1. “Heart Song” – Samuel Alty. Captures the enthusiasm of flamenco and distills it into a two-and-a-half-minute romp that I can’t get out of my head. The music video perfectly complements the ecstatic vibe of the tune: a group of people slowly getting accustomed to dancing in public. This is way, way fun.
2. “Silent Moon” – Supersmall. It’s a warm blanket of a tune–the soft guitars, the comfortable vocals, and the gentle arrangement all come together to just be a lovely acoustic indie-pop tune.
3. “Roman Tic” – John Helix. Fans of Elliott Smith will fall hard for this spare-yet-endearing tune.
4. “21 Years” – Malory Torr. The quirky songwriting and vocal delivery of Regina Spektor (except on guitar) fused to a Bohemian version of Five for Fighting’s “100 Years.” Love the group vocals throughout.
5. “Drinking Song” – Haley Heynderickx. This slightly woozy, charming tune sounds like Laura Marling and Laura Stephenson collaborated on an acoustic jam. The vocals here are quirky and lovely.
6. “Turn to Stone” – Nice Motor. Combines back-porch picking with West Coast, Laurel Canyon country vibes to create a tune that’s not quite either thing: it kinda sounds like The Eagles somehow turned into a folk band.
7. “Sweet Innocence” – Kylie Odetta. It’s rare that the drums stand out in a singer/songwriter tune, but they provide the perfect counterpoint to Odetta’s warm alto lines in this calm, confident tune.
8. “We Sing with Angels” – The Project. With a singer/songwriter chorus, Spanish finger-style guitar verses, and traditional melodic structure evocative of ancient hymnody, this tune goes in directions you wouldn’t expect. The pieces come together for a unique experience.
9. “The One” – Erik Fastén. There’s a sense of noble, dignified romantic angst here, employed through a careful guitar performance, breathy vocals, and fluttering strings.
10. “Follow the Sun” – Hand Drawn Maps. An early-’00s sense of full-band indie-pop melancholy permeates this track–it makes perfect sense that they’re from LA, the home of Phantom Planet and inspiration of Death Cab’s “Why You’d Want to Live Here.”
11. “The Planets Align” – Chris Belson. A deep, silky, enveloping, enigmatic voice dances over a simple guitar.
12. “1963” – Nikki Gregoroff. Gregoroff makes a simple piano line arresting with a bright, clear, magnetic vocal performance.
13. “Kaydence” – Triana Presley. Sometimes you just want to hear a melancholy piano-pop ballad. I’ve been known to love Something Corporate and Taylor Swift. I’ll admit it.
14. “Can’t Erase It” – Kylie Odetta. Somewhere between Norah Jones and Adele lives this beatuiful, wistful track. Odetta’s voice reads far older than her years. (Rare double entry on the same post!)
I love alliteration, so here’s some of that in this mix of MP3s.
Acoustic April Mix
1. “Honeycomb Heart” – True Gents. A magnificent chorus powers this indie-folk tune from a unique Scottish outfit.
2. “Leave Me Where I Want to Be” – Safe Haven. Front-porch intimacy flows through this combination of New Orleans jazz and Appalachian Americana.
3. “Grew Up Here” – The End of America. Appalachian harmony and a rootsy instrumental arrangement make this an irresistible nugget.
4. “Maybe It’s Best” – Justin Heron. Shuffle snare, bright guitar tone, and whispery vocals? Yup, I’m in.
5. “Sharks!” – Common Shiner. This band’s website is SayNoToBadPop.com. That’s awesome. Their acoustic-fronted power-pop echoes Something Corporate and Motion City Soundtrack.
6. “Pretty Face” – Among Giants. I love the vocals here: raw, passionate, and real.
7. “Playing Pretend” – Joshua Steven Ling. The deeply saddening passing of Jason Molina has gotten me back into slow-moving, quiet, morose recordings and their particular type of beauty.
8. “The Lionness” – OfeliaDorme. On that note, here’s a beautiful cover of my favorite Jason Molina song.
9. “Myopic” – Jura. Transcendent beauty that invokes The Album Leaf’s sense of patience.
Even though piano-centric singer/songwriters never seem to go out of style, piano-rock has had much less sustained success. Over the past two decades, the genre has flashes of critical and popular acclaim (Ben Folds Five! Something Corporate! Jack’s Mannequin! Relient K!) before diving back under the covers. Eric Schackne is the latest in a long line of musicians combining the melodious strains of piano with the pounding enthusiasm of pop/rock, and I greatly enjoy his tunes on the Hammers and Strings EP.
Schackne does include guitar in his tunes, unlike some piano-centric bands, but the keys take precedence. The pounding “This Classic Romance” takes it power from the clanging chords of the piano, while “Loud and Clear” pulls its energy from a frantic piano melody. Schackne’s smooth vocals offer a lot to the latter tune as well: the rapid-fire delivery and clever lyrics are reminiscent of Relient K’s Matt Thiessen. Schackne has a lower voice than Thiessen, and it fits with the bass-heavy mix that Schackne put together on most of the EP.
“The sound of my dreams coming true / is when I can leave the singing up to you,” belts Schackne, and it’s a sentiment than any pop musician can agree with wholeheartedly. A pop musician is what Schackne unabashedly is, as he throws down hummable melodies, crescendo-heavy choruses, and sweeping arrangements. He’s aiming high, and not just in musical quality; just from the titles of “Well Dressed Future” and “Art Can Change the World,” it’s clear that Shackne has aligned himself in the idealist optimist camp. And why not? Happy sounds, positive lyrics, great melodies; there’s a lot to be enthusiastic about in Hammers and Strings, both for Schackne and lovers of good piano-pop.
Pull a Star Trip’s E-vasion Inn is one of the more ambitious acoustic projects I’ve heard in a while. Instead of being content to be an acoustic guitar-fronted band singing pretty songs, they set out to fill their songs with memorable touches: background screaming, songs in other languages, electronic beats and more. For the most part, it works.
The base sound isn’t anything that hasn’t been done before. The members of Pull a Star Trip strum their acoustic guitar a lot, stick drums/bass behind it and augment with strings. They sing loudly and passionately, occasionally sacrificing tunefulness for impassioned cries (a la Places You Have Come to Fear the Most-era Dashboard Confessional, which is a compliment). The songs are all worthy of singing along, and some are even worthy of headbanging.
On top of this tried and true base, they layer their personality. The screaming is the most recognizable bit. They do have the sense to always keep it at the same monitor level as background vocals; it’s never in your face. That’s good, because it’s straight-up hardcore/metal raspy screaming. It’s used to good effect in the dramatic “My Last Wish Shall Be a Time Machine,” but in the Jason Mraz-esque “Co-driver,” it just feels really off. By the end of the album, I’d heard it so much that it pretty much registered as static and not as a meaningful element any more.
“Senal” is their offering in another language, and it’s a lush, gorgeous tune. The strings, piano, and electronic elements implemented work together excellently, and the hushed vocals only intensify the mood. The fact that it’s in a cryptic (and therefore, intriguing) language makes it even more fascinating. They do break back into English for the chorus, and that chorus is the best one of the album, as it makes great use of melody and rhythm. “Senal” is definitely one of the most memorable tracks, even though it’s incredibly challenging to sing along with (as you might imagine).”Los Rojiblancos” is in yet another language, and its rattling, consistent Spanish groove and excellent trumpet work creates another winner.
The majority of the album passes in a propulsive yet still breezy mood. If any number of pop/rock bands busted out their acoustic chops more (Boys Like Girls, We the Kings, Yellowcard, etc) but did it with legitimacy and not as a cheap ploy, it would sound similar. As it stands, the sound is similar enough to stuff that’s on the radio to be immediately accessible but different enough to be immediately embraced and enjoyed with out guilt. The large emphasis on strings should make fans of Yellowcard sit up and take notice, while the emphasis on fast, breezy but still intense songs should make fans of Something Corporate and Jack’s Mannequin sign on.
This album is highly recommended for fans of modern pop/rock. It will fit nicely in your collection while filling a space that’s been abandoned since Dashboard Confessional abdicated their spot as kings of acoustic rocking (and, no matter what they say, the Honorary Title is not taking the crown).
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.