I love lo-fi things. I spent the back half of the summer listening to The Mountain Goats’ All Hail West Texas, and I’m doing research right now on the history and present of cassette tapes (they never died, y’all!). Unadorned, barebones performances are just appealing to me. So Summer of Sam‘s Slumlord struck a chord in its Mountain Goats-meets-Iron & Wine earnestness.
Armed with nothing but an acoustic guitar, his voice, and a recording device, Sam Egenes creates short, endearing songs. The “it’s done when it feels done” songwriting style of the Mountain Goats is present, along with the meandering, thoughtful moods more indicative of Iron & Wine’s early days. “Just Bitter” surfaces fully-formed as a dark, moody song vaguely reminiscent of Damien Rice in ominous overtones, while the memorable “Dream On” appears and disappears abruptly. The title track is a forceful piece that revels in its own lo-fi aesthetic; the notes rattle, the recording isn’t perfect, and the vocals are distant. It’s still great.
These are notes, a travelogue, a series of broadcasts; these are invitations to listen to someone else’s thoughts. There’s no pop sheen here, nor do these songs need it. They aren’t charming in a twee way, but they do charm me: in the age of everyone as their own orchestra, it’s rare to find someone very satisfied in making humble tunes with one instrument and a voice. These songs aren’t perfect, and that’s wonderful to me. There’s tape hiss and a bit of distortion where the sound clipped. That’s part of the joy of these tunes. If you’re into lo-fi singer/songwriters, Summer of Sam needs to be on your radar.
The ever-prolific Fiery Crash has ditched the fuzzed-out dream pop for a much more straightforward acoustic guitar album on Practice Shots. The results sound something like an early M. Ward album on downers: Josh Jackson’s acoustic guitar sound is warm and gentle even while being played in precise rhythms, and his rambling/mumbling/singing vocal style calls up great memories of “Chinese Translation“–although Jackson’s voice is lower than Ward’s. Working with not much more than that throughout the album, Jackson constructs tunes that float the entire way through.
Jackson’s baritone voice could be a dominant feature, a la the National, but he balances it perfectly against the other elements. The result are tunes that flow smoothly on their own and as a cohesive whole. “Equinox” layers three guitar parts, a vocal line, and simple percussion without ever feeling cluttered; opener “Cada Ano” pulls a similar feat while featuring an arresting vocal melody. “For the Canopy” is a little duskier in its mood, allowing for a pleasant variety. Even the louder tracks fit with the lazy, slowly rolling mood: “Volleybeachball!” uses an electric guitar and a speedy drum machine but is dragged back into the mood with a lackadaisical vocal line.
Fiery Crash has kept the quality level incredibly high over this latest dispatch of prolific production. This is the second full album and fourth release in this calendar year, and Practice Shots is the best of the bunch so far. I don’t know when Jackson will let up, but at this point he’s clicking on all cylinders. Fans of cheery, breezy acoustic songwriting like (early) Shins, She & Him, and more will love this. I look forward to his next move.
The title track for Together Through It All must have been an incredibly easy choice for Kye Alfred Hillig: in a 14-song album with few clunkers, “Together Through It All” stands head and shoulders above everything else on the record. Hillig’s forte is creating almost uncomfortably intense tunes, as if Ray LaMontagne’s vocal chords, Josh Garrels’ lyrical depth, latter-day Sam Beam’s arrangements, and David Bazan’s general passion were all crammed into one artist. “Together Through The Years” tracks the downward progression of a troubled son through the eyes of his loving, committed father: by the last verse, Hillig is roaring out over pounding drums and blasting horns that “the tombstone don’t make the man/And that’s not how I choose to remember him.” Hillig then returns to the devastating chorus: “I’m still his father/he’s still my son.” If you don’t get shivers or goosebumps or something during this tune, I don’t think this blog can help you much.
Hillig doesn’t just focus on heavy topics; there are some excellent love tunes here as well. “An Unedited Presentation of Souls,” “You and Me and Time,” and “Trampled/Triumphant” all take the average love ballad and crank up the intensity a few notches. The lyrics themselves are far more intimate and emotionally raw than I expect to hear, and the passionate vocal delivery is jaw-dropping at times. Hillig is a focused, powerful vocalist, but he can also deliver songs sweetly. It’s a rare thing to find.
It’s also rare to hear so much diversity fit so neatly on a record. The dense arrangement of opener “Breaking Lungs” makes it feel like a lost track from Iron and Wine’s Kiss Each Other Clean, while “War in Spring” is a perky piano-pop tune anchored by a Postal Service-esque beat. Closer “Does My Soul Still Sing?” is a majestic, reverential, synth-laden elegy, while “Free the Birds” is a garage-rock track anchored by campy organ. (Okay, “Free the Birds” does stick out a bit.) But other than that one, Hillig makes all of the tracks work by investing each of them with an equal amount of passion and care. No track here feels cast off on a whim: Together Through It All is completely and carefully organized.
If listening through the whole 45+ minutes is a bit of an exhausting experience, it’s a thrillingly exhausting one. There’s more charm and care crammed into this album than most bands can get into three albums. If you love singer/songwriters who aren’t necessarily out to make you happy, but are definitely out to make you feel, you need to know Kye Alfred Hillig. Trust me on this one. Kye Alfred Hillig will make you smile, laugh, and cry.
I’ve gone to three weddings in May, so I’ve been thinking often about wedding music. Even though pop music has been infatuated with infatuation for as long as it’s been alive, odes to the type of committed love that marriage is intended to foster are hard to find. Even songs that are ostensibly about everlasting love do not necessarily merit wedding performance. It takes an incredibly rare sort of song to convey the intimacy and vulnerability of married love, unless you’re Ray LaMontagne–and then every song can pretty much fit.
Early Iron and Wine tracks had the intimacy down as well; and it’s somewhere between those two artists that Young Readers’ Family Trees falls. Yes, those are huge shoes to fill, but the near-reverent beauty and fragility of “All I Have” and “Naked” leave me in the same state of mind as the work of those songwriting giants. Both songs are gentle, expansive tunes that create a distinct mood without a great deal of musical elements. “All I Have” uses a steady acoustic guitar strum to imbue an elegant string section and Jordan Herrera’s quiet voice with a gravitas enviable by LaMontagne. When a choir comes in for the climax of the tune, it sounds positively revelatory. The lyrics are perfect for the sound, as Herrera nearly whispers, “If all I have is you, then the rest is okay.” It’s going on my “song of the year” list for sure.
The sparse, slow fingerpicking of “Naked” recalls Iron and Wine immediately; since Sam Beam doesn’t make ‘em like that anymore, this is a wonderful thing to be bestowing upon the world. And it does feel like this song is a gift. The songs are so intimate that it feels like Herrera is cracking open the door for me to see into a corner of his life that he doesn’t show to just anyone. The fact that there’s almost no build to “Naked” over its nearly-six-minute duration just impresses me more: there are few people who can write six minutes of sparse fingerpicking as engaging as this.
The rest of the tunes are solid as well. “Wooden Frame” retains the wistful romanticism of the aforementioned tunes despite being more upbeat, while “Blame” is another bedside confessional. “Boxcar” is a swaying tune that evokes the feel of traveling in the lyrics and music.
Jordan Herrera has created more immediately lovable music in 25 minutes than many bands make in a lifetime. Family Trees is a gorgeous, heartfelt EP that will command your ears and heart. I haven’t heard a better release all year, and I eagerly anticipate more material from Young Readers. If you’re a fan of romantic, honest music, you need to download this. And it’s free. What more can you ask for?
I wrote last June about the cult of greatness that mellow music often defies. Quiet dignity does not win Grammys or end up on year-end lists. (Or does it?)
Summer of Sam’s A-Okay is almost aggressively self-aware about its unassuming station. From the title to the tape hiss to the spare instrumentation, these 8 songs unfold in an uncomplicated way. It genuinely seems like a guy sat down with an acoustic guitar and set out to document his songs. The earnest, authentic feel calls to mind early Mountain Goats or early Iron & Wine: there’s nothing here but song, and song is all that is here.
Lest I become obsessed with form over function, the songs rule. The vocal melodies are memorable, and the songwriter shows a striking aptitude to convincingly elicit multiple moods out of the same guitar while still composing a coherent album. This is so rarely accomplished that even its best attempts are now maligned and under-appreciated. “Like a Rosie” is a pensive, walking-speed folky tune, while “Hoorayhooray” is a pleasant little pop tune. “Everything’s Been Said” foregrounds the vocals and lyrics in a stately and mature piece, while “Lost Highway” features an alt-country weariness. (The only bum moment is the blown-out album closer “Theme,” which leans a bit too heavily on the lo-fi.) None of these songs come off as appropriations or stiff attempts at form; they all feel like different moods of the same man.
Or, put otherwise: I love almost everything about this album.
It’s rare to find a singer/songwriter offering up this much quality songwriting in one release. Summer of Sam’s A-Okay is the sort of album that used to quietly make the rounds, passed from friend to friend. I don’t know if it works like that anymore (who was the last real groundswell singer/songwriter? Bon Iver? Iron & Wine?), but I hope it does for Summer of Sam’s sake. A-Okay is far too brilliant to languish unappreciated.
I don’t often sit back and chill, as I usually relax by reading or writing poetry. But the dreamy simplicity of Acres by Rat Wakes Red makes just being a very pleasant experience indeed.
RWR creates intimate, melodic tunes reminiscent of old-school Iron and Wine. Songwriter James Raftery plays more piano than Sam Beam did, and his sketches tend more toward ghostly melancholy than the bearded wonder’s. Raftery’s voice has soothing reverb on it, giving the tunes an even more ethereal air. Gentle synths and strings make appearances, capping off the tunes.
Raftery’s tightly-defined production leads to the make-or-break point of Acres: the eighteen songs tend to run together when listened to in one sitting. Barely a song steps outside the guitar/piano/vocals/auxiliary instrument oeuvre he sets up.
As a result, the overall effect is not song-driven; the album is best experienced as an un-dissected document. In an ADHD era, this is a liability in attempts to gain casual listeners; there is no single here. But for those who love the experience of setting an album on and blissing out to the mood it creates, this is a treasure trove. Fans of Other Lives, Elliott Smith, Sigur Ros and Joshua Radin will find much to love in Rat Wakes Red’s Acres.
O’Death is definitely part of the new folk music movement, but they take a very different tack than most. Where many bands try to recreate the sound of guitar-based roots music, O’Death tries to recreate the feel of it. The songs on Outside are not anything like Mumford and Sons, nor are they like Iron and Wine. These songs sound like sea shanties (“Ourselves”), dirges (“Look at the Sun”) and other vaguely sinister tunes (“Black Dress,” “Ghost Head”).
To that end, these don’t have as developed a pop sentiment as the new folksters do. O’Death isn’t trying to make pop songs that appropriate a new idiom; they’re trying to inhabit an old idiom, quirks and all. Some lyrics a have a distinctly morbid Appalachian tinge to them (this band is called O’Death, after all). Banjo, violin, cello and non-standard percussion (claps, stomps, clicking things, etc.) play a much larger part in the sound than the usual suspects (guitar, bass, drums).That’s not to say those parts aren’t there, but O’Death doesn’t kowtow to modern sensibilities just because they’re modern sensibilities.
Another element that calls up the feel of a folk album is the reliance on group vocals. There are few moments of lead vocalist grandeur; the vocals are easy to sing along to, if not especially catchy at first blow. Theatrics are eschewed in favor of mood, and it’s a good tradeoff.
This album is like Southeast Engine’s Canary, in that it doesn’t just reward multiple listens: It requires them. This sound falls outside my consciousness, and I bet it will fall out of yours as well. It took me a few listens to understand and assimilate their modus operandi into my brain, and only then did I start to enjoy it for the fascinating album it is. I would like to see them live; I have a feeling that their intense control of mood would make for absolutely riveting gigs.
Outside isn’t for everyone, as it’s not a standard pop/folk album. But if you’re into thoughtful songwriting (or, on the other hand, sea shanties), O’Death’s latest album should be on your list of “to buy.”
Leonard Mynx‘s last album Vesperwas a stately wonder, composed of hopelessly depressing folk songs that hung on every note he let fall from his mouth. It was an absolutely riveting album, if an unsettling one. Son of the Famous So and So finds him in a more upbeat idiom, and while it’s less discomforting, it’s less attention-grabbing as well.
Like Dylan went, so goes Mynx; there’s a lot more instrumentation here, and if it can’t exactly be called rock, it’s something close. There’s intimations of everyone from Tom Waits to Bob Seger here (On ”Sing Radio,” Mynx calls up both), making for a mini-tour of American roots rock. Son has its own charms and joys, but it inches a little closer toward what the rest of the folk world is doing right now.
Mynx has shifted his focus from vocal melodies to overall songwriting. It doesn’t seem like a big deal until you hear how different “Stolen” and “Last Time” sound. The forlorn horns of “Stolen” accent the vocal performance; the horns of “Last Time” are part of the structure (along with bass/acoustic guitar/electric guitar/drums/piano/organ) that rope in Mynx’s vocals.
Even the gorgeous, relatively stark “My Old Friend” fits Mynx’s vocals into a song, a departure from his former idea of letting the vocals dominate the proceedings. The result is a collection of tunes that mid-to-late-era Dylan fans will love, both for vocal and instrumental reasons.
“Stolen” and “Sail On” best reference his last album with haunting moods created by letting his voice and lyrics paint the whole scene. The lyrical structure on Son is modified to fit the new songwriting style, meaning that he’s less a literal storyteller than a scene painter on much of the album. “Sail On” dispels that, returning to his wordy, lengthy lyrical style that I love. He sticks a beautiful acoustic coda there, too; major props to that.
“Miss You” best matches his morose mastery of drawn-out, creaky vocal performances with his new songwriting idiom. It is easily the best song on the album, hinting that the best is yet to come from Leonard Mynx.
Son of the Famous So and So never drops below “solid.” ”Stolen,” “Sail On” and “Miss You” are next-level pieces that stand up next to tracks by Iron and Wine, Bon Iver and Damien Jurado; the rest are average-to-good pieces that show a (hopefully) transitional stage in Mynx’s songwriting. Leonard Mynx is an artist you need to watch closely; he’s right on the verge of breaking through.
There is absolutely no reason that I can discern to explain the unsigned status of The Damn Choir. Their album Faithful Fools is a confident, emotive, beautiful folk break-up album that showcases both the songwriting and performance chops of the members. There’s a maturity and clarity to the lyrics that propels this album far beyond the standard “I want you back” and “I miss you” themes of most break-up albums. The album is recorded incredibly well, and the overall effect of the album on me was devastating. The Damn Choir’s songs are powerful, even if they are about being depressed.
The Damn Choir used to be called Gordon and Katy, after the principal songwriters: Gordon Robertson (vocals/guitar) and Katy Myers (cello). Their interplay makes the album work; Robertson’s gentle picking and strumming is perfectly accompanied by Myers’ legato bowing. There are rarely times when the two are apart, and several of the best tracks here feature nothing but Robertson’s voice, Robinson’s guitar and Myers’ cello. “Love is a Trap” is one of these tracks, as a fingerpicking guitar line reminescent of Iron and Wine is given emotional weight by a sonorous cello line. Robertson’s unadorned vocals seem to emerge from his mouth without effort here and on the rest of the album; his voice sounds absolutely comfortable within the twelve songs of Faithful Fools.
It’s this comfort and ease that makes this album work. These songs don’t feel forced, and none of the arrangements feel like overkill. There is no filler, nor is there any overage. These songs are pared down to the essentials. On standout “Black,” that means that there’s a piano involved as well. On “Bricks,” there’s some spare drumming in addition to the piano. “What Lovers Do” is a duet with a female vocalist, highly reminiscent of the Damien Rice/Lisa Hannigan collaborations.
Another comparison can be drawn to Rice in that both Rice and TDC treat their music with an almost reverent seriousness. Rice hollers his emotions much more abrasively than the easy-on-the-ears TDC, but the way they treat their songs and their subject matter is similar. This is not fun music; it’s important music. It means something.
Faithful Fools is a depressing ride, no doubt about it. But it’s also an incredibly gorgeous album with lyrical weight. Though morose, it is a comforting album, as the songs breathe with a confident gleam. The Damn Choir might not be happy, but they are really good.
One of my best friends and I are huge folk fans. We share some of the same loves (Josh Ritter, Simon and Garfunkel, Iron and Wine), but we diverge pretty hard at one point: he’s a big fan of the British folk sound, and I’m a big fan of the American folk sound. The British folk sound has a very open sound: capturing the sound of rolling hills on the English countryside, the music often abounds with flutes, mandolin, and other optimistic sounds. American folk has a much less optimistic air about it; Dylan’s strum-heavy protest songs and Simon and Garfunkel’s world-weary pop/folk tunes set the stage for the depressing world that American folk resides in.
The Points North take a distinctly British approach to folk, although they hail from Boston. Accordion, flute, delicately fingerpicked guitar, piano, mandolin and more permeate the sound, creating a rollicking sound. But even though these songs are charming, melodic, and sunny, they never become less weighty. Page France was one of the only other bands I know of that was able to capture the balance between giddy music and serious content. And The Points North don’t geek out on a Michael Nau-esque level; they’re much more tempered than that. Stately, as the Brits might say.
If Sufjan Stevens were a little more obsessed with flute, he could have written “Cape Tryon”; the background vocals and general feel of the song would have fit perfectly on Illinoise! If the Low Anthem cracked a smile every now and then, they would be happy to claim the elegaic accordion intro of “I Awoke a Child.” If Nick Drake had found friends to play with him, he could have written half these songs, from the peculiar picking rhythm of “Ever Bright White” to the carefree feel of “Tires & the Pavement.” There are elements of Nickel Creek’s joyful pop (minus the bluegrass), and Novi Split’s goofy swooping musical instruments.
Although I’ve spent most of this album saying who the Points North sound like, that’s not to their discredit. This isn’t an album that causes me to wince every time I hear a musical familiarity. On the other hand, these references (intentional or otherwise) cause excitement and increase enjoyment. The sound isn’t as intimate as my favorite folk bands, due to the myriad of sounds going on, but that’s not what The Points North were shooting for.
The Points North’s I Saw Across the Sound is a unique release, written and recorded with clarity of idea. It’s a very distinctive brand of folk that draws off all the aforementioned bands, but copies none of them. Quite enjoyable and talented.
I came from a punk background, but over the past three years I’ve spent a lot more time listening to singer/songwriters than I have punk. The more I listen, the more I’m interested in the barest of the bare: chords, melody and words. This, to me, is the essence of songwriting; with no distortion, no band, and no gimmicks to fall on, the songwriter’s qualities and demerits are all that is left. And it’s artists that are okay with displaying what they got that excite me.
Leonard Mynx fits perfectly into that desire. If singer/songwriters are placed on a continuum where Damien Jurado is the quietest of the quiet and old-school Dashboard Confessional is the loudest of the loud (I swear, even his quietest stuff ends in hollering – and it’s great because of it), Leonard Mynx would fall toward the Damien Jurado side, right up against Ray LaMontagne and near Jose Gonzalez. That is, there’s not much clutter in these songs; they’re pretty bare.
It is their stripped-down qualities that make Vesper such an incredibly tight piece of work. There is not a wasted second on the album. Mynx knows that his strengths lie in letting his low tenor voice meander over subtle, sparse guitar accompaniment. And he does plenty of it. But he also knows when to introduce other instruments; forlorn trumpets (a la Bon Iver) appear with enough frequency to merit notice, and a female singer accompanies Mynx in some of his best moments.
The fact that Mynx knows his strengths and exploits them is what makes this album like a warm winter coat on a cold day. Sometimes I wish that artists would do more of what they’re good at as opposed to “experimenting.” Mynx doesn’t fall prey to this at all. “Robert” is over nine minutes long (atypical for a folk song), and it sounds great. There just isn’t anything wrong with it.
Mynx plays with other atmospherics within the context of his songwriting; “Many Hours” has a full band, while “The Reins” has a distinctly Bon Iver-ish atmospheric build-up. Several tracks nod to folk tradition and have harmonica back-up. But it’s all done in a very forlorn way; none of the tracks here get caught up in their own pomp and circumstance. These songs are incredibly straightforward, down-to-earth, and enjoyable.
Mynx’s voice and lyrics add a whole other dimension to the songwriting. The lyrics are good, but his delivery makes them into what they are. Even when Mynx is delivering lines that would otherwise be cliches due to their amount of use (of which there are a handful), the way he delivers them and the context in which he delivers them make them seem like Mynx just really, really means those words. It fully doesn’t matter that other people have had those thoughts; Mynx had them too, and they were just as legit when he felt them as when those who went before him felt them.
This album is wonderful. The honest, sad, realistic clarity of the songs makes me want to put the entire album on repeat and have it running in the background of my life. I feel like people would understand me better if they heard this album. Seeing as someone else wrote this album, that’s a pretty weighty endorsement. If you like acoustic folk (Bon Iver, Jose Gonzalez, Iron and Wine, Josh Rouse, Josh Ritter, Josh Radin, Damien Rice, Damien Jurado, et al.) there is no reason you won’t adore this album. I adore Vesper.