1. “Days With Wings” – Black Balsam. In a post-Mumford world, folk-pop is seen with some suspicion. Tunes as genuinely engaging and fun as this one should help with the fears of those who are over-banjoed.
2. “Sugar Moon” – Jonas Friddle. Folk-pop can also regain its footing by not taking itself too seriously, and Friddle’s artwork of a man playing a banjo that turns into a pelican by the end of the fretboard is a good start. The tune itself sounds like Illinois-era Sufjan mashed up with a Lumineers track at a Beirut concert. In other words, it pulls from everywhere and ultimately becomes a Friddle tune. Totally stoked for this album.
3. “Star of Hope” – Mairearad Green (feat. King Creosote). Green is what Frightened Rabbit would sound like if they weren’t constantly thinking about death: chipper, major-key, acoustic-led indie-rock led by a vocalist with an unapologetically Scottish accent. It’s just fantastic.
4. “We’ll Live” – Stephen Douglas Wolfe. Wolfe’s tenor voice carries this alt-country tune with great aplomb. The pedal steel also provides a great amount of character here.
5. “Only Time” – Ryan Downey. I know you’re not going to believe this, but this is a multitracked-vocals-and-clapping version of the Enya staple. It seems remarkably honest in its intentions, and it’s remarkably engaging as a result. You think you’ve seen it all, and then…
6. “If I Could Fly Away” – Alan Engelmann. The warm brightness of this acoustic pop song makes me think of the spring with a great longing.
7. “Where Am I?” – Amy Virginia. A clear, bright voice cutting across a stark folk frame makes for engaging listening.
8. “Either Way” – Sorority Noise. We’ve come a long, long way from “Good Riddance” on the punk-bands-with-acoustic-guitars front: Cam Boucher’s musing on suicide and loss is a heartrendingly beautiful, spare tune that can fit right next to any early Damien Jurado track (who, of course, was once a punk with an acoustic guitar).
9. “The Curse (Acoustic)” – The Eastern Sea. An intimate performance of rapid fingerpicking and emotional vocals. Not much more I could ask for.
10. “Prologue” – Letters to You. A gentle, pensive acoustic ditty expands into a beauty-minded post-rock bit.
11. “what if i fall in love (with you)” – Isaac Magalhães. A soothing, nylon-stringed guitar performance matches a bedroom-pop, lo-fi vocal performance to create something deeply personal-sounding. Impressionistic RIYLs: Iron and Wine and Elliott Smith.
12. “Most of the Time I Can’t Even Pay Attention” – Crocodile. An off-the-cuff sort of air floats through this one, as if you showed up at your friend’s house and he was already playing a song, so you let him finish and then you both go off to hang out. The lyrics are a bit heavy, but the soft, kind vocal performance calms me anyway. It won’t ask too much of you, but it gives you a lot if you’re into it. You could end up writing a lot about it, you know?
13. “Pickup Truck” – Avi Jacob. It’s hard to quantify maturity, but it’s sort of a mix between knowing your skills, knowing how to maximize them, and not trying to push beyond that. It’s the “sweet spot.” Avi Jacobs hits it here, putting accordion, piano, fingerpicked guitar, and female background vocals into an arrangement that perfectly suits his just-a-bit-creaky-around-the-edges voice. From the first second to the last, it hits hard. Keep a close watch on Jacob.
Should you put your best song first on an album? The Finest Hour falls on the affirmative side of the argument, as “Never Heard of Dylan” opens up These Are the Good Old Days on the highest of notes. “Never Heard of Dylan” bears more than a passing resemblance to the energetic rock of The Vaccines, as the scruffy British quartet offers up infectious melodies and great guitar/bass interactions. They make the most of what they’ve got, which shows in later tunes like the slightly calmer “Reasons to Complain” and the fist-pumping “See for Miles,” which has serious Green Day vibes. They do incorporate some fun ska elements, but they work best when they’re sticking to four-on-the-floor rock/pop. And although “Never Heard of Dylan” is tops, it only barely edges the 14-minute (!) finale “Indigo Night,” which includes a shout-it-out use of the album title in its excellent songwriting. If you’re looking for a fun album, you should be all over The Finest Hour’s These Are the Good Old Days–cause they are.
Michael Glader’s When On High is a fascinating amalgam, mixing ’60s psychedelic pop, rock, modern pop, and folk without succumbing to the excesses of any genre. This creates a uniquely idiosyncratic stew that keeps its own counsel. Opener “Strawberry Eyes” is a distortion-drenched, bass-driven stoner groove that features Glader modifying his keening tenor voice. Highlight “Big Spoon Little Spoon” is a solo guitar love song with the energy of a pop song, the fingerpicking of a folk tune, and the groove of a blues song. “Chasing Footsteps in the Sand” is a rhythm-and-bass-heavy pop tune. “Is This My Afterlife?” has a distant, eerie New Orleans vibe to its doo-wop. In short, this album goes all over the place, but none of Glader’s moves feel significantly out of his control. Each tune retains a dreamy, hazy sort of mood, and that keeps the album together. I’m a big fan of his quieter stuff (“Big Spoon Little Spoon,” “That’s It”), but there’s plenty for anyone to love in When On High. [Editor’s note: Michael Glader is now known as Red Francis.]
The Weeping Tree by The Knitted Cap Club is a very stately record. The acoustic songwriting is very structured, and the emotion delivered by the female vocalist is quite measured. I don’t mean this as a criticism; fans of Portishead treasure those same characteristics. But this does go against the grain of modern singer-songwriter/folk, establishing a very formal entry in a world of passionate confessionals. The tone of the album has much in common with slowcore artists like Songs:Ohia, Elephant Micah, and Red House Painters, but with fewer self-pitying vocal performances.
Instead, the sparse but effective arrangements, which often include other voices, carry the mood of the tunes. Standout opener “Crown of Roses” features a whole verse accompanied only by ghostly multitracked voices, while “Eight-Thirteen” incorporates distant recorded voices for a similar effect. Even though the vocal performances don’t telegraph hurt, the lyrics of the album often do (“Heart Exchange,” “The Weeping Tree”), which enhances the ghostly, somber feel of the album. If you’re looking for something different in your singer/songwriter listening habits, try out this one.
Although not the loudest of the Phratry bands, Swear Jar still packs quite a wallop. The basic idea from the band is yanked from that time in the early ’80s to the late ’90s when punk rock became a true art form: let’s play loud, fast and hard, but not necessarily the way everyone expects us to.
Swear Jar’s punk rock never slips into musical pretension, which is to say it imagines ’98-now never happened. There are still good old punk rock sections (“Blinders”), but there are also sections of straight-up noise (“Sasquatch”), spoken-word post-hardcore (“Bad News”), and lots more.
It’s the atypical rhythms and the bass that make Cuss the fantastic trip it is. Just when you think you know where a Swear Jar song is going, it’s not going that direction anymore. The drums have changed on you, or the bassist has gone nuts in a new way.
The metallic edge and “turn that way up, man” volume of the bass guitar in the mix makes for an arresting sound that doesn’t appear often anymore. Since there’s only one guitar in this band, the bassist has a distortion pedal on hand to take the rhythm guitar bits when the guitar is “soloing” (“On the Prowl”). In “Lonely,” it sounds like the bass is leading the sound and the guitar just there for rhythm. The interplay between the three members of the band is fascinating: see hyperkinetic “Rastallica” for all you ever wanted to know about band chemistry.
Here’s a note to prove the quality of this album: all of these examples come from the first half of the disc. Yeah. This band knows what’s up. If you’re a fan of serious punk rock (i.e. people who disagree that Green Day ever existed), Cuss should be a smorgasbord of delights.
“Punk lifer” is an increasingly common phrase, as musicians from the first (’70s), second (’80s) and third waves (’90s) of punk keep putting out the music that they love in bands new and old. Osaka Popstar is composed of lifers Marky Ramone (The Ramones), Jerry Only (The Misfits), Dez Cadena (Black Flag) and relative young’un John Cafiero. Straight-ahead pop-punk, like a more sophisticated Ramones or a less self-absorbed early Green Day, is their bag, and they do it up right. Fans of Cadena’s Black Flag work may be confused, but fans of the other two previous bands will get the sound of on “Where’s the Cap’n?”, which is an ode to Captain Crunch cereal. Punk hasn’t meant anti-capitalist anarchism in a long time, I suppose. Grab the tune, and here’s the vid.
Michael’s Uncle and the Ramones would have been good friends. Michael’s Uncle plays primitive, rebellious, shout-it-out punk rock that doesn’t take any prisoners or care what you think about it. The fact that the vocals on Return of Dark Psychedelia that aren’t yelling are difficult to stomach isn’t going to stop Michael’s Uncle from singing them. That’s what they wanted to do, sucker, and who’s gonna stop them? You?
The band is quite tight, which is a surprise. They make a good show of being sloppy and rambunctious (“We Say,” especially), but they tip their hand on “Hellboy,” which relies on several interlocking rhythmic parts. Once I realized what they were capable of, I went back and re-listened to everything, and it becomes obvious fairly quickly that under the disorganized chaos of their vocal performances lies a band that knows itself very well.
Sure, “Mas Na To” is basically a Ramones tune, but “Prej Byznys” calls up a Rage Against the Machine rhythm and mentality with surprising ease. “Z Kontejneru Smrad” is an entirely enjoyable and convincing so-cal surf-punk tune (not kidding). “Nezmenis Nic” is a Primus-esque battle rock tune. This band has chops to spare, and they show them off to all who are paying close enough attention. This is primarily a punk album, but not in a Green Day way at all.
The only real flub I found in eighteen tracks was the plodding “Moon,” which makes no sense in the context of the album and does nothing helpful to the progression of the album. Every other track has something redeemable about it, and most have lots of redeemable things.
The musicians are talented. The songwriting skills are spot-on. The command of other genres is excellent. This is a punk album worth picking up if you like true punk attitude and old-school punk rock bands. Return of Dark Psychedelia is a surprise-laden release that rewards people who tune in.
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.