David Rosales‘ Along the Way is the sort of full-throated, big-hearted alt-country that gets play on Hot Country stations as the authentic arm of their coverage. It’s poignant yet poppy; perky, but not saccharine. The vocals occasionally veer into John Mayer zones, then realign themselves with Zac Brown, then mope sullenly off into David Ramirez territory. It’s the perfect midpoint between rough’n’tumble and (old school) Taylor Swift.
The first half of “Amelie’s Song” is full of swooping pedal steel, pensive banjo, and soaring vocals that tug at the heartstrings; they kick up the pace for the back half and turn it into a foot-stomping barnburner. “Strike Gold” uses harmonica expertly. Rattling train-whistle snare drum patterns appear everywhere.
The songs are most endearing when Rosales fully accepts this role of balladeer-gets-happy: “Slice of Heaven” is a turn-it-up singalong with indelible melodies, while “Too Young to Know Any Better” shows the opposite side by teasing the sadness out of his sound with a mournful melody and lyric. There’s levity in the arrangement, but it’s still a wistful tune. I’m really into dudes with acoustic guitars and pop chops singing (alt-?) country tunes without the giant Nashville sheen, so I’m into David Rosales. There’s still some sheen, but I’m not put off by it. It sells me. I’m sold.
This was the year of the EP. I received way more EPs than albums this year, which made choosing this list harder than choosing the albums of the year. While there’s a whole post waiting to be written about why EPs are the present and future of music, for now it’s enough to say that the music in these EPs stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the work in albums. The EP should not be considered an inferior format; it can pack quite a lot into its shorter run times. Here’s to the EP.
10. Forever and Always – Quiet Stories. An eclectic EP of diverse songwriting styles; some hushed and intimate, some boisterous and brash. Constant: melodies galore.
9. House on the Mountain – Teen Daze. My favorite electronic artist gets a little more analog, but doesn’t lose any chillwave-y charm. Quirky, beautiful, peppy.
8. Sweet Virginia – Sunny Jim Brown. Pensive, thoughtful, raw folky songwriting that just sounds gorgeous.
7. Twin Forks – Twin Forks. “THAT’S A LOVE THAT! CAN’T BE BROKEN! THAT’S THE STING OF! A HEART CUT OPEN!” Yes.
6. Where Eyes Don’t Go – The Gray Havens. It was the year of the guy/girl folk-pop duo, and The Gray Havens were one of my favorites. Leaning toward the pop side, Dave and Licia play jaunty, fun tunes that will get you to sing along. Neatly balancing whimsy and seriousness, they stole my heart.
5. The Rooster – David Ramirez. If Ramirez’s deep, resonant baritone doesn’t touch you, the deeply romantic lyrics will. Absolutely gorgeous.
4. The Long Ride Home – Wolfcryer. A man and a guitar is an old recipe, but you don’t have to use a different recipe if the ingredients are high quality. Matt Baumann’s songs rely heavily on his emotive voice and passionate guitarwork, resulting in spacious, wide-open tunes that are perfect for long solo drives. A very strong opening salvo.
3. Somewhere Near the River – Little Chief. In a Mumford world, it’s good to play full-band folk. But it’s hard to stand out while doing so, which is why Little Chief caught my attention. Their nuanced songwriting and great cello work set them apart from the ever-growing pack of folky bands.
2. Creeping Around Your Face – Novi Split. One of my favorite songwriters from the earliest days of IC releases a four-song wonder that shows off all his talents. Precise arrangements, effortless melodies, heartrending poignancy, and covers that he takes complete control over. His is a truly singular vision, carving out space in a crowded field to demand attention.
1. For Tomorrow Will Worry About Itself EP – Fiery Crash. The culmination of a massive year that saw Fiery Crash put out five releases, this 7-song EP is the best of Josh Jackson’s work yet. Rolling folk tunes meet songs adorned with fuzzy reverb. New songs, reworkings, and hymns share space. Throughout it all, Jackson delivers earnest musings with real gravitas. This could be the start of something incredible.
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.
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.
David Ramirez is very quickly becoming one of my favorite songwriters. It’s not just his engrossing baritone voice or powerful melodies, nor is it solely his intimate production. Those are all reasons that David Ramirez is at the top of his game. The reason he’s beating out others and being at the top of the game is his willingness to take on unusual topics with a refreshing candor. The five songs of The Rooster feature touching love ballads, a breakup song, and some outlaw country remorse, but highlight “The Forgiven” talks about the struggles of being an artist in a new light.
Among his fingerpicked notes, Ramirez announces,
“They love me for be honest/they love me for being myself/but the minute I mention Jesus/they want me to go hell/And it’s hard to find the a balance/when I don’t believe in one./When you mix art with business/you’re just shooting an empty gun.”
I’d quote the rest of the song for you, because it’s beautiful, passionate, and poignant, but you should just listen for yourself. As a Christian who works primarily not in Christian arenas, this song resonated deeply with me. It is heartening to hear Ramirez struggle with the whole of himself as part of his songwriting, and that struggle is worth my highest stamp of approval.
It’s not all deep thoughts about the role of the songwriter: “Fire of Time” is a gorgeous song about the redemption that people can help each other find, while “Glory” is just a beautiful love song. Each of these are treated in the stark, riveting style I mentioned up top. In short, The Rooster is high on the list for best EP of the year, because there’s nothing here that isn’t in top form. If you like the singer/songwriter genre and haven’t heard of David Ramirez yet, you need to fix that immediately.
There’s two ways to get on my good side: put a new spin on an old genre or make that old genre work perfectly. The Naked Sun have taken the latter approach to alt-country, pulling together all the old tropes of the genre and making them sing on the four-song Space, Place and Time EP. The usual suspects are here: acoustic guitar, organ, pedal steel (or its electric guitar approximation), and earnest tenor vocals with a bit of raw timbre. The thing to celebrate in The Naked Sun is its arrangement of these tried and true parts, creating memorable moments and melodies out of a deep genre knowledge.
“Debbie Deist” is a country waltz like I would expect to find in an old-time saloon: howling vocals over jaunty piano, a simple drumbeat, and multipart harmonies. When the emotive guitar solo kicked in, I was totally sold. That’s not virtuouso egoism, that’s heart and soul, my friends.
The gentle “Cosmic Winds” calls up comparisons to modern folkies, while the guitar hook of “Fatigue” pulls the song in a bit more artsy direction than traditional alt-country. Still, it feels comfortable within the EP and the genre, like old hands pushing the boundaries a little before settling back into the know-’em-by-heart verses. “Rough Diamond” closes out the set with a flowing, contemplative piece. It’s a strong four-song set, and one that fans of alt-country will find themselves drawn to. No flash, no frills, just strong, strong songwriting.
David Ramirez dropped an absolutely mindblowing EP named The Rooster yesterday, and “The Bad Days” is the first cut from the release. If you like singer/songwriters or folk or country or whatever we’re calling it these days, check this out: David Ramirez is winning the game. I’ll have a full rave about it in a few days, but right now, this:
Hoodie Allen has largely graduated from the indie-rock-flipping beats that made me fall in love with him, so it’s nice to hear him doing stuff that kinda goes in that direction. This track is a collaboration with acoustic singer/songwriter Kina Grannis, and it’s pretty awesome. Furthermore, the Mets get a shout-out, so I’m automatically in love with the track. Kina and Hoodie also covered “Anna Sun” by Walk the Moon, which was pretty legit too.
Dresses is from Portland, which explains why the video for jubilant indie-pop tune “Sun Shy” could be called “How to Hipster, 2013 Edition.” I love everything about the song and the video. Holla.
If you’ve got 18 minutes to experience some beautiful tunes, Adam Remnant (of rambunctious alt-country outfit Southeast Engine) debuted four brilliant new acoustic songs on a front porch in the middle of the woods. His weary tenor voice is in full glory in that atmosphere, evocative to a heartbreaking point. Yes. You want to listen to this.
The album isn’t dead, as you’ll see when my top albums of the year list rolls around tomorrow. But these songs stuck out over and above the albums that encompassed them–or not, as #4’s album has yet to be released. Viva la album, viva la single.
In an age of disruption, it is profoundly comforting to see someone doggedly carrying on a torch that so many want to decry, digitize or destroy altogether. Everything from digital streaming to high gas prices makes it hard to be a craftsman of song right now, but David Ramirez doesn’t care. He’s a rambling troubadour who has looked for redemption in a bar stool, but instead found it in God and women. He loves traveling the country, until he misses family, friends and women. These are timeworn, careworn themes, and Ramirez treats them with dignity by falling right into the stream and carving his own niche in the flow.
Ramirez undeniably has heard, learned from and played with a ton of other singer/songwriters, and he shows no intentions of being experimental in any regard. But that’s what it means to be a part of a craft: Ramirez saw and heard, and now says so that others can hear. Are these songs beautiful? Undeniably, incredibly so. They come invested with a depth of history that resonates through Ramirez’s weary yet confident voice. You can hear it in the steady strum, and in the turns of phrase. Many have been here, and many will come after. And the mark in time that is Apologies will add into the chorus of songs and albums that someone (hopefully someones) in the next generation of songwriters will be influenced by. Ramirez himself muses on learning in the opening lines of the album:
“Well I never paid attention when I was a young boy
To the great instructions from the ones that came before me
Now that I’m older I long to pay attention
But it doesn’t seem like anyone is saying much of anything”
Opener “Chapter II” is one of the highlights of the album; a self-aware rumination that culminates in the poignant claim, “Well I’ve been holding on so long it seems, That what I’m holding has been holding me.” Voice and earthy acoustic guitar form the basis of the tune, just as they form the basis of the rest of the songs on the album. Contributions from a full band fill out some tunes (“An Introduction,” “Dancing and Vodka,” “Mighty Fine”), while banjo, piano, and harmonica make occasional solo appearances. But the heart of this album is Ramirez’s baritone and six-string, which is why standout tracks “Goodbye” and “Find the Light” rely on those two elements.
All eleven tracks on Apologies are keepers; there’s not a clunker in the batch. The highs are very high, and the lows are pretty high too. It’s definitely on the consideration list for Top Ten of the year, because the songs just resonate with a deep part of me that wants traditions to live on. We can have new traditions (I’m stoked for M&S’ and the Avetts’ new albums, just like everyone else), but there’s a rare joy in hearing something that could have been written 50 years ago being turned out now. I hope that we will be able to hear some fantastic songwriter 50 years from now who knows the value of considering the past in the process of creating weighty tunes. Because that’s what David Ramirez has done here: written strong tunes that could go on to be learned, loved and covered. Bravo.
Now my SXSW fervor has kicked into high gear: I sent out the “Who’s playing SXSW?” e-mail to all the bands that IC has covered in the last four years. With some luck and good planning, I’ll be able to see a large number of bands with which I’ve previously only had a computer-mediated relationship.
I can’t wait to hear of more IC bands who will be kicking it at SXSW. If you’re going, hit me up with an e-mail (indieclauses[at]gmail.com) or a tweet (Scarradini). SXSW is crazy, and I don’t know who all I’ll be able to see, but I want to know who’s going to be there. Awesome.
Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.