1. “County Line” – Susto. Susto is one of the very best alt-country acts working today, and if you don’t know that you haven’t heard their stuff yet. Let this nigh-on-perfect tune serve as your introduction.
2. “King” – The Amazing Devil. This incredibly intense song wrings every last drop of emotion out of dramatic vocal performances, a cinematic lyrical set, and a churning full-band acoustic performance. Cello has rarely sounded so incredibly vibrant and necessary in folk-rock. The video that accompanies the tune is equally impassioned; it’s a rare thing that the video enhances the experience of listening to the song, but this one totally does. Highly recommended. Their album comes out Monday, so if you’re in London you should check their release show out. If it’s anything like this video, it promises to be a wild affair.
3. “Window” – Stephen Douglas Wolfe. Saxophone and French horn are not common inclusions in a woodsy folk tune, but Wolfe makes them sound totally natural. Between them and the bassist going absolutely bonkers (you go!), this sounds almost more like Anathallo than it does Bon Iver, but fans of both will find much to love in this tune.
4. “Dancing in the Dark” – Josiah and the Bonnevilles. This song is infinitely coverable: I would listen to almost anyone cover this tune. The fact that Josiah and the Bonnevilles are my favorite new band of the year makes it even more excellent.
5. “Standing” – Melody Federer. This singer-songwriter/indie-pop tune has a melodic maturity that stands up against Ingrid Michaelson, Sara Watkins, and Sleeping at Last. It has gravitas while still remaining light; it’s a very rare balance that is to be celebrated.
6. “Why Don’t You Call Home” – Deni Gauthier. Sometimes all you need is a great falsetto and a tiny guitar riff to steal hearts.
7. “Sunset Road” – Kathryn Overall. Here’s a folk-pop tune about contentment, local beauty, and home played in a low-key, no-frills, earnest way. I broke into a smile, and I think you will too.
8. “Under a Rose” – Dylan Addington. Always space in my heart for a folk-pop tune with a catchy vocal melody and stomping percussion. Fans of The Lumineers should be all up on this.
9. “The Captain” – Adam Topol. Fans of the easygoing acoustic joy of Dispatch and Guster will find a lot of love in Topol’s swaying, airy, summery tune.
10. “Catch Your Fall” – The River South. The iconic shuffle-snare is employed to great effect here, providing the backbone for a delicate love song. The keyboards, bass, and dual vocals fill in the warm, comforting vibe.
11. “White Sky” – Lilla Clara. A solemn, emotionally powerful tune that sucks all the air out of the room.
12. “Between the Bars” – Andrea Silva. Elliott Smith cannot have very much added to him, but reinterpretation keeps a legacy alive. This cover features a great vocal performance, too. (editor’s note: this song is no longer available.)
13. “Once Upon a Child” – Eleanor Murray. Tape hiss, nylon strings, room reverb, and an arresting alto vocal line come together for a deeply affecting tune.
14. “Loss” – Paul Sweeney. This contemplative solo guitar piece has a consistent motion in the melodic line that makes the song both evocative and emotional.
15. “Improvisation I” – De Martenn. This solo piano piece explores a dark blue mood; it feels like the street corner late at night, when you know no one is around but it still feels like something is going to happen. It’s peaceful but not serene; there’s some undercurrent going right there under the surface. You look twice; no one is there either time. You’re a little disappointed, but but also relieved. You walk home. You sleep well.
1. “Winter is for Kierkegaard” – Tyler Lyle. There are few things that get me more than a earnest tenor singing way too many words over a folky arrangement. Lyle plays somewhere between Josh Ritter, The Tallest Man on Earth, and Gregory Alan Isakov.
2. “Resolution” – Young Legs. The world always needs more quirky, delightful indie-pop on a strummed banjo.
3. “The Fall” – Reina del Cid. Warm, fingerpicked acoustic guitar; brushed snare; stand-up bass; contented alto vocals–it sounds like all the bits and bobs of a country song, but del Cid turns it into a charming folky ballad.
4. “Forever for Sure” – Laura & Greg. The gentle, easy-going guitar and male/female vocals create an intimate vibe, while a mournful instrument in the distance creates a sense of spaciousness. The strings glue them together–the whole thing comes off beautifully. I’ve likened them to the Weepies before, but this one also has a Mates of State vibe.
5. “Touch the Ground” – The Chordaes. Dour Brit-pop verses, sky-high falsetto in the sunshiny, hooky chorus–the band’s covering all their bases on the pop spectrum. That chorus is one to hum.
6. “Inside Out” – Avalanche City. My favorite Kiwis return not with an Antlers-esque, downtempo, white-boy-soul song. It’s not exactly the chipper acoustic pop of previous, but it’s still infectiously catchy.
7. “Bad Timing” – The Phatapillars. If Jack Johnson’s muse was outdoor camping and music festivals instead of surfing, he could have ended up like this. For fans of Dispatch and old-school Guster.
8. “Tapes” – The Weather Station. Sometimes trying to describe beauty diminishes it. Let this song just drift you away.
9. “ Forest of Dreams” – Crystal Bright and the Silver Hands. The Decemberists have largely gone standard with their arrangements, but there are still people holding it down for klezmer arrangements of gypsy-influenced melodies mashed up with the occasional operatic vocal performance. It’s like a madcap Beirut or a female-fronted Gogol Bordello.
10. “Heavy Star Movin’ – The Silver Lake Chorus. Written by the Flaming Lips for the choir (which operates in a very Polyphonic Spree-like manner), it’s appropriately cosmic and trippy. Strings accompany, but nothing else–the vocals are the focus here.
11. “Emma Jean” – WolfCryer. Here’s Matt Baumann doing what he’s great at: playing the storytelling troubadour with an acoustic guitar and a world-weary baritone.
Chloë Sunshine‘s new album is called Indian Summer, and the sound matches both names perfectly: perky, bright indie-pop with influences from surf-rock (“I Try,” “Modern House”) and chill beach-pop (“Love Love Love”). Sunshine’s earnest, unaffected voice sells the whole production with a cute-but-not-smarmy air. It’s the perfect soundtrack to a summer road trip, as you’ll be bobbing your head, singing along, and smiling with your hair flowing in the wind. It’s just a lovely album.
Folk, country, and rock have been chillin’ together since ever, and yet it’s still always a delight to me when someone comes along with a new take on the idea. Akron Engine is latest contender, taking (or at least sharing) the honor from SXSW darling Dawes. Where Dawes traffics in smooth rhythms and tones, Akron Engine’s Silhouettes keeps things endearingly scruffy. Strummy guitars, up-front rhythms and swooping pedal steel contrast against Davis Jones’ sweet tenor voice, allowing for tunes like ominous “Silhouettes” and the weary “Hold On to It” to succeed. The band can lay down a beautiful tune, as the shuffling waltz “Believe in You” and solitary closer “All We Ever Had” show. Those into country-rock/folk should check this out this fine collection of tunes.
Matt Ryd combines country with pop, but not in the schmaltzy, Rascal Flatts sort of way. Imagine if a power-pop band also had a pedal steel in it, and there you are. At least, there you are as far as “Nobody But Me” is concerned, the infectious, energetic opening to track to Ryd’s 3-song EP Ryd ‘Em Cowboy. The follow-up “Long, Long Time” is a ballad that does head in that direction, but Ryd’s earnest vocals make sure that the love song stays firmly in realm of “pleasantly familiar” instead of “cloyingly obvious.” Closer “Marianne [Country Remix]” leans even more toward ballad-style country, with the inclusion of a female back-up vocalist. It’s not what I usually cover, but Ryd’s earnest voice and spot-on production make this a fun listen.
Wakeup Starlight‘s awesomely-titled The White Flags of Alderaan rounds out this collection of bands that are easy to listen to. The acoustic-heavy band sounds like Jack Johnson jamming on “Hey There Delilah” with a dash of Dispatch thrown in. If that sounds like the most cheery thing ever, you wouldn’t be wrong in your assessment. It’s hilarious, then, that they have songs titled “The Earth is Dying,” “Loco Train (A Canadian Tragedy)” and “The Ghost of Myself Facing You.” To be fair, that last one tries to be ominous until it breaks into a “hey-o” section. For real. They’re smart to put that one last, because the happier this band is, the more entertaining their songs are. So if you want a few rays of sunshine in your life, you should go for “The Earth is Dying” and “Loco Train (A Canadian Tragedy).” Trust me, they’re actually smile-inducing.
For the first review of the new year, I chose something upbeat and fun. Beginnings are important, you know? And Tyler Boone‘s Changing Pace is quite a good start to the year. Boone’s five-song EP features a strong beginning itself, as “Don’t Forget the Name” is a poppy, infectious tune that includes all the best parts of his Dispatch/Dave Matthews Band sound. A little bit of beach vibes, a few jammy tendencies, chill vocals and liberal doses of organ all come together for a tune that you won’t be forgetting any time soon. That is, until closer “Put It Down” rolls around. Featuring that organ again, but now with an enthusiastic horn section punctuating the proceedings, the song is even more peppy than the first. If you’re into fun, upbeat tracks, there’s not much better mixtape fodder than this.
In between the two standouts are three tracks that don’t hit as hard. “Stuck Between” and “All of This” lean more toward the rock persuasion, which isn’t as interesting to me as the pop tunes. (This style, however, may appeal to other listeners.) “Home,” at the very center of the EP, is in the poppy vein of the highlight tracks, but doesn’t have quite the same melodic impact due to its more pronounced efforts at being poignant. Boone is at his best when the vibes are just rolling off him; this recognition most likely led “Don’t Forget the Name” to be the very worthy single.
If you’re missing the summer and need a quick fix, I recommend giving Changing Pace a spin or two.
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.