1. “Hypachoi” – The Project. A thrumming distorted bass riff underlines this song, which moves from a spartan tune punctuated by clanking chains into a crunchy, towering, dramatic piece. The lyrics are a passionate re-telling of Christ’s death and resurrection. Happy Easter!
2. “Trucksea (feat. Dean McGrath)” – Nonsemble. This indie-pop chamber orchestra packs “Trucksea” full of fluttering strings, dramatic cello, grounding keys, perky drums. The vocals are the most modern thing about the tune, other than perhaps the confidence with which the difficult fusion is pulled off. This is an impressive tune that demands attention.
3. “Wildflower” – Shiloh Hill. Chipper full-band folk that starts with perky trumpet and brings in banjo like rays of sunshine coming out from behind a cloud. The chorus has an anthemic cast similar to The Decemberists, which is always welcome. This album looks like it’s going to be a lot of fun. Check out their Kickstarter.
4. “Dust” – Ryan Martin John, Todd Sibbin, and Tom West. Kind of like an Australian Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, this ominous track has a ’70s folk vibe, solid group vocals, and a dense, immediate atmosphere.
5. “I Know I” – The Tin Man. A pensive minor-key first verse leads into an ultimately hopeful, thumping folk-pop/alt-pop tune augmented by some distorted guitar providing some background grumble. Goes for a lot of drama and yet stops one inch from going over the top–an admirable skill.
6. “Same Boat” – Vanessa Forero. This is a swift, upbeat, smile-inducing folk-pop tune that doesn’t jump the shark in its arrangement (however, there are mermaids in the stead of Left Shark as part of the video).
7. “Million Miles” – Jesse Konrad. A calm strum, gentle guitar counterpoint, and a friendly organ push this track along in a very chill way.
8. “You Need to Hear It From Someone Else” – Protestant Work Ethic. Lazy horns play against a large choir, an autoharp, melodica, and assorted random percussion–the outcome is like a European version of Typhoon, all the way down to the passionate vocals.
9. “Already Gone” – Travis Smith. A surging, major-key chord progression reminiscent of Dan Mangan, a fun organ performance, and a smooth vocal performance come together over a shuffle snare for a tune seems already comfortable and worn in, like a comfy sweater, when you first hear it.
10. “Marigold” – Neil Holyoak. Holyoak’s hazy yet gravitas-laden voice presides over this very carefully constructed folk tune, complete with pedal steel, mandolin, and reverb-washed electric guitar. It’s kind of like Dana Sipos’ work, but in a major key and more instrument-laden. Float away with this track.
11. “Love Is Like a Market Crash” – Thurdy. It takes a lot of work to sound casual. Thurdy’s laid-back, back-porch vibe permeates his baritone vocals, rolling guitar playing, and honest lyrics. It’s a tune that gives you back more than it asks of you.
12. “This Will Be Our Year – Zombies Cover” – Novi Split. David J’s magnetic, utterly gorgeous voice is in full flower here, matching his oh-so-lovely pipes with a “doo-wop meets old-school country in a subtle, spare modern bar” arrangement. It’s just great.
13. “Bed of Nails” – Logan Magness. “Tender” and “romantic” maybe aren’t the phrases most associated with alt-country, but this stripped-down, Isbell-esque acoustic ballad is both. Magness’s smooth tenor is a joy to listen to.
North Carolina folk outfit River Whyless‘ tunes have no hard edges. The gentle, cooing folk on their self-titled EP has had all its difficult parts sanded down to a smooth, warm experience that wraps you in a comfy blanket of sound. Look no farther than opener “Life Crisis” to find that fuzzy feeling: the slow-building, slow-burning tune incrementally adds harmonium, glockenspiel, clapping, and dramatic cello to culminate in a ragged, earthy stomp that would make Fleet Foxes, barnraisers, and snowy-day-fireplace-watchers happy.
Look no further than “Miles of Skyline” to see how deeply the production values are imbued in their bones. The song has a rhythmic, metallic drumbeat that wouldn’t be out of place in an industrial tune, but they manage to layer so many harmonic plucks, swooning strings, trilling vocals and other pleasant vibes that it doesn’t sound out of place at all. It’s a frankly amazing songwriting trick, not unlike the moment in “All My Friends” when you realize that James Murphy has been playing the same piano line this whole time but it sounds different with every instrument that’s added.
In between those tracks are “Maple Sap” and “Bath Salt,” which both flesh out the River Whyless sound. The former starts off with a capella harmonies that remind me of Mountain Man, First Aid Kit and the like. Then it explodes outward into that Fleetwood Mac/CSNY sound that modern folk in the mid ’00s was so good at pulling together. It feels rustic in a beautiful way. The latter starts off so wonderfully crisp and bright that it sounds like the audio equivalent of turning a corner on a path and seeing a mountain pond ringed by trees with the sun shining in. The song floats.
River Whyless is a delicate, glorious wonder. It’s highly stylized to reach maximum beauty and calm, which seems to me the best reason to stylize anything. If you’re into modern folk, River Whyless is a must-know; this release is a must-have.
People often ask me to define folk, Americana, folk-rock, or alt-country. I understand the confusion: the nuances are there, but for many casual listeners they can be pedantic or unimportant. It doesn’t help that many of those genres share traits, with the difference only lying in the emphasis of this one or that one. Then there are the grey areas. However, sometimes an artist comes around that fits the bill exactly. Keyan Keihani, for instance, is an alt-country artist through and through.
Keihani relies on country vibes, full-band arrangements, pedal steel, organ, rock-style songwriting (verse/chorus/verse), and modern melodies in Eastbound–which is exactly what alt-country bands are known for. The Jayhawks, Ryan Adams, and the Old 97s are all examplars of the modern version of the sound that The Byrds, CSN&Y, and Buffalo Springfield helped invent. But just because something can be named doesn’t mean it’s not exciting and interesting. Keihani’s vocal melodies and tight arrangements create a memorable, easygoing record that invites you to press repeat.
“Don’t You Ever Leave” is a perfect example of his sound. Swooping pedal guitar, insistent drumming, and honkytonk piano come together to create something much greater than the sum of their parts. Keihani ties all these parts together with his smooth, evocative tenor, giving a gravitas to the track that transforms it from solid to excellent. The wistful “Same We’ve Been” ties twinkling piano and treble-heavy mandolin together for a romantic vibe; “Good Country Night” turns up the honkytonk without getting abrasive, making for a song that’s just a ton of fun.
Keihani’s debut album shows a maturity unexpected in those putting out a first collection of tunes. His deft songwriting touch allows traditional instruments and well-known moods to be invigorating and interesting. His vocals allow people who might not otherwise get into the genre an in. The whole album comes off as an assured, welcoming set of tunes. Keyan Keihani may have just said hello with Eastbound, but it sounds like he’s got a lot more to say.
The Local Strangers cover a lot of ground with their acoustic amalgam on Left for Better: “Easy” is a stately, Josh Ritter-esque tune with a booming weight; “Mr. Blackberry” is a swampy, bluesy stomp; “Chase the Battle” has a bit of a Fleetwood Mac vibe to its gently pressing tension. These things are all possible on the same album because vocalist Aubrey Zoli, vocalist/guitarist Matt Hart and the rest of the quintet are comfortable using their skills in multiple ways. Lock in on a groove? “Devil and a Stiff Drink.” Blend into a textured whole? “I Will Let You Down.” Create a tense, spartan environment? “Beneath the Weight.” This is a confident outfit, and it shows. The highlight for me is “Easy,” as it pushes the folky buttons I like. But with songs this confident in many different sounds, you’ll probably have a different favorite. More power to ’em. Can’t wait to hear more from this Seattle group.
The Marvins’ Waves of Strange also has a wide array of sounds, going from the harmony-heavy country-rock of “Two Joints on the Table” to the surf-esque space rock of “Girls Go to Venus” to the unclassifiable sludge/folk of “Still is the Light.” Still, they keep a firm sense of melody about them, no matter what they’re writing. That element ties the whole album together, from its farthest weird edges to the most traditional tunes. And it’s all worth celebrating: “Still is the Light” is a powerful, pounding tune that works because of its disparate elements, not despite them. You’ll be humming the chorus for sure. If you’re really into cohesive sounds, you may get frustrated around the time the power-pop of “People Like You” comes around, but if you’re up for a fun ride through a bunch of genres, Waves of Strange is definitely for you.
The Roseline‘s Vast as Sky, on the other hand, delivers a heaping helping of a specific sound. The band is in debt to the country-rock of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young for its ominous, dense sound. Weeping steel guitar, droning organ, saloon-style piano and more play in. You’ve heard this, but you haven’t heard Colin Halliburton sing it. There’s a fine line between revivalism and building on a foundational genre, and that line is crossed about the time that you don’t care which one it is–you just enjoy the tunes.
Vast as Sky passes that mark by the first chorus of “Back of My Mind,” a poignant tune about a distracting woman. Halliburton can also channel harrowing moods, as “You’ll Be Fine” details the fear of a possible cancer diagnosis. The band stays firmly in “band” mode, never letting Halliburton drop too much into the singer/songwriter zone, with the exception of the pristine, stripped-down “All Me.” The Old 97s’-esque shuffle of “A Necessary Distinction” is another highlight. If you’re up for some alt-country that knows its forefathers but has its own joys, The Roseline is your 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.