John John Brown‘s The Roadis brilliant, drawing heavily from traditional Appalachian sounds and modern folk revivalists to create 10 songs of back-porch folk that are fully realized in scope and yet casual in mood.
Brown’s dusky voice, an immaculate production job, and a deft arranging hand makes this duality possible. “Dust and Bones” pairs a laid-back percussion line with a spacious fingerpicking rhythm at the beginning, before introducing subtle bass work and two different organ sounds for color. Brown’s superbly comfortable vocal delivery caps off the song beautifully. Even from the first listen, it’s as familiar and lovely as a shirt you put on for the first time and immediately know it will be your favorite one.
“On Our Own” pulls the same trick: the yearning solo violin, distant pedal steel, and hushed background vocals accentuate a lyric set of loss and redemption beautifully. “The Wind” is about as ominous as Brown gets, creating a sense of adventurous danger via keening harmonica. The title track is a jubilant folk tune grounded in big, round bass and a huge chorus vocal melody. “Spirits in the Silence” and “What I Really Want to Do” are a bit more pop-oriented-folk, sort of like Counting Crows, Five for Fighting, or Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi.” Brown carefully crafts each tune to have individual elements that set the songs apart, yet never deviate from the overall chill experience.
This album is magnetic: it’s hard to stop listening once you start. You’ll know all the sounds on each of the songs in The Road, but they way Brown makes them come together is barely short of magic. It’s a rare artist that can make the familiar sound brand new and exciting; Brown is that artist.
The Hasslers‘ State Centerand Will Bennett and the Tells‘ Wichitahave a few things in common: an expansive view of country music, a perceptive eye toward life in the flyover states, and melodies you’re going to be humming for a while. As a ex-pat Midwesterner, I have a deep affection for both these records that goes beyond their excellent music.
Both albums drew me because of their state-specific lyrical content. State Center mentions my native Oklahoma and highway I-19; Wichita is named after the largest city in Kansas and references I-35 (the spine of the great plains states). Both albums mention far-off places (Hasslers: San Jose; Tells: Ann Arbor, Manassas) but are firmly concerned with the inner workings of life in the flyovers. The Hasslers’ detailed stories of hard drinkin’, tough livin’, and bad lovin’ are the sort of jam-packed, witty, and clever lyrics that beg to be called incisive and literary; Will Bennett’s wry ruminations on relationships point out elements of love that don’t get discussed much (“She’s Got a Problem”) along with those that do (“Paloma,” “I Hope You Hear This on the Radio”). Both bands prominently discuss that they need to be inebriated to dance. Welcome to the Midwest.
Where the two albums diverge is in the way they treat country music. The Hasslers’ country-inspired music leans toward indie-pop and folk, while the Tells’ music is more of a country-punk creation.
The Hasslers’ music is an impressively smooth fusion of country, indie-pop and folk; they’re so adept at handling the genre mashing that it’s hard to pick out exactly where one stops and the other starts. Opener “Falling Out of Love” segues directly into “Tall Orders,” creating a nearly-8-minute tune that features lazy horns, an easygoing full-band vibe, and a zooming organ solo. “Oh My Dear, Oh My Darling” is a straight-up country song, complete with pedal steel, walking bass, and saloon-style piano. (“What Is Wisdom Anyway” reprises this turn.)
“Loves Company” is the standout ballad, merging folk verses into a pretty country chorus. “I did” is a beautiful solo acoustic tune that draws on indie-pop and even some acoustic singer/songwriter tricks. “Little Blue House” sounds like Counting Crows meets Old Crow Medicine Show in the most raucous possible mashup. Each song has individual charms, which is a rare thing. There’s a lot going on in State Center, but the whole thing has a warm, comfortable feel that keeps it cohesive.
Even though the songwriting and instrumentals are brilliant, Matt Hassler’s vocal performances are even more stellar. He has the sort of lithe, evocative voice that can sell any line, whether it’s a wisecrack, a confession, or an observation. By the end of the album, I felt like I was friends with him–both through his lyrical candor and his precise, careful, delivery, he worked his way into my heart. It’s a remarkable album-long performance that should not go overlooked; rarely are artists able to capture this level of quality over a whole album.
Will Bennett and the Tells start off Wichita with “I Hope You Hear This on the Radio,” which sets up a country-punk template for a lot of these tunes: traditional country arrangements sped way up with high tenor, pop-punk-esque vocals. Following tracks “She’s Got a Problem” and “The Villain” slow down the tempo to show that this really is a country band, and both are great successes; “The Villain” has one of the most indelible vocal melodies set against a snare shuffle and an acoustic guitar strum.
Still, it’s tunes like the punchy “Somewhere Down in Texas” and the bouncy “Paloma” that stick most with me. The mid-tempo rockers, like “Ann Arbor” and “Jolene” (every country band needs a song about Jolene), are also tight–Bennett’s vocal melodies are crisp and memorable wherever he deploys them, so each of the songs have that going for them. The good-natured quality of the album–much of it is in the major key–make it perfect summer festival or summer cookout music.
If you’re looking for a country album to pair with the dog days of summer, both of these would fit the bill excellently. Both have great lyrics, strong vocals, and melodies that could turn out to be the engine in your song of the summer.
1. “Holy Ghost” – deer scout. Some songs have to grow on me, but “Holy Ghost” is instant: Dena Miller’s friendly, comfortable alto invites you in, and the intimate, burbling guitar asks you to sit down. This is a magnificent song that has me very excited for future deer scout work.
2. “Annie” – Patric Johnston. The acoustic guitar has a mellifluous, perfectly-delivered melody to lead this piece, and Johnston’s voice is buttery and smooth in the way of the Barr Brothers, Josh Ritter, and the like: mature, solid, and full of gentle charisma.
3. “The Weather Girl” – Prints Jackson. This one’s a vocals-forward troubadour folk tune a la old-school Joe Pug or occasional Justin Townes Earle. Jackson knows how to use his voice and guitar to best effect, and the resulting tune shines with an easygoing assuredness. This song has legs, and I hope it gets to use them–more people should know about Prints Jackson.
4. “Rain Thoughts” – Frith. You walk into a new club that’s supposed to classy. You find yourself greeted with the gentle sounds of a musician trained in Tom Waits drama but purveying that work via strings, stand-up bass, gentle piano, and a relaxed tenor. You’re going to like it here, and you’re going to visit more often. (Alternatively: the gravitas of trip-hop worked its way into a singer/songwriter tune.)
5. “All Day All Night” – River Whyless. River Whyless has always wanted to be more than just a folk band, and here they expand their sound with some rhythmic group vocals and satisfying thrumming bass that drops this tune somewhere between Fleet Foxes and Fleetwood Mac.
6. “Firetrain” – Todd Sibbin. The raw, youthful vocal presentation of Bright Eyes’ mid-era work meets the polished horns and wailing organ of early-era Counting Crows alt-pop. (I just mentioned two of my favorite bands.) In short, this is a fantastic pop tune.
7. “Absolute Contingency” – The Ravenna Colt. The lead guitar work and background vocals point toward an alt-country tune out of the slowcore, Mojave 3 school, but the rest of the tune is a shuffle-snare folk tune that’s just lovely.
8. “4th July” – Daniel Pearson. This chipper folk-pop tune has a great harmonica part, a friendly vibe, and really depressing lyrics. At least it sounds happy!
9. “Revolver” – Vian Izak. It’s got that Parachutes-esque Brit-pop mystery to it, paired with the sort of chords and mood that evoke sticky, slow-moving days in the city. The results are unique and interesting.
10. “Out Loud” – Jason P. Krug. Brash but not aggressive, Krug pairs confident melodic delivery and chunky indie-pop/folk with a swooping cello to create an intriguing tension.
11. “Pack of Dogs” – Jesse Lacy. Here’s a full-band folk reminiscence on the joy of youthful friendships that brings banjo, acoustic, wurlitzer, and smooth tenor vocals together excellently.
12. “I Won’t Be Found” – Simon Alexander. The smoothness of traditional singer/songwriter mixed with the raw angst and passion of The Tallest Man on Earth’s vocals creates a distinct push and pull between punchy and silky.
13. “What It Is” – Alex Hedley. The purity and honesty of a fingerpicked guitar line and an emotional vocal melody are never going to get old to me. This particular tune is earnest without being cloying; moody without being morose. Well-balanced. Deeply enjoyable.
14. “Someday feat. Devendra Banhart” – Akira Kosemura. A fragile piano melody is joined by hushed vocals and romantic strings. It’s the sort of song that lovers have their first dance to.
15. “Dear, be safe” – Rasmus Söderberg. What a tender, delicate acoustic plea this is.
Hubbard has a smooth tenor voice that hits like a Midwestern Jason Isbell or Adam Duritz (of the Counting Crows)–the sort of lithe, confident voice that uses vibrato and other flourishes to display tension and emotion easily. “February” and “More I Live, Less I Know” are incredible vocal performances that are both seemingly effortless and also weighted down with the tension of years of woe. (Relatedly, these tunes have a kindred spirit with Bruce Springsteen’s work, both musically and lyrically–check “She Gives It Everything” for more proof.)
Musically Hubbard is a pro–the songwriting here is tight, the arrangements are impeccable, and the songs seem to roll off his guitar. The pickin’-and-grinnin’ “Straw Hat,” the Civil Wars-style ballad “Tired of Loving You,” and the Dawes-esque roots-rock tune “Come Tomorrow” are confident entries in their respective songwriting veins, despite being different from each other in a variety of ways. “And The Music” is the quiet end of his sonic spectrum, as stand-up bass thrums imperially to underpin a gently tumbling fingerpicking pattern and Hubbard’s most memorable vocal melodies of the record. The coda of the tune is the sort of melody that people latch on to and don’t forget, a “Ho Hey” for people ten years later.
That lyric that accompanies the indelible melody is representative of the lyrics throughout: “I remember when God left / and the angels left / and you were there / you were there.” The world-weariness, questioning of religion, and hope in relationships (in this case, an old friend) to get us through are all over the record. Whether you agree with his conclusions or not, the lyrics push hard on the way the world is, could be, and perhaps should be. That’s the sort of lyrics I want to hear.
Hubbard’s self-titled record is a confident record of folk-rock from a veteran of the genre. It shows in strong songwriting, well-developed lyrics, and an overall sense that Hubbard was really going for it on this one. Dan Hubbard should be on your to-hear list.
I’m all about alt-country, which is a deceptively hard genre to get right. You can’t lean too country, or too indie, or too singer/songwriter. Red Sammy walks the line between all of these with a tune that’s equal parts Tom Waits, Counting Crows, and Jayhawks.
Adam Trice’s rough vocals aren’t the only place that Waits comparisons fit: “Sometimes You Forget What’s Real” is a long, walking-speed tune that relies heavily on a world-weary mood to compel listeners’ ears. There’s a genial, earnest feel to the guitar that calls up August and Everything After-era Counting Crows, while the weeping electric guitar gives the tune a big ‘ol “alt-country” stamp not too far from the Jayhawks’ work. Extra bonus: Mountain Goats-quality yawps at the end of the vocals’ contributions. The whole tune comes together so beautifully that it’s hard to believe that it’s over 6 minutes long. If you’re into old-school, loose folk/country jams or any of the previous acts, this tune will perk your ears up.
“Sometimes You Forget What’s Real” is the lead single on an upcoming album, set to drop Fall 2015.
Devin James Fry (Lord Buffalo, Salesman) is a busy man, but he’s taken a break from those two wild pursuits to drop the pensive, ruminative Headwater Songs. The 9-song album is a pleasantly stark affair–most tracks are just his smooth tenor voice and a fingerpicked instrument (guitar or banjo). The dual tragedies that inspired this album (the fire and floods that have happened this year near Canon City, Colorado) give the album a hushed sense of calm, as if Fry is surveying the damage to his beloved hometown. Some songs deal directly with the disasters (“After the Royal Gorge Fire,” “Headwaters (Song for Gatherer)”), while others deal with the incidents more indirectly (“Real Fire”). The whole album flows seamlessly, as if the songs flowed out of Fry like the waters they chronicle. Keening falsetto, intricate picking guitarwork, and a deep sense of patience characterize these tunes. If you’re up for some gorgeous, spartan acoustic songs, Headwater Songs should be on your to-hear list.
On the far opposite end of the spectrum in acoustic music is Mutual Benefit’s Love’s Crushing Diamond, which is a full-on chamber-pop experience. Sure, there are banjos and guitars, but there are violins, electronic sounds, and intricate arrangements that create gorgeous pile-ups of sound. This is an album that washes over a room, transforming the tone from normal to slightly more warm and comforting. Jordan Lee’s gentle voice is the perfect foil for these tender tunes, bringing out all the sweetness that can be extracted from them. If Bon Iver turned his attention to love instead of its loss, or Sufjan Stevens was less idiosyncratically percussive, or if the Low Anthem indie’d up a bit more, you’d have Mutual Benefit. This is just an absolutely gorgeous record that deserves your attention. A year-end gem.
Scott Fant’s singer/songwriter tunes are rough-edged without getting gruff. Fant writes with just him and a guitar, giving the tunes on Goatweed Bouquet a raw, earnest feel. These tunes would feel at home at both a Tom Waits-ian bar (“Bottom of the Hole”) and a Budweiser-toting honky-tonk (“Don’t Touch That Dog,” “Walk in the Light”). There are also some ballads intermingled among the upbeat tunes, best exemplified by the pristine guitar work of “Adagio for the Lonely.” Shades of David Ramirez, Counting Crows, and old-school country come through in the short runtime, showing Fant a diverse and interesting songwriter. Very different than Headwater Songs in mood, these songs are meant to be heard live and maybe even sung along to–especially if you’ve got a cold beer in your hand.
I’ve been listening to Roy Dahan‘s The Man in My Head for several weeks, and I’m still struggling to pin it down to words. It’s a solo project that feels like a full-band effort, as the overall mood of the tracks is more important than any single musician. David Gray would enjoy the seriousness and gravity of these tunes, but the album still has upbeat, inviting moments like “Crush.” It’s chill and relaxing, but with a sense of tension running throughout each tune.
I guess the best descriptor is adult alternative singer/songwriter, but that sells it short in so many ways. “Nothing But Miracles” starts out with a gentle, burbling fingerpicking guitar line before expanding into a wide-open chorus: “You’ll see / there’s a beautiful place to be / and I wonder if you’ll see at all.” The subtly urgent “Farewell” pulses with restrained energy, while “Maze” has a cascading, U2 sort of vibe. The album hangs together beautifully, but doesn’t obscure the high points within it. You can play this one as a full album or pick songs out of it for your playlists. That’s rare.
Dahan’s beautiful music is tough to explain but easy to love. If you’re into things as diverse as Counting Crows, Bright Eyes, Matt Nathanson, Ray LaMontagne, or The Decemberists, you’ll love Roy Dahan’s The Man in My Head.
Singer/songwriters can work for a decade to find a unique voice, which is what makes it astounding when a sophomore release contains a unique perspective on things, musically or lyrically. Eoin Glackin‘s Rain Finally Came provides a fresh take on both, delivering well-penned observations in a recognizably distinct melodic idiom.
Glackin’s sound falls between the sweeping melodic excursions of Josh Ritter and the soaring yawp of latter-day Mountain Goats, as he fills his strumming with sprightly vocal and instrumental melodies. Opener “Dancing Anymore” and the title track pair tight melody-writing with arrangements that never distract from his passionate voice. Highlight track “New World Blue” is an immediately arresting tune that includes clapping, a swooning violin, and a memorable vocal hook in the chorus; you’ll be humming this one for a while. If you listen to the whole album, you’ll start to recognize his cadence and delivery: it’s the little ways he inflects his words and rhythms that make his sound distinct.
Since he showed he can strum with the best of ’em in “New World Blue,” Glackin decided to flex his lyrical muscles on the next track, “Mrs. Campbell.” It’s a protest song that doesn’t come off as cloying or privileged: it strikes just the right balance of pathos and logos to protest an innocent bystander killed by gang fighting. “It can only happen to bad people/in bad neighborhoods/I’m sorry, Mrs. Campbell/Your son is gone for good,” Glackin sings, in a stark indictment of the rhetoric of “safe.” “Last Night in This Town” is a descriptive story-song reminiscent of Counting Crows’ first album (which is a huge compliment from over here). The quiet “What Am I to You?” is a plea for clarity from a lover. Each of these lyric sets are pulled off with surprising clarity and turn of phrase that I would not expect from someone this young.
The first seven songs are incredibly dense collection, while tracks 8-10 provide a bit of breather: simpler songs that don’t aspire to as much complexity melodic or lyrical complexity. But the songwriting picks back up in difficulty for the closer: the nearly-8-minute “The Hour’s Gone Too Late (For Holding Hands)” pairs a pitch-perfect vocal delivery with a weary, descriptive lyric. It reminded me of Josh Ritter’s “Thin Blue Line,” which is another lengthy tune with huge impact.
Eoin Glackin is the sort of singer that I can’t remember hearing for the first time: the first time I heard Rain Finally Came, it seems like I had already known about the music forever. It’s a rare album that delivers that level of comfort on the first listen without shamelessly ripping off another artist. There are shades of Dylan, Counting Crows, Johnny Flynn, and more in Glackin’s sound, but the resulting mix is his own. I’m vastly impressed by Rain Finally Came, and I look forward to great things for and from Eoin Glackin. If you’re into singer/songwriters, do yourself a favor and check out the album. It’s wonderful.
Red Wanting Blue is the personification of the blue-collar road warrior band. Since 1996, the band has been cranking out melodic rock’n’roll/pop that fits neatly next to Counting Crows—which is a great thing in my book, as I know almost every word of August and Everything After. RWB’s newest, From the Vanishing Point, just broke into the Heatseekers chart at #10, which is a hard-earned spot for a band that’s worked diligently for so long. As my Dad quips, “One of these years I’ll be an overnight success.” Here’s their video for the ridiculously catchy “Audition.”
Charlotte & Magon have been charming me for a while (exhibits A, B, C and D), and “The Mining” is no different. The tense, sparse tune draws from trip-hop, electro-pop and post-punk before bursting into a wicked guitar solo. Yes, a guitar solo. They’re ratcheting up for the release later this year of their “magnum opus, rock novel” Life Factory, which is “the story of the working man in search of hope and truth.”
In 2002, a wise friend handed me copies of Coldplay’s A Rush of Blood to the Head and Counting Crows’ August and Everything After. Inexplicably to my pop-punk self at the time, I became obsessed with both. Thus began an interest in modern pop music that extends to an unironic enjoyment of Goo Goo Dolls and Train. Judge away.
JD Eicher and the Goodnights falls between the acoustic pop of August and Everything After and the arena-sized pathos of Goo Goo Dolls. The band’s best songs aren’t quite as navelgazing as Adam Duritz’ increasing self-defeating tunes, but stop short of going for the John Rzeznik stadium singalong. The lesser tunes fall on either side of the divide.
Eicher opens the Crows-esque “Feel The Rain” with the striking, “Seems like every couple hours, it’s six a.m.,” and its subsequent description of breakup symptoms doesn’t beg for sympathy or employ bitterness. The rest of the band employs a similarly impressive restraint, teasing the listener with a soaring chorus that never arrives. The song becomes a highlight because it doesn’t command all the modern pop tricks. Subversive!
The melodic bass work on “Distance and Space” echoes the style of “Feel the Rain,” proving the bassist’s vitally important role in the band’s best songs. The acoustic songwriting in “Love is Gonna Find You” leans in toward Goo Goo Dolls drama, but Eicher keeps the arrangement tight and low: more featured bass, no sweeping strings, no chorus pedal.
It’s not all success. Openers “The Beauty of It All” and “Two Weeks Back” do let the arrangements go electric, and the songs suffer blandness accordingly. “Crazy” is an odd acoustic-rock turn. “Fine Line” is a bit too Five for Fighting cute to pique my interest, and “Easy” flirts with that syndrome as well. But the high highs make the middling tracks easy to pass over.
That oft-maligned, major label-infested genre of modern pop is a tough bag in which to make a go of it. But JD Eicher and the Goodnights are not perturbed. It feels that Shifting came about honestly: Eicher and his band just process music this way, and the greatest honest move they can do is make these songs in this way. In a genre full of cash grabs, kitsch and knowing winks, it’s a pleasant and unusual experience to know that Eicher and his band really mean it when they rock out at the end of “Mr. Misery.” That level of honesty and real pop songwriting chops make Shifting into the success it is.
Oh, and JD: Buy your bassist a beer. And don’t let him leave the band.
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.