Brandon Cunningham‘s Give Out is the sort of album I listen to when I’m alone; sometimes when driving a long stretch of road, sometimes when hanging out in my room. The slow-churning quartet of alt-country tunes has a big, spacious feel that fits a wide-open road; it also has a sort of claustrophobia that hangs over its head, as if someone was trying to expand a room but finds itself banging up against the walls.
There’s some Jason Molina sounds trapped in the wrenching, tension-filled “Doubt,” as the song grows from a tiny spark to a roaring, torrential guitar wall, complete with thrashing cymbals. The reverb, the heavy emphasis on distant sounds, and the sense of weight all mark the track as a soon-beloved of Songs: Ohia listeners. “Lines in the Sand” lets a little light in the cracks by playing acoustic guitar instead of electric, but there’s still a heaviness to the track in the political / religious subject matter. “Bush Wives” is downright chipper in comparison, sounding kind of like a Keane song–which is still pretty thick sonically. “Baby” is a forlorn alt-country love song in the style of Mojave 3, which appeals to my “injured romantic” sensibilities.
Give Out is a diverse foursome of songs that show Cunningham’s ability to corral a small amount of instruments into very specific moods. He can turn it up into a mournful wall of sound or keep it quiet with pensive acoustic tunes. Whichever way he goes, he brings a passion to the songs that allows them to feel real and physical; these songs feel like they grab me by the shoulders and demand I listen. Cunningham should be a name you know.
I love doing long reviews, but SXSW has thrown me off my game. To catch up, here’s a rare quartet of quick hits.
Dana Falconberry‘s four-song Though I Didn’t Call It Came is a beautiful, immersing release. The thirteen minutes pass rapidly, as Falconberry’s uniquely interesting voice plays over intricate yet intimate acoustic arrangements. Highlights include the complex and beautiful songwriting structure of “Petoskey Stone,” the Michigan-era Sufjan Stevens fragility of “Muskegon,” and the casual wonder of whistling-led closer “Maple Leaf Red (Acoustic).” It’s a rare songwriter that has tight control over both individual songwriting elements and overall feel, marking Falconberry as one to enjoy now and watch in the future.
England in 1819‘s Alma will quickly remind listeners of British piano-rock bands: Rush of Blood to the Head-era Coldplay is checked on “Air That We Once Breathed,” Muse gets its nod in the title track, and the melodic focus of Keane is familiar throughout. But 2/3rds of the band is conservatory-trained, and those influences show. “Littil Battur” is a chiming, gently swelling post-rock piece with reminiscent of The Album Leaf; “Emily Jane” is another beautiful, wordless, free-flowing piece. There’s enjoyment in their emotive piano-pop, but there’s magic in their instrumental aspirations. That tension shows promise past this sophomore release.
The bouncy garage-pop of Eux Autres‘ Sun is Sunk EP has been honed for almost a decade to a tight mix of modern sensibilities and historic glee. “Right Again” and “Home Tonight” call up ’60s girl-pop groups but don’t overdo it; “Ring Out” features male lead vocals in a perky, jumpy, infectious tune that includes bells and tambourine. The 1:23 of “Call It Off” is thoroughly modern songwriting, though—the band is no one trick pony. There’s just no resisting the charms of Sun is Sunk, and since its six songs only ask for 15 minutes of your time, why would you?
After seeing part of a breathtaking set by Sharon Van Etten at SXSW 2011, I jumped at the chance to give some press for her new album Tramp. Turns out all the big hitters (NPR, Pitchfork, Paste) are already on it. The tunes powered by Van Etten’s emotive croon are in full form, developed from her sparse beginnings into complete arrangements. At 46 minutes, this mature version of Van Etten is a complete vision; still, the haunting, delicate closer “Joke or a Lie” is what sticks with me.
I don’t know of many people in the United States who still listen to Turin Brakes. The band is alive and kicking in Britain, but their U.S. moment in the sun came during the early ’00s with Ether Song during the melodramatic Brit-pop wave (Coldplay, Keane, Travis, etc.). For whatever reason, they didn’t have the good fortune of sustaining and entering the American public consciousness. Still, I really enjoy their thoughtful, pensive melodrama, and consider it a fuller, folkier counterpoint to the fragility of Parachutes-era Coldplay.
I mention all that to say that Run Dan Run sounds like Turin Brakes, and that’s a compliment in my book. (That payoff probably wasn’t as good as the setup warranted.) Run Dan Run’s Normal is a solid collection of acoustic/electric tunes that works incredibly well as a whole album, in addition to its single-producing abilities.
The fullness includes horns, drums and earthy electric guitar on “Lovesick Animal,” as well as some sort of synth/keyboard on “Box-Type Love.” These songs are the catchiest of the lot, offering up hooky vocal lines and intriguing tones to assert dominance over whatever was happening in your musical brain before this (for me: Sleeping at Last). “Box-Type Love” is especially potent in this regard, as you’ll be humming the nonsensical, titular hook after all is said and done.
The lyric probably makes sense in context, but the lyrics aren’t foregrounded in the mix. This is an album about the sound of things, and a carefully constructed one at that. This detailed attention to craft is much more comparable to The Walkmen (Ed. note: two days of Walkmen references in a row!) than Mumford and Sons or even Coldplay.
Not that Coldplay doesn’t pay attention to the sound of things (they certainly did in Parachutes, and since Eno came on board, increasingly do), but the little flourishes are more easily recognizable as mattering than in other albums: The background keys in “Gestures and Patterns,” the mere presence of the instrumental “Intro,” the woozy bass tone in “Fresh Faces,” and the gently dissolving closer “In Parts.” This album belongs in the conversation alongside bands like Turin Brakes and The National: Old souls making contemplative music that gets labeled rock for lack of a better term.
There’s much more and nothing left to say about Normal. I could go on about individual tunes, but the main points have already been said: this is a beautiful album for the album’s sake that also has some great singles on it. Run Dan Run has succeeded in a rare task, and you should check it out.
Our disposable culture doesn’t have much use for slow-growing albums. This is a profound sadness, as albums that sink in over repeated listens often offer the highest dividends. Alston David’s self-titled album of eclectic, vintage pop is one of such releases.
This review almost didn’t make it to the site; David’s e-mail to me bounced around in various folders before finally settling in the “To Review” section. I didn’t exactly know what to make of it: The thirteen songs borrow from both the light piano-pop of ELO and the ominous, psychedelic mishmash of the Flaming Lips’ Embryonic. “Photograph (Angels/Devils)” pulls from both at the same time.
But as difficult as it is to wrap my head around the contrasting aspects of Alston David’s work, I kept coming back to the songs. “When California Falls Right Into the Ocean” has a haunting melody doubled by the vocal and piano, a ragged sense of rhythm, and lush atmosphere. Opener “Spottedcrow Flies” foregrounds the arch feel of the album via a synth-heavy march. The forlorn “Tornado” features a cold-yet-elegant piano and strings. “If It’s All In My Head” is what Keane’s nightmares sound like. These are pop songs, but not like any you’ve heard recently.
The tunes are hard to place in the constraints of genre; this may be because I’ve not been exposed to a great deal of this type of music, or because their cross-genre sound takes a while to get used to. I do know, however, that the melodies keep running in my head, no matter how difficult it is for me to cite RIYL bands or even specific and concrete reasons I like the album as much as I do.
I’m sure this has been a relatively unexciting read, and I apologize to everyone involved. But Alston David’s self-titled album is engaging because it’s enigmatic, and then enigmatic because it’s engaging. That loop makes for great listening, but not necessarily good writing. Just go listen to it – it’s worth your time, especially if you give it a full listen (and then think about it for a while).
It’s hard to judge objectively something that you are intimately acquainted with. Vocalists have a tough time taking other vocalists seriously, and writers are notoriously hard on other writers. That’s why We Are the City‘s accomplishment with In a Quiet World is so astonishing. They’ve made the piano (something I play on a daily basis) incredibly exciting.
To clarify the staggering worth of this achievement, consider this: you can be the most talented pianist in the world and still not excite me with your work. I can realize it as incredibly talented and enjoyable (i.e. everything in Ben Folds’ canon), even learn to play it. But get truly excited? Rare as snow in San Francisco. Continue readingWe Are The City Unleashes Exciting Indie-rock on the World…
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.