A ton of great singles have come my way in January, so I thought I’d put them all in one big post arranged quiet to loud. Enjoy!
1. “Pacific (Acoustic)” – Indigo Wild. Were you looking for a rolling, intricate, acoustic mountain jam? Like Fleet Foxes if they were less hazy, this will make you long for the pines.
2. “Anna” – Daniel G. Harmann. After graduating his solo project The Trouble Starts up to a full-on rock outfit, Harmann gives old-school fans a few tracks that hearken back to his early, dreamy days. His trembling, soaring voice over spare guitar chords is just wonderful to these ears.
4. “Slow & Easy” – Scott H. Biram. Less gospel and more ominous vibes mark the second Biram single off Nothin’ But Blood. It’s still incredibly engaging, what with the crisp production and Biram’s voice.
5. “Celeste” – Ezra Vine. If you’re of the opinion that you can never have enough hand claps, whoa-ohs, and happy melodies, raise your hand. Then lower that hand and click on this peppy, wonderful tune.
6. “Girl Don’t Fight It” – Phone Home. Optimistic, keys-heavy, proggy indie-rock in the vein of Fang Island, And So I Watch You From Afar, and others. It’s giddy and heavy and intelligent!
7. “Planets” – Little Earthquake. Peppy acoustic-pop + massive MGMT synth melodies = this unique song.
9. “Violent Shooting Stars” – Robot Princess. Mostly RP is a heavy, exuberant, video-game-infused garage-pop band (WEEZER FOREVER!!). This track puts them more in a pensive mood (at least for them) before ratcheting up to some stomping guitars. Get your power-pop on, dudes.
10. “Bird in the Water” – The Trouble Starts. Harmann’s band, throwing down pop-rock a la Snow Patrol. This would be fun to hear live.
11. “Tangle” – Acid Fast. Starts out with a nostalgic, emo-esque half-time section, then blasts off into a punk rock second half. The melodies bounce off those basement walls with almost more cymbals and passion than you can handle.
My three favorite types of music are absurdly happy (Anamanaguchi), extremely sad (Damien Jurado), and cerebral (The Mountain Goats). Pan combines absurdly happy and cerebral in their post-rock, and it’s just a wonder to behold. Their new EP Meta Major! is exactly as optimistic as that title would suggest, and that’s excellent.
The five-piece instrumental band (the usual suspects and a violin) recorded this 15-minute EP live, so the four tracks feel more like movements of the same song than individual songs on their own. That’s also excellent; the live recording lends a pounding energy to the tracks, and the individual movements ensure that they didn’t go nuts trying to record a 15-minute tune in one flawless take. As it stands, the recording is pretty impressive: the guitars soar majestically, the rhythm section provides strong counterpoint, and the violin caps it all off as the link between melody and rhythm. It’s overall a very impressive achievement: fans of Fang Island, And So I Watch You From Afar, should start at the beginning and listen all the way through (with special attention paid to “Miracle Mile”).
RCRDS‘ Summer Aches EP is also a 15-minute experience that flows together as one track. Where Pan goes for the exuberant, RCRDS goes for the cerebral: their mash-up of indie-rock, trip-hop, and a dark form of chillwave ends up being akin to artsy, instrumental hip-hop. The songs are composed primarily of live bass, washed-out vocals, effects-heavy guitars, and non-intrusive beats that work together to give the recording a distinct feel. It’s not obviously sad (like singer/songwriter fare can be), but it carries a sense of the forlorn in it. It’s a gripping moment when “Release” strips down to thrumming bass line, staccato beat, and pitchshifted vocals at the end of the song; that striking bass work continues throughout the release. As I mentioned, the whole album feels like one cohesive work, which is a strong quality to have in work like this. Recommended for those into Clams Casino, Balam Acab, et al.
Smash cut to the next scene: Gifts or Creatures plays thoughtful alt-country that draws heavily on traditions that emphasize songwriting over virtuoso performances. It’s not a bad comparison to say that Yesteryear Western Darkness sounds like a Wilco-ized version of The Civil Wars, although that’s selling their talents short in the service of quick reference.
“Relicts & Ghosts” and “Gospel of Glaciers” spin two sides of the same tapestry: the former sets the core motion of the dual vocals and thoughtful lyrics in a walking-pace alt-country idiom, while the latter slows things down with a Wurlitzer and weeping pedal steel. The Low Anthem blows out the ends of their sound way more, but the impulse to cover a wide range of sounds without leaving alt-country altogether is similar in the two bands. Highlight “Blind Pigs” features memorable melodies, a dreamy mood, and protest lyrics; “American Pockets” couches similar discomfort with the state of things in a comfortable alt-country tune. Gifts or Creatures aren’t into riffs or attitude-filled ragers, but they sure know how to write a song that cuts to the bone. Fans of bands as disparate as Over the Rhine, Wilco, Damien Jurado, and The Lesser Birds of Paradise would do well to check out Gifts or Creatures’ Yesteryear Western Darkness.
As I have written before, I loved and still love chillwave. I love the idea of optimistic, beautiful music that is unsullied by vocals. I love vocals, but the idea that we can have happy music that is also musically challenging is just wonderful. (It’s also why I love Fang Island.) Teen Daze‘s The House on the Mountain is about as good as I can imagine chillwave (or whatever we’re calling it these days) can be.
Single-named producer Jamison takes small melodies and builds them up with fluttery background synths, flowing guitar, and gentle beats to create deeply moving electronic pieces. Blissful is the word I would use to describe opener “Hidden,” but the low-end piano inclusions on “Eagles Above” puts a more pensive spin on the sound. “Classical Guitar” benefits from some great midi synths (as opposed to atmospheric pad synths), a heavier beat than usual and (yes) the titular instrument. While leaning toward the gentle euphoria of “Hidden,” it still forges its own path. (Is it heresy if I say it sounds like Owl City a bit? I swear it’s a compliment.)
The lead single and semi-title track “Morning House” combines the best elements of all three tracks, as it takes a unique rhythmic beat and melds it to atmospheric synths in an optimistic key. Fluttery synths and midi synths come in, giving a great amount of texture to the tune. It’s a beautiful, memorable tune: a star among stars.
If you’re sick of chillwave, sorry. I’m not, and The House on the Mountain is absolutely gorgeous. If you love blissing out, Teen Daze is here to help.
Kazyak used to be a groove-laden jam band of sorts, so it’s a bit surprising that they’ve reinvented as a alt-folk band. However, it’s not surprising that they’ve done it in a unique way, given that they came from another genre. This EP could bridge the gap perfectly between the forlorn For Emma, Forever Ago and lush Bon Iver, if Peter Frey were Justin Vernon. But he’s not, and we instead meet a Kazyak on See the Forest, See the Trees that tries to reunite disparate sounds that currently fall under the same name.
It’s a fitting title, then: the trees of the individual songs stand up, and the entire album fits neatly as a whole. A few tunes can be plucked from the runtime without injuring their effectiveness; others must be heard in context of the whole 26-minute piece. It’s a rare album that can pull off this trick, and it’s what makes me so excited about Kazyak.
The best combo move is opener “Pieces of My Map,” which introduces Kazyak’s love of atmospheric banjo, sweeping guitar swells, and lush arrangements. But amid the mini-symphony, the vocal melody cuts through, shining as the focus on the piece. This splits the difference between vocals-centric and arrangement-centric folk neatly.
“Part I: Rabbiting Fox” and “Part II: Pitch Thick” show off the arrangement-centric side of the sound, with dramatic melodies, intimate moods, and careful arrangements. The gorgeous opening 1;30 of “Rabbiting Fox” is some of the most engaging music on the album. The unique “Tar Baby” shows off the vocals by having the vocalist slide back and forth between falsetto and chest voice repeatedly to accentuate the lyrics. It is an unusual move that some may reject, but it definitely shows a creative mind at work.
Kazyak’s See the Forest, See the Trees is beautiful and substantial; the melodic qualities don’t get lost in the arrangements or vice versa. Instead, it stands as a strong testament to varied songwriting. I hope to hear more from Kazyak’s unique perspective in the future.
Pan’s These Are the Things I Love and I Want to Share Them With You is a perfectly-titled record. It’s an exuberantly happy record, full of soaring guitar melodies, ethereal builds, group vocals and fast tempos. The band doesn’t like calling itself post-rock, but it does have tendencies in that direction; it also has tendencies toward Fang Island-style rock tunes. They even throw in the acoustic track “Mom and Me vs. You and Dad,” but (true to form) the guitarist strums frantically while the band sings wordless melodies loudly. Even though the title sounds antagonistic, the song is so giddy that it must be about board games.
The usual knocks against the post-rock genre apply here: the constraints of the genre can sometimes make the tunes seem similar, it’s harder to connect with some of the wordless pieces, the songs take a long time to get where they’re going. But Pan is not nearly as indulgent as some; These Are the Things crams 12 songs into 40 minutes, for an average of just over three minutes. “Leave Your Body” is six minutes long, but “Mom and Me” is sadly only 1:25. I could have used more of “John from New York,” which has intriguing rhythms, solid melodies and a great vibe.
I’ve been spinning this album for several weeks, and it has staying power. If I’m trying to get some work done, this is perfect power music: energetic, upbeat, but still not so intricate as to be too complicated to process in the background of my mind. If I want to relax, it’s great for that too: “The Things They Can’t Take Away” is a calming piece, while closer “Arkansas” opens with a relaxing piano before building to a massive conclusion.
Pan’s name is supposed to invoke associations with Peter Pan, and their website (was) YouAreThePan dot com. They are sharing things they love with you. Look at the joy in the album art. The title of their debut EP was Post Rock Is Not Dead. How can you resist a band that just wants you to remember the wonder of being alive?
I have waxed rhapsodic over the joys of the compilation album before, but here’s a reminder: I love the idea of twenty or more bands all chilling on the same disc. SXSW is kind of like one giant compilation, if you conflate seeing music live and hearing it recorded.
But what’s even better than a great comp is a great comp from a high-quality label. If that label is a homegrown, upstart indie, all the better! And Community Records (no, really, that’s the awesome name) has released just such a disc with their Compilation Volume 3: Old Dog, New Tricks. The album showcases 26 (!) bands associated with the New Orleans-based label; a footnote states, “Download free music from all of these bands on our web-site.” (That’s prolific!)
Some well-known bands like A Billion Ernies, Marathon and Swear Jar are present here, alongside a slew of up-and-comers. The music falls into five general genres: pop-punk, ska, hardcore/post-hardcore, acoustic and reggae-ish stuff.
The pop-punk is the lion’s share of the material. Caddywhompus’ “The Weight” won my heart by incorporating prog-based rhythms and melodies into its pop-punk, giving the song a very Fang Island-esque feel. Safety’s “Alone Together” throws down great melodies and energy in an early-2000s pop-punk style; the action-packed 91 seconds of The Rooks’ “The Benefit of Fish Tacos” throws all sorts of things into an unconventional song structure. The off-kilter “I’m Not Done Yet” by All People is oddly catchy as well.
The highlights of the ska offerings are the wildly varied tune by A Billion Ernies, the rhythms-not-horns ska of “They Can’t Fix Me” by Matt Wixson’s Flying Circus, and the gruff ska-punk of Brunt of It’s “Bad Sign.”
I wasn’t too into the loud stuff or the reggae, but the acoustic offerings are worth note: my favorite tune on the whole comp is See You in Mexico’s “Human Race.” It starts off as a pensive, moody tune in the Deja Entendu vein, then kicks into acoustic-punk high gear for the satisfying conclusion. The vocal melodies and harmonies are especially notable. Closer “Live On” by Matt Wixson (minus the Flying Circus) is a charming, lo-fi acoustic pop song that could be sung around campfires forever. “Summer’s Slumber” by Dominique LeJeune is a poignant, female-fronted acoustic love song that made me swoon a bit.
There’s all sorts of things inbetween, from woozy, New Orleans-style jazz bombast (Stuck Lucky’s “Finland”) to the indie-rock haze of Sun Hotel’s “Talks.” I mean, with 27 tracks, there’s almost something for everyone who even remotely likes the idea of modern punk. That should be a strong motivator for you to check out Community Records’ Old Dog, New Tricks.
I like to give everything a fair shot. I’ve heard some pretty terrible things in my day because of this policy, but I have also found some treasures in things that other reviewers may have instantly passed for one reason or another.
The Bramble Jam‘s Move Your Boots is a kid’s album. Don’t be frightened: the tunes play out like a smoother version of They Might Be Giants’ work (a band that has also composed some kids’ music). The songs are primarily acoustic folk and pop tunes, as that seems to be the only genre that people think kids like (although Fang Island and the Sugar Free Allstars are striving to change this). The assured male and female vocals set this apart from other kids’ albums. There is the obligatory wink at the audience every now and then, but the band members mostly play the songs straight, not laughing at their own jokes.
This sounds like not a big deal, but anyone who has suffered through a self-congratulating children’s album knows how far an ounce of sincerity goes in this genre. “Pancakes” is the runaway favorite here, as the lyrics are genuinely funny (“Don’t you know that your mommy is the better milk and cornflake maker? Don’t you know that your mommy is the better low-fat yogurt scooper?”), the melody is dry and infectious, and the band locks on a loose, Jack Johnson-esque groove. It’s a lot of fun.
“Hey Crazy Kid” features a propulsive groove and a more dry melodies that would make it perfect to be a cover by any indie band. The lyrics wouldn’t even have to be altered. It’s that good. “Mommy’s Lost Her Marbles” hangs on a great organ riff. “Piggies (acoustic)” does sentimental in a way that actually makes me want to sigh instead of gag. I won’t ruin why it does.
Yes, there are a couple of stinkers, like the regrettable opener “Going to a Party” and the oddball surf-punk of “Chicken Soccer.” Things do get a bit too saccharine on “I Am Not Gone,” as well. But they are easily passed over for the other treasures within.
Move Your Boots by the Bramble Jam is unabashedly a kids’ album. But it has the musical quality to be enjoyed by their parents (and, apparently, at least one single-as-can-be music critic). If you’re adventurous, have kids, or really want to try something outside of your normal listening, hit this up.
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.