Arts Fishing Club‘s self-titled debut EP shows off the many skills of Christopher Kessenich. In just over 20 minutes, Kessenich blows through southern rock, troubadour folk, and Damien Rice-esque roaring ballads. Through it all, Kessenich delivers memorable melodies and tight production that point to more great things in the future.
Kessenich’s nom de plume Arts Fishing Club evokes a pastoral sort of image, and the album art reiterates it. The music isn’t quite as rustic as both would imply: while highlight “Rarin’ to Roam” has a sonic lineage stretching way back through folkies like John Denver and Bob Dylan, the arrangement and production are bright and modern. The verses and chorus melodies stick with me, and the whole thing comes off as a mature, polished folk-pop track. If AFC goes this way, there’s a world of Lumineers fans that would be all about this. But Kessenich can howl with the best of them, as “Bottle of Wine” is a sad-hearted ballad that ratchets to a huge, dramatic ending–he could move this direction too.
For those not intrigued by earthy troubadour folk or acoustic ballads, “Ground She Walked” and “Take a Walk” let the distorted guitars fly. They’re still grounded in acoustic songwriting, but they’ve got a crunchy edge that evokes the acoustic/grungy vibes of the mid-’90s. Kessenich morphs his voice once again into a grittier tone and a more attitude-heavy delivery. Some people’s experiments clearly show which avenues should or shouldn’t be pursued, but his project has a lot of avenues available to it after this EP. With talent to spare and room to sonically roam, Arts Fishing Club has a lot going for it.
Devin James Fry is working through some identity issues right now: last year’s Headwater Songs came out under his own name, this year’s Jump Into the Fire 7″ came out under the Salesman moniker, and Four Dreams is from Devin James Fry and the Name Sayers. [Editor’s note: Fry would land on the moniker Name Sayers, which is where the current links go.] The opposite is true of the sonic spaces depicted in these releases: Fry has been honing his sound meticulously, and Four Dreams sharpens all his ideas to fine points. “I Touch My Face In Hyperspace Oh Yeah” and “Upbringing” focus on his noisier realms: the former marryies clanging, angular guitars to driving rhythms and howling baritone vocals to create a uniquely frantic environment; the latter is a composed mostly of Fry’s haunting vocals and complex percussion–also a unique mood. Fry’s version of rock music is untethered from the normal lineage and bonafides, creating a genuinely exciting aura. The enthusiasm of the Jump Into the Fire 7″ lands here, on this side.
The other side of Fry’s mental map shows up in “Pearl Made, Gold Stayed” and “Wheel,” where he lets his softer songwriting shine. Even when writing something intended to be quiet, Fry keeps the tension and motion present–“Pearl Made, Gold Stayed” shows off his signature guitar style and thumping percussion in a different setting. It’s ultimately a moving tune in the emotional sense as well: “life pays in pearls, not gold / and you know how pearls are made.” “Wheel” ends the collection by picking up where Headwater Songs left off (“Oh Lord, I am a wheel of Colorado sand”) and creates a delicate, flowing environment with his guitar style and vocals that is distinctly his own. If you’re not on the Devin James Fry train yet, you need to be: he’s making gems over here. Four Dreams is a definite contender for your end-of-year EP list.
Austin alt-country outfit Salesman’s output up until this point has been eerie, avant-garde, and complex. With theLet’s Go Jump into the Fire 7″, they’ve gone in a different direction that they admit is “a new page” in their book. And boy, is it.
Instead of dark and foreboding tunes that take a while to make their way to your heart, the title track of the seven-inch is an immediately endearing tune. It opens with a jaunty, celebratory, major-key fingerpicking pattern on an electric guitar, which is a shock in itself.
The rest of the arrangement unfolds in a careful way that builds the song seemingly organically to a jubilant point two minutes in where Devin James Fry yells “Yeah!” not out of terror, but out of enthusiasm. Wavering pedal steel, tasteful drums, and thrumming bass create a warm atmosphere that’s hard to resist. It’s very much alt-country, and the rhythms and vocals still mark it as a Salesman track, but their powers are definitely engaged in a different direction.
“Let’s Go Jump into the Fire” is backed with “Riddle of the Source,” which is darker in tone and timbre. It’s still not as difficult as their previous work (or Fry’s previous work with apocalyptic post-rock band Lord Buffalo), but the vibes are darker, more forlorn, more at home in the minor key. Fry stretches out his vocals here, leading the song with his nuanced performance. There’s an awesome (and all too short) guitar solo as well. Salesman’s new look is less obtuse, more direct, and thoroughly enjoyable. “Let’s Go Jump into the Fire” is a brilliant track that speaks optimistically toward things to come.
Janet Devlin‘s Running With Scissors is a thoroughly modern acoustic pop album, putting all the things we’ve learned since Nevermind to good use. The Irish singer/songwriter channels The Lumineers, Lilith Fair, Ingrid Michaelson, and KT Tunstall throughout the album, creating tunes that fit the best adjectives of each turn. Opener “Creatures of the Night” is a perky mid-’00s acoustic-pop song with mandolin and stomping drums; the booming kick bass turns into the walloped, four-on-the-floor tom of “House of Cards,” which is a female-fronted Lumineers track if there ever was one. (It’s even got the obligatory “hey!”)
The tunes set the tone for the album: fun, smart, and melodically mature. The surprisingly maturity with which she traipses through genres is worth noting here: “Hide and Seek” is straight-ahead ’90s female pop (Jewel?), “Lifeboat” includes melodica and separated strumming a la Ingrid Michaelson, “Things We Lost in the Fire” is an introspective piano ballad (Fiona Apple!), and her cover of the The Cure’s “Friday I’m in Love” is all folk fingerpicking and whispered vocals. “Wonderful” has a regrettable lyrical concept, but if you just ignore the words, it’s another cheery ’90s pop tune. (On second thought, maybe the goofy lyrics are just part and parcel of her commitment to the style.)
Janet Devlin’s Running With Scissors is a carousel of delights: no matter which song you pick, it will take you for a warm, lovely trip. If you’re into acoustic pop, you should know about Devlin.
If first lines are important for setting the tone of an album, then the opening salvo from Salesman on Escalante lets you know that things aren’t going to progress in the normal fashion: “I believe the dead have to climb / up the narrow road that’s thinner than a chalk line / but they climb / like wine up my throat.” What unspools in the next 37 minutes is a hypnotic, haunting, eerie set of tunes that don’t adhere to any rules of genre or style. Escalante is its own thing, and that’s not something I get so say very often.
Opener “7×7” sets things in an ostensibly Americana/alt-country setting, with fractured but still recognizable alt-country guitar work and thrumming bass. It’s got those real wild lyics, but you can reasonably call it an alt-country song (albeit one that the Jayhawks never would have imagined). But by the second track, all genre markers are largely obliterated. “Horn” is the sort of song that seems fit for the desert: disjointed bass lines, spartan drumming, occasional dispatches of modified guitar noise, and distant sleigh bells accompany ghostly, mournful vocals for the first true taste of eerie. There is an impressive, grinding guitar bit (guitar solo?) halfway through, but it’s more like Tom Morello’s guitar solos than a surf-rock one.
Things get really wild on “Clear Cold Heaven,” which is a solo vocal piece accompanied only by unsettling clicking, buzzing, and whirring sounds. It is truly avant-garde, and more than a little creepy. (Bonus track “Bringing Upbringing” is constructed in a similar vein, but is less uncomfortable due to the mix of sounds around the vocals.) The members of Salesman know that they’ve been a bit rough on their listeners, so they close out Side A with the acoustically soothing “Spirit Jar,” a beautiful, pensive, slow, acoustic-led folk tune that’s about waking up in a spirit jar. (No rest for the eccentric.)
“Four Legs” counts as one of the more standard tracks here, a helter-skelter indie-rock track that invokes Pontiak and other swamp-lovin’ rock bands. It nears the levels of sonic aggression of Lord Buffalo, the noisy/apocalyptic alt-country band that shares members with Salesman. (“When You Face It” also cultivates this sort of deep-night, gritty-dusty groove.) “Loving Dead” also nears normalcy, opening with beautiful violin and guitar harmonics. So it’s totally possible for Salesman to make songs that adhere to genre patterns, but they just prefer to subvert them most of the time.
Escalante is a fearless, unrestrained record that makes a definite mark. It is not content to get in line with the other bands’ stuff. If you think there’s not enough alt in alt-country these days, Salesman might be on your avant-garde wavelength. Adventurous types, forge ahead!
Devin James Fry (Lord Buffalo, Salesman) is a busy man, but he’s taken a break from those two wild pursuits to drop the pensive, ruminative Headwater Songs. The 9-song album is a pleasantly stark affair–most tracks are just his smooth tenor voice and a fingerpicked instrument (guitar or banjo). The dual tragedies that inspired this album (the fire and floods that have happened this year near Canon City, Colorado) give the album a hushed sense of calm, as if Fry is surveying the damage to his beloved hometown. Some songs deal directly with the disasters (“After the Royal Gorge Fire,” “Headwaters (Song for Gatherer)”), while others deal with the incidents more indirectly (“Real Fire”). The whole album flows seamlessly, as if the songs flowed out of Fry like the waters they chronicle. Keening falsetto, intricate picking guitarwork, and a deep sense of patience characterize these tunes. If you’re up for some gorgeous, spartan acoustic songs, Headwater Songs should be on your to-hear list.
On the far opposite end of the spectrum in acoustic music is Mutual Benefit’s Love’s Crushing Diamond, which is a full-on chamber-pop experience. Sure, there are banjos and guitars, but there are violins, electronic sounds, and intricate arrangements that create gorgeous pile-ups of sound. This is an album that washes over a room, transforming the tone from normal to slightly more warm and comforting. Jordan Lee’s gentle voice is the perfect foil for these tender tunes, bringing out all the sweetness that can be extracted from them. If Bon Iver turned his attention to love instead of its loss, or Sufjan Stevens was less idiosyncratically percussive, or if the Low Anthem indie’d up a bit more, you’d have Mutual Benefit. This is just an absolutely gorgeous record that deserves your attention. A year-end gem.
Scott Fant’s singer/songwriter tunes are rough-edged without getting gruff. Fant writes with just him and a guitar, giving the tunes on Goatweed Bouquet a raw, earnest feel. These tunes would feel at home at both a Tom Waits-ian bar (“Bottom of the Hole”) and a Budweiser-toting honky-tonk (“Don’t Touch That Dog,” “Walk in the Light”). There are also some ballads intermingled among the upbeat tunes, best exemplified by the pristine guitar work of “Adagio for the Lonely.” Shades of David Ramirez, Counting Crows, and old-school country come through in the short runtime, showing Fant a diverse and interesting songwriter. Very different than Headwater Songs in mood, these songs are meant to be heard live and maybe even sung along to–especially if you’ve got a cold beer in your hand.
After I covered Lord Buffalo’s excellent EP, I was informed that the same group of musicians compose another band, named Salesman. Instruments are swapped, lead vocals are exchanged, and different-sounding music is made. Where Lord Buffalo’s folk sound has a cinematic, wide-angle feel to it, Salesman’s The Wasp EP has a much more earthy, communal intimacy.
Not that these are all weepy folk strummers. Salesman is far more characterized by its vocal melodies and patterns than any other instrument. “I Will” is an ominous a capella tune augmented only by rumbling tom, whoops and yells. It is positively intimidating. “Taos Hum” has a few more instruments going on, but it’s still distinguished by a vocal performance reminiscent of Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk.” “Giving Up (Easy Way Out)” feels like a continuation of the mood from “Taos Hum”; it’s easy to hear them as one song. “Fly Bird Fly” is a little more electronic, but it’s still firmly within the menacing, ominous, rhythm-heavy tone that Salesman has set for the songs here.
However, the opener and closer are nothing like the internal tracks of the EP. “Five Years” is a pastoral rumination, reminiscent of Fleet Foxes’ slow-moving, unfolding folk. “Ella” is an a capella track, but it’s far closer to a barbershop quartet than the pounding “I Will.” It’s the most memorable track on the album, a tune that seems to stop time for four minutes. With no instruments but voices, the song is stripped of its external markers of what should happen when; it becomes simply a free-floating, melodious experience that I didn’t want to end.
Salesman’s The Wasp EP is a diverse, interesting listening experience. If you’re up for something outside of the norm in your folk listening schedule, this will hit that spot.
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.