1. “Never Learn” – Young Romance. No matter what arrangement you set around a great pop melody, the song will succeed: Young Romance support a can’t-get-it-out-of-my-head vocal line with Sleigh Bells-esque guitars mixed with a pop-rock band’s sense of movement and punk’s sense of closure (it’s barely over two minutes). It’s a winner.
2. “The Right Way” – Cassorla. A mash-up of minimalist electro-pop and bright-eyed, enthusiastic guitar-pop results in an unavoidable, must-listen tune that bears more than a passing significance to the Steve Miller Band (I know, weird, but this is a totally a compliment).
3. “Drawing Space” – Grounders. Unassuming, flowing-yet-punchy guitar pop with a sufficient amount of reverb to call up late ’60s or late ’00s–take your pick.
4. “Feel Alright” – Lime Cordiale. At some point in the process, someone said, “You know what this needs? Some fat horns.” And so it was, and thus an excellent pop song was born.
5. “By the Highway” – The Gorgeous Chans. Can we get this band on tour with Lord Huron, stat? Their tropical/folk/indie mash-up is a perfect blend of aspiration and relaxation. They have an excellent horn line going on, as well. A band to watch.
6. “High and Low” – Bird Dog. Enthusiastic ’50s-inspired pop-rock with old-school back-up vocalists: is there anything more summery?
7. “I’m Not the One” – The Susan Constant. The cheery, poppy element of ’90s college rock is alive and well in this tune that’s lyrically reminiscent of Death Cab’s “Someday You Will Be Loved”: big drums, big hooks, big fun.
8. “Car Alarms” – Coma Girls. Here’s a skewed/re-appropriated ’50s-style ballad with Conor Oberstian vocal theatrics; somehow, the fusion seems meant to be.
9. “Lonely and Blue” – Black Vincent. If genres were placed on a map, Black Vincent would be hanging out on the interstate highway between country and ’50s rock while trying to find the exit to go visit The Walkmen. Dejected clanging of guitars and drums meet yowling vocals to turn out an impassioned performance.
10. “Black Snake” – The Down Home Band. Radio-ready Southern Rock with distinct classic rock vibes. Also, mad props to the mixer, who cranked that bass in the mix. This thing rocks in a long hair, flannel, old-school way.
1. “The Last Generation of Love” – The Holy Gasp. Hugely theatrical vocals, driving conga drums, stabbing horns, and an overall feel of wild desperation permeate this wild track. It feels like a lost ’60s bossa nova played at triple the speed with an apocalyptic poet dropping remix bars over it. In short, this one’s different.
2. “Hot Coffee” – Greg Chiapello. Somewhere between Brill Building formal pop songcraft and Beatles-esque arrangement affectations sits this perky, smile-inducing, timeless tune.
3. “Wake Up and Fight” – Gaston Light. If you’re looking for a widescreen folk creed, this tune builds from a single bass note to a fist-raised anthem. Gaston Light attempts to channel Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Conor Oberst, and more.
4. “Evil Dreams” – Elstow. ’50s girl-pop mixed with some 9 p.m. vibes and reverb = solid track.
6. “All This Wandering Around” – Ivan and Alyosha. Ivan and Alyosha are back with a chipper indie-rock song that will get you tapping your toes.
7. “Less Traveled” – Johanna Warren. A lilting soprano supported by low flutes and burbling fingerpicking developed into technical guitarwork that lifted my eyebrows. There’s a lot of talent going on here. I love what Team Love is up to this year.
8. “Folding” – Martin Callingham. Callingham has crafted the sort of tune that’s almost inarguable: it floats lightly on your consciousness, gently working its way through to the end of the tune. If Joshua Radin had gotten a few more instruments involved without going rock…
9. “Wild at Heart” – Trans Van Santos. Does Calexico have a patent of the sound of the high desert? Mark Matos hopes not, as the baritone-voiced songwriter of Trans Van Santos has a way with the guitar delays and reverbs of that venerable sound. Perfect for your jaunts to or from Flagstaff.
10. “Don’t You Honey Me” – Timothy Jaromir. Here’s a bluesy country duet with excellent come-hither female vocals, muted horns, and romance on the mind.
Some bands fit easily into categories, and some bands are Wall-Eyed. Kentucky Gentleman is a seven-song, half-hour blast of sound that combines garage rock, folk-punk, a nortena-style horn line, and cabaret pop (that piano intro to “Cold Black Ink”) into one brooding, foreboding experience.
It’s got punk energy, nasally vocals, and a textured approach to songwriting that goes completely against any stereotypes you might figure for the first two elements. Maybe it’s like a less-glam, more-folk version of My Chemical Romance, but I’m stretching here. Wall-Eyed’s well-developed sound is just tough to explain, which sucks if your job is putting that sound in words. It’s great, however, if you’re a listener interested in unique and interesting sounds.
Opener “Wise County” and follow-up “Cold Black Ink” set the darkly manic stage with performances fit for an alternate-universe version of Conor Oberst’s unhinged side. “Exile” flips the script and drops a perky alt-country tune that wouldn’t be out of place next to “Another Traveling Song” on I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning. It even includes whistling! “I Want to Wreck Your Car” later returns to the major key in a ’50s-inspired pop song, but mostly Wall-Eyed wants to purvey tunes of grit and dusk here. And when you’re good at it, more power to you.
“Holy War” amps up the volume of the horn line and uses it as a blaring, stabbing hip-hop-style marching outfit. The whole song is built off the fat, staccato rhythms, giving the tune an inescapable swagger. It’s only 2:12, but you know it’s there for all 132 seconds. “Red Marks” follows it up, and it sounds like a murder ballad (!). The band ties it all together with closer “The Long Folk Revival”: five and a half minutes of booming arrangements, hectic vocals, and ominous vibes. It’s impressive.
Kentucky Gentleman is a release that is far more consistent than my ability to write about it would purport. These songs all hang together in a tight cohort: this is very much an album. Wall-Eyed has a unique sound that they’ve developed to a fine point here, and that pays off for them and the listener. If you’re into adventurous, seedy versions of Americana, you’ll be thrilled to hear Wall-Eyed.
The Never Give Up Kickstarter officially ended yesterday, as I mailed out the last of the rewards and got covered on Cover Lay Down (which was a huge thrill). It was an incredible project that I’m extremely proud to have completed. We did the whole thing right at budget, too, which is exciting. The Lion of Tallasi contributed a really fantastic version of “Recycled Air” that put a whole new spin on the tune, and it ended up being one of my favorite renditions in the whole project. So it’s with great excitement that I tell you about the Lion’s debut album, God, Love, and Death. (And yes, the band did include the Oxford Comma. Take that, Vampire Weekend.)
The album is built off heavy folk strum and Matt Howard’s Conor Oberst-esque roar. A full band accompanies, but they are firmly supporters of Howard, who stands front and center throughout the record. The most prominent member of the band is Kristen Durrett, who provides vocal counterpoint in many of the tracks; the rest of the band makes sure that things keep pushing forward without drawing too much attention to themselves.
That forces all listeners to contend with Howard’s voice and lyrics as the make-or-break points of the band. Howard has the Oberstian roar, as I noted; but he goes farther back in the folk history to draw heavily off Dylan’s lyrics. “A Million Dark Roads” calls up the poetic stylistics of “The Times, They Are A’Changing” and “A Hard Rain’s A’Gonna Fall,” while the downtrodden, stark “Down to the River” reminds of some of Dylan’s more impressionistic work. Highlight track “Don’t Put Me in the Grave” is the catchiest tune of the lot, sounding like a lost track from the chipper sessions of I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning in melody and arrangement. An organ peals, a tambourine shakes, and a mandolin chirps out the instantly memorable melody. It’s an excellent song, and it’s placed right after the intro track as a sign of things to come. It’s not all protest anthem shout-alongs, as there are some love songs sprinkled through, too.
If you’re not down with Dylan or Oberst, then God, Love, and Death is maybe not for you. If you like either of those artists, even just a little, you definitely should listen to The Lion of Tallasi: you will find much to love.
The saxophone is an oft-maligned instrument in indie rock that recently received some out-of-nowhere street cred by being the thing that Colin Stetson chose to blow minds with and the centerpiece of the masterful “Midnight City” by M83. But “Midnight City” only re-appropriates a past meaning of the saxophone: it’s hard to imagine that Anthony Gonzalez honestly believes in the smaltzy sound of the saxophone as much as he believes in turning that goofy sound into something revelatory through contrast with its surroundings. (Maybe he’s earnestly all up in it, I don’t know.) But using the saxophone for effect is vastly different than conceiving it as a whole part of your sound, which is what makes Dear Blanca‘s repeated use of the saxophone the most surprising and intriguing part of a very surprising and intriguing album.
First off, the genre of Talker can be described as Conor Oberst-esque alt-country hysterics, making this album an unusual place to deploy saxophones. Secondly, the level of saxophone integration into “Griping,” “No Protector,” and “King of Salters” strongly implies that the instrument was not a late addition, but an actual consideration in the songwriting process. It’s not just surprising that saxophone appears; it’s even more surprising that it’s awesome.
“Griping” is the best example of Dear Blanca’s work on the album. The tune opens up with a 20-second alt-country solo guitar riff before dropping into a groove with tight drums, distant saloon piano, and steady bass. It’s effectively a pensive Old ’97s song until 0:33, when saxophones come swooping in with a completely unexpected layer of atmosphere. They transform the song into something different: perched on the edges of what I know and expect, but putting a foot outside it as well. Dylan Dickerson’s passionate, ragged voice comes in and spins the mood in another direction again, creating an altogether unique listening experience for me. The breakdown in the middle of the song feels like a car speeding up inexorably towards a cliff, with the choppy drumming and staccato blasts of saxophones pressing Dickerson’s anguished wailing ever forward. Then the band stops abruptly and leans back to the pensive mood (except for the vocals). It’s one of the most engaging songs I’ve heard all year.
The rest of the album keeps up the unexpected directions. “Comrade” brings in a cello to contrast against Dickerson’s roaring voice, which works beautifully. “No Protector” might be the best pop song of the bunch, relying on great bass contributions, a strong saxophone bit, and a compelling vocal melody from Dickerson. It might also be “Havana Tonight,” which has a more folky arrangement (harmonica!) but amps up the vocal melody to “I’m singing along? When I did start singing along?” levels. “Hunny (Don’t Mind If I Tao)” closes out the album with a wiry, buzzy post-punk tune, which is a little out of character but enjoyable after a whole album of emotionally and sonically involving alt-country.
Dear Blanca’s Talker features clever arrangements of intriguing sounds and memorable melodies. If you’re a fan of bands that lay it all out on the line in vocal and instrumental performance, you should be all up in this. If you’re into restraint, well, you may look elsewhere. Oh, and if you love saxophone, this is your jam. I expect to be listening to Talker for a long time, and I look forward to what Dear Blanca will put out in the future.
Bright Eyes is not a punk band and never will be. However, if Conor Oberst had made his name playing punk, he may have sounded like either Run, Forever or The Wild. The two bands got together on a split 7″, and it’s a two-punch knockout.
The Wild’s contribution is a harmonica-laced, rattling punk tune complete with Oberst-esque raging vocals. You know, when he gets really amped up, like on that killer moment in “Old Soul Song (for the New World Order)” — you know the one. “Street Names” is that kind of moment, the whole way through.
Run, Forever’s “Silver Screens” sounds like what would have happened if “Another Traveling Song” were way louder and faster. Instead of the desperate Oberst vocals, these are the sung/spoke, didactic version. The vocal rhythms and songwriting moves are very similar to both Bright Eyes and Titus Andronicus, so that’s good for everyone involved.
Both these songs are incredibly entertaining. If you’re interested in vaguely country-esque punk, this one is worth your time. And you’ll be able to decide how much it means to you, as If You Make It is hosting the release as a pay-what-you-want download. Awesome!
*Postscript 8/15/2012: As was pointed out in the comments, I forgot that Conor Oberst was/is in rock/punk band Desaparecidos. And it does sound kind of like these two bands!
Clock Hands Strangle suffered from a peculiar syndrome when I was reviewing this album. I enjoyed this album so much that I put it in my car and started listening to it like I would if it were an album that I purchased from a record store. But when I do that, I don’t think about things like “when I need to have it reviewed by” and things of that nature. Hey, we’re definitely not pros here at IC. Only here will producing a fantastic album actually delay your review. Sorry.
But Disticatti is an incredible album that deserves the words I’m about to lavish on it. It’s a folk/punk album, and the punctuation is chosen particularly. It’s not folk-punk, where the folk has a whole lot of punk strumming and attitude (O Death comes to mind) or folk punk, which is a punk band playing folk instruments (The Violent Femmes, for example). This is a band that plays folk and punk in equal measure. Continue readingThere's Folk and Punk in Clock Hands' Stranglehold…
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.