Instead of writing new blurbs for each of these albums, I’m going to let the reviews stand as my comments about each of them except the album of the year. Since I had so many EPs on my EPs of the year list, there are less than my standard 20 albums of the year this year.
Album of the Year: Worn Out Skin – Annabelle’s Curse. (Review) This album came out of nowhere and established itself as a standard component of my listening life. It fits on the shelf right next to Josh Ritter and The Barr Brothers in terms of maturity of songwriting, lyrical depth, beauty, and overall engagement. Each of the songs here have their own charms, which is rare for an album: this one will keep you interested the whole way through. It’s a complete album in every sense of the word, and so it was the easy choice for album of the year.
I don’t know if the term “left-field pop” still or ever meant anything to anyone, but that’s the first thing I thought of to describe the self-titled release from Hermit’s Victory–essentially an indie-pop band that is maybe sitting in a forest while they compose and perform. All the elements of indie-pop are there, just with an extra layer of found sound and recording techniques that makes everything sound like you’re outdoors.
This is most obvious in “Mooch”– where the found sounds literally appropriate the bird calls and running water of the outdoors–but is more subterraneanly evident in the unusual synthesizers of “Night Owl,” the subtle reverb of “Novice” and the tape hiss of “Swerve.” By the time that lo-fi closer “Sleeping Evil” comes around, the context makes me imagine that the two performers are sitting out on the porch of a cabin somewhere (even though nothing necessarily conjures this idea up from this track in particular). All that to say, this album is a true album, not just a random collection of songs: you should listen to this as a whole, and you will hear wonderful things that you wouldn’t hear by just listening to tracks on their own.
That’s not to say that these tracks don’t hold up to individual scrutiny: “Money in the Evenings” is an intriguing, beguiling slow-jam that takes its time getting where it wants to go. “Islands” is some cross between Bossa Nova and the verdant landscapes of the rest of the album. The power of these songs is in their intricate, idiosyncratic, deeply enveloping arrangements. “Sleeping Evil” eschews even that lovely cloak and sits apart as a pure songwriting gem: it would take only a guitar and voice to cover satisfactorily (which is slighting the subtle sounds and second guitar surrounding those elements, but in comparison to the complexity of the previous tunes there’s a different focus). These tracks are solid through and through, from their roots to the leaves. Hermit’s Victory is an entrancing album that can be enjoyed at a surface level and at depth: it has intricacies galore to explore, but you can also just let it wash over you.
Chuck Burns and Ty Rone‘s Leave of Absence is a elegant mash-up of Mississippi blues, New Orleans jazz, and traditional Southern guitar/harmonica folk. Sometimes the duo works out a genre separate from its brethren (the folky “Ferguson/Plan B,” the bluesy “Someday When I’m Older”), sometimes they get married (the everything-at-once aspect of “New Orleans”), and sometimes they get blown out to epic proportions (the rockin’ “The Heights”).
Despite these various sounds and moods, the acoustic guitar and harmonica are a constant through-line. The major-key fingerpicking and the wailing harmonica fit together neatly, creating the sort of timelessly wonderful sound that you can get in this genre. Burns’ vocals don’t peg the tunes in any particular era either: smooth and sultry and occasionally roaring, he locks the parts together in a great collage.
I’ve mentioned it already, but the predominant feeling I get while listening to this record is one of “fit.” Burns and Rone are fitting themselves into a long-standing tradition, making their own way down a well-trodden path. The songs sound right, the vibe is strong, and the album just takes off on its own. Whether it’s the slightly funky vocals of “East Coast Sun,” the female background vocals and organ of “Private Devil,” or the rolling fingerpicking of “Hours on Hours,” the duo grabs parts that seem endlessly reusable and combine them into songs that seem like I’ve always had them in my life. Yet the spark of the new is in them too, as a fresh accent, vocal line, or harmonica bite sounds and strikes me off-guard a bit. In short, Leave of Absence is really good stuff.
I was attracted to The Tallest Man on Earth by his fantastic fingerpicking skills, not particularly his arranging skills, so it’s with great excitement that I’ve listened (repeatedly) to Moa Bones‘ Spun. In some ways, Dimitris Aronis’ creations are even more suited to my tastes than those of Kristian Matsson: Aronis’ voice isn’t as abrasive and his song structures are more grounded in the American South’s musical tradition. I note the American South there because Aronis is from Greece (although you can’t tell from the songwriting).
Tunes like “Old Days,” “Skopelitis,” and “Come On” feature Aronis’ endearing, enchanting fingerpicking skills on guitar and banjo. The tunes seem to float along on lazy waves of down-home friendliness. “Skopelitis” is the purest expression of that mode, an instrumental track that almost emits sun rays. But Moa Bones isn’t a one-trick pony, and tunes like “Hey” draw off the Mississippi walking blues tradition in strum pattern, harmonica inclusion, and overall rhythm. “The Journey” even includes some scratchin’ electric guitar and organ for bluesy cred. (“Take It All Away” amps up the organ usage, creating the noisiest song on the record.)
But it’s in gentle, quiet tunes like “Long for a Change” that Aronis steals my heart. The pensive, relaxed songwriting allows the nuances of his creaky voice and melodic sense to shine through. It’s similar to the type of song that The Tallest Man on Earth doesn’t write much anymore. If you miss the fingerpicking glee of Matsson’s work, Moa Bones will make you sigh and smile. Spun is not to be missed for fans of Southern-flavored acoustic songwriting.
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.