I love punk, artsy electronica, even some post-hardcore now and then. But I’m always going to come back to the pristine simplicity of a solo voice over fingerpicked acoustic guitar. Cancellieri, hot on the heels of his excellent LP Welcome to Mount Pleasant, has given the world a whole album’s worth of gorgeous voice-and-guitar tracks. Winning my heart even more, eight of these fourteen tracks are covers. Closet Songs is wholly wonderful.
Ryan Cancellieri has a lot of things going for him on Closet Songs: he chooses covers excellently, he performs covers memorably, and writes songs of his own that stand up to the company of their peers. Let’s take these things in turn.
Closet Songs is put together like a good mixtape: some songs you absolutely don’t know, some you might know, a few you definitely know, at least one curveball to keep ‘em guessing. I hadn’t heard “I Love You But Goodbye” by Langhorne Slim or “Mama’s Eyes” by Justin Townes Earle, although I respect both of those guys as songwriters. The songs are great, and I thank Cancellieri for letting me know about them. You may have heard “Bella Donna” or “Famous Flower of Manhattan” if you’re more of a Avett Brothers fan than me. You’ve most likely heard “Green Eyes” by Coldplay and “Murder in the City” by the Avetts. Curveball? “Dreams Be Dreams” by Jack Johnson. (Whoa bro.) The best part about all of these is that they’re not just great songs, they’re great songs for Cancellieri.
One of the problems that people who choose covers run into is that they like songs that they can’t possibly perform, vocally or musically. That is not the case here, as Cancellieri adapts the songs to fit his range comfortably. These all sound very easy and fun for him; they’re pleasing to the ear and soul for that element. (Nothing worse to me than someone who sounds like they’re having no fun trying to cover something.) His version of “Mama’s Eyes” definitely retains elements of Earle’s delivery, but it feels real and true in Cancellieri’s voice. That’s the mark of a strong cover. He doesn’t try to copy the original; he tries to be faithful to it while making it his own. It’s a rare skill, and Cancellieri shows he has it.
Another problem of covers is that sometimes a cover is the best thing in a set. (Uh-oh.) This happens because, well, you’re covering an elite talent, and sometimes you aren’t that. However, Cancellieri is an elite talent, and his songs stack well against his covers. “Fortunate Peace” and “Zalo” had me checking to see who wrote them, because they’re just brilliant songs. Cancellieri carries his songwriting voice with the gravitas of someone who knows what they’re doing. This doesn’t mean that he’s brash and bold; these songs are humble, even sad in spots. But Cancellieri sounds fully in control of the guitar, his vocal range, and lyrics on these tunes, which is not something that can be said of many singer/songwriters. You want to test it? You can press play on the first track of the soundcloud and then go to a different tab. Try to guess which are his and which aren’t. You’ll be impressed.
Cancellieri’s Closet Songs is a beautiful, poised, mature offering. It plays like a good mixtape, and it sounds like a great album. This is one of my favorite singer/songwriter releases of the year so far. (With apologies to his own previous full-length!) You very much need to check out Closet Songs if you’re a fan of fingerpicking-heavy singer/songwriters like Justin Townes Earle and The Tallest Man on Earth. (Also Joe Pug, but not because of the fingerpicking.)
The line between indie-rock and Imagine Dragons-style pop-rock is not so far, sometimes–and if you’re a band that has previously flown their “U2 FAN” flag, maybe it’s not such a bad thing to be compared to pop hitmakers. Afterlife Parade is a indie-rock/pop-rock band that writes emotionally-charged anthems with huge choruses, whoa-oh sections, and verses that just sound like they belong there. AP’s sound is tight, polished, and fun on the three-song A Million Miles Away EP–what more could you want?
Opener “Break Away” does everything right to be a big hit: there’s a perky, bubbly opening riff, a yearning vocal line in the verse (a la Coldplay), a soaring vocal chorus hook, really strong crescendo layering throughout the song, and a culminating whoa-oh section. It’s pretty close to a perfect pop song, which is not a term I dole out liberally. “Break Away” should be in your life.
The other two tracks are similarly moving pop tunes. “Conquer It All” has a bit more of a confrontational vibe reminiscent of Needtobreathe and vocal melodies again reminiscent of Coldplay. The slow build of “A Million Miles Away” brings a more pensive, quiet side of the band to the forefront. They’re both really engaging tunes, but it’s hard to top the A+ that is “Break Away.”
Are you an unabashed fan of pop music? By all means, run/don’t walk to Afterlife Parade. If you’re a more undercover fan of the brasher charms, sidle your way on over. Just get there, because this is how it’s done, folks.
5. “Girls” – Slow Magic. Chillwave meets The Album Leaf meets Pogo. I APPROVE.
6. “Run Run Run” – Jenny Scheinman. Scheinman has a strong voice and a deft Americana songwriting touch. You won’t be able to ignore Scheinman much longer.
7. “Black Crow” – Juliette Jules. A voice mature beyond her years, songwriting beautiful beyond expectations, and production of excellent quality: Jules has everything working for her on this gorgeous, tender track.
8. “Wedding Day” – Anand Wilder and Maxwell Kardon. The lyrics grabbed me by the throat, and the folky/celebratory arrangement kept me involved. This is an impressive tune.
9. “Green Eyes” – Cancellieri. Originally by Coldplay, Cancellieri strips some of the pop sheen from this and gives it a romantic intimacy befitting the gorgeous lyrics.
10. “Is What It Is” – She Keeps Bees. This female-fronted singer/songwriter track is stately, composed, and elegant without becoming icy or distant. SKB creates great atmosphere here.
11. “Confederate Burial” – Snowblind Traveler. Snowblind Traveler matches up the icy arrangements of For Emma and the traditional melodies of old-school Americana to great effect.
12. “Blue Valentine” – Bloom. If you’re a fan of the sad but not hopeless sound that Pedro the Lion made, Bloom will scratch your itch for it with this beautiful track.
13. “Hold on to Your Breath” – Sleepy Tea. These Aussies live up to their name with a relaxing, refreshing vibe reminiscent of a slightly more energetic Parachutes-era Coldplay. Just a beautiful track.
SXSW is currently taking over the North American music world, but I’m not there this year. To deal with this sadness, I have largely ignored what’s going on out there in Austin. So here are a bunch of tracks by bands that may or may not be showcasing at SXSW.
1. “It Takes Over” – Dream Curtain. I like chillwave so much that I wrote an academic paper about it. Dream Curtain loves chillwave so much that the project keeps making hazy, woozy, reverb-heavy, summery slices of wonder.
2. “Strange Feeling” – Panama. The ’80s influence is strong with this one. Piano, synths, a move-your-feet beat? It’s all happening on this yacht, y’all.
3. “Mountain (Alternate Version)” – Driftwood Miracle. What was a churning, heavy emo track is transformed into a lounge-y, chilled-out track with wah guitar and silky keys. It’s suprisingly fun and only a bit cheesy.
4. “Conquer It All” – Afterlife Parade. U2 and Coldplay influences abound in this upbeat indie-rock track, but it’s far more enjoyable than Coldplay’s “Magic.”
5. “Clearhead Real” – Plateau Below. Starts out a chill, spare guitar-pop track, turns into a big ‘ol guitar-rock stomper. (Bonus: The album art is a striking representation of the sound.)
6. “Bad News” – Slinger Francisco. I listened to a lot of Tooth & Nail Records pop-rock in the early 2000s, and Slinger Francisco takes me back to those heady days of MAE and Watashi Wa. Pop-rock arrangements with an emo heart and pop-punk vocal melodies.
7. “Cruel to Be Kind” – The Worriers. Alternately sneering and jubilant, hyperkinetic Aussies The Worriers come off like a Southern Hemispheric answer to The Vaccines.
When I was in an art-rock band in high school, we managed to agree on only three cover songs in our four-year history: Coldplay’s “Parachutes,” Fall Out Boy’s “Dance Dance,” and “Hotel California.” (If you can figure out what those have in common, let me know.) My latest endeavor with the cover song was much more coherent, as I got 22 bands to contribute to a Postal Service covers album. I’m still incredibly thrilled with the final product, although I certainly do not want to run a similar project any time soon.
Folk-pop duo Jenny & Tyler, who were featured on Never Give Up, have put together their own covers album in For Freedom. As the title would suggest, the 7-song album is a project that benefits International Justice Mission‘s work to end slavery. Not only do you get their excellent arrangement skills, songs you love, and guest musicians (Sara Groves! JJ Heller! A virtual choir of hundreds of J&T fans!), you get to support justice in the world. What are you waiting for?
“We Will Become Silhouettes” is included here in remastered form, sounding even more gorgeous than before. It would easily be my favorite (and not just for sentimental value; the crescendo from beginning to end is heart-pounding) except for the absolutely stunning “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” Jenny & Tyler temper Bono’s original desperation with their warm, gentle arrangement skills, using oboe, clarinet, and cello to create an alternate vision of what that place we’re all looking for sounds like. If that wasn’t enough, they enlist the excellent Sara Groves and a choir of fans to guest vocal, creating a simply masterful take on the song. I could listen to this one all day.
They turn Smashing Pumpkins’ “Tonight, Tonight” from an angsty rager into a twee-pop tune, complete with glockenspiel. “The Sound of Silence” is suitably haunting, with their voices and clarinet (aside: I just love that they give the clarinet good press) giving a new tension to Simon & Garfunkel’s original. “The Scientist” includes a harpsichord/autoharp sound, but no piano; it’s an ambitious move that pays off.
Overall, Jenny & Tyler have set their unique and particular vision on these tracks, and that’s all that I ask from covers. The fact that the tunes are alternately heartbreaking and heart-pounding is a testament to the skill with which they can realize that vision. Highly recommended.
Nathan Felix is a bit of a staple at Independent Clauses: his band The Noise Revival (sometimes The Noise Revival Orchestra) made its first appearance at IC in early 2006 and has been in its pages ever since. Most recently, TNRO contributed a fully orchestrated version of “Brand New Colony” to Never Give Up. It’s his love of orchestras that propels this latest news clip: Felix, not content with having a rock band that is also kind of an orchestra, is composing directly for orchestras now. Along these lines, he was recently invited to the Levon Manukyan Collegium Musicum Summer Program for Emerging Composers in Bourgas, Bulgaria to record a new orchestral piece.
But he needs your help to get there! You can contribute via this page. He’s currently got about $3K more to go. Here’s a local news reel documenting Felix’s new-found love of composing:
They’re using IndieGoGo for the campaign, which closes at the end of the month. So far they’ve received $21,100 of their $60,000 goal. I jumped in the first day the project was open, because I believe in this project and really want this to happen. Check it out.
“Come Thou Fount”:
“Till Kingdom Come” (originally by Coldplay):
And more of that could be in the world. Let’s help make that happen.
Precise yet fluid, the clean electric guitar work of Coldplay’s debut album Parachutes was a hallmark, even though its smash “Yellow” was not a good depiction of the characteristic. The band abandoned the sound for piano-rock on its follow-up and hasn’t looked back, leaving a hole that Australians Sleepy Tea are finally starting to fill. It’s tough for me to hear opener “Make Believe” or closer “Ghosts” without thinking of how well they would fit on Parachutes. Thankfully, that’s a massive compliment from this corner, as I mean that Sleepy Tea’s debut The Place Where We Lay contains beautiful, lithe vocals that intertwine with immaculate arrangements which belie how much work it takes to make a perfect-sounding song.
“Make Believe” establishes the mood of the five-song EP right off the bat, with an easygoing confidence in the gently swaying arrangement of tasteful drums, burbling atmospherics, and spot-on vocal performance that calls to mind a theoretical male-fronted version of Braids. It’s a rare tune that catches my attention like this one. The rest of the EP lives up to the billing, whether the tense juxtaposition of energetic trip-hop drumming and pensive piano in “At World’s End” or the towering crescendo throughout the entirety of “Safer.” This is a band with a tightly constructed idea of what it wants to sound like, and that’s rarely a bad thing. Sleepy Tea has chops and taste, so I look forward to much more from them.
I’ve written before about running out of band names, but if I hadn’t, Here Is Your Temple would be a good reason to question whether or not all the good band names have already been taken. Besides the name, though, HIYT are worthy of discussion for the quality of their music: The Swedish quintet plays music that sounds like all of Spiritualized’s discography jammed together onto one EP. Opener and title track “So High” is a propulsive piece marked by a marching rhythm, fuzzed-out bass, a choir, and synths. It’s like something that might appear on Ladies and Gentlemen, We Are Floating In Space. “Big Way” is built on a dominating guitar riff and synthesized vocals, which also sounds like Ladies and Gentlemen. “Once Rich” is a quieter tune, pairing the omnipresent synths with downtempo acoustic guitar (as in J. Spaceman’s Amazing Grace era), while “Say Hey” adds an optimistic edge to the acoustic sound. It’s a very varied EP.
The one thing that holds the sound together is HIYT’s commitment to melody; all of these songs hinge on either a vocal or guitar melody that is punched way up in the mix. Whether creating Fleetwood Mac-esque mystery (“Say Hey”) or rock’n’roll (of a sort), the band zeros in on melody. And that’s what keeps this wildly varied EP from being disjointed: their melodic center remains true, showing off a band with many facets. If you’re into synth-rock or synth-pop without cheesiness, So High should be in your ears.
I love doing long reviews, but SXSW has thrown me off my game. To catch up, here’s a rare quartet of quick hits.
Dana Falconberry‘s four-song Though I Didn’t Call It Came is a beautiful, immersing release. The thirteen minutes pass rapidly, as Falconberry’s uniquely interesting voice plays over intricate yet intimate acoustic arrangements. Highlights include the complex and beautiful songwriting structure of “Petoskey Stone,” the Michigan-era Sufjan Stevens fragility of “Muskegon,” and the casual wonder of whistling-led closer “Maple Leaf Red (Acoustic).” It’s a rare songwriter that has tight control over both individual songwriting elements and overall feel, marking Falconberry as one to enjoy now and watch in the future.
England in 1819‘s Alma will quickly remind listeners of British piano-rock bands: Rush of Blood to the Head-era Coldplay is checked on “Air That We Once Breathed,” Muse gets its nod in the title track, and the melodic focus of Keane is familiar throughout. But 2/3rds of the band is conservatory-trained, and those influences show. “Littil Battur” is a chiming, gently swelling post-rock piece with reminiscent of The Album Leaf; “Emily Jane” is another beautiful, wordless, free-flowing piece. There’s enjoyment in their emotive piano-pop, but there’s magic in their instrumental aspirations. That tension shows promise past this sophomore release.
The bouncy garage-pop of Eux Autres‘ Sun is Sunk EP has been honed for almost a decade to a tight mix of modern sensibilities and historic glee. “Right Again” and “Home Tonight” call up ’60s girl-pop groups but don’t overdo it; “Ring Out” features male lead vocals in a perky, jumpy, infectious tune that includes bells and tambourine. The 1:23 of “Call It Off” is thoroughly modern songwriting, though—the band is no one trick pony. There’s just no resisting the charms of Sun is Sunk, and since its six songs only ask for 15 minutes of your time, why would you?
After seeing part of a breathtaking set by Sharon Van Etten at SXSW 2011, I jumped at the chance to give some press for her new album Tramp. Turns out all the big hitters (NPR, Pitchfork, Paste) are already on it. The tunes powered by Van Etten’s emotive croon are in full form, developed from her sparse beginnings into complete arrangements. At 46 minutes, this mature version of Van Etten is a complete vision; still, the haunting, delicate closer “Joke or a Lie” is what sticks with me.
When I was told that M.I.A. was playing the Super Bowl, I responded with “She’s going to say ‘F*** America’ on national T.V.” And while she didn’t say it, she did flip America the bird. Who thought inviting an unrepentant firebrand to the show was a good idea?
Now we’re going to be subject to an incredibly sterilized Super Bowl halftime show next year so that NOTHING BAD HAPPENS. After the wardrobe malfunction, we were treated to Paul McCartney playing “Hey Jude,” which is about the least offensive thing rock’n’roll has to offer. Here’s IC’s picks for who The Powers That Be will front during next year’s un-stravaganza.
5. Beyonce. This is five because although everyone loves Beyonce, she has that whole sexy thing going on. There will be NONE OF THAT next year, if the McCartney redux theory is to be believed. Also, they should be saving her for a humongous 2014: The Super Bowl will be in New York City for the first time ever, meaning that we need to get a Jay-Z/Alicia Keys “Empire State of Mind” performance. Jova splitting time with Beyonce would just be a blast. More on this supreme show in a minute.
4. Taylor Swift. The only way T-Swift gets controversial is if she rips another ex on live TV. Given her romantic life, this is a probable situation. This may not be the best idea, after all.
3. Bon Jovi. If we’re gonna go retro-rockin’, Bon Jovi’s the safest pick in the world. Perennially populist, working-class heroes with megahits enjoyed in their original release by people who are currently shelling out thousands for Super Bowl tix. However, they could be saving him for the New York/New Jersey Super Bowl, creating Bon Hova as a tribute to both sides of the Lincoln Tunnel. Bon. Hova. Let’s make this happen.
2. Coldplay. Older rock fans can dig it, emotive teenagers will dig it, even hipsters who were coming of age around “The Scientist” and “In My Place” would secretly dig it. Throw in a Rihanna guest spot (“Princess of China,” y’all!) and you’ve got a winner. I mean, have you ever SEEN Coldplay live? They throw down on the visual spectacle. Think of all those yellow balloons.
1. Adele (Adele). There is no more safe pick than Adele. She’s non-controversial in every way possible. If you’re looking for a Paul McCartney-esque “Sit there and play songs” pick, this girl is go-to. You can even get a choir going in the background, and Cee Lo Green Andre 3000 can lead it with a lightsaber as a baton, because one ATL figurehead in Star Wars-esque apparel is not enough.
Once in a blue moon I will come across a opening track so arresting that I start telling people about the album before I’ve even heard the whole first song. The Collection, the nom de plume of songwriter David Wimbish, has put out just such a song in “Dirt”: before the song ended, I was Facebooking my Jon Foreman-loving friend to say I’d found him a new favorite band. This ultimately turned out to be untrue: Foreman doesn’t ever end up yelling at the top of his lungs over his acoustic-led tunes, as Wimbish does in the electrifying “Lazarus” and powerful “Leper.” But it’s “Dirt” that glued me to this album.
“Dirt” is a perfect opener not because it’s flawless, but because it encapsulates everything I want to say about the Collection’s self-titled EP in a single unit. The first sound in the song is a poignant banjo melody, and the second is Wimbish’s gentle tenor vocals. The banjo underscores the fact that this is alt-folk of the Sufjan/Freelance Whales variety, but the sobriety of the melody evokes the gravitas of Damien Rice. The horns, strings and everything else that compose the EP’s extravagant arrangements show up later in the tune.
Wimbish’s pleasant, evocative vocals are a bit of a red herring, as he can use his voice in a number of different ways: quiet singing, falsetto, loud singing, full-bodied roaring, all-out screaming. This diversity of vocals is necessary due to the variety of emotions that Wimbish displays throughout the incredible 7-song EP: calm confidence, fear, desperation, enthusiasm, hope. Most of Wimbish’s songs form a lyrical arc, starting in one emotion and ending in another; this lets the music and lyrics unfold in a symbiotic relationship that creates incredibly satisfying tunes and enables the huge sweeps in emotion to be natural instead of forced.
But Wimbish isn’t just a brilliant lyricist: he also played literally every instrument (except a couple guest spots in “Jericho”) on this album, marking him an instrumental virtuoso that can play piano, horns, accordion, strings, flute, drums, auxiliary percussion and all manner of stringed strummers and pluckers. That’s absolutely incredible.
His melody and songwriting skills are top-shelf as well. “Stones” is a chipper tune that puts horns and glockenspiel to charming use, while the unusual strings of “Fever” create a brilliant foundation for a melody. “Jericho” lets a beautiful piano elegy lead the tune, while the aforementioned “Lazarus” has more adrenaline in its folky soul than I do most days. The raw emotional power of “Leper” is absolutely stunning. (Wimbish has ripped a page from the Page France book in naming all his tunes single words.)
As I alluded to earlier, it’s not perfect. It’s easily the most exciting display of raw songwriting talent that I’ve heard this year, but it still needs refining. Wimbish is prone to big, slab-like string-and-horn arrangements; think of the over-arching orchestra on Coldplay’s track “Viva La Vida” and you’ll get why “Dirt” isn’t my song of the year. He also has a tendency to over-arrange; “Dirt” could have stood with far less instruments, because the melody and lyrics are so incredibly powerful. Wimbish has a problem that I have rarely, if ever, encountered in ten years of reviewing: his lyrics and melodies are so good that they actually ask for less things happening than more. A stripped-down version of this EP would be just as good, if not better, than this full-out version. And you’ve just read how I’ve been gushing about the full-out version.
This is the most exciting album I’ve heard all year, and it’s almost December. If Wimbish keeps on this tack, his future music is going to be absolutely incredible. I’ve been listening to this for a month to make sure I’m not just blowing smoke, and I’m not. The Collection EP is a must-listen for everyone interested in folk, pop, singer/songwriter, and just good music. Sign me up on the “huge fan” list for The Collection.
Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.