It’s Christmastime! And if you’re over Sufjan’s Christmas songs (but how could you be??), there are definitely some new options to love this yuletide.
I love Christmas almost as much as I love puns, so Candy Cigarette’s “A Whale’s Christmas in Childress, TX” is endeared to me in multiple ways. (The pun is a reversal of the terms in Dylan Thomas’ “A Child’s Christmas in Wales.”) It’s a chipper acoustic-led indie-pop tune that has a heaping helping of Christmas cheer poured into it (and sleigh bells! always sleigh bells!). The unique direction of the lyrics make it even more fun. Awesome.
SHEL goes for a light-touch approach on “Sleigh Ride,” not deviating too far from the classic approach (because what would it be without sleigh bells?). That makes the warm lead vocals the star here.
IC fave Latifah Phillips (of Moda Spira and Page CXVI) has teamed up with Aaron Strumpel to create an album of vintage-sounding Christmas tunes called Heck Ya the Halls (awesome title, y’all). It’s surprisingly non-kitschy: plenty of jazzy trumpet, staccato piano, and smooth vibes to go around.
Jenny & Tyler, another IC fave, just dropped a Christmas album. Their recent folk-pop/indie-rock output has been pretty magnificent, so I expect this release to be no different.
Andrew Belle’s offering for this holiday season is a dense, moody electro-pop outing called “Back for Christmas” that may not end up sung around the yule log but has a lot of staying power. If you hear me kickin’ this one in July, don’t be surprised. Really tight work here.
Before we get to the surreal video clips, here’s an absolutely surreal performance. I will never tire of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” and Jenny & Tyler (and guests!) do an incredible rendition right here. Jenny & Tyler is one of the most on-fire acts I know of right now.
A lot of artists want to make surreal music videos, but Elliphant’s latest clip is one of the few that succeeds. The visuals are unsettling without being graphic, perfectly fitting the tense electro-pop of “Revolusion.”
Grant Valdes’ “Lord, Don’t Take the Sun” clip gives a herky-jerky, also-surreal take on building a fire. I know it sounds pedestrian, but it’s compelling.
& Yet gives a strong studio performance of a forlorn chamber-pop tune as part of the Fastback Sessions. It’s not surreal, really, but I wanted to include it anyway. It’s my blog, I do what I want.
If you’ve got 11 minutes for three freak-folk songs from Matthew Squires and The Learning Disorders, then you should check out this video. Squires and a cellist perform amidst a half-finished boutique, complete with mannequins. Suitable space for Squires’ fractured, surreal visions.
Are you tired of married duos singing folk-pop? ME NEITHER. The latest guy/girl duo in my inbox is Davy and Amelia, to go along with Jenny & Tyler, The Gray Havens, Destroy Nate Allen!, Venna, The Weepies, the Civil Wars, et al. Davy and Amelia’s Norah June EP leans more toward the stomping, clapping, upbeat party-folk of The Lumineers and especially Twin Forks instead of the quiet, introspective tunes of The Weepies. They also celebrate giddy romance and young married life, which sets them apart from sadder couples.
“The Summer,” “Mountain Movers” and “Norah June” (the name of their baby!) all have rousing, celebratory arrangements; “The Summer” and “Norah June” are upbeat right from the word go, while “Mountain Movers” builds to its shouted-group-vocals conclusion. “Cause Daddy’s only 22, Momma’s 21/some people say we got married young/you are the treasure of our unbreakable love/hey!” goes the chorus of “Norah June,” which means not only are they giddily in love with each other, they’re singing songs to their baby. I think that’s absolutely adorable, but I think that might send the more cynical among us running for the exits.
The songs themselves are great, full of strong instrumental and vocal melodies. The songs are predominantly based in acoustic guitar, although “Mountain Movers” shows off their elegant, cinematic piano skills nicely. If you’re not into the genre, then these four tunes won’t be exciting to you. But if you’re a fan of pop skills applied to romantic lyrics and folky arrangements, you’ll love Davy and Amelia. I look forward to hearing more about this duo in the upcoming year. Just in case you needed proof of how cute this duo is, here’s their band photo:
Genre names exist to quickly allow someone to identify whether they’ll be interested in a band. But the baggage they carry is conflicted: saying “acoustic pop” can clue in fans of John Mayer and Jenny & Tyler—and there’s a chasm between the two artists’ sounds. There’s an ocean between their ideologies, too, and that complicates things. Then comes the imported freight: “Acoustic pop” has become synonymous with the radio-created “genre” of Adult Contemporary (Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, James Blunt, Sara Bareilles). All of these things can be classified as acoustic pop.
Folk is even worse. Folk music, according to Ronald D. Cohen in Folk Music: The Basics, is “old songs, with no known composers.” However, American folk music has a distinct style and sound, as compiled by the Lomaxes. Indie-kids adopted this history through appropriation, and we ended up in a situation where “American folk” is immediately associated with Mumford & Sons and Fleet Foxes (one of whom is from England, and the which chose a name because it sounded English). And they don’t play folk covers, anyway.
So please bear with me; it’s genuinely difficult to explain what Bowerbirds‘ The Clearing sounds like. Our en vogue musical terms offer me little to explain how their incredibly moving music actually sounds. There’s chamber-pop, but this isn’t sterilized like Andrew Bird. There’s orchestral-folk, but this isn’t characterized by its arrangements—even if they do make beautiful use of strings on opener and single “Tuck the Darkness In.” There’s singer/songwriter, but the Bowerbirds’ sound is made of two equal partners and a full instrumental range; this is a true collaborative effort. But enough hedging and complaining about what it is not. I’ve shot around the subject enough that perhaps you’ll be able to put together a composite after this statement:
The Clearing is a wide, sweeping, gorgeous palette that externalizes intimate, difficult emotions through atypical song structures and beautiful melodies.
The main instruments are piano and guitar, but distorted synths provide the highlight of “In the Yard” and organ is the critical sound in “This Year.” “Overcome With Light” is the only song that even sounds remotely close to something that could be canonized and in 100 years be a song without author; its glorious, stately majesty becomes the core of the album, because it encapsulates the emotion that the album is trying to build out. The world is a difficult place, full of tension and struggle; but even though that, there is beauty, and wonder, and worth.
The divide between high art and low art is a complex question that deserves its own post, but this piece resonated with me on one point that the author thinks defines “high art” (and I think defines “good art,” which are not the same): “Complexity of the responses to the works’ emotions, which sometimes have no name.” Saying that The Clearing is a beautiful orchestral-folk album is not only potentially confusing, it’s selling the album short in numerous ways. There’s no easy handle for what this music sounds like to me nor what it conjures up in me, and that’s good. There’s a unique vision here that transcends my pre-formatted ideas to confine it, and that’s what the best art forces me to do: I have to hear and think in different ways, albeit slight, to process and inhabit the piece. (And even slight change is significant in our era of filtering out what we dislike by removing it from our social feeds.)
The Clearing is immediately accessible in some ways: “Tuck the Darkness In” is deeply affecting from the first listen. The rest of the album unfolds its joys in multiple listens; I would recommend that you stick around for those as well.