Underlined Passages‘ The Fantastic Questis a grower: an album that doesn’t hit you with the same force the first time as it does the second, third or fourth time. In our attention-deficit culture, there’s not as much love for growers as there used to be, so I’m proud to be giving a shout-out to Underlined Passages’ second record on Mint 400 Records. (Full disclosure: I told Michael Nestor of Underlined Passages about Mint 400 Records.)
Instead of traversing the boundary between emo and dream pop as in their previous work, Quest falls firmly in the indie rock camp, anchored by ever-present guitars, firm drumming, and evocative vocal melodies. Tunes like “Everyone Was There” have an up-tempo approach that recall Jimmy Eat World more than American Football, with the guitars churning away (without getting too gritty). Other tunes like “Arabesque” set the guitars against the bass and drums in a tension–the production emphasizes the drumming without pushing it too far up in the mix. This choice gives the album a tight, cohesive feel.
The vocals are one of the main parts of the growing–at first Nestor’s vocal lines seem to blend in too well with the instruments, but subsequent listens adjusted my ear to the arrangement and started to draw me in to his unadorned, non-ostentatious vocal style. I found myself humming the vocal melodies after the second and third listen.
The Fantastic Quest is an unfussy, unpretentious album that reveals layers of careful thought over multiple listens. From the songwriting to the performances to the production, the work has charms for those who listen closely. Take some time with Underlined Passages; don’t be surprised if they win you over.
Supersmall‘s Silent Moon has a distinctly British feel, despite being a NYC-based duo. (Vocalist/songwriter Colin Dempsey is Irish, but that’s not the same.) It might be the formal pop angles on the songwriting, or perhaps the confident dignity with which the vocals are delivered. Maybe it’s the ability to convey emotion without getting maudlin.
Whatever it is, Supersmall know how to write walking-speed, acoustic-led tunes that wouldn’t feel out of place in a charming/quirky indie film. The duo leads off with “A Better Life,” which features perky strumming, joyous trumpets, peppy drumming, and a distant organ for color. If Beirut stripped out its world music aspirations, this sprightly work might be what resulted.
The tune is a fine primer for the release, which includes the Nick Drake-ian guitar vibe and beautiful vocal melodies of “Silent Moon” and “Siren,” the major-key folk of “Riot,” and the country-esque “Home.” There are some more serious tunes, but Supersmall is at their best when they’re creating major-key work with an eye toward thoughtful arrangements and careful pop elements. Silent Moon is where elegant meets excitable with an acoustic guitar in its hand–in other words, it’s worth the time of a wide swath of music listeners, from indie-pop lovers to hardcore acoustic fans.
100 Watt Horse’s It May Very Well Dois an experimental folk/indie-pop release: it’s one fifteen-minute track with interludes connecting various sections that are distinct enough to elsewhere be called songs. The duo incorporate tape hiss, nature sounds, acoustic guitars, distant synths, modulated vocals, static, and more into their inventive, attractive amalgam.
The opening salvo features precise, measured guitar work and a dreamy female vocal line before unfolding into the sounds of a swamp as a transition to a hazy indie-pop section. A woozy guitar line is matched by a leisurely male/female duet and balanced by a steadfast drumbeat and bass line. It all feels very open, raw, and natural–even when it transitions into a power-pop tune a la The Cars. I could go on explaining the release, but that should be enough to hook your interest and not spoil all the surprises (we’re about a third through the release at this point).
Suffice it to say, 100 Watt Horse has a lot of ideas, the talent to pull them off, and the skill to arrange it all into one impressive sitting. If you’re up for clever, intricate, thoughtful work from people pushing their own boundaries (and maybe yours), check this one out.–Stephen Carradini
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!)
1. “A Better Life” – Supersmall. A good-natured, walking-speed tune that gives more than it asks back from you: you don’t have to listen hard to enjoy, but there are charms for those who listen deeply to the early ’00s, Parachutes/Turin Brakes-style work.
2. “May the Stars Fall at Your Door” – Andrew Adkins. We all need an encouraging blessing every now and then–Adkins provides uplifting lyrics with an equally uplifting folk arrangement (complete with harmonica). Totally great work here.
3. “Nowhere” – Swaying Wires. Tina Karkinen’s confident vocals give a levity to this serious, acoustic-led indie-pop tune.
4. “Know It All” – Bitterheart. Brash, immediate, strum-heavy, full-throated folk-pop that marries the enthusiasm of folk-punk with the good-hearted charm of a folk-pop tune. If all their work is like this, their album’s going to be a blast.
5. “One Three Nine” – Jacob Metcalf. Fluttering, ethereal folk that stays grounded basically by force of will, a la Andrew Bird.
6. “Chandelier” – Russell Howard. This gender-flipped cover of Sia’s tune creates a stark atmosphere by modifying Howard’s vocals and putting them over a delicate guitar accompaniment and subtle percussive beat.
7. “White Light Doorway” – Florist. The band has mastered the skill of keeping a song together while lead singer Emily Sprague purposefully sounds like she’s falling apart. The tension there is beautiful and weighty.
8. “While You Stand” – Michael Nau. The wide-eyed naivete of Page France is long gone, but the absurd ease with which Nau pens a lyric and fits it to a simple guitar line persists. It hits me.
10. “Secrets” – Nick Zubeck. Laidback chill doesn’t get more laidback than this.
11. “Monde” – Stranded Horse. Fleet, powerful fingerpicking contrasts a laissez-faire vocal mood for a knotty, beautiful tune that feels like it fell out of a Wes Anderson movie somewhere.
12. “Black Gold” – Black Country. There are few substances so evocative as oil, with its viscous flow, vibrant sheen, wealth-making potential, and divisive opinion-making. Black Country spells out a narrative of the open spaces, where finding oil is the difference between emptiness of landscape and buzzing life–hanging the promise of oil over the head of a barren, windswept instrumental landscape.
13. “We’ll Get By” – The Singer and the Songwriter. One of the more un-Google-able bands working today drops a stately, moving tune that includes accordion and shuffling snare under a beautiful alto vocal melody.
14. “Wanderer’s Waltz” – Youth Policy. Here’s a wintry, stark tune composed of breathy, Elliott Smith-esque vocals, cascading fingerpicking, and a moody sense of melancholia.
15. “Ghost Blue” – Sparrows Gate. If I walked into a bar where Sparrows Gate was playing this moving, piano-driven ballad-esque tune, I hope it would be to work off a breakup instead of celebrate a success. “Gravitas” doesn’t sell it well enough.
16. “Goes Without Saying” – Melaena Cadiz. A relaxing, unspooling, wandering tune that just feels lovely.
17. “Kicking You Out” – Merival. Few things get me more than a raw, open-hearted acoustic tune with some room echo. Merival’s strong songwriting skills are on full display here, with nothing else added but some harmony vocals. As they say: all the feels.
1. “Every Fight” – Lost Feeling. This complex, attention-grabbing track provides the electronic drama of a Baths track with more acoustic guitar and strings. Here’s a voice to watch.
2. “Hello Miss Lonesome” – Marlon Williams. Williams’ voice just fits so perfectly over this familiar-yet-strange rockabilly-meets-alt-country sprinter.
3. “Give It Up” – Animal Years. Any band sharing a name with a Josh Ritter album should make folk-rock as gleeful, catchy, and all-around fun as this. I can see myself jumping up and down to this song live.
4. “Oh, K” – Alma. Do you need a ray of acoustic pop-soul sunshine to cut through a gray day? Have this one.
5. “Holy Water” – Ed Prosek. Bear with me on this one, but I imagine this is what Mumford and Sons’ last album would have sounded like if they had not fully rejected their acoustic roots: it’s got high drama, but it’s contextualized in a mellow, lush, developed arrangement (check that choir).
6. “Winter Beat” – Michael Nau. Nau is half of Cotton Jones and–more importantly to me–the man behind Page France, one of Independent Clauses’s earliest loves. This walking-speed, bleary-eyed, Lou Reed-esque jam is a cool turn.
7. “No Stone” – Jenny Gillespie. Gillespie’s voice is wide and expansive, providing a nice tension against the close-cropped, keys-driven indie-pop below it. As a result, the tune has a unique vibe that makes its reference points tough to place.
8. “Darkness in Me” – Eight Belles. There’s a theatrical quality lurking just under the surface of this easygoing acoustic tune: you can find it in the piano, the surging strings, and the little swells at the middle of the song. It pairs nicely with Jessi Phillips’ confident alto voice to create a surprising, compelling track.
9. “The Broken Spoon” – Backyard Folk Club. Mad props for the name actually describing the sound. In addition to sounding like the most fun you can have on the back porch, this band has spoons, too!
10. “Chosen Peace” – Steamboats. We could all use a lot more peace in our lives, and if it’s delivered in a warm folk style, so much the better.
11. “Riot” – Supersmall. “Hello, is this Quiet is the New Loud HQ? Are y’all still open for business? Can we join? Here’s our credentials.”
12. “I Am Trying to Disappear” – Matt Bauer. Fresh, bright, and tentative, like if the lo-fi had been scrubbed out of all those early Iron and Wine records to hear how fragile things get when everyone can hear every bit of your plan. It picks up by the end very nicely, but that first half is delightful.
13. “Hollow Body” – Many Rooms. There’s something raw and powerful about the delicate acoustic exploration of this track.
New York folk/indie-rock duo Supersmall‘s This Other World captures the balance between composed and wide-open songwriting that is common in artists from across the pond: Johnny Flynn, Fionn Regan, and Eoin Glackin.
Big, warm, resonant acoustic guitar chords are held in line by calm, distinctly enunciated tenor vocals on the title track; rattling drums add to the ambiance. “Goodbye Old Friend” continues the cheery, upbeat folk vibes. The more serious “Wherever We Are” and “This Grenade Will Love You” invoke a little Ben Folds plaintiveness in the vocals, giving the EP some firm grounding and diversity. Tasteful keys appear in several areas, providing some atmosphere on tracks like the more romantic, swooning “Everywhere.”
Overall, This Other World is a neat introduction to a warm, friendly folk duo. There’s a lot of promise throughout in this short EP, as the band has given themselves a lot of ways to spread out from here. It will be interesting to see which of their strengths they play up as they continue to produce music. For now, there’s a cheery few minutes for you in This Other World.
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.