The album is not endangered, but it certainly hasn’t been as interesting to me as EPs this year. That’s not because people aren’t making good albums, but because people have been seriously upping their EP game. Still, there are a bunch of great albums that came out this year that rightly deserve praise.
10. Talker – Dear Blanca. Frantic alt-country with unusual instrumentation (saxophone!) and influences.
9. Third Generation Hymnal – Venna. Passionate, female-led modern folk that balances earnest performances and high-quality songwriting deftly.
8. Forty Bells – Brave Baby. This is what indie-rock sounds like in 2013: chiming guitars, pushing rhythms, yawping vocals, and a great sense of atmosphere to cap it all off.
7. Ripely Pine – Lady Lamb the Beekeeper. In the best debut of the year, Aly Spaltro has crafts whole worlds in her songs. Her winding, unexpected, sensational arrangements are matched with her powerful, even shocking voice. Incredibly unique, incredibly strong.
6. Wolf Eggs – The Parmesans. Three guys in a room playing easygoing, charming bluegrass/folk. All the trapping you’d expect in bluegrass are here (harmonies, solos, riffing, goofy asides), and they bring poignant, romantic lyricism to the tunes as well.
5. The Weatherman – Gregory Alan Isakov. Gentleness that doesn’t fade away into blandness is rare, and Isakov has crafted a wonder of a quiet album here. These songs just make me smile.
3. Everything All at Once – Jonny Rodgers. Jonny Rodgers uses the ethereal tones of tuned wine glasses as the basis of his indie-pop sound, but the rest of the arrangements and Rodgers’ high, soaring voice complete the beautiful sound. I’ve not heard anything like this before. Throw in intimate, personal lyrics and you’ve got an impressive work.
2. The Beast in Its Tracks – Josh Ritter. Ritter is a master lyricist, and he turns his pen to the fine details of his divorce. But instead of weeping, he celebrates what life comes thereafter. It’s a rare look inside the life of an artist from an unusual perspective. The fact that he’s one of the best folk songwriters working today helps: the songs here are light but not insubstantial, upbeat but not flippant, and romantic without being maudlin. This is Ritter’s first must-own work since the amazing The Animal Years.
1. Chronographic – Filbert. As a reviewer, I have set expectations of genres. Filbert blew up my frameworks for folk, singer/songwriter, indie-pop, and hip-hop, which resulted in a breathless review that I still fully believe. “Modest Mouse + Jeffrey Lewis + backpack rap + Bon Iver = Filbert” is a reductive way to say it, but it’s still true. This was easily the most inventive album of the year.
I gushed over Filbert’s Chronographic earlier this year because of its humble attitude toward music and lyrics. Cold Country‘s Missing the Muse EP reminds me of Filbert, because band leader Sean McConnell’s high tenor sounds like Daniel Gutierrez’s and the folky arrangements have an earnest, plaintive feel. The chamber-folk on Missing the Muse has a ragged, woodsy edge that sets it apart from pristine soundscapes like Bon Iver and well-produced hoedowns like Babel, although the album doesn’t stray far enough to alienate fans of those works.
The climactic finish of opener “What It Takes” features a fuzzed-out electric guitar dueling with a smooth harmonica, rumbling drums, glockenspiel, and distorted bass. The cavernous rumbling of the percussion keeps it from turning into a garage-rock tune and instead places it as an expansive, dramatic folk track. Even with the tune played out on a large screen, the tune feels intimate. That’s the primary tension in each of Missing the Muse‘s five tracks: the titular tune features an excellent guitar solo but carries a very personal sense of sadness; “My Bird of Paradise” is built on Fleet Foxes’ gentle guitar and harmonized vocals and also features a bass riff. The big arrangements never give way to an impersonal front and protect against being too hopelessly introspective. It’s a pretty impressive feat.
If you’re a fan of chamber-folk arrangements, then Cold Country’s Missing the Muse is required listening. These aren’t Mumford and Sons stomp-alongs, and they aren’t trying to be. The tensions that McConnell plays with are perfectly enough for fascinating listening, thank you very much.
The great thing about EPs is that there’s no reason that all of the songs can’t be excellent. When working with 10-15 songs, there’s bound to be something that doesn’t appeal to someone, but three songs can be crafted to near-perfection. And so it goes with Matt Carter’s Daylight EP: the tunes are expertly written, arranged, performed and recorded. Carter applies to the Ray LaMontagne school of singer/songwriters: the more romance can be piled into one tune, the better. “For You” introduces Carter’s lithe voice, with just a touch of LaMontagne grit, over gentle acoustic guitar, delicate piano, upright bass, and swooning violins. It is as gorgeous as you might imagine.
Carter doesn’t let up with “From a Payphone Stall” or the title track: both frame Carter’s vocal melodies in arrangements that have as little to do with dissonance as possible. These are beautiful, carefully constructed tunes: instead of coming off smarmy or James Blunt-ish, they are delivered with assurance and confidence. Carter knows what his strengths are, and he plays to them perfectly here, creating memorably gorgeous songs. I’m looking forward to much more from Matt Carter, as he has put a lot of skill on display here in just over 10 minutes.
One of the most arresting pitches I’ve heard in a long while was from the songwriter of Filbert, who announced in his e-mail that “My only hope is to run out of free downloads on our Bandcamp!” Well, Daniel Gutierrez, I hope that I can help you meet that goal. Chronographic is a high-quality album that deserves all that and more.
I introduced Filbert to a group of my friends under the tag “Modest Mouse + Jeffrey Lewis + backpack rap + Bon Iver = Filbert,” and I’m standing by that assessment for this review. The core of Filbert’s sound is a dreary acoustic strum not all that different than Bon Iver’s cabin output, but the sound takes a hard left with what’s layered on top of it. Gutierrez has a humble, mumbly voice very similar to the vastly underrated Jeffrey Lewis, but he uses it to announce earnest musings on the often-ignored, normal bits of life (a la backpack rap) instead of Lewis’ surreal scenes. The final identifier (Modest Mouse) comes along in the arrangements, which skew toward the meandering and wandering–similar to the quieter moments of Good News for People Who Love Bad News.
It’s an absolutely glorious, riveting amalgam. Gutierrez and co. hold attention not through electrifying riffs or overtly clever turns of phrase, but through intricate, intimate tunes. Gutierrez includes several long clips of children talking to him and playing music as intros and outros, which give the whole album a distinctly “bedroom project of thoughtful, loving dad in his spare time” air. With folk’s recent self-importance in the era of Mumford and Sons saying big and important things to big and important audiences, it’s quite refreshing to hear an album that’s not targeted at the masses, but the Mrs. This one isn’t a world-conquering statement or important announcement, which paradoxically makes it both of those things. It’s not like slacker chic, where we’re celebrating largely unceremonious things; instead, it’s those guys who kept doing what they loved finally getting their due.
Songs like “Headphones” and “Breath” show that there are indeed some musical chops at play beyond the humble lyrics. The former builds to a desperate, striking conclusion via a slow but persistent crescendo; the latter creates a tune off a memorable guitar line and a surprisingly complex percussive section (complete with essential tambourine). “Breath” ties that commendable arrangement to a perfectly matched lyric set about weariness: “My legs won’t let me get out of the shower / … I just want to let the water hit me for a little while longer.” Yo, if we haven’t all been there, right?
There’s only seven songs in the unassuming Chronographic, and those small aims are part of the charm. It’s a mesmerizing, enveloping release that draws its power from the fact that it’s not trying to be a rock star move. This is not an indictment of the band’s effort: the arrangements are great (check the inventive “Race Cars and Chocolate”), performances are spot-on, and the production quality is immaculate. It’s just that the unpretentious, non-ironic vibe of the tracks really shines. Here’s to all those who do their thing without fuss or concern for what others think. Here’s to celebrating that. Here’s to Chronographic, which is definitely on my short list for end of year lists.
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.