Samuel Alty‘s Hammering Nails into the Sky is a folk/singer-songwriter album that draws heavily off a standard flamenco guitar idea: the bass notes play a straight rhythm while the treble plays a speedy, syncopated rhythm over it. Most of the tracks here play off some variation of that theme, creating a unique, energetic feel to the record.
“Be Brave” is the most identifiably flamenco of the tunes: the rhythms are familiar, the tune’s in a major key, and the whole thing makes me want to sway and dance cheerfully. “Guiding Hands” is a minor-key, even ominous flamenco-inspired piece that retains the treble/bass relationship. That relationship diversifies in “Life It Is for Living,” where the stand-up bass plays the ostinato notes and Alty uses the whole rattling guitar as the counterpoint; it’s inverted in “Revolution,” where the treble is the repeated and the bass and vocals go wild. “Travelling Song” is a complicated instrumental ballad where both the bass and the treble are moving around. Alty does an impressive job turning one overacrching idea into a wide array of compelling song structures.
There are a few tunes where Alty breaks from his theme. “Sanction” is a near 7-minute singer/songwriter tune that focuses heavily on his baritone range instead of his guitar work. It’s a spacious, sparse work, not unlike Bonnie Prince Billy in places. “Glory” is even more focused on Alty’s voice, as he multitracks himself singing and beatboxing for a song that’s completely a capella. It has a trip-hop vibe to it, which is a break in the mostly-speedy tempos of the record.
Hammering Nails into the Sky is a fun, intriguing, intricate record that is probably unlike what you’re listening to right now, unless you’re listening to José González or going flamenco dancing. It has charms on first blush and rewards multiple listens. If you’re looking to expanding your musical horizons today, definitely check out Hammering Nails into the Sky.
So I’m getting toward the end of my review year, and there’s still a few things in queue. That’s right. It’s time for a REVIEW BLITZ.
Cavepainters – For the Sea. Cavepainters subscribe to the vision of Americana that sees rock’n’roll and singer/songwriter on one long spectrum, with folk, country, jazz, and everything else just somewhere between the two poles. This vision, espoused by bands like The Low Anthem, produces a necessarily varied album that hangs together by the overall spirit of the thing. “Minnesota Blues” is a blues/rag thing, “Falling Leaves” has a Neil Young-esque vibe, and standout “This Crow Flies Alone” cops an Old Crow Medicine Show sing-along style. On the quieter side, “We All Need” and “Kid Gloves” are deeply moving singer/songwriter ballads heavy on atmosphere. “Kid Gloves” is powerful lyrically as well. Cavepainters’ Americana is passionate, literate, and knowledgeable in the genres it appropriates. If you love The Low Anthem as deeply as I do, you will find a new band to love in Cavepainters.
Destroy Nate Allen – Glow in the Dark. DNA is a rowdy folk-punk duo that’s been kicking it for a while, and GITD is a vinyl retrospective of crowd favorites. You’ll get the hilarious “My Parents Managed Apartments,” the uniquely earnest and tender “Loving You,” and a bunch more. If you’re into fast, brash, unkempt songs that you can yell along to in a basement with 30 of your new best friends, this should be your jam. If you doubt that assessment, I direct you to “Jesus, Keep Us Safe From the Cops,” which is the duo and a group of men stomping, clapping, and hollering the titular phrase with increasing frenzy. And, if you’ve gone completely and exclusively banjo, the truly beautiful title track will help you out.
Laura and Greg – Songs EP. It’s an increasingly common tale: out of the ashes of short-lived pop-rock-punk tunesmiths Automotive High School comes a guy/girl folk duo. Laura and Greg lean toward the Jose Gonzalez school of guitar-playing, with gentle yet complex fingerpicking providing the backdrop to the vocals. The titular singers share the mic, giving this duo a bit of an edge on duos that have one primary singer. Opener “Forever For Sure” expands from a little acoustic guitar line into a wide-open indie-pop arrangement, setting a great precedent for their sound. “Same World” is a cheery tune in the vein of the Weepies, while “with nothing” shows off their great skill with melody and rhythm. This 3-song tease shows some incredible songs, and I’m thoroughly excited to see what Laura and Greg cook up next. If you’re into chill guy/girl folk-pop duos, here’s another notable for your (probable) arsenal of them.
MTNS – Salvage EP. Four songs (and a remix) of chill, smooth electronic pop that draws equally from R&B and indie-pop for inspiration. If you like atmospheric tracks that are simultaneously claustrophobic and expansive, hit up “Lost Track of Time”; if you like sexy slow jams, hit up “Lost Track of Time (M-Phazes Remix).” They go most indie on the acoustic guitar-driven “Crave,” while “Fears” is electro goodness. For fans of James Blake, et al.
I love folk music. I’ll admit that folk singers traditionally don’t have the most stellar voices, but they can often do things with acoustic guitars that simply blow my mind. Ty Maxon fits both of those categories. No one’s going to be hailing him as the next Frank Sinatra, but his guitar chops and songwriting skills vault him high above any potshots that can be taken at his voice.
Maxon sets up shop by playing “New Magic.” This is a brilliant move; it’s one of the best tracks on the album. It’s an acoustic-only song, as all the songs on this album are. The intricate fingerpicking makes it sound like he has several extra hands creating the song. “New Magic” makes a single guitar sound like an orchestra, complete with rhythmic and melodic ornamentation. In addition to pure guitar skill, he deftly moves the song through several sections without ever really giving in to verse/chorus/verse. The song unfolds unexpectedly but pleasantly; there are no sudden jerks or uncomfortable moves. The whole thing flows. The song gave me goosebumps the first time I heard it.
As he moves into the rest of the album, he displays that the best parts of “New Magic” were not anomalies. It’s the way he rolls. The intricate fingerpicking, high-tenor warble, clever songwriting and smooth presentation continue throughout the album. “Free (From Time to Time)” has a more traditional chord structure, but even that is subject to fingerpicking interludes. It’s rare that he uses full chords, and even rarer that he uses traditional verse/chorus/verse stucture. In short, there’s nothing derivative here; even the most basic of the time-tested folk ideas (you know, the ones that anyone can get away with in the name of folk tradition) have been spun, twisted, and re-worked.
The album unfolds its many joys much too quickly, depositing the listener at “So They Say” in just under a half-hour. But it’s at “So They Say” that Maxon releases the best song in the collection. He has learned the art of song order: hook ’em early and leave ’em wanting more. “So They Say” has the best vocal melody in the collection, as it is the only one which could be counted as “catchy.” The song is swift; the fingerpicking is incredible. It is the piece de resistance on the album. And, in a move that I just couldn’t believe, the song fades out as opposed to ending. Talk about memorable exits.
The lyrics aren’t exactly memorable, and that could be improved. Similarly, the vocal lines are not always engaging. Sometimes they even detract from the guitar playing. But, as his songs have many parts, this ill is never around long. That’s part of his clever genius.
This folk album is one of the best I’ve heard all year. Fans of Jose Gonzalez, Nick Drake, and/or Bob Dylan will find much to admire and enjoy here. Astonishing guitar work and clever songwriting are the hallmarks of Ty Maxon’s incredible Furthest From the Tree.
I came from a punk background, but over the past three years I’ve spent a lot more time listening to singer/songwriters than I have punk. The more I listen, the more I’m interested in the barest of the bare: chords, melody and words. This, to me, is the essence of songwriting; with no distortion, no band, and no gimmicks to fall on, the songwriter’s qualities and demerits are all that is left. And it’s artists that are okay with displaying what they got that excite me.
Leonard Mynx fits perfectly into that desire. If singer/songwriters are placed on a continuum where Damien Jurado is the quietest of the quiet and old-school Dashboard Confessional is the loudest of the loud (I swear, even his quietest stuff ends in hollering – and it’s great because of it), Leonard Mynx would fall toward the Damien Jurado side, right up against Ray LaMontagne and near Jose Gonzalez. That is, there’s not much clutter in these songs; they’re pretty bare.
It is their stripped-down qualities that make Vesper such an incredibly tight piece of work. There is not a wasted second on the album. Mynx knows that his strengths lie in letting his low tenor voice meander over subtle, sparse guitar accompaniment. And he does plenty of it. But he also knows when to introduce other instruments; forlorn trumpets (a la Bon Iver) appear with enough frequency to merit notice, and a female singer accompanies Mynx in some of his best moments.
The fact that Mynx knows his strengths and exploits them is what makes this album like a warm winter coat on a cold day. Sometimes I wish that artists would do more of what they’re good at as opposed to “experimenting.” Mynx doesn’t fall prey to this at all. “Robert” is over nine minutes long (atypical for a folk song), and it sounds great. There just isn’t anything wrong with it.
Mynx plays with other atmospherics within the context of his songwriting; “Many Hours” has a full band, while “The Reins” has a distinctly Bon Iver-ish atmospheric build-up. Several tracks nod to folk tradition and have harmonica back-up. But it’s all done in a very forlorn way; none of the tracks here get caught up in their own pomp and circumstance. These songs are incredibly straightforward, down-to-earth, and enjoyable.
Mynx’s voice and lyrics add a whole other dimension to the songwriting. The lyrics are good, but his delivery makes them into what they are. Even when Mynx is delivering lines that would otherwise be cliches due to their amount of use (of which there are a handful), the way he delivers them and the context in which he delivers them make them seem like Mynx just really, really means those words. It fully doesn’t matter that other people have had those thoughts; Mynx had them too, and they were just as legit when he felt them as when those who went before him felt them.
This album is wonderful. The honest, sad, realistic clarity of the songs makes me want to put the entire album on repeat and have it running in the background of my life. I feel like people would understand me better if they heard this album. Seeing as someone else wrote this album, that’s a pretty weighty endorsement. If you like acoustic folk (Bon Iver, Jose Gonzalez, Iron and Wine, Josh Rouse, Josh Ritter, Josh Radin, Damien Rice, Damien Jurado, et al.) there is no reason you won’t adore this album. I adore Vesper.
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.