1. “Mirrors” – Mos Isley. Triumphant folk-pop that’s exciting without going over the top into cliche.
2. “Glow” – The National Parks. Big instrumental melodies, lots of instruments, charming vocal melodies, subtle-enough-to-not-be-gimmicky underlying electronic beats; this folky indie song is just a blast.
3. “Vintage” – High Dive Heart. Throw technicolor girl pop, white rap, a banjo, and folk-pop harmonies in a blender and you get out this enigmatically engaging song. This song doesn’t make any sense to me in so many ways and yet I love it. It just works. Amazing. (Video direct link: )
4. “Ancient Burial Ground” – Kye Alfred Hillig. Hillig gives us the demos of his new album before it’s released, and you can color me excited: this tune and the handful of others that come with it are chipper musically and intricate lyrically, just like his best work. Watch for Great Falls Memorial Interchange in 2016.
5. “Canada” – Nikki Gregoroff. “The people are nice cross the border,” sings Gregoroff, which is just a really nice thing to write into a Simon and Garfunkel-esque tune.
6. “Chantilly Grace” – Granville Automatic. Bell-clear female vocals lead this tune that looks back to vintage Americana (that fiddle!) and forward to modern alt-country melodies.
7. “Bliss Mill” – Matthew Carter. The laid-back chill vibe and unhurried vocals of Alexi Murdoch meets the shuffle-snare of traditional country/folk for a memorable tune.
8. “Set Sail” – Matt Monoogian. Monoogian’s calm voice leads this acoustic track with an intricate arrangement that pulls the Gregory Alan Isakov trick of feeling both comfortingly small and confidently big.
9. “Bentonville Blues” – Adam Hill. A protest song for the modern day working poor, Hill captures the everyman ethos with great delivery of relatable lyrics, simpple arrangement of singalong melodies, and a the burned-but-not-killed mentality similar to old-time protest work songs.
10. “Itasca County” – Rosa del Duca. The frontman of folk outfit hunters. releases her own album of singer/songwriter tunes that focus on her voice and lyrics, both of which are in fine form on this rolling, harmonica-splashed tune.
11. “Tongue Tied” – Oktoba. That space between soul, folk, and singer/songwriter keeps getting more populated: let in Oktoba, whose offering isn’t as overtly sensuous as some but is just as romantic (and hummable)!
12. “The Blue” – David Porteous. Canadian Porteous beautifully splits the difference between two UK singer/songwriters here by invoking Damien Rice’s sense of intense romantic intimacy and David Gray’s widescreen pop arrangements.
13. “Whirlpool Hymnal” – Matthew Squires and the Learning Disorders. Squires expands his yearning, searching alt-folk to include found sounds–the lyrics are just as thought-provoking and honest as ever.
14. “Playground” – Myopic. The fragile swoon of a violin bounces off the stately plunk of melodic percussion in this thoughtful instrumental piece.
15. “Siphoning Gas” – Luke Redfield. This gentle, ambient soundscape is the sound of looking out the window when rain is coming down and you don’t have to go anywhere or do anything but cuddle up with a blanket and a book in a big bay window and enjoy it.
Abandoned Delta‘s self-titled debut is a uniquely beautiful alt-country album that combines the delicate nature of Mojave 3’s work with thick arrangements that leave little space unfilled. However, the tightly constructed arrangements of tunes like “I Am Gold,” “Tulsa,” and “Cause and Effect” result in a tender–even sweet–whole instead of becoming impenetrable. Pedal steel, keys, gentle tenor vocals, wispy harmonies, pristine electric guitar strums, and loping acoustic guitar picking mesh into a dense web of sound that is always awash in warm, sunny vibes.
But this isn’t West Coast Laurel Canyon work; there’s a Midwestern lyrical and melodic groundedness permeating the whole work. It may make me want to float away, but the songs don’t sound like they’re going to get lost anywhere. “My Heart’s an Open Road” accelerates the tempo, amps up twang, and infuses a sense of humor to the proceedings–the Western Swing influences in the songwriting is a lot of fun. Elsewhere, contented horns hover above the slightly more ominous “Black Car,” and the acoustic guitar gets a feature in “I Never Lived in New Orleans.” It’s not folky, though–and that’s the most marvelous element of Abandoned Delta. The members have a consistent, distinctive sound that integrates elements of other genres seamlessly. If you like beautiful music, alt-country, or hearing musicians at the top of their game, you need to check out Abandoned Delta.
I find the self-aggrandizing crowd screaming that attends most live records tiresome, so I don’t cover many of them. However, Charles Ellsworth‘s Live from the State Room has such great songwriting contained in it that I must commend it to you. (It also doesn’t have that much audience howling, which I appreciate.) Ellsworth is a guitar-and-voice troubadour, gifted with a melodic sense in his hands and throat. The ten songs of State Room show him breaking out his solo material first, then transitioning to a full-band set-up later. It allows him to show off his poignant lyrics and weighty vocals in an intimate setting first, then gently augment that core sound. “The Past Ain’t Nothin” is the highlight of this section, a tune that unspools several emotional narratives linked by a vocal motif. It hits home to me, musically and lyrically.
Once the band joins in, the poignant elements of his sound get amped up, notably on “In My Thoughts” (which IC had the privilege of premiering). A swooping cello and tasteful drums underscore the gravity of the tune. “Fifty Cent Smile” is another standout, built on train-rhythm drums and one of the most memorable vocal melodies of the record. Even with a full band, Ellsworth never lets the sound get weighed down; many of the lovely tunes keep a fragility about them. (A notable exception is the noisy “Take a Walk,” which is “about having anger issues.”) Live from the State Room is that rare live record that feels like a real experience captured on tape; it’s a great introduction to Ellsworth’s charms for the uninitiated. You can get now as part of his “Not a Kickstarter” campaign.
We All Go Up the Mountain Alone Together by hunters. is a drama-filled folk album with strong female vocals. The 11-song album puts the spotlight on Rosa del Duca’s alto pipes, which have a mature quality not unlike those of Lilith Fair artists. Other ’90s singer/songwriting influences creep into the folk instrumentation too: a flourish here, a chord structure there, an unexpected vocal embellishment.
The band leans more toward chord-strummed folk than finger-picked folk, so tunes like “Firestarter” have lineage that can be drawn from many points. del Duca’s voice shines on “Firestarter,” as she ratchets up from an calm presence to an intense delivery and back several times. The band frames her performance with a tense arrangement of spacious, jazzy drums and nimble upright bass. “Painting the Roses Red” takes on a bit of a country vibe, while “Orion” recalls ballad-bluegrass guitar (but with their overarching mood of dramatic tension). Fans of female-fronted singer/songwriters and folk artists will find a mature, vocals-driven folk album in We All Go Up the Mountain Alone Together.
The “Get It Right” video from San Francisco folk outfit Hunters. depicts the various stages of a relationship in scenes, including a literally fiery dissolution. The narrative fits neatly with the dramatic, staccato arrangement from the band and Rosa del Duca’s impassioned vocal delivery. The track comes from their 2014 album Treeline, which I reviewed.
Hippo Campus, here with a chase scene that resolves in some serious deep thoughts.
Twin River, here with a chase scene that resolves in some serious feels. I hope this isn’t what it’s like to be a dad.
Mad props to Lily & Madeleine for making their icy, watery video look like the how the despondent, detached “Blue Blades” sounds.
The members of hunters. absorbed the sounds and feels of folk, alt-country, and female-fronted singer/songwriter, then mixed them together to come up with Treeline. Their methods worked well: the San Francisco-based outfit is comfortable and assured here. Opener “The Her Is Me” includes mandolin, congas, violin, and Rosa Del Duca’s passionate alto vocals; it sounds like all the instruments belong right where they are. They follow up with the strings-heavy “Get It Right,” then move to the straight-up-western slide guitar sound of “The Grifter” (totally country name there, too).
The ability to mix these genres confidently shows that hunters. has avoided the sophomore slump after 2012’s white lies, which is always good. Their performances are tight, the arrangements are savvy, and the recording is well-done, keeping all the parts in equal measure. The title track that closes out the record might be the most memorable turn, as the outfit slows things down and lets Del Duca really sing over a sparse (well, sparse for hunters.) arrangement. Fans of alt-country should check out Treeline, as the interesting arrangements and strong vocals will be a treat.
Reina Del Cid has a rare melodic gift. Her 10-song release with The Cidizens is titled blueprints, plans, and each song features one absolutely stunning vocal melody after another. She could have made any song on the whole album the single, and they all would have been just as effective at showing off that Reina Del Cid can write unforgettable tunes. Her pop-folk/bluegrass-lite makes great use of traditional sounds, rhythms and instruments to float her brilliant vocal melodies, from the condescending “Pretty Lie” to the forlorn “Expiration Date” to the striking “Brutal Love.” All of these tunes are mixtape-worthy, which is incredibly unusual. If you’re into anything from Jason Mraz to Nickel Creek to Ani Difranco, you’ll find something to love in Reina Del Cid and the Cidizens. And if you like all of them, then you’re in for a treat.
David Ullman lets you know exactly what you’re going to get immediately. Ullman opens Light the Dark with a single sharp acoustic guitar strum and a howl of, “This is my cry in the dark!” As the rest of “Who You Say” unfolds, it becomes very clear that Ullman comes from the Damien Rice school of singer/songwriters, where hearing the tension and struggle in the vocals is a large part of the charm. Light also features instrumentation similar to Rice’s, with acoustic guitar, piano, strings and vocals taking up the lion’s share of the work. Ullman’s voice is grittier than Rice’s, making some of the tunes here positively punishing on his vocal chords. The lyrics deal with struggle and tension in religious themes, so there’s fertile ground for crescendo and catharsis. If you’re into gritty, powerful singer/songwriter fare, Light the Dark will be right up your alley.
The strength of hunters.’white lies is the interplay between easygoing alt-country vibes and the impressively descriptive lyrics. From describing a picturesque summer evening in standout “Ft. Lee, VA” to chronicling the life and times of the titular character in “Ambulance Chaser,” vocalist Rosa Del Duca nails the lyrics. She has strong control over her voice as well, lending these tunes a knowing, confident air. White Lies is fun to listen to on all levels, as hummable melodies, interesting arrangements, and memorable lyrics abound. This seven-song release is very worth your time.
I associate Damien Jurado with fragile, delicate folk, so it’s no surprise that my favorite tunes on Maraqopa are the quietest. “Working Titles” pairs a gentle ukulele strum with swooning backup vocals and very high steel drum notes (no foolin’) to create a swaying, beautiful tune. “Museum of Flight” depends on Jurado’s falsetto to sell the dreamy tune, and it works out perfectly. The rest of the album is a bit noisier, moving almost over into the dream-pop/indie-pop realm instead of the singer/songwriter genre that he established himself in. It’s definitely a unique sound that new fans may enjoy and embrace. It’s a tough sell for this old-school fan, though.
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.