John John Brown‘s The Roadis brilliant, drawing heavily from traditional Appalachian sounds and modern folk revivalists to create 10 songs of back-porch folk that are fully realized in scope and yet casual in mood.
Brown’s dusky voice, an immaculate production job, and a deft arranging hand makes this duality possible. “Dust and Bones” pairs a laid-back percussion line with a spacious fingerpicking rhythm at the beginning, before introducing subtle bass work and two different organ sounds for color. Brown’s superbly comfortable vocal delivery caps off the song beautifully. Even from the first listen, it’s as familiar and lovely as a shirt you put on for the first time and immediately know it will be your favorite one.
“On Our Own” pulls the same trick: the yearning solo violin, distant pedal steel, and hushed background vocals accentuate a lyric set of loss and redemption beautifully. “The Wind” is about as ominous as Brown gets, creating a sense of adventurous danger via keening harmonica. The title track is a jubilant folk tune grounded in big, round bass and a huge chorus vocal melody. “Spirits in the Silence” and “What I Really Want to Do” are a bit more pop-oriented-folk, sort of like Counting Crows, Five for Fighting, or Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi.” Brown carefully crafts each tune to have individual elements that set the songs apart, yet never deviate from the overall chill experience.
This album is magnetic: it’s hard to stop listening once you start. You’ll know all the sounds on each of the songs in The Road, but they way Brown makes them come together is barely short of magic. It’s a rare artist that can make the familiar sound brand new and exciting; Brown is that artist.
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!)
In 2002, a wise friend handed me copies of Coldplay’s A Rush of Blood to the Head and Counting Crows’ August and Everything After. Inexplicably to my pop-punk self at the time, I became obsessed with both. Thus began an interest in modern pop music that extends to an unironic enjoyment of Goo Goo Dolls and Train. Judge away.
JD Eicher and the Goodnights falls between the acoustic pop of August and Everything After and the arena-sized pathos of Goo Goo Dolls. The band’s best songs aren’t quite as navelgazing as Adam Duritz’ increasing self-defeating tunes, but stop short of going for the John Rzeznik stadium singalong. The lesser tunes fall on either side of the divide.
Eicher opens the Crows-esque “Feel The Rain” with the striking, “Seems like every couple hours, it’s six a.m.,” and its subsequent description of breakup symptoms doesn’t beg for sympathy or employ bitterness. The rest of the band employs a similarly impressive restraint, teasing the listener with a soaring chorus that never arrives. The song becomes a highlight because it doesn’t command all the modern pop tricks. Subversive!
The melodic bass work on “Distance and Space” echoes the style of “Feel the Rain,” proving the bassist’s vitally important role in the band’s best songs. The acoustic songwriting in “Love is Gonna Find You” leans in toward Goo Goo Dolls drama, but Eicher keeps the arrangement tight and low: more featured bass, no sweeping strings, no chorus pedal.
It’s not all success. Openers “The Beauty of It All” and “Two Weeks Back” do let the arrangements go electric, and the songs suffer blandness accordingly. “Crazy” is an odd acoustic-rock turn. “Fine Line” is a bit too Five for Fighting cute to pique my interest, and “Easy” flirts with that syndrome as well. But the high highs make the middling tracks easy to pass over.
That oft-maligned, major label-infested genre of modern pop is a tough bag in which to make a go of it. But JD Eicher and the Goodnights are not perturbed. It feels that Shifting came about honestly: Eicher and his band just process music this way, and the greatest honest move they can do is make these songs in this way. In a genre full of cash grabs, kitsch and knowing winks, it’s a pleasant and unusual experience to know that Eicher and his band really mean it when they rock out at the end of “Mr. Misery.” That level of honesty and real pop songwriting chops make Shifting into the success it is.
Oh, and JD: Buy your bassist a beer. And don’t let him leave the band.
It always worries me when someone gets compared to James Taylor. Whether it’s a self-comparison or an outside evaluation, it’s just discomforting to hear new artists compared to the king of nice. JT, for all his talent, specialized in nice tunes. They didn’t push the envelope, rock the boat, make waves, innovate, or blow the doors off. They just were really solid, pretty, nice songs. The reason he got away with being so static in his songwriting was that his voice is ab-so-lute-ly gorgeous. “Mexico” is not that exciting musically, but I feel like James Taylor is hugging me when he starts singing.
And unless you’ve got golden pipes, getting compared to James Taylor means bad things for your songwriting.
The Steve Pomplon Band compared themselves to JT in their neatly handwritten note accompanying their album (note to other artists: handwritten notes = WIN WIN WIN WIN WIN). After hearing 9:31 several times through, I can come to no better comparison than that. Pomplon’s voice, while not as smooth and effortless as Taylor’s, is definitely easy on the ears. The songs incorporate folk influences into the easy-going pop sound, but not enough to make this a folk album. This is a straight-up pop album, a little to the right of Coldplay’s Parachutes and a little to the left of Ben Harper. It’s a solid debut that avoids all missteps by not taking big steps of any kind.
Highlights include the bouncy “Journeys”; the easy-swaying, romantic closer “This Little Song”; and the dreamy “Pripyat.” There isn’t a bad song in the nine, but those that aren’t mentioned are all just nice. They don’t offend, but they don’t excite too strongly either.
The Steve Pomplon band has chops and songwriting skill, but it feels like they played it safe on this album. If this is their sound, they’ve got some tweaking to do before they have a recognizable signature. If this is just the jumping-off point for something bigger and better, then bring it on. I hear the talent here, but only in snatches and phrases here and there. There’s a lot of room for growth in the Steve Pomplon Band; but until then, they’ve put out some very listenable tunes in 9:31. For fans of Maroon 5, early Coldplay, Five for Fighting, Jack Johnson, early John Mayer, and the like. Oh, and James Taylor.
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.