Kye Alfred Hillig introduced himself to me with the powerful and incredibly diverse Together Through It All in 2013: it powered through a half-dozen discrete genres with ease. This year’s Real Snow honed in on his electro-pop side, becoming an album-of-the-year contender in the process. Then he bought a nylon string guitar, became obsessed with it, wrote a whole album’s worth of voice-and-guitar material in a week and a half, recorded it, and released it two months later as The Buddhist. Must be tough to choose set lists now.
Together Through It All was a series of almost uncomfortably intense vignettes, carefully constructed for maximum emotional impact. The Buddhist is the polar opposite of that songwriting style. Several of these songs have too many words in particular lines to fit the scheme; instead of meticulously rewriting them, Hillig just sings the extra words faster and crams them in. The guitar lines, lyrics, and vocal delivery are paramount here: the vocal melodies, not so much. There are several memorable vocal lines (“Come Play with Me” and “I’m Alive Because of Nuclear Bombs” in particular) but that’s not the point of this record. If you want to hum, go for Real Snow. Start with “None of Them Know Me Now.”
But if you want to hear some heavy, heady lyrics, you need to plant yourself on a couch and listen carefully to The Buddhist. The titular character appears to sing many of the songs in first person, identified by particular recurring characters (one named Barbara, another named Sarah). The album can be reverse-engineered into a whole life history of a person, or seen as vignettes from a bunch of different characters. Either way, the poem-like attention to detail in the lyrics of each of these songs is astonishing; there are all manner of little touches to the lyrics (descriptions of things, stray names of people, place names, etc.) that give this an intimate quality. Instead of being intense by being grandiose epics, these songs are powerful because of their lack of pretense. Hillig is just sitting there, picking and singing about a tough life in highly literate fashion. It’s disarming.
Each song could be a highlight in its own way, but “I’m Alive Because of Nuclear Bombs” is the most single-like in that it has an obvious chorus, upbeat tempo, and a sort of jaunty mood (sort of because look at that title). “Riverside Park: Devil Mask & Wings” is one of the most emotionally devastating tunes, although “Come Play with Me” is a close second. “Buried a Cop” is a gorgeous tune melodically that splits the difference between the two previous ideas. But I could go on and on.
I believe that you find the core of a songwriter when you take away all of the surroundings. (Nothing against the other sounds or members of the band; I’m a bassist, after all.) Pulling away Hillig’s arrangements reveals something even more impressive than I expected. Instead of becoming an acoustic version of a indie-pop songwriter, he transforms and applies his skills to fit the situation. The Buddhist is a remarkable album, one that has initial charms and grows on you. It requires you to really listen, but you’ll be highly rewarded if you do. Fans of The Mountain Goats, Red House Painters, Damien Jurado, and Josh Ritter will all swoon for this.
Avant-garde music generally doesn’t agree with me, so I don’t cover it much on IC. But there are exceptions, such as Kai Straw‘s To Pearl Whitney, From Howland Grouse In Loathing. The album was pitched to me as “experimental poetry”; that might make you think of rap, but lead track “sexlovesoul” is an intense a capella piece that blurs the lines between rap and spoken word. The story it tells is one of a relationship found and lost and found, spread over an entire life. It was deeply moving, inspiring me to check out the rest of the 21-song album. What proceeds is a highly idiosyncratic mix of poetry, rapping, electronica, jazz and even some acoustic guitar. The lead is always Straw’s voice, which he has fine-tuned to be precise and highly tonal (even when speaking). The lyrics he sings and speaks are varied, from songs of death and destruction (“The Champion,” “2,000”) to elaborate daydreams (the near-parody “Vanity Fair,” “Boogie Nights”) to relationship troubles (“Drunk,” “sexlovesoul”).
The best tunes are the ones that don’t invest the most in the arrangement; while tunes like “Yakuza 21” and “Dionysius” have well-developed backing beats (squelching electronica and traditional R&B, respectively), taking the focus off the vocals is not the best move for Straw. That’s not because the beats aren’t strong; it’s that his voice is so engaging and intriguing that I want to hear it unfiltered. If you’re into hip-hop for the lyrical prowess, you should check out Kai Straw’s work. I doubt you’ll be disappointed.
Me and My Ribcage by The Widest Smiling Faces doesn’t sound that experimental on first blush. The wistful title track opens the album and introduces the listener to a sound somewhere between the moving soundscapes of The Album Leaf and the minimalist slowcore of Jason Molina and Red House Painters. The high, tentative, child-like vocals tip this off as slightly out of the ordinary, however. The album unfolds as a collection of beautiful, relaxing tunes, not so far off from bands like Empire! Empire! (I Was a Lonely Estate) or Pedro the Lion at its quietest. None of the elements in the album are particularly virtuosic in their performance, but the arrangements of piano, guitar and voice are arresting. If you’re looking for a quiet, melodic, gorgeous album, you should look the way of The Widest Smiling Faces.
I was aware that The Miami had some experimental in them when I reviewed their album “I’ll Be Who You Want Me to Be”, but they ratchet that mode up in their exciting EP “Ring Shouts”. The Miami is a duo that recreates old spirituals, hymns and folk tunes in often-mournful style, stretching the source material in unusual and unexpected ways. “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” has a grating noise butting up against the plain, acoustic accompaniment; this juxtaposition seems to inspire fear in the vocalist/narrator and uneasiness in this listener. The 78 seconds of “Barbed Wire” are an a capella tune with only one person clapping and stomping to back it up, while the swirling, mysterious synths of “Motherless Child” combine with the acoustic guitar and vocals for a heartwrenchingly sad piece.
Then, they throw all that sad stuff overboard and close out the EP with “Kneebone,” a call-and-response tune that is easily the catchiest and happiest tune they’ve ever put out. It’s still got a long introduction that abruptly quits before the vocals come in and a drowsy coda to connect it with the rest of the tunes, but it’s a fun song to hear and to sing along with. Because even the most experimental of us enjoy a good singalong every now and then.
Should you put your best song first on an album? The Finest Hour falls on the affirmative side of the argument, as “Never Heard of Dylan” opens up These Are the Good Old Days on the highest of notes. “Never Heard of Dylan” bears more than a passing resemblance to the energetic rock of The Vaccines, as the scruffy British quartet offers up infectious melodies and great guitar/bass interactions. They make the most of what they’ve got, which shows in later tunes like the slightly calmer “Reasons to Complain” and the fist-pumping “See for Miles,” which has serious Green Day vibes. They do incorporate some fun ska elements, but they work best when they’re sticking to four-on-the-floor rock/pop. And although “Never Heard of Dylan” is tops, it only barely edges the 14-minute (!) finale “Indigo Night,” which includes a shout-it-out use of the album title in its excellent songwriting. If you’re looking for a fun album, you should be all over The Finest Hour’s These Are the Good Old Days–cause they are.
Michael Glader’s When On High is a fascinating amalgam, mixing ’60s psychedelic pop, rock, modern pop, and folk without succumbing to the excesses of any genre. This creates a uniquely idiosyncratic stew that keeps its own counsel. Opener “Strawberry Eyes” is a distortion-drenched, bass-driven stoner groove that features Glader modifying his keening tenor voice. Highlight “Big Spoon Little Spoon” is a solo guitar love song with the energy of a pop song, the fingerpicking of a folk tune, and the groove of a blues song. “Chasing Footsteps in the Sand” is a rhythm-and-bass-heavy pop tune. “Is This My Afterlife?” has a distant, eerie New Orleans vibe to its doo-wop. In short, this album goes all over the place, but none of Glader’s moves feel significantly out of his control. Each tune retains a dreamy, hazy sort of mood, and that keeps the album together. I’m a big fan of his quieter stuff (“Big Spoon Little Spoon,” “That’s It”), but there’s plenty for anyone to love in When On High. [Editor’s note: Michael Glader is now known as Red Francis.]
The Weeping Tree by The Knitted Cap Club is a very stately record. The acoustic songwriting is very structured, and the emotion delivered by the female vocalist is quite measured. I don’t mean this as a criticism; fans of Portishead treasure those same characteristics. But this does go against the grain of modern singer-songwriter/folk, establishing a very formal entry in a world of passionate confessionals. The tone of the album has much in common with slowcore artists like Songs:Ohia, Elephant Micah, and Red House Painters, but with fewer self-pitying vocal performances.
Instead, the sparse but effective arrangements, which often include other voices, carry the mood of the tunes. Standout opener “Crown of Roses” features a whole verse accompanied only by ghostly multitracked voices, while “Eight-Thirteen” incorporates distant recorded voices for a similar effect. Even though the vocal performances don’t telegraph hurt, the lyrics of the album often do (“Heart Exchange,” “The Weeping Tree”), which enhances the ghostly, somber feel of the album. If you’re looking for something different in your singer/songwriter listening habits, try out this one.
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.