I love lo-fi things. I spent the back half of the summer listening to The Mountain Goats’ All Hail West Texas, and I’m doing research right now on the history and present of cassette tapes (they never died, y’all!). Unadorned, barebones performances are just appealing to me. So Summer of Sam‘s Slumlord struck a chord in its Mountain Goats-meets-Iron & Wine earnestness.
Armed with nothing but an acoustic guitar, his voice, and a recording device, Sam Egenes creates short, endearing songs. The “it’s done when it feels done” songwriting style of the Mountain Goats is present, along with the meandering, thoughtful moods more indicative of Iron & Wine’s early days. “Just Bitter” surfaces fully-formed as a dark, moody song vaguely reminiscent of Damien Rice in ominous overtones, while the memorable “Dream On” appears and disappears abruptly. The title track is a forceful piece that revels in its own lo-fi aesthetic; the notes rattle, the recording isn’t perfect, and the vocals are distant. It’s still great.
These are notes, a travelogue, a series of broadcasts; these are invitations to listen to someone else’s thoughts. There’s no pop sheen here, nor do these songs need it. They aren’t charming in a twee way, but they do charm me: in the age of everyone as their own orchestra, it’s rare to find someone very satisfied in making humble tunes with one instrument and a voice. These songs aren’t perfect, and that’s wonderful to me. There’s tape hiss and a bit of distortion where the sound clipped. That’s part of the joy of these tunes. If you’re into lo-fi singer/songwriters, Summer of Sam needs to be on your radar.
Independent Clauses is somewhat of an alternate universe when it comes to music reviewing. I rarely cover the hip bands, often love things no one else does, and generally attempt to be true to what I hear. If there’s a radar to be on or under, we’re hanging out on a different screen altogether. This is more by happenstance than choice: I never set out to be contrarian. And I don’t feel like a curmudgeonly naysayer of popular music, as you’ll see tomorrow. I just have a different lens than many people. Here’s the view from that lens.
16. Elijah Wyman/Jason Rozen’s collective output: Tiny Mtns/The Seer Group/Decent Lovers. What started out as the artsy electro-pop project Tiny Mtns split into a heavily artsy electro project (The Seer Group) and a heavily artsy pop project (Decent Lovers), with the two splitting the tracks between them. Except when both kept a track and reworked it to their likings. Did I mention that this one time, one of these guys gave the other a kidney? Now you see why they get one mention.
I usually like to get this post to a nice round number, but I didn’t get it there this year. Here’s what my year sounded like, y’all! This post isn’t ranked; instead, it’s a playlist of sorts. My ranked post will come tomorrow.
I wrote last June about the cult of greatness that mellow music often defies. Quiet dignity does not win Grammys or end up on year-end lists. (Or does it?)
Summer of Sam’s A-Okay is almost aggressively self-aware about its unassuming station. From the title to the tape hiss to the spare instrumentation, these 8 songs unfold in an uncomplicated way. It genuinely seems like a guy sat down with an acoustic guitar and set out to document his songs. The earnest, authentic feel calls to mind early Mountain Goats or early Iron & Wine: there’s nothing here but song, and song is all that is here.
Lest I become obsessed with form over function, the songs rule. The vocal melodies are memorable, and the songwriter shows a striking aptitude to convincingly elicit multiple moods out of the same guitar while still composing a coherent album. This is so rarely accomplished that even its best attempts are now maligned and under-appreciated. “Like a Rosie” is a pensive, walking-speed folky tune, while “Hoorayhooray” is a pleasant little pop tune. “Everything’s Been Said” foregrounds the vocals and lyrics in a stately and mature piece, while “Lost Highway” features an alt-country weariness. (The only bum moment is the blown-out album closer “Theme,” which leans a bit too heavily on the lo-fi.) None of these songs come off as appropriations or stiff attempts at form; they all feel like different moods of the same man.
Or, put otherwise: I love almost everything about this album.
It’s rare to find a singer/songwriter offering up this much quality songwriting in one release. Summer of Sam’s A-Okay is the sort of album that used to quietly make the rounds, passed from friend to friend. I don’t know if it works like that anymore (who was the last real groundswell singer/songwriter? Bon Iver? Iron & Wine?), but I hope it does for Summer of Sam’s sake. A-Okay is far too brilliant to languish unappreciated.
Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of instrumental music. We write about those trying to make the next step in their careers and established artists.