Bands come and go through the doors of Independent Clauses–some shine bright and disappear, while others put on the slow burn to the top. Midnight Pilot is one of the latter, as I’ve been covering them (under the name Ringer T) since 2005.
In an era with fewer “sure things” in terms of economics, it’s remarkable that bands like Midnight Pilot just keep on keepin’ on. Their self-titled debut album under their rebranded new name is a crunchy slice of Americana-tinged alt-country that shows off their depth of songwriting experience.
I’ve often compared the work that Grant Geertsma, Kyle Schonewill and Kris Schonewill create to Paul Simon mixed with the alt-country band du jour. While the vocals still can attain a Rhymin’ Simon sweetness, Midnight Pilot sees them cranking the guitars a bit. Standout “Let Loose” is a perfect title for a biting, ominous rocker that has some Drive-by Truckers influences in the verses. They don’t go full guitar onslaught, though: the chorus includes hooky “ba-ba” and “whoa-oh-oh” vocals.
No matter where the band takes the sound, their core competency is memorable, hummable melodies. The slow-build roar of “Give Me What You Gave to Him,” the NeedtoBreathe-esque “Take Me There,” the piano-driven ballad “Better Man”–Midnight Pilot is in the business of hooks.
Where their previous albums were often intimate affairs, Midnight Pilot is a hugely orchestrated effort. Opener “Give Me What You Gave To Him” signals this by bringing a full gospel choir for the final crescendo. (There’s no better way to telegraph you’re going big than that.) “Takin My Chances” and “Birds Fly South” employ horn sections in two very different ways: the former in a Motown milieu, the latter in a flamenco flamboyance.
“Better Man” and “By My Side” incorporate big string sections (okay, several songs include big strings), while tunes like “Taking My Chances” and “Break In” put the contributions of their newest member, Dustin Wise on keys, to great use. “Break In” stacks strings and keys, making it a standout track. It helps that Geertsma can still really soar a vocal line, too. He gets his snarl on in a couple songs, giving them a bit of a gritty scrub. While the overall sound is upbeat and friendly, those rockers let frustration peek out.
Midnight Pilot is an album that shows the band in full-out, going-for-it mode. The quartet has poured their efforts into these songs, and it shows. The final product is akin to a more highly orchestrated version of Dawes’ alt-country and Americana rock, with some downtempo Simon-esque pop songs thrown in. It’s an impressive collection of tunes that unveil charms with every subsequent listen. If you’re into Americana/alt-country, Midnight Pilot needs to be on your radar. Their album drops today.
Ringer T has honed their alt-country to a near-perfect point on Nothing But Time. Their sound is equal parts Paul Simon melodicism, Jayhawks crunch, and Switchfoot-style tension between the two, which results in some of the most beautiful, listenable alt-country you could ever hope to hear. The songs spring out of my speakers, fit and fine: nothing seems left to chance, nothing seems out of place. Fans of lo-fi stuff need not apply, as everything from vocal performances to drum rhythms is spot-on. For example, the crunchy “Into Your Own” aligns on a strict meter that sees everything clicking together: had the song been in the hands of a band less concerned with precision, it would have a much different feel and effect.
While the band can throw down the guitar distortion, I prefer their gentler, beautiful songs like “What Lies Ahead” and “Good Morning.” These strip out the crunch from the alt-country and focus on intricate strumming/fingerpicking, subtle melodicism, and well-developed moods. “Good Morning” is a lilting instrumental track that just stole my heart with its rolling melodies and strong arrangement. (Sleigh bells!!) Grant Geertsma’s voice really soars on quieter tracks like “What Lies Ahead,” as it’s the primary focus of the tune. His voice is a proverbial “phone book voice,” making it difficult for me to tear my ears away. The excellent backup vocal contributions on “What Lies Ahead” put it over the top and make it a highlight. These quieter tunes give Geertsma room to really move, and that’s wonderful.
That’s not to say that there aren’t strong vocal performances in the louder songs: the title track features excellent efforts from the lead and backup vocalists, who stand out amid the distorted guitars. Then they bring in horns to cap off the tune, so you can definitely count that one as a highlight. That’s the sort of album that Ringer T has crafted in Nothing But Time: things are going great, and then they go even better than that. If you’re into alt-country, you need to hear Ringer T now. This is an album that should go places.
I hold a special place in my heart for pianists: I play several instruments, but I got my start in bands and solo work on the ivories. I keep a flame for lyricists with a lot to say, as well, so it was an easy fit to fall in love with Brendan James‘ Simplify. James splits time between being Josh Ritter on the keys and Billy Joel in the modern era, both treats that we don’t get very often.
James’ 13-song album splits roughly into two parts: the first half adheres toward indie-pop principles in arrangement, production, and lyrical topics; the back half leans toward Joel-esque piano-pop storytelling and balladry. James has highs in both of these arenas, although I prefer the indie-pop leanings more. I’m a big Joel fan, so it’s not any anti-The Kid bias; I think it’s purely that his indie-pop is more consistently strong. This is evident from the one-two punch of “Windblown” and the title track, where James sets up catchy but relatively simple piano lines as the base for his intricate, syncopated vocal lines to play over. This playful approach to songwriting caught my ear immediately and kept my attention for the duration of both songs. “Windblown” is an introspective piece about the toils of a longsuffering artist, while “Simplify” is a bit more wide-ranging manifesto. Both are beautiful, clever and engaging, making me want more.
On the other end of the spectrum is “Hillary,” which even apes some vocal rhythms and tics from Joel. There’s also a pronounced Paul Simon influence in the arrangement, which is another excellent inclusion. The story-song tells of a student who works with the narrator’s wife, detailing the conversations between the wife and Hillary. It’s a great song lyrically, and it includes clapping and a “whoa-oh” section to charm my soul. “He Loved” dips into ballad mode while maintaining the storytelling, showing off a different set of skills.
“Constellations” and “Counting Hours” also stand out for special note. Both struck me as very quiet tunes of the variety that Josh Ritter would have included on The Animal Years; their expansive, wide-open feel is refreshing and rewarding. Brendan James’ varied skills (lyricism, songwriting, arrangements) are on great display in Simplify, creating a thoroughly entertaining album. The highlight tracks are some that I can see myself spinning for a long, long time.
“I think it’s important for bands to be older,” Hendrix said. “They have more to say, and what they have to say isn’t related to being mad at parents.”
I hadn’t thought much about age/maturity as a factor in making great music, but since then it’s been on my radar. I’ve seen Paul Simon in an entirely different light; I’ve noticed castoff lines in Good News For People Who Love Bad News that wouldn’t have been noted by a younger Modest Mouse. There are evidences of it everywhere. Ringer T‘s Sorry Verses is yet another example.
The releases I’ve reviewed from the Michigan alt-country band have all been heart-wrenching affairs, wringing every ounce of emotion out of the travails of young love. Their pristine production values and tight songwriting structures honed the misery to a fine point. The most downtrodden of their tunes are right up there with Elliott Smith’s and Damien Jurado’s in the “too sad to listen to more than once in a while” tracks.
Then the band went their own ways for a while, and the time off seems to have been just the thing the members needed. Their regrouped effort is a much brighter, calmer and more enjoyable effort. The songwriting, now freed from the weight of tragedy, is able to be as infectious as it should have been previously. Both the pristine production and tight songwriting have only become more so.
The smooth-toned tenor vocalist isn’t singing too much about lost love, and even when he does, he does it in a way that doesn’t aspire to tear down the walls on himself. Not that these tunes are sparkly indie-pop; this is still firmly alt-county. But there are a lot of Paul Simon touches, like the little strum pattern on “The Easy Road” and just about everything on “Upon a Hill.” It’s Ringer T as I always wanted them to be: they’re making great melodies (“Sorry Verses,” “Here I Am”) in a consistent mood that’s calm and contained. There’s a difference between restraint and restrained, and Ringer T falls firmly on the self-induced, positive, former side for the songs here.
The instrumentation is simple and direct: Acoustic guitar, gentle electric guitar, drums, bass, occasional keys, some auxiliary instruments here and there. Instead of dazzling with the kitchen sink (i.e. Typhoon), Ringer T leans heavily on their formidable songwriting skills. And with their newfound calm and maturity, they crank out some incredible tunes that way.
Sorry Verses has several great mixtape tracks: the poignant “The Sweet Release,” the whoa-ohs of “Sorry Verses,” and the yearning “Let Me Be Your Man.” But it’s best experienced as a whole piece, just like Paul Simon’s best albums. The charms of one song build into the next.
Growing up some gives perspective and allows people to see all that they do in a new light. Whether people grow or fold in that instance is the difference between a success story and an also-ran.
For those of you who have never heard Ringer T, Hello, Goodbye is the perfect introduction to their folk-laden, Americana rock sound. Unfortunately, the things that make this album such a good primer also bring up some potential problems for the future.
There are few bands that sound more genuinely American than Ringer T. Their deeply Midwestern sound incorporates a heavy dose of Paul Simon-esque pop songwriting, folksy drumming and strumming, old school rock n’ roll, some country twang, and a large amount of earnestness in the vocals. It may sound like a lot going on, but it never is. In fact, these songs are very easy to listen to. The first time I listened to this album, I felt like I had known these songs forever. They are comfortable to the ear; the songwriters have crafted songs with structures that never feel cliche but still make pleasant use of resolution and familiar chords.
One of the reasons that the songs sound so familiar is that at least four out of the ten tracks have been previously recorded on Ringer T albums or EPs. While this is mildly frustrating for veteran listeners, it brings no hindrance to those who are listening for the first time. They get to hear the best tracks of Ringer T, without any of the filler or weaker tracks.
The problem lies in that even though the four old tracks are re-recorded, they still fit perfectly into Hello, Goodbye. Ringer T is not growing. While they have refined their craft to a razor-sharp edge (the new version of “Cut the Cords” makes mincemeat of the old version in terms of precision, clarity and power), they haven’t pushed the musical envelope at all with Hello, Goodbye. The songs are great; any first time listener that gets past Grant Geertsma’s voice is going to be enamored with Ringer T. But if Ringer T puts out many more albums in this distinct motif, they’re going to run into problems.
One thing they can do is stop writing about breakups; it seems that every Ringer T song is based on the same traumatic breakup. There is a long-standing American pop music tradition of writing about breakups, but Ringer T practices this tradition without respite (except for the still-mildly-depressing “Where I Long to Go”). Even Spiritualized’s Ladies and Gentlemen, We are Floating in Space (one of the most despondent breakup albums ever) has upbeat moments in it that have nothing to do with the relationship. Ringer T needs to break out of their funk and move on to new things in their lives, musically and lyrically.
There is strong evidence that Hello, Goodbye will be the culmination of this era of Ringer T’s musical life. They have refined their deeply affecting and superbly crafted folk/pop/rock to a T. If they use this album as a springboard to better and bigger things, they have a bright future ahead of them. If they keep rehashing their formula, they will only get so far. I hope that they have some tricks up their sleeve for the next release. In the meantime, Hello, Goodbye is highly recommended for fans of Wilco, Ryan Adams, the Jayhawks, Damien Jurado, The Elected and Neil Young.
Gritty Americana that delves deeply into sadness without going overboard into cheap theatrics and wasted songs.
I hate it when artists beat sadness to death. There is power in an admission of complete brokenness, but a whole album about the subject inevitably comes off as laughably maudlin and inexcusably mopey. I can empathize with one or two concise, honest and well-written songs of breathtaking sadness; I cannot get into full-on moping. There’s just no dignity in a breakup album that smears misery across a large canvas.
It’s the songs surrounding a centerpiece that make the sadness of a piece so gut-wrenchingly relatable. On Spiritualized’s massive breakup album Ladies and Gentlemen, We Are Floating in Space, hopeful songs like “Electricity” are what make “Broken Heart” so disarmingly disheartening. It’s the exuberant “This Year” and the confrontational “Lion’s Teeth” that make The Mountain Goats’ “Pale Green Things” the intense and draining closer that it is on The Sunset Tree. It’s not in spreading the sadness out that brilliance is created – it’s in distilling that into several brilliant takes.
Ringer T understands this concept – and that’s why Around the Bend is the emotional powerhouse that it is. The EP begins with the emotionally tortured rocker “Cut the Cords,” which shows Grant Geertsma and co. flipping from brooding anger to unhinged vulnerability and back several times. The command of the mood is impressive, as Ringer T manages to make the mood transitions seamless. It’s surprisingly dark for Ringer T fare, but it works perfectly. It sets up the general feel of melancholy without shoving it in the listener’s face.
Once a rickety and uncertain yelp, Geertsma’s voice has grown into a confident, evocative and easily recognizable tenor, and “Where I Long to Go” showcases it. In a well-written upbeat song that incorporates slide guitar, Ringer T’s trademark acoustic guitar jangle and handclaps to augment a shuffling drumbeat, Geertsma doesn’t hide behind the quality of the songwriting. He instead speaks up and sings with confidence in a catchy song that is sure to become a Ringer T standard, if it isn’t already.
It’s now, after two upbeat tunes, that Ringer T drops the bomb. The title track starts with the distant sound of children playing, slowly covered by a lone electric guitar and Geertsma’s hollow, reverb-laden vocals. The song continues in this vein until the knock-out punch arrives: mournful violin, tastefully and sparingly used. The emptiness and despair laden in this tune are simply astounding.
The sadness of that song is matched by “Let Each Other Free,” which incorporates the full band and the rich sound of a euphonium. It’s sad in a different sort of way – as opposed to the crushing sadness that was “Around the Bend,” “Let Each Other Free” is a noble, resigned sort of sadness.
They pack up the set with “Feel My Pain,” which flirts with lyrical cliches but is saved by solid performances by the band, and the instrumental piano track “Flower of Life.” They aren’t happy tracks, but neither aspires to be as moving or as monumental as “Around the Bend.” “Flower of Life” is especially unique, as it isn’t just your regular piano outro – it’s pretty solid compositionally.
Ringer T’s gritty Americana has always been emotionally honest without getting maudlin. Around the Bend has proven that they can delve deeply into sadness without going overboard into cheap theatrics and wasted songs. This EP is a downer – no way around it. But if you want some sad music that’s done right, this is what you want to get. The songwriting is incredible, the performances are memorable, and the moods are believable. This EP is definitely one of my favorite releases of the year.
My stock answer: “Everything except rap and country.”
Confession: This is not entirely true. I listen to jazz much less than I would like to admit, I’ve never gotten into soul or r&b, I’m just starting to get into old-school country and I listen to alt-country a great deal.
I say “no country” cause it’s nerdy to say “everything except rap and Hot Country, although I do like Americana and Alt-country,” and because I disdain the inevitable explanation I have to give citing the differences between Alt-country (Calexico, The Elected, Neil Young), Americana (Damien Jurado, Ringer T), and Folk (everyone else, pretty much). The reason I disdain the conversation is because there’s a very small percentage of people who care (see Old Canes (folk/indie/americana).
So how does Ringer T do it? They do it with equal parts piano and guitar, equal parts distorted and undistorted, and lots of candor. The lyrics on All Too Well won’t win any awards for high poetry, but in the canon of pop music, they should be lauded for ringing true on breakups. There’s no absurd metaphors here and no over-the-top stories – just confessions of brokenness with titles like “Bare and Empty,” “Why Can’t I Understand?” and my personal favorite title, “Alone.”
From the crunchy, bouncy opener “It Helps to Know” to the loping piano line of “Give Me Some Time” through the patient but enthusiastic “Run & Hide” and ending with the resonant, conclusive piano closer of “All Too Well,” everything in Ringer T’s All Too Well appeals to the pop lover, the country listener, the romantic, the jilted, and the weary.
The secret weapon that creates so much excitement in my book is Grant Geertsma’s everyman, world-weary vocals. Geertsma does not have a perfect voice, but it’s a voice that resonates and fills up the songs that it’s in. And when I say he doesn’t have a perfect voice, I don’t mean that we’ve found the second coming of Bob Dylan or Neil Young – I mean that there’s some nasal edge to the voice, and at times the voice just sounds plaintive. The amazing thing is that the songs in which Geertsma’s voice has the most obvious struggles and victories (the reluctant ballad “Bare and Empty,” the heartbreaking “Give Me Some Time”) are the songs which will have you returning to them. That’s part of the charm of Americana – it’s a sound that is so honest, so real, so uncompromising that you can relate to it. You can sing along brokenheartedly to “Bare and Empty,” and if your voice warbles, well, so does Geertsma’s. Feel safe and comfortable singing along.
Does that mean that All Too Well is a sloppy mess? It certainly does not. In fact, it is much the opposite – the album is lovingly constructed and immaculately produced so as not to lose the mid-fi sheen that creates an immense sense of wonder throughout the tracks.
Even though all the songs have that underlying sense of awe, they aren’t all similar – they’re parsed out pretty evenly between rockers, poppers, and ballads. The ballads, which I first came to love them for, are even stronger than on their debut This Place, while the more upbeat songs jangle and even roar (the end of “Bare and Empty”) with a unique sense of rightness. It just feels correct when they rock out, especially at the end of “Why Can’t I Understand?”, where an overarching guitar line steals the show from the entire song, including the dramatic vocal line.
“Run and Hide” has one of the most infectious guitar riffs Ringer T has ever written, while “So Soon” echoes their previous work (especially “Anew,” a standout on This Place) in a pleasing, comforting, non-derivative way.
But the winner here is “On Your Side Again.” It’s most definitely the “commit this to mix-tape” song, and for good reason. The song starts out with a calm acoustic strum, a shaken egg, and Geertsma cooing “ooo” in a melody that has both confidence and heartache wrapped in it. He then drops these lines:
“I keep coming back/to where I began
Should I keep going on again?
It’s not like it’s bad/just a little sad
That we can’t just be what we had.”
And then there’s a subtle chord change, the kind that you wait for, hope for in every song, cause it signifies an epic chorus on the horizon.
“I tried to be that kind
but I don’t believe there’s time”
And now, here it comes, the thick strum and tom hit building to the chorus….
Crash!! Everything comes in! Drums, guitars, bass!
“Well, guess it’s on your side again
And I wonder, will it end?
Can’t you see I’m just a kid?
I don’t know what I’m doing.”
From the straight-forward rock drums to the yelping background vocals to the pulsing bass to yearning electric guitar sound, this is passion distilled. This is not a chorus, this is a chorus. You will sing, and sing loudly. It is the perfect mix of insecurity and confidence – it captures that hopeless confidence of standing on your own without any sense of what’s going on. If songs are supposed to convey an emotion, then this song, this album, has grasped the concept to a T.
Ringer T’s All Too Well is an incredible album. It’s a downer, for sure – but it is also a near-perfect transcription of the sound of a broken heart. And I know that this may be a little possessive, but really – is there anything as American as a broken heart? Get this album if you’re a fan of good songwriting – you can thank me later for introducing you to the joy that is Americana.
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.