1. “A Better Life” – Supersmall. A good-natured, walking-speed tune that gives more than it asks back from you: you don’t have to listen hard to enjoy, but there are charms for those who listen deeply to the early ’00s, Parachutes/Turin Brakes-style work.
2. “May the Stars Fall at Your Door” – Andrew Adkins. We all need an encouraging blessing every now and then–Adkins provides uplifting lyrics with an equally uplifting folk arrangement (complete with harmonica). Totally great work here.
3. “Nowhere” – Swaying Wires. Tina Karkinen’s confident vocals give a levity to this serious, acoustic-led indie-pop tune.
4. “Know It All” – Bitterheart. Brash, immediate, strum-heavy, full-throated folk-pop that marries the enthusiasm of folk-punk with the good-hearted charm of a folk-pop tune. If all their work is like this, their album’s going to be a blast.
5. “One Three Nine” – Jacob Metcalf. Fluttering, ethereal folk that stays grounded basically by force of will, a la Andrew Bird.
6. “Chandelier” – Russell Howard. This gender-flipped cover of Sia’s tune creates a stark atmosphere by modifying Howard’s vocals and putting them over a delicate guitar accompaniment and subtle percussive beat.
7. “White Light Doorway” – Florist. The band has mastered the skill of keeping a song together while lead singer Emily Sprague purposefully sounds like she’s falling apart. The tension there is beautiful and weighty.
8. “While You Stand” – Michael Nau. The wide-eyed naivete of Page France is long gone, but the absurd ease with which Nau pens a lyric and fits it to a simple guitar line persists. It hits me.
9. “Habits” – Adrienne Tooley. Carrying that Lilith Fair torch: female perspective; sharp, witty lyricism; clear, uncluttered acoustic songwriting.
10. “Secrets” – Nick Zubeck. Laidback chill doesn’t get more laidback than this.
11. “Monde” – Stranded Horse. Fleet, powerful fingerpicking contrasts a laissez-faire vocal mood for a knotty, beautiful tune that feels like it fell out of a Wes Anderson movie somewhere.
12. “Black Gold” – Black Country. There are few substances so evocative as oil, with its viscous flow, vibrant sheen, wealth-making potential, and divisive opinion-making. Black Country spells out a narrative of the open spaces, where finding oil is the difference between emptiness of landscape and buzzing life–hanging the promise of oil over the head of a barren, windswept instrumental landscape.
13. “We’ll Get By” – The Singer and the Songwriter. One of the more un-Google-able bands working today drops a stately, moving tune that includes accordion and shuffling snare under a beautiful alto vocal melody.
14. “Wanderer’s Waltz” – Youth Policy. Here’s a wintry, stark tune composed of breathy, Elliott Smith-esque vocals, cascading fingerpicking, and a moody sense of melancholia.
15. “Ghost Blue” – Sparrows Gate. If I walked into a bar where Sparrows Gate was playing this moving, piano-driven ballad-esque tune, I hope it would be to work off a breakup instead of celebrate a success. “Gravitas” doesn’t sell it well enough.
16. “Goes Without Saying” – Melaena Cadiz. A relaxing, unspooling, wandering tune that just feels lovely.
17. “Kicking You Out” – Merival. Few things get me more than a raw, open-hearted acoustic tune with some room echo. Merival’s strong songwriting skills are on full display here, with nothing else added but some harmony vocals. As they say: all the feels.
1. “Every Fight” – Lost Feeling. This complex, attention-grabbing track provides the electronic drama of a Baths track with more acoustic guitar and strings. Here’s a voice to watch.
2. “Hello Miss Lonesome” – Marlon Williams. Williams’ voice just fits so perfectly over this familiar-yet-strange rockabilly-meets-alt-country sprinter.
3. “Give It Up” – Animal Years. Any band sharing a name with a Josh Ritter album should make folk-rock as gleeful, catchy, and all-around fun as this. I can see myself jumping up and down to this song live.
4. “Oh, K” – Alma. Do you need a ray of acoustic pop-soul sunshine to cut through a gray day? Have this one.
5. “Holy Water” – Ed Prosek. Bear with me on this one, but I imagine this is what Mumford and Sons’ last album would have sounded like if they had not fully rejected their acoustic roots: it’s got high drama, but it’s contextualized in a mellow, lush, developed arrangement (check that choir).
6. “Winter Beat” – Michael Nau. Nau is half of Cotton Jones and–more importantly to me–the man behind Page France, one of Independent Clauses’s earliest loves. This walking-speed, bleary-eyed, Lou Reed-esque jam is a cool turn.
7. “No Stone” – Jenny Gillespie. Gillespie’s voice is wide and expansive, providing a nice tension against the close-cropped, keys-driven indie-pop below it. As a result, the tune has a unique vibe that makes its reference points tough to place.
8. “Darkness in Me” – Eight Belles. There’s a theatrical quality lurking just under the surface of this easygoing acoustic tune: you can find it in the piano, the surging strings, and the little swells at the middle of the song. It pairs nicely with Jessi Phillips’ confident alto voice to create a surprising, compelling track.
9. “The Broken Spoon” – Backyard Folk Club. Mad props for the name actually describing the sound. In addition to sounding like the most fun you can have on the back porch, this band has spoons, too!
10. “Chosen Peace” – Steamboats. We could all use a lot more peace in our lives, and if it’s delivered in a warm folk style, so much the better.
11. “Riot” – Supersmall. “Hello, is this Quiet is the New Loud HQ? Are y’all still open for business? Can we join? Here’s our credentials.”
12. “I Am Trying to Disappear” – Matt Bauer. Fresh, bright, and tentative, like if the lo-fi had been scrubbed out of all those early Iron and Wine records to hear how fragile things get when everyone can hear every bit of your plan. It picks up by the end very nicely, but that first half is delightful.
13. “Hollow Body” – Many Rooms. There’s something raw and powerful about the delicate acoustic exploration of this track.
One of my best friends and I are huge folk fans. We share some of the same loves (Josh Ritter, Simon and Garfunkel, Iron and Wine), but we diverge pretty hard at one point: he’s a big fan of the British folk sound, and I’m a big fan of the American folk sound. The British folk sound has a very open sound: capturing the sound of rolling hills on the English countryside, the music often abounds with flutes, mandolin, and other optimistic sounds. American folk has a much less optimistic air about it; Dylan’s strum-heavy protest songs and Simon and Garfunkel’s world-weary pop/folk tunes set the stage for the depressing world that American folk resides in.
The Points North take a distinctly British approach to folk, although they hail from Boston. Accordion, flute, delicately fingerpicked guitar, piano, mandolin and more permeate the sound, creating a rollicking sound. But even though these songs are charming, melodic, and sunny, they never become less weighty. Page France was one of the only other bands I know of that was able to capture the balance between giddy music and serious content. And The Points North don’t geek out on a Michael Nau-esque level; they’re much more tempered than that. Stately, as the Brits might say.
If Sufjan Stevens were a little more obsessed with flute, he could have written “Cape Tryon”; the background vocals and general feel of the song would have fit perfectly on Illinoise! If the Low Anthem cracked a smile every now and then, they would be happy to claim the elegaic accordion intro of “I Awoke a Child.” If Nick Drake had found friends to play with him, he could have written half these songs, from the peculiar picking rhythm of “Ever Bright White” to the carefree feel of “Tires & the Pavement.” There are elements of Nickel Creek’s joyful pop (minus the bluegrass), and Novi Split’s goofy swooping musical instruments.
Although I’ve spent most of this album saying who the Points North sound like, that’s not to their discredit. This isn’t an album that causes me to wince every time I hear a musical familiarity. On the other hand, these references (intentional or otherwise) cause excitement and increase enjoyment. The sound isn’t as intimate as my favorite folk bands, due to the myriad of sounds going on, but that’s not what The Points North were shooting for.
The Points North’s I Saw Across the Sound is a unique release, written and recorded with clarity of idea. It’s a very distinctive brand of folk that draws off all the aforementioned bands, but copies none of them. Quite enjoyable and talented.