Eric and Happie‘s It’s Yours is a pristine example of a male/female duo folk-pop album in 2016. The eight songs of the album rarely feature more than guitar/bass/drums, which is just the way I like it. The subtle inclusions of ukulele, strings, and accordion provide great accent to the tracks. Eric and Happie are credited with vocals on every track. It’s an uncomplicated collection of tunes that works excellently.
The songs are not as high-drama as those of The Civil Wars, nor as perky as The Weepies’; it’s not as radio-curated as The Lumineers’ work (with the exception of “Falling For You,” which is a romp complete with “hey!”s). Instead, these are folk songs with pop melodies that you can sing along to with ease. There are romantic songs (the title track, “Falling for You,” “A Dream”), travel songs (“Louisiana,” “Oklahoma,” “Stranger”), and more poetic offerings (“They’ll Never Take Us Alive”).
The tunes often land in the realm of Jenny and Tyler’s early work, which was warm, friendly, and pop-oriented. It’s a pure, unadulterated sound that often doesn’t last past a few albums, as the lure of larger arrangements draws so many. (And those larger arrangements can be awesome too.) But there’s a special glow that shines off an intimate, simply-wrought album like this; that lightning in a bottle is rarely caught.
The Soldier Story‘s Flowers for Anonymous inhabits a dusky, complex space triangulated between the suave nighttime antics of Bloc Party, the howling reveries of The Walkmen, and the manic fever of MuteMath’s first record. The songs of this record absorb the best bits of each of those bands and synthesize them into something new and fresh. The trick here is that Colin Meyer has the chops to pull off frantic, mathy indie-rock, but he distills those melodic and rhythmic tendencies into tension-laden mid-tempo pieces that are just as ghostly as they are grounded.
Tunes like “Drifting Apart” have patterned guitar leads, syncopated drumbeats, whirling vocals, and more, but in the service of a subdued, push-and-pull mood. Follow-up “Talk With Our Eyes” barely contains the underlying power and passion, as it spikes up through the tension in the form of synths, drums, glitchy beats, and more. It’s a tune that carries the OK Computer torch, updating the “contemporary technological fears in sonic form” palette. (It’s not surprising that various eras of Radiohead are a touchstone for these pieces as well.)
But Meyer isn’t all chaotic rock filtered through massive restraint filters. Elsewhere Meyer turns his penchant for complex, burbling guitar lines into an indie-pop mold, creating beautiful, subtle tunes like “Life is Short” and “An Overdue Farewell.” These tunes balance Meyer’s complicated arrangements with his smooth, airy, at-times-feathery vocal melodies. He can soar with the best of them, but he can also disappear off into the distance. This tension between the chaotic and the delicate is a powerful element in making Flowers for Anonymous a big success. There aren’t many people making music like this; adventurous listeners will greatly enjoy hearing Meyer’s carefully constructed sonic landscapes.
I’m pretty far behind the bandwagon on reviewing M. Lockwood Porter‘s How to Dream Again, even though I have it on vinyl. It’s been getting a ton of accolades from people like Paste and No Depression, so it’s been doing pretty well without me chiming in. But as a person who’s reviewed both Judah’s Gone and 27, I did have a few thoughts that maybe haven’t been said before. (Probably not.)
The new lyrical direction of How to Dream Again has been getting a lot of play: it’s a protest record, save for three love songs at the beginning of the record, and it’s an incisive, thoughtful turn. It pushes on both on internal problems (“Sad/Satisfied”) and external issues (every other song) in a style that’s more Woody Guthrie than Bob Dylan; there aren’t a whole lot of stacked metaphors, but there is a whole lot of direct analysis. Porter also continues to grapple with religion, this time taking God to task over the question of God’s lack of direct intervention on issues of injustice. It’s a question that has resonated through the ages, and one that fits in a protest album. Even if Porter and I come to different conclusions on the matter, the question is real and remains.
The musical direction is also different, albeit more slightly. The songs here are a synthesis of the folk of Porter’s first record and the American rock’n’roll of his second; the troubadour folk style that comes along with protest lyrics is present throughout as well. The three sounds come together to make a mature sound for Porter, one that may not be his last stop (who among us can claim to be in our final form?), but certainly indicates his direction. There are dashes of Dawes (“Sad/Satisfied”) in the rhythmic vocal delivery, rattling ’50s rock’n’roll throughout, and more things thrown in the pot. The title track, which closes the album, brings it all together into a very American amalgam. It’s Porter’s distinct voice that leads the way, adding the final element to make the sound unique. If you’re into protest music or American folk/rock/other, How to Dream Again should be on your to-hear list. It probably already is.
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.
1. “Finally Happy” – Exzavier Whitley. A major key fingerpicking job that strongly evokes Nick Drake’s work is paired with some heavy lyrics. Delivered by Whitley’s breathy tenor and placed in the context of the guitar work, they aren’t quite as sad as just reading them on a page would be, but they’re still pretty heavy.
2. “Jumping Ship” – Theo Kandel. Lots of people can throw their voice around, but Kandel uses tonal and dynamic shifts carefully (and thus expertly) to take this singer/songwriter tune to the next level.
3. “The Reason for Living” – The Folk Today Project. A short, sweet, simple folk tune that employs a great stand-up bass and solid contributions from the rest of the band.
4. “6 Shots” – Kate Brown. The strum presses forward relentlessly, while the vaguely Celtic strings pull back on the reins. Brown’s alto splits the difference excellently, walking through the tension comfortably and confidently. By the end, Brown has turned in a pretty powerhouse performance vocally.
5. “Silver Mountain” – Adora Eye. The immediate vocal performance and insistent piano call up comparisons to serious folk singers like Josh Garrels and Chris Bathgate. The vibe here is serious, but not so much that there isn’t a bit of swaying that can be done by the listener.
6. “Already Gone” – Wild Rivers. A male/female duet powers this folk-pop tune that sounds like it can scratch the itch left behind by the demise of The Civil Wars.
7. “Teenage Crime” – Rod Ladgrove. Beachy acoustic jams are an intrinsic part of summer, and Ladgrove’s contribution on that front has the mystique of “crime” thrown in on top of a relaxed-yet-carefully-arranged atmosphere.
8. “Catching Elizabeth” – Carter Vail. Here’s another beach-friendly adult alternative pop tune that sounds like a mix between Jack Johnson and James Taylor. There’s a spark in here that sets it apart from the hundreds of other tunes that bear similar explanations; it’s got some groove that keeps me into it.
9. “Blue and Gray” – O.B. Howard. Pizzicato strings provide a contrast to the hazy, relaxed acoustic indie-pop and transform the track into a wonderful piece of lazy-day hammock music.
10. “Last Light” – Maurice Van Hoek. Traditional country is going through a moment right now, and Maurice Van Hoek’s offering continues that old-school vibe with earnest vocals, strong melodies, tender keys, and weeping pedal steel. If you’re on that Sturgill Simpson / Chris Stapleton train, hit this one up.
11. “Can You Tell” – Bird Concerns. The major key folk aesthetics of Blind Pilot meet a West Coast indie-pop sensibility to create a light, enjoyable tune that’s actually about a breakup. Who would have guessed, from the sound?
Luna Jamboree’s “Chasing Dreams” is a dramatic, tension-filled duet that hits on an age-old problem for musicians: how do you sustain a relationship between a touring musician and a significant other at home? How much is the significant other willing to sacrifice for the touring musician’s dreams? How far is the touring musician willing to go to achieve the goal of being a full-time musician?
The struggle is played out here in an alt-country milieu that’s similar to The Local Strangers or a more speedy Civil Wars. Bryan Copeland and Kim Painter trade impassioned vocals over a traditional country vamp: stuttering guitar strum; straightforward, snare-heavy drums; and up/down bass action. The swooping cello adds another layer of gravitas to the tune, tying the vocals and the instrumentals together neatly. The band knows how to say their piece and quit while they’re ahead: the tune makes a big impact in its 3:22, without stretching out to epic lengths. The results are an impressive alt-country tune that continues traditions while not sounding dated or tired.
If you’re in Columbia, Missouri on April 15th, you can catch Luna Jamboree during their CD Release show for Phases at The Social Room.
Hubbard has a smooth tenor voice that hits like a Midwestern Jason Isbell or Adam Duritz (of the Counting Crows)–the sort of lithe, confident voice that uses vibrato and other flourishes to display tension and emotion easily. “February” and “More I Live, Less I Know” are incredible vocal performances that are both seemingly effortless and also weighted down with the tension of years of woe. (Relatedly, these tunes have a kindred spirit with Bruce Springsteen’s work, both musically and lyrically–check “She Gives It Everything” for more proof.)
Musically Hubbard is a pro–the songwriting here is tight, the arrangements are impeccable, and the songs seem to roll off his guitar. The pickin’-and-grinnin’ “Straw Hat,” the Civil Wars-style ballad “Tired of Loving You,” and the Dawes-esque roots-rock tune “Come Tomorrow” are confident entries in their respective songwriting veins, despite being different from each other in a variety of ways. “And The Music” is the quiet end of his sonic spectrum, as stand-up bass thrums imperially to underpin a gently tumbling fingerpicking pattern and Hubbard’s most memorable vocal melodies of the record. The coda of the tune is the sort of melody that people latch on to and don’t forget, a “Ho Hey” for people ten years later.
That lyric that accompanies the indelible melody is representative of the lyrics throughout: “I remember when God left / and the angels left / and you were there / you were there.” The world-weariness, questioning of religion, and hope in relationships (in this case, an old friend) to get us through are all over the record. Whether you agree with his conclusions or not, the lyrics push hard on the way the world is, could be, and perhaps should be. That’s the sort of lyrics I want to hear.
Hubbard’s self-titled record is a confident record of folk-rock from a veteran of the genre. It shows in strong songwriting, well-developed lyrics, and an overall sense that Hubbard was really going for it on this one. Dan Hubbard should be on your to-hear list.
1. “Wolf Wife” – Jenny Ritter. I can’t be the first person to mention this, but I’m doing it anyway: we need to get Jenny Ritter and Josh Ritter on tour together. Her evocative modern singer/songwriter tunes push past folk stereotypes into timeless, need-no-terms realms–just like that other Ritter.
2. “Always” – Jake McMullen. McMullen sets the scene with low, slow, poignant guitar; once he’s let you know where we’re going, he reaches out of the speakers and grabs my ears by the lobes with his evocative voice and downhearted vocals. It’s a remarkable tune that has that slowcore X factor which commands my attention.
3. “Wolves” – Guilford. Breaking a ten-year pause, Guilford returns with a beautiful, rolling slowcore track. Some synths mark a slight change in sonic palette, but the apple doesn’t fall too far from the historical tree: you’ll still get pensive, thoughtful tunes with some unusual chords woven in.
4. “In the Garden” – Cicada Rhythm. Lilting, creaky, rootsy, Latin, classic, classical, and altogether immersive, this you-gotta-hear-it track charts its own course. Here’s to more of this.
5. “Summer Night” – Tree Machines. It’s not easy making complexity sound organic and effortless, and Tree Machines pull off that feat via a remarkable indie-pop track with a variety of tricks up its sleeves.
6. “Your Story (feat. Jessie Payo)” – Distant Cousins. There’s still plenty of room in folk-pop for a great melody, earnest vocals, harmonica wails, and woodsy vibes.
7. “Helping” – Nathan Fox. A bluesy, grit-infused voice meets a chipper, whistle-led pop tune about helping each other. I can’t help but smile while hearing this song.
8. “How It Fades” – Daniel Martin Moore. The gentleness of Joshua Radin’s early work and the concreteness of a piano/drums connection buoy this breathtaking update on the early-morning musings of James Taylor.
9. “The Fall” – The Native Sibling. It’s a pillow in audio form, until the female vocals come in and kick the song up several more notches. A dreamier Civil Wars? Please stay together, though.
10. “Calon Lan” – ChessBoxer. There’s something bright and pure about a rustic-minded bluegrass outfit playing a gorgeous traditional air; it gets deep in my bones and pulls the smile (and the nostalgia) out.
Growing up, I would spend hours in Fye listening to albums by artists I discovered through seeing their music video on MTV or VH1 (back when they actually aired music videos). When I found an artist I liked, I bought the CD and took it home to engage in my own little listening party. As soon as I reached my bedroom, I’d pop it into what I thought was an amazing sound system, snag the lyrics sheet out, and listen. Sometimes I would repeat this experience over and over again if I really loved the album. Eventually, when I reached college, I learned that people did a variation of this together and called them listening parties! Whether you have it by yourself or with a few friends, Taking Time by Reservations is one album more than worthy of a listening party.
The first aspect of Reservations’ debut full-length album that caught my ear was the vocals. Singer/songwriter Jana Horn has a voice that stands out with its simple beauty, similar to Priscilla Ahn. Her voice has the sweet tonal qualities of the Civil Wars’ Joy Williams, but also maintains the raw, unadorned feel akin to The xx’s Romy Madley Croft. The combination of these two aspects makes Jana’s voice one that is impossible to tire of. I truly can listen to her over and over again.
Each song on Taking Time pairs Jana’s beautiful voice with Jason Baczynski’s drums and Paul Price’s guitar in a unique way. The trio’s songs not only provide different layerings of these instruments but also contain different amounts of heaviness. Some songs like “Planet” and “I’ve been trying not to feel it” provide a fuller, louder sound, while others such as “I don’t mind” and “To be honest” give out more chill vibes. “I can hear us” is a really great example of Reservations’ ability to begin a song at the more relaxed levels of “To be honest” and build beautifully to a heavier rock sound by its end. They do that wonderful trick often on the album.
The first single off the album, “Planet,” opens the album up with Jana’s unadorned voice, accompanied by piano and the up-front drums enters in. The electric guitar adds a layer to the instrumentation that fills out the sound. The song has a slightly melancholic quality, almost giving off a post-apocalyptic feel. This feel is particularly evident in the repetition of, “welcome to the planet/ it’s not the way I planned it, it’s not,” sounding as if this could be a song for the soundtrack of a very well-done zombie movie. I say well-done because the song maintains a high level of artistic quality that could only be tied to something of similar high quality. “Planet” is a really great opening to an awesome album. I can only assume that you are now ready to host your own listening party centered around it.–Krisann Janowitz
Are you tired of married duos singing folk-pop? ME NEITHER. The latest guy/girl duo in my inbox is Davy and Amelia, to go along with Jenny & Tyler, The Gray Havens, Destroy Nate Allen!, Venna, The Weepies, the Civil Wars, et al. Davy and Amelia’s Norah June EP leans more toward the stomping, clapping, upbeat party-folk of The Lumineers and especially Twin Forks instead of the quiet, introspective tunes of The Weepies. They also celebrate giddy romance and young married life, which sets them apart from sadder couples.
“The Summer,” “Mountain Movers” and “Norah June” (the name of their baby!) all have rousing, celebratory arrangements; “The Summer” and “Norah June” are upbeat right from the word go, while “Mountain Movers” builds to its shouted-group-vocals conclusion. “Cause Daddy’s only 22, Momma’s 21/some people say we got married young/you are the treasure of our unbreakable love/hey!” goes the chorus of “Norah June,” which means not only are they giddily in love with each other, they’re singing songs to their baby. I think that’s absolutely adorable, but I think that might send the more cynical among us running for the exits.
The songs themselves are great, full of strong instrumental and vocal melodies. The songs are predominantly based in acoustic guitar, although “Mountain Movers” shows off their elegant, cinematic piano skills nicely. If you’re not into the genre, then these four tunes won’t be exciting to you. But if you’re a fan of pop skills applied to romantic lyrics and folky arrangements, you’ll love Davy and Amelia. I look forward to hearing more about this duo in the upcoming year. Just in case you needed proof of how cute this duo is, here’s their band photo:
Here’s 11 tracks of indie-rock, indie-pop and folk that I’ve been loving recently.
Keep That Summer Alive
1. “Little Lucy” – The Worriers. Somewhere between early 2000s garage rock and highly stylized Vaccines pop-rock sits The Worriers’ excellent track. Viva la indie rock.
2. “Lazer Gun Show” – Hey Geronimo. If you aren’t screaming out “LA! ZER! GUN! SHOW!” by the end of this tune, you’re doing it wrong. You may also be dead. Thank you, Hey Geronimo. Thank you so much.
3. “Who You Are” – Natural Animal. In a perfect world, this song dominates radio, wins VMAs, and is crowned song of the summer.
4. “Science of a Seizure” – Challenger. Ratatat percussion eventually gives way to the best sort of ’80s revival pop. Challenger can make even brittle beats warm and enveloping.
5. “Tell Teri On Me” – Sir Wes Al Gress. Wobbly dub plus bubblegum vocals, shimmering synths, and a walking-pace beat. It’s completely bizarre, but infectious in a strange way.
6. “Once a Servant” – Psychic Teen. In a perfect world, this song dominates… wait. (Generationals, meet your new opening band!)
7. “When He’s Down” – The Lonesome South Comfort Company. Folky, Southern, psychedelic: this band knows how to hit you hard and early. One of the best singles I’ve heard all year.
8. “Robber Barons” – Cloud Person. Celtic vibes from a big string section give this full-band folk assault an anthemic, epic quality. If you think indie-rock is a little too American-sounding.
9. “Ramble” – Rivals of the Peacemaker. The Civil Wars get a little more outlaw (as you’d expect with that excellent name). Try to get this one out of your head, I dare you.
10. “Silent Film Reel” – Breathe Owl Breathe. The orchestral folk-pop of BOB is always earnest, infectious, and delightfully off-kilter.
11. “Happiness Is a Sad Song” – Owls of the Swamp. There are a certain group of people who agree innately with this song title and therefore will be in love with this smooth, mellow tune.
The Civil Wars left a gaping hole in the hearts of many when they split up in 2012 over differences in “ambition.” I would like to humbly submit that every Civil Wars fan missing heartfelt, passionate guy/girl folk songs should salve their wounded soul with Venna‘s Third Generation Hymnal: Heather and Marky Hladish’s gorgeous, winsome tunes shine lyrically and musically.
Heather Hladish’s vocals are in turns lilting (“Meet Me in the Hammock”) and driving (“Sweden is the Reason”), providing the engine that powers these tunes. Her most captivating turn comes in lead track “Married,” a performance that pulls off both vulnerability and quiet confidence with ease. “I am content with wanting” is a devastating line in its layers of meaning, and the aching delivery only adds depth. Her wonderful vocals are a consistent draw throughout the eight-song album.
The instrumentals are nothing to shrug at, either. With several veterans of IC’s beloved The Felix Culpa strumming the strings, it should go without saying that the arrangements here are gold. I’m especially fond of “Sweden is the Reason,” which employs driving rhythms, dense texture and bright horn arrangements that are each reminiscent of Neutral Milk Hotel. “Quitting Contest” offers us a huge, sweeping arrangement that is worthy of losing yourself in. “Danger – Past & Present” shows off their Americana bonafides, while “12 Shades to the Wind” appeals to fans of modern folk singer/songwriters.
The spartan strum patterns and arrangement of “12 Shades” are not the only attractive elements, as the lyrics are profoundly beautiful. Drawing off lyrics from the little-sung third verse of “Be Thou My Vision,” Hladish spins a tale of yearning: “Give me a vision/a beauty that kneels/sweet absolution/to cover these years.” The already-mentioned lyrics of “Married” are also impressive in their form and content; “Meet Me in the Hammock” is a very thoughtful piece as well. These are heavy, meaningful words that come off without being ponderous due to Hladish’s stunning voice.
The eight tunes of Third Generation Hymnal are all worth lauding. These magnificent melodic folk tunes are thoughtfully conceived and executed incredibly well. What more can you ask for in an album?
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.