Clem Snide always seemed a little out of phase with the rest of the world: not quite country, not quite indie, heavily literate, deeply ironic, secretly hopeful. I loved their work, and it’s with great joy that I report this: Monk Parker has picked up their torch and run with it. But that’s only a starting point, as Parker’s slow-paced, dense, expansive, heavily atmospheric take on country music blazes its own path from Snide’s starting point. Crown of Sparrowsis thus one of the most exciting alt-country releases of the year.
Parker’s voice is smooth and often elegant, leading the way through lush arrangements of pedal steel, broad horns, ambient sound (as in the opening of the title track) and more. The songs are melancholy but not depressing–they have an internal, almost subterranean, jubilance due to the vibrance of the arrangements. The songs are also long. There are only six tunes here in a runtime of over a half hour. This gives tunes like the title track and “Oh Cousin” the time they need to produce their magic. Hopefully Monk Parker will capture country’s attention the way Clem Snide never did–if so, country has another ship to add to the armada of new artists pushing country forward in unique ways.
Ghost and Tape‘s Vár is a perfect album to feature after Parker’s work. It is a warm, delicate, open-hearted ambient album that sounds matches some of the warm, patient qualities of Parker’s work. It is an album of intense detail and careful attention to the whole experience.
For example, the album art is some of the most fitting I’ve seen on a record this year: the colors are bright yet sun-dappled, the petals floating away convey a weightless feeling, and the image looks very sharp but starts to get a little soft as you get closer and closer. These are all apt descriptions of the music itself, from the drone of “Eostre” to the sound recording of walking through a forest (“hatch”) to the ocean waves and synth waves of closer “Seabird.” This is a beautifully calming record, a place to clear your mind and be made aware of the beauty around you. If you’re not into ambient music, this is a great place to start learning about how ambient can be amazing.
Lis the sound of a musician pushing himself. Holy ’57 knows how to write great Vampire Weekend-inflected indie-pop songs, and L does not disappoint on that front (“Water // Chrome,” “Canary,” “A Fragile Thing,” “Alison, Pt. 1”). Each of them have bouncy rhythms, clever arrangements, hummable melodies, and bright moods.
Placed around this very solid collection of pop tunes are interstitial found sounds [“(voicemail)”], instrumental variations on a theme (“Alison, Pt. II”), an ambient album coda (“Walkie Talkie Reprise”) and a fantastically ambitious opener track called “Bombay – Nairobi – London (Repeater).” The first three elements I mentioned there give the release heft–they make this into a total artistic idea instead of just a bunch of tunes. The fourth is where the total artistic idea begins.
“Bombay – Nairobi – London (Repeater)” is a long, complex instrumental tune that draws in elements of ambient, indie-rock, jazz, afrobeat, and more. There are towering horns, shimmering synths, and melismatic vocals amid the more-layers-than-you-can-shake-a-stick-at. The instruments are the backdrop to the dramatic life story of songwriter Alex Mankoo’s grandmother, told autobiographically through a recorded interview. It’s an impressive, engrossing opening track that leads the way into the rest of the mini-LP. If you’re into adventurous work that pushes the bounds of pop but also delivers some solid pop tracks along the way, go for this one.
1. “Silverlake” – Underlined Passages. The dreamy indie-pop of UP’s previous work is traded for a punchy indie-rock model; Michael Nestor’s vocal lines are still flowing and smooth, but the now-more-crunchy-than-jangly guitars and snappy drums give this tune a new-found pep.
2. “Though Your Sins Be As Scarlet, They Shall Be White As Snow;” – Glacier. Dense, heavily distorted, pounding guitar chords set the atmosphere for this 13-minute post-rock/post-metal epic, but there’s a lot more going on in 13 minutes than just chug (including a found-sound clip of an old time voice reading the end of Matthew 9).
3. “English Weather” – Fick as Fieves. British rock that falls somewhere between the Arctic Monkeys and The Vaccines, propelled forward by an indomitable syncopated guitar riff.
4. “Like Lightning” – Cosmo Calling. Fun vocal rhythms and melodies take the lead on this indie-pop-rock track. The guitars are neat and accompany well, but this one is all about the staccato, syncopated vocal delivery.
5. “Canary” – Holy ’57. There’s a certain type of major-key, drums-first vintage groove that reminds me of fuzzy home videos of summer in NYC during the ’60s and ’70s. People are rollerskating. A dude is playing a trumpet on the corner. There’s a hazy glow around everything. This indie-pop song sounds just like that (even includes a trumpet!).
6. “I Can’t Say No” – The Crayon Set. Smooth, appealing acoustic indie-pop with some fuzzed-out guitar and shimmering synths adding color. The chill vocals fit perfectly over the backdrop.
7. “Bedford” – Too Many Zooz. If you’re into Moon Hooch’s mad sax blast, you’ll be equally thrilled by the sax-trumpet-drums maelstrom that is Too Many Zooz. This video sees them bringing their incredibly infectious rhythms and powerhouse melodies to the NYC subway–at 3:33 in the morning. Stuff like this just happens at 3 a.m. in New York, I guess?
8. “Keep the Car Running” – Silver Torches. If Bruce Springsteen had emerged in this era, this might be what like he would have sounded like: surging drums, melodic piano, yearning vocals, and a serious-yet-warm atmosphere. Just a great tune.
9. “International Dreams” – Farm Hand. A rubbery, loping electronic beat underlines distant, almost-droning vocals for a tune that sounds like “My Girls”-era Animal Collective in a sleepy (yet still happy) mood.
10. “Like Going Down Sideways” – Cut Worms. Lo-fi tape hiss, Beatles-esque songwriting impulses, and “eh-it-doesn’t-need-to-be-perfect” performances make for an endearing tune.
11. “Old Fashioned Way” – Todd Kessler. Ah, yes. A calm, gentle folk love song talking about slowing down and looking back to the old fashions. It doesn’t get much more folky than this, y’all, and it doesn’t get much more chill.
12. “Enjoy It While It Lasts” – Easy Wanderlings. Strong female vocals lead the way through this easygoing folk tune. The video has an actress gallivanting around in a field, which is a pretty much perfect analogue to this wistful, nostalgic tune.
Strangers by Accident‘s five-song EP establishes the male/female duo as somewhere between the wistful, major key acoustic pop of the Weepies and the spartan acoustic delicacy of Joshua Radin’s early work. They can get a little bit noisier than either outfit (“Straight to Space,” “Borderline”), but their sweet spot is a bright, clear, open sound garnished with a twist of sadness (or two).
“Steal” is the opener and the tone-setter, with a single acoustic guitar, a tambourine, two vocalists, and ambient guitar marking out the sonic space that the duo explore for the rest of the EP. Standout “Borderline” opens as the quietest track: the lyrics are poignant and unafraid to take on the darkness in the world, like a Rocky Volotato song. It grows to one of their noisiest, with a raucous electric guitar line crashing in intermittently. “Busted Heart” and “Hold Me Down” are both just great acoustic pop songs; sometimes you don’t have to reinvent the wheel to make a really great car. If you’re into the Civil Wars, The Local Strangers, or other classy male/female duos I’m not familiar with, you’ll love Strangers by Accident.
O by Holy ’57 owes an incredible debt to the carefree first two albums of Vampire Weekend. The four tracks here are all sun-drenched and wrapped in the swaying-yet-choppy rhythms that Ezra Koenig and co. virtually trademarked. Holy ’57 trades out the helter-skelter guitar runs for tropical synths, making a sound even more upbeat and sunshiny than VW did. The songs bounce, leap, skip, and twirl their way through my speakers, making it impossible not to smile.
The topics fit with the vibe: “Venice, CA” is about having youthful adventures in the titular city, “188.8.131.52” deals with a breakup and/or social failures by a nostalgic longing for the ’90s, and “Jep Shuffle” builds its chorus around a dance (although it doesn’t tell you how to do the Jep Shuffle, just that it exists). That last track is the unavoidable track: it’s a nigh-on-perfect summer pop song, with verses that build, a chorus that pays off in spades, and rhythms that make me want to move. It’s a sin that this song isn’t everywhere, because it is awesome. Those looking for a song to close out their summer with need to look no farther than O, where there’s at least one (if not three!) tunes that can do that for you. Awesome.
Deer Scout‘s customsis a slight, intimate object: Dena Miller’s four-song EP barely breaks 10 minutes. But in those 10 minutes, her unadorned songwriting makes a statement. She opens with “holy ghost,” which is nothing more than delicate guitar picking, earnest alto vocals, and beautifully complex lyrics. Fans of the dense stylings of Lady Lamb will see similar sparks here. The song is beautifully balanced: there’s not much to it, but it all sounds vital and immediate. It grabbed my attention and didn’t let go.
“little state” and “up high” feature strumming more and have more of a distinct song structure, recalling Waxahatchee’s early stylings. Although there are referents, Miller’s vocal melodies are put together in her own way (the interval jumps on the chorus of “little state,” the confident delivery of everything in “up high”); she is establishing herself as a songwriting voice here. The short set closes with “train song,” which splits the difference between the dense lyrics and fingerpicking of the opener and the concrete song structures of the center two pieces. Her voice is excellent here as well. Fans of women singer/songwriters, intimate sketches, and minimalism will find much to love in customs.
1. “Jep Shuffle” – Holy ’57. All of the lessons we learned about infectious pop songs from Tokyo Police Club, Vampire Weekend, and Lord Huron are crammed into this nigh-on-perfect indie-pop-rock song. I got this in the midst of a long Friday afternoon, and it cheered me up and caused me to dance in my seat. It’s just absolutely great.
2. “Make Me Change My Mind” – Jonah Smith. A fusion of garage-rock instrumentation with soul-style lead and background vocals turns out quite the infectious jam.
3. “Two Suns” – Jacob Mondry. It’s been a good run recently for horn sections. Mondry’s triumphant soul horns are pressed into service here for a snazzy, swaggering pop song.
4. “Pretty Thing” – HEAVY HEART. Continuing their song-a-month project, HH drops a low-slung rock track that reminds of Silversun Pickups with a female vocalist.
5. “Some Other Dude” – Everywhere. The electro-pop instrumentation here is a lot of fun. The quirky honesty and unusual phrasing (“I think I lost my groove / now she’s dancing / dancing with some other dude”) endeared me to the track even more.
6. “Thanks for Your Time” – Late Cambrian. Late Cambrian sets this track apart from its MGMT-influenced electro-pop brethren with a grimy, distorted bass synth that’s more common in house music. It creates a really interesting vibe.
7. “Simple Game” – Mackin Carroll. Equal parts Oasis and Death Cab kept me on my toes throughout this engaging pop-rock track.
8. “Clementine” – Dion Atlas. Sometimes you just need a skyscraping, cinematic, piano-led electro-pop jam in your life.
1. “Hopeful” – Bear Mountain. A little bit of Passion Pit, a little bit of Vampire Weekend, a little M83, and you’ve got one of the best dance-pop songs I’ve heard all year.
2. “Entomologist” – Luxxe. Shades of Jason Isbell’s evocative voice creep in here, placed in the context of a perky-yet-mature pop-rock tune. It all comes off with impressive cohesion.
3. “Buoy” – The Band and the Beat. If you wished that Mates of State used analog synths all the time, you’ll be way into TBxB’s gentle, warm, female-fronted synth-pop. The tune just wraps itself around my brain and comforts it.
4. “Understand” – Photoreal. It seems wrong to describe this pop-rock tune as “muscly,” but it feels like a streamlined, beefed-up version of Generationals’ catchy indie-pop work.
5. “Au Naturel” – Holy ’57. The frenetic blitz of a major-key sugar rush will never get old. This tune has everything I’m looking for in a pop tune.
6. “Lodestar” – Starlight Girls. The disco vibes are impeccably done and the vocals are tight, but–for my money–this song is 100% about that bass work. It’s melodic, funky, tight, and just plain irresistible. A knock-out.
7. “Storm” – Bright Whistles. Sometimes I’m concerned that I’ve abused the term “quirky,” because something always seems to come along that was quirkier than the last. Suffice it to say, “Storm” by Bright Whistles is like what The Flaming Lips could have been if they kept on the Yoshimi path, or what all genres of indie-rock sound like in a giant blender, or (stay with me on this one) what an OK GO music video would sound like if the video itself were transformed into audio that reflected the clever, enthusiastic, enigmatic visuals. In other words, it’s pretty rad.
8. “Summertime” – The High Divers. Bands are always making odes to that sunniest of seasons, but this one really nails it: a touch of Vampire Weekend, a splash of Hamilton Leithauser’s vocal gymnastics, and a whole lot of good-old-pop-music. Dare you to not smile.
9. “Two Weeks” – HIGH UP. File this powerhouse tune under “Muscle Shoals Soul/Funk,” right there next to Alabama Shakes, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, and St. Paul and the Broken Bones.
10. “Burning Candles” – Disaster Lover. It’s like I walked into a room where Disaster Lover’s vision was already fully employed: not so many songs capture and modify the aural space that they’re deployed in. The whirling/somewhat chaotic percussion and synths that are woven together to create this here/there/everywhere piece of work are wild and yet inviting.
11. “We All Decided No” – S.M. Wolf. This is, at its core, a pop-rock song. It is a very weird, arch, theatrical, blown-out take on the theme, but it’s in there. This is basically what I imagine we’re trying to capture with the idea of indie-pop: pop songs that just aren’t radio material in this universe, but only because it’s an unjust universe.
1. “Marina and I” – The Gorgeous Chans. The syncopated guitars, perky horns, and enthusiastic attack of this track took all of 1 second to steal my Vampire Weekend-loving heart.
2. “The Fringe” – Sego. If you miss James Murphy slurring into a microphone over rubbery bass and insistent dance grooves, Sego is LCD Soundsystem’s musical, lyrical, and spiritual successor. “You Wanted a Hit,” indeed.
3. “Even Fireworks” – Pushing Static. This electro-pop/dance-rock fiesta makes me want to crank the volume knob way up.
4. “Island” – Hey Anna. If Braids drank a Red Bull and went to a beach party, they might come up with this fragile-yet-peppy indie-rock track.
5. “Inside Your Heart” – Hectorina. Their previous work is chaotic, fractured, ecstatic, and mind-bending; this track sands down some of the eccentric flair and reveals the ecstatic rock band at their core. (The fact that their beating heart sounds like Prince is perfect.) Everybody clap your hands.
6. “That Kind of Girl” – All Dogs. The sort of melodies that I’d expect from a emo-focused band fused in to a huge punk-rock/pop-punk/power-pop stomper. It just works perfectly.
7. “Sleep Talk” – Diet Cig. The idiosyncratic indie-pop quirkiness of the Juno soundtrack + confessional pop-punk + female vocals + intimate lyrics = excellent track.
8. “Island Kids” – Holy ’57. Sometimes a chorus just works so perfectly that it feels like I’ve know it forever. The perky tropical indie-pop builds through the verse to a speak-sung chorus that just knocks it out of the park. Re: your summer parties.
9. “’82” – Death in the Afternoon. This electronic cut is a lot more breathy, chill, and smooth than I thought death would be.
10. “Good” – Ehmandah. This, right here, is a modern day (some might even say musically progressive) gospel tune. Get in on this infectious, irresistible vibe. Everybody clap your hands.
11. “Sugar Dream” – Valley Shine. The band’s press photos capture them lying on a bed of brightly-colored candy and showered with an absurd amount of confetti. These are excellent visual representations of their Beatles-on-a-sugar-high sound.
12. “Reach Out” – The Bone Chimes. The arrangement of this orchestral-folk-rock tune is clean, bright, and carefully organized: the band builds anticipation from the first reverbed guitar note to a big conclusion.
13. “Sensual People” – Lylas. If hypnotic groove is one of the things you seek in an indie-rock tune, Lylas’ dense textures, ostinato rhythms, and slowly-unfolding song development will catch your ear.
14, “Up of Stairs” – James Elkington and Nathan Salsburg. Watching two talented athletes go against each other can excite, but only rarely does that interaction produce beauty. It’s much more likely when two talented musicians play off each other, which is the basic premise of this track: two incredibly talented acoustic guitar players push each other and come up with relaxing, impressive acoustic gold.
15. “Repeat” – Sye Elaine Spence. An unconventional acoustic strumming pattern and a strong focus on Spence’s enveloping voice create an immersive, unique experience.
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.