1. “Mirrors” – Mos Isley. Triumphant folk-pop that’s exciting without going over the top into cliche.
2. “Glow” – The National Parks. Big instrumental melodies, lots of instruments, charming vocal melodies, subtle-enough-to-not-be-gimmicky underlying electronic beats; this folky indie song is just a blast.
3. “Vintage” – High Dive Heart. Throw technicolor girl pop, white rap, a banjo, and folk-pop harmonies in a blender and you get out this enigmatically engaging song. This song doesn’t make any sense to me in so many ways and yet I love it. It just works. Amazing. (Video direct link: )
4. “Ancient Burial Ground” – Kye Alfred Hillig. Hillig gives us the demos of his new album before it’s released, and you can color me excited: this tune and the handful of others that come with it are chipper musically and intricate lyrically, just like his best work. Watch for Great Falls Memorial Interchange in 2016.
5. “Canada” – Nikki Gregoroff. “The people are nice cross the border,” sings Gregoroff, which is just a really nice thing to write into a Simon and Garfunkel-esque tune.
6. “Chantilly Grace” – Granville Automatic. Bell-clear female vocals lead this tune that looks back to vintage Americana (that fiddle!) and forward to modern alt-country melodies.
7. “Bliss Mill” – Matthew Carter. The laid-back chill vibe and unhurried vocals of Alexi Murdoch meets the shuffle-snare of traditional country/folk for a memorable tune.
8. “Set Sail” – Matt Monoogian. Monoogian’s calm voice leads this acoustic track with an intricate arrangement that pulls the Gregory Alan Isakov trick of feeling both comfortingly small and confidently big.
9. “Bentonville Blues” – Adam Hill. A protest song for the modern day working poor, Hill captures the everyman ethos with great delivery of relatable lyrics, simpple arrangement of singalong melodies, and a the burned-but-not-killed mentality similar to old-time protest work songs.
10. “Itasca County” – Rosa del Duca. The frontman of folk outfit hunters. releases her own album of singer/songwriter tunes that focus on her voice and lyrics, both of which are in fine form on this rolling, harmonica-splashed tune.
11. “Tongue Tied” – Oktoba. That space between soul, folk, and singer/songwriter keeps getting more populated: let in Oktoba, whose offering isn’t as overtly sensuous as some but is just as romantic (and hummable)!
12. “The Blue” – David Porteous. Canadian Porteous beautifully splits the difference between two UK singer/songwriters here by invoking Damien Rice’s sense of intense romantic intimacy and David Gray’s widescreen pop arrangements.
13. “Whirlpool Hymnal” – Matthew Squires and the Learning Disorders. Squires expands his yearning, searching alt-folk to include found sounds–the lyrics are just as thought-provoking and honest as ever.
14. “Playground” – Myopic. The fragile swoon of a violin bounces off the stately plunk of melodic percussion in this thoughtful instrumental piece.
15. “Siphoning Gas” – Luke Redfield. This gentle, ambient soundscape is the sound of looking out the window when rain is coming down and you don’t have to go anywhere or do anything but cuddle up with a blanket and a book in a big bay window and enjoy it.
The two extremes of specialization and increasing generalization are always at work. Muse is all-inclusive of sounds; hypnagogic pop is exclusive of all but a particular subset of sounds. These elements will always exist in the pop music world. Stolen Silver‘s We Have Everything, We Have Nothing trends toward the all-inclusive side of things: although an acoustic guitar anchors almost all their songs, they span the range from modern folk (“A River Only Borrows”) to adult alternative pop (“Prefontaine”) to NeedToBreathe-style Southern-pop-rock (“Blue”) to upbeat indie-folk-pop (“Carbon Copy”). Stolen Silver can do a lot of different things, and it can do many of them well.
If you’re going to go chameleon on your listeners, you need to have a strong vocalist and a versatile band. Stolen Silver has both, as the evocative tenor is comfortable with all sorts of rhythms and melodies. There’s an available falsetto, as well as a strong range before the head voice. The vocals fit neatly into the diverse song structures, because the band gives excellent songs to put vocals on top of. The band is strong in creating moods, which helps when there’s a variety of styles conveyed. I believe the airtight, pop-friendly arrangement of “Prefontaine” as much as the quieter alt-country arrangement of “Come Back to Chicago,” and that’s a testament to the band’s strength of songwriting.
If you’re interested in a diverse set of acoustic-based sounds that trend toward Matt Nathanson/David Gray acoustic pop, you’ll really enjoy Stolen Silver’s We Have Everything, We Have Nothing.
It’s always a bit unusual for me when songs that I’ve known only in performance make their way to tape. The Fox and The Bird‘s Darkest Hours is composed of songs that I’ve heard the Dallas-based band perform over the past three years since their impressive 2011 debut Floating Feather. “Saints,” “Valley,” and “No Man’s Land” are tunes that have lived in my memory long before they ever found a home on this album, so it’s a bit like welcoming old friends back into my home than meeting new people. Keep that in mind as I praise the album.
The Fox and the Bird is a real chipper folk-pop outfit musically, but their lyrics have a complicated, melancholy tinge. Darkest Hours makes obvious with the title a strand of thought started in their debut. “The Wreck of the Fallible,” “Valley,” and “Habit” all weave together human frailty, the petty ugliness of our actions, redemption, and hope into complex lyrics that keep me pondering as I hum along. “Valley” is especially contradictory in this regard, as I find myself humming the dramatic line “And it was every bit as bad / as our father said” without feeling particularly bad. “Habit” is about a history of violence, sung in an perky, old-school Decemberists vein.
Amid the tension and feeling, there is at least one track that is just happy. “No Man’s Land” is a song of hope, passion, and western expansion that includes jubilant trumpet and a sweeping set of “oh-whoa-oh”s in the chorus. But other than that, it’s charming melodies and back-porch banjo of “Ashes” supporting a conflicted lyric set about loneliness, and the beautiful vintage country harmonies of “Dallas” elucidating how Dallas is a pretty terrible place. (“Dallas is a rich man with a death wish in his eyes / A steel and concrete soul with a warm hearted love disguise.”)
So The Fox and the Bird are not The Lumineers: while both can write folk-pop and country tunes that are melodic, memorable, even masterful, the goals of Darkest Hours are quite different than those of “Ho Hey” or “Classy Girls.” This isn’t to knock either band–it’s to point out that fans of Lumineers’ musical qualities might very well enjoy The Fox and the Bird’s music, but might find the lyrics frustrating or even difficult. Others who are fans of challenging lyrics will find an impressive amount of care and thought put into the lyrics, and they might just dig the extremely strong folk-pop stylings. It’s clear that Darkest Hours was crafted over years instead of months: these tunes shine musically and lyrically. The result is one of my favorite albums of the year so far.
I have often sung the praises of Novi Split, so I’m thrilled that David J is moving into an active phase of his production. His most recent release is a split 7″ with fellow Los Angelenos Brown and Blue. Amazingly, the two bands secured Split7Inch.Bandcamp.com to host the thing–although the availability of their seems-like-it-would-already-be-taken website is only one of the impressive things about the split.
Both bands incorporate country influences and focus on gentle vocals; B&B adds a country sway to a quiet indie-rock ballad of sorts in “Honeymoon Suite,” while Novi Split adds pedal steel to the hushed singer/songwriter vibe of “Stupid.” Both bands have a deeply romantic streak running through the lyrics and overall feel, making them great split partners. My only quibble with this is 7 minutes is awfully short for such a great match. Thankfully, both bands are releasing EPs in March–I’ll just play them back to back and call it good. Definitely check out this release.
It is extremely hard for me to resist romantic music. I don’t just mean love songs, although I’m hard-pressed to ignore those; I mean romantic in the literary sense, romanticism that idealizes love and loss and feeling as near to the highest manifestations of the human soul. Damien Rice and early 2000s emo have a lot in common, you know?
Arctic Tern‘s Leaves EP is a passionately romantic album that combines the emotive vocals of David Gray or Josh Garrels with pristine, gentle arrangements of Sleeping at Last and Gregory Alan Isakov. A lilting Irish air to the vocals only makes the sound more appealing. “Light a Fire” is the most polished of the tunes, a full arrangement with good motion, even a quiet urgency, throughout the track. Other tracks show off Arctic Tern’s (one person, naturally: the solitary genius is a beloved romantic-era invention) prowess with just an acoustic guitar: “Love is Not a Game” and “Ties” have stark sections and yet are still smooth. “Love is Not a Game” expands into a tune with swooping cello, melancholy piano, and glockenspiel–it’s an absolutely beautiful piece.
Arctic Tern’s sound falls somewhere between searching and content: the lyrics speak of the anxious space between love and not, but the arrangements are strong and confident. This is music to chill out to, to make out to, to be thoughtful to. It’s music that gets into the spaces of your mind and smooths those jagged edges, even if only for a little while. It’s an EP that caused me to repeat it 8 times in one day. That’s a mighty accomplishment.
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.
The piano-based pop of Red Wolf Forest’s self-titled album presents a unique problem: does 1+1+1 equal three or one? In a perfect world, the band’s combination of ’90s-style pop melodies, ’00s-style modern pop song structures and Muse-style stadium pop embellishments would mesh neatly into a striking, original sound — and its best moments, it does. The three parts stand apart from each other in other tunes, making for some ambiguous math.
The songs are enjoyable when they stick firmly in a genre: “No Regrets” calls up David Gray comparisons in the highly emotive melody and mood, “Keep a Secret” is extremely evocative for fans of “Creep”-era pop, and the synths and distorted guitars of “A Stitch in Time” will make fans of Matthew Bellamy and co. stand up and take notice. Other tunes appropriate the genres to lesser extent (“Live,” “Sinking”).
The reason I’m making a qualms with “enjoyable” is that closer “Endless Love” combines all three of their favorite affectations and creates something bigger (and potentially interesting) than the three genres alone. The synths are there, but they’re not the point; the vocals have ’90s inflections, but they don’t overdo it; the song’s structure will be quite familiar to anyone versed in pop or indie rock in the last ten years, but it’s not derivative.
The song is unique and interesting, although not quite as engaging or confident as some of the songs that remain firmly in a genre. This is no knock to the skill of Red Wolf Forest: Expansion on established work is one thing, while synthesis is quite another. I applaud the band for taking a risk, and hope they continue to put themselves out there.
Red Wolf Forest has the beginnings of a unique vision waiting to be developed. The band needs to grow into this sound, which is why they’re on my horizon. But in sports language, they’ve got a ton of upside built in.
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.