1. “Days With Wings” – Black Balsam. In a post-Mumford world, folk-pop is seen with some suspicion. Tunes as genuinely engaging and fun as this one should help with the fears of those who are over-banjoed.
2. “Sugar Moon” – Jonas Friddle. Folk-pop can also regain its footing by not taking itself too seriously, and Friddle’s artwork of a man playing a banjo that turns into a pelican by the end of the fretboard is a good start. The tune itself sounds like Illinois-era Sufjan mashed up with a Lumineers track at a Beirut concert. In other words, it pulls from everywhere and ultimately becomes a Friddle tune. Totally stoked for this album.
3. “Star of Hope” – Mairearad Green (feat. King Creosote). Green is what Frightened Rabbit would sound like if they weren’t constantly thinking about death: chipper, major-key, acoustic-led indie-rock led by a vocalist with an unapologetically Scottish accent. It’s just fantastic.
4. “We’ll Live” – Stephen Douglas Wolfe. Wolfe’s tenor voice carries this alt-country tune with great aplomb. The pedal steel also provides a great amount of character here.
5. “Only Time” – Ryan Downey. I know you’re not going to believe this, but this is a multitracked-vocals-and-clapping version of the Enya staple. It seems remarkably honest in its intentions, and it’s remarkably engaging as a result. You think you’ve seen it all, and then…
6. “If I Could Fly Away” – Alan Engelmann. The warm brightness of this acoustic pop song makes me think of the spring with a great longing.
7. “Where Am I?” – Amy Virginia. A clear, bright voice cutting across a stark folk frame makes for engaging listening.
8. “Either Way” – Sorority Noise. We’ve come a long, long way from “Good Riddance” on the punk-bands-with-acoustic-guitars front: Cam Boucher’s musing on suicide and loss is a heartrendingly beautiful, spare tune that can fit right next to any early Damien Jurado track (who, of course, was once a punk with an acoustic guitar).
9. “The Curse (Acoustic)” – The Eastern Sea. An intimate performance of rapid fingerpicking and emotional vocals. Not much more I could ask for.
10. “Prologue” – Letters to You. A gentle, pensive acoustic ditty expands into a beauty-minded post-rock bit.
11. “what if i fall in love (with you)” – Isaac Magalhães. A soothing, nylon-stringed guitar performance matches a bedroom-pop, lo-fi vocal performance to create something deeply personal-sounding. Impressionistic RIYLs: Iron and Wine and Elliott Smith.
12. “Most of the Time I Can’t Even Pay Attention” – Crocodile. An off-the-cuff sort of air floats through this one, as if you showed up at your friend’s house and he was already playing a song, so you let him finish and then you both go off to hang out. The lyrics are a bit heavy, but the soft, kind vocal performance calms me anyway. It won’t ask too much of you, but it gives you a lot if you’re into it. You could end up writing a lot about it, you know?
13. “Pickup Truck” – Avi Jacob. It’s hard to quantify maturity, but it’s sort of a mix between knowing your skills, knowing how to maximize them, and not trying to push beyond that. It’s the “sweet spot.” Avi Jacobs hits it here, putting accordion, piano, fingerpicked guitar, and female background vocals into an arrangement that perfectly suits his just-a-bit-creaky-around-the-edges voice. From the first second to the last, it hits hard. Keep a close watch on Jacob.
After a long, slow climb, Jason Isbell has hit the burners: five years ago I saw him in a dive bar in Auburn, Ala., and just last month I declined to see him again in a 2700+ person venue in Durham. He has officially made it. If you’re looking for your next up-and-coming dive bar Americana champion, I volunteer Edward David Anderson. Anderson’s Lower Alabama: The Loxley Sessionsdoes everything you want an Americana record to do and then some.
Americana starts with the voice, and Anderson’s is great: a smooth, comfortable tenor delivered just right. His melodies fit in between Isbell’s gravitas and Nathaniel Rateliff’s infectious enthusiasm (see “Silverhill” for more on that idea). The tunes surrounding the vocals are spartan and carefully arranged to not clutter anything: there’s not much you can do to help a melody so pure as “Cried My Eyes Dry,” so the band backs off and lets Anderson sing it. This is their approach almost everywhere, except for the hustlin’ crime tale “Jimmy & Bob & Jack” that’s closer to a rock arrangement than anything else here. And it’s the right approach, because Anderson himself is the centerpiece, whether he’s singing over a gently rolling banjo in “Hidin’ at the Hollow” or leading the back porch picker “Sadness” (surprisingly cheery). The songwriting is just right there.
Lower Alabama: The Loxley Sessions offers up spot-on vocals-centric Americana songwriting. It does its thing and does it well. If you’re looking for more Southern songwriting pathos in your life, here’s to Edward David Anderson.
Archie’s EP by Aryl Barkley is an intimate release that combines the intense focus and breathy vocals of Elliott Smith with the fingerpicking of early Iron and Wine. “High on Inhibition” is a tune right out of Sam Beam’s wheelhouse, a tender major-key rumination on the past. The fingerpicking is just lovely, fitting beautifully with the whispered vocals. The minor key and gentle strumming of “Inside the Playhouse” speak Smith’s language, pondering something heavy without ever becoming heavy itself. “Two of the Ten Best” closes the three-song EP with a tune which includes ghostly background vocals over minor-key fingerpicking, something like a mash-up of the two previous tunes into something that starts to point toward his unique strengths. The ghost of Bon Iver holds out somewhere in the distance, but this last track is where Aryl Barkley really starts to put his name out there. I look forward to hearing more from this Aussie.
Haleiwa‘s Palm Trees of the Subarcticcombines acoustic guitar, Scandinavian dream-pop, and the occasional post-rock touch to create songs that feel bright, fresh, and cinematic.
The trick is that they’re cinematic in a low-key, indie-movie type way, not is a surging melodrama sort of way: “Wall of Blue Sky” feels like a pensive roadtrip scene, while the quiet expansiveness of standout “Seals and Sharks” points more in the direction of the “personal revelation” scene. The blend of acoustic instruments, electronic sounds, and live drumming is arranged and mixed perfectly, creating warm pieces that feel effortlessly pulled off. Just check out the title track or “The World Beyond” for a seamless melding. “All Sparked” focuses more on a flowing acoustic guitar line, which makes the song one of my personal favorites.
Haleiwa’s unique blend of sounds puts it in the same league as The Album Leaf, Teen Daze, and Grandaddy, but different from each of those. Palm Trees of the Subarctic is an exciting work that should be celebrated.
1. “Every Fight” – Lost Feeling. This complex, attention-grabbing track provides the electronic drama of a Baths track with more acoustic guitar and strings. Here’s a voice to watch.
2. “Hello Miss Lonesome” – Marlon Williams. Williams’ voice just fits so perfectly over this familiar-yet-strange rockabilly-meets-alt-country sprinter.
3. “Give It Up” – Animal Years. Any band sharing a name with a Josh Ritter album should make folk-rock as gleeful, catchy, and all-around fun as this. I can see myself jumping up and down to this song live.
4. “Oh, K” – Alma. Do you need a ray of acoustic pop-soul sunshine to cut through a gray day? Have this one.
5. “Holy Water” – Ed Prosek. Bear with me on this one, but I imagine this is what Mumford and Sons’ last album would have sounded like if they had not fully rejected their acoustic roots: it’s got high drama, but it’s contextualized in a mellow, lush, developed arrangement (check that choir).
6. “Winter Beat” – Michael Nau. Nau is half of Cotton Jones and–more importantly to me–the man behind Page France, one of Independent Clauses’s earliest loves. This walking-speed, bleary-eyed, Lou Reed-esque jam is a cool turn.
7. “No Stone” – Jenny Gillespie. Gillespie’s voice is wide and expansive, providing a nice tension against the close-cropped, keys-driven indie-pop below it. As a result, the tune has a unique vibe that makes its reference points tough to place.
8. “Darkness in Me” – Eight Belles. There’s a theatrical quality lurking just under the surface of this easygoing acoustic tune: you can find it in the piano, the surging strings, and the little swells at the middle of the song. It pairs nicely with Jessi Phillips’ confident alto voice to create a surprising, compelling track.
9. “The Broken Spoon” – Backyard Folk Club. Mad props for the name actually describing the sound. In addition to sounding like the most fun you can have on the back porch, this band has spoons, too!
10. “Chosen Peace” – Steamboats. We could all use a lot more peace in our lives, and if it’s delivered in a warm folk style, so much the better.
11. “Riot” – Supersmall. “Hello, is this Quiet is the New Loud HQ? Are y’all still open for business? Can we join? Here’s our credentials.”
12. “I Am Trying to Disappear” – Matt Bauer. Fresh, bright, and tentative, like if the lo-fi had been scrubbed out of all those early Iron and Wine records to hear how fragile things get when everyone can hear every bit of your plan. It picks up by the end very nicely, but that first half is delightful.
13. “Hollow Body” – Many Rooms. There’s something raw and powerful about the delicate acoustic exploration of this track.
The Main Chance‘s album Lunagraphy is absolutely gorgeous. I’ve been listening to it for weeks, and it’s been hard to describe it other than that. Will Gosner’s singer/songwriter tunes have the unassuming confidence that marked the earliest Iron and Wine recordings: they’re beautiful, moving, and memorable with seemingly little effort. His low, comforting voice tumbles from his throat gracefully, and his gentle fingerpicking flows without tension or difficulty.
“The Thinnest Ice,” “In My Young Life” and “The End is Sweet and Near” calm me no matter what mood I’m in, which is a bold statement from over here. Gosner augments the staples of acoustic guitar and voice with occasional gentle arrangements, and he scores whenever he does. Lunagraphy is the sort of record that comes out of nowhere, bowls you over, and keeps you coming back for more. Gosner’s collection of songs here shows off an enormous talent that should take him places. I was astonished and thrilled by Lunagraphy; I think you will be too.
Arctic Tern‘s Hopeful Heart is a wonder to listen to as well. Songwriter Chris Campbell goes for the David Gray style of singer/songwriter tunes: writing deeply romantic tunes with delicate yet full arrangements. There’s also some Bon Iver drama, both in lyric and arrangement (but not too much).
Campbell’s trembling tenor leads the way, setting a mood of vulnerability for these songs. They’re heavily reliant on acoustic guitar and piano, but the ethereal background vocals of “Wax,” the delicate piano of “The Break & the Fall,” and the swooning violin of “In the Cold White” are all subtle touches that take these songs from good to wonderful. The five tunes of Hopeful Heart aim to be beautiful, and they all are; there’s not a slacker in the bunch. If you like romantic, beautiful songs from the likes of Sleeping at Last, Trent Dabbs, and similar artists, you’ll be in love with Arctic Tern. Hopeful Heart is one of the best EPs I’ve heard so far this year.
Having a gravelly voice gets you compared to Bruce Springsteen or Tom Waits, depending on the amount of roughness. It’s not necessarily a fair comparison all the time. Bill Scorzari‘s Just the Same relies on his gravelly voice to power his folk/country tunes, but he uses it differently than the aforementioned fellows.
Opener “Eight of Nine (Just the Same)” shows how he fits his vocal tone into acoustic-led arrangements that also feature mandolin, organ, and shakers. The vocal melody is catchy, showing off a surprising and stereotype-breaking range. His lyrics are of the first-person storytelling persuasion, spinning yarns of life and loss and drinking. The album is quite long, giving fans plenty to hear; about half of the 13 songs are over four minutes or more. If you’re into storytellin’ folk, you’ll be into Bill Scorzari.
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. [Editor’s note: this album is no longer available, but I suppose you can contact samegenesillustration at gmail dot com if you are very interested.]
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.”
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.