There’s a wide diversity of sounds you can make with an acoustic guitar and voice; being able to sing Missippi blues doesn’t ensure that you can play Irish folk tunes. Some people work to become a master at one style, while others can absorb the core elements of a variety of sounds.
Joe Kaplow is the latter, as his sound is grounded in troubadour folk with influences from a variety of other acoustic genres. His self-titled debut EP showcases a singer/songwriter with a huge amount of promise, as his songwriting and distinctive voice offer great rewards to the listener.
“Bookshop Blues” opens the release with a fast, strummed folk tune accompanied by his own foot stomping. Kaplow’s insistent, urgent tenor dances over a tune that sounds perfect for busking: an earnest, upbeat tune that balances lyrical introspection and smile-inducing melodies and chords. He follows it up with the harmonica-and-swift-fingerpicking tune “How Old is My Soul,” which evokes the raw, pure sound of The Freewheeling Bob Dylan. It stays out of tribute range due to (again) the swooping vocals, which flip from tender to insistent on a dime. This ability to control his delivery calls to mind a less-abrasive Kristian Mattson of The Tallest Man on Earth, especially in the “oh-oh” conclusion of the tune.
Kaplow can unhinge his voice, too–both “It’s Me Girl” and “When I Open Up at Last” allow Kaplow to let it all air out. The banjo-led blues of “It’s Me Girl” sees him scrubbing grit and wail into his delivery to fit the mood of the tune, while “When I Open Up at Last” contains Damien Rice-style howls. “Give My Eyes” provides a respite between the two songs, a delicate pastoral tune that reminds me of a cross between Irish folk tunes and Justin Townes Earle’s American sounds. The addition of a female voice turns this duet into a highlight of the already-strong EP.
There’s a lot going on in this self-titled EP, but it all hangs together because of the bright, mid-fi production vibe. This is clearly a man and his guitar (on most tracks), as the occasional ambient room noise, gentle tape hiss and sound of foot taps show. But Kaplow’s not reveling in the tracks’ smallness–this feels like an earnest document of work, not a bid to participate in the bedroom-folk scene. (“When I Open Up at Last” is about as far from whisper-folk as it gets.) There’s no intentional obscuring, no reverb, no distance placed between the listener and the song. These songs are immediate–they grabbed me on first listen, and they still grab me ten listens on. That’s a credit both to the songs and the way they’re recorded.
Kaplow’s self-titled EP is an energizing listen. Whether it’s a slow or fast song I’m listening to, the music is exciting. Kaplow’s well-controlled voice is employed in a diversity of styles, making for a sprightly, fast-paced 20 minutes. It’s tough to pick out highlight tracks, because each has its own charms; I’m personally partial to “How Old is My Soul” and “Give My Eyes,” but someone who likes darker, dramatic music more than I could find “When I Open Up at Last” or “It’s Me Girl” to be their highlight. It’s a rare artist who can make memorable tunes in diverse idioms, and that bodes well for Joe Kaplow. I can’t wait to see how his next releases develop. Highly recommended.
I don’t know if the term “left-field pop” still or ever meant anything to anyone, but that’s the first thing I thought of to describe the self-titled release from Hermit’s Victory–essentially an indie-pop band that is maybe sitting in a forest while they compose and perform. All the elements of indie-pop are there, just with an extra layer of found sound and recording techniques that makes everything sound like you’re outdoors.
This is most obvious in “Mooch”– where the found sounds literally appropriate the bird calls and running water of the outdoors–but is more subterraneanly evident in the unusual synthesizers of “Night Owl,” the subtle reverb of “Novice” and the tape hiss of “Swerve.” By the time that lo-fi closer “Sleeping Evil” comes around, the context makes me imagine that the two performers are sitting out on the porch of a cabin somewhere (even though nothing necessarily conjures this idea up from this track in particular). All that to say, this album is a true album, not just a random collection of songs: you should listen to this as a whole, and you will hear wonderful things that you wouldn’t hear by just listening to tracks on their own.
That’s not to say that these tracks don’t hold up to individual scrutiny: “Money in the Evenings” is an intriguing, beguiling slow-jam that takes its time getting where it wants to go. “Islands” is some cross between Bossa Nova and the verdant landscapes of the rest of the album. The power of these songs is in their intricate, idiosyncratic, deeply enveloping arrangements. “Sleeping Evil” eschews even that lovely cloak and sits apart as a pure songwriting gem: it would take only a guitar and voice to cover satisfactorily (which is slighting the subtle sounds and second guitar surrounding those elements, but in comparison to the complexity of the previous tunes there’s a different focus). These tracks are solid through and through, from their roots to the leaves. Hermit’s Victory is an entrancing album that can be enjoyed at a surface level and at depth: it has intricacies galore to explore, but you can also just let it wash over you.
Chuck Burns and Ty Rone‘s Leave of Absence is a elegant mash-up of Mississippi blues, New Orleans jazz, and traditional Southern guitar/harmonica folk. Sometimes the duo works out a genre separate from its brethren (the folky “Ferguson/Plan B,” the bluesy “Someday When I’m Older”), sometimes they get married (the everything-at-once aspect of “New Orleans”), and sometimes they get blown out to epic proportions (the rockin’ “The Heights”).
Despite these various sounds and moods, the acoustic guitar and harmonica are a constant through-line. The major-key fingerpicking and the wailing harmonica fit together neatly, creating the sort of timelessly wonderful sound that you can get in this genre. Burns’ vocals don’t peg the tunes in any particular era either: smooth and sultry and occasionally roaring, he locks the parts together in a great collage.
I’ve mentioned it already, but the predominant feeling I get while listening to this record is one of “fit.” Burns and Rone are fitting themselves into a long-standing tradition, making their own way down a well-trodden path. The songs sound right, the vibe is strong, and the album just takes off on its own. Whether it’s the slightly funky vocals of “East Coast Sun,” the female background vocals and organ of “Private Devil,” or the rolling fingerpicking of “Hours on Hours,” the duo grabs parts that seem endlessly reusable and combine them into songs that seem like I’ve always had them in my life. Yet the spark of the new is in them too, as a fresh accent, vocal line, or harmonica bite sounds and strikes me off-guard a bit. In short, Leave of Absence is really good stuff.
I was attracted to The Tallest Man on Earth by his fantastic fingerpicking skills, not particularly his arranging skills, so it’s with great excitement that I’ve listened (repeatedly) to Moa Bones‘ Spun. In some ways, Dimitris Aronis’ creations are even more suited to my tastes than those of Kristian Matsson: Aronis’ voice isn’t as abrasive and his song structures are more grounded in the American South’s musical tradition. I note the American South there because Aronis is from Greece (although you can’t tell from the songwriting).
Tunes like “Old Days,” “Skopelitis,” and “Come On” feature Aronis’ endearing, enchanting fingerpicking skills on guitar and banjo. The tunes seem to float along on lazy waves of down-home friendliness. “Skopelitis” is the purest expression of that mode, an instrumental track that almost emits sun rays. But Moa Bones isn’t a one-trick pony, and tunes like “Hey” draw off the Mississippi walking blues tradition in strum pattern, harmonica inclusion, and overall rhythm. “The Journey” even includes some scratchin’ electric guitar and organ for bluesy cred. (“Take It All Away” amps up the organ usage, creating the noisiest song on the record.)
But it’s in gentle, quiet tunes like “Long for a Change” that Aronis steals my heart. The pensive, relaxed songwriting allows the nuances of his creaky voice and melodic sense to shine through. It’s similar to the type of song that The Tallest Man on Earth doesn’t write much anymore. If you miss the fingerpicking glee of Matsson’s work, Moa Bones will make you sigh and smile. Spun is not to be missed for fans of Southern-flavored acoustic songwriting.
Independent Clauses is a wide-ranging blog, but my home base is gentle, tender, fingerpicked folk. That’s why I’m so jumping-up-and-down excited about Austin Basham, an artist that synthesizes the best elements of David Ramirez and The Tallest Man on Earth (two acts I already love).
Basham’s five-song Linton // Oslo EP shows off a nimble, fragile fingerpicking skill similar to Kristian Matsson’s and an intimate baritone similar to Ramirez’s (“Running“). The production that captures these central elements is immediate–it sounds as if Basham is sitting next to me playing. These three elements together make this EP worth buying, but there’s a wealth of reasons beyond the initial listen.
Basham’s not just a brilliant fingerpicker–eloquent without being gaudy, endearing without being overly simplistic–he’s a solid arranger. These songs feature banjo, horns, strings, whistling and background vocals that float and flutter through the background, providing lift to Basham’s already light songs (“https://soundcloud.com/austin-basham/on-the-hunt”>On the Hunt,” “Running“). He even incorporates flutes into “Find a Way” without stereotyping them. He can’t avoid a good whoa-oh every now and then, but even these biggest of moments seem to fold seamlessly into the vibe. It’s not like a massive riff coming in to take over the song (as in a rock anthem); instead it flows directly out of the things around it. (As it well should be, I think.)
Basham’s vocal performances are another selling point; his voice has a rich quality to it, but he doesn’t just lean on the sound of his voice. He knows how to use it to best emotional effect. He jumps up to a slightly higher range to make a big point; he accents particular lyrics with clipped or drawn-out delivery. The lyrics here are kindhearted love songs, wishing well to a lover (“Lord knows I want you to be whole again,” from “On the Hunt“) and offering affection (“I put my heart in my love, my love for you,” from “Running“). The arrangements and clear-eyed recording style keep the songs from being saccharine, and instead come off as earnest.
I’m frankly blown away by Austin Basham’s Linton // Oslo EP. It’s beautifully written, thoughtfully composed, and excellently recorded. It’s the sort of release that I sort through the hundreds of releases I get yearly to find. If you like acoustic music of any variety (those of the Alexei Murdoch persuasion will be particularly thrilled), Austin Basham should be blasting onto your radar soon–if he hasn’t already. An absolutely gorgeous, knock-out release.
Ben Fisher‘s Roanoke EP comes on the heels of his 2011 debut album Heavy Boots and Underwoods. The latter showed flashes of brilliance and foreshadowed a bright future for folk-singer Fisher; Roanoke is where he starts to build on that foundation. Since The Tallest Man on Earth’s nasally voice is a high price of entry, opener “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” becomes instantly likable by aping Kristian Matsson’s carefree strum and pairing it with Fisher’s low voice. “Dublin Blues Pt. 2” puts some forlorn but interesting lyrics into a country mold, with good results. But it’s “Hibernation” that sticks with me, as the gently fingerpicked tune sounds like a calmed-down Tallest Man in both the vocals and the guitar. The melodic flourishes that fill it out give a sense of Josh Ritter-esque gravitas, while not feeling too much like a Ritter tune. The title track is a high-desert tune with pedal steel, shakers and a wide-open feel; “To Conclude…” is a quiet strummer, but the vocals push a little hard against the gentle track.
That push and pull between gentle and intense is where Fisher lives on this EP (his bio says that he “tends to bellow”), but he doesn’t turn gentle songs into roars (like Damien Rice) or speed them way up (The Tallest Man on Earth). Instead, he fills his gentle performances with a confident energy. It’s a tough thing to explain, but that’s why it’s great: it sets Fisher apart. I’m looking forward to more tunes from Fisher, as Roanoke is a satisfying chapter in Fisher’s songwriting that points towards more good in the future.
White Blush‘s bedroom electronica is of the claustrophobic, moody and sparse type. I’m not too familiar with the genre, but I checked it out due to the Portishead connections I heard in the sound. Carol Rhyu’s music is much more mellow and free-flowing than Portishead’s lock-step trip-hop, but both share the ability to traverse in dark sounds without sounding particularly evil or sad. They just like hanging out in the nighttime, it seems. “Without You” builds from some fragmented melodic elements into a swirling, pensive tune. “808 Myst” is an eerie sort of chiptune piece that traffics in the same moody vein as “Without You,” while “Wait” is a stark tune that strips her sound down to vocals, a casio and soft rhythmic thumps. It’s oddly intriguing, just as the other two tunes. White Blush has delivered three beautiful tunes here; fans of ambient or other quiet electro would really enjoy this.
Of the twenty bands in my quest, the newest addition is The Tallest Man on Earth. A masterful cover of Paul Simon’s “Graceland” on Hype Machine first introduced me to Kristian Matsson’s finger-picked folk guitar a little over four months ago. My Last.FM says that I’ve listened to it 158 times since that first introduction, so it’s safe to say that it hooked me.
Matsson’s cover of “Graceland” enamors me because it improves upon a classic. The Tallest Man on Earth remains true to the original song structure but varies dramatically in arrangement and delivery, resulting in a more cohesive tune.
The original “Graceland” is a remarkably conflicted tune. Simon puts forth optimism in the jaunty arrangements whileinserting world-weary lyrics. He tries to have it both ways, and for that reason I’ve always thought that song was particularly annoying.
Matsson’s version redeems the song by syncing up the two contrasting moods. Stripping the tune to its bare minimums (1 voice, 1 guitar) draws the lyrics to the forefront, placing the burden of meaning on the wildly conflicted words. “I’m going to Graceland” transforms from a statement of fact (in Simon’s version) to a last hope (in Matsson’s).
Matsson’s deft guitar work grants an immediacy to the songwriting that the more languid pace of the original “Graceland” could not provide. His ragged, unrestrained voice heightens the sense of urgency originated by the guitar. These two elements sync up with the quiet resignedness inherent in the original lyrics and turn the song into one of overt desperation.
This tension (melodic, rhythmic, and lyrical) culminates in Matsson braying out the titular phrase as the dramatic hinge point of the song that Simon intended it to be. “I’m going to Graceland” doesn’t fit with “She comes back to tell me she’s gone” or “Everybody sees you’re blown apart,” and that’s the point. It’s all the narrator’s got left. It sounds like Kristian Matsson’s life is hanging on the place of “Graceland,” and it subsequently feels like the listener’s is too.
Mostly artists show different sides or possibilities of a song with a cover; rare is the artist that improves a song with a cover. Johnny Cash via Rick Rubin did it consistently, but he’s about the only one I’d found until Matsson’s “Graceland.”
With a cover like that, there’s no way to not seek out his original tunes. I did, and instantly fell in love. All the drama and emotional power of “Graceland” was packed into his own compositions. I told my best friend about The Tallest Man on Earth, and he was equally as enthralled. When I found out The Tallest Man was swinging through Dallas, I called up my friend and we set up the trip.
After getting held up just enough to miss opener S. Carey (so saddened by this), I dropped in right before Matsson’s set on Friday, September 17 at the House of Blues’ Cambridge Room. I had low expectations; I wanted Matsson to be a great live show, but I know that it’s often hard for people to translate recorded performances into live power.
From the opening notes to the last fading melody, he proved that he was up to the task. His voice sounds even more urgent live, and his ability to nail even the most complex of guitar lines while singing sent chills up my spine. Whether playing old favorites like “The Gardner” or brand-spanking-new tunes like “The Dreamer” and a revamped “Like the Wheel,” he commanded the audience with excellent musicianship and confident stage presence.
The amount of fans in Dallas who knew the words to his songs visibly surprised him; he was taken aback (literally, he stepped backwards in shock) during “I Won’t Be Found” by the vocal fan response, but generally grew into the understanding that Dallas collectively has his back. He even dropped his vocals out of a few lines in “King of Spain” and let the audience sing them to him. His visible appreciation corresponded with his audible appreciation, as he thanked the audience multiple times for coming.
The raw power and emotive force that drive “Graceland” drove many of his other tunes, including a particularly powerful “Where Do My Bluebird Fly?” and a rousing “The Wild Hunt.” This, paired with his confident showmanship and easy swagger, made the evening delightful. Even though he didn’t play the cover that got me hooked on his nimble songs, the show was not disappointing in any other way.
A Tallest Man on Earth show is thoroughly recommended for the casual or hardcore fan. I can with glee and fond memories cross this one off the list of the Top Twenty Quest.
Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of instrumental music. We write about those trying to make the next step in their careers and established artists.