1. “Turtle Doves” – Jenny Elisabeth & the Gunned Down Horses. A. What a band name. B. Like light spreading across a horizon, this tune grows from spiky yet warm tendrils of sound to a full, round alt-country performance. The bassist and JE’s creaky voice get special honors.
2. “Refugee” – Cameron James Henderson. Some artists command a gravitas–a combination of confidence, vocal control, melodic maturity, and (let’s be honest) Dylan influences–that catapults their folk tunes into the upper echelon. This tune very firmly belongs up there with the Joe Pugs, Josh Ritters, and Barr Brotherses of the world.
3. “Louisiana” – Eric & Happie. This is more country than the Civil Wars, but still very pop-oriented. It would be like if folk-pop had a country-pop counterpart, but this has almost nothing in common with Florida Georgia Line, so that’s out. The male/female harmonies are lovely, the arrangement is small but full, the production is bright and tight, and the whole thing comes off like a sunbeam out of a cloudy day. It’s just great.
4. “The Space Between” – Aaron James. Here’s some folk-pop with strong vocal harmonies and lots of subtle production touches that push it just far enough outside of the box to really catch the ear, while still fitting in with all the folk-pop standard-bearers.
5. “Don’t Leave My Side” – McKenzie Lockhart. I’m really into immediate production: it sounds like Lockhart is sitting right next to me, playing and singing her folk-pop/singer-songwriter blend. The drums and electric guitar add a lot of character and atmosphere to this tune, which is often not the case in this type of music–mad props to the band. The results are an unusually gripping singer-songwriter track.
6. “No Gauge” – Ariah&. Ariah’s low alto voice contrasts nicely against a chipper mandolin and blaring trumpet. She can belt like Amanda Palmer, too.
7. “Beans” – Little Hermit. If you threw the ukulele charm of Ingrid Michaelson, the quirky lyrics of Kimya Dawson, and an impressive female duet into a blender, you probably still couldn’t come out with something as attractive, elegant, and intriguing as this.
9. “Yesterday’s News” – Esbie Fonte. Starts off as a torchy tune with some jumbled noise for atmosphere, then blooms into something more electronic and complex than that.
10. “Cold Moon” – Lacei. Vocal-driven folk + wubby spacious bass + skittering beats = (either) the folkiest electro track I’ve heard all year or the most electronic folk track of the same period.
11. “Pluto’s Waltz” – Barrow_. This instrumental inventively combines solo neo-classical/jazz piano with snare-heavy electronic kit drums and the occasional synth for effect. It’s a fresh, impressive vision.
Strangers by Accident‘s five-song EP establishes the male/female duo as somewhere between the wistful, major key acoustic pop of the Weepies and the spartan acoustic delicacy of Joshua Radin’s early work. They can get a little bit noisier than either outfit (“Straight to Space,” “Borderline”), but their sweet spot is a bright, clear, open sound garnished with a twist of sadness (or two).
“Steal” is the opener and the tone-setter, with a single acoustic guitar, a tambourine, two vocalists, and ambient guitar marking out the sonic space that the duo explore for the rest of the EP. Standout “Borderline” opens as the quietest track: the lyrics are poignant and unafraid to take on the darkness in the world, like a Rocky Volotato song. It grows to one of their noisiest, with a raucous electric guitar line crashing in intermittently. “Busted Heart” and “Hold Me Down” are both just great acoustic pop songs; sometimes you don’t have to reinvent the wheel to make a really great car. If you’re into the Civil Wars, The Local Strangers, or other classy male/female duos I’m not familiar with, you’ll love Strangers by Accident.
O by Holy ’57 owes an incredible debt to the carefree first two albums of Vampire Weekend. The four tracks here are all sun-drenched and wrapped in the swaying-yet-choppy rhythms that Ezra Koenig and co. virtually trademarked. Holy ’57 trades out the helter-skelter guitar runs for tropical synths, making a sound even more upbeat and sunshiny than VW did. The songs bounce, leap, skip, and twirl their way through my speakers, making it impossible not to smile.
The topics fit with the vibe: “Venice, CA” is about having youthful adventures in the titular city, “184.108.40.206” deals with a breakup and/or social failures by a nostalgic longing for the ’90s, and “Jep Shuffle” builds its chorus around a dance (although it doesn’t tell you how to do the Jep Shuffle, just that it exists). That last track is the unavoidable track: it’s a nigh-on-perfect summer pop song, with verses that build, a chorus that pays off in spades, and rhythms that make me want to move. It’s a sin that this song isn’t everywhere, because it is awesome. Those looking for a song to close out their summer with need to look no farther than O, where there’s at least one (if not three!) tunes that can do that for you. Awesome.
Deer Scout‘s customsis a slight, intimate object: Dena Miller’s four-song EP barely breaks 10 minutes. But in those 10 minutes, her unadorned songwriting makes a statement. She opens with “holy ghost,” which is nothing more than delicate guitar picking, earnest alto vocals, and beautifully complex lyrics. Fans of the dense stylings of Lady Lamb will see similar sparks here. The song is beautifully balanced: there’s not much to it, but it all sounds vital and immediate. It grabbed my attention and didn’t let go.
“little state” and “up high” feature strumming more and have more of a distinct song structure, recalling Waxahatchee’s early stylings. Although there are referents, Miller’s vocal melodies are put together in her own way (the interval jumps on the chorus of “little state,” the confident delivery of everything in “up high”); she is establishing herself as a songwriting voice here. The short set closes with “train song,” which splits the difference between the dense lyrics and fingerpicking of the opener and the concrete song structures of the center two pieces. Her voice is excellent here as well. Fans of women singer/songwriters, intimate sketches, and minimalism will find much to love in customs.
Sometimes there’s a singular moment that pulls together everything you need to know and delivers it on a crystal platter. That moment comes early on Worn Out Skinby Annabelle’s Curse. When Carly Booher picks up the second verse of opener “Lovedrunk Desperado,” her voice floats perfectly above the yearning banjo, the pressing drumbeat, and the thrumming bass. It’s a contrast of fragility and intensity. Her delivery is confident yet vulnerable, assured yet emotional and open to possibility. It seems like hyperbole to pack this much into a single performance, but the rest of the album backs up the shivers that track one gave me. As a result, Worn Out Skin is one of the best releases of the year in any genre.
Annabelle’s Curse is ostensibly some sort of alt-country band, but that’s only a starting place for reference points: Josh Ritter, Dawes, Lumineers, Civil Wars, you name it, they’ve got a toe in the sound. But they combine their influences so deftly that from song one they’ve got their own take on the genre. “Rich Valley” is a jubilant folk-pop song with a beautiful/powerful chorus; “Wolf in Sheep’s Clothes” is a soft, careful, ominous tune that calls up the masterful moods of The Barr Brothers before opening up into a shuffling country rumination of sorts. The enthusiastic “Brother In Arms” has serious indie-rock cred with a non-ironic saxophone leading the melody, while “Skinny Dipping” throws evocative synths and flutes under a flying banjo riff and a Needtobreathe vocal line. “Snake in the Rafters” is a vulnerable but sophisticated confessional that Josh Ritter or Paul Simon could have penned, paired with a nimble guitar line the equal of both those luminaries. I could go on, but you get the point: these songs are diverse.
But more than diverse, they’re deeply moving. “Snake in the Rafters,” as I noted, is the highlight on that front, as Tim Kilbourne opens up with a sober, spare look at what’s in the hearts of men: “hold me down/crush my sins/tell me I’m different from evil men/won’t you tell me I’m different from evil men.” I don’t know about you, but I felt those lyrics go pretty deep down. Elsewhere they reminisce about the innocence of youth (“Skinny Dipping”) and the goodness of finding a partner (“Cornerstone”) in ways that spin cliches on their head. “Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing” doesn’t spin the cliche: instead, the narrator inhabits and expands it to great effect. It’s rare for me to find a lyricist that just nails me to the wall on the first listen, but Kilbourne’s got a whale of a hammer in his pen.
So the songwriting is astonishing and the lyrics are brilliant, but what of the performances and recording? Worry not–they’re spot-on. The performances are each of the beautiful quality that I mentioned earlier, and the production job corrals all their disparate ideas and wide-ranging influences into warm, inviting wholes. From tip to tail, this album knocks it out of the park. I can’t recommend this highly enough. Worn Out Skin by Annabelle’s Curse is just a remarkable album that you really need to hear. I expect to be listening to it for years to come.
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.