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.
Midnight Pilot has spent a lot of time since their last release listening to new music. Their latest EP The Good Life expands on their previous alt-country-meets-Paul-Simon palette in all directions, throwing in sunshiny indie-pop melodies, Dawes-ian roots rock, and even some Muse-esque high drama rock. Listeners are in for some sharp lefts and unexpected detours, but they’ll end up with a smile nonetheless.
The opening cut makes their new approach obvious from the getgo, as “Offer Up My Love” has a “woo-woo-ooo” chorus that will put you in a breezy Southern California mood. It’s dropped right into their roots-rock verses, which isn’t as jarring as it would seem from writing that out. The rock has an American tinge, like Ivan and Alyosha’s. The title track is even more wide-open rock’n’roll, a major-key romp that declares: “I’m living the good life / nothing comes easy / I’m living the good life / for free / yeah-yeah / yeah-yeah.”
Things get a bit darker on “Follow Where You Lead,” which has disco vibes in the bass rhythms and stabbing string style, but has some Sufjan Stevens’ Illinois approaches to background vocals in the intro. The chorus is a bit sunnier than the minor key verses, but still the song has “drama” written over it. This is most spectacularly evident in the deconstructed bridge section, which drops to almost nothing before ramping up to an almost Muse-esque wall of noise. Closer “You’re My Friend” splits the difference between major and minor keys with some ’80s influences and Beach Boy ba-da-da-das. It’s eclectic, but it all hangs together.
The Good Life is an EP that shows a band experimenting and maturing rapidly. To hold together as many influences as they’ve included in this EP while still maintaining a recognizable core sound is no easy feat for any band. That all of the four songs are enjoyable is even more impressive; these aren’t just technical feats, they’re enjoyable ones. If you’re into good ‘ol American music, check out Midnight Pilot’s latest.
Marc with a C is a pop culture-addicted goofball with an insightful eye on culture at large. He’s the sort of guy who can and will critique the unspoken presumptions of our culture (“Ethics in Gaming”–a Gamergate reference, but the song isn’t about Gamergate), dedicate a whole song to an elaborate dick joke (“The Ballad of Dick Steel”), incisively analyze interpersonal relationships (“Epic Fail”), ask the hard questions that we all wonder about under the guise of joking statements (“Where’s My Giant Robot”) and suckerpunch listeners with a beautiful love song that includes one of the best twists I’ve heard in a long time (“Make You Better”) in one album. All that right there is enough to commend Unicorns Get More Bacon to you.
The music is solid too. The bulk of the tunes on Unicorns Get More Bacon are stripped down power-pop tunes played on electric or acoustic guitar, although towards the end Marc invests in some larger arrangements to go with some of his longer songs. The tunes have hummable melodies and instruments that don’t get in the way of the lyrics or the melodies, which is important–this album is pretty squarely about the lyrics.
This is also a bit of a “solo” record; you want to hear this one on your own to get to know it and love it. Or, you can get to know it with friends who will learn the lyrics and sing along with you very loudly. That would work too. But it’s not a record that works as background music–Marc with a C wants to talk with you on Unicorns Get More Bacon, and if you’re interested in Marc’s fourth-wall-breaking, here-there-and-everywhere lyrical style, you’ll have a great time in that conversation.
Trevor Green‘s Voice of the Wind is somewhat like an Indigenous Australian Graceland; the Californian Green, who already included didgeridoo in his music, actually traveled to Australia to learn more about the music of that country before making this album. The songs are a mix of laidback folk, Australian music, and modern indie-rock touches.
The main difference from Graceland is that Paul Simon wanted to make a pop record that celebrated South African sounds with his own, very American lyrics on top–Green’s songs draw heavily not only from the sounds of the land, but the lyrics and religious themes of the land. The second difference is in seriousness: Voice sounds more like The Shepherd’s Dog-era Iron & Wine than a pop record, as the folk and Australian sounds mesh in ways that evoke Sam Beam’s attempts at expanding his intimate sound to include more instruments.
This means that the album is by turns incredibly intense and then very solemn; tunes like “Red Road” are a breath of fresh air next to tunes which sound like Tusk-era Fleetwood Mac. But throughout the whole record, there’s a very clear sense of being outside the normal bounds of what acoustic music is generally like. If you’re adventurous, Trevor Green’s Voice of the Wind is a trip worth taking.
1. “Hero” – Starlight Girls. If you mashed up Tusk-era Fleetwood Mac with modern indie-pop sensibilities, you’d have this powerhouse of a pop song. This is the most infectious, irresistible groove of 2016 so far.
2. “Hang On To Yourself (David Bowie Cover)” – Ancient Cities. Bowie didn’t play much of a role in my personal musical development (I was introduced to him in my 20s), but his shadow looms large over many musicians. Ancient Cities drops a worthy tribute to Ziggy here.
3. “Boys That Sing” – Viola Beach. Sometimes the melody, the lyrics, and the vibe just come together for a great pop tune. Puts a smile on my face.
4. “Crazy Eyes” – Brother Moses. BroMo returns with a breezy, peppy tune that builds on their slacker-rock foundation with some scrambling drums, driving bass and twirling guitars. The compelling vocal tone and delivery are as powerful as ever.
5. “Youth Dies Young” – Til We Have Faces. Well here’s something interesting: A major key indie-rock song that thinks it’s an arpeggiator-heavy electro-jam which builds at the speed of a post-rock tune. By the end it’s almost a Here We Go Magic tune. Totally rad.
6. “Fundamental Ground” – TW Walsh. I don’t use the term “floating” that often, but this indie-pop tune has a lot of the elements that you might associate with floating: lazy rhythms, slightly washed-out vibe, hazy elements chilling out in the background of the tune, a vocal line that seems distant-yet-close. It’s beautiful, in a weird way.
7. “Sometimes (One Night)” – The Golden Peppers. Here’s a tight soul arrangement, blanketed with horns and infused with indie-pop vocal melodic flair. Just can’t get enough Nathaniel Rateliff?
8. “Lucky One” – Why We Love. It seems that the major-key, jangly pop-rock tune is not only immortal, but thriving. Everything about this is fun.
9. “Unicorns Get More Bacon” – Marc with a C. The giddy, funny, absurd, fourth-wall-destroying power-pop of Marc with a C is in fine, fine form in this 3-and-a-half minute jam.
10. “Glad to Be Alive” – Memoir. Draws from funk, reggae, and ’90s pop without camping in any of them, this grounded-yet-bouncy tune is led by neat vocal syncopation and and a mood that just brightens a room.
11. “Touch” – Guard. A hypnotic keys melody and a head-bobbing beat make this into the chillest of remix-ready club tunes. Ibiza beaches for this version, Ibiza clubs for the inevitable reworks.
12. “Still Life” – I.W.A. Blissful chillwave, the likes of which I don’t get to hear very often. Just gorgeous stuff here.
13. “Don’t Complain/Don’t Explain” – Bare Mattress. Like a more existential version of The Postal Service, this unassuming indie-pop-electro track sneaks its way into ears and heart.
14. “Glass” – Howard. This is like the indie-electro/post-dub version of a dystopian movie in which everything looks kind of right but is slowly revealed to actually be dystopian. In other words, the slow burn works great.
15. “I Don’t Want to Know Her Name” – Amber Quintero. Lilting, easygoing, spacious bedroom pop that finely balances lyrical intimacy and wide-open pad synth landscapes.
The woodsy, earthy vibes of Fleet Foxes-style alt-folk aren’t that far from the mystic, swirling vibes of Fleetwood Mac’s best-known work. The Self Help Group makes that connection for us in “Luigi’s Waltz,” where the six-piece Brighton-based outfit sounds for all the world like a much-smaller band calling California home. This deceptive trick flows from both the easy confidence of the performance and the careful arranging/mixing: nothing sounds out of place at any point in the process. An easygoing, mellowed-out tune results from their hard work: the sort of tune that feels light even while maintaining a full presence. And at 2:39, it knows how to make its point and get out of its own way. (That’s one way to make us press repeat multiple times.)
1. “Plastic Skateboard” – Brave Baby. It’s rare that a sound comes along that has its own internal logic and consistency. I could namecheck (Fleetwood Mac, Suburbs-era Arcade Fire, mopey mid-’00s electro, etc.), but ultimately their indie rock sound stands on its own. Impressive.
2. “Scar” – The Lonely Wild. Setting up a distinct feeling an inhabiting it is a sure way to hook me, and this rock tune gives us the sound and shape of desperation.
3. “Modern Times” – VSTRS. A killer drummer will always stand out, no matter where he or she lands: this minor-key rock track gets its propulsive energy from the frantic drumming. With the vocals, synths, and loping bass pulling the opposite direction, the drums still push this track onward relentlessly. The tension creates a great tune.
4. “Dear California” – Water District. It’s been almost twenty years since Bush and Incubus were cool (!!), so it’s time for their close-up. This chilled-out track calls up the best of those polished alt-rock slackers.
5. “Young Burns” – Fine, It’s Pink. Like a cave of wonders, this tune starts off with an icy, sparse electro intro before unveiling rooms of soaring, impressive indie-rock sound.
6. “Dirty Deli” – Creature from Dell Pond. An alternate vision of post-punk: jazz-inspired rhythms, dissonant chords, speak-sing vocals, occasional dance-rock dalliances, and a careful use of space. This tune scrambles along to its own idiosyncratic vision.
7. “Going Home” – Stomatopod. It’s a great-sounding old-school punk song. What else do you need?
1. “Too Deep in Love” – Kylie Odetta. Post-modern pop that mashes hip-hop and torch song, electro jam and walking-speed diva pop tune. It’s an infectious blend.
2. “Tide Teeth” – Night Beds. So I didn’t expect Night Beds to go all electro-soul on us, but he’s cranking out the sensuous slow jamz here.
3. “Kindred” – Red Cosmos. Smeary synths, staccato percussion, perky treble melodies and dour vocals create a unique space somewhere between dream-pop and downtempo psych-rock.
4. “Khazé” – Mune. That moment where post-punk was turning into new wave (which would soon birth synth-pop) was a hazy phaze where energy and lackadaisical dreaming seemed to coexist. Mune gets that.
5. “Aftergold” – Big Wild. Electro doesn’t always have to feature big, walloping synths: “Aftergold” relies on strings, plunky marimba, uncomplicated beats, and burbling vocals to create an energizing, impressive track.
6. “ Ghost ft. Patrick Baker” – Lane 8. Artsy electro drawing off trance and funk instead of dubstep is a welcome thing in my book. This tune never has a major drop, and that’s 100% cool with me.
7. “Away – Reptile Youth. The Flaming Lips dabble in electronic music, but Reptile Youth puts the creaky, eccentric, cosmic vibes that the lips peddle firmly into the electro milieu. The vocals of the two outfits are particularly similar.
8. “Amalie” – Colornoise. This track has the sort of mystic, atmospheric vibes that Fleetwood Mac was able to conjure up, only with a bit more ominous, gritty vibe on one end and sweeter vocals on the other.
North Carolina folk outfit River Whyless‘ tunes have no hard edges. The gentle, cooing folk on their self-titled EP has had all its difficult parts sanded down to a smooth, warm experience that wraps you in a comfy blanket of sound. Look no farther than opener “Life Crisis” to find that fuzzy feeling: the slow-building, slow-burning tune incrementally adds harmonium, glockenspiel, clapping, and dramatic cello to culminate in a ragged, earthy stomp that would make Fleet Foxes, barnraisers, and snowy-day-fireplace-watchers happy.
Look no further than “Miles of Skyline” to see how deeply the production values are imbued in their bones. The song has a rhythmic, metallic drumbeat that wouldn’t be out of place in an industrial tune, but they manage to layer so many harmonic plucks, swooning strings, trilling vocals and other pleasant vibes that it doesn’t sound out of place at all. It’s a frankly amazing songwriting trick, not unlike the moment in “All My Friends” when you realize that James Murphy has been playing the same piano line this whole time but it sounds different with every instrument that’s added.
In between those tracks are “Maple Sap” and “Bath Salt,” which both flesh out the River Whyless sound. The former starts off with a capella harmonies that remind me of Mountain Man, First Aid Kit and the like. Then it explodes outward into that Fleetwood Mac/CSNY sound that modern folk in the mid ’00s was so good at pulling together. It feels rustic in a beautiful way. The latter starts off so wonderfully crisp and bright that it sounds like the audio equivalent of turning a corner on a path and seeing a mountain pond ringed by trees with the sun shining in. The song floats.
River Whyless is a delicate, glorious wonder. It’s highly stylized to reach maximum beauty and calm, which seems to me the best reason to stylize anything. If you’re into modern folk, River Whyless is a must-know; this release is a must-have.
1. “New World” – Grammar. What if the Postal Service had been thought up by a woman instead of a man? Here’s a loose, flexible, smooth take on electro-pop that made me ponder the question.
2. “Gum Wrapper Rings” – Kind Cousin. I love to hear sentimental-yet-complex songwriting, and Kind Cousin delivers. Fans of Laura Stevenson will rejoice in the amalgam of wistful indie-rock guitars, ’50s girl pop vocals, and noisy drumming.
3. “Hold On Tight” – Ed Prosek. Radio-friendly, catchy folk-pop that’s a cross between Ed Sheeran and Phillip Phillips. Yes, that’s a pretty strong litmus test, I know. But it’s true.
4. “White Pine Way” – More than Skies. This impressive track falls somewhere between noisy punk/emo and slicker indie-rock bands like Interpol and Silversun Pickups. Lots of great melodies, but without hitting you over the head with them. Great work here.
5. “Black River” – Wild Leaves. Lush harmonies and ’70s-style production make Laurel Canyon the spiritual home of this track. Fleetwood Mac can come too.
6. “Tulsa Springs” – White White Wolf. Here’s an ominous, mysterious, rugged cabin-folk tune that’s high on atmosphere. (Also, +1 for anything with the name of my hometown in it.)
7. “Ne Brini Za Mene” – Neverdays. The Serbian response to Jason Molina, complete with mournful cello.
8. “Even I” – Grant Valdes. Valdes found a trove of hymns written by Haden Laas (1899-1918), an American soldier in WWI. They didn’t have scores, just words–so Valdes is setting each of the 44 hymns to music. This initial offering is a plaintive, yearning, piano-led tune. I’m super-excited to see where this goes.
Is Fleetwood Mac cool? U2 is uncool, and Led Zeppelin seems permanently cool (which is funny, because they were decidedly uncool radio rock in their heyday), but Fleetwood Mac is harder to pin down. Jesse DeConto, lead singer/songwriter of The Pinkerton Raid, thinks Fleetwood Mac is very cool (or at least very influential), as A Beautiful World draws on that swirling, vocals-heavy rock sound for its songwriting.
The title track/opener sets up their basic sound: reverb-laden guitars, dramatic vocals that burst into polyvocal harmonies, tom-heavy drums, dreamy keys, and an evening vibe. It’s not dark, but it’s not sunshine and clouds; perhaps it’s a stroll at dusk through a thick forest. It’s tough to capture the idea of expansiveness and intimacy at the same time, but the marriage of the wide-open arrangement and the tight harmonies gives off a very particular vibe. It’s a great track to name the album after and open the album with; it sets up what The Pinkerton Raid is about and lets you know what you’re going to get more of.
Other highlights include the staccato rhythms and thick guitars of “Just a Boy,” and the ominous, turbulent “Giving Tree.” The latter is a rumination on the beloved Shel Silverstein tale; I’ve always been encouraged by the little tale of sacrifice, but The Pinkerton Raid interpret it way differently. They throw one of their most mood-intensive, engaging arrangements at it, including evocative female lead vocals and strong instrumental performances all around. It’s pretty heavy emotionally, but it’s also a highlight of the record. If you’re into swirling indie rock that mines heavy situations for musical and lyrical inspiration, A Beautiful World will please you.
I’ve been getting so much good acoustic music lately that I’ve been pulling back from reviewing albums of anything else. (I still cover everything in the MP3 and video drops, don’t worry!) But Inner Outlaw’s I/O is so immediately attention-grabbing that I had to review it.
I/O is rock without garage rock trappings: even at their noisiest, the sounds here are slinky, smooth and polished. Inner Outlaws has the art of cool down pat, whether it’s the dusky back alley of “Easy Life,” the punchy guitar and low-slung rhythm section of opener “Rich City,” or the acoustic-led folk/psych of the twilit “Dead Man’s Game.” The band knows how to make sounds live between vaguely optimistic and outright dark; I/O mines the spaces inbetween, whether they be eerie, dangerous, intriguing or comforting (“Rich City Two”). “Cloak of Lichen” is all of those at once, even. It’s a very cohesive album, which is rare these days. I/O showcases a particular mood from a variety of angles, like a diamond with its many facets.
Inner Outlaws took the best parts of classic rock and updated them with indie-rock cool. If you’re into anything from Fleetwood Mac to The Strokes to Bloc Party to Grizzly Bear, you’ll find things to enjoy in I/O. This album shows off a band with talent and vision; it’s also a ton of fun. Can’t ask for much more.
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.