Folk music can sound like any season: spring (The Tallest Man on Earth), summer (Josh Ritter), fall (The Head and the Heart), and winter (Bon Iver). Matthew Oomen is from Norway, and his acoustic-led singer/songwriter tunes definitely take inspiration from the arctic surroundings and lean into the wintry side of things. In contrast to Bon Iver’s impressionistic emoting, the strengths of Oomen’s Where the Valley Is Long lie in spacious arrangements, distinct rhythms, meticulous performances, and crisp production.
“Master’s Row” opens the album with precise, separated acoustic guitar and banjo fingerpicking, stating very quickly what sort of album this will be. Oomen comes in with gentle whispered/sung tenor vocals, then brings in a swooping cello. The overall effect is a romantic, wintry vibe: the space in the arrangements gives room for listeners to breathe, and the gentle mood has wistful, amorous overtones. The song would fit perfectly in a day where you cuddled up with your lover next to a warm fire as snow falls.
The rest of the songs doen’t stray far from that mood, creating a warm, open, resonant album. “Called to Straw” is one of the slowest on the record, leisurely creating a beautiful atmosphere with the banjo, guitar, and dual-gender vocals. “Camp Hill” is an instrumental track that excellently displays the melodic gift that Oomen has. Some may find that the dominant fingerpicking style can result in some difficulty of differentiation between the tunes, but the specific mood of the album is so consistent that it’s just as good to me as a whole unit as in individual bits. Where the Valley is Long is a beautiful, enchanting, comforting album of pristine singer/songwriter folk. Fans of Young Readers, The Tallest Man on Earth, and Joshua Radin’s early work will find much to love here.
Jesse Marchant‘s self-titled record is far more masterful than a debut would usually be, because Marchant has released several albums under the JBM moniker. (I’m particularly fond of Not Even In July.) Marchant’s first offering under his real name brings his powerful brand of serious music to great results at two different poles. When I first reviewed Marchant’s live show earlier this year, I compared him to a mix of Gregory Alan Isakov and Jason Molina. Here he largely separates those influences, splitting his wistful/romantic and churning/tension-laden elements into different tunes.
I was originally attracted to Marchant’s music for his quiet tunes, but his noisier offerings are just as compelling here. The muscly “In the Sand/Amelia” relies on a seriously fuzzed-out guitar riff and heavy bass tones to create an emotional, powerful tune. He caps the song with a brief yet impressive bit of squalling guitar solo. “All Your Promise” has a bit of Keane-style dramatic flair to its intro, leaning on cinematic, back-alley tenion before settling into a quieter, synth-laden verse. “Adrift” starts off with a big pad synth and a serious drumkit groove; it doesn’t exactly resolve into a rock tune, but it’s pretty close.
But even “In the Sand/Amelia” has an abrupt return to quietness in its middle section. Marchant knows how to wring emotion out of a repetitive guitar riff, a mournful vocal line, and time, and that hasn’t changed here. Opener “Words Underlined” shows him in full form, building a six-minute experience out of a uncomplicated, gently strummed electric guitar. He’s still in Jason Molina territory there. He does turn his attention to less brooding tunes, like the upbeat “The Whip”–not nearing power-pop by any means, but Isakov fans will know the vibe intuitively. “Stay on Your Knees” has a bit more of a rock feel, but the swift fingerpicking pulls it from his Songs:Ohia pole closer to the Isakov one. But even within the song there are dalliances: synths appear, a piano section pops up, etc.
Marchant is building his own style here, and it’s working really well: he’s identifiable with other musicians but not copying them. Jesse Marchant is a satisfying album that should make fans of those not in the know and please those who have followed him as JBM. If you’re into musicians like Leif Vollebekk, Isakov, Molina or Bowerbirds, you’ll find a kindred spirit here.
My favorite genres are acoustic folk, indie-pop, and indie-pop-rock, so it makes perfect sense that a North Elementary / Jesse Marchant / Bishop Allen show was my favorite I’ve been to all summer. The three bands converged on Carrboro’s Local 506 for a Sunday night show that didn’t disappoint those who stayed up late the night before the local university started back to school.
I caught about half of the set from local indie-pop-rockers’ North Elementary. I would have caught more of it, but I never expect any venue to start on time. (Props to Local 506 for starting at 9 when the poster said 9.) Their enthusiastic, noisy, occasionally jubilant rock was fun to hear; closer “Hi-Lo” was especially smile-inducing. The guitars were noisy but not overly heavy; there’s a lot of levity in their tunes. As a bassist, I particularly enjoyed the great low end lines laid down by Jimmy Thompson.
After knocking some of the rust off my concert-lacking ear drums with North Elementary, Jesse Marchant, also known as JBM, soothed my ears. Marchant’s calm, relaxing solo set was an astonishing success, especially considering that he was sandwiched between two loud bands. (He’s on tour with Bishop Allen right now, which I think is cool: I’m a big fan of cross-genre tours.) Marchant’s songs feature the delicate intimacy of Gregory Allen Isakov’s work, but also have a deep grasp of space and mood that reminds me of Jason Molina’s work. Those two songwriters are some of my favorite in my 13-year music-reviewing career; Marchant’s sound was on par with theirs.
His melodic skill, songwriting maturity, and instrumental dexterity are all sky high. Some quiet bands don’t know how to keep attention; Marchant kept me riveted to everything that he played. His new album comes out soon, and I’m very excited for it: his set was one of the most enjoyable I’ve seen all year. If you like quiet, emotional songwriters that can keep you hanging on every note, you need to know JBM (the name his old work is under)/ Jesse Marchant (which the new album will be under).
You’d think it would be hard to top that sort of set, but Bishop Allen is a special band to me. I don’t often indulge in personal backstory for reviews, but BA requires it. Seven years ago, I was an undergraduate at the University of Oklahoma, doing my best to try to figure out my place in the world. I had a best friend, a mentor, a boatload of acquaintances, and a never-ending stream of girls I liked but never managed to date. My best friend was in pretty much the same boat. In the midst of this very normal college experience, he and I went to Guestroom Records in Norman, Oklahoma to get something to listen to. We didn’t have anything in mind.
After scouting through the store, I found Bishop Allen’s The Broken String. I know I liked the cover; this may have been the only reason I bought the album. (Maybe Paste had put Bishop Allen in a sampler; RIP, Paste printed edition.) We bought it, put it in my SUV, and started driving around the city to listen to it. It was amazing. (It is still amazing.) We did this several more times throughout that year, chasing the ennui away with “The News From Your Bed” and “Like Castanets.” It is a major touchstone in my life.
We were obsessive liner notes readers–me because of The Mountain Goats. We discovered during our first listen to the album that The Broken String had been recorded in Norman, OK–the very town we were living in. This odd coincidence was enough to cement my already burgeoning fanboyship into a full-blown crush on the album. I enjoy the rest of the Bishop Allen catalog (especially the tune titled “Oklahoma,” for obvious reasons), but The Broken String will always be where it’s at for me.
Fast forward to now: Bishop Allen is back with a new album after five years off. Lights Out is a real fun record that I’ll be reviewing soon. Even though I couldn’t get a review done by the time the show rolled around, I wanted to go hear them perform live. Maybe they’d play one or two Broken String songs. I was thrilled by the end of the set: they played almost half the record (5 of 12 songs). So everything you read from this point on is going to be colored by the fact that I heard almost half of one of the more important albums in my life played. They could have played in pitch darkness and I would have been thrilled.
It was a thrill for hardcore fans of Bishop Allen, but I think it would have been a great time for new fans too. BA’s lyrics are often wry and funny, which was reflected in vocalist/guitarist/songwriter Justin Rice’s stage banter. The band ripped through traditionally quieter tunes with extra noise and energy, which made “Rain” in particular into a mini-anthem. With those slight updates to the older material, their new songs fit pretty seamlessly into their live show. The highlight of their new material was the funky, dance-oriented “Breadcrumbs,” which was a lot of fun to dance along to. I and several others were getting into it, dancing-wise. It was a blast–chipper music, fun stage banter, dancing, and singing along to my favorite songs. How can you ask for more?
Bishop Allen’s Lights Out is out now, while Jesse Marchant’s self-titled new album comes out September 9. North Elementary’s Honcho Poncho was released earlier this year.
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.