My favorite underutilized instrument is the harmonium, a small box that produces a gloriously warm, organ-like sound but without the sharpness. I also have loved the banjo for many years. So when Jordan O’Jordan came my way with Through Tough Thoughts boasting nothing but harmonium, banjo, and vocals, I knew I was in for a treat. Through Tough Thoughts is a warm, friendly, accessible folk album that should be in the catalog of any folk-lover.
O’Jordan’s voice would in a previous era be called “twee”: a soft, high-pitched voice full of childlike wonder that meshes beautifully with the arrangement instead of trampling it. And by arrangement, I do mean that only harmonium and banjo appear on this album: there is nothing else. (“Miller’s Pond” does bring in some background vocals for some diversity, but other than that…) However, they are used in a variety of ways, and the album never get boring: there’s the roadtrip song (“A Lonely Road”), a harmonium ballad (“Patience is Gruesome”), a drone-y chant (“O! Benvolio!”), a quirky 22-second song (“Digital Postcard #5”), a protest song (“Polar Thoughts”), and an introspective banjo-led song (“Advice from Andre”), among others. The ability of O’Jordan to keep an album of limited instrumentation diverse and interesting is a testament to his songwriting prowess: he can write in a lot of different styles, yet still keep the album feeling cohesive.
Through Tough Thoughts is a lovely, unassuming album. The excellent songwriting is compelling without being complicated and beautiful without trying too hard. It feels like a natural outpouring of songwriting from a singer/songwriter with a vast store of skills to draw on. It’s a rewarding, remarkable record. Highly recommended.
1. “The Devil Bird” – Albert af Ekenstam. An unhurried, expansive acoustic-led song reminiscent of Leif Vollebekk or Gregory Alan Isakov’s work.
2. “The Beast That Rolls Within” – Dietrich Strause. A troubadour’s confident vocals, abstract lyrics, and gently rolling guitar make Strause an artist to watch in the vein of Joe Pug and Josh Ritter. This song is excellent.
3. “I Love Immigration” – This Frontier Needs Heroes. Refocuses the talk of immigration by pointing out that unless you’re a Native American, literally everyone in this country is the relative of an immigrant. As Brad Lauretti and I are both descended from Italian immigrants, I felt a special resonance with this charming, shuffling, upbeat acoustic pop tune with a deeply important message.
4. “Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin” – The Chairman Dances. The finely detailed lyrics of the Mountain Goats paired with indie-pop that has a wider range, from dreamier at one end to more formal and Beatles-esque at the other. But there’s still a great “hey!” thrown in. Always a good yawp, you know. Highly recommended.
5. “A Lonely Road” – Jordan O’Jordan. It’s hard to make rattling banjo chords sound delicate, but O’Jordan’s oh-so-sweet voice tempers the rough edges and creates a warm, immersive song. (Toss-up on the “ahs” section: some people are going to think it’s lovely, and some are going to wonder what just happened. Just so you know.)
6. “Fingers Crossed” – The Marrieds. Bright, clear, female-led acoustic-pop with a little more Americana than the Weepies but not as much as the Civil Wars. It’s remarkably pretty, especially when the strings come in. You could dance to this at a wedding.
7. “Suite pour Justin” – Yves Lambert Trio. Traditional Quebecois folk music includes accordion, fiddle, guitar and percussion, in case you (like me) didn’t know. It sounds sort of like a mix of bluegrass and Zydeco, which is incredibly rad. The rest of the album includes vocals in French; this one’s instrumental. The musical quality is elite, so if you’re an adventurous listener I would highly recommend checking the whole album out.
8. “Generation, Love” – Jon Reynolds. Doo-wop, Beach Boys harmonies, and old-school rock’n’roll vibes come together to be pleasantly, nostalgically retro, while yearning for love instead of hate (a very modern concern).
9. “How Quickly Your Heart Mends” – Courtney Marie Andrews. This woman has the female version of Jason Isbell’s voice. I kid you not: the stress on certain syllables, the swoops in volume, the vocal strain on the fronts of lines…it’s all there. It’s awesome. The songwriting is a great trad-country vibe, but whoa. That voice. Check this out.
10. “Brink of Love (ft. Ladysmith Black Mambazo)” – Vian Izak. While we’re on the topic of love, why not indulge in a adult alternative acoustic tune that includes a hugely famous African choir? (You may know them from Graceland, only one the best albums of all time.)
11. “The Other Side” – VACAY. A romantic folk-pop song with some solid falsetto; a little less Lumineers and a little more adult alternative.
12. “the fall” – Andrea Silva. Somewhere between haunting and lilting, Silva’s vocal performance is an enigmatic, engaging figure over an acoustic guitar.
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.