I’ve been covering More than Skies for a while, because their blend of folk, indie-rock, and emo/punk is a unique one. On their self-titled double album, Adam Tomlinson’s brainchild sprawls out in all directions, delivering a powerful sound that encompasses all three of its genres on a spectrum. The band is adept at switching between the three within the same song, often staging them back to back for maximum effect. Their adherence to any particular sound is only so great as is called for by the tune: The emotions powering these tracks are what dictate how loud or quiet they should be. This allows center stage to be taken by swooping cellos, soaring violins, crunchy electric guitar riffs, gentle finger-picked acoustic lines, and Tomlinson’s creaky voice at different points throughout the album.
Tomlinson’s voice is an important point here: his nasal vocal tones aren’t hidden in any way, shape, or form. People who like the vocals (which could be compared to those of MeWithoutYou’s Aaron Weiss, Neutral Milk Hotel’s Jeff Mangum, and early John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats) will have a great shot at loving the record; people who aren’t down with atypical vocal styles might struggle a bit. A second make-or-break point is its titanic length: it’s a full 24 songs, and they aren’t short tunes. This album runs almost 100 minutes. Settle in, friends.
However, if you’re into it, you’ll be very into the total scope of the album: wild, moody, frantic, despondent, and everything in between. Tunes like 8-minute closer “New Year’s Retribution” show off the impressive range of emotion that More than Skies is capable of, moving from gentle folk to string-accompanied indie-rock, then to unaccompanied acoustic guitar, before ramping back up in a punk/emo style (but with soaring strings on top of it). It’s an uncompromising, adventurous song that encompasses this spirit of this uniquely realized release. More than Skies drops March 24.
I’ve got a bunch of folk albums coming down the review pipe this week, so I’m naming them all Folk Thousand, because Guided By Voices was great at naming things.
“Listenable” and “enjoyable” sound like euphemisms for “I couldn’t think of anything else to say,” but Rogue Band of Youth‘s self-titled debut LP is immensely listenable and enjoyable. The North Carolina folk outfit have crafted an intimate, relaxed, casual-sounding collection of songs that fall somewhere between Fleet Foxes and Grizzly Bear.
Opener “Fair Shake” sets the stage of the album with tidy fingerpicking on top of a gentle strum before launching into three-part vocal harmonies. The band sounds completely comfortable here and elsewhere: “Smoke Screens” has an easy flow, while “Blind” has a propulsive energy reminiscent of Blind Pilot. The songs don’t stray from modern folk as a sound, but their songwriting is varied and interesting within those bounds, from country-inflected rhythms (“Daedalus”) to new-school Iron and Wine angst (“The West in My Eyes”). If you’re a fan of modern folk with pastoral vibes and enough angles to keep things interesting, Rogue Band of Youth should be on your to-hear list. You’ll enjoy it immensely.
Cancellieri’s Welcome to Mount Pleasant takes a more modern tack on new-folk, leaning toward the warm, rolling arrangements of Iron & Wine’s recent work. The opener sets the stage for this album as well, as “Oregon” includes some tender bass work; distant, lightly distorted guitar; double-speed drums pushing the tempo; and a beautiful crescendo to the end that turns into a huge wash of sounds. These are beautiful tunes.
These compositions sound more like songs than they do folk songs; the arrangement of these tunes is indelibly important, and if you covered them with another band they might not hold the charm they have now. This not just true of songs like “Oregon,” highlight “Lake Jocassee,” and the Mangum-by-way-of-Win-Butler awe of “Mount Pleasant.” It’s true of stripped-down tune like standout “Hold On Hurricane,” whose rapid fingerpicking meshes perfectly with singer/songwriter Ryan Hutchens’ fragile yet clear voice.
If there’s a single thing to point to in Welcome to Mount Pleasant that turns these arrangements from standard fare to the excellent collection they are, it’s the drums. The percussion throughout these tunes provides a spark that is often under-utilized in a post-Mumford world where straight quarters on the kick and snare are seemingly all that you need. The drum work here is complex and difficult, yet remains in the background, not stealing the show. It’s the little things that make the difference, and here it’s the drums.
If you’re into warm, enchanting, upbeat folk/indie tunes, you should definitely check out Cancellieri’s Welcome to Mount Pleasant. You’ll be pleasantly surprised, and quite possibly cheered, by the subtle beauty throughout.
I rode a fixed-gear bike for about two weeks as a result of an uninformed impulse purchase. (“Frame and chain for ten bucks? IN!”) After the initial shock and subsequent few days of learning curve, I deeply enjoyed the soothing rhythm of constant but leisurely motion. The pleasant experience ended in defeat and bike modification when I realized that Auburn is literally the hilliest place I’ve ever seen.
I was reminded of my fixie weeks when listening to Beirut‘s The Rip Tide. I’ve respected Zach Condon as a unique and important voice in indie rock since his debut album, but I haven’t spent much time listening recreationally to his music. The force with which he projected his signature tenor warble on the world turned me off, despite my affection for his horn/string/piano/auxiliary instrument arrangements.
That’s not a problem here, as Condon tones everything back (including his voice!) for a short but fully-realized album. In nine tunes and about 33 minutes, Condon does more to engender my affection than he has in all his previous work combined: each tune sparkles, but the gentle “East Harlem,” Sufjan-esque “Santa Fe,” sleepy “The Peacock” and swaying “Payne’s Bay” command my attention.
“Sway” is a good word for the whole collection, as the pieces seem to share a subtle rhythmic consistency. That’s what brought me to the bike: the tunes unspool at a speed faster than walking but slower than driving. It’s constant leisurely motion, otherwise known as the perfect soundtrack for lazy (bike) commutes home.
The mood is also consistent. Where Condon has been forceful or energetic in the past, he’s relaxed now. He never goes for the throat with any arrangement or vocal line, and the album is all the better for it. There’s enough variation in his horn-heavy orchestrations to distinguish between each song, but not so much as to strip the flow. You can still tell it’s Condon (no worries there, you’ll always know when it’s him singing), but I appreciate that it’s an older, calmer version.
The Rip Tide surprised me. I always give Beirut a chance, but this time Condon delivered on as much of his initial immense promise as can be expected. (So he’s not the next Jeff Mangum. And you are?) I have a feeling this will be in my year-end top ten, and that’s a big compliment, considering what made it into the half-year top list. But yes, The Rip Tide is that good. Go get it.
My relationship with Shorthand Phonetics is somewhat complicated. That’s all right, though; almost all of Shorthand Phonetics’ lo-fi rock’n’roll proclaims the ins and outs of complicated relationships (or lack thereof).
See, Shorthand Phonetics always has and probably will always have an aesthetic that challenges listeners. Ababil Ashari, mastermind of Shorthand Phonetics, writes and plays with Jeff Mangum-esque disregard for other people’s conventions of what is good and not good. Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is Jeff Mangum’s masterpiece because it is a total, singular vision that no one else could possibly have put together. While Ashari’s works haven’t reached that level of mastery yet, each release of hyper-distorted, giddy, super-emotional, crazy-long-titled pop and rock’n’roll songs comes closer and closer to reaching perfect idiomatic success (perfect idiomatic success: in which it doesn’t really matter what everyone else is doing, because what the band is doing is so awesome. See also: The Format’s Dog Problems).
Errors in Calculating Odds, Errors in Calculating Value is by far the most unique release that Shorthand Phonetics has revealed yet. From songs whose full titles are 50 words long to ten-minute songs to Firefly and anime references, this album is a distinct vision from Ababil Ashari’s mind. The whole low-to-mid-fi thing is over an hour long, as no song drops below four minutes in length. Several run for more than six minutes.
The length is the ultimate problem with Errors. It’s not the length of any particular track that does it in, but this much Shorthand Phonetics is hard to take in one sitting. The songwriting is consistently good, although a bit abrasively recorded. It’s the high, occasionally grating vocals that get in the way. For a few songs, the unique and exciting epic power-pop covers the problem. But tracks like “To the Girl I Think Might be Similar to the Girl Flight of the Conchords Were Thinking About When They Were Writing “The Most Beautiful Girl (In the Room)”” just have grating, screechy vocal efforts that cannot be redeemed. It’s just too much to ask of listeners.
That being said, there are moments here that shine when pulled from the hour-plus context. “Fear and Loathing in Jikyoku-to” is one of the best songs that I’ve heard by SP (although I have by no means heard them all, as SP is quite prolific). Its riff and melodies are engaging, resulting in head-bobbing and much approval. That’s the primary thing that’s different about Errors: there’s a lot more headbobbing than rocking out. And that’s just fine, as tunes like “The Hardest Achievement” and “Fear and Loathing…” are excellent. The melodic solo intro to “Natalies for Glasses IV…” (which is the song with the fifty-word title that I’m not reproducing here) also is excellent, except for the untuned bass guitar in the back guitar (remember kids: lo-fi doesn’t have to mean sloppy).
To sum up this review: Ababil Ashari of Shorthand Phonetics is an incredibly talented pop songwriter recording in a low-fi manner with a voice that’s hard to take in large doses. In 1998, John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats was an incredibly talented pop songwriter recording in a low-fi manner with a voice that was hard to take in large doses. Then he grew up some and became amazing. Not saying that’s the road that Shorthand Phonetics is going to take, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the next ten years produce some great stuff from Shorthand Phonetics. If you have a high tolerance for unusual vocals, then Errors is in your department. If you don’t, then tune in to tomorrow’s review, in which you will receive a treat.
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.