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.
Novi Split is going through the great reconsideration right now. Between Spare Songs, Keep Moving, Disk 2 and If Not This, Then What, David J has spent the last three months publicizing, re-publicizing, and in some cases unearthing everything that his singer/songwriter project has done. In case you the missed the incredible work of David J over the last decade, he’s making himself easy to find now.
And that’s good, because these three releases show an impressive songwriter with a golden voice and a crisp, earnest singer/songwriter style. Let’s start with Keep Moving, Disk 2, which puts the focus on his 2003 debut, Keep Moving. Even though it invokes the title of the original album, it could more accurately be titled Pretty Much Everything I Did Between My First and Second Album, which was almost exactly four years from Jan 2003-Jan 2007.
Disk 2 collects great tracks off obscure EPs (“Get Me to Bed”), devastatingly beautiful covers (Material Issue’s “Very First Lie,” Robyn Hitchcock’s “Madonna of the Wasps”), surprisingly pretty demos (“California Skies”), and an aptly titled instrumental (“Instrumental”). It also includes no less than 21 live tracks, which are mostly of Keep Moving tracks. It is a deep dive into the catalog of Novi Split, and it will leave you charmed, pleased, and puzzled that Novi Split isn’t more well known. “The New Split (Live)” deeply moves me. “Me and Andy” has been one of my favorite songs for years. This reconsideration couldn’t come soon enough.
Once you’ve been blown away by his early work, let’s pick up with some mid-period stuff in Spare Songs. Pink in the Sink was a decidedly more hi-fi affair, and the songs on Spare Songs show that. “I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now” seems to have mixing and mastering, a luxury that was not expended on some of the early tracks. This by no means diminishes the charm of the early ones or raises the stature of the new ones. It merely makes them sound different.
David J’s voice gets featured a little less here, as his pristine songwriting gets played up. “Don’t Go Home” is an absolutely gorgeous piano tune, while “Pear” (a song I’ve never heard before) is a gentle, thoughtful instrumental that links up to previous tracks in the distant horn line. (Similar horn melodies will resurface in other songs–it’s a bonus, not a detractor. Trust me.) Spare Songs is capped by a delightfully weird and wonderful version of “Dancing in the Dark.” I like this version better than the Springsteen original, for real.
And finally, we make it to If Not This, Then What, which includes brand new versions of songs off Pink in the Sink (“You Got Served,” “Young Girls”), songs that got released between PITS and now (“Hollow Notes”), and a brand new cover (Blaze Foley’s “Clay Pigeons”). Through it all, David J displays the intimacy that characterized his early works with the pristine songwriting and hi-fi production of his later work. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: David J’s voice and songwriting sound effortless, as if he just opens his mouth and the music comes out. He’s significantly more alt-country than he used to be, but it’s not a twangy-voiced alt-country but a pedal-steel affection. It’s downright beautiful stuff.
Now that Novi Split has cleared out every corner of the vault, I hope that we’ll be seeing some brand new work in the upcoming years. With all his work available and easily accessible for the first time ever (you have no idea how hard I worked to track down all the tracks that are now available on a single Bandcamp page), hopefully people will start to pick up on an unheralded, underappreciated master of the craft.
The delicate, personal work of Novi Split is deeply underappreciated. I understand why: the songwriting project of David J specializes in erratically-timed releases that seem purposefully calculated to fly under the radar. His 2004 release Keep Moving blew my mind, so I have powered through these roadblocks ever since then to track down his music. However, not everyone enjoys scouring the corners of the Internet for tunes (2005 forever!), so Novi Split has stayed a mostly personal joy.
But now David J has collected four songs into the Creeping Around Your Face EP, his first proper release since 2011. The two originals and two covers are delicate, gorgeous tunes that showcase everything that is good and right with this band. David J’s gentle voice sounds completely effortless, as his tenor is clear, warm, and precise. He pairs his easygoing vocals with tidy, even fragile fingerpicked acoustic work. If Iron & Wine’s early work had been recorded hi-fi, it may have sounded like this.
The title track opens the set: “hold me in the dark/until the morning light come creeping around your face.” It’s a deeply romantic tune that looks not just at the highs of love, but the trials and travails of commitment to another person: “It’s so hard to be back home/and it’s so brutal to be on your own/and it’s been two weeks now, and I haven’t changed/says we are who we are, and we essentially stay the same.” The strings swell, the banjo plucks, and the drums create a nice backdrop to the optimistic, moving conclusion: “Baby, let’s have another baby,” repeated until David J’s voice fades away.
Iris Dement’s “Our Town” comes next, with David J adding his own arrangement style to it nicely. (You may know it as the song that played throughout the whole last scene of the last episode of Northern Exposure.) David J has an ear for finding songs that have sweetness and sadness in them; among the obscure tracks spread about the Internet are covers of Robyn Hitchcock’s “Madonna of the Wasps” and Material Issue’s “Very First Lie,” which both show off the talent. “Our Town” and the other cover, Daniel Ahearn’s “Light of God,” both have that tension of sweet and sad, which I’m a total sucker for. I don’t think I’ll able to hear the originals without thinking of Novi’s versions. That’s the mark of a great cover.
“Stupid” is a little more upbeat than the other three tunes, but it still retains a gentle, nylon-strings guitar feel. A country vibe rings in this one, with an electric guitar doing its best pedal steel impression. Distant horns give the track a majestic, stately feel, and the overall impact is impressive. It’s clear that a great amount of work went into making these songs sound like they happened effortlessly.
I don’t usually throw down 500 words about four songs, but Novi Split is completely worth the treatment. The Creeping Around Your Face EP is a masterful quartet of tunes by an artist who has been doing this for a very long time. If you’re a fan of intimate, personal, romantic singer/songwriters like Ray LaMontagne and David Ramirez, then you need to know about Novi Split. David J is one of the best songwriters we have writing today, and there needs to be more people on that train.
Songs:Ohia plays a critical role in my musical history, somewhat akin to the lack of respect Bob Welch gets for keeping Fleetwood Mac together until they could get around to recording awesome things.
In my transition from “Super Good Feeling” to “Get Lonely,” Songs:Ohia was one of two artists who would entice me to jump from the poppy precipice of Transatlanticism to the downtempo jeremiads of Damien Jurado and The Mountain Goats. Without the influence of those latter two bands, this blog would probably not still exist. So, indirectly, you and I both owe a debt to Jason Molina (and David J of Novi Split, who was the second guide).
The emotions that Elephant Micah‘s Louder Than Thou conjures up in me match almost exactly the ones I felt while listening to Songs:Ohia’s “The Lioness” as a teenager. This is an incredible statement: I had chalked up this intense connection with S:A’s slow, weighty songs up to “my first time.” For a band to repeat in me that sort of emotion amid my now-steady diet of folk and singer/songwriter is stunning.
Pre-Magnolia ELectric Co. Jason Molina originally intrigued me for several reasons. I am intrigued by Joseph O’Connell (the songwriter behind EM) for the same reasons:
1. He is very talented, although the simple musicianship bears no ostentatious markers of technical skill.
2. He imbues songs with honest, weighty emotion.
3. He is unafraid to play a slow, quiet song for a very long time.
I started to feel the old longing during the second track, “Won These Wings.” A slowly thumped tom and sparse yet terse notes on an acoustic guitar create the backdrop for O’Connell’s plaintive voice; far-off background vocals and some sort of woodwind form intermittent ghostly asides. The whole thing just feels heavy; but more than that, it feels compelling. Instead of being wallpaper music, this is gripping. You know those movies where the soundtrack is so integral and vital that it should be credited as a supporting actor? The 7:25 “Won These Wings” is that sort of tune.
The length here is notable in the context of everyone else’s work, but not so much in comparison to the rest of the album. The six songs on Louder Than Thou run just over 36 minutes, meaning that one EM song averages the span of two pop songs. The shambling, uplifting “My Cousin’s King,” the shortest song, clocks in at 4:29. It could have gone longer and been totally fine: these songs sprawl, and they’re all the better for it.
That’s the lesson to be learned from “If I Were a Surfer,” which is the song that caused me to think of Songs:Ohia for the first time in years. The strum pattern isn’t complicated, the drum part isn’t difficult, and the vocal line isn’t virtuosic. But the parts come together in such a heart-rending way that none of that matters. “Let it lie where it lands / I’ll start all over again,” O’Connell sings with female harmony over a graceful, whirring organ. It’s no lyric shooting for the heart of reality, nor is it a hugely orchestrated epic moment. It is, instead, a testament to patience, dignity and craft. It is beautiful.
The skill and hard work it takes to write songs of such seemingly effortless elegance is hard to overstate. Elephant Micah‘s Louder Than Thou is not louder than much, really. But it is far more resonant than most, and that’s why I can’t stop listening to it.
Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of instrumental music. We write about those trying to make the next step in their careers and established artists.