I don’t listen to Rocky Votolato much anymore, because the intensity of his emotion deeply impacted me at a pretty pivotal point in my life. Rocky is stuck as a historical moment for me, but Austin Miller has a similar vibe that I hope to listen to for a long time.
More Than One Way sees Miller in thoughtful troubadour mode, dispensing calm, comfortable songs with an easy gravitas. “When the Rain Comes” sticks with me long after I stop listening to it; the melodies are arresting, but it’s the tone of his voice and the lyrics that keep coming back to me. “When the rain comes / I will welcome it with open arms / what else am I supposed to do?” Miller posits, and it’s the delivery that turns that from a prosaic statement into a haunting-yet-optimistic one.
Miller doesn’t traffic in overwrought emotions: he’s no Damien Rice, or even Damien Jurado. Miller pulls me in with his calm appraisals of actions, people, and emotions. There’s a lot of action in this album, despite it being a quiet, walking-speed collection of tunes; the titles “Moving On,” “Moving Along,” “I’ll Walk,” and “How Far” show his concern with all things going. His arrangements aren’t big, but they flesh out and differentiate the songs: “How Far” features a pedal steel guitar, “Moving On” includes harmonium, and “Where We Fell” displays piano and stand-up bass. No matter what he uses, it sounds sweet and winsome; Miller sings and plays with beautiful candor.
I’m reminded of Iron & Wine a little, in the tender way which the songs come off, but the arrangements and vocals aren’t that similar there. It’s a mood sort of thing, I suppose. Rocky Votolato really is the best comparison, which is why I started with him. But I don’t want to sell Miller short; these songs can stand on their own, without any RIYLs. If Miller had invented the genre, it’d be quite a nice genre indeed. Those into earnest, calm, beautiful singer/songwriter tunes should go for More Than One Way.
Fans of lo-fi slowcore like Songs:Ohia, Elephant Micah, and old-school Damien Jurado will have something new to cheer about in Tender Mercy. As Someone Else You Embrace the Moment in Us consists of five songs that never get louder than a single fingerpicked guitar, Mark Kramer’s forlorn voice, and tape hiss. The songs are slow, low, and heavy on atmosphere: discerning between the songs is possible (there are breaks in the tape hiss to mark song changes), but it’s not really the best way to enjoy this set of tunes. Instead, it’s best to let it wash over you; there’s enough gentle reverb on the tracks to imagine that you and Kramer are in a big room where he’s singing just to you. If you move too quickly, you’ll miss the tranquil beauty in it.
This is music to experience, not to sing along to or play in the background of your life; the nuances of the individual performances make the tunes what they are. Individual voice warbles, the pluck of one string harder than the last, and the subtle changes in timing that suggest emotions behind the work are all compelling. The songs seem very simple on the surface, but there is depth to be plumbed here. Some variation could be incorporated in future work to help differentiate between tracks, but this release is still great for fans who enjoy more difficult music (i.e. old-school Mountain Goats, Jandek, Silver Jews, et al.).
Australia is my favorite international music scene. The latest thing to fall in my lap from The Land Down Under is the buzzy, friendly power-pop of Major Leagues‘ Weird Season EP. The Aussie quartet plays chipper, female-fronted tunes that strike a nice balance between energetic and chill; you can listen to these tunes while driving, surfing, or while laying around in your backyard. Each activity would bring out a different nuance: the driving rhythm section, the sweet guitar tone, or the laconic vocal delivery. Weird Season is a fun way to remind yourself that it may be winter, but summer’s coming. Actually, it’s summer in Australia. Ponder that.
Aaron Lee Tasjan employs a songwriting style on the Crooked River Burning EP that mirrors with Joe Pug’s newer work: a folk troubadour working with a full band. Both singer/songwriters bring their own unique confidence and internal rhythm to the work, which makes resulting songs an interesting mix of personal and group efforts. The balance works best on “Everything I Have is Broken” and “Junk Food and Drugs,” which give enough space to Tasjan’s voice and guitar that his personality shines through. Both have intricate lyrics, quirky vocal rhythms, and an overall sense of energetic possibility. They would be a blast to sing along with live, certainly. “Number One” is a hushed ballad in Jackson Browne style that surprised me with its depth of emotion and tasteful inclusion of strings; it shows off the best of his solo work. Tasjan has strong songwriting chops, and I look forward to seeing what he puts out after the Crooked River Burning EP. Photo by BP Fallon.
Wolfcryer’s singer/songwriter folk is wildly evocative. Last week I sat down to write a review of his EP The Long Ride Home and instead wrote 1200 words about the meaning of art and social connection in a digital age. (I’m calling that a first draft and using that elsewhere.) I was trying to explain why Wolfcryer’s music so deeply connected with me; instead, I ended up explaining how and why people connect to things at all. At the risk of blowing this essay out to gargantuan proportions a second time, here’s my newest attempt at that prompt.
This year I’ve covered a great deal of highly-arranged folk and maximalist electronic music. The trend for a while was to pare music down to its bare bones, but now having a gazillion sounds per song is back en vogue. Where the sounds go, so must the reviewer. But I was and am a huge proponent of that minimalist movement. You can swoon me with an orchestra, but you get my undying affection with a guitar, a voice, and a lyric. Wolfcryer adheres to that latter vision, and thereby has my love.
Wolfcryer (aka Matt Baumann)’s voice is a well-turned tenor with a just a touch of grit in it; his melodies are both earnest and mappable to a staff in a way that Leonard Cohen’s probably aren’t. He’s got confidence enough that his personality shines through, but without sounding overdone. “Roll Call of Ghosts” leans heavily on his the nuances of his vocal performance (and occasional harmonica) for the payoff of the song, and it is simply astonishing. The hushed “Map of Wyoming” also puts a big emphasis on vocals, with equal success.
It’s not just in his vocals that maturity comes bursting through. The opening chord progression of “For the Sky” is both optimistic and haunting, sticking with me for long after the song is over. He doesn’t let the vocals crush the power of the songwriting; instead, he uses the patterns of the sung vocals to accent the guitar. It’s a beautiful song expertly handled, which doesn’t come around that often. “Never Carry More Than You Can Hold” and the title track also sport a strong fusion of the guitar songwriting and the vocals.
I don’t know how long Baumann has been writing songs–The Long Ride Home is the first release available on Bandcamp–but it sounds like he’s been doing this a long time. The EP shows an astonishing amount of clarity and maturity for a debut release, and it has rocketed Wolfcryer up my list of bands to watch in 2014. If you’re into singer/songwriters like old-school Damien Jurado, Songs:Ohia, Josh Ritter at his quietest, or Gregory Alan Isakov, you’ll be into Wolfcryer. I give my highest recommendation.
When you’ve been in music for a while, nuance and subtlety become more important to you. This is true for listeners and creators; although I can still appreciate a mighty guitar riff, I find myself entranced by complex lyrical turns and less obvious arrangements. Tri-State is a band composed of people who have been in bands, and you can tell from the songs they write. These pop-rock tunes, while poppy, are not constructed as instant hits. These are measured tunes, tunes that take their time on little guitar bits (“All Different,” “Back Before”) just because. This unhurried, “let’s give this some space” method is much like that of IC fave The Brixton Riot.
Tri-State’s tunes unfold in pleasing ways: “Back Before” creates an ominous mood that builds and builds, while follow-up “Country Squire” toes the line between pop-rock and alt-country. It doesn’t feel disjointed at all; the songs feel like outworkings of the same thought process. If you’re into ’90s indie-rock (Pavement, Guided by Voices) or mature songwriting that appreciates with multiple listens, you should give Tri-State’s self-titled EP a spin.
Kira Velella‘s gentle voice is the primary feature of her singer/songwriter tunes, and for good reason. Her second soprano/alto voice commands the arrangements, sucking the listener in. “Lover, Move” and “Barn Swallow” both feature strong instrumental songwriting that is totally eclipsed by the endearing confidence of Velella’s voice. She accomplishes the rare feat of encapsulating confidence and vulnerability in a single performance, which keeps me coming back to the tunes.
This uncommon tension buoys the six-song Daughter EP, making it consistently interesting to the invested listener. The wintry arrangements accomplish a second improbable feat: the Damien Jurado-esque characteristic of feeling both lush and sparse at the same time. It gives Velella’s vocals both the forefront and a space to inhabit; it is easy to imagine Velella in a video clip of a snow-covered field for any of these tracks. The mood here is strong throughout tunes, giving a polish to the release. All told, this is an impressive debut offering from Kira Velella.
Categories can be stultifying and abrasive, but they are helpful starting points for conversation. Saying that U137 plays post-rock is mildly helpful to get the conversation started, but saying that the band plays “pretty” post-rock (Moonlit Sailor, Dorena, The Album Leaf) instead of “heavy” post-rock (Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Isis, Tyranny is Tyranny) is far more descriptive. You’re going to hear a lot of arpeggios, humongous crescendoes to jubilant melodies, and ethereal synths in Dreamer on the Run. If you’re into that, then the 40 or so minutes you spend listening will be breathtaking.
It’s not the sort of album where one particular track sticks out: it’s simply a forty-minute excursion into a beautiful section of the world. If you’re feeling down about the government shutdown, gun violence, poverty, or any other modern malaise, Dreamer on the Run can help you forget that for a few minutes and remember that there are so many beautiful things in the world to comfort you. This, simply put, is a gorgeous record.
I deeply admire intricate arrangements, but I fall in love with simplicity. Singer/songwriter Jared Foldy‘s American Summer is a graceful, simple, beautiful seven-song release that is an easy candidate for my end of year lists.
It’s not just that the songs are simple, because anyone can do that. Foldy has taken great care in choosing and maintaining a specific mood throughout American Summer. The album art does an excellent job of interpreting the feel of this record: gauzy, but not opaque; relaxed, but not lazy; calm, but not uninterested. This is beautiful, beautiful music.
The sparse arrangements are light, airy, and smooth without turning maudlin or sappy; the early work of Joshua Radin and Rehearsals for Departure-era Damien Jurado come to mind. All three artists espouse a wide-eyed wonder about the world without getting maudlin or sappy. The effortless grace of Mojave 3’s Ask Me Tomorrow also is a strong touchstone, as Foldy and M3 share an elegant gravitas.
Foldy’s opener “See It All” has the gravitas and passion that only a patient, experienced singer/songwriter can draw out. The chorus-less song builds to a strong conclusion through clever use of instruments (and smart refusal to use others, like snare drum). The songwriting is strong, the performances are inspired, and the production is simply incredible to pull it all together.
The rest of the songs are more verse/chorus/verse oriented, but they are no less beautiful. Title track “American Summer” is an absolutely stunning song that leverages all the best things about the album into one piece: Foldy’s light, gentle tenor floats over warm fingerpicking in a calming, uplifting mood. It’s a lyrically beautiful song as well, gently appealing to a woman playing hard to get. It’s everything I want in a song.
“Wide Eyes” is also firing on all cylinders. Foldy’s voice and guitar playing are augmented by piano, strings and brushed percussion, merging the excellent arrangement of “See It All” with the memorable vocal melody of “American Summer.” Even though “American Summer” is my favorite tune to hear on the record, “Wide Eyes” is the one I hum to myself.
Jared Foldy has grown leaps and bounds since 2011’s Everyone’s Singing. Foldy had the songwriting skill then, but now he’s put his own stamp on the sound. American Summer is an outstanding collection of tunes that I would recommend to anyone who like beautiful music, but especially those who like folk/singer-songwriter/acoustic. I hope this release pushes Foldy into the brighter spotlight that he deserves.
Sam Buckingham‘s I’m a Bird is also a bright singer/songwriter affair. She emanates an assured, confident vibe, similar to KT Tunstall. Her guitar and often sassy voice are the main players here, with only light accompaniment throughout. But she doesn’t need a full band to pack tunes like “Follow You,” “Hit Me With Your Heart” and “Tomorrow I’ll Wear Black” with a ton of attitude.
The third of the trio is most fascinating: “Tomorrow I’ll Wear Black” tune composed entirely of Buckingham’s vocals, group vocals on the chorus, and clapping. For a song about changing yourself so that someone will love you, it’s surprisingly chipper and flirty. It is the penultimate tune on the album, and it made me sit up and take notice. It’s a great pair with the charming, cutesy “Rabbit Hole” to end the album.
In between that closing and the opening salvo “Follow You”/”Hit Me With Your Heart” is a lot of music to explore: “Mountain Sun” features a tuba and clarinet; “So Much Loving Left to Do” slows things down for a piano ballad. The tunes in the middle are less immediately arresting than the beginning and end, but when you have such high-quality tunes at the front and back, it’s tough to keep that level of excellence going on. Overall, there are very few clunkers on the album, with Buckingham bringing her A-game consistently.
Buckingham has a clear vision of what her sound and style are: she executes that vision very well on I’m a Bird. If you like strong, sassy female singer/songwriters, then you should definitely check out Buckingham’s music.
Reina Del Cid has a rare melodic gift. Her 10-song release with The Cidizens is titled blueprints, plans, and each song features one absolutely stunning vocal melody after another. She could have made any song on the whole album the single, and they all would have been just as effective at showing off that Reina Del Cid can write unforgettable tunes. Her pop-folk/bluegrass-lite makes great use of traditional sounds, rhythms and instruments to float her brilliant vocal melodies, from the condescending “Pretty Lie” to the forlorn “Expiration Date” to the striking “Brutal Love.” All of these tunes are mixtape-worthy, which is incredibly unusual. If you’re into anything from Jason Mraz to Nickel Creek to Ani Difranco, you’ll find something to love in Reina Del Cid and the Cidizens. And if you like all of them, then you’re in for a treat.
David Ullman lets you know exactly what you’re going to get immediately. Ullman opens Light the Dark with a single sharp acoustic guitar strum and a howl of, “This is my cry in the dark!” As the rest of “Who You Say” unfolds, it becomes very clear that Ullman comes from the Damien Rice school of singer/songwriters, where hearing the tension and struggle in the vocals is a large part of the charm. Light also features instrumentation similar to Rice’s, with acoustic guitar, piano, strings and vocals taking up the lion’s share of the work. Ullman’s voice is grittier than Rice’s, making some of the tunes here positively punishing on his vocal chords. The lyrics deal with struggle and tension in religious themes, so there’s fertile ground for crescendo and catharsis. If you’re into gritty, powerful singer/songwriter fare, Light the Dark will be right up your alley.
The strength of hunters.’white lies is the interplay between easygoing alt-country vibes and the impressively descriptive lyrics. From describing a picturesque summer evening in standout “Ft. Lee, VA” to chronicling the life and times of the titular character in “Ambulance Chaser,” vocalist Rosa Del Duca nails the lyrics. She has strong control over her voice as well, lending these tunes a knowing, confident air. White Lies is fun to listen to on all levels, as hummable melodies, interesting arrangements, and memorable lyrics abound. This seven-song release is very worth your time.
I associate Damien Jurado with fragile, delicate folk, so it’s no surprise that my favorite tunes on Maraqopa are the quietest. “Working Titles” pairs a gentle ukulele strum with swooning backup vocals and very high steel drum notes (no foolin’) to create a swaying, beautiful tune. “Museum of Flight” depends on Jurado’s falsetto to sell the dreamy tune, and it works out perfectly. The rest of the album is a bit noisier, moving almost over into the dream-pop/indie-pop realm instead of the singer/songwriter genre that he established himself in. It’s definitely a unique sound that new fans may enjoy and embrace. It’s a tough sell for this old-school fan, though.
When you know the rules, even the decisions you make to break them are made in relation to the rules. Sometimes this results in Jackson Pollock, but mostly it results in field homogenization that takes the mysterious x factor called “genius” to transcend. But if you never knew the rules to begin with, all bets are off–anything can happen.
Sfumato‘s These Things Between… is the folky embodiment of the latter phenomenon. Singer/songwriter Daithí Ó hÉignigh is “essentially a drummer” who decided to write and arrange a complex folk album. As a result, these 11 songs feature all sorts of sounds, rhythms and arrangements that I didn’t expect. I listened to this album for far longer than I usually do when writing a review, because it took a long time for me to figure out what was happening.
Because the homogenization of a field doesn’t just affect what musicians write, it affects how listeners hear. People are in love with Babel because it pulls off all the pop-folk moves perfectly; These Things Between… is a difficult listen for someone conditioned to hear music in that way. Even though the signifiers of folk are present (strummed acoustic guitar, pensive moods, emotive voice), what is a gospel choir doing in “Ostia”? “Mo ghrá” is in Gaelic? “Fly to Me” features a calliope-style organ; “Pound” accentuates unusual rhythms. This is a brain-expander, and goodness knows I need it after the musical candy that is Mumford and Sons, Avett Brothers and The Mountain Goats all releasing albums within weeks of each other.
After an eclectic start, the center of the album is a bit more standard. “The Past” incorporates bass guitar and organ drone in familiar patterns (Decemberists!), while “Song to Myself” shows off a wheezing saxophone in a style similar to Bon Iver’s Colin Stetson. By the end of the album, the unusual arrangements have returned: the title track is a heavily rhythmic tune that relies on conga drums, an unrecognizable instrument and Celtic-inspired strings. Still, the closer is solo acoustic track “I Was Hoping You Might…,” which reminded me of Damien Jurado in its starkness.
These Things Between… is perfectly titled, as its songs walk down the line between familiarity and otherness. There are detours to both sides, but overall it exists in a space that will challenge your conventional listening habits. If you’re into something a little outside your (and my) Mumfordy comfort zone, Sfumato should be one place to check out.
Ty Maxon‘s music is beautiful. It was gorgeous in 2009’s Furthest From the Tree, and it’s still so in this year’s Calling of the Crows. Maxon plays intricate acoustic tunes that can be categorized as folk, but their appeal transcends those looking for rustic purity of sound. Furthest had a knowing, distanced, Nick Drake-esque whimsy to it; Calling has a much more intimate, Damien Jurado-esque vibe. The wink is gone, replaced with a wry smile.
This lends the album a mellow, gentle feel. No track here is particularly fast, nor is any one track given inordinate attention. These tracks are all on equal footing, each taking their place in the album and contributing. Some may say that the cascading notes and easy-going tempos don’t change enough from tune to tune, but I like the consistency here. The album comes together to be a unified musical statement, and that’s rare in this day and age. Harmonica, drums and more make occasional appearances, but generally this is the province of Maxon’s voice and guitar. Both don’t get too loud or intense, and instead unveil depth and beauty.
If you’re into stately, gently emotive folk, you’ll be all over this. A perfect lazy porch, gentle rain, hammocking Sunday in the fall would definitely include Calling of the Crows.
I love compilation albums, SXSW, live recordings and serious music. So it’s no surprise that I would love New Media Recordings‘ Selections from NMR Live! Showcase SXSW, which combines all of the aforementioned. NMR is a recording studio and production facility in Fort Worth, Texas, and it shows: this live recording is impressively captured and preserved. So those who hate live recordings for the bad sound quality, fear not.
On to the music: NMR has given us 25 songs from 8 bands spread over an hour and a half. It’s not one-sitting listening. However, it is a good introduction to these artists, as each gets more than the usual single shot to tell their story. Spooky Folk opens the comp with “Polaroid,” which is one of the loudest tunes on the album (and subsequently one of the most difficult to mix – so take my previous note on “impressively captured” with a grain of salt on this track) by easily the loudest of the bands featured. “Polaroid” has an Arcade Fire-esque grandeur, as charging guitars and pounding drums are met with soaring vocals and swooping strings. It’s a great song to kick off the album with, as it sets a high bar for quality.
Most of the other bands meet the challenge. The bulk of the music on the comp is of the serious singer/songwriter type: a Damien Jurado song is fittingly covered, and I thought several times of stately anguish of Songs:Ohia throughout. Jeremy Buller, who played the aformentioned “Oh Death Art With Me” cover, plays especially powerfully on these recordings: The intimate “A Gift and Growing It” creates a gripping mood and expounds on it for six minutes. His “Untitled” is even more sparse, but no less riveting in its mood.
You may remember that I love everything about The Angelus. They contribute stripped-down versions of their dark, foreboding tunes; instead of acoustic guitar only, it’s electric guitar and voice. It fits incredibly well for the Angelus’ tunes while showing a whole new side of the tunes.
Don and Curtis of The Theater Fire, The Migrant, and Clint Niosi contribute more upbeat, often-major-key tunes, but these are by no means throwaway pop songs. The Theater Fire members created a storytellers’ mood to spin tales about life from Cain’s perspective, the thought processes of a rebellious rambler, and a Magnetic Fields cover (“All My Little Words”). The Migrant’s tunes are imported with weight through the vocal performances and lyrics more so than the acoustic guitar work–another line drawn to Jurado. Clint Niosi’s clear vocals and precise picking (“Wild West”) nearest appropriated what we consider folk these days.
The electronic music wild a capella music of Dreamboat Crusaderz and the ominous constructions of Weird Weeds didn’t catch my ear, but six out of eight on a comp is a high success rate. The creators of Selections from NMR Live! Showcase SXSW have a well-tuned ear, and this release is very worth your time if you’re into the genre.
Growing up on punk bands, I was initially wary of artists that only used their name or used their name plus the word band. (“How uncreative,” I thought. “They don’t even pick a band name.”) Once I fell in love with Damien Jurado, the initial fear began to drop off. I now understand the differences between the three: a named band is an ostensibly equal effort between all players, a “my name band” very clearly spotlights one person but has valuable contributions from other band members that can’t be easily replaced, and a solo artist’s band has largely interchangable instrumentalists. Of course, there are exceptions (The Silver Jews and The Mountain Goats come to mind), but in a perfect world, that’s how it would roll.
The Andrew Luttrell Band is one of those middle type of bands. Luttrell has picked himself out a pretty excellent group, as the unit throws down a tight amalgam of frantic alt-country and Hendrix-esque psychedelia on Paint by Numbers. The 6:30 of opener “Landscape Plains” establishes the sound well: a wide-open, desert-country intro gives way into a traditional country rhythm section–with a Luttrell’s winding guitar solo on top of it. Luttrell’s vision of country is slightly different than the rest of ours, and that’s to listeners’ good. “Sara Sota” and “Sister Goes Bad” are ominous constructions that split the difference between grim country and ripping psych, and they register as some of the most memorable tunes on the album.
Luttrell’s inspired vocal performances help; he can sneer with the best of them, and that only exacerbates the edge inherent in these tunes. “Draggin’ That Line” pushes over into full-on psych mode, but Luttrell’s matter-of-fact, incisive vocal delivery reins in the instrumental enthusiasm. His earnest performances aren’t quite as compelling, but “Landscape Plains” and “Three’s a Crowd” both are improved by passionate but non-angry vox. Ballad mode is out of Luttrell’s vocal comfort zone, though, making “Blink” one of the few low notes on the album.
The Andrew Luttrell Band covers a lot of ground in 10 songs, going from traditional country (“Thursday Morning Two Forty Five”) to glint-in-his-eye alt-country (“Sara Sota”) to full-on psych (“Draggin’ That Line”) to weird sonic interludes (“Abstract Recessionism”) and more. It’s a fun ride, made especially so by the tunes where the band just nails the space between psych and country that few have memorably explored recently. Adventurous listeners, take heed.