind,” the songs hold together with a warm core. So it may have the same name as a horror author, but Jamison’s vocal warmth and skillful instrumentation make Lovecraft a lovely experience. After hearing the beautiful strings of “Waves of the Wind,” you’d be forgiven for thinking maybe it should have been Craftlove.
Chris Jamison puts a light reverb on his vocals in “Carousel,” the opening track of five-song EP Sleeping with the T.V. On. That effect gives his voice a nostalgic, romantic air reminiscent of Gregory Alan Isakov’s vocal performances. Jamison’s contemporary-folk has a bit more of a concrete feel to it than Isakov’s ethereal constructions: stand-up bass, shuffling snare, and acoustic guitar strum anchor the sound tightly to this mortal coil. Still, Jamison’s beautiful voice is the feature in “Carousel” and throughout the EP.
Even in tracks where the instruments are more in the fore, they play second fiddle to Jamison’s arresting voice. The subtle pedal steel of “Summer Comes Tomorrow” and the engaging acoustic work of “Joseph” can’t steal the focus from the evocative tone and timbre of the leading tenor. In that way, it’s a bit like Death Cab for Cutie–although their instrumental sounds are completely different, the focus on instruments supporting the vocal melody and performance is present in both artists. If you’re into folk-singin’ troubadours that can tell a song with the tone of their voice alone, you should check out Sleeping with the T.V. On. You’ll very much enjoy yourself.
Martin Van Ruin‘s Every Man a King has a much more muscular take on folk music. “Gold and Love and Gin” starts out with a sludgy distorted guitar reminiscent of ISIS (for real) before transitioning into a dry, clanging acoustic strum. Lead guitar, slide guitar, harmonica, background vocals and shaker-heavy drums give the song a very Western, wide-open, frontier feel. When lead vocalist Derek Nelson hollers “she’s got something strange always coming out her mouth” near the climax of the tune, it’s a genuine shiver-inducer in the adrenaline-pounding sort of way, not the romantic sort of way.
Part of their energy-creating powers come from backgrounds in genres other than folk; MVR is a new group from a bunch of Chicago music vets that have a wide range of sounds in their past (and present). “Easy Answer” is a perky power-pop tune led by neat male/female vocal interactions and bouncy bass work. “This Time Around” has similar power-pop vibes, but with a bit of Southern-rock crunch; “Wilderness” has a lot of guitar crunch going on. “Sayanora” has a ’50s ballad sort of feel to it. The drums are powerful and prominent throughout; never becoming overwhelming, but definitely giving a bit of pep to the sound in almost every tune they appear. This ain’t Bon Iver over here, just in case anyone was still wondering.
But no matter where they dally, Every Man a King is held together by an underlying folk sentiment. “American Moon” employs a fiddle and a droll vocal line to tell a heartfelt tale of woe. Sure, it’s noisier than your average folk tune, but it’s got a songwriter’s soul. And they’re the sort of people that took the time to list the lyrics to every song on their Bandcamp page. Maybe that doesn’t count for purists, but it counts for me. There’s always the acoustic Americana of “Storm Coming” and the traditional “Give Me Flowers (While I’m Living)” to settle those anxieties.
If you’re up for some folk-inspired music that steals from southern rock, indie-pop, and more, Martin Van Ruin will scratch that itch. Every Man a King is a strong, varied release that never loses its way.
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.