Bunches of MP3s have come my way recently, and I’m happy to share some with you. Come back on Friday for the Spring/Summer mix!
1. “Reno” – Shareef Ali. Anti-folk, acoustic-punk, and country converge on this memorable, attitude-filled breakup tune. (Ali’s CD release show is tonight, if you happen to find yourself in San Francisco.)
2. “Blankets” – Matthew Fowler. Fowler has a smooth, soothing voice that sounds far more mature than his 19 years. Fans of Josh Garrels and Ray LaMontagne should take notice.
3. “The Lampolier” – Grover Anderson. As fall moves toward winter, let’s move from pretty singer/songwriters to the haunting, backwoods Appalachian murder ballad tradition. The production here is particularly notable.
4. “Down to My Soul (The Music)” – Kate Vargas. When a woman says she’s influenced by Tom Waits, that gets my attention. Vargas delivers on that promise with raspy, soulful, inspired folk full of banjo and danger.
5. “Strugglin’” – I Am the Albatross. This one also starts out as a Tom Waits-ian folk ramble, but it transforms into a Gogol Bordello folk/punk/polka blaster complete with vengeful religious imagery. All aboard!
6. “All Walks of Life” – Mike Dillon. I’m used to Mike Dillon’s unclassifiable madness played at 3 zillion BPMs. This unclassifiable madness includes a significantly chiller body before a naturally madcap coda but is no less weird: it still includes vibraphone, trombone, drums, and Dillon’s crazy vocals.
7. “Alta / Waterfall” – Fear of Men. Jangly indie-rock urgency married to the rich, dusky landscapes of Bowerbirds and the like.
8. “Blight ft. FatRat Da Czar” – We Roll Like Madmen. Very smooth, dark, crisp electro here. FatRat Da Czar raps some really nice flow over it, really making this track.
9. “Ruin” – Vedas. The PR for this one calls it a “hollow depletion of hope,” which makes me want to try and cheer them up. Their James Blake-ian electro-pop/R&B/indie/whatever stuff is definitely attractive, though. All is not lost, yo!
10. “Reset” – Maggie McClure. Here’s a cathartic, female-fronted, piano-based pop tune for those who never stopped secretly loving The Fray and The Goo Goo Dolls.
11. “RaVe (feat. Kris English)” – Cloud Seeding. Is it folk? Is it electro? The lines keep getting fuzzier. Either way, this one is a lithe, easy-moving track.
12. “There Was a Time” – Corea Blue. Lo-fi can always get grittier, y’all. Props to this track for creating a zen-like mood and tone while using tape hiss as an instrument.
I love a good pop song. I know it makes me uncool that I’m a big fan of Train’s “Hey Soul Sister,” BUT WHATEVER Y’ALL. UKULELE POWER. JD Eicher and the Goodnights know the value of pop songs. Eicher and his crew fit squarely in the adult alternative pop genre (which I shorthand as the Matt Nathanson/John Mayer sound). And they’re awesome at it on Into Place. Tunes like “You’ve Got a Lot of Growing Up To Do” and “I’d Like To Get To Know You” are perky, poppy tunes with excellent melodies, memorable lyrics, and fun choruses that you can’t help but sing along with. It’s perfect summer music.
There are some heavier moments: “People” pulls the heartstrings in a Goo Goo Dolls sort of way, “Oh My God” is a pensive piano rumination, and “Edgar Greene’s Time Machines” tells a long story to make a point about the way history and us intersect. The best tune on the album, though, combines the excellent pop songwriting chops with the heavier musings. “Aaron” brings in some banjo and clapping, moving the melodic center a little more toward Mumford/Lumineers territory. The tune is basically an audio version of Nick Hornsby’s High Fidelity: it looks at our relationship to sad songs through the lens of one musician. “I don’t like sad songs, they just seem to write me,” the narrator shrugs before blasting off into a monster that should be all over radio right now. It’s far and away the best display of songwriting on the album, and I’ve had “Aaron” on repeat for several weeks. It’s just excellent.
If you’re into a good pop song, Into Place by JD Eicher and the Goodnights should be on your iPod. That’s all there is to it.
Bells and Hunters wastes no time announcing that they are something different. By 1:25 into the opener (which is also the title track) of Weddings and Funerals, the band has given listeners a spacey intro; a garagey, overdriven guitar riff; rapid-fire ’90s-style female speak-sing; a trumpet line; some accentuated guitar arpeggiation; and a pop-punk- inflected breakdown. This is not what you normally listen to, unless there are some No Doubt B-sides that sound like this in your catalog. This weird-but-cool garage-rock takes an even weirder turn in the next track: “73” is a slow-paced alt-country tune whose only connection to the previous tune is the particular style of guitar picking. (They even bring in a male vocalist halfway through, mixing it up more.) Bells and Hunters are not afraid to experiment.
Those two tunes show good extremes of Bells and Hunters’ sound, as the rest of the album sees the band combining those two sounds liberally. (They do hit the distortion pedal at the end of “73,” but it still sounds like Old 97s-style alt-country instead of garage-rock.) “Bird” starts off with dainty sounds and jaunty rhythms–like an Andrew Bird piece–but incorporates some majorly Weezer-esque guitar stomp by the end of the tune. Highlight track “Mercury” starts off with some ominous guitar picking and tom beating before bringing in a spaghetti western trumpet line, fusing the intensity that they bring with their garage-rock to a quieter arrangement. (Never fear, though: they let the drums go nuts on the cymbals, dirtying up the sound almost as much as the fuzzbox would.) “Planes” is basically a finger-picked folk song blown out by a garage-rock band. It sounds awesome, if a bit foreign to ears unaccustomed to it.
Bells and Hunters’ sound is an exciting and interesting one, exploring spaces between genres. I’ve mentioned Steven Hyden’s dictum about the future of music before (“a future where all music sounds like everything at once“), and it seems that Bells and Hunters are ready for that bold future. This is a creative, inventive, interesting take on two different genres. If you’re up for something unusual, check out Weddings and Funerals.
The Old 97s are a touchstone for Time Travels‘ sound as well. Where Bells and Hunters reminded me of Rhett Miller and Co.’s louder bits, Time Travels reminds me of the band’s softer side. Secret EP puts the emotive side of alt-country on display, with opener “It is.” leaning heavily on a remorseful, emotive vocal performance. Frank McGinnis has the soaring tenor pipes for the adult alternative genre, and the sweeping crescendoes of “It is.” do swing toward the Matt Nathanson/Goo Goo Dolls/Ben Rector style. But instead of getting mushy and cloying in their more upbeat stuff (like Matt Nathanson has a tendency to do), Time Travels takes after Ben Rector by sticking to a more upbeat, staccato, rock-influenced style in the title track.
The rest of the five-song EP leans closer to the emotive power-pop of the opener, with admirable vocal turns in “The Eye” and “Wraith” (check that falsetto!). “Wraith” also has some nice bass work, which I particularly like. Time Travels have two very different directions they can head from the Secret EP, so it will be interesting to see if they veer off on a path or keeping splitting the distance. Until further information is available, I’ll enjoy the upbeat “Secret” and lullaby-esque “Orange you glad I didn’t say banana?”
Fun fact: Almost two years ago, I started the Quick Hits feature with Anna Madorsky‘s Talk is Cheap. I used it as a forum to feature bands that were worth listening to but that I didn’t have a bunch to say about for one reason or another (an EP, a limited release, a sound-in-progress, an easy recommendation, among others). Anna Madorsky’s Triumph & Symphony is definitely not an EP, at an hour-long 14 tracks, but it is easy to recommend. Madorsky has largely dropped the dreamy aspects of her pop, going for a straightforward, piano-based singer/songwriter vibe here. Her distinctive vocals get a higher place in the mix, and that will intrigue some and turn some away. She also leans heavily on piano for the songwriting here, which is a good thing: she previously split time between guitar and piano, and still does that some here, but the best songs are on piano (“Civil War,” “Both Feet In,” “Oh My Friend”). But if you’re a fan of Amanda Palmer, Regina Spektor (especially her darker work), or the like, this will be right up your alley.
Jim Ivins Band‘s Everything We Wanted delivers seven songs of modern pop in the vein of Matt Nathanson, John Mayer and the Goo Goo Dolls. The release doesn’t shake up a formula that has worked for them in the past: guitars chime, drums crash, and vocals cut through the mix to deliver the payoff melodies. “The Sight of Fire” hinges on a nice lyrical turn and a solid chorus, becoming the standout here. “Emergency” plays up the drama with a bass intro, insistent drum thump and distorted vocals before crashing into one of their heaviest rock’n’roll sections. As it clocks in at under two minutes, I would have loved to hear more of this sound, but perhaps it points to where JIB is headed in the future. The pop songs on Everything We Wanted are fun, upbeat and ready to be heard by a larger audience. You can check out a free JIB sampler at Noisetrade.
If you’re nodding your head enthusiastically, you need to get your hands on a copy of Neptune’s Down to Earth EP. He’s got the songwriting skill to make it with the big boys, especially as displayed in the stadium-filling “Unbreakable” and the celebratory “My Ohio.” “We’re Beautiful” shows his Matt Nathanson/Jason Mraz side, as well. If you’re into modern radio pop (and I do love a good pop song), then you should be all over this.
(However, I can’t support his excessive use of his own picture in promo materials. It’s just weird.)
It’s interesting to me that I came across a band named Drew Martin and the Limelights at almost the same time as JD Eicher and the Goodnights. It’s not just their names that are similar, either: Both play modern pop with the Goo Goo Dolls firmly in the RIYLs. Eicher relies on a tempered melodic bent for his differentiating factor; Martin just goes for the pop throat. He doesn’t connect every time, but you can’t say that he held back.
“Calling Your Bluff” has the anthemic chorus to make stadiums sing (“Days here are beautiful/and sometimes cold/just like you-ou!”) with just the right amount of emotive resonance to sell it. It’s a windows-down summer song, for sure. “Hit and Run” scales it back, showcasing Martin’s emotive vocal tone and lyrical abilities to great effect. “Once Was” is a white doo-wop tune with a standout chorus.
It’s not a perfect release: “Bring the Light” conflates “motion” with “melody” as the main draw, while the verses of “Once Was” can be tedious. “Just Call Me” is the sort of overblown sentiment that made “modern pop” a pariah in the first place. Only one of these songs drops below four minutes; Martin could stand to tighten things up a bit. But as a glove tossed in the ring, there have been far, far worse.
Eicher’s been kickin’ it longer than Martin, and it shows. Martin and his band have some work to do. But “Calling Your Bluff” is the sort of song that makes me sign up for more releases by a band: it’s a polished diamond hanging out in the midst of lesser gems. One to watch.
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.
Jim Ivins Band impressed me with their slick modern acoustic pop sound last time out. Their newest set of songs doesn’t disappoint either, although it doesn’t appear under the happiest circumstances. Their contributions to Songs of Life: The Kathy Ivins Project is two new tunes and a full-band version of a previously released solo track to commemorate Kathy Ivins, the mother of Jim (lead vocals/guitar) and Jack Ivins (drums). She passed away of cancer in 2010, inspiring these tunes.
And they are a fitting tribute, as they build on the strengths from their previous EP. The melodies are strong and memorable, the band is tight and well-arranged, the production is warm without being saccharine, and the overall impression left by these tracks is positive. “Moving” features a massive chorus and a generally powerful feel, while “You Can Have It All” features some neat syncopated percussion and a wiry, direct feel. The chorus is no less memorable for the lessened heft of the songwriting. Comparisons to Goo Goo Dolls and the very best moments of Matchbox 20 abound, and as a child of the ’90s I mean those comparisons as compliments. “Stages of Your Life,” the updated acoustic track, doesn’t have the same pop as the full-band compositions, but it’s still passable.
Good art often emerges from tragedy, and these tunes can be counted in that long tradition. I hope someone writes songs this solid for me when I’m gone; quite an honor. Purchase the album these tunes come from here; two other bands offer up tunes to complete the set.
Discussing the Locals as a unit is difficult. They fall neatly into two parts: the band and the vocals. This distinction is particularly difficult, as it divorces vocalist Yvonne Doll from her arms (she’s the guitarist too). But it’s a necessary distinction when discussing Salt, their four-song EP.
The Locals are a pop-rock band, and an incredibly tight one at that. When the musicians kick into a groove, it sticks together and rocks hard. There’s not a moment where the band feels out of sync on the entire EP. It feels like the songs were born as a unit instead of from individual parts. This has to do with the engineer of the EP as much as it does the band; but even the best production can’t make something sound this well-performed. From the charging beat of “Sound It Out” to the bass-heavy “Away From Here,” the band locks it in on everything they try.
Yvonne Doll’s vocals sit on top of these songs. I say sit on top of very precisely; it seems that she is somewhat divorced from the band. I don’t know if it’s how it’s mixed or what, but there’s a definite distinction between the band and Doll in the songs. That’s a sad thing, because both are equally excellent. Doll’s voice has a good range, attitude without snarling and a smooth tone. It’s very inviting in its quieter moments and fist-pumping in the epic moments. I wish that she could have been mixed a little bit more into the songs, as I think that might help the odd division.
But these tunes don’t suffer too much from that problem. They are attention-grabbers, as Doll’s voice and melodies don’t let go. The contributions of the band (especially on “Everything Must Go”) add distinction and charm to the already great songs. The four tunes on Salt show a band that has a lot of promise ahead of them. A band this tight with a singer that talented should have lots of play in the future. I look forward to their future songs, because there should be many more of them. Recommended for fans of female-fronted guitar pop or the Goo Goo Dolls.
The Jim Ivins Band‘s five-song EP is expertly constructed late-nineties and early 2000s pop. The Goo Goo Dolls, Mae, Train, and more of their ilk are all sonically referenced throughout this EP. To some, that’s the kiss of death. To me, it’s pretty stinkin’ awesome. I may be a sucker, but I’m friggin’ in love with Train’s hit “Hey Soul Sister,” and I’m excited about the Jim Ivins band.
The connection to Mae is very strong, as Jim Ivins and Dave Elkins have very high, warm voices and similar melodic ideas. The connection to the Goo Goo Dolls comes through the recording style, which punches the acoustic guitar way up in the mix and puts the electric guitar behind it as support. It results in a very full pop sound, but not in a wall-of-sound way. When you hear it, you’ll know it. You’ll most likely like it, too; it’s a very warm, pleasing sound.
The songs here are great on their own merits, too. Some albums make a great sound but create interchangeable songs within it; that’s not the case here. “The Chance” has a wonderful chorus hook that will stick in your head. “Back to Reality” has a great guitar riff throughout the chorus that will make you want to put the song on repeat. “How to Hold On” has a melody that Relient K would have been proud to write, and that’s high honors from this guy.
Jim Ivins Band’s self-titled EP is a bright, warm, charming release. I can see myself rocking this in my car on a road trip with the sun shining down. It’s the type of music that just begs to be sung along to. Pop songs may only be three minutes long, but if you put them on repeat, they last a whole lot longer. So it goes with the Jim Ivins Band.
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.