Instead of writing new blurbs for each of these albums, I’m going to let the reviews stand as my comments about each of them except the album of the year. Since I had so many EPs on my EPs of the year list, there are less than my standard 20 albums of the year this year.
Album of the Year: Worn Out Skin – Annabelle’s Curse. (Review) This album came out of nowhere and established itself as a standard component of my listening life. It fits on the shelf right next to Josh Ritter and The Barr Brothers in terms of maturity of songwriting, lyrical depth, beauty, and overall engagement. Each of the songs here have their own charms, which is rare for an album: this one will keep you interested the whole way through. It’s a complete album in every sense of the word, and so it was the easy choice for album of the year.
Rob Williams‘ Southern FMis a quirky, impressive record that takes something familiar and makes it unusual and interesting again. Williams offers acoustic-driven work that falls in the timeworn space between folk and country, but his inherent charm and unique rhythmic sensibility make it all seem fresh and new. The most important element to Williams’ success is the idiosyncratic vocal lines delivered by his round, mellow tenor: instead of long, flowing melodies, Williams chops his lines into unusual patterns and shapes. This creates an endearing off-the-cuff, ad-hoc feel to tunes like the pickin’-and-grinnin’ “Best I Can Do,” the enthusiastic “Where You Hang Your Heart,” and the on-your-toes singalong “You’ve Been a Bad Christian.” Nothing feels forced in his delivery, even when his vocal patterns are at their most complex–it all seems to just float along on the airy, effortless arrangements.
Williams’ charms don’t just stem from his quirky delivery: he can write remarkable songs. “Sometimes It’s a Song” is a poignant, evocative ballad that never drags or commits navelgazing, while “Henry and Maria” is a lovely tale delicately told. It’s the melodies, the structure, and the arrangements that make these songs shine. “Sometimes It’s a Song” is sold by a beautiful piano performance and strengthened by just-the-right-amount of percussion; “Henry and Maria” displays some nimble acoustic guitar work and perfectly-placed accordion. (I’m a sucker for an accordion.) Williams knows what his songs need to sound their best, and as a result the vast majority of these tunes shine. With Williams’ comfortable voice, unique vocal lines, and well-suited arrangements all contributing, Southern FM becomes one of the most enjoyable listens of the year. Check out the album and keep Williams on your radar.
(This one comes out December 14, so it’s not technically an ICYMI, but it fits with the rest of the reviews I’m running today.)
You don’t have to listen beyond Of This I’m Sure‘s first track to hear how Jenny and Tyler‘s sound has progressed and matured from Open Your Doors–everything on the title track sounds tighter, fuller, and more urgent. In that way, it echoes some of the drama of Faint Not–they even re-recorded “Song for You”–but with a maturation of lyrical themes and arrangement styles.
Their folk-pop roots are becoming just that: roots. There are shades of U2 and Coldplay–as there always have been–but the biggest change is the fullness that was occasional in their previous releases is the modus operandi here. Yet it doesn’t sound like their “gone electric” album. The songs feel like a natural progression of their work over time; for example, “Where to Begin” echoes Faint Not‘s “Through Your Eyes” in sonic quality, but it expands the palette to include the subtle electronic elements that wend their way through the record. There are truly quiet moments, for those worried about a big rock shift: they’ve not completely abandoned the folk-pop that drew me to them. That’s a testament to the immaculate arranging, recording, and engineering efforts that went into this record–they’re growing without sacrificing their foundation to the new-shiny of added instrumentation.
The intimacy that characterized their previous work is retained here, but in different ways. It’s hard to argue that “My Dear One” isn’t one of the most towering tunes they’ve ever put together, but the lyrical concerns and pristine vocals point to the unchanged core of their work. Each tune is about love in some way, shape or form, which has always been at the heart of their work–however, as new parents, the love of child is included in “Where to Begin” and “In Everything You Do.” They both are honest and not saccharine, as tunes about children can be, which is a strong compliment to their ability to self-edit the massive bursts of emotion that appear as new parents. They’ve managed to change without alienating the old listeners, and delivered a spectacular album along the way. Overall, it’s a brilliant, beautiful album.
(This J&T review is an expanded and, sadly, spell-checked version of a review posted on iTunes.)
Jared Rabin‘s Something Left to Say melds Southern Rock guitar theatrics to gentle acoustic-led country tunes for a mellow, easygoing sound. The title track opens the record with the distinctive bass drum thump, guitar strum, and patterned clapping of folk-pop, but Rabin seasons his take on the genre with zinging pedal steel and a big guitar solo bridge. It doesn’t turn the song into a Southern anthem, but it does help the song fit into the rest of the record. Follow-up “Eight Trips Around the Sun” starts out with crunchy distorted guitars, but layers a John Mayer-esque vocal line on top of it to temper the arrangement. The two tunes set up the poles of Rabin’s sound (except for closer “Ride the Wheel,” which reprises the approach of “Eight Trips” but perhaps even a little crunchier).
From there, Rabin settles into his groove: “A Memory Forever,” “I Remember Last December,” and “Not Heart Broken” are emotive tunes that rely on the tension between acoustic country-pop and electric guitar-driven country-rock. The lyrics and music of “A Memory Forever” evoke the poignant side of saloon troubadours, while the ballad “I Remember Last December” amps up the country-pop melodies and arrangement. “Not Heart Broken” is an “over you” song that includes banjo and weeping pedal steel. The lyrics of love and loss evoke Taylor Swift et al, while the bit of southern rock thrown in on every track keeps things fresh. Something Left to Say is an easy listen, great for putting on while you relax on a back porch somewhere.
1. “Sometimes It’s a Song” – Rob Williams. The fresh, round, earnest qualities of Williams’ voice match the subtle sweetness of the surrounding arrangement, resulting in the sort of song that feels real and weighty without being heavy or loud. It makes quite an impact.
2.”Heart of Stone” – The American West. This one captures the easygoing, lilting West Coast country sound in full flower, with the pedal steel more floating than weeping and the guitar more calming than cutting. The vocals and lyrics, however, supply all the heartbreak you could ask for from a country tune.
3. “Lovedrunk Desperados” – Annabelle’s Curse. That opening thumping kickdrum creates a sense of urgency that cuts through the banjo and acoustic guitar songwriting and lends it the hint of grandeur that compels me to keep listening. The rest of the song does not disappoint.
4. “Set on Fire” – Magic Giant. They’re not referencing their meteoric rise, but this rave-folk outfit (seriously, right there with Avicii, in only a slightly different way) is making a big noise in a lot of places. This particularly tune will keep their star right on rising.
5. “Mountains” – Andy Hackbarth. Even though its title says otherwise, this one invokes the beach: chill, Mraz-style acoustic-pop meets reggae in a sunshiny brew.
6. “Molly Put the Kettle On” – Ben Hunter and Joe Seamons. It doesn’t get much more authentic-sounding than this rootsy, bluegrassy croon/holler tune featuring harmonica, banjo, and fiddle.
7. “Mother” – Adam Busch. Touches of psychedelia flavor this otherwise unassuming, easygoing, fingerpicked acoustic tune.
8. “Lighthouse” – Phillip LaRue. The subtle alt-pop of Peter Bradley Adams meets the flitting, romantic strings of Sleeping at Last for a romantic, lovely tune.
9. “Cool and Refreshing” – Florist. Sporting another not-quite-yet-self-aware title, this tune delivers fragile, melancholic, beautiful indie-pop that really seems like it should be acoustic. Shades of Lady Lamb, Laura Stevenson, and Kimya Dawson appear, but Florist uses the references as touchstones instead of crutches. Just beautiful.
10. “Ein Berliner” – Jacob Metcalf. This tune has the gravitas to convey history in all its glory and terror–a tune so infused with lyrical weight that a single sigh can speak volumes. Distant trumpets, careful strings, twinkling glockenspiel and gentle baritone make this some sort of cross between Beirut and Kris Orlowski, which is only positive. Metcalf previously was in IC faves The Fox and The Bird, and it seems he hasn’t missed a step since stepping out.
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.