The ukulele had a moment in the late ’00s: between “Hey Soul Sister,” “You and I” by Ingrid Michaelson, and a host of other ukulele-toting bands, things were getting downright cheery all over the place. Vibes have obviously changed in the culture and in musical scenes; ukulele is way less used today. However, the instrument’s ability to create a warm, sunshiny vibe is the same–it’s just waiting there for someone to champion it.
Enter twnsppl. twigs by townsppl is easily one of the most gleeful, charming, carefree albums released in 2017. For a year that’s been full of divorce albums and incisive protest music, twigs offers a heaping helping of respite.
The title track is the opener, and it’s a great tune. Bandleader Alexander Stanton’s tenor voice is smooth and clear, delivered over the aforementioned ukulele and some bouncing bass. The chorus shifts from straight-ahead indie-pop to Graceland-influenced pop with the addition of “whoa-oh-ohs,” African-harmony background vocals, and chanted “heys”. The vibe is spot-on, the recording is perfectly done, and the whole thing comes off like a million bucks. It’s a “sit-up-and-pay-attention” opener for an indie-pop fan.
“so so-so” slows down the tempo and introduces ukulele fingerpicking, which is lovely. The majority of the album lives in this mid-tempo indie-pop realm, exploring many different ways to chill with a ukulele in your arms (or ears). Both “so so-so” and “i’ll be home soon (can it wait till I get there)” have can’t-get-it-out-of-my-head chorus vocal lines, while “cut magazines” and “don’t blink” show off Stanton’s arrangement skills primarily. (Not to malign the great vocal melodies in those tunes.)
“don’t blink” is a highlight: sounding somewhat like a Sufjan Christmas take in both enthusiasm and warmly comforting mood, the tune hums along with an effervescent grin. The delicate closing piano line bowled me over the first time I heard it–it’s a simple thing, but it’s executed perfectly. In other words: #nailedit.
The tunes here are mostly chipper and bright, but one stands out from the pack as being more reserved: “the road to end up” is a somber, serious pop tune reminiscent of Blind Pilot’s vocal melodies and Ivan & Alyosha’s electric guitar use. It’s a strong counterpoint to the rest of the tunes, subverting expectations just enough to add a good break in the sound. The album concludes with the solo performance “sparks,” which is also a little more serious than the rest of the tunes. But even that can’t sustain a straight face for too long before bringing in a lo-fi arrangement to brighten the corners. It’s a great conclusion to a relentlessly appealing album.
Having reviewed music for 14.5 years, I’ve learned to be reserved in my initial response to a record. But some albums cause me to break my rules. I have enjoyed every track on this record unabashedly. It’s a dinger–there’s not a bad track on the whole thing. Each track of twigs is clever, thoughtful, and deeply enjoyable. It will easily land on my top ten albums of the year. If you’re into indie-pop, this is a must-hear. Highly Recommended.
You can check out townsppl at the twigs Album Release Show on Friday, 11/10, at Club Cafe in Pittsburgh. If I were anywhere near there, I’d be headed up. It’s bound to be a blast.
1. “Ich Cetera” – Austin Stahl. There’s not as much instrumental indie-rock in the world as I would like. This entry in the genre is a road-tripping song, a friendly and adventurous little tune underpinned by a stable drumline and guitar strum pattern. The Nick Drake-esque piano line is lovely as well.
2. “Retro Kid” – Retro Kid. “It comes into my head / the need to dance” is the refrain on this sleek, low-slung electro-pop gem. If all electro-dance were as slinky and winding, I might be out at the club more often. (And by the club, I mean “me in my living room, playing electro-pop at full blast”.)
3. “Stuck Between” – Klara Zubonja. An almost overwhelmingly twee introduction opens into an exuberant indie-pop track that’s a cross between the sass of Lily Allen, the coy subtlety of Regina Spektor, and the punchy arrangements of Ingrid Michaelson.
4. “Be Here Now” – Annabelle’s Curse. Genre-busting indie outfit Annabelle’s Curse returns with a song that, well, busts genres. There’s some alt-country, some indie-pop, some grungy indie-rock, and more crammed into this flowing, atypical song structure. Viva la invention.
5. “Pocketknife” – The Anchor Collective. The vocal melodies are front and center in this indie rock track, as not even a crunchy guitar section can take my ear away from the comforting, comfortable melodies that play out over the mostly-dreamy arrangement.
6. “Beth” – Paul Whitacre. Every now and then a song comes along that jumps out of the pack and says, “Listen to me!” This folk-pop tune with country guitar leads is a breath of fresh air in a crowded field, from the lovely melodies to the deft arrangement to the carefully organized lyrics to the immaculate production job. This is top-shelf work, people. Jump on it.
7. “Memorial Day” – Palm Ghosts. Dawes-esque Americana meets REM-style ’90s guitar-rock jangle in the sonic equivalent of a well-worn, trusty jacket. You may not have heard this song before, but it will feel familiar and great as soon as you do.
8. “Rosanna” – Mike Llerena. This song has punk rock vocal tone and melodies, doo-wop rhythms, and alt-country guitar tone. All three of those genres have heart-on-sleeve tendencies, and they’re on full display here in this “sad, spurned lover” lyric set. If you’re into 500 Miles to Memphis, you’ll be all up on this.
9. “Savior’s Hand” – Colin Onderdonk. Powerful vocals and a spartan arrangement consisting almost entirely of rumbling toms and wiry string bass creates a sonic environment that mirrors the lyrics that describe a weary traveler in an ominous, dangerous land.
10. “The Conversation of the Street Lights Will Pass as Quickly as Our Words” – The Bowling Alley Sound. This stuttering, wide-eyed, major-key post rock tune includes burbling guitars, soaring bass work, evocative (and high quality) found sound / spoken word clips, and a delightful sense of motion through the whole piece. Fans of The Album Leaf, Delicate Steve, Adebisi Shank, and other major-key post-rock will find much to love in this.
11. “The Naked Mind” – Ryan Svendsen. I’ve never heard a piece composed entirely of looped, layered trumpet lines and percussion. The trumpet is naturally an instrument prone to brash melodies, long melodic runs, and alternation between mellow and sharp tones, and all of that is on display here. There’s a hypnotic groove to the piece through the repetition of the theme that is only increased by the eruption of the percussion partway through. Adventurous listeners: rejoice!
12. “Himalaya” – Klangriket. By including lots of atmospheric, foley-type sounds, this song becomes both a minimalist soundtrack and the movie it is scoring. It’s a distinct, unique, very adventurous sonic experience that blends classical, post-rock, found sound, and soundtracks together.
1. “Turtle Doves” – Jenny Elisabeth & the Gunned Down Horses. A. What a band name. B. Like light spreading across a horizon, this tune grows from spiky yet warm tendrils of sound to a full, round alt-country performance. The bassist and JE’s creaky voice get special honors.
2. “Refugee” – Cameron James Henderson. Some artists command a gravitas–a combination of confidence, vocal control, melodic maturity, and (let’s be honest) Dylan influences–that catapults their folk tunes into the upper echelon. This tune very firmly belongs up there with the Joe Pugs, Josh Ritters, and Barr Brotherses of the world.
3. “Louisiana” – Eric & Happie. This is more country than the Civil Wars, but still very pop-oriented. It would be like if folk-pop had a country-pop counterpart, but this has almost nothing in common with Florida Georgia Line, so that’s out. The male/female harmonies are lovely, the arrangement is small but full, the production is bright and tight, and the whole thing comes off like a sunbeam out of a cloudy day. It’s just great.
4. “The Space Between” – Aaron James. Here’s some folk-pop with strong vocal harmonies and lots of subtle production touches that push it just far enough outside of the box to really catch the ear, while still fitting in with all the folk-pop standard-bearers.
5. “Don’t Leave My Side” – McKenzie Lockhart. I’m really into immediate production: it sounds like Lockhart is sitting right next to me, playing and singing her folk-pop/singer-songwriter blend. The drums and electric guitar add a lot of character and atmosphere to this tune, which is often not the case in this type of music–mad props to the band. The results are an unusually gripping singer-songwriter track.
6. “No Gauge” – Ariah&. Ariah’s low alto voice contrasts nicely against a chipper mandolin and blaring trumpet. She can belt like Amanda Palmer, too.
7. “Beans” – Little Hermit. If you threw the ukulele charm of Ingrid Michaelson, the quirky lyrics of Kimya Dawson, and an impressive female duet into a blender, you probably still couldn’t come out with something as attractive, elegant, and intriguing as this.
9. “Yesterday’s News” – Esbie Fonte. Starts off as a torchy tune with some jumbled noise for atmosphere, then blooms into something more electronic and complex than that.
10. “Cold Moon” – Lacei. Vocal-driven folk + wubby spacious bass + skittering beats = (either) the folkiest electro track I’ve heard all year or the most electronic folk track of the same period.
11. “Pluto’s Waltz” – Barrow_. This instrumental inventively combines solo neo-classical/jazz piano with snare-heavy electronic kit drums and the occasional synth for effect. It’s a fresh, impressive vision.
1. “County Line” – Susto. Susto is one of the very best alt-country acts working today, and if you don’t know that you haven’t heard their stuff yet. Let this nigh-on-perfect tune serve as your introduction.
2. “King” – The Amazing Devil. This incredibly intense song wrings every last drop of emotion out of dramatic vocal performances, a cinematic lyrical set, and a churning full-band acoustic performance. Cello has rarely sounded so incredibly vibrant and necessary in folk-rock. The video that accompanies the tune is equally impassioned; it’s a rare thing that the video enhances the experience of listening to the song, but this one totally does. Highly recommended. Their album comes out Monday, so if you’re in London you should check their release show out. If it’s anything like this video, it promises to be a wild affair.
3. “Window” – Stephen Douglas Wolfe. Saxophone and French horn are not common inclusions in a woodsy folk tune, but Wolfe makes them sound totally natural. Between them and the bassist going absolutely bonkers (you go!), this sounds almost more like Anathallo than it does Bon Iver, but fans of both will find much to love in this tune.
4. “Dancing in the Dark” – Josiah and the Bonnevilles. This song is infinitely coverable: I would listen to almost anyone cover this tune. The fact that Josiah and the Bonnevilles are my favorite new band of the year makes it even more excellent.
5. “Standing” – Melody Federer. This singer-songwriter/indie-pop tune has a melodic maturity that stands up against Ingrid Michaelson, Sara Watkins, and Sleeping at Last. It has gravitas while still remaining light; it’s a very rare balance that is to be celebrated.
6. “Why Don’t You Call Home” – Deni Gauthier. Sometimes all you need is a great falsetto and a tiny guitar riff to steal hearts.
7. “Sunset Road” – Kathryn Overall. Here’s a folk-pop tune about contentment, local beauty, and home played in a low-key, no-frills, earnest way. I broke into a smile, and I think you will too.
8. “Under a Rose” – Dylan Addington. Always space in my heart for a folk-pop tune with a catchy vocal melody and stomping percussion. Fans of The Lumineers should be all up on this.
9. “The Captain” – Adam Topol. Fans of the easygoing acoustic joy of Dispatch and Guster will find a lot of love in Topol’s swaying, airy, summery tune.
10. “Catch Your Fall” – The River South. The iconic shuffle-snare is employed to great effect here, providing the backbone for a delicate love song. The keyboards, bass, and dual vocals fill in the warm, comforting vibe.
11. “White Sky” – Lilla Clara. A solemn, emotionally powerful tune that sucks all the air out of the room.
12. “Between the Bars” – Andrea Silva. Elliott Smith cannot have very much added to him, but reinterpretation keeps a legacy alive. This cover features a great vocal performance, too. (editor’s note: this song is no longer available.)
13. “Once Upon a Child” – Eleanor Murray. Tape hiss, nylon strings, room reverb, and an arresting alto vocal line come together for a deeply affecting tune.
14. “Loss” – Paul Sweeney. This contemplative solo guitar piece has a consistent motion in the melodic line that makes the song both evocative and emotional.
15. “Improvisation I” – De Martenn. This solo piano piece explores a dark blue mood; it feels like the street corner late at night, when you know no one is around but it still feels like something is going to happen. It’s peaceful but not serene; there’s some undercurrent going right there under the surface. You look twice; no one is there either time. You’re a little disappointed, but but also relieved. You walk home. You sleep well.
Reina del Cid‘s The Cooling sounds effortless. del Cid can meld her gentle alto voice seamlessly with a warm acoustic guitar and thrumming stand-up bass to create the sort of music that just sounds right. (She can also rock a full band arrangement, too–note the excellent “Mice and Men”).
From opener “Sweet Annie” to “The Fall” to “Morse Code” to closer “Death Cap,” she pulls elements of singer/songwriter, indie-pop, folk, country, and even blues together. The result is an infectious, engaging sound that gives her room to set up her mature, composed vocal and instrumental melodies. There’s a balance between joie de vivre and earthy certainty that results in tunes that feel close to her heart but also not weepy and introspective.
I want to sing along to the tunes, but I also want to sit back and let them hit me. It’s “Morse Code” where this hits hardest: it’s a break-up song with a sort of spurned-lover disaffection (famous of female country tunes) poured into a gentle guitar strum that falls somewhere between folk and indie-pop. Her voice has some gentle reverb on it that give it some depth, but the earnest melody could have carried it on its own. The lyrics shine as well, taking a different tack on the tried-and-true subject material.
The Cooling is one of the most enjoyable records I’ve heard all year: you can love it at multiple levels, and that makes for great listening. If you’re interested in Ingrid Michaelson, Regina Spektor, or other innovative singer/songwriters, you need Reina del Cid in your ear.
Austin alt-country outfit Salesman’s output up until this point has been eerie, avant-garde, and complex. With theLet’s Go Jump into the Fire 7″, they’ve gone in a different direction that they admit is “a new page” in their book. And boy, is it.
Instead of dark and foreboding tunes that take a while to make their way to your heart, the title track of the seven-inch is an immediately endearing tune. It opens with a jaunty, celebratory, major-key fingerpicking pattern on an electric guitar, which is a shock in itself.
The rest of the arrangement unfolds in a careful way that builds the song seemingly organically to a jubilant point two minutes in where Devin James Fry yells “Yeah!” not out of terror, but out of enthusiasm. Wavering pedal steel, tasteful drums, and thrumming bass create a warm atmosphere that’s hard to resist. It’s very much alt-country, and the rhythms and vocals still mark it as a Salesman track, but their powers are definitely engaged in a different direction.
“Let’s Go Jump into the Fire” is backed with “Riddle of the Source,” which is darker in tone and timbre. It’s still not as difficult as their previous work (or Fry’s previous work with apocalyptic post-rock band Lord Buffalo), but the vibes are darker, more forlorn, more at home in the minor key. Fry stretches out his vocals here, leading the song with his nuanced performance. There’s an awesome (and all too short) guitar solo as well. Salesman’s new look is less obtuse, more direct, and thoroughly enjoyable. “Let’s Go Jump into the Fire” is a brilliant track that speaks optimistically toward things to come.
Janet Devlin‘s Running With Scissors is a thoroughly modern acoustic pop album, putting all the things we’ve learned since Nevermind to good use. The Irish singer/songwriter channels The Lumineers, Lilith Fair, Ingrid Michaelson, and KT Tunstall throughout the album, creating tunes that fit the best adjectives of each turn. Opener “Creatures of the Night” is a perky mid-’00s acoustic-pop song with mandolin and stomping drums; the booming kick bass turns into the walloped, four-on-the-floor tom of “House of Cards,” which is a female-fronted Lumineers track if there ever was one. (It’s even got the obligatory “hey!”)
The tunes set the tone for the album: fun, smart, and melodically mature. The surprisingly maturity with which she traipses through genres is worth noting here: “Hide and Seek” is straight-ahead ’90s female pop (Jewel?), “Lifeboat” includes melodica and separated strumming a la Ingrid Michaelson, “Things We Lost in the Fire” is an introspective piano ballad (Fiona Apple!), and her cover of the The Cure’s “Friday I’m in Love” is all folk fingerpicking and whispered vocals. “Wonderful” has a regrettable lyrical concept, but if you just ignore the words, it’s another cheery ’90s pop tune. (On second thought, maybe the goofy lyrics are just part and parcel of her commitment to the style.)
Janet Devlin’s Running With Scissors is a carousel of delights: no matter which song you pick, it will take you for a warm, lovely trip. If you’re into acoustic pop, you should know about Devlin.
1. “Old Hope” – Angelo de Augustine. It’s like Elliott Smith is alive. Maybe there’s some Joshua Radin and Nick Drake in there, but mostly the whispered vocals and style of acoustic guitar remind me of Smith.
2. “Amarillo” – Anna Vogelzang. Combine the charm of Ingrid Michaelson with the full arrangements of Laura Stevenson, and you’ve got a little bit of an idea of Vogelzang’s talent. She’s one to watch.
3. “Red River” – Tyler Sjöström. Fans of Mumford and Sons will love this theatrical, finger-picked folk-pop tune.
4. “Forever Gone” – Andrew Marica. The morose romanticism of Damien Rice + the distant reverb-heavy atmospherics of Bon Iver create this downtempo ballad.
5. “Delilah” – Tony Lucca. This one’s pretty boss: Wide-open, sneering, engaging full-band country-rock with an eye toward Coldplay-style, radio-friendly vocal melodies. Also, there’s some awesome saloon-style piano playing.
6. “Angel Tonight” – Peter Galperin. Musical adventurer Galperin moves from his bossa nova experiments towards ’80s country-flavored classic rock. There’s some Springsteen, some Paul Simon, and more all combined here.
7. “Time” – Night Windows. Acoustic-based indie-pop a la David Bazan that teeters on the edge between twee and melancholy.
8. “I Got Creepy When Lou Reed Died” – Red Sammy. The husky, gravel-throated country of Red Sammy gets an electric makeover for this tribute tune. The title a weird thing to chant, but you’ll probably want to sing along repeatedly to the mantra-esque chorus.
Clara Barker’s songwriting is impeccable on Fine Art and the Breslins. The Isle of Man (!) resident’s folk and acoustic indie-pop tunes have a classic songcraft flair about them; she breathes life into rhythms and arrangements that would seem like tropes in others’ hands.
She’s able to do this in part because of charming moods: it’s just fun to listen to tunes like “Angel” and “Love (Fill My Heart).” Both are happy songs that make me bob my head, clap my hands, and sing along. Are the strum and percussive patterns familiar? Yep. But that’s what makes it so immediately lovable. She also dabbles in melancholy, Verve Pipe-style Brit-pop (“Dodging Bullets,” “Seth’s Song”), which is a nice change of pace.
Her lovely voice also helps get through any complaints about formal songwriting. Her perky, buoyant voice gives her a bit of a manic pixie dream girl vibe. It puts her in league with other beloved indie singer-songwriters like Ingrid Michaelson and She and Him. This is nowhere as prevalent as “The Bees Song,” which is a twee love song that includes a toy piano (or similar sound). In short, Clara Barker’s songs are comfortable, lovable, and fun to listen to. I’m behind anyone who can hit that trifecta.
Bon Iver may sparked a surge in mopey folk singers (whom I love, let it be known), but it’s good to know that there are still bands who think that folk music is wild, crazy, and a little dangerous. Push play on The Loose Canyons’ Strivers’ Row and you’ll get immediately introduced to the raucous “If We Don’t Know By Now,” which sees the band blasting forward with train-whistle rhythms, energy galore, and a slicing harmonica. The next track lets the guitarist rip off a blazing guitar solo in-between gruff, growling vocals. Tom Waits lite plus The Low Anthem? Yes please.
Even when the band slows things down they retain that ragged flair. “My Tendencies” is technically slower and led by a female vocalist, but this just means that they sound like they’re luring you into a back alley somewhere. And they still manage to get an overdriven guitar and wailing harmonica into the arrangement.
By the time you get to “7th Day,” the vocal-centric, harmony-friendly, even sweet tune seems like it’s coming from some other band. It shows the impressive diversity of Loose Canyons; they can fully inhabit their moods and shed them just as quickly. They circle the wagons for a final track, where all the moods (tenderness, gruffness, instrumental prowess, vocal-centricness) come together. “John Lennon” is a pretty impressive track, if only for the amount of things it crams in. I’m still partial to those raucous first two tracks, but that’s a personal preference thing. The Loose Canyons are great on each of these five songs, and you’d do well to check them out if you’re into folk music.
Gold Light, who we raved about over here, get their ’50s visuals on to match their ’50s sounds in this lovely clip. Side note: It will be weird when we get to the 2060s and have to start mentioning which ’50s we mean.
Lights and Motion, not content to make pristinely beautiful post-rock, is now making pristinely beautiful and conceptually interesting music videos with gorgeous cinematography.
The clip for A Mad Affair’s Americana-meets-Ingrid Michaelson tune “Out of My Hands” features a ballerina (instant win, as I’ve noted before) and very intricate body paint. It’s a great video.
NC indie-rockers Once and Future Kings’ “Hologram” layers a literal hologram (can there ever be a literal hologram? #deep) over scenes of action for a neat juxtaposition.
The Head and the Heart don’t need help from this little blogger: last time I saw them, I was thrilled to see that they sold out a 2,000-person venue in Raleigh, NC. Still, this video is beautiful and well worth your time. It’s got a ’50s vibe too.
I’ve got files and notepads and contacts and contracts all over the place right now. I keep thinking, “I feel like my head is about to explode.” I’ve been mitigating this through musical means: My “Get Stuff Done” playlist powers me through work, while Elizaveta‘s debut Beatrix Runs calms me down when I’ve done all I can do for a day.
Elizaveta is uniquely suited to this endeavor. Her malleable soprano can pull off dainty charm (the Norah-esque “Snow in Venice”), quirky concern (the Regina-esque “Beatrix Runs”) arch operatics (“Odi Et Amo”) and even R&B (“Onion”). But her bright moment is “Dreamer,” where Elizaveta combines all her vocal affectations into something uniquely her own: her bright vocal lines mesh perfectly with gently burbling synths, breathy background vocals, and piano to make an infectious, catchy tune. “Armies of Your Heart” performs a similar feat, showing that Elizaveta is on her way to a distinctive style.
Elizaveta’s personality is still a bit in flux on this album; she’s tempering her operatic tendencies against her indie-pop aspirations, and the mix hasn’t stabilized quite yet. Even so, there are many moments of beauty, and the album is an interesting listen throughout. Fans of quirky singer/songwriters (all the aforementioned, Ingrid Michaelson) will love this one.
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.