It’s been a good year of music, and these were the best I heard. With the notable exception of #7, all the quotes are pulled from my review of the record.
7. All A Shimmer – Cindertalk. This ostenstibly-indie-pop album transcends boundaries and genre labels, creating a mind-bending world of tensions: complex/spartan arrangements; huge/tiny lyrical concerns; vulnerable/brash emotive turns; dark/light moods; gentle/forceful instrumentation; gentle/powerful vocals. Jonny Rodgers’ work with tuned glass shows through consistently, but never dominates; instead, all the pieces come together into whirling, enigmatic, satisfyingly unusual pieces. If you’re into adventurous music, there was no more an adventurous album this year than this one. (full review forthcoming)
6. Mantra – Sunjacket. “Mantra is the rare “smart” rock album that isn’t hard to get. It’s weird, it’s quirky, it’s got a unique point of view, but it’s not grueling or punishing. You can listen to it through and hear the guitars and synths and take it at face value. (And its face value is great.) But for those who want to spend more time with their albums, Sunjacket has created an album full of nooks and crannies for listeners to explore.” (full review)
4. Ghost of a King – The Gray Havens. Ghost expands “their core sound to include cinematic pop-rock, ambient art tunes, and even electro-pop. Their expansion of borders doesn’t diminish at all their continuing maturity in the folk-pop realm, as the album contains some of the best folk-pop tunes they’ve ever written. In short, Ghost of a King shows growth in every area, and that results in an incredible album.” (full review)
3. Young Mister – Young Mister. “So carefully and meticulously crafted that it doesn’t show any of the seams. An immense amount of effort went into making indie-pop-rock songs that sound effortless and natural. You can sing along with these songs, write the lyrics on your bedroom wall, or just let the experience wash over you.” (full review)
2. Great Falls Memorial Interchange – Kye Alfred Hillig. “Even though these songs deal with difficult emotions, nowhere do these songs become brittle or unrelatable–the clarity of the lyrics, the ease of the melodies and Hillig’s inviting voice make them fit like a new coat. I hadn’t heard any of these songs before, but they felt like old friends as soon as I had.” (full review)
1. Hope and Sorrow – Wilder Adkins. “An impeccable, gorgeous modern folk record that shows off the value of maturity. It’s the sort of record that stretches the limits of my writing ability, making me want to write simply: ‘Just go listen to this record. You won’t regret it.'” (full review)
The Gray Havens‘ Ghost of a King is a strikingly diverse record; the duo’s work previously has fallen into piano pop or folk-pop realms, but Ghost sees them expanding their core sound to include cinematic pop-rock, ambient art tunes, and even electro-pop. Their expansion of borders doesn’t diminish at all their continuing maturity in the folk-pop realm, as the album contains some of the best folk-pop tunes they’ve ever written. In short, Ghost of a King shows growth in every area, and that results in an incredible album.
The two points of entry are pretty obvious on this record: “Shadows of the Dawn” and “Diamonds and Gold” both gave me shivers. I don’t get goosebumps very often, and I can’t think of the last time that I got goosebumps twice in one album. “Shadows of the Dawn” is a folk-pop tune that is imbued with a well-tuned sense of the dramatic–the verses are delicate yet taut with tension, while the memorable chorus opens up the song to release the tension. But it’s the triumphant, jubilant counterpoint choral vocals in the third chorus that dropped my jaw. While Dave Radford holds down the lead vocals, a choir led by Licia Radford exultantly sings wordless arias that point toward the transcendence the lyrics call for. I’m doing an injustice even trying to describe it. You have to hear it to understand how affecting and effective it is.
“Diamonds and Gold” is, surprisingly, their full-on electro-pop jaunt, but it’s thoroughly a highlight of the record. Folkies who try to go electro often result in embarrassing facsimiles of the genre, but “Diamonds” hits all the beats of a electro-pop song flawlessly. It’s hands-down the best electro-pop song I’ve heard all year. Dave Radford nails the attitude that you need to have in electro-pop, confidently swaggering his way through a giddy synth atmosphere. “They say we’re crazy / that’s fine / they say we’re out of our mind / well tell’em, tell’em alright / alright / if the world is all we got / then alright, alright / but it’s not,” Radford states, pointing again to the transcendence that is a deep theme of the record. I would be remiss if I didn’t point out the excellent background vocals, again–The Gray Havens really know how to maximize a vocal performance.
Other tunes point in different sonic directions. “Band of Gold” is a romantic, married-person folk-pop tune along the lines of the Lumineers and the Oh Hellos; you’ll be singing along shortly. The title track, “This My Soul,” and “At Last, the King” have a sort of minor-key cinematic cast that reminds me of Imagine Dragons’ great pop tune “Demons”; “Take This Slowly” employs wide-open, organ-seared, major-key folk reminiscent of Josh Ritter’s “Kathleen” (and oh, is it fun). “A Living Hope” is a two-minute tune built on a base of cascading piano notes that crescendos to a haunting climax full of synths, pounding drums, and distant autotuned vocals. It’s a remarkably ambitious track to put on a folk-pop record, recalling some of Gungor’s more adventurous compositions in scope.
Ghost of a King is a remarkable achievement. It’s the rare album with clear heights supported by a large number of high-quality tunes. There’s not a lot of chaff on this record, which is doubly impressive for the wide range of sounds included on the record. The Gray Havens are hitting a stride here, and I am excited to see where they go from here. Right now, though, I’m picking my jaw up off the floor and enjoying Ghost of a King thoroughly. Highly recommended.
The Gray Havens are back with a new Kickstarter project! The folk-pop duo is creating a new EP with Ben Shive, who has worked with Andrew Peterson, Ellie Holcomb, and IC faves Colony House and Son of Laughter. Shive seems to always turn out earthy, “real”-sounding recordings; paired with the Gray Havens’ dramatic, tension-filled songwriting, the results should be impressive. Check their video below.
April is my busiest month of the year, so I’ll most likely not get as much posting done here as I’d like. But I’m giving it all my effort. Here are five tunes that I’ve been jamming to.
A Small Collection, etc.
1. “The Stone” – The Gray Havens. No matter how far afield I go, I always come back to folk-pop. This takes a grand, sweeping approach to the genre (not unlike I and Love and You-era Avett Brothers), capping off a giant crescendo with a cascade of “ohs” counterpointing the chorus. It’s a fun, peppy, carefully-constructed track that has me excited for their upcoming new album.
2. “Spero” – Cindertalk. IC fave Jonny Rodgers is now Cindertalk. His first release under the name is a haunting, powerful track that relies on his fragile voice and an impressive arrangement of his ethereal tuned wine glasses. There’s a vinyl that will be on sale during Record Store Day–you should check that thing out.
3. “Postworld (The Sun Explodes)” – Manuka Piglet. Were you looking for 13 minutes of psych-folk freakout about the cosmic end of things? Or maybe you were looking for a clarinet solo? Or both? Ambitious, impressive, a little bit nuts.
4. “XOXO” – Swordface. Wiry indie-rock that doesn’t take its talents or melodic prowess too seriously. I heard there’s an emo revival on? This probably counts.
5. “How Terrorism Brought Us Back Together” – Challenger. IC fave Challenger is bringing its ’80s-influence electro-pop back around again, and this one kicks it off with a bouncy track that features strikingly direct vocals and melodies. Throw this one on the car stereo and let that top down.
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:
It appears that I can’t get enough of guy/girl duos. Venna, Jenny and Tyler, Destroy Nate Allen!, Matt and Kim, and Mates of State are some of my favorite bands that I’ve covered here at Independent Clauses, and each fall into the aforementioned category. You can add The Gray Havens to that list, as their EP Where Eyes Don’t Go has swept me off my feet.
The duo fits somewhere between Mates of State’s piano-heavy indie-pop and Jenny and Tyler’s pop-folk. Dave and Licia Radford combine ukulele, piano and acoustic guitar to create pop songs with folk instrumentation that are near-impossible to wrest from my brain. From the perky, Weepies-esque strum and clap of “Let’s Get Married” to the orchestrated sweep of “Where It Goes” and “Music from a Garden,” The Gray Havens show their melodic talents in diverse ways. Dave Radford is the primary vocalist, and his smooth voice fits perfectly in the genre; his rhythmic and tonal flair in delivering the melodies is one of the most engaging elements of their sound. Although featured less, Licia Radford’s soprano voice is charming as well (“Let’s Get Married”).
The duo has more than just pretty melodies up their sleeves. “Silver” incorporates a horn section and accordion, which are both sure-fire ways to get me on board with your tune. While “Silver” is the most triumphantly catchy tune of the bunch (due to the horns and some great background vocals), the most unique tune is “Train Station,” which actually mocks up the sound of a train moving with guitar rhythms and percussion. But even with their arrangement skills, the simple “Let’s Get Married” is the tune that I keep humming to myself. It’s just wonderful.
If you’re into precise, upbeat indie-pop with an acoustic bent, you need to check out The Gray Havens’ Where Eyes Don’t Go. Their infectious melodies and creative songwriting touches make for a very engaging listen. Expect to hear much more from this duo in the future.
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.