1. “A Better Life” – Supersmall. A good-natured, walking-speed tune that gives more than it asks back from you: you don’t have to listen hard to enjoy, but there are charms for those who listen deeply to the early ’00s, Parachutes/Turin Brakes-style work.
2. “May the Stars Fall at Your Door” – Andrew Adkins. We all need an encouraging blessing every now and then–Adkins provides uplifting lyrics with an equally uplifting folk arrangement (complete with harmonica). Totally great work here.
3. “Nowhere” – Swaying Wires. Tina Karkinen’s confident vocals give a levity to this serious, acoustic-led indie-pop tune.
4. “Know It All” – Bitterheart. Brash, immediate, strum-heavy, full-throated folk-pop that marries the enthusiasm of folk-punk with the good-hearted charm of a folk-pop tune. If all their work is like this, their album’s going to be a blast.
5. “One Three Nine” – Jacob Metcalf. Fluttering, ethereal folk that stays grounded basically by force of will, a la Andrew Bird.
6. “Chandelier” – Russell Howard. This gender-flipped cover of Sia’s tune creates a stark atmosphere by modifying Howard’s vocals and putting them over a delicate guitar accompaniment and subtle percussive beat.
7. “White Light Doorway” – Florist. The band has mastered the skill of keeping a song together while lead singer Emily Sprague purposefully sounds like she’s falling apart. The tension there is beautiful and weighty.
8. “While You Stand” – Michael Nau. The wide-eyed naivete of Page France is long gone, but the absurd ease with which Nau pens a lyric and fits it to a simple guitar line persists. It hits me.
10. “Secrets” – Nick Zubeck. Laidback chill doesn’t get more laidback than this.
11. “Monde” – Stranded Horse. Fleet, powerful fingerpicking contrasts a laissez-faire vocal mood for a knotty, beautiful tune that feels like it fell out of a Wes Anderson movie somewhere.
12. “Black Gold” – Black Country. There are few substances so evocative as oil, with its viscous flow, vibrant sheen, wealth-making potential, and divisive opinion-making. Black Country spells out a narrative of the open spaces, where finding oil is the difference between emptiness of landscape and buzzing life–hanging the promise of oil over the head of a barren, windswept instrumental landscape.
13. “We’ll Get By” – The Singer and the Songwriter. One of the more un-Google-able bands working today drops a stately, moving tune that includes accordion and shuffling snare under a beautiful alto vocal melody.
14. “Wanderer’s Waltz” – Youth Policy. Here’s a wintry, stark tune composed of breathy, Elliott Smith-esque vocals, cascading fingerpicking, and a moody sense of melancholia.
15. “Ghost Blue” – Sparrows Gate. If I walked into a bar where Sparrows Gate was playing this moving, piano-driven ballad-esque tune, I hope it would be to work off a breakup instead of celebrate a success. “Gravitas” doesn’t sell it well enough.
16. “Goes Without Saying” – Melaena Cadiz. A relaxing, unspooling, wandering tune that just feels lovely.
17. “Kicking You Out” – Merival. Few things get me more than a raw, open-hearted acoustic tune with some room echo. Merival’s strong songwriting skills are on full display here, with nothing else added but some harmony vocals. As they say: all the feels.
Independent Clauses is a wide-ranging blog, but it still comes home at night to folk and indie-pop. So those genres are very well-represented in the Top 10.
10. “Song for Zula” – Phosphorescent. Yup, I’m thoroughly on board with all the love this is getting. Just beautiful.
9. “Home Sweet Home” – Russell Howard. The sound of loss and longing rarely sounds so sweet as in this singer/songwriter tune.
8. “The Mantis and the Moon” – Son of Laughter. Clever lyrics, sprightly arrangement, poignant performance: I hummed this a lot in 2013.
7. “Aaron” – JD Eicher and the Goodnights. Sweeping, widescreen folk-pop that leveled me with a great melody and this line: “I don’t write sad songs/they just seem to write me.”
6. “Judah’s Gone” – M. Lockwood Porter. It’s a tough thing to pack nostalgia, disillusion, and rage into one folky tune without any yelling, but Porter navigates the wildly varying emotions deftly.
5. “American Summer” – Jared Foldy. Gentle fingerpicking and reverb create a strong atmosphere, as Foldy offers the sound of beloved summers that sadly have to end.
4. “The Riddle Song” – The Parmesans. Poignant yet flirtatious, this bluegrassy love song is wonderful.
3. “For the Sky” – Wolfcryer. The opening riff of this folk tune, optimistic and yearning, sets the stage for an inescapable tune.
2. “Creeping Around Your Face” – Novi Split. The most tender, gentle love song I heard all year, steeped in the reality of hard times but the hope of good to come.
1. “Everything Is Yours” – Jonny Rodgers. Wine glasses cascade and swoop through the quiet indie-pop arrangement, giving Rodgers a fascinating canvas on which to paint lovely vocal melodies and descriptive lyrics. I couldn’t stop listening to this for weeks.
The state of the acoustic guitar: It has become helpful, perhaps even necessary, to say the word “folk” in reference to yourself if you play songs that include an acoustic prominently. This is sad, because it muddies the real definition of folk and devalues other genres that also use the six-string prominently. Pageant plays songs based in old-school country, ’50s girl-pop, and perky piano indie-pop. It is a fascinating and engaging amalgam, and Lost Ourselves deserves its own praise (not just the overused label of “folk!”). But linguistically we must say what we must to get people to listen. Oh well.
This intriguing genre soup is most easily evident in single “Trustfunders,” which combines tambourine, pedal steel, plunking bass and saloon piano as a foundation. On this very country structure, Erika Porter and her back-up males sing verses that sound straight out of 1958. The chorus makes me wonder why they aren’t on tour with Mates of State right now. It all flows seamlessly, which is no small feat. Bravo, Pageant. Bravo.
This fluid merging of genres is assisted by Derek Porter’s presence in the band: Porter has experience with experimental pop that comes through on “I Live in My Father’s House.” The song starts off in an a capella format before morphing into a bass-driven indie-pop tune. It takes yet another turn into a madcap, sort-of rock tune before slamming the door. That all happens in under two minutes. It’s followed up by the title track, a straight-ahead vintage pop nugget with a sweet sax-led horn section. “Thinking Makes It So” sees Derek take the lead vocals on a song that leans all the way over to Western swing. It’s excellently pulled off. Then there’s the gorgeous “Shut the Door,” which pulls all of their affectations together into something beautifully, distinctly Pageant.
Pageant has a lot going on, but it never feels like they do. They’ve managed to situate all of their songwriting flights of fancy so that none of them feel out of place. That’s a rare feat. Lost Ourselves is an inventive, creative record that packs a ton of ideas into seven tunes. I eagerly look forward to what else Pageant comes up with, and encourage you to jump on the Pageant train before it takes off from the station.
The line between Peter Bradley Adams’ nuanced singer/songwriter fare and Matt Nathanson’s bright, obvious pop is sometimes a matter of magnitude and emphasis: the most cerebral of tunesmiths can fall in love with a big melody, while populists can get complex too. Russell Howard lives in the space between these poles, drifting toward one side or the other as the song demands on his City Heart + double EP.
“Home Sweet Home” is his most Adams-esque tune, as Howard pairs a gentle, fingerpicked guitar line with shakers and a pristine vocal performance. His confident but not overbearing voice carries the sense of loss that runs through the tune beautifully. Add in some light arrangement and an octave-jumping vocal finale, and Howard’s mined gold. On the other side of the spectrum, “Under the Weight” and “You, Me & Someday” mine Room for Squares-era John Mayer in the guitar and drum styles. The quiet closer “Morning” leans toward more pensive work, giving his voice a showcase again.
The acoustic side of the double EP isn’t markedly different from the full-band version of the release, as his arrangements are tasteful and uncluttered in their fleshed-out form. City Heart + shows Howard as a songwriter who has the skills to write compellingly for different audiences. It’s a fine introduction to a new voice, if you’re not acquainted with any of his back catalog.
Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.