1. “The Tallest Woman on Earth” – Prints Jackson. Jackson’s on a never-ending song-a-month project (this one is month 33), and it seems like it’s only honing his skills: this fingerpicked folk tune is near-perfect. The vocals are engaging, the arrangement keeps morphing and changing, and the whole thing is a “can’t take my ears off it” success. Turn off the video you’re watching and just give this one your full attention: it will reward you.
2. “Still Believe in Love” – Darrin James Band. A spiritual successor to the swift, self-confident protest songs of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, this fingerpicked travelin’ song is a protest anthem and a call for love all at once.
3. “Snake in the Grass” – Autumn Chorus. This a thoughtfully arranged chamber-folk piece with soft, arresting vocals. If you want a jolt, look up the story behind the song. Even if you’re not the researchy type, you can feel the gravitas here.
4. “Penny for Your Thoughts” – Einar Stray Orchestra. It takes chutzpah to put together an indie orchestra in 2016–the economics and logistics of it are just nightmarish. But the music that you can produce: whoa. This piano-led piece is punchy and yet organic, keeping a drumkit, thrumming bass, and pizzicato strings all balanced perfectly. It’s a complex whirligig that doesn’t draw attention to its moving parts and instead shows off the whole, awesome result.
5. “Astrovan” – Mt. Joy. Comes straight out of the SUSTO school of laidback irreverence: chilled-out alt-country that imagines Jesus driving an Astro van (among other things). I’m not on team Astro Van lyrically (“maybe there is no heaven”), but man, the melodic appeal and gentle groove of this song are hard to reject.
6. “Until I Fall Asleep” – Paul Cook & The Chronicles. Who doesn’t love a sub-two-minute acoustic pop lullaby? This one is sweet, kind, and lovely.
7. “Chasing Heights” – Bamik. No genre is ever dead–it just gets harder and harder to do something that’s genuinely riveting without just calling back to old cliches. But it is totally doable, and Bamik demonstrates it by making incredibly engaging folk-pop–that still sounds like Mumford and Sons crossed with Fleet Foxes. But in that juxtaposition is magic, and Bamik finds that magic. Fantastic.
8. “4th of July” – STILLS. The close vocal harmonies and harmonium make this a warm, immersive, intimate folk tune. I love what the harmonium can do for a song, and STILLS put it to great use here.
9. “Rising Men Down” – Kate O’Callaghan. O’Callaghan’s lovely Irish lilt leads this track, as she uses it softly and powerfully throughout the tune. The arrangement is sophisticated and impressive.
10. “Goodbye” – Lucas Laufen. The sound of sheep bleating and wind rustling in the background give this gentle ballad even more pastoral bonafides. Laufen’s voice meshes with the pristine guitar playing beautifully.
11. “Lover After” – Luke De-Sciscio. Fans of Jeff Buckley will appreciate the yearning, ethereal vocals over delicate washes of acoustic notes that compose this emotive tune.
12. “Let Me Down Easy” – Andrea von Kampen. von Kampen has impressive control over her voice, swooping from a dignified near-whisper to a keening wail to an even-handed plea with tremendous ease. This amount of diversity is a mark of songwriting maturity, and this break-up tune has a rare thoughtful quality to it that drives home the idea even more.
13. “Hewing Crowns” – Her Harbour. A solitary, lonesome rumination over a solo piano–the room echo gives the vocal performance even more gravitas than the commanding-yet-vulnerable vocal performance itself brings to the table. Good news for people who like sad news.
1. “Home Away” – Valley Shine. This song excellently combines two things I love: enthusiastic folk-pop and Graceland-style African music influences. It’s the sort of jubilant yet suave work that transcends genre barriers and should be appreciated by people across the pop music spectrum. Just a fantastic song.
2. “Brother” – Jack the Fox. Doesn’t need more than an acoustic guitar, some warm pad synths and an arresting voice to totally take over a room. It’s quality on par with Josh Ritter and Fleet Foxes, but doesn’t sound like either artist.
3. “One Day I’ll Be Your Ears” – Mateo Katsu. Ramshackle, enthusiastic, chunky, herky-jerky acoustic indie-pop from the school of Daniel Johnston and Page France. It’s the sort of charmingly off-kilter work that lo-fi was meant to celebrate.
4. “Lil to Late” – Brother Paul. Here’s a fun, easygoing acoustic blues shuffle with hints of rockabilly, vintage country and self-deprecating humor sprinkled throughout. It’s topped off with just the right amount of Motown soul-style horns.
5. “The Time It Takes” – The Show Ponies. This Americana outfit sounds like a Joe Walsh moonlighting as the leader of a Nashville country outfit: saloon-style piano, radio-rock ramblin’ vibe, and male/female duet vocals straight off your local country radio. It’s not usually what I’m into, but it hooked me and kept me.
6. “Return to the Scene” – Aaron Atkins. Weary yet sturdy, this alt-country/folk tune ambles along on the strength of great rumbling bass lines and a convincingly-achy vocal performance.
7. “Phoenix Fire” – Simon Alexander. From the Josh Garrels/Hozier school of intense singers comes this thoughtful, mature pop song with a great chorus.
8. “Melody, I” – Pluto and Charon. A warm, intimate acoustic performance that retains the fret squeaks and string buzz. It’s more rough in its fidelity than Damien Jurado ever was, but it has a similar sort of vibe in the dignified vocals.
9. “Waterski to Texas” – Budo and Kris Orlowski. Now this one really does sound like Damien Jurado, but the latter-day Jurado. Budo and Orlowski walk a fine line between big, sweeping arrangements of singer/songwriter work and a very personal, even raw, emotive quality. The vocals here are particularly fine.
10. “Gold Ring” – Redvers Bailey. This one’s a lovely, romantic, gently layered song that floats somewhere between Josh Radin’s delicate work and the wide-eyed wonder of “Casimir Pulaski Day”-style Sufjan Stevens.
11. “High Rolling” – Jake Aaron. This acoustic instrumental manages to be complex and inviting at the same time, subverting expectations by not just jumping to the highest treble notes for the lead melody. By keeping the melody low and close to the fingerpicked foundation of the piece, the tune feels both comfortable and complicated. It’s very worth your time, even for those who aren’t generally into acoustic instrumentals.
1. “New Moon” – Namesayers. The lead guitar here is angular, cranky, and brittle, contrasting against the swirling, low-key psychedelia laid down by the rest of instruments and Devin James Fry’s mystical croon. It makes for an intriguing rock that sounds like midnight in the desert with a big bonfire going. (Which is pretty much what the title and the album art convey, so this one has its imagery and soundscapes really tight in line.)
2. “O Zephyr” – Ptarmigan. It’s tough to be a serious alt-folk band without sounding over-earnest or overly ironic. Ptarmigan finds the perfect center, where it sounds like a bunch of people who love folk and have something to say are making their noise how they want. Fans of River Whyless, Fleet Foxes (often violators of the over-earnest, but nonetheless), and Barr Brothers will enjoy this.
3. “Axolotl” – Lord Buffalo. Lord Buffalo specializes in primal, pounding, apocalyptic pieces that build from small beginnings to terrifying heights. This is an A+ example of the form.
4. “A Miracle Mile” – St. Anthony and the Mystery Train. Equally apocalyptic as above, but in a more Southern Gothic, Nick Cave, howl-and-clatter style of indie-rock than the all-out-sonic assault. A wild ride.
5. “Spring” – Trevor Ransom. A tone-poem of a piece, illustrating the arrival of spring with found sounds, distant vocals, and confident piano.
6. “Not Enough” – Sunjacket. This inventive indie-rock song draws sounds and moods from all over the place, creating a distinct, unique vibe. There’s some Age of Adz weirdness, some Grizzly Bear denseness, some giant synth clouds, and more.
7. “Bushwick Girl” – CHUCK. A goofy, loving parody of NYC’s hippest hipsters in appropriately creaky, nasally, quirky indie-pop style.
8. “Ghost” – Mood Robot. Chillwave meets ODESZA-style post-dub with some pop v/c/v work for good measure. It’s a great little electro-pop tune.
9. “Da Vinci” – Jaw Gems. All the swagger, strut, stutter, and stomp of hip-hop and none of the vocals. Impressive.
10. “Disappearing Love” – Night Drifting. If the National’s high drama met the Boss’s roots rock, you’d end up with something like this charging tune with a huge conclusion.
11. “Black and White Space” – Delamere. Britpop from Manchester with a catchy vocal hook and subtle instrumentation that comes together really nicely.
12. “Plastic Flowers” – Poomse. Predictions of human doom over crunchy guitars give way to a densely-layered indie-rock track with claustrophobia-inducing horns. If you’re into Mutemath or early ’00s emo (non-twinkly variety), you’ll find some footholds here.
13. “Lake, Steel, Oil” – Basement Revolver. There’s something hypnotic about Chrisy Hurn plaintively singing her heart out as if there isn’t a howling wall of distortion raging around her.
1. “Holy Ghost” – deer scout. Some songs have to grow on me, but “Holy Ghost” is instant: Dena Miller’s friendly, comfortable alto invites you in, and the intimate, burbling guitar asks you to sit down. This is a magnificent song that has me very excited for future deer scout work.
2. “Annie” – Patric Johnston. The acoustic guitar has a mellifluous, perfectly-delivered melody to lead this piece, and Johnston’s voice is buttery and smooth in the way of the Barr Brothers, Josh Ritter, and the like: mature, solid, and full of gentle charisma.
3. “The Weather Girl” – Prints Jackson. This one’s a vocals-forward troubadour folk tune a la old-school Joe Pug or occasional Justin Townes Earle. Jackson knows how to use his voice and guitar to best effect, and the resulting tune shines with an easygoing assuredness. This song has legs, and I hope it gets to use them–more people should know about Prints Jackson.
4. “Rain Thoughts” – Frith. You walk into a new club that’s supposed to classy. You find yourself greeted with the gentle sounds of a musician trained in Tom Waits drama but purveying that work via strings, stand-up bass, gentle piano, and a relaxed tenor. You’re going to like it here, and you’re going to visit more often. (Alternatively: the gravitas of trip-hop worked its way into a singer/songwriter tune.)
5. “All Day All Night” – River Whyless. River Whyless has always wanted to be more than just a folk band, and here they expand their sound with some rhythmic group vocals and satisfying thrumming bass that drops this tune somewhere between Fleet Foxes and Fleetwood Mac.
6. “Firetrain” – Todd Sibbin. The raw, youthful vocal presentation of Bright Eyes’ mid-era work meets the polished horns and wailing organ of early-era Counting Crows alt-pop. (I just mentioned two of my favorite bands.) In short, this is a fantastic pop tune.
7. “Absolute Contingency” – The Ravenna Colt. The lead guitar work and background vocals point toward an alt-country tune out of the slowcore, Mojave 3 school, but the rest of the tune is a shuffle-snare folk tune that’s just lovely.
8. “4th July” – Daniel Pearson. This chipper folk-pop tune has a great harmonica part, a friendly vibe, and really depressing lyrics. At least it sounds happy!
9. “Revolver” – Vian Izak. It’s got that Parachutes-esque Brit-pop mystery to it, paired with the sort of chords and mood that evoke sticky, slow-moving days in the city. The results are unique and interesting.
10. “Out Loud” – Jason P. Krug. Brash but not aggressive, Krug pairs confident melodic delivery and chunky indie-pop/folk with a swooping cello to create an intriguing tension.
11. “Pack of Dogs” – Jesse Lacy. Here’s a full-band folk reminiscence on the joy of youthful friendships that brings banjo, acoustic, wurlitzer, and smooth tenor vocals together excellently.
12. “I Won’t Be Found” – Simon Alexander. The smoothness of traditional singer/songwriter mixed with the raw angst and passion of The Tallest Man on Earth’s vocals creates a distinct push and pull between punchy and silky.
13. “What It Is” – Alex Hedley. The purity and honesty of a fingerpicked guitar line and an emotional vocal melody are never going to get old to me. This particular tune is earnest without being cloying; moody without being morose. Well-balanced. Deeply enjoyable.
14. “Someday feat. Devendra Banhart” – Akira Kosemura. A fragile piano melody is joined by hushed vocals and romantic strings. It’s the sort of song that lovers have their first dance to.
15. “Dear, be safe” – Rasmus Söderberg. What a tender, delicate acoustic plea this is.
1. “Delightful” – Katie Garibaldi. A delightfully honest reflection on how to live life in this crazy world.This sweet-sounding song beautifully combines acoustic guitar strumming with Garibaldi’s unique voice.
2. “Alaska” – Tina Refsnes. This thoughtful folk tune starts off with minimalist guitar instrumentation and slowly expands to include a rather full orchestral accompaniment. “Alaska” is a lovely track that provides just the right amount of cheer for a rainy day.
3. “No Last Call”– Emily Rodgers. A contemplative, melancholic folk tune with alt-country influence coming out in her use of pedal steel. The long length of the track gives off a feeling like it may just be an endless beauty. When it comes to a close, you are left wanting to return to its peaceful arms.
4. “Little by Little”– Niamh Crowther. Crowther’s soaring sopranic voice pairs well with her playful instrumentation. Similar to the likes of Regina Spektor, Crowther hits, holds, and transitions through very high notes; it’s rather awe-inspiring.
5. “Miami”– Kara Ali. Soulful, jovial, and refreshing, the funky instrumentation of “Miami” makes me want to groove. Ali’s voice is this interesting combination of Mariah Carey and Joss Stone. This is a great ode to a fun American city.
6. “Cormorant”– Dana Falconberry and Medicine Bow. I love this song; it feels very Birdy meets Fleet Foxes with some Dirty Projectors thrown in. Heavy on the banjo and bass, this track combines unique instrumentation with quizzical lyrics and a powerful voice. Fun all around.
7. “Oliver”– Brooke Bentham. This simple, lovely singer-songwriter track will steal your heart with its raw vocals and compelling lyrics. I can truly feel the warmth emanating from this song.
8. “Tonight”– Ashley Shadow. This is a great example of how Ashley Shadow makes music that builds and climaxes magically, akin to The War on Drugs. And Shadow’s coy alto female voice correlates well with the male background vocals entering at the chorus.
9. “Next To You”– Dannika. Sit back, relax and chill out to this track. Dannika’s unassuming vocals paired with the guitar provide a perfect example of casual feminine rock.
10. “Late to the Party”– Heavy Heart. Another chill rock song, this female-fronted rock band makes great rock music. The crisp electric guitar steals the show from the start, but the layered strings certainly deserve an honorable mention.
11. “Midnight Blue”– Candace. Although the vocals are great, the instrumentation shines on this track. It makes me want to take a drive, roll down the windows, and let the wind mess up my hair as I listen to this song.
12. “Cementville”– Annabelle Chairlegs. This song radiates fun. The vocals are very reminiscent of the female from the B-52s, with raucous screaming to boot. I’m especially in love with the boldness of this song; feels very third wave feminism.
13. “Lies”– ¿Qué Pasa? With quaking electric guitar, sultry vocals and punchy lyrics, “Lies” oozes sex appeal. The multitude of false endings leaves you thinking it’s over and then the seduction starts up again. It somehow feels like something that Quentin Tarantino could have used in a Kill Bill Vol. 1 fight scene.–Krisann Janowitz
1. “Where Are You Running Now” – Ivory Tusk. If you weren’t into The Tallest Man on Earth because of the vocals, check out Ivory Tusk instead: the same sort of complex melodic fingerpicking, similarly poetic lyrics, but a much less grating (I say this lovingly, Tallest Man, really) voice. All the upsides, and none of the down. It’s a beautiful, remarkable song.
2. “Sound It Out” – The Hasslers. Pickin’ and grinnin’ meets New Orleans horns and organ for a full-band acoustic tune that’s fun in lots of ways; even the down-on-my-luck lyrics have wry enjoyment running their delivery.
3. “Intention of Flying” – Jon Arckey. Everything meshes perfectly here: Arckey’s vibrato-laden tenor (reminiscent of a lower Brett Dennen), gentle fingerpicking, excellently arranged and recorded drums, ghostly background vocals, and even a guitar solo. This beautiful acoustic tune just nails everything.
4. “I Feel a Light” – Aaron Kaufman. Starts off like a solid acoustic tune, then bursts into an unexpected chorus that grabbed my attention. The inclusion of gong and various melodic percussion instruments develop the tune and stick in my mind.
5. “False Flag” – Vice-President. Starts out a weighty singer/songwriter tune, turns into an alt-country song, then ratchets up to a towering conclusion. The lyrics are socially and politically minded, which fits perfectly with the serious vibe of the whole work. Yet, the song remains engaging to listen to; don’t get scared off.
6. “Beautiful World” – David Trull. Jason Isbell fans, take note: Trull’s Southern-steeped acoustic troubadour work is in the same vein as the work that Isbell is currently making hay with.
7. “Blue Whales” – Ulli Matsson. The staccato guitar playing here is almost percussive, playing against Matsson’s legato vocal lines. A mysterious, haunting vibe ensues.
8. “Like a Funeral” – Erik Jonasson. Jonasson puts the focus squarely on his vocals with this minimalist, stark ballad, and they hold up to the scrutiny. The tenor tone is beautiful, and there’s a lot of nuance in his performance. By the end it’s grown and shifted to a Sigur Ros-esque vibe, which is always great.
9. “Loves Company” – The Hasslers. In stark contrast to their joyful tune above, this banjo-led ballad is a deeply sad tale (complete with weeping pedal steel). The hooks and the engaging vocal delivery are still there, but this definitely shows a different side of the Hasslers.
10. “Blind” – Raquelle Langlinais. If Regina Spektor, The Jayhawks, and Jenny and Tyler got together for a jam session, something like this perky alt-country tune anchored by charming female vocals might appear as a result. Everything about this is just infectiously fun, from the drums and bass to the guitars to the vocals.
11. “What If” – Big Little Lions. Here’s some soaring folk-pop with an epic bent and giant choruses, similar to Of Monsters and Men or Fleet Foxes.
1. “Audubon” – Jon Solo. Here’s a gentle yet expansive sonic soundscape dedicated to the famous naturalist. The arrangement here is simple-sounding yet complex in its construction, which makes for great work.
2. “Taller” – Silas William Alexander. An intimate folk tune that has the gravitas of the best folk singers, an earnest vocal performance that reminds me of my long-lost Page France, and a wistful sweetness that’s irresistible. Alexander is one to watch.
3. “Young Romance” – Redvers Bailey. Makes me think of Juno, The Life Aquatic, Beirut, Belle and Sebastian, honest quirkiness (“I don’t try to do this, this is just how I sing”), and lots of good songs. Mile-a-minute lyrics, chunky chords, humble melodies–what more can you ask for in an indie-pop tune?
4. “Going Home” – Jesse Rowlands. We don’t write real folk tunes that much anymore, but here’s one about a Southern deserter (I’m guessing from the Civil War) who tries to get back to his home. The voice-and-guitar songwriting sounds way more full than just those two pieces. It’s an engaging, beautiful tune.
5. “Little Moment” – Luke Rathborne. Delicate guitar work always gets me; so does the confidence to create small, quiet pop songs. This tune just makes me smile.
6. “Someone to Love Me” – Jont and the Infinite Possibility. Do you miss early-eras Coldplay? Rush of Blood to the Head, Parachutes, etc.? You’ll love the full-band, wide-screen, acoustic-grounded pop-rock here.
7. “Strangers” – Brad Fillatre. The vocal performances in this alt-country tune are deeply affecting, all the more so because of the unexpected nature of the clear, yearning chorus melody in relation to Fillatre’s gritty, rough verse performances.
8. “Hymns” – Grado. A subtle but strong opening guitar line leads into a unique combination of rainy-day indie-pop, modern folk music, and upbeat indie-pop enthusiasm. There’s quite a lot going on here in what seems like a simple, confident tune.
9. “Gentle Giant” – Yankee & the Foreigners. Charming, woodsy, full-band folk for fans of Fleet Foxes, The Fox and the Bird, new-school Decemberists, and Beirut’s vocalist.
10. “Anchor Up” – Eric George. Walking-speed folk troubadour work with great vocals, a stellar production job, and a remarkably chill vibe.
11. “Anchor (Argentum Remix)” – Novo Amor. A For Emma-style Bon Iver vocal performance over fingerpicked guitar and piano chords gets an ’90s techno beat backdrop; to my surprise, it sounds totally rad.
12. “Believe in Me” – Jason P. Krug. A tender keys line (maybe kalimba?) and a swooning cello accompany Krug’s smooth voice and lyrics of Eastern mysticism; reminds me of the quieter Dan Mangan songs, in that there’s a lot of emotion but not a lot of melodrama.
13. “Fire Engine Red” – Robert Francis. Francis sounds completely assured and at home in this minimalist songwriting environment: with a few rim clicks, distant synths, and a rubbery bass line, Francis creates a distinct, careful mood. It gets even better when he layers his acoustic guitar over it.
14. “The Haunted Song” – Maiah Wynne. Wynne wrote a solo vocal piece, then performed it in a big empty space accompanied by claps, stomps, and creepy background vocals. At just over 1:19, it’s intriguing and unconventional.
15. “Fork End Road” – Ark Royal. Big harmonies, swift picking, and great strings–this song hits you with a lot right up front. Gotta love a track that captures you from the get-go. Things get better from there, too.
Benevolus’ “Go” starts off with a bang: a cymbal splash sets off a rhythmic, hypnotizing guitar strum and rumbling percussion. These two elements drive the mood for the whole tune. The percussion sounds like it’s being really hammered out, but with soft mallets: this gives it an earthy, organic sort of feel due to its lack of sharp edges and snapping hits. This unusual percussion choice makes it actually more a feature than the guitar, as the mesmerizing, consistent guitar strum forms a foundation for the drums and the vocals to play around on top of.
Composer Ryan Beppel’s vocals jump in the fray in a dramatic way as well: Beppel multi-tracks his voice to make himself sound like an enthusiastic, energetic choir. His penchant for hollered, punchy exclamations and wordless melodic runs match the wide-open feel of the percussion. Beppel’s work has been likened to Animal Collective crossed with Fleet Foxes, and that’s a totally appropriate call. “Go” is an adventurous, impressive track that really puts a best foot forward. I’m intrigued to hear more by Benevolus; the creative approach to using standard songwriting elements points to the emergence of a unique new songwriting voice.
The video for “Go” is also intriguing–Beppel runs through the streets of a snowy NYC like a modern-day George Bailey, but the ending of the video leaves it a bit uncertain as to his goals and the results of his quest. It’s beautiful to see the Big Apple in all its snowy glory, and you get an interesting little tale along the way.
Swedish band Muxika77’s third release, Death and the Magpie, is a difficult album to describe: there are eight songs, each one different from the rest. The overall sound of the album is both vocally and instrumentally layered–each song contains so many instruments that I don’t think I even caught all of them. Listening to Death and the Magpie is unlike anything else; it’s an experimental experience, where each track serves as a unique excursion on the journey.
The album starts off eerie-sounding with guitar quaking and screechy noises in “Agelstern Varwe.” After about a minute, the song transitions into a calmer instrumentation with what sounds like a steel-stringed guitar, an instrument often used throughout. A drumset accompanies the guitar, and Krantz’s voice joins the mix. Frontman Johan Krantz’s effortless tenor voice has tonal qualities similar to the lead singer of Fleet Foxes, yet deeper and darker. Harmonic background vocals pop in and out of the track. A collection of wonderfully ominous baritone “oh”s (also seen elsewhere: “B.Y.F.M.,” “Resan,” “Scythe, Pilatus”) splits the long track into two. Spanish-inspired guitar rhythms enter immediately after the “oh”s. The instrumentation eventually transitions into being more orchestral-heavy with multiple beautiful violins and other string instruments. The more than eight-minute-long song is nothing less than the first stretch of a journey in another world: the world of Muxika77.
The next few excursions on the trip, “B.Y.F.M.,” “Corvidae Necklace,” and “Resan” are less complex than “Agelstern Varwe,” but that does not mean that they are at all simple. “B.Y.F.M.” pairs the banjo with the violin, which makes this track’s instrumentation rather melancholic. “Corvidae Necklace” picks up at the chorus, but in general maintains a slower pace and a simpler sound. Fittingly, “Corvidae” is a term that refers to the family of birds containing crows, ravens, and rooks, etc.; the first lyric is, “I asked a blackbird to teach me/ And I listened closely when she spoke.”
“Resan,” Swedish for “trip,” takes its listeners on quite a spanish-inspired trip by highlighting both Krantz’s amazing voice and the steel-stringed guitar that sounds very flamenco-esque when accompanied by rhythmic clapping. One of my favorite moments from “Resan” is a soft moment accompanied by gentle strums of the guitar, where Krantz sings, “Goodbye for now./ We are set free.” Then the dark baritone “oh”s take over.
“Löftet, for Fardoe” is my favorite song off the album. The piano is the primary instrument for this song, although other elements such as percussion, strings and the electric guitar round out the instrumentation. The song itself has this wonderful circus-like guitar rhythm that comes at the chorus and keeps the song playful. The lyrics at the chorus are also really fun: “ We’ll keep singing / we’ll keep dancing / we’ll keep drinking.” And then, out of nowhere, a squealing guitar disrupts us midway through the song. It also repeats later on. The guitar serves as a type of antivenom that keeps the playfulness in check. Afterall, an album entitled Death and the Magpie can’t get too light.
“Scythe, Pilatus” closes out the album. Unlike the other tracks, this one begins with brass, including multiple trumpets, which echo throughout the song. Besides the intermittent brass, a pristine piano is the track’s main form of accompaniment. Pilatus is a majestic mountain in Central Switzerland, and this song sounds peaceful like a mountain, until the electric guitar explodes the track in a very rock & roll way. Those awesome deep baritone “oh’”s then close out the album.
Death And The Magpie is an experience unlike any other. Even in my explanation, I feel I fall too short. The only thing I can really say is listen and take the journey for yourself. Muxika77 will surprise you.–Krisann Janowitz
Sean McConnell’s Cold Country harvests the “deep in the woods” vibe that projects like Mutual Benefit and Fleet Foxes employ and puts it to intimate use. Tunes like “Letter to My Daughters” and “To Providence” make The Fall EPthe sort of project where I feel like I’m getting to know McConnell instead of listening to a recording of him: his concerns are domestic, personal, and honest. The open-hearted lyrics are delivered beautifully by his unassuming, slightly imperfect high-tenor voice.
The sensitive, gentle-yet-sturdy arrangements complete the picture. Instead of the heavy strumming of Fleet Foxes, McConnell leans much more on an intricate latticework of instruments to create fullness: twinkling keys, lighthearted synth, distant electric guitar, fingerpicked acoustic, sparse drumming, and occasional female backing vocals all work together to create tunes like the beautiful “Song of Return” (which even includes tasteful autotune!) and “To Providence.” It’s a gorgeous EP that manages to sound rustic without being vintage, and earthy without being sparse.
House Above the Sun‘s self-titled EP splits the difference between quiet acoustic work and ’70s-style acoustic rock with strong lyrics on top of both. “Footsteps” and “Love’s Ugly Twin” focus on the acoustic stylings of Jim Moreton, featuring his unadorned voice, immediate melodies, and simple strumming. “(He’s Still) My Flesh and Blood” and “Dangerous Thing to Love” get a bit crunchier, with distorted electric guitar, kit drums, and a more rock-oriented approach.
Both sonic arrangements serve as strong platforms for Moreton’s lyrics to launch from: he’s concerned about difficult types of love on this EP. “(He’s Still) My Flesh and Blood” recalls the painful tale of trying to get through to a family member who you just don’t connect with and won’t connect with you; “A Dangerous Thing to Love” discusses the difficulties of loving someone romantically (“it’s not an intellectual thing, to love”). “Love’s Ugly Twin” deals with the aftermath of a relationship with a brother/friend, while “Footsteps” points to the inadequacy of the narrator to love Christ as well as he’d like. The thorny difficulty of the lyrical content contrasts against the smooth, polished arrangements for a pleasing listen. If you’re interested in lyrics-first acoustic work with a bit of a rock edge, House Above the Sun should be on your to-hear list.
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.