I don’t know if the term “left-field pop” still or ever meant anything to anyone, but that’s the first thing I thought of to describe the self-titled release from Hermit’s Victory–essentially an indie-pop band that is maybe sitting in a forest while they compose and perform. All the elements of indie-pop are there, just with an extra layer of found sound and recording techniques that makes everything sound like you’re outdoors.
This is most obvious in “Mooch”– where the found sounds literally appropriate the bird calls and running water of the outdoors–but is more subterraneanly evident in the unusual synthesizers of “Night Owl,” the subtle reverb of “Novice” and the tape hiss of “Swerve.” By the time that lo-fi closer “Sleeping Evil” comes around, the context makes me imagine that the two performers are sitting out on the porch of a cabin somewhere (even though nothing necessarily conjures this idea up from this track in particular). All that to say, this album is a true album, not just a random collection of songs: you should listen to this as a whole, and you will hear wonderful things that you wouldn’t hear by just listening to tracks on their own.
That’s not to say that these tracks don’t hold up to individual scrutiny: “Money in the Evenings” is an intriguing, beguiling slow-jam that takes its time getting where it wants to go. “Islands” is some cross between Bossa Nova and the verdant landscapes of the rest of the album. The power of these songs is in their intricate, idiosyncratic, deeply enveloping arrangements. “Sleeping Evil” eschews even that lovely cloak and sits apart as a pure songwriting gem: it would take only a guitar and voice to cover satisfactorily (which is slighting the subtle sounds and second guitar surrounding those elements, but in comparison to the complexity of the previous tunes there’s a different focus). These tracks are solid through and through, from their roots to the leaves. Hermit’s Victory is an entrancing album that can be enjoyed at a surface level and at depth: it has intricacies galore to explore, but you can also just let it wash over you.
Chuck Burns and Ty Rone‘s Leave of Absence is a elegant mash-up of Mississippi blues, New Orleans jazz, and traditional Southern guitar/harmonica folk. Sometimes the duo works out a genre separate from its brethren (the folky “Ferguson/Plan B,” the bluesy “Someday When I’m Older”), sometimes they get married (the everything-at-once aspect of “New Orleans”), and sometimes they get blown out to epic proportions (the rockin’ “The Heights”).
Despite these various sounds and moods, the acoustic guitar and harmonica are a constant through-line. The major-key fingerpicking and the wailing harmonica fit together neatly, creating the sort of timelessly wonderful sound that you can get in this genre. Burns’ vocals don’t peg the tunes in any particular era either: smooth and sultry and occasionally roaring, he locks the parts together in a great collage.
I’ve mentioned it already, but the predominant feeling I get while listening to this record is one of “fit.” Burns and Rone are fitting themselves into a long-standing tradition, making their own way down a well-trodden path. The songs sound right, the vibe is strong, and the album just takes off on its own. Whether it’s the slightly funky vocals of “East Coast Sun,” the female background vocals and organ of “Private Devil,” or the rolling fingerpicking of “Hours on Hours,” the duo grabs parts that seem endlessly reusable and combine them into songs that seem like I’ve always had them in my life. Yet the spark of the new is in them too, as a fresh accent, vocal line, or harmonica bite sounds and strikes me off-guard a bit. In short, Leave of Absence is really good stuff.
I was attracted to The Tallest Man on Earth by his fantastic fingerpicking skills, not particularly his arranging skills, so it’s with great excitement that I’ve listened (repeatedly) to Moa Bones‘ Spun. In some ways, Dimitris Aronis’ creations are even more suited to my tastes than those of Kristian Matsson: Aronis’ voice isn’t as abrasive and his song structures are more grounded in the American South’s musical tradition. I note the American South there because Aronis is from Greece (although you can’t tell from the songwriting).
Tunes like “Old Days,” “Skopelitis,” and “Come On” feature Aronis’ endearing, enchanting fingerpicking skills on guitar and banjo. The tunes seem to float along on lazy waves of down-home friendliness. “Skopelitis” is the purest expression of that mode, an instrumental track that almost emits sun rays. But Moa Bones isn’t a one-trick pony, and tunes like “Hey” draw off the Mississippi walking blues tradition in strum pattern, harmonica inclusion, and overall rhythm. “The Journey” even includes some scratchin’ electric guitar and organ for bluesy cred. (“Take It All Away” amps up the organ usage, creating the noisiest song on the record.)
But it’s in gentle, quiet tunes like “Long for a Change” that Aronis steals my heart. The pensive, relaxed songwriting allows the nuances of his creaky voice and melodic sense to shine through. It’s similar to the type of song that The Tallest Man on Earth doesn’t write much anymore. If you miss the fingerpicking glee of Matsson’s work, Moa Bones will make you sigh and smile. Spun is not to be missed for fans of Southern-flavored acoustic songwriting.
1. “Goldface” – Tussilago. This indie-pop tune just feels effortless: Tussilago slides along with a bass groove, a low-key dance vibe, and a great melody. It’s the sort of song that you forget when you heard it the first time: it seems timeless, like it’s always been there.
2. “Break the Chain” – Ultimate Painting. Classic popcraft here, hearkening back to songsmiths like McCartney, Lennon, and Nilsson.
3. “No More Hits” – The ZZips. Do you miss slacker acoustic/funk/groove Beck? Hit up the ZZips, who clearly do as well: the clattering beats and gentle acoustic guitar come together via the funky bass and chiming electric guitar.
4. “Firefly” – Jeremy Bass. The press for this says bossa nova, but all I hear is smooth, gentle acoustic pop with a genuine, earnest vocal performance. It sounds like the sun was shining when he wrote this one.
5. “A Weaker One” – The Henrys. Sometimes I just like a song, and don’t want to kill it with definition. Chill out to this calm, excellent acoustic tune.
6. “Mountain” – Crooked House Road. I know Mumford & Sons kinda killed the market on indie-rock/folk fusions, but I’m surprised that more people haven’t taken Nickel Creek’s bluegrass/indie-rock fusion route. Crooked House Road goes that direction, adding in some klezmer flair and dramatic female lead vocals as well.
7. “Austin” – Tyler Boone. There’s some sweet pedal steel action on this modern country tune, featuring (who else?) a down-and-out narrator.
8. “Eastern Time” – Runner of the Woods. Here’s a tune that appeals to all the old-school country vibes that it can: weeping pedal steel, plain vocals, and bouncy piano (with some John Denver twinkles thrown in). It comes together into a swaying, smile-inducing whole.
9. “Our Garden” by Fox Street. If Ray LaMontagne got a little more Needtobreathe Southern rock in his blood, he could have written this tune. Passionate, raspy vocals meet wailing organ in a mid-tempo ballad.
10. “Too Little Too Late” – Mi’das. I’ve been getting a ton of soulful songs thrown my way recently. Mi’das stands above the pack by delivering not just his vocals but his expressive guitar playing.
11. “Money in the Evenings” – Hermit’s Victory. This white-boy slow jam has a Iron & Wine rustic feel (just the vibe, not the arrangement), while maintaining its own flavor through the accents and Tyler Bertges’ unusual, carefree vocals.
12. “Tz, Ka” – Inner Tongue. More soulful slow jams, but with some major synth contributions that give this also a bit of a dance vibe. It’s, at least, super re-mix ready. The head-bobbing vibe is hard to beat on this one.
13. “Sadie” – Gold Star. Slurry, emotional, and passionate, this vocals-led tune dances around the genres of country, slow-core, and singer/songwriter. Whatever you call it, it grabbed my attention immediately.
Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.