It’s Christmastime! And if you’re over Sufjan’s Christmas songs (but how could you be??), there are definitely some new options to love this yuletide.
I love Christmas almost as much as I love puns, so Candy Cigarette’s “A Whale’s Christmas in Childress, TX” is endeared to me in multiple ways. (The pun is a reversal of the terms in Dylan Thomas’ “A Child’s Christmas in Wales.”) It’s a chipper acoustic-led indie-pop tune that has a heaping helping of Christmas cheer poured into it (and sleigh bells! always sleigh bells!). The unique direction of the lyrics make it even more fun. Awesome.
SHEL goes for a light-touch approach on “Sleigh Ride,” not deviating too far from the classic approach (because what would it be without sleigh bells?). That makes the warm lead vocals the star here.
IC fave Latifah Phillips (of Moda Spira and Page CXVI) has teamed up with Aaron Strumpel to create an album of vintage-sounding Christmas tunes called Heck Ya the Halls (awesome title, y’all). It’s surprisingly non-kitschy: plenty of jazzy trumpet, staccato piano, and smooth vibes to go around.
Jenny & Tyler, another IC fave, just dropped a Christmas album. Their recent folk-pop/indie-rock output has been pretty magnificent, so I expect this release to be no different.
Andrew Belle’s offering for this holiday season is a dense, moody electro-pop outing called “Back for Christmas” that may not end up sung around the yule log but has a lot of staying power. If you hear me kickin’ this one in July, don’t be surprised. Really tight work here.
Moda Spira‘s self-titled debut album is a beautiful, intriguing work that combines pensive indie-pop, thoughtful electro-pop, R&B and more into a distinctive sound. The lyrics are just as impressive, tackling the little-discussed topic of marital commitment with candor, verve, and impact. The result is a deeply moving album that fires on all cylinders.
Moda Spira is, at core, a piano-led indie-pop album with nods to singer/songwriter lyrical sensibilities. Due to the impressive arrangements that Latifah Phillips and her collaborators develop, the final project is much more than that. It’s a credit to those diverse arrangements that this 12-song album is unusually tight for such a long work; the songs do not become monotonous. There’s a five-song suite in the middle of the album that perfectly shows off how that works.
“Shaking the Walls” is the most immediate of the tunes on the record: it’s the most electronic piece, sounding not that far off from School of Seven Bells material. The layering of multiple synths on top of traditional keyboards matches the complexity of the vocal layering that’s going on by the end of the song. At track five, this thoughtful-yet-fun pop song is a big turning point in the flow of the album. It’s followed by “Bet on Me,” which is probably the track most influenced by R&B: check the restrained guitar, heavily reverbed percussion, and the vocal melodies. It’s a big shift musically from the previous track, but the emotions behind Phillips’ vocals in both tunes carry the listener through.
“The Hard Way” is reminiscent of Jenny and Tyler’s cinematic folk/indie-rock sound, delivering some of the most indelible vocal melodies in an album chock full of them. There’s a little bit of electro sneaking in the arrangement, too, but it’s there to round out the sound instead of take it over. “What You Need” combines the straight piano rhythms of indie-rock/indie-pop with R&B vocals, pad synth arrangements, and strings, combining many of her influences in a sound that’s all Moda Spira’s own. It’s a very quiet, chill song, but not as quiet as “Stillness,” an intimate solo piano musing. In the span of five tunes, Phillips goes from her most noisy to her most serene while displaying a huge breadth of songwriting chops. It’s impressive. There are other impressive tunes (the harp-driven “We Hold On” is particularly rad), but I want to leave some surprises for you.
The lyrics are deeply important here as well. Many of the songs here are about how hard being married is, even if (especially if?) you’re committed to keeping it going through the hard times. (Marriage is also portrayed as incredibly beautiful: see “Shaking the Walls.”) As a husband myself, they resonated clearly and deeply with me. It’s also interesting that these topics are framed in vocal lines that draw from the R&B tradition; the phrases “What You Need” and “Bet on Me” sound like they could be any generic R&B come-on, but in Moda Spira’s wedded context, they have a much richer back story. The lyrics reach into a deep well of emotion and are uniquely strong because of it.
Moda Spira is a brilliant collection of inventive, honest, yearning, passionate tunes about staying together that subverts expectations in an astonishing number of ways. Fans of Imogen Heap, The Antlers, and all the aforementioned artists will find much to love. This is a remarkable album. Highly recommended.
It’s getting better and better outside, so my ears are getting more and more attuned to those summery tunes.
Oh So Summery
1. “Philosophize In It! Chemicalize With It!” – Kishi Bashi. He’s on Joyful Noise Recordings, which sounds like a 100% perfect fit. This ridiculously happy and catchy tune will get stuck in your head. HAPPY SUMMER Y’ALL.
2. “Sweater Weather” – Challenger. If John Ross gets any more inspired by the ’80s, I’ll have to start questioning where he’s hiding his time machine. But for now, enjoy this blissed-out synth-pop, complete with gated snares and stuttering percussion fills.
3. “Dead Man’s Pose” – Old Smokey. Almost as excited as Kishi Bashi is Old Smokey, a folky outfit that features no guitars but 3000% enthusiasm. This is not your average folk: brass and clarinet counter throughout when the members of the band aren’t group-hollering. It’s just wonderful.
4. “Let’s Get Started” – Dylan Gardner. OH SUMMER YOU ARE ALMOST HERE. I will celebrate you with a guitar-pop tune by a flop-haired teenager with pop chops. I only thought of Hanson like once. Mostly the Beatles. But some Hanson. No Bieber though.
5. “Halo” – DamnRight! There’s always room in my heart for chillwave-inspired electro fun.
6. “I Spy” – Michael McFarland. I love Train, so take this as nothing but a compliment when I say that this track falls somewhere between Train and old-school Guster.
7. “Old Foes” – Yaquina Bay. Orchestral folk is not generally known for its easygoing vibe, but Yaquina Bay creates just such a mood here.
8. “Morning Light” – Andrew Judah. I’m not sure how Judah came up with the idea to get steel drums and banjo together, but it sounds incredible. I am extremely excited for this upcoming record–it promises to bend genres all over the places.
9. “Terrible Love” – Moda Spira. Latifah Phillips takes a different angle on The National’s slow-burner, but it’s no less dramatic or powerful at the end.
10. “Right In My Arms” – Exzavier Whitley. Like early Iron & Wine, this is deeply calming fingerstyle guitar that cares more about the mood than perfection of performance. Gorgeous work.
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.