I’ve been listening to The Good Graces for a long time, and I can say with some familiarity that they love a sad song. As a result, there are a few surprises in The Hummingbird EP.Hummingbird flits about like the titular avian, going from the full-band sad song “The First Girl” to the almost-happy love song “X my <3” to the knowingly-calling-it-out major-key jaunt “(I Should Probably Write a) Happy Song” and closing with the sort-of-sad “Waiting.” All throughout, Kim Ware gives some of her best vocal performances of her career, sounding confident and calm in the midst of a diverse set of indie-folk tunes.
“The First Girl” is a gut-wrencher, the sort of song that could have easily fit on previous breakup album Set Your Sights but got cut for some idiosyncratic reason. (Maybe it just didn’t fit in the final song sequence–songs have been cut for less.) “X my <3” is a pensive, brooding track that would fit sonically with the previous record (especially the fractured distorted guitar noise), but lyrically looks in a different direction. “(I Should Probably Write a) Happy Song” is a fantastic pop song that seems like a good reason to create an EP–it’s clever, fun, and (almost) totally out of character with the previous record. There are some references to the relational strain that caused Set Your Sights to exist, but it’s largely a self-deprecating look at the life of a folk singer.
“Waiting” closes out the short EP with a woozy, Clem Snide-esque alt-country take; it’s a lovely track instrumentally and vocally. As I mentioned before, Ware’s vocals are strong throughout, and this is no exception. If you’re looking for a quick primer on what The Good Graces can do before diving into the discography, The Hummingbird EP is a great place to start.
So now that I’ve been running Independent Clauses for more than 14 years, I’ve been following some of the same artists for years–some for the better part of a decade. As a result, I tend to feel like these artists are my friends, just by dint of hearing so much of their music. I feel the emotions they sing about more deeply. Love songs are more exciting and breakup records are harder to hear, because I like the people involved in the records (even just from hearing their records over time).
The Good Graces‘ Set Your Sights is a breakup record, and it tears me up pretty good. It’s a tough record, because the older you get, the harder the breakups get (“Too Old for This”). The Good Graces’ Close to the Sun was the very first record I ever premiered, so I feel some kinship with Kim of TGG, even though we’ve only met in person once. So if this review sounds a little different than my normal reviews, that’s because it is a little different.
This particular breakup record is unusual because it’s told from the perspective of the person doing the breaking up. Usually we hear the jilted lover, but the emotional complexities of doing the breaking up are on display here. (Moral of the story: It’s still emotionally difficult to break up, even when you’re the one doing the leaving.) “7-Year Sentence (Going to Hell)” is the centerpiece of the record, an alt-country ballad that lays out the difficult complexities of the break-up with unusual, unflinching candor. It’s pretty heavy stuff.
The song itself is way more fun than the lyrics, even if it’s a minor-key ballad; the band is in top flight (as they are throughout the record) from the booming bass lines to the zinging lead guitar to the choir singing the last chorus. The tune perfectly fuses alt-country gloom with indie-pop enthusiasm. It is not as weird as it sounds.
Elsewhere, TGG throws down pop-punk-esque burners (“Remember the Old School,” the country-punk-inflected “Take Heart”), high-quality indie-pop tunes (“Too Old For This,” “Porchlight”), the indie-folk the band has honed (“Out There,” “More Careful”), and a magnificent strings-and-voice elegy (“The Hard Way”). “The Hard Way” is another unusually candid exploration of the breakup, exploring the internal states that caused all this trouble (“I learn all my lessons the hard way / if I even learn them at all”). It is a beautiful tune melodically and instrumentally.
So, like I said. Breakups (and breakup records) get harder the older you get, and this one is no exception. But there are beautiful (and even fun!) moments amid the tough lyrics. The instrumental work here is top-notch, too. If you’re looking for a solid alt-country record, indie-pop record, or breakup record, this one will fit the bill nicely.
Merry holidays, everyone! Now, back to the music. I sometimes get talky here, but let’s get straight to the best ofs instead, since I’m already late on this. Here’s 11-20, listed from top to bottom. 1-10 comes tomorrow!
11. The Yellow Dress – Faint Music / Ordinary Light (Review) Most of indie rock used to be rickety, pastiche, oddball, and endearingly weird. Now only certain parts of it are: The Yellow Dress is certainly in that category, as their enthusiastically unusual indie-rock winds, warps, and wanders its way across the landscape. My wife and I sing “Isaac Fitzgerald (bum bum bum)” to ourselves absentmindedly.
12. Wolfcryer – Wild Spaces / The Prospect of Wind / Singles. (Reviews) Wolfcryer’s two EPs escaped the short-player list because his total 2014 output was closer to double-album length. His strum-heavy troubadour style gives a shot of energy to the often ponderous singer/songwriter game, and his engaging vocals deliver great melodies. Wolfcryer is going places, so you should jump on that train now.
13. Falcon Arrow – Tower. (Review) Falcon Arrow’s post-rock sounds nothing like anything I’ve ever heard in the genre: a drum-and-bass duo, the bassist uses what must be an army of pedals to create octaves upon octaves of notes, patterns aplenty, and looped bits galore. The results are soaring tunes that evoke the title of the record.
14. Zach Winters – Monarch. (Review) Snuck in at the end of the year, Monarch is the sort of unassuming album that works its way into your life and then acts like it never wasn’t there. Winters’ powerful arrangement skills are put to use in slowly-developing work that never roars but often washes over you.
15. Summerooms – S/t. (Review) Everything that Josh Jackson does is fun to listen to. Even this lo-fi “side project” that he amused himself with during the production of his new, hi-fi Fiery Crash record is awesome: it has that warm, lovely, dreamy glow that makes me think of summers by the pool.
16. Andrew Judah – Monster. (Review) Monster is a technically impressive marvel: an indie-pop record that juxtaposes instruments, styles, and moods with ease. It’s dark and not always fun, but it’ll drop your jaw at places.
17. Leif Vollebekk – North Americana. (Review) I fell in love with Gregory Alan Isakov’s gentle, smooth work last year; Vollebekk’s work isn’t as quiet all the time, but it does rarely get noisy. His drawling, attitude-filled vocal delivery gives a shot of intrigue into the elegant singer/songwriter work.
18. The Lovely Few – The Geminids. (Review) Wide-open, mood-evoking electronic music that uses outer space as its muse and touchstone. Entirely transporting and enveloping.
19. The Good Graces – Close to the Sun. (Review) Alt-country and indie-pop meet and mingle throughout this thoughtful record, which includes lots of surprising lyrical and musical moments.
20. Brook Pridemore – Brook Pridemore’s Gory Details. (Review) If you sped up a latter-day Mountain Goats record, or if you put a full band behind an early MG record, you’d end up with the folk-punk theatrics of Brook Pridemore. Great melodies, great arrangements, a lot of fun.
Honorary Mention: The Weather Machine – The Weather Machine. (Review) This one came out in 2013 and isn’t eligible for best of 2014, but it came to my attention this year. Brilliant songwriting reminiscent of Josh Ritter, The Mountain Goats, and more: what’s not to love
Today, Independent Clauses has the distinct honor of premiering a stream of The Good Graces‘ Close to the Sun, which comes out September 30 digitally on Potluck Foundation and October 28 on vinyl from Fort Lowell Records. (You can pre-order the vinyl, if you’d like.) But you can hear it here now! So press play and hear the excellent record as you read a review of it.
I think about musical genres a lot, since I have to make a public proclamation of a song’s genre about once a day. Genre has gotten muddied and muddled through crossovers, influences, and incorporations; people no less humongous than Bob Boilen question the usefulness of the whole endeavor. I think it matters; genres have social realities. Saying an album is a singer/songwriter release makes different people interested than if I say it’s an alt-country release. The same goes with indie-pop. But when an album comes along that ties many genres together with elements that transcend all of them, I understand why people just want to throw the whole constraint overboard.
The Good Graces’ Close to the Sun incorporates obvious tonal markers of alt-country (“Cold in California”), indie-pop (“My Own Grace”), and singer/songwriter genres (“Under the Weather”). Just to prove I’m not purposefully making things difficult, those three songs I mentioned are tracks two, three, and four on the album; songwriter Kim Ware isn’t tightly allied to any particular sound from the get-go. By track five, “Something So Beautiful” is incorporating swirling guitars, pounding toms, found sound (a Grandaddy-esque indie-pop move) and alt-country harmonica to create something incredibly attractive that sits completely outside easy classifications. Oy.
Despite the varied genres, Close to the Sun does have an internal consistency. Ware expertly crafts a overlying mood of hard-earned, clear-eyed calm for the release. That’s not something that comes across in a specific instrument or genre: it’s an approach to songwriting, lyric writing, and vocal performance that influences whatever direction the song takes. “Curb Appeal” is a condemnation of a person who shows a false front to the world; the same lyrics and chord progression could have been used for an angry, guitar-heavy rocker or a whirring, keys-led indie-pop song. (Ware chooses the latter, resulting in a charming indie-pop tune.) There are lots of places where this album could go for dissonance and instead goes to resolve tensions, musically and lyrically.
That’s not to say that there’s no grit here; the grit is just written into unusual places, which grabs my attention. “Parts > Sum,” the most ominous and irritated of the tunes here, is a straight-up alt-country tune complete with reverb-heavy lead guitar. But instead of pouring vocal and lyrical fury into the track, it opens with Ware singing, “My God, my God, what have I done? / I have been untrue / My actions have hurt everyone / but mostly they’ve hurt you.” You have to go to the easy-going, open-road vibe of “Cold in California” to get the lyrics that might have fit with an angry alt-country track. It’s a consistent trend: the genre expectations are subverted throughout to take a gentler, even-handed tack. Even closing love song “Before You Go” starts out with a list of things that annoy her lover (a bold move, for sure). But starting there unveils a deeper, more mature love that looks past surface annoyances to the realities of relationship.
Even though the underlying calm and the twists of genre expectations carry through the record, it’s Ware’s clear, strong alto that ties the record together. Ware’s evocative voice can display the careful inflections and intonations of singer/songwriter fare (“A Gain, Again”), sell a tricky mood (the complex emotions of “Cold in California”), or carry a rock-ish tune (“Standing in Line”). Throughout it all, her vocal tone stays warm and open, instead of closed off and bitter. That tone often balances out the disparate sounds and lyrics, deftly tying the parts together. The final effect is that her voice sounds natural in these songs, and that’s an element that will elevate any record.
Close to the Sun is a brilliant collection of acoustic-led tunes across a number of genres. It’s a calm, pleasant record in the sense that watching seas from the shore can be calm and pleasant. It doesn’t mean that things aren’t happening on the surface or below the surface; it means that the overall product comes together in a way that is emotionally impressive, intellectually rewarding, and aesthetically pleasing. Ware has done an incredible job pulling together genre-subverting arrangements and lyrics with beautiful vocals, resulting in an album that is hard to stop listening to. If you’re into acoustic-led music, Close to the Sun should very much be on your to-hear list.
Wherein I Remember That I Mostly Listen to Music With Acoustic Guitars In It
1. “So, what exactly does it say?” – The Weather Machine. I loved Joe Pug’s first record lyrically, and I love Passenger’s vocal stylings now. Mash them together, and my heart melts. Add in steel drums, and you end up as the lead track on an MP3 mix. Super excited to hear more of this album.
2. “Passing Ships” – The Travelling Band. If you wish the Decemberists would go back to being flamboyant and triumphant musically, The Travelling Band might be your solution. Cello, piano, speedy drums and group vocals swirl around in a wonderfully theatrical way.
3. “Walk Away” – The Bone Chimes. There’s a lot of musical theater going on in this interesting indie-pop track, from the vocal stylings to high-drama arrangements to even a carnival music section.
4. “Sour” – Tim Fitz. There’s downers psych, uppers psych, and giddy psych. This shimmery track fits that latter category. Its favorite color is probably neon green and neon pink, because it can’t pick just one.
5. “Doin’ It to You” – Luke Sweeney. Everybody needs a slice of happy-go-lucky, charming, perky SanFran indie-pop every now and then.
6. “Way Out Weather” – Steve Gunn. Gunn opens up a classic space with this rolling arrangement, as if Joe Walsh got a little folkier.
7. “Roll the Dice” – Charles Mansfield. If The Mountain Goats had a bit more ’50s-pop nostalgia, they might turn out charming, perky, intelligent songs like this one.
8. “Noma” – Dear Blanca. With outrage in the left hand, depression in the right, and a singing saw in the third hand, “Noma” manages to be brash and raucous without being fast or particularly noisy. Impressive tune!
9. “Get Your Fill of Feelin’ Hungry” – Jay Brown. James Taylor is underappreciated in indie circles for his pristine melodies, tight guitarwork, and general great songsmithing. Jay Brown appreciates those qualities; “Get Your Fill” is smooth, tight, and melodically memorable. Whatever you call it (pop, folk, singer/songwriter, etc.), this is great songwriting.
10. “Under the Weather” – The Good Graces. Alt-country and indie-pop haven’t had enough crossover, I think. The Good Graces are making that happen, with the swaying arrangements of the former and the quirky vocal melodies of the latter in this fun tune. Also, horns!!
11. “Seasons” – Palm Ghosts. Folk loves its sadness, but this beautiful song is warm nostalgia in song form.
12. “Childhood Home” – The Healing. This pensive alt-country tune has that rare, magical male/female duet connection. The chorus is haunting and yet comforting; it’s a powerful tune.
13. “Lion’s Lair” – Red Sammy. “I like Megadeth / I don’t like Slayer,” relates the narrator in this quiet, lovely, lonely alt-country track reminiscent of Mojave 3. Caught my attention for sure.