So I dragged myself out of bed at 7:30 a.m. to get downtown by 8 to see Frightened Rabbit play live for KUT. I made it by 8:15 and was able to catch the last few songs of Scott Hutchison’s solo set. I was especially fond of “State Hospital” and old-school inclusion “The Modern Leper,” both of which translated quite nicely to the acoustic setting. Hutchison’s singing voice is simply a goldmine of emotive energy, and it was just as impressive live as it is recorded. Hutchison’s sense of humor was in fine form, as he cracked clever jokes between songs and had the audience smiling and happy to be awake that early in the morning. Wish I could have seen more, but whoa, 8 a.m. was early.
However, I caught the full set of Josh Ritter’s recording, which was absolutely astonishing. I’ve been in love with his new release The Beast in Its Tracks, which came out March 5. He played the four best tunes from it (“Joy to You, Baby” “New Lover,” “Hopeful,” “The Appleblossom Rag”), covered John Prine’s beautiful “Mexican Home,” and invited Hutchison back out to duet with him on The Animal Years‘ “Girl in the War.” “Girl” is my favorite Ritter song that I haven’t heard live, as he didn’t play it when I saw him a few years ago. To see it performed with not one but two of my favorite vocalists in the world was absolutely thrilling. It was easily the highlight of SXSW so far and probably for the rest of SXSW too: it will be incredibly hard to top that.
Ritter’s easygoing songwriting and incisive lyrical turns are just as masterful as Isbell’s, but are delivered in a vastly different way. Instead of booming and commanding his way through the tunes, Ritter playfully stepped through them, tossing off jaw-dropping lyrics as if it were easy to write them. He and an accompanying acoustic guitarist also made the tunes sound easy as well, rolling through the tunes with an easy swagger. If you haven’t heard The Beast in Its Tracks, you really need to: it’s going to be on my end of year list for sure. Simply a brilliant performance by Josh Ritter, both in album and on stage.
I’m showing up late to The Naked and the Famous’ album Passive Me Aggressive You because I agreed with the naysayers who thought “Young Blood” sounded like second-rate Passion Pit. But since I ran across the much more subtle and interesting “Girls Like You” and “Punching In,” I’ve been hooked on the band’s sound. I even like “Young Blood” more, because I know that it’s backed up with nuance, as opposed to cash-in, rip-off glee. Official apology complete.
Bands that can pull off glee and nuance with equal passion are of deep interest to me, which is why TNATF and I Used to Be a Sparrow both have been piquing my interest recently. The duo named I Used to Be a Sparrow hails from Sweden, composed of IC fave Andrea Caccese (Songs for the Sleepwalkers) and Dick Pettersson. Caccese brings thoughtful post-rock/dream-pop influences from his previous work to their debut Luke, while Pettersson contributes an upbeat indie-rock aesthetic reminiscent of Frightened Rabbit. The result is an optimistic, energetic, beautiful album with plenty of room to grow.
The album has a lot of musical touchpoints: the churning post-rock of Sigur Ros has some pull on the sound, while the heavily rhythmic beauty of their lead singer Jonsi’s work figures in (“Lovers on the Moon”). The optimistic mysticism of ’80s U2 (optimysticism?) influences some of the guitar work (“Cambodia,” especially), while the passionate charge of Scott Hutchison’s Frightened Rabbit is unavoidable to mention (“Cambodia,” again). Their more anthemic turns call up Kings of Leon and U2 again.
So is this a derivative mess? No, not at all. The touchstones never devolve into aping another’s sound, because the dream-pop, post-rock and indie-rock ideas are all pulling on each other at the same time. The best example of this is the title track: “Luke” starts off with a wall of squalling guitars and feedback before fading the noise into a dreamy, patterned electronic rhythm and four-part vocal chorus. The background drops out, leaving just the transcendent vocals. It’s an odd tune, but an endearing one, because the vocals are just so good. The song ends, seguing into “Give It Up,” which is an acoustic track of sorts.
The best of the tunes here are idiosyncratic like “Luke.” “Smoke” starts off with a chiming mellophone, introduces some interesting rhythmic patterns, and then augments the construction with a stomping, four-on-the-floor drumbeat. “Lovers on the Moon” builds from an acoustic guitar and distant “ooo” into a unique tune complete with shakers, toms, and screaming guitar. “Give It Up” builds an acoustic track out into a darker mood, again with fitting drumming and evocative guitar.
When I Used to Be a Sparrow pushes the “anthemic” button too often, though, things start to get less easily discernable from each other. “Copenhagen” and “Life is Good” sound a lot like each other; “Hawaii” is not that far off. The songs aren’t bad, but they’re repetitive. (Of the three, “Life is Good” sounds like the original, and the other two the copies.) “Moby Dick,” one of the more memorable vocal melodies on the album, owes a debt to the Passion Pit/The Naked and the Famous school. (Which, I suppose, is a good or bad thing, depending.)
Caccese is starting a habit of doing one-off projects, but I hope this is one that he sticks with. The things that he and Pettersson bring to the table make for a unique blend of nuance, passion and enthusiasm. With some more songwriting under their collective belt, I Used to Be a Sparrow could be something really great. Tunes like “Luke” and “Lovers on the Moon” already prove that their vision is an interesting and unique one. Here’s to hoping they refine and mature it, because I would love to hear more of this.
Multiple genres is often a huge red flag, but Wiredrawn bucks the trend. Debut EP Loose Lips Sink Ships has five great songs in four different genres. I’m not sure what Wiredrawn will turn out to be in the long run, but if these tunes are any indication, it will be very, very good.
Patrick Baird, the Scot behind Wiredrawn, keeps the EP together with a surprisingly mature melodic skill. Through the various genres of the EP, Baird makes a point to get to the melody quick. This saves alt-rocking opener “This City on Fire” from falling into the tedium that dominates much post-grunge these days and gives the pensive post-rock in “Isle of Glass” an immediacy that is rarely heard in the genre. The latter eschews the drawn-out crescendoes of much instrumental post-rock and instead places the listener in an always-morphing present. On top of being incredibly interesting, it’s poignant to boot!
That mood is another element that links these tunes together: Baird is great at calling up emotions without getting maudlin. (His deft, precise melodic touch helps with this immensely.) The songs each feel incredibly meaningful without feeling overwrought: if Scott Hutchison wasn’t a gigantic emotive smear, Frightened Rabbit’s sound would be a good equivalent. Right now it’s just the instrumentals of the two bands that are reminiscent; Baird’s patient, effective vocals take his songs in different directions than FR’s cathartic anthems.
It’s the best of both worlds when Baird applies those vocals and the post-rock expansiveness of “Isle” to the title track. “Loose Lips Sink Ships” allows for a bit more build than previously, but it never starts to feel like it’s post-rock for the sake of post-rock. It’s emotive without being manipulative, well-composed without being ostentatious and confident without being arrogant.
Throw in a decent ballad-esque acoustic track and the Guided By Voices-esque slacker-pop of “The Silver Screen” (which I previously covered), and you’ve got a great EP. The only thing holding back Wiredrawn is a clear statement of musical purpose, as this EP shows that Patrick Baird has the elements to succeed almost anywhere he goes.
Loose Lips Sink Ships is a pretty great way to start out the year in reviews: you should start your year in listening here as well. Then watch for the name in 2012.
Portland seems to be the new Seattle (except for this downer), so I was surprised when I heard Kris Orlowski & the Passenger String Quartet out of Seattle. Seattle is the new Portland, which was the new Seattle?
Scenes aside, Kris Orlowski has established a foundation for himself in the five-song At the Fremont Abbey EP. His voice is a slurry delight, somewhere between the low-pitched snark of Craig Finn (The Hold Steady) and the high-pitched emotionality of Scott Hutchison (Frightened Rabbit). He applies that voice to a batch of solid acoustic guitar-based songs augmented with strings; this particular group was recorded live at the titular space.
I more often feel that songwriters need to loosen up than get more serious, but Orlowski flips the script. He bookends his set standouts “Your Move” and “Jessi,” both weight, impassioned tunes that a man could make a career out of purveying. But in between there are various levels of frivolity, from charming (the inspired “Waltz at Petunia”) to out-of-character (the Mraz-esque pseudo-scatting of “Steady and Slow”). Orlowski attempts to save the latter with a good chorus, but it’s perky and weird. Orlowski does best when he sounds like a non-roaring Damien Rice or Joseph Arthur.
The string quartet makes a surprisingly limited stamp on the lesser tracks (especially “Postcard Man,” which sounds like a Parachutes reject). But they absolutely make the chorus of the beautiful, mournful “Jessi.” “Your Move” is given life by the strings, but it’s the mixed chorus that takes the song home and onto mixes.
Orlowski has shown a lot of variation throughout this EP, but there’s no defining feature. The strings are an integral part of his sound, but they aren’t the x factor. Orlowski needs to work on what his thing is: whether that’s melodies, tight lyrics, songwriting style (sparse/full), unique rhythms (all straightforward here) or whatever else. There’s a lot of raw potential in Orlowski, but he’s got to capture the best parts of “Jessi” and “Your Move” and make them work for him – or, the other songs, if that’s the way he’s gonna roll.
Either way, I’ll be watching Kris Orlowski as an up-and-comer.
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.