Genre mash-ups are the way of the future, if Steven Hyden’s reading of music’s trajectory is to be believed. (I believe it.) But where Hyden thinks that we’re headed for “a future where all music sounds like everything at once” and nothing is distinctive, Sloth provides a counter-argument. Sloth‘s Out + Out combines alt-country, slackerish ’90s indie, gritty garage-rock and tons more to create a sound all its own. Instead of being a mishmash, the inventive results are a gripping listen.
The sheer number of ideas on Out + Out is head-spinning. In taking sonic elements, songwriting conventions, riff styles, and attitudes from a variety of styles, it seems that lead songwriter Seth Nathan has no end of new elements to include. Opener “Every Circle” starts off with a squalling guitars and ominous cymbal splashes before leaping into a lumbering rock guitar line counterpointed by frantic bass guitar work. A snap change to the verse ushers in a new section entirely: easygoing vocal delivery, lean-back drumming, mellowed-out background vocals. The chorus and the post-chorus instrumental section amp up the rock again. Instead of feeling disjointed, it feels like it fits in the alt-country milieu of rapid starts and stops. It’s the sort of song that sounds improbable in text but just works when you hear it. Trust me on this one.
The wild arrangements don’t let down after that first tune. “Montana” combines spidery lead guitar with alt-country backline and an artsy bridge; “Live For Beauty” has some tropical vibes thrown into the guitar along with a snare shuffle and hectic bass riffing. (Bassist Frank Cicciarello deserves mad props not just here, but everywhere on the album.) “I Wanna Move (to Portland)” marries the cascading guitars of the previous song to the laid-back indie-rock vibes at the beginning, but morphs into an even wilder experience: a brief interlude that’s nearly calypso in tone and rhythm leads into an abstract, dissonant art-rock section that reminds me of Minus the Bear in a really bad mood. Then it segues into a grumbling-yet-funky post-punk thing. It gets more and more complex from there (!). It’s a mind-bending, thought-provoking, brilliant song. Just this tune alone could merit its own review.
There are some moments of sonic breath: “Staring at the Sun” is a walking-speed ballad, while “What You See” follows up “I Wanna Move (To Portland)” with a relatively straightforward mid-tempo rock song (albeit with brittle, damaged guitar solos like something out of Tom Morello’s oeuvre). They show that while Sloth can get experimental with the best of them, they can also knock a traditional structure out of the park. Sloth packs more into the 25 minutes of Out + Out than some bands can get in twice that long. If you’re up for an adventurous, out-of-the-box listen, Sloth’s Out + Out should give you quite a trip.
Angela James – Way Down Deep. James’ voice is the star of this rich, elegant collection. Her strong, clear, bright alto leads the way through sparse but not stark environments, occasionally striking out with not much more than a gentle, distant guitar. She goes completely a capella in the evocative title track, a bold, risky move that pays off gloriously. She effects a regal stance through these tunes by calling up mental images of the torchy lounge singer, the world-weary blues singer, and the old-school country diva–sometimes all within the same song: “Dirty Moon” mixes 1800s saloon-style piano with early ‘1900s ragtime and jazz instrument soloing.
The album moves expertly through combinations of smooth jazz, alt-country, and modern singer-writer, showing tasteful, thoughtful touches no matter which genre is dominant in a song. (Check the wonderful jazz instrumental “Salt Town.”) But even though the arrangements are great, James is at her best when she lets it be stark and quiet: “I Should’ve Known,” “Lost and Found,” and the title track are majestic and masterful. The deft, impressive songwriting of Way Down Deep is the perfect vehicle for James’ remarkable vocal talents while still being engaging in its own right: there’s not much more you can ask of an album. And it’s classy as anything, too. Highly recommended.
Quinn Tsan – Good Winter. Bon Iver established brittle, distant, forlorn sounds as the definitive winter soundtrack; Quinn Tsan falls a bit afield from that vision by injecting warmth and immediacy into the vocals and instruments while still retaining the stark, austere singer/songwriter vibe. Songs like “Bedrooms III” perfectly capture the conflicted feel of sitting by a warm fire on a dark, cold night–your hands are comfortable, but the cold is creeping up your back. “Oh! The Places We’ll See!” delivers a similar vibe, but with a bit more of a sea shanty air. The title track of this six-song EP is actually the least wintry, as Tsan appropriates a lilting vocal style and a gentle-yet-perky instrumentation more similar to Lisa Hannigan, Regina Spektor, or Ingrid Michaelson. It’s an interesting, enveloping EP that establishes Tsan as someone to watch.
Sloth – Still Awake. Sloth is pretty perfectly named for a rock band that combines a pronounced Pavement streak in the vocals and guitar with a shuffle-snare alt-country. It’s a situation where the best of both worlds come together: the endearing slacker ethos of early ’90s indie-rock meets the fresh-faced sounds of ’90s alt-country in tunes like “Matador Scarf” and “No Places to Be.” Scuzzy guitar drops into the background of tunes, mumbly vocals wander around with wry amusement written all over them, and overall good vibes permeate everything.
Even tunes that lean more to one side of their genre mix are fun: “Cheer Up Charlie” is devoid of alt-country and plays up the pseudo-funky chill that white boys were (are) all about; “This Dashboard Looks Like the Rest of Our Lives” is a bent take on trad country, while “Dark Dark Dark” is as close to Jayhawks as Sloth gets. But it’s opener “Smug Rock” that shows the best way forward for Sloth: a space somewhere between the two genres where they can put their stamp on the sound. Just like most early ’90s indie-rock, Sloth’s work is just plain fun to listen to: delightfully quirky, unexpectedly exciting, and altogether impressive.
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.