1. “Holy Ghost” – deer scout. Some songs have to grow on me, but “Holy Ghost” is instant: Dena Miller’s friendly, comfortable alto invites you in, and the intimate, burbling guitar asks you to sit down. This is a magnificent song that has me very excited for future deer scout work.
2. “Annie” – Patric Johnston. The acoustic guitar has a mellifluous, perfectly-delivered melody to lead this piece, and Johnston’s voice is buttery and smooth in the way of the Barr Brothers, Josh Ritter, and the like: mature, solid, and full of gentle charisma.
3. “The Weather Girl” – Prints Jackson. This one’s a vocals-forward troubadour folk tune a la old-school Joe Pug or occasional Justin Townes Earle. Jackson knows how to use his voice and guitar to best effect, and the resulting tune shines with an easygoing assuredness. This song has legs, and I hope it gets to use them–more people should know about Prints Jackson.
4. “Rain Thoughts” – Frith. You walk into a new club that’s supposed to classy. You find yourself greeted with the gentle sounds of a musician trained in Tom Waits drama but purveying that work via strings, stand-up bass, gentle piano, and a relaxed tenor. You’re going to like it here, and you’re going to visit more often. (Alternatively: the gravitas of trip-hop worked its way into a singer/songwriter tune.)
5. “All Day All Night” – River Whyless. River Whyless has always wanted to be more than just a folk band, and here they expand their sound with some rhythmic group vocals and satisfying thrumming bass that drops this tune somewhere between Fleet Foxes and Fleetwood Mac.
6. “Firetrain” – Todd Sibbin. The raw, youthful vocal presentation of Bright Eyes’ mid-era work meets the polished horns and wailing organ of early-era Counting Crows alt-pop. (I just mentioned two of my favorite bands.) In short, this is a fantastic pop tune.
7. “Absolute Contingency” – The Ravenna Colt. The lead guitar work and background vocals point toward an alt-country tune out of the slowcore, Mojave 3 school, but the rest of the tune is a shuffle-snare folk tune that’s just lovely.
8. “4th July” – Daniel Pearson. This chipper folk-pop tune has a great harmonica part, a friendly vibe, and really depressing lyrics. At least it sounds happy!
9. “Revolver” – Vian Izak. It’s got that Parachutes-esque Brit-pop mystery to it, paired with the sort of chords and mood that evoke sticky, slow-moving days in the city. The results are unique and interesting.
10. “Out Loud” – Jason P. Krug. Brash but not aggressive, Krug pairs confident melodic delivery and chunky indie-pop/folk with a swooping cello to create an intriguing tension.
11. “Pack of Dogs” – Jesse Lacy. Here’s a full-band folk reminiscence on the joy of youthful friendships that brings banjo, acoustic, wurlitzer, and smooth tenor vocals together excellently.
12. “I Won’t Be Found” – Simon Alexander. The smoothness of traditional singer/songwriter mixed with the raw angst and passion of The Tallest Man on Earth’s vocals creates a distinct push and pull between punchy and silky.
13. “What It Is” – Alex Hedley. The purity and honesty of a fingerpicked guitar line and an emotional vocal melody are never going to get old to me. This particular tune is earnest without being cloying; moody without being morose. Well-balanced. Deeply enjoyable.
14. “Someday feat. Devendra Banhart” – Akira Kosemura. A fragile piano melody is joined by hushed vocals and romantic strings. It’s the sort of song that lovers have their first dance to.
15. “Dear, be safe” – Rasmus Söderberg. What a tender, delicate acoustic plea this is.
(There were a ton of good songs these last two weeks, so I included a lot more than usual in this post. Here’s to a good problem to have: too many tunes!)
1. “Can You Hear It” – Josiah and the Bonnevilles. A piano-led cross between mid-’00s alt-country (The New Amsterdams, I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning) and contemporary indie-pop whose enthusiasm just jumps out of the speakers.
2. “Mammoth” – Brothers Among Wera. Astonishingly, this is the second song I’ve heard in the last few weeks sung from the perspective of a mammoth at the end of the Ice Age: where Rock, Paper, Cynic’s tune was played for laughs, this one’s a bit more serious in its lyrics. However, the music here is an invigorating blast of folk-pop that has arrangements similar to Of Monsters and Men but tempos more similar to Twin Forks. The horns are just excellent here.
3. “The Man That I’ve Become” – Night Drifting. A blast of sunshine in indie-pop form, this tune has a skittering guitar line, jubilant vocals, and a bass line that bounces all over the place. There’s just enough going to be really interesting without getting hectic.
4. “Time Goes On” – Brothers. Sometimes you don’t have to break ground, you just have to nail the best elements of the formula. Brothers’ tune here is a straightforward folk tune with round acoustic guitar tone in a fingerpicked style, shuffle-snare drumming, root-chord bass with some nice fills, and sing-along vocal melodies. It just does everything I’m looking for in a folk tune (there’s even an organ solo, which isn’t strictly necessary for a folk tune but is greatly appreciated). Keep on keepin’ on, Brothers.
5. “Rose Petals” – Kindatheart. Here’s a fun tune: “Rose Petals” has indie-pop sensibilities (delicate vocal and guitar melodies, feathery background vocals) played at power-pop tempos.
6. “Stray Cats” – Robbing Johnny. There’s more vocal attitude packed into this single infectious acoustic-pop song than into some entire albums; John Murrell has impressive charisma and presence.
7. “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning” – Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams. Swampy, immediate, forceful, neo-gothic gospel that raised my eyebrows. It’s recorded immaculately, arranged dramatically (whoa organ), and performed intensely. It’s a workout, and I was only listening to it.
8. “THOUGHTS” – Gabriele Miracle. This unique tune ties the theatricality of flamenco guitar and vocals to a minimalist percussion line and mesmerizing guitar lines. It’s a wild trip.
9. “One Good Night” – Candy Cigarettes. Somewhere in the corners of my mind is a picture of a forlorn individual standing outside a hotel while the camera pans backwards away to show off the bleak desolation of the parking lot, barely-lit swimming pool, and the run-down building. The shot is fuzzy around the edges, a sympathetic reading of the place that’s seen better days. I immediately thought of this image when I heard this slice-of-life, mid-tempo acoustic jam.
10. “I Do” – Meiko. I’m a sucker for an intimate singer/songwriter tune about marital bliss, and Meiko’s latest single pushes all those buttons. The strings are great as well.
11. “Single Mountain Fiddle” – Jared Hard. Hard has a country-style tone to his baritone and a bit of country structure to his vocal melodies, but the folk-style arrangement is clean, uncluttered, and engaging.
12. “Thirteen Years Astray” – Glider Pilots. Speaking of big, empty spaces, Glider Pilots plays the kind of slow-motion alt-country that Mojave 3 was so good at. This song is heartbreaking without going for any of the big moves–it simply is infused with the majestic sense of sadness that seems so fitting.
13. “Washed Away” – Katmaz. The album’s called Nautical Things, and this relaxing, easygoing acoustic tune certainly has a gentle tidal vibe to it: there’s a slow, rolling vibe evoked from the picking pattern and a hazy, fluid mood coming out of the vocals.
14. “Never Heard Nothin’” – Galapaghost. A confident vocal performance of a resigned, sad melody plays on top of an insistent ukulele strum. The tune doesn’t outstay its welcome, leaving me wanting more.
15. “passing” – Dead Skunk. Lo-fi singer/songwriter material that falls somewhere between the hazy mood of Iron & Wine’s early work and the angular guitar work of The Mountain Goats’ early phase. It’s warm and relatable.
16. “Anyhow Anyway Anyday” – Wholewheat. Lo-fi work with casio that evokes the old-school lo-fi masters: there’s a clear song structure, off-kilter pun-making, and a clear vision that includes the tape hiss as a vital part of the tune. Lo-fi fans should jump at this.
17. “We Fell Apart” – Abby Litman. Evocative singer/songwriter work that hangs on subtle, thoughtful lyrical shifts and pleasingly melancholy guitar fingerpicking.
18. “Kissing Faded (feat. Timid Soul)” – Bohkeh. If Amanaguchi tried to write a chillwave song, it might sound like this neon-colored, glitchy-yet-chill electro piece.
19. “twentythousand” – Exes. Slow-jam electro-indie with delicate vocals and a convincing emotional palette. The smart use of vocals throughout is a highlight.
Lee Reit‘s self-titled record is largely played on a nylon-stringed guitar. In addition to adding a gentle sonic quality to the tunes, those strings import Spanish and Latin American connotations to the nine songs included here. When Reit’s evocative vocal tone and narrative vocal delivery are added in, the result is an engrossing, calming album full of intriguing tunes.
Opener “Dream Another Night” gives a good look at Reit’s guitar playing and his suave, subtly dramatic baritone vocal tone. The rolling fingerpicking is underscored by an insistent, shuffling, brushed drumbeat that would fit in a country tune; the constant press forward creates a tension against the guitar line and Reit’s easygoing vocal delivery. That tension holds even when Caitlin Marie Bell takes the mic for a verse; it’s a pleasant sort of push and pull that engages me in the tune.
There are Spanish vibes in “Dream Another Night,” both sonic and visual. The sonic ones aren’t as pronounced as they are in later songs, but the choice of all-white clothes for the band in the video gives the clip a light, airy feel that makes me think of relaxing languidly in a Spanish vineyard. (We’re honored to premiere the video above today!) “The Pleasure of the Fall” has a dusky Spanish nightclub vibe–not Ibiza, but 1920s literary expat Spanish nightclub. (The distant trumpet and sighing strings reinforce the initial thought.) “Visions of Eternity” amps up this style by incorporating Dylan-esque, cryptic, religious/political/social commentary and ratcheting up the minor-key drama. “Thanks for the Lessons” calls back to that Spanish vineyard, while also pointing toward Parachutes-era Coldplay work.
Most of the tunes on the record benefit from the control Reit has of his voice. “The Pleasure of the Fall” allows him to accentuate different points of the narrative by modifying the register and tone of his voice, from light and high to low and serious. It sounds like a simple transaction, but it’s not: there’s a significant, mysterious gravitas that he’s able to conjure up with the vocal shifts. He’s also great at delivering phrases and words, filling particular ones with meaning just by inflecting them in a certain way (“Thanks for the Lessons” and “Grace Alone” in particular, although it’s evident everywhere).
It’s not all Latin American vibes–“Grace Alone” is folky, even with hints of blues and gospel vibes. The fast-paced, keys-laden “Here, As in Heaven” has a speak/sing, Lou Reed/CAKE thing going on, which presents a very different angle on Reit’s songwriting. But in general, this is a walking-speed, unhurried album. “Wheel Within a Wheel” and “Shangri La,” the chronological center of the record, are flowing, relaxed tunes that make me want to go on a low-stress beach vacation–they’re indicative of the overall response I have to the record.
Lee Reit’s self-titled record is one that can be appreciated for its beauty immediately and for its subtlety over multiple listens. Like John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats (although in a very different milieu), Reit has developed his voice to be a fine-tuned instrument for delivering melodies and lyrics that stick in my head and keep me coming back. You could cover a Lee Reit song, but you wouldn’t sing it the way that he does. That’s a distinctive mark. If you’re into slowcore acoustic (Mark Kozelek, Songs: Ohia, Mojave 3) or thoughtful acoustic work (Josh Ritter, Joe Pug, Jason Isbell), you’ll enjoy Lee Reit’s work.
Abandoned Delta‘s self-titled debut is a uniquely beautiful alt-country album that combines the delicate nature of Mojave 3’s work with thick arrangements that leave little space unfilled. However, the tightly constructed arrangements of tunes like “I Am Gold,” “Tulsa,” and “Cause and Effect” result in a tender–even sweet–whole instead of becoming impenetrable. Pedal steel, keys, gentle tenor vocals, wispy harmonies, pristine electric guitar strums, and loping acoustic guitar picking mesh into a dense web of sound that is always awash in warm, sunny vibes.
But this isn’t West Coast Laurel Canyon work; there’s a Midwestern lyrical and melodic groundedness permeating the whole work. It may make me want to float away, but the songs don’t sound like they’re going to get lost anywhere. “My Heart’s an Open Road” accelerates the tempo, amps up twang, and infuses a sense of humor to the proceedings–the Western Swing influences in the songwriting is a lot of fun. Elsewhere, contented horns hover above the slightly more ominous “Black Car,” and the acoustic guitar gets a feature in “I Never Lived in New Orleans.” It’s not folky, though–and that’s the most marvelous element of Abandoned Delta. The members have a consistent, distinctive sound that integrates elements of other genres seamlessly. If you like beautiful music, alt-country, or hearing musicians at the top of their game, you need to check out Abandoned Delta.
I find the self-aggrandizing crowd screaming that attends most live records tiresome, so I don’t cover many of them. However, Charles Ellsworth‘s Live from the State Room has such great songwriting contained in it that I must commend it to you. (It also doesn’t have that much audience howling, which I appreciate.) Ellsworth is a guitar-and-voice troubadour, gifted with a melodic sense in his hands and throat. The ten songs of State Room show him breaking out his solo material first, then transitioning to a full-band set-up later. It allows him to show off his poignant lyrics and weighty vocals in an intimate setting first, then gently augment that core sound. “The Past Ain’t Nothin” is the highlight of this section, a tune that unspools several emotional narratives linked by a vocal motif. It hits home to me, musically and lyrically.
Once the band joins in, the poignant elements of his sound get amped up, notably on “In My Thoughts” (which IC had the privilege of premiering). A swooping cello and tasteful drums underscore the gravity of the tune. “Fifty Cent Smile” is another standout, built on train-rhythm drums and one of the most memorable vocal melodies of the record. Even with a full band, Ellsworth never lets the sound get weighed down; many of the lovely tunes keep a fragility about them. (A notable exception is the noisy “Take a Walk,” which is “about having anger issues.”) Live from the State Room is that rare live record that feels like a real experience captured on tape; it’s a great introduction to Ellsworth’s charms for the uninitiated. You can get now as part of his “Not a Kickstarter” campaign.
We All Go Up the Mountain Alone Together by hunters. is a drama-filled folk album with strong female vocals. The 11-song album puts the spotlight on Rosa del Duca’s alto pipes, which have a mature quality not unlike those of Lilith Fair artists. Other ’90s singer/songwriting influences creep into the folk instrumentation too: a flourish here, a chord structure there, an unexpected vocal embellishment.
The band leans more toward chord-strummed folk than finger-picked folk, so tunes like “Firestarter” have lineage that can be drawn from many points. del Duca’s voice shines on “Firestarter,” as she ratchets up from an calm presence to an intense delivery and back several times. The band frames her performance with a tense arrangement of spacious, jazzy drums and nimble upright bass. “Painting the Roses Red” takes on a bit of a country vibe, while “Orion” recalls ballad-bluegrass guitar (but with their overarching mood of dramatic tension). Fans of female-fronted singer/songwriters and folk artists will find a mature, vocals-driven folk album in We All Go Up the Mountain Alone Together.
1. “Arizon” – La Cerca. Thoughtful, walking-speed Western music: gentle keys, reverbed clean electric guitars, thrumming bass, easygoing vocals. Sometimes the title (sic, by the way) is all you need to know.
2. “Jimmy & Bob & Jack” – Edward David Anderson. Some songs don’t need or deserve lyric videos, but this rollicking tale of three would-be criminals had me hanging on every word from Anderson’s mouth. The swampy, country instrumentation that floats the lyrics is pretty great too.
3. “Need a Break” – David Myles. I don’t get sent that many old-school, rapid-fire, talking-country tunes, but David Myles has delivered me a tune that I can’t stop tapping my foot to.
4. “Falling in Love” – Nathan Fox. Right what it says on the tin, with raspy/gritty vocals reminiscent of bluesy hollerers.
5. “Beacons” – Scott Bartenhagen. Structured, mature, serious acoustic music that made me think of Turin Brakes for the first time in a long time. Regardless of what happened to the “Quiet is the New Loud” movement, I’ll still be a fan of intense, focused acoustic singer/songwriter work.
6. “Lazy Moon” – Brave the Night. If you’ve ever (secretly or unabashedly) enjoyed an ’80s Billy Joel ballad OR were enamored with Norah Jones OR don’t think “lounge” is a bad word, this tune will tickle your fancy. Sweet trumpet, too.
7. “One More Time” – Cape Snow. Bree Scanlon’s voice sounds so composed and mature in this tune that it’s tough to not start assigning positive moral qualities to it. She guides this gentle tune through its four minutes, sounding like the direct descendants of Mojave 3 the entire time.
8. “Easy on Me” – Runner of the Woods. The premiere of this song includes songwriter Nick Beaudoing coining the term countrygaze. As this mashes up country and shoegaze (and, by my own personal extension, chillwave), I am on board with this term. I want to believe.
9. “Origins” – Jesse Payne. Excellent widescreen, engaging indie-folk calling up The National comparisons as easily as of the obvious Fleet Foxes/Grizzly Bear woodsy bands.
10. “White Queen” – Benedikt and Friends. You’ve had a hard week. You need a song that gets that, as well as helping you slip into relaxation. This tune offers tons of pathos to empathize with, as well as crisp melodies and tight engineering of the nuanced, subtle arrangement. And it’s Norwegian.
11. “RMDN” – +Aziz. Linking ancient religious practice with social media and traditional acoustic guitar with gentle beats results in a song that realizes its lyrics in its sound and vice versa. It’s an intriguing song that never lets the concept take away from being a good tune.
I’ve listened to The Painted Horses‘ full-length debut Ponderosa Pines maybe half a dozen times through, and the element that always strikes me is how thoroughly it inhabits my expectations of alt-country. The band plays earnest, acoustic-led, wide-open tunes with Laurel Canyon sweetness, down-home vibes, and a relaxed ethos.
There aren’t any genre mash-ups, curveballs, or left hooks in the ten-song collection. Instead, the band delivers a set of earnest tunes that are solid through and through. From gentle single “Much Too Long” to the pure harmonies of “Desert Skies” to the rolling fingerpicking of “In the Garden” to the saloon piano of “September Rain” and the high lonesome-esque “Black Water,” there are no weak points in the album.
Piano graces the scene here and there; violins waver in and out; the bass bounces up and down like you expect it to. Pedal steel and organ make a cameo in “Georgia.” The whole thing is capped off by tenor vocals that seem to be the human embodiment of the sound they float above (or vice versa, I suppose). If you’re looking for a gentler Dawes, a more upbeat Mojave 3, or something beautiful, I can heartily recommend The Painted Horses’ Ponderosa Pines to you on March 27.
It’s been a wild and chaotic 2015 so far, as I’ve already logged two interstate trips. Amid the travel commitments, I’ve had the good pleasure of coming across the alt-country of Embleton. Kevin Embleton’s songwriting vehicle combines the poignant pedal steel of Mojave 3, the soaring arrangements of Dawes, and the ragged charm of Bright Eyes in the sentimental barn-burner “Leaving for Good.” The living eulogy for a close friend leaving the area floats along on a river of flaring horns and Embleton’s low, passionate vocals.
Sometimes when a person realizes their immense talent, they whip around like an untethered garden hose on full blast. Eliot Bronson’s self-titled record (but third solo release) sees the singer/songwriter jumping through different iterations of acoustic-based music, making good music in all of them. Some tracks have a Josh Ritter-esque brightness (“New Pain,” which could be a The Beast In Its Tracks b-side); others appeal to lovers Mojave 3-style slowcore alt-country (“You Wouldn’t Want Me If You Had Me,” “Time Ain’t Nothin”); and the bulk of the tracks work in a folk-inspired, dreamy alt-pop vein similar to Peter Bradley Adams’ work (closer “Baltimore” points this out most poignantly).
The highlight, though, is the song where Bronson pulls all those influences together into his own mix: “Comin’ For Ya North Georgia Blues” ties a perky guitar line with a hummable alt-pop chorus and a sense of gravitas. It’s a great song, and it points to current and future greatness. Eliot Bronson is a varied album that shows off how immensely interesting Bronson’s work can be, and how incredibly tight and polished it already is.
Greylag‘s self-titled album comes from the Led Zeppelin school of rock, which is predicated on the idea that folk and rock aren’t that far apart. Led Zep picked up on their native English and Scottish folk sounds, and Greylag picks up on modern folk-pop songwriting conventions to ground their rock epics. The gentle acoustic guitar, soaring vocals, spacious arrangement and lyrics at the onset of “Burn On” make Fleet Foxes’ Helplessness Blues the most easy RIYL; the lonesome acoustic closer “Walk the Night” could also be any number of young, yearning folk singer/songwriters. “Arms Unknown” starts out with what sounds like a mandolin–whether it is or not, that’s the vibe they’re putting off.
But they also know how to rock. They’re not big into the “massive riffs pounded liberally” model of rock; they prefer the Rolling Stones’ style of ongoing, developing songs that have mood as a goal. “Mama” is a beautiful example of this, as it rocks without getting into stone-crushing distortion. The brooding “Kicking” has grumbling, biting guitars throughout. If the Kings of Leon hadn’t gone full arena rock after their Southern rock days, they may have hit on this midpoint between melodic engagement, rough-and-tumble production, and rock swagger. The culmination of their style is opening single “Another,” which has a rolling, pastoral acoustic base before expanding with tom-heavy percussion and keening, eerie “whoa-ohs.” It doesn’t rock as hard as the ominous, more stereotypically rock-ish “Yours to Shake,” but it’s a great indicator of what Greylag is trying to do here. If you regret that rock got heavier and heavier instead of splitting that difference between acoustic and electric, Greylag should cheer you up.
Brandon Cunningham‘s Give Out is the sort of album I listen to when I’m alone; sometimes when driving a long stretch of road, sometimes when hanging out in my room. The slow-churning quartet of alt-country tunes has a big, spacious feel that fits a wide-open road; it also has a sort of claustrophobia that hangs over its head, as if someone was trying to expand a room but finds itself banging up against the walls.
There’s some Jason Molina sounds trapped in the wrenching, tension-filled “Doubt,” as the song grows from a tiny spark to a roaring, torrential guitar wall, complete with thrashing cymbals. The reverb, the heavy emphasis on distant sounds, and the sense of weight all mark the track as a soon-beloved of Songs: Ohia listeners. “Lines in the Sand” lets a little light in the cracks by playing acoustic guitar instead of electric, but there’s still a heaviness to the track in the political / religious subject matter. “Bush Wives” is downright chipper in comparison, sounding kind of like a Keane song–which is still pretty thick sonically. “Baby” is a forlorn alt-country love song in the style of Mojave 3, which appeals to my “injured romantic” sensibilities.
Give Out is a diverse foursome of songs that show Cunningham’s ability to corral a small amount of instruments into very specific moods. He can turn it up into a mournful wall of sound or keep it quiet with pensive acoustic tunes. Whichever way he goes, he brings a passion to the songs that allows them to feel real and physical; these songs feel like they grab me by the shoulders and demand I listen. Cunningham should be a name you know.
It is hard to put together an album that holds a consistent instrumental palette, melodic thrust, and overall mood without getting repetitive. Palm Ghosts has accomplished this difficult task on their self-titled record. Palm Ghosts lives in a warm, relaxed space with just a touch of ominous haze on the horizon, carving out a space for itself next to artists like Damien Jurado.
Bandleader Joseph Lekkas takes great care in setting moods; the album opens with a tender track that uses the wordless voice as an instrument to convey a peaceful feeling. The follow-up “Seasons” begins with breathy “ahs” as well, carrying the mood over to a perkier version of his acoustic-led sound. Even though there are some drums pushing the tempo here, the dreamy piano line pulls back against the motion. The guitar and vocals sit right in the tension, not celebrating but resolving the dual issues. The result is a track that is both comforting and nimble; beautiful but sturdy. It’s a good analogy for the rest of the album.
The other five tracks on the record are varied without losing the poignant mood developed in the first two tracks. “Oh, Sleepytime!” manages to get squealing trumpets and booming electric guitar into the tune without breaking the mood of the album, which is an impressive feat. “All My Life (I’ve Been Waiting)” is an alt-country tune not unlike The Jayhawks or Mojave 3’s work. “Airplane Jane” combines indie cuteness with alt-country ominousness, which is a odd combination that Lekkas somehow pulls off seamlessly. Lekkas has very clearly written many songs before; even though this is a debut, the deft skill with which Lekkas combines disparate genres into an enjoyable fusion is impressive.
Palm Ghosts is the sort of record that you can enjoy without much thought or delve deeply into. The mood and melodies are surface joys; the intricacies of the arrangements and the subtle ways Lekkas makes various genres work together are pleasures that take a little more work to achieve. Either way you go, it’s a great album. I look forward to hearing more from Palm Ghosts.
Stephen Carradini and Lisa Whealy write reviews of instrumental, folk, and singer/songwriter music. We write about those trying to make the next step in their careers and established artists.