Tim de Vil and His Imaginary Friends‘ Beating Off the Loneliness is an indie pop album with vocals that skew toward the speak/sing of Say Anything or MeWithoutYou. The arrangements are deeply layered, compiled from acoustic and electronic instruments: some songs pile up found sounds and synths and drums and all sorts of stuff into a wistful, rueful amalgam that yet retains energy (“Purge-atory,” “The Patron Saint of Lost Causes”). Songs like “Who’s Afraid of Sarah Little” and “It’s Not Me, It’s You” are indie-folk ramblers instead of collages. These latter songs have occasional vocal melodies (“Say It…”), but the gold moments appear when lead singer Justin Robbins expertly controls the mood and tone of his spoken word–he can pack a lot of emotional power into individual lines.
Lyrically, this one is very much a breakup album, but it’s more in the mold of Spiritualized’s punchy Ladies and Gentlemen, We Are Floating in Space and Josh Ritter’s “everything that happened after the breakup” lyrical approach to The Beast in Its Tracks than a mopefest. (Not that I don’t love a good mopefest.) As is often the case with speak/sing work, the lyrics are dense and carefully constructed, despite sounding off-the-cuff; there are pop culture references (“Sleepy Hollow,” for example), emotional monologues, and word games to be had (like the title of “Hail, Mary”). The sum of all these parts is a fully-realized statement of an album that clearly shows Tim De Vil’s songwriting and lyrical skills. Fans of collage artists, spoken word ramblers, or experimental indie-pop will find much to enjoy here.
1. “I Wish I Was a Bird” – Luke Rathborne. Builds a cathedral of sound: a stomping, huge-screen affair that manages yet to have low-key fire embedded in it and a humble, earnest vocal performance. This sort of powerful songwriting and production is uncommon and wonderful–it’s indie-rock that manages to be slightly out of phase with the radio (it’s 8:33!) but oh-so-delightful for lovers of the genre. Anyone still rocking the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s “Maps” will be all up on this, or anyone who would wonder what Josh Ritter’s “Thin Blue Flame” would be like in indie rock format.
2. “DaDaDa” – secret drum band. I listen to a lot of music while I’m reading or writing. Great songs make me love what I’m working on more. The best songs make me stop what I’m doing and just listen. “DaDaDa” is a perfect amalgam of tons of different percussion elements, low-mixed synths, and the occasional found sound/vocal yawp. They manage to make these basic, skeletal pieces of music into a deeply compelling piece of polyrhythmic indie rock.
3. “Gone Away” – Stolen Jars. Turns fluttering flutes and squealing horns into urgent indie-rock, a la The Collection. The subtle, insistent press forward that underlies this track is a rare thing to capture.
4. “People Like You” – Thumbnail. This tune strides the line between American Football-style emo and old-school indie-rock (pre-major label Modest Mouse and Death Cab for Cutie): complex drums, semi-mathy guitar lines, soft vocals, and gentle trumpet come together into a propulsive-yet-dreamy track.
5. “Tree Trunks” – Basement Revolver. The groove locks in and commands headbobbing. The lurching, loping, slow-moving-train of this indie-rock arrangement contrasts excellently against the intimate female vocal performance.
6. “Part3” – grej. Ominous piano, layered percussion, and stabbing flutes create a tense, atmospheric track the likes of which you would hear in a suspense film.
Dietrich Strause‘s How Cruel That Hunger Binds is a sneaky breakup album: it starts off with a folk-pop ode to the narrator’s own human depravity and takes all the way till the eighth track (“Spring Has Sprung”) to get explicit about the fact that getting over someone is hard. Along the way, Strause ponders religion (“Boy Born to Die”), homecoming (“Pennsylvania”), the limits of nostalgia in the face of reality (“Home From the Heartland”), and other introspective topics.
The music is similarly thoughtful: starting from a mature folk standpoint (opener “The Beast That Rolls Within” calls up Josh Ritter, Justin Townes Earle, etc.), Strause adds in all sorts of subtle flourishes to make the tracks pop: horns feature throughout the album, whether blaring (“Lying in Your Arms,” “The World Once Turning”) or warbling sentimentally (“Pennsylvania”), a harmonium provides the backdrop for the mysterious “Around the World,” and Strause incorporates doowop elements throughout (but never in a kitschy way). The end result is a majestic, carefully-wrought album folk-pop album that stands up against multiple listens. Highly recommended.
1. “Home Away” – Valley Shine. This song excellently combines two things I love: enthusiastic folk-pop and Graceland-style African music influences. It’s the sort of jubilant yet suave work that transcends genre barriers and should be appreciated by people across the pop music spectrum. Just a fantastic song.
2. “Brother” – Jack the Fox. Doesn’t need more than an acoustic guitar, some warm pad synths and an arresting voice to totally take over a room. It’s quality on par with Josh Ritter and Fleet Foxes, but doesn’t sound like either artist.
3. “One Day I’ll Be Your Ears” – Mateo Katsu. Ramshackle, enthusiastic, chunky, herky-jerky acoustic indie-pop from the school of Daniel Johnston and Page France. It’s the sort of charmingly off-kilter work that lo-fi was meant to celebrate.
4. “Lil to Late” – Brother Paul. Here’s a fun, easygoing acoustic blues shuffle with hints of rockabilly, vintage country and self-deprecating humor sprinkled throughout. It’s topped off with just the right amount of Motown soul-style horns.
5. “The Time It Takes” – The Show Ponies. This Americana outfit sounds like a Joe Walsh moonlighting as the leader of a Nashville country outfit: saloon-style piano, radio-rock ramblin’ vibe, and male/female duet vocals straight off your local country radio. It’s not usually what I’m into, but it hooked me and kept me.
6. “Return to the Scene” – Aaron Atkins. Weary yet sturdy, this alt-country/folk tune ambles along on the strength of great rumbling bass lines and a convincingly-achy vocal performance.
7. “Phoenix Fire” – Simon Alexander. From the Josh Garrels/Hozier school of intense singers comes this thoughtful, mature pop song with a great chorus.
8. “Melody, I” – Pluto and Charon. A warm, intimate acoustic performance that retains the fret squeaks and string buzz. It’s more rough in its fidelity than Damien Jurado ever was, but it has a similar sort of vibe in the dignified vocals.
9. “Waterski to Texas” – Budo and Kris Orlowski. Now this one really does sound like Damien Jurado, but the latter-day Jurado. Budo and Orlowski walk a fine line between big, sweeping arrangements of singer/songwriter work and a very personal, even raw, emotive quality. The vocals here are particularly fine.
10. “Gold Ring” – Redvers Bailey. This one’s a lovely, romantic, gently layered song that floats somewhere between Josh Radin’s delicate work and the wide-eyed wonder of “Casimir Pulaski Day”-style Sufjan Stevens.
11. “High Rolling” – Jake Aaron. This acoustic instrumental manages to be complex and inviting at the same time, subverting expectations by not just jumping to the highest treble notes for the lead melody. By keeping the melody low and close to the fingerpicked foundation of the piece, the tune feels both comfortable and complicated. It’s very worth your time, even for those who aren’t generally into acoustic instrumentals.
1. “Turtle Doves” – Jenny Elisabeth & the Gunned Down Horses. A. What a band name. B. Like light spreading across a horizon, this tune grows from spiky yet warm tendrils of sound to a full, round alt-country performance. The bassist and JE’s creaky voice get special honors.
2. “Refugee” – Cameron James Henderson. Some artists command a gravitas–a combination of confidence, vocal control, melodic maturity, and (let’s be honest) Dylan influences–that catapults their folk tunes into the upper echelon. This tune very firmly belongs up there with the Joe Pugs, Josh Ritters, and Barr Brotherses of the world.
3. “Louisiana” – Eric & Happie. This is more country than the Civil Wars, but still very pop-oriented. It would be like if folk-pop had a country-pop counterpart, but this has almost nothing in common with Florida Georgia Line, so that’s out. The male/female harmonies are lovely, the arrangement is small but full, the production is bright and tight, and the whole thing comes off like a sunbeam out of a cloudy day. It’s just great.
4. “The Space Between” – Aaron James. Here’s some folk-pop with strong vocal harmonies and lots of subtle production touches that push it just far enough outside of the box to really catch the ear, while still fitting in with all the folk-pop standard-bearers.
5. “Don’t Leave My Side” – McKenzie Lockhart. I’m really into immediate production: it sounds like Lockhart is sitting right next to me, playing and singing her folk-pop/singer-songwriter blend. The drums and electric guitar add a lot of character and atmosphere to this tune, which is often not the case in this type of music–mad props to the band. The results are an unusually gripping singer-songwriter track.
6. “No Gauge” – Ariah&. Ariah’s low alto voice contrasts nicely against a chipper mandolin and blaring trumpet. She can belt like Amanda Palmer, too.
7. “Beans” – Little Hermit. If you threw the ukulele charm of Ingrid Michaelson, the quirky lyrics of Kimya Dawson, and an impressive female duet into a blender, you probably still couldn’t come out with something as attractive, elegant, and intriguing as this.
9. “Yesterday’s News” – Esbie Fonte. Starts off as a torchy tune with some jumbled noise for atmosphere, then blooms into something more electronic and complex than that.
10. “Cold Moon” – Lacei. Vocal-driven folk + wubby spacious bass + skittering beats = (either) the folkiest electro track I’ve heard all year or the most electronic folk track of the same period.
11. “Pluto’s Waltz” – Barrow_. This instrumental inventively combines solo neo-classical/jazz piano with snare-heavy electronic kit drums and the occasional synth for effect. It’s a fresh, impressive vision.
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.
1. “Holy Ghost” – deer scout. Some songs have to grow on me, but “Holy Ghost” is instant: Dena Miller’s friendly, comfortable alto invites you in, and the intimate, burbling guitar asks you to sit down. This is a magnificent song that has me very excited for future deer scout work.
2. “Annie” – Patric Johnston. The acoustic guitar has a mellifluous, perfectly-delivered melody to lead this piece, and Johnston’s voice is buttery and smooth in the way of the Barr Brothers, Josh Ritter, and the like: mature, solid, and full of gentle charisma.
3. “The Weather Girl” – Prints Jackson. This one’s a vocals-forward troubadour folk tune a la old-school Joe Pug or occasional Justin Townes Earle. Jackson knows how to use his voice and guitar to best effect, and the resulting tune shines with an easygoing assuredness. This song has legs, and I hope it gets to use them–more people should know about Prints Jackson.
4. “Rain Thoughts” – Frith. You walk into a new club that’s supposed to classy. You find yourself greeted with the gentle sounds of a musician trained in Tom Waits drama but purveying that work via strings, stand-up bass, gentle piano, and a relaxed tenor. You’re going to like it here, and you’re going to visit more often. (Alternatively: the gravitas of trip-hop worked its way into a singer/songwriter tune.)
5. “All Day All Night” – River Whyless. River Whyless has always wanted to be more than just a folk band, and here they expand their sound with some rhythmic group vocals and satisfying thrumming bass that drops this tune somewhere between Fleet Foxes and Fleetwood Mac.
6. “Firetrain” – Todd Sibbin. The raw, youthful vocal presentation of Bright Eyes’ mid-era work meets the polished horns and wailing organ of early-era Counting Crows alt-pop. (I just mentioned two of my favorite bands.) In short, this is a fantastic pop tune.
7. “Absolute Contingency” – The Ravenna Colt. The lead guitar work and background vocals point toward an alt-country tune out of the slowcore, Mojave 3 school, but the rest of the tune is a shuffle-snare folk tune that’s just lovely.
8. “4th July” – Daniel Pearson. This chipper folk-pop tune has a great harmonica part, a friendly vibe, and really depressing lyrics. At least it sounds happy!
9. “Revolver” – Vian Izak. It’s got that Parachutes-esque Brit-pop mystery to it, paired with the sort of chords and mood that evoke sticky, slow-moving days in the city. The results are unique and interesting.
10. “Out Loud” – Jason P. Krug. Brash but not aggressive, Krug pairs confident melodic delivery and chunky indie-pop/folk with a swooping cello to create an intriguing tension.
11. “Pack of Dogs” – Jesse Lacy. Here’s a full-band folk reminiscence on the joy of youthful friendships that brings banjo, acoustic, wurlitzer, and smooth tenor vocals together excellently.
12. “I Won’t Be Found” – Simon Alexander. The smoothness of traditional singer/songwriter mixed with the raw angst and passion of The Tallest Man on Earth’s vocals creates a distinct push and pull between punchy and silky.
13. “What It Is” – Alex Hedley. The purity and honesty of a fingerpicked guitar line and an emotional vocal melody are never going to get old to me. This particular tune is earnest without being cloying; moody without being morose. Well-balanced. Deeply enjoyable.
14. “Someday feat. Devendra Banhart” – Akira Kosemura. A fragile piano melody is joined by hushed vocals and romantic strings. It’s the sort of song that lovers have their first dance to.
15. “Dear, be safe” – Rasmus Söderberg. What a tender, delicate acoustic plea this is.
“Nowhere to Be Found,” the first single from Frances Luke Accord‘s most recent album, is about as mature, pristine, and lovely as a folk-pop tune can get; it’s right up there with Josh Ritter and Gregory Alan Isakov. It’s a stunner, then, to find that the rest of Flukeis just as good in a different vein: the airy, major-key mysticism of opener “Who Do You Run From” evokes Shepherd’s Dog and Kiss Each Other Clean-era Iron & Wine. The rest of the album combines the delicate immediacy of the former influences with the expansive arrangements of the latter influence.
“Something Moving” is an appropriate title, as the second song on the record has an arrangement that sounds like running gently through a forest: claps, tambourine, distant auxiliary percussion, woozy strings, and breathy vocals combine to create a warm tune with an unusual groove as its chassis. “Stones I’ve Thrown” and “Egoeye” continue this arrangement style, putting a heavy emphasis on the mood that is created by the many instrumental pieces coming together. “David” starts off as a more direct tune; the band pulls some of the layers back to focus on vocals, lyrics, and saxophone. It doesn’t last long, as Accord expands the simple beginnings into one of the most complex pieces on the record.
Fluke is an engaging, intriguing album that weaves an incredible amount of instruments and sounds together to create a unique mood. The songs can be appreciated on their own, but the album sounds best as a whole, when Frances Luke Accord can tour you through a distinct sonic world. There are many nooks and crannies to explore on Fluke, and you can have a great time finding them all. It’s not a traditional hands-in-the-air summer record, but if you’re in the woods on a lake and take a walk in the next few months, this record would be a great companion.
The Gray Havens‘ Ghost of a King is a strikingly diverse record; the duo’s work previously has fallen into piano pop or folk-pop realms, but Ghost sees them expanding their core sound to include cinematic pop-rock, ambient art tunes, and even electro-pop. Their expansion of borders doesn’t diminish at all their continuing maturity in the folk-pop realm, as the album contains some of the best folk-pop tunes they’ve ever written. In short, Ghost of a King shows growth in every area, and that results in an incredible album.
The two points of entry are pretty obvious on this record: “Shadows of the Dawn” and “Diamonds and Gold” both gave me shivers. I don’t get goosebumps very often, and I can’t think of the last time that I got goosebumps twice in one album. “Shadows of the Dawn” is a folk-pop tune that is imbued with a well-tuned sense of the dramatic–the verses are delicate yet taut with tension, while the memorable chorus opens up the song to release the tension. But it’s the triumphant, jubilant counterpoint choral vocals in the third chorus that dropped my jaw. While Dave Radford holds down the lead vocals, a choir led by Licia Radford exultantly sings wordless arias that point toward the transcendence the lyrics call for. I’m doing an injustice even trying to describe it. You have to hear it to understand how affecting and effective it is.
“Diamonds and Gold” is, surprisingly, their full-on electro-pop jaunt, but it’s thoroughly a highlight of the record. Folkies who try to go electro often result in embarrassing facsimiles of the genre, but “Diamonds” hits all the beats of a electro-pop song flawlessly. It’s hands-down the best electro-pop song I’ve heard all year. Dave Radford nails the attitude that you need to have in electro-pop, confidently swaggering his way through a giddy synth atmosphere. “They say we’re crazy / that’s fine / they say we’re out of our mind / well tell’em, tell’em alright / alright / if the world is all we got / then alright, alright / but it’s not,” Radford states, pointing again to the transcendence that is a deep theme of the record. I would be remiss if I didn’t point out the excellent background vocals, again–The Gray Havens really know how to maximize a vocal performance.
Other tunes point in different sonic directions. “Band of Gold” is a romantic, married-person folk-pop tune along the lines of the Lumineers and the Oh Hellos; you’ll be singing along shortly. The title track, “This My Soul,” and “At Last, the King” have a sort of minor-key cinematic cast that reminds me of Imagine Dragons’ great pop tune “Demons”; “Take This Slowly” employs wide-open, organ-seared, major-key folk reminiscent of Josh Ritter’s “Kathleen” (and oh, is it fun). “A Living Hope” is a two-minute tune built on a base of cascading piano notes that crescendos to a haunting climax full of synths, pounding drums, and distant autotuned vocals. It’s a remarkably ambitious track to put on a folk-pop record, recalling some of Gungor’s more adventurous compositions in scope.
Ghost of a King is a remarkable achievement. It’s the rare album with clear heights supported by a large number of high-quality tunes. There’s not a lot of chaff on this record, which is doubly impressive for the wide range of sounds included on the record. The Gray Havens are hitting a stride here, and I am excited to see where they go from here. Right now, though, I’m picking my jaw up off the floor and enjoying Ghost of a King thoroughly. Highly recommended.
Sometimes there’s a singular moment that pulls together everything you need to know and delivers it on a crystal platter. That moment comes early on Worn Out Skinby Annabelle’s Curse. When Carly Booher picks up the second verse of opener “Lovedrunk Desperado,” her voice floats perfectly above the yearning banjo, the pressing drumbeat, and the thrumming bass. It’s a contrast of fragility and intensity. Her delivery is confident yet vulnerable, assured yet emotional and open to possibility. It seems like hyperbole to pack this much into a single performance, but the rest of the album backs up the shivers that track one gave me. As a result, Worn Out Skin is one of the best releases of the year in any genre.
Annabelle’s Curse is ostensibly some sort of alt-country band, but that’s only a starting place for reference points: Josh Ritter, Dawes, Lumineers, Civil Wars, you name it, they’ve got a toe in the sound. But they combine their influences so deftly that from song one they’ve got their own take on the genre. “Rich Valley” is a jubilant folk-pop song with a beautiful/powerful chorus; “Wolf in Sheep’s Clothes” is a soft, careful, ominous tune that calls up the masterful moods of The Barr Brothers before opening up into a shuffling country rumination of sorts. The enthusiastic “Brother In Arms” has serious indie-rock cred with a non-ironic saxophone leading the melody, while “Skinny Dipping” throws evocative synths and flutes under a flying banjo riff and a Needtobreathe vocal line. “Snake in the Rafters” is a vulnerable but sophisticated confessional that Josh Ritter or Paul Simon could have penned, paired with a nimble guitar line the equal of both those luminaries. I could go on, but you get the point: these songs are diverse.
But more than diverse, they’re deeply moving. “Snake in the Rafters,” as I noted, is the highlight on that front, as Tim Kilbourne opens up with a sober, spare look at what’s in the hearts of men: “hold me down/crush my sins/tell me I’m different from evil men/won’t you tell me I’m different from evil men.” I don’t know about you, but I felt those lyrics go pretty deep down. Elsewhere they reminisce about the innocence of youth (“Skinny Dipping”) and the goodness of finding a partner (“Cornerstone”) in ways that spin cliches on their head. “Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing” doesn’t spin the cliche: instead, the narrator inhabits and expands it to great effect. It’s rare for me to find a lyricist that just nails me to the wall on the first listen, but Kilbourne’s got a whale of a hammer in his pen.
So the songwriting is astonishing and the lyrics are brilliant, but what of the performances and recording? Worry not–they’re spot-on. The performances are each of the beautiful quality that I mentioned earlier, and the production job corrals all their disparate ideas and wide-ranging influences into warm, inviting wholes. From tip to tail, this album knocks it out of the park. I can’t recommend this highly enough. Worn Out Skin by Annabelle’s Curse is just a remarkable album that you really need to hear. I expect to be listening to it for years to come.
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.