Illustrated Manual‘s Wives’ Talesdraws on a deep well of gravitas to create an album of great dignity, calm, and (yet) emotional impact. The pieces that Jon Cooke used to make this deeply moving album are no more than what could be called spartan arrangements, a baritone voice, and incisive lyrical sets.
Cooke’s voice is in especially fine form here: he can sing a dramatic line with great gusto, but he can also inflect lines and syllables with subtle touches that are ultimately just as powerful. The gentle arrangements here surround an acoustic guitar and a mandolin, but this isn’t folk or bluegrass; this is singer/songwriter work with influences from those genres. Where much singer/songwriter goes astray into bland verse/chorus/verse monotony or generic emotionalism, Cooke’s vocal and instrumental melodies are crafted with a careful hand. Cooke’s willing to let things be spare instead of going for the big move; the results are single-set gems, with nothing to distract from the shine.
The lyrics here are huge: “Negatives,” “Stump,” “Boy in a China Shop,” “The Lumberjack” and “Ant on a Rubber Rope” are each incredible in their own ways. They tell stories of tragedy (“Stump” and “Boy in a China Shop” are deeply sad), change (“Negatives,” “The Lumberjack”) and religious imagery (“Ant on a Rubber Rope”). That’s basically the whole first half of record; the back half of the record is compelling as well.
If you’re into calm, mature, finely crafted acoustic music, you need to check out Illustrated Manual’s Wives’ Tales. Highly recommended.
The genius of Pedro the Lion’s songwriting was the ability to combine minimalist singer/songwriter arrangements with loud indie-rock almost seamlessly. Illustrated Manual‘s The Long and Tangled Beard splits that difference neatly as well, allowing the deeply personal subject matter to find whatever proper mood it needs. “The Invisible Line” sets the tale of a first sexual encounter against the backdrop of a fragile piano line and slowly building arrangement. “Hiding the Boy” sets another intimate story against a solo acoustic guitar backdrop; “The Time Traveler” starts with airy synths and gentle acoustic guitar before snapping to attention as a driving pop/rock piece.
All of these tunes are directed by Jonathan Cooke’s fluid, gripping vocals; Cooke had vocal cord surgery during the process of making this album, but you’d never be able to tell. His vocal melodies are strong, and his tone is impeccable. It’s the perfect fit for intimate songs like these, as it feels as if Cooke is in the room with me, having a quiet conversation about his life. This album is the sort that doesn’t leave your mind or iPod quickly: this level of execution in the lyrical, instrumental and vocal arenas doesn’t come around that often. The Long and Tangled Beard is a must-hear.
At first glance, it wouldn’t seem that Hemmingbirds‘ The Vines of Age is a kitchen-sink album, as “My Love, Our Time is Now” establishes a pastoral folk-pop sort of mood for the album. But by the middle of the track, it has morphed into a towering rock song complete with walloping drums. This is basically how Hemmingbirds roll: they play everything from really quiet to really loud, without regard for whether that will be jarring. One of the thrashiest tunes, “Heart Attack,” cuts off abruptly from its wailing guitar, howling vocals and whirlwind drums and drops directly into the intricate, gentle solo acoustic guitar of “Through the Night.” They’re good at both ends of their spectrum, but yikes; that’s some heavy whiplash.
Another standout is “Toxic Noise,” which exercises as much restraint as it can before exploding in a gigantic, early-Walkmen rock track. It’s like Bon Iver secretly also wanted to be Jack White, so he did both his thing and JW’s thing at the same time. Again, both sides of the spectrum are good, and the mishmash makes songs like “My Love” and “Toxic Noise” into the successes they are. Don’t expect to have a single mood throughout The Vines of Age; you’ll be disappointed. But if you want to hear some unique songs, you’re in the right place.
The Griswolds‘ four-song Heart of a Lion EP is one of the most fun releases I’ve heard in 2012. This seems like an Australian cross between The Strokes and Vampire Weekend, with the energetic cool of the first and the perky rhythms of the second thrown into a blender and set to the “fun” setting. There are infectious “oh-oh-ohs” in the title track; rumbling toms and animated bass lines mark “The Courtship of Summer Preasley”; falsetto works its way into my heart in the charming “Red Tuxedo.” There’s only ten minutes of music here, but whoa, those ten minutes. They rule. Watch out for The Griswolds in 2013.