1. “War and Opera” – Montoya. The careful, restrained arranging that Montoya deploys in this melodic indie-pop tune gives it a maturity and dignity that separate it from other tunes. The delicate guitar and alto vocals still create thoroughly enough interest to power this intriguing song.
2. “ALIEN” – Laura and Greg. The duo has transformed from a pristine acoustic duo into a punchy, noisy indie-pop-rock outfit. It’s not exactly Sleigh Bells, but they’re heading in that direction–but Laura’s charming vocals and fun keys keep the song on this side of full-on-indie-rock assault.
3. “Call Me Out” – Jesse Alexander. A former member of Cobalt and the Hired Guns keeps the ska / indie-pop fusion tunes coming: this one has horns and organ to keep the good vibes flowing.
4. “Fire Up the Bilateral Brain and Draw” – Word to Flesh. Here’s a quirky tune that employs the keys-focused sound structures of formal pop, but has no real formal structure: the only phrase in the two minute tune is the titular mantra, surrounded by guitar noodling. It’s remarkably engaging, and then it’s over–sort of like a less manic They Might Be Giants.
5. “Rainer” – Lull. A hammering rock intro flips on its head and unveils a delicate, early ’00s emo sound. They get back to the rock, but they take their sweet time getting there and make it worth your while when they do.
6. “A Moment to Return” – Why We Run. Moody bass/drums meets The National vocals with some U2 ambient/anthemic guitars on top. The results are a surprisingly uplifting post-punk tune–post-punk generally doesn’t make me want to dance or smile, and there’s some of both to be had here.
7. “When We’re Clouds” – Slow Runner. So indie-rock used to be shorthand for “rock songs that are definitely rock but kinda don’t play by the same rules.” Slow Runner’s tune is a song of (government?) scientific experimentation on human subjects (I think?). The music itself is slightly off-kilter rock, like a louder Grandaddy, a chillaxed Flaming Lips, or something altogether different. Here’s to Slow Runner.
8. “Dance Baby” – Luxley. That rare electro-rock song which doesn’t hammer listeners over the head with massive synth blasts–instead, there’s a bit of Cobra Starship restraint in the vocal-heavy arrangement. There is a bit of punk-pop attitude in the vocals (Good Charlotte came to mind), giving this a bit of a unique flair.
9. “Maria, Mine” – Don Tigra. Former folkie Stephen Gordon has slickly and impressively reinvented himself as an indie-rocker with post-punk vibes, coming off as a cross between Interpol, Cold War Kids, and Leagues. (Full disclosure: I’ve given some professional advice to Gordon over the years.)
10. “Psychopaths and Sycophants” – Keith Morris & the Crooked Numbers. Bluesy, swampy roots rock with whiskey-sodden, raspy vocals and all sorts of swagger. The great backup vocal arrangement and performances put the song over the top.
11. “Polaris” – Shiners. Minimalist electro-pop usually doesn’t have enough structure and melody to keep me interested, but Shiners do a great job of creating a cohesive, immersive whole out of small parts. [Editor’s note: This song is no longer available.]
What would you do if your first introduction to a band was, “I’M ABOUT TO GET HIT WITH A PIE IN THE FACE! COME SEE OUR SHOW! IT HAPPENS RIGHT NOW!”? If you’re various passersby on Sixth Street yesterday, you watch Cobalt and The Hired Guns pie themselves in the face, then walk into Bourbon Girl to watch their show. This pleased me greatly, as I had slotted Cobalt as my top must-see band for SXSW. Their pop-punk-rock tunes were some of my favorite in 2012, and their live renditions were everything I hoped they’d be. The Chicago quartet barreled through a half-hour of songs just crammed to the gills with clever lyrics and singalong melodies. It was hard for me to not be thrilled while watching Cobalt, as their tunes were just too perky and fun to be dour-faced. If you take the storytelling sensibility of The Hold Steady, filter it through the exuberance of a pop-punk band, and add a liberal amount of cello and glockenspiel, you’ve got Cobalt. If you’re not intrigued by this, I don’t know if this blog can help you. Seriously. Cobalt and the Hired Guns’ set was one of the most fun I’ve seen at SXSW so far.
After shooting the breeze with Tomlinson of Cobalt, I stepped next door to the Canada House at Friends Bar. Canada House is one of my favorite stops at SXSW, as they always have stellar lineups; Friends is impressed upon my soul forever, since I covered two years of The Buffalo Lounge there. Putting the two together was just a joy to my soul. That joy was compounded when Royal Canoe stepped up to the stage with their army of keyboards and guitars. By my best count, the Manitoba band had six keyboards, five guitars, and a nigh on uncountable amount of pedals at their disposal. The fact that the set started almost exactly on time was pretty much a miracle in my mind.
They used their vast store of musical instruments to create incredibly intricate indie-pop tunes that sounded like a progression from The Flaming Lips’ The Soft Bulletin: great pop hooks were filtered through unusual rhythms, quirky sounds, pitch-shifted vocals, and an unpredictable songwriting sense. In many bands, it’s easy to tell where the genesis of a song came from: with Royal Canoe’s tunes, it was impossible to discern the main riff or melody. Instead, the whole song had to be taken at face value, with each new part being enjoyed for its own discrete joys. This sounds like it would be a very disjointed listening experience, but it was actually an astonishingly coherent one; even though I couldn’t tell what was holding the tunes together, the sextet knew exactly what was going on when. The sound was confident, assured, and intoxicating. Royal Canoe’s set was unlike any I’ve seen so far at SXSW, and that’s impressive. Definitely one of my best finds of the fest so far.
During Cobalt’s set, I realized that I had lost my SD card on my camera, so there are no pictures for any further bands. That’s sad, because I really wanted to get a picture of the tattoo that the lead singer of Imaginary Cities had. Being the Manitoba Music showcase and all, it isn’t completely surprising that a tattoo of Manitoba was chilling on his arm. But it was still impressive and endearing, especially since Manitoba and my home state of Oklahoma have a lot in common (both are far from mountains and water, both are largely plains, both have a Tornado Alley, both have vast swaths of rural areas, both have a city named Winnipeg – just kidding). Also impressive was Imaginary Cities’ music, the sort that blends guitar-pop, folk and singer/songwriter seamlessly. Male and female vocalists split time, creating a diverse, beautiful range of sounds. The sound was eminently listenable: I sat back and relaxed on a chair and just took it in for the first time at SXSW. After running around like a chicken with my head cut off, hearing an audio invitation to relax and let things happen was wonderful. I look forward to hearing their new album, which comes out in May.
7. The Mountain Goats – Transcendental Youth. Turning its back on the morose portraits that characterized All Eternals Deck, TY was a verifiable romp through the psyches of doomed characters fighting that good fight to stay alive. The addition of horns and enthusiasm worked wonders for Darnielle’s mojo.
6. Challenger – The World is Too Much For Me. Beautiful synth-pop that was equal parts trembling and exultation. Dancy moods and undeniable melodies met a sense of late-night, modern-society dread in a masterful combination. Quite an astonishing debut.
5. The Menzingers – On the Impossible Past. This tightly constructed album is one of the heaviest lyrical statements I’ve ever heard in a punk album, taking on the past and Americanism in a profound way. Their prowess of gruff pop-punk continues, leaving an album that won’t let go of your throat in its wake.
4. Cobalt and the Hired Guns – Everybody Wins. It doesn’t get more enthusiastic than Cobalt. This pop-punk/indie-pop mashup resulted in some of the best “shout-it-out” tunes of the year, while showing that you can indeed still make gold with just three chords, enthusiasm, and a solid lyric. Oh, and horns. Lots of horns.
3. Jenny and Tyler – Open Your Doors. The only artist to appear on 2011’s list and this list, Jenny and Tyler followed up their turbulent, commanding Faint Not with a gentle release looking expectantly toward peace. Its highest moments were revelatory.
2. Come On Pilgrim! – Come On Pilgrim!. Josh Caress and co. lovingly made an expansive, powerful collection of tunes that spanned the wide breadth of modern folk. Leaning heavily on rumbling, low-end arrangements, this was everything that I expected it to be from the first moment longtime solo artist Caress announced he was putting together a band.
1. Jonas Friddle & The Majority – Synco Pony and Belle De Louisville. You should never release a double album as your debut, unless you’ve really got the goods to back it up with. Friddle’s folk explosion is worth every second, as he deftly explores just about every nook and cranny of modern folk, from revivalist antique appropriation to protest songs to modern love songs. The immaculate arrangements would sell it, if his lithe voice hadn’t already given it away. Amazing stuff.
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.
I don’t usually promote bands before I post about them, but my enthusiasm for some bands can’t wait the several weeks it takes for things to appear in the queue. Avalanche City was one notable exception to this, and Cobalt and the Hired Guns is another. Everyone Wins is just what it sounds like: a rollicking, optimistic blast of rock music by a band that has it all clicking perfectly.
It’s somewhat intriguing that this a X and the Ys band name, because I hear two distinct lead singers in the band. Opener “Like You Like Me Like Me” has a direct, snarky voice that wouldn’t be out of place in sneering ’00s indie rock. Follow-up “Leaving” features a vocalist with a more melodic, sing-song style that invokes comparisons to Ben Gibbard in tone and melodic line structure. Both singers contribute memorable turns in the album, with neither really taking the front seat in my mind and becoming the titular Cobalt.
It’s all to the better of the album, however. Both vocalists are adept at matching their voice to the instruments, leading the song without dominating it. The horn section and the traditional band set-up (guitar/bass/drums) are equal players in creating the sound of this album, and that’s why two vocalists works out. This fluid approach to the sound allows The Hired Guns to whip through early ’00s pop-punk (“Leaving”), hand-clapping country-punk (“You Left Your Sweater…”), the wide-eyed indie-pop of “Of Summer,” and ooh-la-la-la surf-punk (“Ghost of the Road”) with ease, without turning the album into a herky-jerky trainwreck. Instead of a weakness, the album’s diversity is its greatest strength: there’s not a boring second on the first listen – or the second, or the third.
“Tailgunner of the Flying Fortress” is a historical character study crammed into a country-punk tune, “Lazarus” is a saloon-piano theatrical ballad, and “Last August” is a scream-it-out jam. It would be the jam of this album, if “The Argument” didn’t take that honor. As it stands, it’s the best piece of storytelling the band throws down, narrowly edging the more linear but less visceral “You Left Your Sweater…” in sheer memorable factor: “It’s not batting your lashes/you swing for the fences/You were hitting 1.000/it was almost offensive/in Boston.” (Also, it’s got some sweet “whoa-ohs” to shout out.) But, “The Argument”! The blatant kiss-off track, it’s also the only one where they yell “one-two-three-four” and bring in what sounds like an accordion. They also have a really fun double-time section, which I absolutely adore.
Cobalt and the Hired Guns mash the best parts of rock’n’roll, pop-punk, indie-pop and pop into one gigantic exclamation point of an album. Everyone Wins has half a dozen amazing tracks and and a handful more great ones in a 13-song album, and all but one or two are specifically created to make you smile. How could you avoid this album? I couldn’t. Get on it, blast it out your car windows, and enjoy those fading days of summer meshing into fall.
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.