Serious singer/songwriters have a tough row to hoe, as we’re largely past the point where a great lyric can propel you through bland instrumentation or vice versa. You’ve got to be on your game in both categories to make a dent, because there’s a lot of competition. MAITA is up for the challenge, as Waterbearerstands out in both categories. Her debut EP is a surprisingly complex, unusually assured five-song collection that draws similarities to Kathleen Edwards.
Maita’s assured alto makes the listener feel right at home from the first moment. The ease with which she handles lilting high notes and deft syllabic turns (e.g. the verses of “Geography”) are usually the province of artists with many more releases under their belts. It’s not just the vocals that show unusual maturity: the stark yet engaging arrangements are built around warm, clear acoustic guitar and subtle percussion. The bright, unadorned recording style highlights the vocals, guitar and percussion beautifully. It’s an impressive collection of songs from that angle.
The lyrics are another interesting angle. MAITA’s lyrical sense hews toward the Lady Lamb school of lyrics: there’s a clarity of thought that isn’t obscured by the complexity of language she uses. MAITA’s lyrics focus on relational complexity (“Kinder than Most,” “Too Tired to Love You”) but don’t fall neatly into the “love song” / “break up song” dichotomy that singer/songwriters can sometimes get trapped in when they write about relationships. Between the interesting topics and the precise wording, the lyrics are unusually attractive.
MAITA’s debut is an unusually sophisticated take on singer/songwriter work. The songs are interesting from multiple angles, making for multiple engaging listens. Highly recommended.
Strangers by Accident‘s five-song EP establishes the male/female duo as somewhere between the wistful, major key acoustic pop of the Weepies and the spartan acoustic delicacy of Joshua Radin’s early work. They can get a little bit noisier than either outfit (“Straight to Space,” “Borderline”), but their sweet spot is a bright, clear, open sound garnished with a twist of sadness (or two).
“Steal” is the opener and the tone-setter, with a single acoustic guitar, a tambourine, two vocalists, and ambient guitar marking out the sonic space that the duo explore for the rest of the EP. Standout “Borderline” opens as the quietest track: the lyrics are poignant and unafraid to take on the darkness in the world, like a Rocky Volotato song. It grows to one of their noisiest, with a raucous electric guitar line crashing in intermittently. “Busted Heart” and “Hold Me Down” are both just great acoustic pop songs; sometimes you don’t have to reinvent the wheel to make a really great car. If you’re into the Civil Wars, The Local Strangers, or other classy male/female duos I’m not familiar with, you’ll love Strangers by Accident.
O by Holy ’57 owes an incredible debt to the carefree first two albums of Vampire Weekend. The four tracks here are all sun-drenched and wrapped in the swaying-yet-choppy rhythms that Ezra Koenig and co. virtually trademarked. Holy ’57 trades out the helter-skelter guitar runs for tropical synths, making a sound even more upbeat and sunshiny than VW did. The songs bounce, leap, skip, and twirl their way through my speakers, making it impossible not to smile.
The topics fit with the vibe: “Venice, CA” is about having youthful adventures in the titular city, “126.96.36.199” deals with a breakup and/or social failures by a nostalgic longing for the ’90s, and “Jep Shuffle” builds its chorus around a dance (although it doesn’t tell you how to do the Jep Shuffle, just that it exists). That last track is the unavoidable track: it’s a nigh-on-perfect summer pop song, with verses that build, a chorus that pays off in spades, and rhythms that make me want to move. It’s a sin that this song isn’t everywhere, because it is awesome. Those looking for a song to close out their summer with need to look no farther than O, where there’s at least one (if not three!) tunes that can do that for you. Awesome.
Deer Scout‘s customsis a slight, intimate object: Dena Miller’s four-song EP barely breaks 10 minutes. But in those 10 minutes, her unadorned songwriting makes a statement. She opens with “holy ghost,” which is nothing more than delicate guitar picking, earnest alto vocals, and beautifully complex lyrics. Fans of the dense stylings of Lady Lamb will see similar sparks here. The song is beautifully balanced: there’s not much to it, but it all sounds vital and immediate. It grabbed my attention and didn’t let go.
“little state” and “up high” feature strumming more and have more of a distinct song structure, recalling Waxahatchee’s early stylings. Although there are referents, Miller’s vocal melodies are put together in her own way (the interval jumps on the chorus of “little state,” the confident delivery of everything in “up high”); she is establishing herself as a songwriting voice here. The short set closes with “train song,” which splits the difference between the dense lyrics and fingerpicking of the opener and the concrete song structures of the center two pieces. Her voice is excellent here as well. Fans of women singer/songwriters, intimate sketches, and minimalism will find much to love in customs.
1. “Sometimes It’s a Song” – Rob Williams. The fresh, round, earnest qualities of Williams’ voice match the subtle sweetness of the surrounding arrangement, resulting in the sort of song that feels real and weighty without being heavy or loud. It makes quite an impact.
2.”Heart of Stone” – The American West. This one captures the easygoing, lilting West Coast country sound in full flower, with the pedal steel more floating than weeping and the guitar more calming than cutting. The vocals and lyrics, however, supply all the heartbreak you could ask for from a country tune.
3. “Lovedrunk Desperados” – Annabelle’s Curse. That opening thumping kickdrum creates a sense of urgency that cuts through the banjo and acoustic guitar songwriting and lends it the hint of grandeur that compels me to keep listening. The rest of the song does not disappoint.
4. “Set on Fire” – Magic Giant. They’re not referencing their meteoric rise, but this rave-folk outfit (seriously, right there with Avicii, in only a slightly different way) is making a big noise in a lot of places. This particularly tune will keep their star right on rising.
5. “Mountains” – Andy Hackbarth. Even though its title says otherwise, this one invokes the beach: chill, Mraz-style acoustic-pop meets reggae in a sunshiny brew.
6. “Molly Put the Kettle On” – Ben Hunter and Joe Seamons. It doesn’t get much more authentic-sounding than this rootsy, bluegrassy croon/holler tune featuring harmonica, banjo, and fiddle.
7. “Mother” – Adam Busch. Touches of psychedelia flavor this otherwise unassuming, easygoing, fingerpicked acoustic tune.
8. “Lighthouse” – Phillip LaRue. The subtle alt-pop of Peter Bradley Adams meets the flitting, romantic strings of Sleeping at Last for a romantic, lovely tune.
9. “Cool and Refreshing” – Florist. Sporting another not-quite-yet-self-aware title, this tune delivers fragile, melancholic, beautiful indie-pop that really seems like it should be acoustic. Shades of Lady Lamb, Laura Stevenson, and Kimya Dawson appear, but Florist uses the references as touchstones instead of crutches. Just beautiful.
10. “Ein Berliner” – Jacob Metcalf. This tune has the gravitas to convey history in all its glory and terror–a tune so infused with lyrical weight that a single sigh can speak volumes. Distant trumpets, careful strings, twinkling glockenspiel and gentle baritone make this some sort of cross between Beirut and Kris Orlowski, which is only positive. Metcalf previously was in IC faves The Fox and The Bird, and it seems he hasn’t missed a step since stepping out.
1. “Spring” – Sam Burchfield. Measured guitar strum and an evocative vocal performance draw me in, but it’s the gentle keys and the ragged drumming that give the song character. The rest of the song just seals the deal. Shades of Brett Dennen here–nothin’ but a good thing. What a single.
2. “Vacation” – Florist. Within seconds the tentative, relatable guitar picking has drawn me in entirely. Emily Sprague’s tender, confessional delivery gives this a magnetic appeal usually reserved for acts like Laura Stephenson, Lady Lamb, and old-school Kimya Dawson.
3. “Little By Little” – Niamh Crowther. The melodic folk-pop is charming, and then she starts singing and it jumps way up into the stratosphere. Her voice is just remarkable. Serious one to watch here.
4. “Nevada City” – John Heart Jackie. Pulls the incredible trick of not feeling like a song, but like part of the environment you were already in, turning the corners brighter and lightening the vibe throughout. The easy maturity of this tune is not to be underrated or underestimated, especially when it bursts into a beautiful crescendo near its midpoint. Undeniably powerful.
5. “Reality Show” – Sam Joole. Adept at reggae and acoustic pop, Joole blends the lyrical and musical sentiments of both into a piece of spot-on social criticism about social media that doubles as a chill-out track.
6. “A Bone to Pick” – Ten Ton Man. The gravelly, circus-like drama of Tom Waits’ work collides with the enthusiastic world-music vibes of Gogol Bordello to create an ominous, memorable track.
7. “Walk Right” – Pete Lanctot and the Stray Dogs. An old-timey revival is the site of this tune, where the stray dogs admonish all those listening to forsake their lives of sin and “walk right.” The vintage sound is updated with great production and a hint of a knowing wink.
8. “15 Step” – Phia. The kalimba-wielding indie-popstress drops a gently mindbending cover of the Radiohead tune with just thumb piano, distant guitar, claps, stomps, and layered vocals. Just whoa.
9. “It’s Not Your Fault” – Gregory Uhlmann. Soft woodwinds deliver pleasant texture to this swaying, loose, thoughtful piece. Uhlmann captures a beautiful, unstructured mood here.
10. “If I Go” – Jake McMullen. Hollow and distant yet visceral and immediate, McMullen creates slowcore acoustic tunes similar to those of Jesse Marchant or Gregory Alan Isakov at his most ethereal. Shades of Damien Jurado’s tortured voice creep in too. It’s gorgeous stuff.
There is no one quite like Aly Spaltro, and there is nothing quite like After. Spaltro burst on the scene as Lady Lamb the Beekeeper with with the almost overwhelmingly brilliant mindbender Ripely Pine in 2013. Two years later, she’s returned with a shorter name (Lady Lamb) and a new album that tightens up her already incredibly fine-tuned indie rock. After is a musical and lyrical powerhouse that should establish her as a talent with enough ideas to keep going for the long term.
It’s reductive to label After a breakup album, but the title invites the reference. Tunes like “Vena Cava” and “Batter” reference a split off-handedly or obliquely, while “Milk Duds” lays out the loss in raw detail. But it’s not the process of breaking up that is documented; instead, After is an accounting of the emotions that appear or return after the end of a relationship. It’s an emotional exploration of the territory that Josh Ritter’s post-divorce album The Beast in Its Tracks accounted for in concrete, physical spaces. There are multiple references to the tiny details of life that she has suddenly noticed: singles “Spat Out Spit” and “Billions of Eyes” both discuss train rides and their attendant emotional revelations; hair braids, shoes, and all manner of animals are minor characters; food is a constant metaphor.
Animals and food aren’t new territory for Spaltro. Ripely Pine included tons of references to those topics as well, both lyrically and visually. The phrase “crane your neck” makes a significant return, as well. But as much as there are threads connecting these two albums, there are vast territories separating them. Sometimes the territory is lyrical and literal: trains, planes, and cars move people around, while Arkansas, Maine and Vermont might be the places they are going. These lyrics are rich, deep, and visceral; they are not your typical breakup lyrics.
They’re not your typical lyrics in general. Spaltro’s image-heavy lyricism never becomes so idiosyncratic as to be effectively dadaist or surreal; instead, these tunes feel like the most vivid memoirists’ work, inviting you in to an experience that you can share. Ripely Pine was an occasionally inscrutable, impressionistic affair: After seems to have fiddled with the knobs and brought everything into focus. And whoa, what a picture.
And whoa, what a sound! The territories between the two albums don’t just range to lyrical differences. Ripely Pine celebrated fractured, passionate, highly intricate songwriting almost to the exclusion of relatability: it was a towering artistic achievement that served as a big boom from a new artist. After takes the complex work and fits it into the service of emotional narratives. The balance of fantastic arrangements and lyrical relatability is much closer to equal, although Spaltro’s voice will always make the mundane seem majestic.
Yet there’s still a giddy charge that emits from these tracks. “Violet Clementine” is as whiz-bang hectic and technically impressive as anything she’s ever written, incorporating a loping bass line that turns into an ominous guitar line (complete with whirring organ). Another section sees her duetting with a male voice, then a noisy choir; it smash-cuts into a brand new tempo and mood. It’s catchy in the weirdest of ways. Opener “Vena Cava” shows her in full flower, whipping back and forth from singer/songwriter quiet to garage-rock loud with unexpected lyrical turns throughout.
Elsewhere, she has straightened out some of the curls and eccentricities of her songwriting into indie-rock songs that focus on her dramatic, powerful voice (“Billions of Eyes,” “Milk Duds”). “Batter” is a garage-rock stomp through and through. “Sunday Shoes” is a vulnerable fingerpicked tune. These tunes are just as compelling as the more wild ones, displaying a different sort of confidence. We knew she could write stuff we couldn’t; now we know she can write the stuff we do write better than we do. In short, talent abounds throughout.
I could keep writing about After for a while. It’s got complexities all in and throughout it, like a complex jewel or a particularly large painting. Lady Lamb’s ability to command attention musically and lyrically is impressive, and the resulting songs are ones that won’t let you leave for long. After is a remarkable achievement that I expect to see on my year end lists.