When you know the rules, even the decisions you make to break them are made in relation to the rules. Sometimes this results in Jackson Pollock, but mostly it results in field homogenization that takes the mysterious x factor called “genius” to transcend. But if you never knew the rules to begin with, all bets are off–anything can happen.
Sfumato‘s These Things Between… is the folky embodiment of the latter phenomenon. Singer/songwriter Daithí Ó hÉignigh is “essentially a drummer” who decided to write and arrange a complex folk album. As a result, these 11 songs feature all sorts of sounds, rhythms and arrangements that I didn’t expect. I listened to this album for far longer than I usually do when writing a review, because it took a long time for me to figure out what was happening.
Because the homogenization of a field doesn’t just affect what musicians write, it affects how listeners hear. People are in love with Babel because it pulls off all the pop-folk moves perfectly; These Things Between… is a difficult listen for someone conditioned to hear music in that way. Even though the signifiers of folk are present (strummed acoustic guitar, pensive moods, emotive voice), what is a gospel choir doing in “Ostia”? “Mo ghrá” is in Gaelic? “Fly to Me” features a calliope-style organ; “Pound” accentuates unusual rhythms. This is a brain-expander, and goodness knows I need it after the musical candy that is Mumford and Sons, Avett Brothers and The Mountain Goats all releasing albums within weeks of each other.
After an eclectic start, the center of the album is a bit more standard. “The Past” incorporates bass guitar and organ drone in familiar patterns (Decemberists!), while “Song to Myself” shows off a wheezing saxophone in a style similar to Bon Iver’s Colin Stetson. By the end of the album, the unusual arrangements have returned: the title track is a heavily rhythmic tune that relies on conga drums, an unrecognizable instrument and Celtic-inspired strings. Still, the closer is solo acoustic track “I Was Hoping You Might…,” which reminded me of Damien Jurado in its starkness.
These Things Between… is perfectly titled, as its songs walk down the line between familiarity and otherness. There are detours to both sides, but overall it exists in a space that will challenge your conventional listening habits. If you’re into something a little outside your (and my) Mumfordy comfort zone, Sfumato should be one place to check out.
I wrote last June about the cult of greatness that mellow music often defies. Quiet dignity does not win Grammys or end up on year-end lists. (Or does it?)
Summer of Sam’s A-Okay is almost aggressively self-aware about its unassuming station. From the title to the tape hiss to the spare instrumentation, these 8 songs unfold in an uncomplicated way. It genuinely seems like a guy sat down with an acoustic guitar and set out to document his songs. The earnest, authentic feel calls to mind early Mountain Goats or early Iron & Wine: there’s nothing here but song, and song is all that is here.
Lest I become obsessed with form over function, the songs rule. The vocal melodies are memorable, and the songwriter shows a striking aptitude to convincingly elicit multiple moods out of the same guitar while still composing a coherent album. This is so rarely accomplished that even its best attempts are now maligned and under-appreciated. “Like a Rosie” is a pensive, walking-speed folky tune, while “Hoorayhooray” is a pleasant little pop tune. “Everything’s Been Said” foregrounds the vocals and lyrics in a stately and mature piece, while “Lost Highway” features an alt-country weariness. (The only bum moment is the blown-out album closer “Theme,” which leans a bit too heavily on the lo-fi.) None of these songs come off as appropriations or stiff attempts at form; they all feel like different moods of the same man.
Or, put otherwise: I love almost everything about this album.
It’s rare to find a singer/songwriter offering up this much quality songwriting in one release. Summer of Sam’s A-Okay is the sort of album that used to quietly make the rounds, passed from friend to friend. I don’t know if it works like that anymore (who was the last real groundswell singer/songwriter? Bon Iver? Iron & Wine?), but I hope it does for Summer of Sam’s sake. A-Okay is far too brilliant to languish unappreciated.
I have always been fascinated by the idea of artistic output. I want to leave behind a set of things that people look back on and say, “Ah, that’s what he did.” Authors get to put books on a shelf. Musicians take up significant space on people’s iPods or CD books (I still have a CD book. It is a monster). Visual artists leave their works all over the world, inadvertently creating a massive scavenger hunt for the mouth-breathing faithful.
Overall output is impressive to me, like the 20 Mountain Goats albums, dozens of books by John Piper, or prodigious output of some visual artists. But contained output has been an obsession of mine as well. That’s where Chris Hickey’s Razzmatazz comes in. These sixteen songs were “written and recorded (on a hand-held digital recorder) by Chris Hickey in March, 2009 as part of a song-a-day undertaking.” Which means there were probably more where these came from, but I’ll be glad with what I’ve got.
Each of these songs but one features nothing but Chris Hickey’s voice and an acoustic guitar. No overdubs, no cuts. This is pure, unadulterated songwriting. There is nowhere to hide, no room to polish, no time to make the lyrics perfect or craft a perfect bridge to finish out the song. This is a picture of how a songwriter writes. And it is absolutely fascinating.
These songs hover around a minute and a half, with the two longest at two and a half. They somewhat apply to pop structures, although Hickey has no problem destroying rhythm to get a point across. The most memorable instance of this is the hilarious moment on “Kerouac” where he repeats a chord for ten seconds so he can cram about twenty extra syllables into a single line. It’s understandable to me; since he doesn’t have a lot of time to polish his lyrics, the words and rhythms come out raw and unusual. His unedited thoughts and rhythms make this album the fascinating thing that it is.
The songs themselves are as simple as you imagine they would be if you had to write one every day. There are often no more than two parts to a song, and some of them only have one guitar part with different sung parts over it. They generally fall between Jack Johnson pop and Josh Radin folk; there’s lots of fingerpicking and gentle strumming, sometimes fast and sometimes slow. It’s a thoroughly mellow collection of tunes, and it’s great accompaniment for driving on a sunny day.
There are some high highs and low lows, due to the constraints of writing one a day. “Down” is a beautiful, memorable song with a great chorus. “Down a Long Haul” has a jaunty vibe to it that puts a grin on my face. “Shine” is the most complete of all the songs, with full chorus and verses. “Soft Sell” has a gentle groove and benefits from the aforementioned excellent lyrics. The speak-sung, charming “Places to Go” is the highlight of the album, as it is suitably unique, relatable, poppy, and interesting.
There are some entirely weird tracks, like a cappella closer “What You Are,” the out-of-character “A Man is Rich,” and the awkward rhythms of “Nothing is Real.” But those tracks are overshadowed by the excellent tracks.
Razzmatazz is a fascinating, entertaining, engrossing album that allows access to the unfiltered workings of a musician’s writing process. It’s almost like watching an artist paint or a sculptor sculpt. It’s that interesting. Get this if you’re a fan of fingerpicked folk or gentle acoustic pop.
I think every music scene has a local hero. Here in Norman, Okla., it’s Hosty. Hosty has a standing Sunday night gig at the coolest bar/venue in town until “the end of time,” according to the management. If you live in Norman and you haven’t been to a Hosty show, it’s because you’re underage or ignorant. And I have known young’uns to stand outside the venue just to hear it. So really, it’s only the ignorant that don’t love Hosty, because to see him is to love him. He (because he and his music are almost inseparable at this point) is that awesome.
“Spiduh Man”: I like the groove on this song. Weezer meets lo-fi rockers The Mountain Goats. “When I grow up/ I want to be like spider man” (Should I have spelled that ‘spiduh’?). Heavy distortion on the guitar – waves of grungy, garage-rock goodness. Very unfinished sound, which is fitting for them. Slight echo on the vocals.
“Vampiress”: Overall echoing sound, like it’s at the bottom of a well. Vocals here are slightly reminiscent of Creed or maybe Audioslave.
“Gloomy Together”: Slow, rolling bass and acoustic guitar. This one has a slight doom-rock tinge to it. Very heavy sound, almost overpowering in the chorus. Monork To Die doesn’t have very complicated lyrics or instrumental tracks, but it works, I think.
“France”: Kinda relaxed, laid-back sound. It’s present in the entire album, but especially obvious here. More crazy-distorted guitar. Slight dreamy sound. For chorus, something about “Tell momma I’m moving on to France.” There’s a bit of sixties vibe, maybe Beach Boys.
“Weaker”: Starts with drums and acoustic guitar; totally got a Smile Empty Soul sound going on. Raw, emotional, throbbing music. Vocalist has a bit of swagger in his voice, if that makes sense. Still got a Creed/Audioslave thing going. This song is one of the better applications of their sound and tendencies.
“Jenny Don’t Read No More”: Rhythmic guitar and bass, with vocals taking a stronger position than previously. A bit like ’90s punk – simplicity of sound, fun lyrics, etc. Unfortunately short.
“Dark One”: meh.
“Carpet Cleaner”: Borderline metal. Kinda caught me off my guard. “She’s cleaning up my stain,” cute. Much more energetic than the rest of the album.
“The One Thing Under The Sun”: Odd mix of “House Of The Rising Sun” (both the Eagles’ version and the Muse cover, if you were wondering) with southern rock.
Overall, Reason is a good album. Monork To Die has a good thing going with their music; it just needs a little more focus. I’m all for a band trying out different sounds, but not quite this much in a single album. More of the likes of “Spiduh Man,” “France,” and “Jenny Don’t Cry No More,” please.
Stephen Carradini writes far too many words about music you may or may not have heard of. Sometimes he takes pictures of aforementioned bands.