1. “New Moon” – Namesayers. The lead guitar here is angular, cranky, and brittle, contrasting against the swirling, low-key psychedelia laid down by the rest of instruments and Devin James Fry’s mystical croon. It makes for an intriguing rock that sounds like midnight in the desert with a big bonfire going. (Which is pretty much what the title and the album art convey, so this one has its imagery and soundscapes really tight in line.)
2. “O Zephyr” – Ptarmigan. It’s tough to be a serious alt-folk band without sounding over-earnest or overly ironic. Ptarmigan finds the perfect center, where it sounds like a bunch of people who love folk and have something to say are making their noise how they want. Fans of River Whyless, Fleet Foxes (often violators of the over-earnest, but nonetheless), and Barr Brothers will enjoy this.
3. “Axolotl” – Lord Buffalo. Lord Buffalo specializes in primal, pounding, apocalyptic pieces that build from small beginnings to terrifying heights. This is an A+ example of the form.
4. “A Miracle Mile” – St. Anthony and the Mystery Train. Equally apocalyptic as above, but in a more Southern Gothic, Nick Cave, howl-and-clatter style of indie-rock than the all-out-sonic assault. A wild ride.
5. “Spring” – Trevor Ransom. A tone-poem of a piece, illustrating the arrival of spring with found sounds, distant vocals, and confident piano.
6. “Not Enough” – Sunjacket. This inventive indie-rock song draws sounds and moods from all over the place, creating a distinct, unique vibe. There’s some Age of Adz weirdness, some Grizzly Bear denseness, some giant synth clouds, and more.
7. “Bushwick Girl” – CHUCK. A goofy, loving parody of NYC’s hippest hipsters in appropriately creaky, nasally, quirky indie-pop style.
8. “Ghost” – Mood Robot. Chillwave meets ODESZA-style post-dub with some pop v/c/v work for good measure. It’s a great little electro-pop tune.
9. “Da Vinci” – Jaw Gems. All the swagger, strut, stutter, and stomp of hip-hop and none of the vocals. Impressive.
10. “Disappearing Love” – Night Drifting. If the National’s high drama met the Boss’s roots rock, you’d end up with something like this charging tune with a huge conclusion.
11. “Black and White Space” – Delamere. Britpop from Manchester with a catchy vocal hook and subtle instrumentation that comes together really nicely.
12. “Plastic Flowers” – Poomse. Predictions of human doom over crunchy guitars give way to a densely-layered indie-rock track with claustrophobia-inducing horns. If you’re into Mutemath or early ’00s emo (non-twinkly variety), you’ll find some footholds here.
13. “Lake, Steel, Oil” – Basement Revolver. There’s something hypnotic about Chrisy Hurn plaintively singing her heart out as if there isn’t a howling wall of distortion raging around her.
Arts Fishing Club‘s self-titled debut EP shows off the many skills of Christopher Kessenich. In just over 20 minutes, Kessenich blows through southern rock, troubadour folk, and Damien Rice-esque roaring ballads. Through it all, Kessenich delivers memorable melodies and tight production that point to more great things in the future.
Kessenich’s nom de plume Arts Fishing Club evokes a pastoral sort of image, and the album art reiterates it. The music isn’t quite as rustic as both would imply: while highlight “Rarin’ to Roam” has a sonic lineage stretching way back through folkies like John Denver and Bob Dylan, the arrangement and production are bright and modern. The verses and chorus melodies stick with me, and the whole thing comes off as a mature, polished folk-pop track. If AFC goes this way, there’s a world of Lumineers fans that would be all about this. But Kessenich can howl with the best of them, as “Bottle of Wine” is a sad-hearted ballad that ratchets to a huge, dramatic ending–he could move this direction too.
For those not intrigued by earthy troubadour folk or acoustic ballads, “Ground She Walked” and “Take a Walk” let the distorted guitars fly. They’re still grounded in acoustic songwriting, but they’ve got a crunchy edge that evokes the acoustic/grungy vibes of the mid-’90s. Kessenich morphs his voice once again into a grittier tone and a more attitude-heavy delivery. Some people’s experiments clearly show which avenues should or shouldn’t be pursued, but his project has a lot of avenues available to it after this EP. With talent to spare and room to sonically roam, Arts Fishing Club has a lot going for it.
Devin James Fry is working through some identity issues right now: last year’s Headwater Songs came out under his own name, this year’s Jump Into the Fire 7″ came out under the Salesman moniker, and Four Dreams is from Devin James Fry and the Name Sayers. The opposite is true of the sonic spaces depicted in these releases: Fry has been honing his sound meticulously, and Four Dreams sharpens all his ideas to fine points. “I Touch My Face In Hyperspace Oh Yeah” and “Upbringing” focus on his noisier realms: the former marryies clanging, angular guitars to driving rhythms and howling baritone vocals to create a uniquely frantic environment; the latter is a composed mostly of Fry’s haunting vocals and complex percussion–also a unique mood. Fry’s version of rock music is untethered from the normal lineage and bonafides, creating a genuinely exciting aura. The enthusiasm of the Jump Into the Fire 7″ lands here, on this side.
The other side of Fry’s mental map shows up in “Pearl Made, Gold Stayed” and “Wheel,” where he lets his softer songwriting shine. Even when writing something intended to be quiet, Fry keeps the tension and motion present–“Pearl Made, Gold Stayed” shows off his signature guitar style and thumping percussion in a different setting. It’s ultimately a moving tune in the emotional sense as well: “life pays in pearls, not gold / and you know how pearls are made.” “Wheel” ends the collection by picking up where Headwater Songs left off (“Oh Lord, I am a wheel of Colorado sand”) and creates a delicate, flowing environment with his guitar style and vocals that is distinctly his own. If you’re not on the Devin James Fry train yet, you need to be: he’s making gems over here. Four Dreams is a definite contender for your end-of-year EP list.
1. “I Touch My Face in Hyperspace Oh Yeah” – Devin James Fry. You shouldn’t need my encouragement to listen to a song with a title so enigmatic and intriguing, but if you do, the fiery, wild-eyed psych-folk-rock is just as immediately engaging and mind-expanding as the title.
2. “Cheap Shades” – Chris Staples. Staples tosses off lyrics in this gentle, walking-speed acoustic tune as if they were easy to come by, as if they weren’t complex and unique and deeply thoughtful. This doesn’t sound like the Mountain Goats at all, but fans of John Darnielle will hear the lyrical kinship (even if the music is closer to Sufjan’s Michigan than anything TMG has put out, except maybe Get Lonely). If you’re of the age and vintage that 238’s “Modern Day Prayer” is tattooed on your consciousness, get prepared to have your mind blown: this is that Chris Staples.
3. “Can’t Undo This” – Heather Bond. It’s tough to do a dramatic, introspective ballad without getting formalist or maudlin. Bond balances gravitas and vulnerability to come up with a searing, poignant, piano-driven tune.
4. “Take You Away” – The National Parks. Handclaps, pizzicato violin, punchy horns, and bright-eyed guy/girl vocals buoy this cross between orchestral-folk-pop, party-friendly indie-pop-rock, and even some disco vibes (!). Weighty genre labels aside, this is a cheery, thoughtful tune that does more than bash out chords on a well-trod road.
5. “Ida” – El Tryptophan. Was Pet Sounds an orchestral explosion of the Phil Spector sound? If so, “Ida” could fit in the chronological and sonic space right between ’60s girl-pop arrangements and Brian Wilson’s masterpiece (with some Velvet Underground thrown in for good measure).
6. “Pink Lemonade” – Monogold. Sometimes the title is all you need to know.
8. “Kids” – Dara Sisterhen. Somehow manages to blend country, ’50s pop, and folk-pop into one breezy, carefree tune perfect for your next road trip.
9. “The Script” – The Treacherous French. Almost any accordion-laden acoustic tune is going to come off like a sea shanty; the washboard percussion, enthusiastic high-tenor vocal performance, and “whoa-ohs” solidify the notion.
10. “Willingham” – Echo Bloom. Somehow combines the murky sounds of a forest, high-drama noir vocals, indie-rock slinkiness, and ghostly aura. Wildly inventive.
11. “Little Dreamer” – Charlotte & Magon. Delicate electric guitar, gently dramatic vocals, and an overall sense of lazy Saturday mornings.
12. “Gotta Wanna” – Gun Outfit. I turn the key and the engine hums. I turn out of the gas station and back onto an empty Arizona highway, headed back toward California. The insistent drumming underscores my sense of motion, but the vocals and guitar lean back to make sure that everyone knows it’s not all that urgent. We’re gonna hang out and enjoy ourselves when we get there; we’ll enjoy it on the way, too.
13. “Hold Hands for Dry Land” – Oryx and Crake. The gleeful community feel of Funeral was part of what made it so engaging: Oryx and Crake develop that same sort of group vibe in this punchy-yet-thoughtful melodic indie-rock track. Anyone named after a Margaret Atwood novel is asking for your full attention–they reward, both musically and lyrically.
Austin alt-country outfit Salesman‘s output up until this point has been eerie, avant-garde, and complex. With the Let’s Go Jump into the Fire 7″, they’ve gone in a different direction that they admit is “a new page” in their book. And boy, is it.
Instead of dark and foreboding tunes that take a while to make their way to your heart, the title track of the seven-inch is an immediately endearing tune. It opens with a jaunty, celebratory, major-key fingerpicking pattern on an electric guitar, which is a shock in itself.
The rest of the arrangement unfolds in a careful way that builds the song seemingly organically to a jubilant point two minutes in where Devin James Fry yells “Yeah!” not out of terror, but out of enthusiasm. Wavering pedal steel, tasteful drums, and thrumming bass create a warm atmosphere that’s hard to resist. It’s very much alt-country, and the rhythms and vocals still mark it as a Salesman track, but their powers are definitely engaged in a different direction.
“Let’s Go Jump into the Fire” is backed with “Riddle of the Source,” which is darker in tone and timbre. It’s still not as difficult as their previous work (or Fry’s previous work with apocalyptic post-rock band Lord Buffalo), but the vibes are darker, more forlorn, more at home in the minor key. Fry stretches out his vocals here, leading the song with his nuanced performance. There’s an awesome (and all too short) guitar solo as well. Salesman’s new look is less obtuse, more direct, and thoroughly enjoyable. “Let’s Go Jump into the Fire” is a brilliant track that speaks optimistically toward things to come.
Janet Devlin‘s Running With Scissors is a thoroughly modern acoustic pop album, putting all the things we’ve learned since Nevermind to good use. The Irish singer/songwriter channels The Lumineers, Lilith Fair, Ingrid Michaelson, and KT Tunstall throughout the album, creating tunes that fit the best adjectives of each turn. Opener “Creatures of the Night” is a perky mid-’00s acoustic-pop song with mandolin and stomping drums; the booming kick bass turns into the walloped, four-on-the-floor tom of “House of Cards,” which is a female-fronted Lumineers track if there ever was one. (It’s even got the obligatory “hey!”)
The tunes set the tone for the album: fun, smart, and melodically mature. The surprisingly maturity with which she traipses through genres is worth noting here: “Hide and Seek” is straight-ahead ’90s female pop (Jewel?), “Lifeboat” includes melodica and separated strumming a la Ingrid Michaelson, “Things We Lost in the Fire” is an introspective piano ballad (Fiona Apple!), and her cover of the The Cure’s “Friday I’m in Love” is all folk fingerpicking and whispered vocals. “Wonderful” has a regrettable lyrical concept, but if you just ignore the words, it’s another cheery ’90s pop tune. (On second thought, maybe the goofy lyrics are just part and parcel of her commitment to the style.)
Janet Devlin’s Running With Scissors is a carousel of delights: no matter which song you pick, it will take you for a warm, lovely trip. If you’re into acoustic pop, you should know about Devlin.
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.
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.