1. “New Moon” – Namesayers. The lead guitar here is angular, cranky, and brittle, contrasting against the swirling, low-key psychedelia laid down by the rest of instruments and Devin James Fry’s mystical croon. It makes for an intriguing rock that sounds like midnight in the desert with a big bonfire going. (Which is pretty much what the title and the album art convey, so this one has its imagery and soundscapes really tight in line.)
2. “O Zephyr” – Ptarmigan. It’s tough to be a serious alt-folk band without sounding over-earnest or overly ironic. Ptarmigan finds the perfect center, where it sounds like a bunch of people who love folk and have something to say are making their noise how they want. Fans of River Whyless, Fleet Foxes (often violators of the over-earnest, but nonetheless), and Barr Brothers will enjoy this.
3. “Axolotl” – Lord Buffalo. Lord Buffalo specializes in primal, pounding, apocalyptic pieces that build from small beginnings to terrifying heights. This is an A+ example of the form.
4. “A Miracle Mile” – St. Anthony and the Mystery Train. Equally apocalyptic as above, but in a more Southern Gothic, Nick Cave, howl-and-clatter style of indie-rock than the all-out-sonic assault. A wild ride.
5. “Spring” – Trevor Ransom. A tone-poem of a piece, illustrating the arrival of spring with found sounds, distant vocals, and confident piano.
6. “Not Enough” – Sunjacket. This inventive indie-rock song draws sounds and moods from all over the place, creating a distinct, unique vibe. There’s some Age of Adz weirdness, some Grizzly Bear denseness, some giant synth clouds, and more.
7. “Bushwick Girl” – CHUCK. A goofy, loving parody of NYC’s hippest hipsters in appropriately creaky, nasally, quirky indie-pop style.
8. “Ghost” – Mood Robot. Chillwave meets ODESZA-style post-dub with some pop v/c/v work for good measure. It’s a great little electro-pop tune.
9. “Da Vinci” – Jaw Gems. All the swagger, strut, stutter, and stomp of hip-hop and none of the vocals. Impressive.
10. “Disappearing Love” – Night Drifting. If the National’s high drama met the Boss’s roots rock, you’d end up with something like this charging tune with a huge conclusion.
11. “Black and White Space” – Delamere. Britpop from Manchester with a catchy vocal hook and subtle instrumentation that comes together really nicely.
12. “Plastic Flowers” – Poomse. Predictions of human doom over crunchy guitars give way to a densely-layered indie-rock track with claustrophobia-inducing horns. If you’re into Mutemath or early ’00s emo (non-twinkly variety), you’ll find some footholds here.
13. “Lake, Steel, Oil” – Basement Revolver. There’s something hypnotic about Chrisy Hurn plaintively singing her heart out as if there isn’t a howling wall of distortion raging around her.
Austin alt-country outfit Salesman‘s output up until this point has been eerie, avant-garde, and complex. With the Let’s Go Jump into the Fire 7″, they’ve gone in a different direction that they admit is “a new page” in their book. And boy, is it.
Instead of dark and foreboding tunes that take a while to make their way to your heart, the title track of the seven-inch is an immediately endearing tune. It opens with a jaunty, celebratory, major-key fingerpicking pattern on an electric guitar, which is a shock in itself.
The rest of the arrangement unfolds in a careful way that builds the song seemingly organically to a jubilant point two minutes in where Devin James Fry yells “Yeah!” not out of terror, but out of enthusiasm. Wavering pedal steel, tasteful drums, and thrumming bass create a warm atmosphere that’s hard to resist. It’s very much alt-country, and the rhythms and vocals still mark it as a Salesman track, but their powers are definitely engaged in a different direction.
“Let’s Go Jump into the Fire” is backed with “Riddle of the Source,” which is darker in tone and timbre. It’s still not as difficult as their previous work (or Fry’s previous work with apocalyptic post-rock band Lord Buffalo), but the vibes are darker, more forlorn, more at home in the minor key. Fry stretches out his vocals here, leading the song with his nuanced performance. There’s an awesome (and all too short) guitar solo as well. Salesman’s new look is less obtuse, more direct, and thoroughly enjoyable. “Let’s Go Jump into the Fire” is a brilliant track that speaks optimistically toward things to come.
Janet Devlin‘s Running With Scissors is a thoroughly modern acoustic pop album, putting all the things we’ve learned since Nevermind to good use. The Irish singer/songwriter channels The Lumineers, Lilith Fair, Ingrid Michaelson, and KT Tunstall throughout the album, creating tunes that fit the best adjectives of each turn. Opener “Creatures of the Night” is a perky mid-’00s acoustic-pop song with mandolin and stomping drums; the booming kick bass turns into the walloped, four-on-the-floor tom of “House of Cards,” which is a female-fronted Lumineers track if there ever was one. (It’s even got the obligatory “hey!”)
The tunes set the tone for the album: fun, smart, and melodically mature. The surprisingly maturity with which she traipses through genres is worth noting here: “Hide and Seek” is straight-ahead ’90s female pop (Jewel?), “Lifeboat” includes melodica and separated strumming a la Ingrid Michaelson, “Things We Lost in the Fire” is an introspective piano ballad (Fiona Apple!), and her cover of the The Cure’s “Friday I’m in Love” is all folk fingerpicking and whispered vocals. “Wonderful” has a regrettable lyrical concept, but if you just ignore the words, it’s another cheery ’90s pop tune. (On second thought, maybe the goofy lyrics are just part and parcel of her commitment to the style.)
Janet Devlin’s Running With Scissors is a carousel of delights: no matter which song you pick, it will take you for a warm, lovely trip. If you’re into acoustic pop, you should know about Devlin.
The vision of indie rock that Neutral Milk Hotel put forward is alive and well in Matthew Squires. Where the Music Goes to Die is a mindbending mix of melodic sophistication, off-kilter arrangements, highly literate and oft-enigmatic lyrics, idiosyncratic vocals, and an uncompromising attitude toward the creation of the work. Heidegger, Plato, and copious Biblical references weave their way through the album, as Squires spins indirect (“When Moses Sighed”) and direct eulogies (“American Trash”) of American society.
The songs that bear the lyrics are at turns jaunty indie-rock tunes [the excellent “Echo,” “Some Corny Love Song (Devotional #1)”], major-key alt-folk (the title track, “Plato’s Cave”), and doomy folk (“When Moses Sighed,” “A Strange Piece”). Squires’ high-pitched voice keeps the whole ship sailing, as he brings the listener through the collection with ease. The ultimate result of the collection is similar to that of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea: Where the Music Goes to Die delivers an almost-overwhelming amount of ideas to take in, but all those pieces unfold through repeated enjoyment of the impressively refined melodic surface level. If nothing else, you’ll love singing along to “Echo”–maybe the Heidegger reference will hit later.
The Maravines – Distelfink. It’s always a joy to hear a band build and grow from one release to another. The Maravines’ Distelfink follows their self-titled 2013 release by almost exactly 12 months. Their previous offering was a jangly, reverb-heavy indie-pop work; their new one takes those elements and crafts them into a pitch-perfect rainy-day indie-rock album.
From the album art, it’s clear that The Maravines know what they’ve got here: the gray skies and rain over a lush field and a colorful, nostalgic local business sign are a neat analog of the sound. The duo craft elegant, lush tunes that never turn into spectacles: the songwriting, arrangement, and recording are all purposefully tailored to create a consistent sound throughout the record. You can listen to the individual tunes like “Third Floor Statue,” “Maryland,” and “Flowers on Tonnelle” for their standalone beauty, or you can just let the whole album accompany you through (or transport you to) a dreary, relaxing day. That’s the secret weapon of the album: the green fields of the album art. This album ultimately plays not off the stark, forlorn beauty of Bon Iver or Michigan, but the lush beauty of Nightlands, Holy Fiction, and Sleeping at Last. Distelfink is a beautiful, evocative, wonderful album.
Lord Buffalo — Castle Tapes EP. Lord Buffalo is given to long, gritty, Southwestern, wide-open folk-esque landscapes that burn acoustic guitars into ashes and scatter them to the violent Santa Ana Wind. On the other end of the spectrum, they play terrifying post-rock with spoken/chanted/shouted vocals that sounds like the soundtrack to the apocalypse.
On this short EP, they focus more on their expansive, slow-burn sound than their fully-ramped-up version. A cover of Roky Erickson’s “Two-Headed Dog” sets the pace for the EP: it’s a pensive sort of jam with surreal lyrical imagery and a long wind-up that quits before the seemingly-inevitable explosion. The manipulated violins and ominous spoken word of “Valle De Luna” turn into a more abstract tune that’s a little harder to get into, but it still never gets near Armageddon. The final two tracks are essentially parts one and two of the same long song: the pounding, grumbling, low-grade roar of “Mineral Wells” leads directly into the instrumental “Form of the Sword,” which is a long tension release; it’s the sound of the metaphorical tide going out.
Even though Castle Tapes shows off the “lighter” side of Lord Buffalo, this is still a heavy, serious, thought-provoking release. Lord Buffalo says they’re building up to a full-length in 2015, which I can only expect will have more sweeping, booming, indignant folk/post-rock dispatches for us.
Devin James Fry (Lord Buffalo, Salesman) is a busy man, but he’s taken a break from those two wild pursuits to drop the pensive, ruminative Headwater Songs. The 9-song album is a pleasantly stark affair–most tracks are just his smooth tenor voice and a fingerpicked instrument (guitar or banjo). The dual tragedies that inspired this album (the fire and floods that have happened this year near Canon City, Colorado) give the album a hushed sense of calm, as if Fry is surveying the damage to his beloved hometown. Some songs deal directly with the disasters (“After the Royal Gorge Fire,” “Headwaters (Song for Gatherer)”), while others deal with the incidents more indirectly (“Real Fire”). The whole album flows seamlessly, as if the songs flowed out of Fry like the waters they chronicle. Keening falsetto, intricate picking guitarwork, and a deep sense of patience characterize these tunes. If you’re up for some gorgeous, spartan acoustic songs, Headwater Songs should be on your to-hear list.
On the far opposite end of the spectrum in acoustic music is Mutual Benefit’s Love’s Crushing Diamond, which is a full-on chamber-pop experience. Sure, there are banjos and guitars, but there are violins, electronic sounds, and intricate arrangements that create gorgeous pile-ups of sound. This is an album that washes over a room, transforming the tone from normal to slightly more warm and comforting. Jordan Lee’s gentle voice is the perfect foil for these tender tunes, bringing out all the sweetness that can be extracted from them. If Bon Iver turned his attention to love instead of its loss, or Sufjan Stevens was less idiosyncratically percussive, or if the Low Anthem indie’d up a bit more, you’d have Mutual Benefit. This is just an absolutely gorgeous record that deserves your attention. A year-end gem.
Scott Fant‘s singer/songwriter tunes are rough-edged without getting gruff. Fant writes with just him and a guitar, giving the tunes on Goatweed Bouquet a raw, earnest feel. These tunes would feel at home at both a Tom Waits-ian bar (“Bottom of the Hole”) and a Budweiser-toting honky-tonk (“Don’t Touch That Dog,” “Walk in the Light”). There are also some ballads intermingled among the upbeat tunes, best exemplified by the pristine guitar work of “Adagio for the Lonely.” Shades of David Ramirez, Counting Crows, and old-school country come through in the short runtime, showing Fant a diverse and interesting songwriter. Very different than Headwater Songs in mood, these songs are meant to be heard live and maybe even sung along to–especially if you’ve got a cold beer in your hand.
In recorded form, Lord Buffalo has been quiet since I highly recommended their 2012 self-titled EP. They’ve been spending time playing mighty live shows and recording a full album (to be released in 2014). A self-titled 7″ has appeared to whet the appetites of those invested in their spacious sound, and whoa does it ever deliver.
The only Stephen King novel I’ve finished was The Stand, and the post-epidemic landscape that King sets his characters upon could use these two tunes as a soundtrack. Helter-skelter vocal roaring reminiscent of Isaac Brock (Modest Mouse) ranges across the urgent, pounding “Mene Mene Tekel Upharsin”; the heavily rhythmic arrangement hearkens towards stereotypical Native American chant, which only ups the tension. Evocative might be too soft a word for the visceral reaction I feel when hearing the recording; it helps that I saw this one performed live at SXSW 2013, and it was suitably earthshaking. B-side “Black Mesa” is a more expansive track, giving the band more room to breathe. It’s just as dramatic and fascinating, but in a different way. Lord Buffalo are making unique and thrilling music, and I can hardly wait for the full album in 2014. Highly recommended (again!).
At their best, Son of Laughter‘s singer/songwriter tunes blend Paul Simon’s precise fingerpicking and melodies with Josh Ritter’s thoughtful, storytelling lyrics. The result is the 5-song The Mantis and The Moon EP, which gives much to enjoy while pointing to a bright future for musician Chris Slaten.
Opener “Cricket in a Jar” and the title track jump off the page as the clear standouts. The former delivers the most poignant line of the EP (“This is a law of loveliness/we love what never lasts”), while the latter gives us the most memorable chorus of the bunch. Slaten’s voice is in fine form through the chorus and beyond, moving sprightly across the gentle arrangement while maintaining nuance in the pathos. The nice subtlety of the lyrics helps with Slaten’s vocal nuance, as well. It’s hard for me to hear “The Mantis” and resist pushing repeat; that’s high praise from over here. The other three tunes are a little less immediate in their charms, but they each show promising aspects to Slaten’s sound. I’m looking forward to how this project grows and develops, as Slaten’s talent seems like it has a lot of good songs in it that are just waiting to emerge.
On recommendation from a friend who knows more about music than me, I checked out NYC synth-pop duo Carousel. He told me that it was beautiful and peppy stuff, and those are two of my favorite words. The music was indeed both. The duo both played keys/synths, while one took care of vocals and the other handled an electric guitar. Their synth-pop sounded like the second album that MGMT should have made: all gentle treble hooks and catchy bass-synth beats, sung in feathery, whispery vocals. I found myself dancing through the entire set, and no more happily than when they broke out a cover of Robyn’s “Dancing in the Dark.” Their set was an absolute blast to be a part of, and I thoroughly recommend checking them out for some catchy, peppy synth-pop tunes. It was a perfect way to open SXSW.
Later in the evening I ducked out of The 512 to catch Lord Buffalo‘s set. Having covered Lord Buffalo’s excellent debut EP, I was intrigued to see how it translated live. The answer: apocalyptically. The band’s sweeping, post-rock sound is made largely with acoustic instruments, but not in any way you would expect. The drummer stands throughout, pounding on toms and snare with huge mallets. There’s no kick drum, but it’s not necessary: the rest of the band stomps enough for two or three kick drums. The quintet were so forceful in their stamping, stomping and hollering that they kept knocking over one of their amps, which made even more noise crashing to the ground.
Building off the pounding drums and foot percussion, the melodic drone comes from an organ of sorts, repetitive acoustic guitar lines, and swooning violin. The howled vocals and dissonant electric guitar cap off the maelstrom, creating great walls of doom-laden sound. But this is no aesthete exercise; the band oozed energy, as if they couldn’t get their songs out of themselves fast enough. At one point the violinist and the vocalist faced the front of the stage away from the microphones and just screamed into the air, unleashing a torrent of musical anguish/triumph from the band. It was shiver-inducing. If you’re into post-rock or the act of having goosebumps, Lord Buffalo is for you.
After I covered Lord Buffalo’s excellent EP, I was informed that the same group of musicians compose another band, named Salesman. Instruments are swapped, lead vocals are exchanged, and different-sounding music is made. Where Lord Buffalo’s folk sound has a cinematic, wide-angle feel to it, Salesman’s The Wasp EP has a much more earthy, communal intimacy.
Not that these are all weepy folk strummers. Salesman is far more characterized by its vocal melodies and patterns than any other instrument. “I Will” is an ominous a capella tune augmented only by rumbling tom, whoops and yells. It is positively intimidating. “Taos Hum” has a few more instruments going on, but it’s still distinguished by a vocal performance reminiscent of Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk.” “Giving Up (Easy Way Out)” feels like a continuation of the mood from “Taos Hum”; it’s easy to hear them as one song. “Fly Bird Fly” is a little more electronic, but it’s still firmly within the menacing, ominous, rhythm-heavy tone that Salesman has set for the songs here.
However, the opener and closer are nothing like the internal tracks of the EP. “Five Years” is a pastoral rumination, reminiscent of Fleet Foxes’ slow-moving, unfolding folk. “Ella” is an a capella track, but it’s far closer to a barbershop quartet than the pounding “I Will.” It’s the most memorable track on the album, a tune that seems to stop time for four minutes. With no instruments but voices, the song is stripped of its external markers of what should happen when; it becomes simply a free-floating, melodious experience that I didn’t want to end.
Salesman’s The Wasp EP is a diverse, interesting listening experience. If you’re up for something outside of the norm in your folk listening schedule, this will hit that spot.
Lord Buffalo‘s sparse, dark, acoustic-led folk slinks about in the shadows of the Western imagination. It’s the sort of grim, foreboding sound that I’m accustomed to attributing to Appalachia, but Lord Buffalo is from Austin, TX. The band pulls off its vision with a convincing control of atmosphere and the blessing of a low, rough baritone voice to sell the sound of their self-titled EP.
The band puts all their musical efforts to great use in “Sycamore, Pt. 2 (Glass Hills),” where a slowly-pounded drum becomes menacing with repetition under a whirling, churning crescendo of sound. It’s the sound of a revenge Western film, right about the time that the hero decides he’s going to give in to his darker side and do the deed. Then highlight track “Cold Bones” would be the next scene, where he sets out to make the villain pay: the electric guitar pairs with a wailing violin, distant pad synths and more thumping drums to create a majestic, determined, traveling feeling.
But I could be jumping the gun on that one: the eerie fourth track is called “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” and talks about “You, the devil and me.” (It has rhythms that seem to mimic the pace of traveling by horse; or I could be importing that on there, but either way, the song works.) By the time “Face in the Grass” appears, a close listener should be downright worn out from all the activity. And, so kindly, Lord Buffalo obliges with a quiet, weary, almost-reverent tune to close out the set. (How it feels when revenge is done, but isn’t really satisfying, perhaps?)
It’s a downright powerful set, spanning a wide range of emotions. I’m positively thrilled by this EP, and I look forward to what Lord Buffalo has to offer us next. Highly recommended.
Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.