1. “The Devil Bird” – Albert af Ekenstam. An unhurried, expansive acoustic-led song reminiscent of Leif Vollebekk or Gregory Alan Isakov’s work.
2. “The Beast That Rolls Within” – Dietrich Strause. A troubadour’s confident vocals, abstract lyrics, and gently rolling guitar make Strause an artist to watch in the vein of Joe Pug and Josh Ritter. This song is excellent.
3. “I Love Immigration” – This Frontier Needs Heroes. Refocuses the talk of immigration by pointing out that unless you’re a Native American, literally everyone in this country is the relative of an immigrant. As Brad Lauretti and I are both descended from Italian immigrants, I felt a special resonance with this charming, shuffling, upbeat acoustic pop tune with a deeply important message.
4. “Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin” – The Chairman Dances. The finely detailed lyrics of the Mountain Goats paired with indie-pop that has a wider range, from dreamier at one end to more formal and Beatles-esque at the other. But there’s still a great “hey!” thrown in. Always a good yawp, you know. Highly recommended.
5. “A Lonely Road” – Jordan O’Jordan. It’s hard to make rattling banjo chords sound delicate, but O’Jordan’s oh-so-sweet voice tempers the rough edges and creates a warm, immersive song. (Toss-up on the “ahs” section: some people are going to think it’s lovely, and some are going to wonder what just happened. Just so you know.)
6. “Fingers Crossed” – The Marrieds. Bright, clear, female-led acoustic-pop with a little more Americana than the Weepies but not as much as the Civil Wars. It’s remarkably pretty, especially when the strings come in. You could dance to this at a wedding.
7. “Suite pour Justin” – Yves Lambert Trio. Traditional Quebecois folk music includes accordion, fiddle, guitar and percussion, in case you (like me) didn’t know. It sounds sort of like a mix of bluegrass and Zydeco, which is incredibly rad. The rest of the album includes vocals in French; this one’s instrumental. The musical quality is elite, so if you’re an adventurous listener I would highly recommend checking the whole album out.
8. “Generation, Love” – Jon Reynolds. Doo-wop, Beach Boys harmonies, and old-school rock’n’roll vibes come together to be pleasantly, nostalgically retro, while yearning for love instead of hate (a very modern concern).
9. “How Quickly Your Heart Mends” – Courtney Marie Andrews. This woman has the female version of Jason Isbell’s voice. I kid you not: the stress on certain syllables, the swoops in volume, the vocal strain on the fronts of lines…it’s all there. It’s awesome. The songwriting is a great trad-country vibe, but whoa. That voice. Check this out.
10. “Brink of Love (ft. Ladysmith Black Mambazo)” – Vian Izak. While we’re on the topic of love, why not indulge in a adult alternative acoustic tune that includes a hugely famous African choir? (You may know them from Graceland, only one the best albums of all time.)
11. “The Other Side” – VACAY. A romantic folk-pop song with some solid falsetto; a little less Lumineers and a little more adult alternative.
12. “the fall” – Andrea Silva. Somewhere between haunting and lilting, Silva’s vocal performance is an enigmatic, engaging figure over an acoustic guitar.
Disaster Lover’s self-titled EP is highly orchestral, brimming with lush instrumentation and ‘80s glitz and glamour. Baroque pop and sunshine-vocals reminiscent of The Beatles create a colorful, imperial vibe that could play as the soundtrack to an indie pop royal wedding.
Opener “Burning Candles” is an upbeat, sun-kissed indie pop cut. Bubbling, popping percussion; strings of “ohs” and “ahs”; and a tinge of Bollywood flair commence the EP with vibrant optimism. It immediately reminded me of Beirut, with its celebratory nature and world music sound.
While “Burning Candles” plays during the engagement of our king and queen, “Every Single Breath” is the track they walk down the aisle to. Synth and horns combine for an epic, triumphant sound. It’s like this indie rock song chugged a laced cup of ‘80s fruit punch.
And finally, the first dance: “Sweet Angel” is breezy, but there is deeper sensuality found in the vocals, lyrics, and sultry-sweet instrumentation. The final cut, “U Don’t Need An Excuse,” amplifies that vibe with ‘80s-inspired synth and bells, leaving you feeling high off of giddy electronic pop. “You don’t need an excuse anymore/So get off the ground and meet me on the floor,” the male vocalist sings, as our royal couple spends their honeymoon dancing on white sand beaches and sipping the laced ‘80s punch from a diamond-encrusted thermos.
Disaster Lover is made for indie pop royalty, but even if you don’t consider yourself an indie pop fan, no worries–you’re still invited to the wedding. Cheers.–Rachel Haney
1. “Nu Erotic Ghost” – Stray Echo. Swinging sweetly high, then dipping into pools of sticky low, “Nu Erotic Ghost” is a bedroom track bound to set your Valentine’s night aflame in the most soulful way possible.
2. “Say A Prayer For Me” – RÜFÜS DU SOL. This reminds me of a track that would be played during a Bora Bora beach DJ set in Ibiza. With easygoing, chill-step soundscapes and relaxing vocals that simultaneously pump euphoria into the air, “Say A Prayer For Me” has positive vibes riding in each note.
3. “Perfect Ten” – NEWTIMERS. A minimal, seductive R&B/pop combo brought to you by a sizzling Swedish duo. With purposeful percussion and smooth vocals that take their time, NEWTIMERS spaces out each lovely element in this track so that listeners can appreciate every. single. detail.
4. “Midnight” – Lane 8. The next time you’re driving and feel the need to enter a trance of melody, calm, and pure spellbound stupification, pick this ambient electronic jam as your soundtrack. Hit play just as you’re rounding the corner and have a view of mountains, the ocean, or any vastness.
5. “Modern World” – Future Elevators. Whirling, trippy instrumentation and hollow vocals echoing fantasies of living in a modern world, this sexy track is distant, beautiful, at times sad, but mostly sounds like it was recorded in another galaxy.
6. “Needs ft. Andrew Ashong” – Submotion Orchestra. I always appreciate a song that is comfortable with its pacing and “Needs” is just that; it blossoms as you listen, from meditative guitar lines and stunning electronica into jazzy, festive piano and horn sections.
7. “Burn” – James Supercave. Walking a sharp line of psych pop and unmistakable groove, James Supercave has meticulously picked the ripest fruit from each genre, with Passion Pit-esque vocals, Cake funkiness, and a clean, light buzz.
8. “Harmony” – Joe Wells. Combining dizzying, 120-proof dancefloor rhythm with anise-flavored synth, “Harmony” is absinthe in song form.
10. “Run Like Hell” – Alex Bent + the Emptiness. Too spaced out to be a mash-up, but daring enough to combine Wu-Tang and Nine Inch Nails in a single track, “Run Like Hell” is dark, different, and captivating.
11. “Ratnapur” – At The Psychedelic Circus. “Ratnapur” sounds like the background music at an ayahuasca brewing ceremony.
12. “14” – Kilmanjaro. “14” flashes, shines, and sparkles like an astral lighthouse on a dark waterfront, if the lighthouse beamed streams of cobalt, lime-green, and purple; a lightshow on the ocean.
13. “Rayon” – Letherette. Crisp, chilled, classic house track that will hopefully be lobby music come 2020.
14. “Phone” – Tom Low. Fresh and bright, “Phone” merges modern-day electronic with vocals that sound like the Beatles are making an appearance on this Liverpool native’s title cut.
15. “Reminder” – Moderat. From Moderat’s upcoming EP Reminder, this title track is known to cause lucid dreaming, mysterious fires, sudden time lapses, and severe goosebumps. Proceed with caution.
16. “Maquinaria del Tiempo” – Whitney Winston. Labeled as LatinTronic, this track is experimental, ambient, and has enough Spanish vocals that “Maquinaria del Tiempo” is an example of how electronic can be manipulated and formed to meet any culture’s profile.
17. “Matadora” – Sofi Tukker. Tukker pushes the boundaries of electronic like she’s the Hierophant of the whole genre, slipping us tracks of pure mystic gold and letting her wise artistry show the world how magical electronic can be. Now that I know “LatinTronic” is a thing, we need that label slapped all over this hot, steaming, brimming-with-life track.
18. “New” – Fontine. “New” moves like thick sludge, wrapping itself around your waistline and steering you to dance. It is intense and heavy, an unstoppable dance pop force you’re hypnotized to give into. —Rachel Haney
The Bellfuries‘ Workingman’s Bellfuries is a sonic upgrade on retro styles. The 11 tunes of this record apply hi-fi, modern production techniques to the sounds of Roy Orbison pop (“Beaumont Blues”) and early ’60s British Invasion rock–complete with a cover of a 1964 Beatles B-side (“She’s a Woman”). It avoids the retro-rock tribute trap through an assured grasp of the elements necessary in this type of songwriting, impressive arrangements, and immediately catchy melodies.
By the end of the first time that my wife and I heard “Why Do You Haunt Me,” we were both singing along almost unconsciously–the song’s structure is so natural, so deeply dedicated to the ’50s-rock palette that it passed the credibility threshold almost instantaneously. Joey Simeone’s wide singing range makes the vocals a central point in the sound: they’re passionate but still carefully controlled, dramatic without being sloppy. The fact that he can pull off the difficult vocal jumps iconic in this sound goes one more step toward showing why The Bellfuries are more than copycats or fetishists–these are musicians who’ve adopted a style and are pushing it forward. Their polished, structured, rewarding arrangements seal the deal. If you’re looking for some distinctly unique pop/rock, try out Workingman’s Bellfuries.
On the opposite side of the rock spectrum, Kyle & the Pity Party play early ’00s emo-rock on their EP Everything’s Bad. However, they’re just as dedicated as The Bellfuries to their genre proposition: they namecheck iconic emo band Brand New in “Young.” It’s an important reference, as a namecheck to Taking Back Sunday or Thursday would belie a different set of sonic principles. Kyle McDonough and co. play rock that has matured out of some punk brashness–while these minor key songs can get noisy, they have an atmospheric gravitas imported by the melodic commitment, the dense arrangements and the Doors-esque vocals.
McDonough’s vocals aren’t quite as low as Morrison’s, but the same sort of “brooding persona presiding over the rock proceedings” vibe prevails. His performances are attention-grabbing in the best sort of way. It’s a tribute to the vocal quality that he overshadows the instrumentals to a degree: the band’s careful attention to maintaining energy while sticking in a mid-tempo emo-rock style results in strong songwriting. From the piano that grounds opener “Spill It All” to the bass-heavy rock of “He Was / She Was” to the casio-led closer “He’ll Never Love You,” the band keeps things diverse but recognizably consistent on the six-song EP.
It’s their decision to keep melody central to their guitars and vocals (no screaming here) that sets them apart from their noisier brethren, but they haven’t gotten so quiet as to move into twinkly post-emo. Instead, they throw down their tunes in a melodic indie-rock sort of vein that probably wouldn’t get lumped in with the emo revival as a tag (although they could easily tour with bands like Football, Etc. or others). If you still listen to Deja Entendu, you should check out Kyle and the Pity Party.
Fireships’ self-titled album is purely a joy to listen to. Their playful yet smart lyrics combine with brilliant instrumentation to make Fireships one you need to grab.
The album’s multifaceted influences will be sure to please a variety of audiences. With the overall feel of the album being rather uplifting, one might think that that’s all there is to the album. I mean, with an opener like “All We Got,” what more do we need than that driving beat, enlivening lyrics, and humble vocals? Yet, Fireships has even more to offer us!
With a closer look, you begin to hear folk, western, and even some African influences. Both “Chasing the Sun” and “Countdown Time” show a Spaghetti Western influence. “Come Back To Me” enters with a very Caribbean feel done through its opening rhythms and instrumentation; “Going Down Fighting” is very reminiscent of the Beatles’ “Hey Jude.” The choral voices in “Fantasy” are reminiscent of Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side.”
One thing that stands out throughout the album is Fireships’ ingenious instrumentation. Each instrument is used to add different things for different songs: the guitar is playful in “Chasing the Sun”, yet soulful in “Long Shadow.” The sweetness in “Words Escape Me” comes from the guitar too; when paired with the violin, the six-string adds darkness to “Carried Away.”
Although mostly cheery and upbeat, Fireships does have its moments of darkness, which serve to even out the sound. The best example of this is the juxtaposition between singles “Gush” and “Countdown Time,” both of which you can listen to now. “Gush” begins with an opening guitar riff that is oddly reminiscent of Fountains Of Wayne’s “Stacy’s Mom.” As the track continues, it simply gets cuter and cuter (unlike “Stacy’s Mom,” which just gets creepier and creepier). And as “Gush” fades out and “Countdown Time” enters in, there’s a bit of uneasiness lingering.
Although “Countdown Time” sounds dark through it’s minor chords and ominous tone, the track is still just as playful as “Gush” (as evidenced by the track’s music video). The experience of hearing their most darling–but not cheesy–love song, then one of the darkest sounding tracks on the album, then the almost Bob Dylan-esque “Long Shadow” gives the listener a moment of darkness quickly swallowed up by folky happiness again. These transitions allow the album to be upbeat and happy, yet contain depth sprinkled with darkness.
Fireships was thoughtful enough to prepare us for the album’s end by closing with a song of preparation. “Unplug the Stars” serves as the perfect ending to a wonderful album. The repetition of the lyric “it’s time,” the gently driving beat, and calming strums of the guitar enable the listener to find reconciliation with the end of the album just in time for it to come to a close. Nothing could be a better example of Fireships’ brilliance.
It’s getting better and better outside, so my ears are getting more and more attuned to those summery tunes.
Oh So Summery
1. “Philosophize In It! Chemicalize With It!” – Kishi Bashi. He’s on Joyful Noise Recordings, which sounds like a 100% perfect fit. This ridiculously happy and catchy tune will get stuck in your head. HAPPY SUMMER Y’ALL.
2. “Sweater Weather” – Challenger. If John Ross gets any more inspired by the ’80s, I’ll have to start questioning where he’s hiding his time machine. But for now, enjoy this blissed-out synth-pop, complete with gated snares and stuttering percussion fills.
3. “Dead Man’s Pose” – Old Smokey. Almost as excited as Kishi Bashi is Old Smokey, a folky outfit that features no guitars but 3000% enthusiasm. This is not your average folk: brass and clarinet counter throughout when the members of the band aren’t group-hollering. It’s just wonderful.
4. “Let’s Get Started” – Dylan Gardner. OH SUMMER YOU ARE ALMOST HERE. I will celebrate you with a guitar-pop tune by a flop-haired teenager with pop chops. I only thought of Hanson like once. Mostly the Beatles. But some Hanson. No Bieber though.
5. “Halo” – DamnRight! There’s always room in my heart for chillwave-inspired electro fun.
6. “I Spy” – Michael McFarland. I love Train, so take this as nothing but a compliment when I say that this track falls somewhere between Train and old-school Guster.
7. “Old Foes” – Yaquina Bay. Orchestral folk is not generally known for its easygoing vibe, but Yaquina Bay creates just such a mood here.
8. “Morning Light” – Andrew Judah. I’m not sure how Judah came up with the idea to get steel drums and banjo together, but it sounds incredible. I am extremely excited for this upcoming record–it promises to bend genres all over the places.
9. “Terrible Love” – Moda Spira. Latifah Phillips takes a different angle on The National’s slow-burner, but it’s no less dramatic or powerful at the end.
10. “Right In My Arms” – Exzavier Whitley. Like early Iron & Wine, this is deeply calming fingerstyle guitar that cares more about the mood than perfection of performance. Gorgeous work.
It’s nearly summer, which means that it’s time for optimistic, jaunty music. Teenager‘s bright, melodic San Francisco pop is just the thing to help you shake those wintry blues. (And goodness knows there were enough of them in this long winter.) The Magic of True Love has everything you need in a summer album: relaxed vibe, warm moods, driving songs, wistful ballads, and lyrics for young lovers.
It’s tough to nail the relaxed/energetic balance, but Teenager gets it just right here. There are fast songs and slow songs in good amounts, but it’s the mid-tempo tunes that shine brightest. In that most difficult of tempos, striking arrangements, brash vocal melodies, and careful songwriting keep me glued to the sound.
Songwriter Bevan Herbekian draws from a vast amount of influences to enact this deft pop dance. Queen could have written the vocal arrangements in the 6-minute highlight “Black is Back.” Subtle Beatles touches color the arrangements throughout. The punctilious piano rhythms and swirling psychedelia-lite of The Morning Benders/POP ETC come to mind in “Broke” (which Independent Clauses was proud to debut). The Beach Boys’ distinct background vocal style appears in the title track. There’s some Paul Simon hiding in “Two Timing Machines”–and that one starts out with the lyric “One is a lonely number.” (What up, Three Dog Night?!)
Even with all these references to other sounds, The Magic of True Love avoids becoming just a giant pastiche by providing memorable melodies and lyrics. “Broke” is relatable to anyone who’s been young and poor and in love, while “A Believer (40 Days & 40 Nights)” hits a similar audience by starting off with “Hung over in our Sunday’s best / there’s nothing like a smile from a friend.” The title itself is a banner that very aptly spreads over all the tunes: even if you don’t hear all the lyrics, the vibe is very much one of romance and optimism.
Still, it’s not all chipper popcraft here: “Sunday Afternoon” is a falsetto-heavy, lounge-ready piano ballad, while the title track itself is a wistful acoustic guitar-led ode to the fact that the lovers we break up with slowly become strangers again. In fact, that is the “magic” of true love: “I turn strangers to friends into lovers/ and then back again/ta-da.” Oof. I won’t spoil anymore of the lyrics, but there are some sharp turns of phrase in this tune.
But even in its wistful low point, it still doesn’t give over to unescapable sadness. This is a diverse, freewheeling album that has a large number of points to check out. If you’re a fan of traditional pop songwriting, not just the forefathers but stuff like comes out on Merge Records, you’ll be all up in The Magic of True Love. Put it on the car stereo and drive with your lover in the other seat; it’s a perfect soundtrack.
The Oklahoma four-piece’s debut has a lot of promise in it, as well as a lot of homages to their influences (hello, cover art). And although they also mention “the taxman” in the almost-title track “Midwest,” their love of the Beatles is more in connection with their dedication to the hard work of songwriting than any particular musical inferences. Their songs temper the pop-punk tropes of uncontrollable enthusiasm and huge guitar sound with a dose of determined populism that lands the band close to both the wide-open Midwestern rock sound (old-school Wilco, Mellencamp, Horse Thief) and Midwestern folk lyrical tradition (Woody Guthrie, Bob “People forget I’m from rural Minnesota” Dylan, etc.).
The melodies are appropriately huge; it sounds like the members know how to rile up a crowd. “Gone Gone Gone” features rumbling toms, blaring organ and group vocals, while opener “Let Me Live” employs the same basic elements but with a bell kit on top of it for charm. The verses of the latter cut to tom rolls, sleigh bells and nakedly honest vocals, and I am not kidding when I say they make me miss Oklahoma something fierce. It’s a dangerous move for a band to put its best track first, but man, “Let Me Live” absolutely knocks it out from the get go.
Their aforementioned populist strain is on full display: “All I know is the American Dream / All I know is what I see on TV / All I know is the American Dream / All I know is what I can’t reach” in “Connecticut to Paris (I Don’t Know)”; “The taxman came to my home / Said we might have to foreclose / But I said this is where I’ve spent my whole life” in “Midwest”; and “My God I’ve got to find a better way / Before I suffer Gatsby’s fate” in “Gone Gone Gone.” If you dig it, you dig it – that’s all there is to it.
The Typist is a young band composed of seasoned vets, and it shows: their careful attention to detail in the arrangements allows the entire album to flow in one consistent mood. This is a double-edged sword: it’s easy to hear in one sitting, but it’s a bit tough to distinguish between songs toward the end of the album. As individual tracks, nearly every song works, but they all work for the same exact reason. As the band grows over time and gets more comfortable with its chemistry, I expect some more melodic and rhythmic variation. This will greatly improve the overall experience and produce some even more interesting tunes.
Midwestern High Life is quite a rocking start for The Typist. I thoroughly expect to hear more from this outfit, as their energy, passion, and understanding of both historical lyrics and songwriting have me excited.
Colorfeels‘ Syzygy is pretty much a primer of indie rock circa 2011: Grizzly Bear’s rustic qualities (“Pretty Walk,” “Be There”), Fleet Foxes’ harmonies (“Mirrored Walls”), Vampire Weekend’s triumphant afro-beat rhythms and textures (“Unplanned Holiday”), alt-country (“Fun Machine”), Bishop Allen’s quirky enthusiasm (the clarinet in “Fun Machine”), Generationals’ perky bass contributions (everywhere) and The Dirty Projectors’ free-flowing song styles (everywhere again). Thankfully, the band eschewed the currently en vogue garage rock recording style for an immaculately clear one.
It’s this pristine engineering that saves this from being a pastiche; even if you’ve heard all of these sounds before, they sound incredibly gorgeous coming from Colorfeels. The clarinet and piano on “Be There” may call up notions of everyone from Wilco to the Beatles, but the sound is so striking that you may not care (or even really notice). This is true of almost every tune — with the exception of “Zenzizenzizenzic,” whose shameless Muse appropriation feels totally out of place. I really enjoyed Syzygy on my first listen, but several minutes later I couldn’t remember anything about it except that I wanted to hear those pretty songs again. And they are very pretty.
After a half-dozen listens with the same ending thoughts (which is saying something — this debut is an hour long), I realized that Colorfeels has no signature. This album is gorgeous and almost infinitely malleable, but there’s not a single thing that screams COLORFEELS WAS HERE!
It should be noted that there aren’t any gimmicks to make it look like the band has a stamp (see aforementioned garage rock). For this they should be lauded; they are not hiding anything. They are what they are, and they let you hear that. That is admirable.
Syzygy is a mesmerizing indie-rock album that wears a lot of masks. Whether or not this was the intent is something only the members of Colorfeels can say. But I would love to see a group of instrumentalists and songwriters this talented explore one area of songwriting more thoroughly and place their stamp on music. It’s comforting and familiar, but there’s more to music than that.
Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.