Chamber pop gets thrown around a bit as an impressionistic term that vaguely means (to the best of my understanding) dignified, serious songcraft, often with strings and piano. (I could be wrong.) The six tunes of Roan Yellowthorn‘s self-titled EP very much adheres to this particular understanding of songwriting, except that it actual sounds like she has a chamber quartet backing her up in places. Opener “Lie With Me” has distinctive melodic and rhythmic elements in the string arrangements that are much more common to classical than pop songwriting. This unexpected element gives her work a surprising quality. (The great “So Fast” reiterates this sort of mood.)
She contrasts this chamber understanding of songwriting with leading piano, thumping drums, pad synths, and a bright, immediately magnetic voice. The arrangement somehow meshes perfectly with the chamber elements, creating a unique sound that’s somewhat like Regina Spektor in an orchestra hall. But it’s Yellowthorn’s voice that makes this album a can’t-miss. Her confident alto has a unique personality and sonic profile that is the rarest of things to hear in a pop singer. Once you’ve heard her once, you’ll know her again–and that’s rare.
Each of the songs here are memorable, but “Thirty Years” is the standout: a piano and voice tune that tells a tragic story with a surprising ending. Yellowthorn relates the story of two characters with grace, poise, and careful attention to the nature of the story and the people in it. It’s a fitting ending to a EP that establishes a fresh new voice in indie-pop. Recommended.
Ryan Downey‘s Me and Heris an a capella mini-LP that doesn’t sound like a joke, a fad, or a bad idea. That alone should be enough to get you to check it out, but there are charms beyond the great execution of a concept: Downey’s baritone voice is smooth and lithe, and the songs he chooses are clever and interesting. Downey’s voice is necessarily the centerpiece of the record, and his voice has enough character and experience in it to keep things fresh throughout the seven songs. The only backdrop to his voice is often his multi-tracked voice, snapping, (“Tidings”), stomping and clapping (“Only Time”), and a female voice (“On a Good Day”). Yet he keeps the arrangements varied and fresh, never letting things stagnate.
The choice of songs helps with the variety: instead of writing seven songs, he re-interpreted two previous tunes and picked five covers. You’ve probably heard Enya’s “Only Time” and Joanna Newsom’s “On a Good Day,” but you may not be as familiar with Tiny Ruins’ “Chainmail Maker” and the McGarrigle Sisters’ “Cool River.” The variety encapsulated in those four tunes alone is incredible. If you’re an adventurous sort and want to hear something unusual, check out the vastly interesting Me and Her by Ryan Downey.
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.
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.