1. “Evergreen” – The Tomes. This moving track pits a clear-eyed vocal performance and swift fingerpicking against a swooning violin and delicate piano performance. The results are light and yet weighty; dramatic, yet intimate.
2. “Modesto” – Jon Bennett. This creaky speakin’ folk made my heart leap in recognition and desire, reminded me of Jeffrey Lewis and Bob Dylan. What else do I need to tell you to get you to listen to this?
3. “Unpuzzle Me” – Kate Copeland. There’s something ghostly and close about the mandolin and vocal pairing here that comforts me.
4. “No Mercy in the Night” – Natalie Lurie. Lurie’s harp is insistent, her voice is glorious, and the arrangement frames it all perfectly to sound like a female-fronted Barr Brothers.
5. “Heroin Strings” – Jack Conman. The perfectly-recorded drums here sound just north of empty cans in a big room, which gives this ominous tune a bit of an extra pop. Conman’s vocal performance is also particularly evocative and moody.
6. “The Big Surprise” – Trickster Guru. Elements of Carrie and Lowell run through this moody, death-pondering track.
7. “Long Way Back” – Terri Binion. From the jaunty old-school country vibes, you wouldn’t know that this is a track about a tragic death of a wife and the attempts to cope with that.
8. “Fear of Music” – Tobie Milford. Fans of Antony and the Johnsons will connect with Milford’s theatrical vocals, complex orchestral arrangements, and intensely dramatic moods.
9. “Up There Listening” – Jordan Prince. Back porch picking on a banjo and guitar with Prince’s sweet, charming voice making the tune even more endearing.
10. “Child of the ’70s” – Derek Clegg. Evocative of flower-power folk (Jackson Browne! James Taylor!) but subverts the script by being a song about growing older. It’s like Ben Folds’ “The Ascent of Stan,” but chiller and more accepting of the realities entailed therein.
11. “I Will Follow You” – RIVVRS. Ah, home sweet home: tom thump, “hey,” upbeat strum, romantic lyrics, catchy melodies. This one’s for everyone who just loves a good, honest, earnest folk-pop tune.
Chris Jamison‘s Lovecraft is linked with horror via its title and album art, but the music is more relaxing than terrifying. Jamison has melded West Coast breeziness, old-school country vibes, the stark emotionalism of For Emma Bon Iver, and the melodic arrangements of modern folk into an engaging, acoustic-led album.
Jamison used to live in Austin and now lives in Arizona, which helps explain his particular mix of influences in a causal or at least correlated way; there’s a tension between sonic structures evocative of wide-open space and melodic immediacy reminiscent of Fleet Foxes in tunes like “The Mockingbird Song” and “Blue Melody.” There’s more than a little bit of old-school country kicking around in the mix as well: “Roadside Bar” evokes saloons and Crosby, Stills & Young soft country, while lead single “Juniper Blues” leans heavily on an organ and a break-up narrative for a traditional country tune. The muted trumpet there is an nice, unexpected touch that points to Jamison’s desires to work within constraints but also push the edges a bit.
“What About Tomorrow” is the most immediately impressive song on the record, combining Spaghetti western dramatic guitars, horns evocative of the desert, a breezy vocal melody, and a complex arrangement. The result is a fascinating blend of easy-going vibes, serious undertones, and instrumental chops. It’s like Jackson Browne got lost in the desert, started seeing things, and seriously reconsidered some aspects of his life.
Jamison’s warm, soft voice floats above all the arrangements, from the icy “Pedernal” to the gospel-tinged warmth of the organ-heavy “Old 81.” The variety of sounds that Jamison corrals on the record don’t ever make his voice sound out of place: instead, Jamison seems to collect the wild edges of the tunes with his gentle delivery. Whether it’s the funky “Always” or the trad-country “Waves of the Wind,” the songs hold together with a warm core. So it may have the same name as a horror author, but Jamison’s vocal warmth and skillful instrumentation make Lovecraft a lovely experience. After hearing the beautiful strings of “Waves of the Wind,” you’d be forgiven for thinking maybe it should have been Craftlove.
APL‘s Ancient Tunes requires an operational definition of “ancient.” If “ancient” is first century hymns, we’re not exactly there. If it’s late ’70s/ early ’80s radio, then this album is titled perfectly. Ancient Sounds sounds as if Adam Lindquist (who is APL) ate a radio set to an “oldies” station and then spit out thirteen tunes in response to the indigestion.
Not to suggest that these are repulsive or heartburn-inducing, as they’re not. But there is a direct line between the iconic sounds of Queen/The Who/Beach Boys/Elton John/Leonard Cohen and APL. These songs would have no basis if not for those forebears. But this is no pastiche. Lindquist filters the sounds through a distinctly modern tonal idiom: the angular, manic snarkiness of Say Anything-style punk. It’s present predominantly in the vocals, but it sneaks into the music a bit as well.
Add up all those pieces in your head and try to imagine it. Difficult, right? Well, it’s a bit challenging for Lindquist to synthesize into a cohesive whole, too. He jerks back and forth between styles, almost as if he were changing the dial on a radio. “Blistered Fingers” features blistering organ playing reminescent of ’70s rock; the tune butts up against “An Ancient Tune (How to Rip Off Leonard Cohen With The Best of Them),” which is a glorious acoustic musing on the meaning of “Hallelujah” before it gets bored and goes Joe Walsh pop (it’s as weird as it sounds). Then it goes on for two and half more minutes. It’s a good song, but it’s baffling. It follows zero rules, conventions or considerations. It just is.
That’s the way many of the tunes here are. They’re packed full of good ideas that come up unexpectedly; so unexpectedly, in fact, that they jarred me. I’m all for stops and starts (I knew what math rock was before I knew pop radio existed), but this is just a headscratcher. And at 48 minutes, there is more than enough time for Lindquist to unspool his singular vision (and to keep you puzzled).
There are highlights, though. “Reunion Day” makes the most of Lindquist’s love of odd chord structures and unique instrumentation (accordion/shaker/bgvs, for one section) and pours it into a modern pop idiom. Closer “Tell Me, Are You Pulling Away?” appropriates a Jackson Browne/James Taylor acoustic vibe to ground the gutwrenching vocal/lyrical finale.
The other songs, as I have noted, are a veritable who’s who of musical styles from the late seventies and early eighties, as filtered through a modern lens. Queen’s exuberant, jam-packed pop features prominently at least by comparison, and probably as inspiration.
I would love to hear more from APL. Lindquist seems like the sort who has ambitions so massive that it’s going to take a while before he can wrangle those impulses into their best form. Ancient Tunes is a good release, but it’s not the best he can do. Get in on the ground floor and take the elevator up with his subsequent releases.
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.