Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

March MP3s: Acoustic

March 5, 2016

Acoustic

1. “Days With Wings” – Black Balsam. In a post-Mumford world, folk-pop is seen with some suspicion. Tunes as genuinely engaging and fun as this one should help with the fears of those who are over-banjoed.

2. “Sugar Moon” – Jonas Friddle. Folk-pop can also regain its footing by not taking itself too seriously, and Friddle’s artwork of a man playing a banjo that turns into a pelican by the end of the fretboard is a good start. The tune itself sounds like Illinois-era Sufjan mashed up with a Lumineers track at a Beirut concert. In other words, it pulls from everywhere and ultimately becomes a Friddle tune. Totally stoked for this album.

3. “Star of Hope” – Mairearad Green (feat. King Creosote). Green is what Frightened Rabbit would sound like if they weren’t constantly thinking about death: chipper, major-key, acoustic-led indie-rock led by a vocalist with an unapologetically Scottish accent. It’s just fantastic.

4. “We’ll Live” – Stephen Douglas Wolfe. Wolfe’s tenor voice carries this alt-country tune with great aplomb. The pedal steel also provides a great amount of character here.

5. “Only Time” – Ryan Downey. I know you’re not going to believe this, but this is a multitracked-vocals-and-clapping version of the Enya staple. It seems remarkably honest in its intentions, and it’s remarkably engaging as a result. You think you’ve seen it all, and then…

6. “If I Could Fly Away” – Alan Engelmann. The warm brightness of this acoustic pop song makes me think of the spring with a great longing.

7. “Where Am I?” – Amy Virginia. A clear, bright voice cutting across a stark folk frame makes for engaging listening.

8. “Either Way” – Sorority Noise. We’ve come a long, long way from “Good Riddance” on the punk-bands-with-acoustic-guitars front: Cam Boucher’s musing on suicide and loss is a heartrendingly beautiful, spare tune that can fit right next to any early Damien Jurado track (who, of course, was once a punk with an acoustic guitar).

9. “The Curse (Acoustic)” – The Eastern Sea. An intimate performance of rapid fingerpicking and emotional vocals. Not much more I could ask for.

10. “Prologue” – Letters to You. A gentle, pensive acoustic ditty expands into a beauty-minded post-rock bit.

11. “what if i fall in love (with you)” – Isaac Magalhães. A soothing, nylon-stringed guitar performance matches a bedroom-pop, lo-fi vocal performance to create something deeply personal-sounding. Impressionistic RIYLs: Iron and Wine and Elliott Smith.

12. “Most of the Time I Can’t Even Pay Attention” – Crocodile. An off-the-cuff sort of air floats through this one, as if you showed up at your friend’s house and he was already playing a song, so you let him finish and then you both go off to hang out. The lyrics are a bit heavy, but the soft, kind vocal performance calms me anyway. It won’t ask too much of you, but it gives you a lot if you’re into it. You could end up writing a lot about it, you know?

13. “Pickup Truck” – Avi Jacob. It’s hard to quantify maturity, but it’s sort of a mix between knowing your skills, knowing how to maximize them, and not trying to push beyond that. It’s the “sweet spot.” Avi Jacobs hits it here, putting accordion, piano, fingerpicked guitar, and female background vocals into an arrangement that perfectly suits his just-a-bit-creaky-around-the-edges voice. From the first second to the last, it hits hard. Keep a close watch on Jacob.

February 16 Singles: Acoustic

February 4, 2016

Acoustic

1. “Heart Song” – Samuel Alty. Captures the enthusiasm of flamenco and distills it into a two-and-a-half-minute romp that I can’t get out of my head. The music video perfectly complements the ecstatic vibe of the tune: a group of people slowly getting accustomed to dancing in public. This is way, way fun.

2. “Silent Moon” – Supersmall. It’s a warm blanket of a tune–the soft guitars, the comfortable vocals, and the gentle arrangement all come together to just be a lovely acoustic indie-pop tune.

3. “Roman Tic” – John Helix. Fans of Elliott Smith will fall hard for this spare-yet-endearing tune.

4. “21 Years” – Malory Torr. The quirky songwriting and vocal delivery of Regina Spektor (except on guitar) fused to a Bohemian version of Five for Fighting’s “100 Years.” Love the group vocals throughout.

5. “Drinking Song” – Haley Heynderickx. This slightly woozy, charming tune sounds like Laura Marling and Laura Stephenson collaborated on an acoustic jam. The vocals here are quirky and lovely.

6. “Turn to Stone” – Nice Motor. Combines back-porch picking with West Coast, Laurel Canyon country vibes to create a tune that’s not quite either thing: it kinda sounds like The Eagles somehow turned into a folk band.

7. “Sweet Innocence” – Kylie Odetta. It’s rare that the drums stand out in a singer/songwriter tune, but they provide the perfect counterpoint to Odetta’s warm alto lines in this calm, confident tune.

8. “We Sing with Angels” – The Project. With a singer/songwriter chorus, Spanish finger-style guitar verses, and traditional melodic structure evocative of ancient hymnody, this tune goes in directions you wouldn’t expect. The pieces come together for a unique experience.

9. “The One” – Erik Fastén. There’s a sense of noble, dignified romantic angst here, employed through a careful guitar performance, breathy vocals, and fluttering strings.

10. “Follow the Sun” – Hand Drawn Maps. An early-’00s sense of full-band indie-pop melancholy permeates this track–it makes perfect sense that they’re from LA, the home of Phantom Planet and inspiration of Death Cab’s “Why You’d Want to Live Here.”

11. “The Planets Align” – Chris Belson. A deep, silky, enveloping, enigmatic voice dances over a simple guitar.

12. “1963” – Nikki Gregoroff. Gregoroff makes a simple piano line arresting with a bright, clear, magnetic vocal performance.

13. “Kaydence” – Triana Presley. Sometimes you just want to hear a melancholy piano-pop ballad. I’ve been known to love Something Corporate and Taylor Swift. I’ll admit it.

14. “Can’t Erase It” – Kylie Odetta. Somewhere between Norah Jones and Adele lives this beatuiful, wistful track. Odetta’s voice reads far older than her years. (Rare double entry on the same post!)

2016 Singles: Acoustic

January 18, 2016

 

Acoustic

1. “A Better Life” – Supersmall. A good-natured, walking-speed tune that gives more than it asks back from you: you don’t have to listen hard to enjoy, but there are charms for those who listen deeply to the early ’00s, Parachutes/Turin Brakes-style work.

2. “May the Stars Fall at Your Door” – Andrew Adkins. We all need an encouraging blessing every now and then–Adkins provides uplifting lyrics with an equally uplifting folk arrangement (complete with harmonica). Totally great work here.

3. “Nowhere” – Swaying Wires. Tina Karkinen’s confident vocals give a levity to this serious, acoustic-led indie-pop tune.

4. “Know It All” – Bitterheart. Brash, immediate, strum-heavy, full-throated folk-pop that marries the enthusiasm of folk-punk with the good-hearted charm of a folk-pop tune. If all their work is like this, their album’s going to be a blast.

5. “One Three Nine” – Jacob Metcalf. Fluttering, ethereal folk that stays grounded basically by force of will, a la Andrew Bird.

6. “Chandelier” – Russell Howard. This gender-flipped cover of Sia’s tune creates a stark atmosphere by modifying Howard’s vocals and putting them over a delicate guitar accompaniment and subtle percussive beat.

7. “White Light Doorway” – Florist. The band has mastered the skill of keeping a song together while lead singer Emily Sprague purposefully sounds like she’s falling apart. The tension there is beautiful and weighty.

8. “While You Stand” – Michael Nau. The wide-eyed naivete of Page France is long gone, but the absurd ease with which Nau pens a lyric and fits it to a simple guitar line persists. It hits me.

9. “Habits” – Adrienne Tooley. Carrying that Lilith Fair torch: female perspective; sharp, witty lyricism; clear, uncluttered acoustic songwriting.

10. “Secrets” – Nick Zubeck. Laidback chill doesn’t get more laidback than this.

11. “Monde” – Stranded Horse. Fleet, powerful fingerpicking contrasts a laissez-faire vocal mood for a knotty, beautiful tune that feels like it fell out of a Wes Anderson movie somewhere.

12. “Black Gold” – Black Country. There are few substances so evocative as oil, with its viscous flow, vibrant sheen, wealth-making potential, and divisive opinion-making. Black Country spells out a narrative of the open spaces, where finding oil is the difference between emptiness of landscape and buzzing life–hanging the promise of oil over the head of a barren, windswept instrumental landscape.

13. “We’ll Get By” – The Singer and the Songwriter. One of the more un-Google-able bands working today drops a stately, moving tune that includes accordion and shuffling snare under a beautiful alto vocal melody.

14. “Wanderer’s Waltz” – Youth Policy. Here’s a wintry, stark tune composed of breathy, Elliott Smith-esque vocals, cascading fingerpicking, and a moody sense of melancholia.

15. “Ghost Blue” – Sparrows Gate. If I walked into a bar where Sparrows Gate was playing this moving, piano-driven ballad-esque tune, I hope it would be to work off a breakup instead of celebrate a success. “Gravitas” doesn’t sell it well enough.

16. “Goes Without Saying” – Melaena Cadiz. A relaxing, unspooling, wandering tune that just feels lovely.

17. “Kicking You Out” – Merival. Few things get me more than a raw, open-hearted acoustic tune with some room echo. Merival’s strong songwriting skills are on full display here, with nothing else added but some harmony vocals. As they say: all the feels.

ICYMI: Edward David Anderson / Aryl Barkley / Haleiwa

December 4, 2015

loxley-cd-cover

After a long, slow climb, Jason Isbell has hit the burners: five years ago I saw him in a dive bar in Auburn, Ala., and just last month I declined to see him again in a 2700+ person venue in Durham. He has officially made it. If you’re looking for your next up-and-coming dive bar Americana champion, I volunteer Edward David Anderson. Anderson’s Lower Alabama: The Loxley Sessions does everything you want an Americana record to do and then some.

Americana starts with the voice, and Anderson’s is great: a smooth, comfortable tenor delivered just right. His melodies fit in between Isbell’s gravitas and Nathaniel Rateliff’s infectious enthusiasm (see “Silverhill” for more on that idea). The tunes surrounding the vocals are spartan and carefully arranged to not clutter anything: there’s not much you can do to help a melody so pure as “Cried My Eyes Dry,” so the band backs off and lets Anderson sing it. This is their approach almost everywhere, except for the hustlin’ crime tale “Jimmy & Bob & Jack” that’s closer to a rock arrangement than anything else here. And it’s the right approach, because Anderson himself is the centerpiece, whether he’s singing over a gently rolling banjo in “Hidin’ at the Hollow” or leading the back porch picker “Sadness” (surprisingly cheery). The songwriting is just right there.

Lower Alabama: The Loxley Sessions offers up spot-on vocals-centric Americana songwriting. It does its thing and does it well. If you’re looking for more Southern songwriting pathos in your life, here’s to Edward David Anderson.

arylbarkley

Archie’s EP by Aryl Barkley is an intimate release that combines the intense focus and breathy vocals of Elliott Smith with the fingerpicking of early Iron and Wine. “High on Inhibition” is a tune right out of Sam Beam’s wheelhouse, a tender major-key rumination on the past. The fingerpicking is just lovely, fitting beautifully with the whispered vocals. The minor key and gentle strumming of “Inside the Playhouse” speak Smith’s language, pondering something heavy without ever becoming heavy itself. “Two of the Ten Best” closes the three-song EP with a tune which includes ghostly background vocals over minor-key fingerpicking, something like a mash-up of the two previous tunes into something that starts to point toward his unique strengths. The ghost of Bon Iver holds out somewhere in the distance, but this last track is where Aryl Barkley really starts to put his name out there. I look forward to hearing more from this Aussie.

haleiwa

Haleiwa‘s Palm Trees of the Subarctic combines acoustic guitar, Scandinavian dream-pop, and the occasional post-rock touch to create songs that feel bright, fresh, and cinematic.

The trick is that they’re cinematic in a low-key, indie-movie type way, not is a surging melodrama sort of way: “Wall of Blue Sky” feels like a pensive roadtrip scene, while the quiet expansiveness of standout “Seals and Sharks” points more in the direction of the “personal revelation” scene. The blend of acoustic instruments, electronic sounds, and live drumming is arranged and mixed perfectly, creating warm pieces that feel effortlessly pulled off. Just check out the title track or “The World Beyond” for a seamless melding. “All Sparked” focuses more on a flowing acoustic guitar line, which makes the song one of my personal favorites.

Haleiwa’s unique blend of sounds puts it in the same league as The Album Leaf, Teen Daze, and Grandaddy, but different from each of those. Palm Trees of the Subarctic is an exciting work that should be celebrated.

Grab Bag 2: Morgan Mecaskey / James Robinson / Angelo De Augustine

December 15, 2014

morganmecaskey

December is a tough month to release music: you’ve got orgs like Paste that have already released their year-end lists by the beginning of the month, blogs that are trying to clear out the files from November (or October, or September) to get all their 2014 commitments done, and listeners who are re-living the year instead of hearing new tunes. You should probably just wait till January. But if you don’t, and your release is really good, you might sneak one in under the radar. Morgan Mecaskey is 100% radar sneaking, because anyone who sounds like Sharon Van Etten fronting The National in an eclectic record store is going to get some good words from this camp.

Lover Less Wild is an adventurous, sultry, enigmatic EP that captured me on first listen. Mecaskey’s husky alto/tenor voice leads the charge on music that skirts boundary labels and ends up firmly in that catch-all camp of “indie rock.” Opener “White Horse” has soaring horns, female back-up vocals, churning guitars, push-tempo drums, and some royal fury in the vocals of Mecaskey herself. It sounds like she mentions the name “Jolene” in the chorus, which would hook her up to a long tradition of artists to find an admirable muse in that name. By the coda of the tune, Mecaskey is hollering “Sometimes I don’t feel like who I really am,” which is amazing, because she sounds completely like herself on that tune.

It’s followed up by three tunes that are a few notches down on the tour-de-force scale (but only a few; they all register). “Fighting Extinction” starts out as a distant, questioning mix between The Walkmen and Radiohead before erupting into some funky bass (?!), calling out some Motown horns, and bringing in a male vocalist for a contentious, exciting duet. It also includes the best saxophone solo this side of M83. Because it’s hard for Morgan Mecaskey to do anything twice, the title track opens with Wurlitzer and distant vocals before unfolding into a jazzy, hip-hop/R&B groove. Right about the time that I start to feel we should call up the Antlers and get them on the same tour, the song explodes into towering guitar walls and distorted bass. “Crushed” starts with nylon-string guitar in Spanish rhythms and ends with a full choir (a real one, not just a gang-vocal offering). In short, there is about as much happening in four songs as you can possibly imagine.

Mecaskey holds this whirlwind tour of music genres and styles together with her voice, which is a versatile, powerful, emotive engine. No matter what arrangement she’s leading, she’s in firm control of what’s happening. Her voice is at home wherever she lands it, which is as much a testament to her attitude and confidence as it is her immense songwriting chops. I don’t care if you’re listening to your favorite album of the year again (I know I am, no hate), you’ve got to check out Morgan Mecaskey’s Lover Less Wild. It will keep you spinning.

jamesrobinson

James Robinson‘s Start a Fire EP is a charming four-song release. Robinson’s acoustic-centric style fits somewhere between singer/songwriter confessionals and adult-alternative pop sheen, like a more mystical Matt Nathanson or a more polished Damien Rice. This mash-up results in the best of both worlds (instead of the dreaded inverse), with Robinson’s smooth vocals getting all silky around arrangements that have some indie mystery and ambiguity in them. Think less Ed Sheeran crooning and more of that feeling you felt the first time you heard Coldplay’s Parachutes.

The quartet of tunes works nicely together, moving along a high-quality clip without drawing attention to any song in particular. “Demons” has some great bass work and a nice, memorable vocal line; “Holes in the Sky” opens with some nice guitar and vocals that evoke Jason Mraz; “Smoke & Ashes” is the most tender of the collection. But it’s the title track that takes high marks here: its polished arrangement frames Robinson’s voice perfectly, making this an impeccably done song that you’ll be humming for a while. If you’re looking for some gentle singer/songwriter fare with some mystery in it, go for James Robinson.

angelodeaugustine

Any discussion of Angelo De Augustine‘s Spirals of Silence must be prefaced by this information: de Augustine sounds, musically, vocally, and even lyrically, like Elliott Smith mashed up with Nick Drake. For many people, this is enough to send them running in its direction. I forwarded this to the resident Smith fan in my life and was promptly given compliments on my character after his first listen. It’s a hit.

But it’s not just that it sounds like Smith: the songs are incredibly well-done. de Augustine has the fingerpicking/breathy vocals/tape hiss thing down, but the things he chooses to fingerpick are beautiful, contemplative, melodic works that move sprightly along. Lead single “Old Hope” is a perfect example of this, as de Augustine whispers his way across a traveling, bouncy-yet-not-cheesy guitar line. (Side note: because this song sounds like Josh Radin, I realized that I’d never noticed how much Elliott Smith influenced Josh Radin.) Other highlights include the oddly heartbreaking “Married Mother,” the tender “I Spend Days,” and the intriguing “You Open to the Idea.”

I could say more about Spirals of Silence, but I think I’ve said all I need to in order to get you to listen to this or not. Viva Angelo de Augustine, please and thank you.

Singles and some mourning for Jason Molina

November 4, 2014

1. “Great White Shark” – Hollands. Maximalist indie-rock/pop music with groove, noise, melodic clarity, effusive enthusiasm, strings, harp, and just about everything else you can ask for. If the Flaming Lips hadn’t got so paranoid after At War with the Mystics

2. “Coyote Choir” – Pepa Knight. Still batting 1.000, Pepa Knight brings his exuberant, India-inspired indie-pop to more mellow environs. It’s still amazing. I’m totally on that Pepa Knight train, y’all. (Hopefully it’s The Darjeeling Limited.)

3. “Peaks of Yew” – Mattson 2. I love adventurous instrumental music, and Mattson 2 cover a wide range of sonic territory in this 10-minute track. We’ve got some surf-rock sounds, some post-rock meandering, some poppy melodies, some ambient synths, and a whole lot of ideas. I’m big on this.

4. “Firing Squad” – Jordan Klassen. Sometimes a pop-rock song comes along that just works perfectly. Vaguely dancy, chipper, fun, and not too aggressive (while still allowing listeners to sing it loudly), “Firing Squad” is just excellent.

5. “Droplet” – Tessera Skies. There’s a tough juggling act going on in this breathtaking indie-pop tune: flowing instruments, flailing percussion, cooing vocals, and an urgent sense of energy. It’s like if Jonsi’s work got cluttered up with parts and then organized neatly.

6. “Available Light” – David Corley. If Alexi Murdoch, Tom Waits, and Joseph Arthur all got together and jammed, it might sound something like this gruff yet accessible, vaguely alt-country track.

7. “Blue Eyed Girl” – Sam Joole. I’d like to make a joke about blue-eyed soul here, but it’s actually closer to Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl” than that. Lots of laidback guitars, good vibes, but not Jack Johnson twee, if you know what I mean.

8. “By the Canal” – Elephant Micah. I’m a big fan of people who aren’t afraid to let an acoustic guitar and voice splay out wherever they want and however long they want. Here, EM acts as an upbeat Jason Molina, putting the focus on his voice instead of the spartan-yet-interesting arrangements. Totally stoked for this new album.

9. “If It Does” – Robin Bacior. In this loose, smooth, walking-speed singer-songwriter tune with maximum atmosphere, shades of early ’00s Coldplay appear. That’s a compliment, people.

10. “Storm” – Dear Criminals. Not that often do I hear trip-hop, even in an updated melodic form. Way to go, DC–you pick up that torch that Portishead put down.

11. “You Open to the Idea” – Angelo De Augustine. Beautiful, delicate, wispy, earnest whisper-folk. They don’t make ’em like this very often anymore.

12. “Billowing Clouds” – Electrician. The mournful, affected spoken word over melancholy, trumpet-like synths makes me think of an electro version of the isolated, desolate Get Lonely by The Mountain Goats.

13. “Blue Chicago Moon (demo)” – Songs: Ohia. Until Jason Molina, I’ve never had a personal connection to the art of a troubled artist who died too early–Elliott Smith was gone before I knew of his work. Now with unreleased demos coming out consistently after Mr. Molina’s death, I feel the sadness of his passing over and over. Each new track is a reminder that there was work still to be made; it also feels like a new song from him, even though it’s objectively not.

Is this how a legacy gets made in the digital era? How long will we keep releasing new Molina songs, to remind us that he was there, and now he is not? (Please keep releasing them.) Will the new songs push people back to “The Lioness”? Will we keep these candles burning to light our own rooms, or will we bring them to other people? “Endless, endless, endless / endless depression,” Molina sings here. Is it truly endless? Are you still depressed? Does your permanent recording of the phrase make it truly “unchanging darkness”? “Try to beat it,” he intones, finally. Try to beat it, indeed. Keep trying until you can’t anymore. And then let your work stand forever. I guess this is how I mourn.

Singles 2: You Play That Acoustic Guitar However You Want

October 22, 2014

You Play That Acoustic Guitar However You Want

1. “Old Hope” – Angelo de Augustine. It’s like Elliott Smith is alive. Maybe there’s some Joshua Radin and Nick Drake in there, but mostly the whispered vocals and style of acoustic guitar remind me of Smith.

2. “Amarillo” – Anna Vogelzang. Combine the charm of Ingrid Michaelson with the full arrangements of Laura Stevenson, and you’ve got a little bit of an idea of Vogelzang’s talent. She’s one to watch.

3. “Red River” – Tyler Sjöström. Fans of Mumford and Sons will love this theatrical, finger-picked folk-pop tune.

4. “Forever Gone” – Andrew Marica. The morose romanticism of Damien Rice + the distant reverb-heavy atmospherics of Bon Iver create this downtempo ballad.

5. “Delilah” – Tony Lucca. This one’s pretty boss: Wide-open, sneering, engaging full-band country-rock with an eye toward Coldplay-style, radio-friendly vocal melodies. Also, there’s some awesome saloon-style piano playing.

6. “Angel Tonight” – Peter Galperin. Musical adventurer Galperin moves from his bossa nova experiments towards ’80s country-flavored classic rock. There’s some Springsteen, some Paul Simon, and more all combined here.

7. “Time” – Night Windows. Acoustic-based indie-pop a la David Bazan that teeters on the edge between twee and melancholy.

8. “I Got Creepy When Lou Reed Died” – Red Sammy. The husky, gravel-throated country of Red Sammy gets an electric makeover for this tribute tune. The title a weird thing to chant, but you’ll probably want to sing along repeatedly to the mantra-esque chorus.

News Now

April 24, 2013

The good guys at Soundsupp.ly do monthly “drops” that include 10 really good albums for 15 bucks. This month they’re doing weekly Mini Drops of 5 albums for $10! This week’s is “Two X Chromosomes and a Microphone,” which features bands led by women. IC faves Venna and Secret Mountains are both included! Seriously, check it out. These guys are working hard to get good music out to the public at an affordable rate.

Fiery Crash, whose recent album Carbondale I really enjoyed, has dropped a compilation album of b-sides and covers called Gable Woods. I highly recommend that fans of Elliott Smith check it out.

And, because I’m getting back into running shape for a half-marathon in November, it’s time for the RunHundred update.

The Top 10 Workout Songs For April

Collaborations reign in this month’s workout playlist. Justin Bieber lent Will.I.Am a hand on the latter’s latest. Italian super producer Alex Gaudino turned the mic over to Jordin Sparks. Lastly, Pitbull and Christina Aguilera urged folks to seize the day–while seizing, for themselves, the hook from ’80s classic “Take On Me.”

Here’s the full list, according to votes placed at Run Hundred–the web’s most popular workout music blog.

Alex Gaudino & Jordin Sparks – Is This Love – 129 BPM

Miranda Lambert – Mama’s Broken Heart – 112 BPM

Of Monsters and Men – Little Talks – 107 BPM

Will.I.Am & Justin Bieber – #thatPOWER – 129 BPM

Kylie Minogue – Timebomb – 128 BPM

Afrojack & Chris Brown – As Your Friend – 128 BPM

One Direction – One Way or Another (Teenage Kicks) – 163 BPM

Pitbull & Christina Aguilera – Feel This Moment – 137 BPM

Avicii – Silhouettes (Syn Cole Creamfields Mix Radio Edit) – 128 BPM

Macklemore, Ryan Lewis & Ray Dalton – Can’t Hold Us – 148 BPM

Chris Lawhorn

Rat Wakes Red's ghostly melancholy is best experienced whole

August 14, 2011

I don’t often sit back and chill, as I usually relax by reading or writing poetry. But the dreamy simplicity of Acres by Rat Wakes Red makes just being a very pleasant experience indeed.

RWR creates intimate, melodic tunes reminiscent of old-school Iron and Wine. Songwriter James Raftery plays more piano than Sam Beam did, and his sketches tend more toward ghostly melancholy than the bearded wonder’s. Raftery’s voice has soothing reverb on it, giving the tunes an even more ethereal air. Gentle synths and strings make appearances, capping off the tunes.

Raftery’s tightly-defined production leads to the make-or-break point of Acres: the eighteen songs tend to run together when listened to in one sitting. Barely a song steps outside the guitar/piano/vocals/auxiliary instrument oeuvre he sets up.

As a result, the overall effect is not song-driven; the album is best experienced as an un-dissected document. In an ADHD era, this is a liability in attempts to gain casual listeners; there is no single here. But for those who love the experience of setting an album on and blissing out to the mood it creates, this is a treasure trove. Fans of Other Lives, Elliott Smith, Sigur Ros and Joshua Radin will find much to love in Rat Wakes Red’s Acres.

Horizon: Matthew Solberg

July 7, 2011

Matthew Solberg‘s high, breathy voice sounds like Elliott Smith’s. This immediately invokes unfair Smith comparisons and throws any little flaw into a distinct light (also unfair). Smith’s control of his voice was part of what made him king of sad, so it’s a tall order for Solberg to be compared.

That doesn’t mean that Solberg couldn’t learn from Smith. Solberg’s album has tunes in three distinct categories: fleet instrumentals, fingerpicked folk and strummed pop. The instrumentals are the most assured of the bunch; both “Petrified” and “Time Runs Out” are melodic, confident and memorable. “Moonlit Walk” is only a little less confident.

The fingerpicked folk,  when relying on guitar, is solid. When Solberg pushes his voice to the extremes of range or volume, it starts to get stressed (the otherwise brilliant “Silent Wooden Memories,” “New Delight”). However, Solberg definitely has instrumental and songwriting skill, and he has a perfectly fine voice when he stays in a comfortable range: “Lullaby” is a gentle tune that shows off both his guitar skill and vocal abilities. But when he goes loud or hard, as he often does in his strummed pop (the chorus of “Whatever You Say,” “The Grotto”), things get a bit off-kilter.

Matthew Solberg’s songwriting is solid. With more control of his voice, he could become a big hit with Elliott Smith fans.

Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.

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