Strangers by Accident‘s five-song EP establishes the male/female duo as somewhere between the wistful, major key acoustic pop of the Weepies and the spartan acoustic delicacy of Joshua Radin’s early work. They can get a little bit noisier than either outfit (“Straight to Space,” “Borderline”), but their sweet spot is a bright, clear, open sound garnished with a twist of sadness (or two).
“Steal” is the opener and the tone-setter, with a single acoustic guitar, a tambourine, two vocalists, and ambient guitar marking out the sonic space that the duo explore for the rest of the EP. Standout “Borderline” opens as the quietest track: the lyrics are poignant and unafraid to take on the darkness in the world, like a Rocky Volotato song. It grows to one of their noisiest, with a raucous electric guitar line crashing in intermittently. “Busted Heart” and “Hold Me Down” are both just great acoustic pop songs; sometimes you don’t have to reinvent the wheel to make a really great car. If you’re into the Civil Wars, The Local Strangers, or other classy male/female duos I’m not familiar with, you’ll love Strangers by Accident.
O by Holy ’57 owes an incredible debt to the carefree first two albums of Vampire Weekend. The four tracks here are all sun-drenched and wrapped in the swaying-yet-choppy rhythms that Ezra Koenig and co. virtually trademarked. Holy ’57 trades out the helter-skelter guitar runs for tropical synths, making a sound even more upbeat and sunshiny than VW did. The songs bounce, leap, skip, and twirl their way through my speakers, making it impossible not to smile.
The topics fit with the vibe: “Venice, CA” is about having youthful adventures in the titular city, “126.96.36.199” deals with a breakup and/or social failures by a nostalgic longing for the ’90s, and “Jep Shuffle” builds its chorus around a dance (although it doesn’t tell you how to do the Jep Shuffle, just that it exists). That last track is the unavoidable track: it’s a nigh-on-perfect summer pop song, with verses that build, a chorus that pays off in spades, and rhythms that make me want to move. It’s a sin that this song isn’t everywhere, because it is awesome. Those looking for a song to close out their summer with need to look no farther than O, where there’s at least one (if not three!) tunes that can do that for you. Awesome.
Deer Scout‘s customsis a slight, intimate object: Dena Miller’s four-song EP barely breaks 10 minutes. But in those 10 minutes, her unadorned songwriting makes a statement. She opens with “holy ghost,” which is nothing more than delicate guitar picking, earnest alto vocals, and beautifully complex lyrics. Fans of the dense stylings of Lady Lamb will see similar sparks here. The song is beautifully balanced: there’s not much to it, but it all sounds vital and immediate. It grabbed my attention and didn’t let go.
“little state” and “up high” feature strumming more and have more of a distinct song structure, recalling Waxahatchee’s early stylings. Although there are referents, Miller’s vocal melodies are put together in her own way (the interval jumps on the chorus of “little state,” the confident delivery of everything in “up high”); she is establishing herself as a songwriting voice here. The short set closes with “train song,” which splits the difference between the dense lyrics and fingerpicking of the opener and the concrete song structures of the center two pieces. Her voice is excellent here as well. Fans of women singer/songwriters, intimate sketches, and minimalism will find much to love in customs.
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.
I promise that it’s not Double Album Week at Independent Clauses: it just happened that More than Skies and The Local Strangers‘ Take What You Can Carry saw coverage on back-to-back days. The latter, a Seattle folk/alt-country outfit, put a slight twist on the concept by releasing a full-band studio record and an live album of their core acoustic duo performing the same songs in a different order. The results are diverse, engaging tunes that highlight both their arrangement skills and raw live electricity.
In both sets, the impeccable alt-country songwriting stands out. Some alt-country gets too invested in sounding gritty, while some rushes too far into the open arms of pop. The Local Strangers walk the line between the two perfectly, incorporating both melodies that you can’t say no to and arrangements that feel fresh, tight, and sufficiently country. In the full-band set, “Red Dress” and “Up in Smoke” are adrenaline-fueled Spaghetti Westerns, complete with sordid narratives; both amp up to roaring, wild conclusions with powerful female vocals, tasteful arrangements and a delicious sense of drama. “Crown” and “Goodbye/Goodnight” take a more mid-tempo approach to alt-country, leaning hard on the Jayhawks model of acoustic guitars, drums, and general grit.
But it’s not just an alt-country outing here: “Gasoline,” “Pilot Light” and “Touchstone” take the set down a notch. All three are love songs, much in contrast to the alternately defiant and down-and-out country work that’s so attractive. “Touchstone” starts out as a gentle, soul-inspired torch song before crescendoing to a towering pop conclusion–it’s impressive in its difference from the rest of the album. “Gasoline” opens the album on a complex note: the song’s vibe is low-slung, driving, and thick in the rhythm and bass, but it opens up into a gentle, thoughtful chorus. It’s closer to Bloc Party than Drive-by Truckers, which is pretty cool.
“Pilot Light,” though, is my personal favorite. It’s a calm, optimistic tune that starts with a jauntly staccato strum, reminiscent of Josh Ritter. The tune is led by the male vocalist, and his delivery contributes to the modern/urban folk vibe. It’s a beautiful love song, perfectly arranged so as to unfold just as I wanted and expected it to. You don’t want to be able to totally predict a song, but when they let on where they’re going, you want to it to deliver as promised. The Local Strangers know how to set up that sort of anticipation without being derivative, which is a rare skill.
The live album strips out the arrangements and focuses tightly on the dual vocals. Songs like “Always Me” and “W.W.,” good tunes which aren’t among my favorites on the full album, take on new life in the acoustic setting. The power of Aubrey Zoli’s voice was present in the first setting, but it’s even more on display here. She doesn’t just know how to belt, she knows how to take control of a room. That’s something you can’t hear on a studio record.
Take What You Can Carry is a passionate, powerful record that shows off songwriting chops, vocal prowess, and arrangement skill. The tunes here are crisp, tight, intriguing and inviting. Like some cross between Adele, the Jayhawks, and Josh Ritter, the Local Strangers are doing great things.
The Local Strangers cover a lot of ground with their acoustic amalgam on Left for Better: “Easy” is a stately, Josh Ritter-esque tune with a booming weight; “Mr. Blackberry” is a swampy, bluesy stomp; “Chase the Battle” has a bit of a Fleetwood Mac vibe to its gently pressing tension. These things are all possible on the same album because vocalist Aubrey Zoli, vocalist/guitarist Matt Hart and the rest of the quintet are comfortable using their skills in multiple ways. Lock in on a groove? “Devil and a Stiff Drink.” Blend into a textured whole? “I Will Let You Down.” Create a tense, spartan environment? “Beneath the Weight.” This is a confident outfit, and it shows. The highlight for me is “Easy,” as it pushes the folky buttons I like. But with songs this confident in many different sounds, you’ll probably have a different favorite. More power to ’em. Can’t wait to hear more from this Seattle group.
The Marvins‘ Waves of Strange also has a wide array of sounds, going from the harmony-heavy country-rock of “Two Joints on the Table” to the surf-esque space rock of “Girls Go to Venus” to the unclassifiable sludge/folk of “Still is the Light.” Still, they keep a firm sense of melody about them, no matter what they’re writing. That element ties the whole album together, from its farthest weird edges to the most traditional tunes. And it’s all worth celebrating: “Still is the Light” is a powerful, pounding tune that works because of its disparate elements, not despite them. You’ll be humming the chorus for sure. If you’re really into cohesive sounds, you may get frustrated around the time the power-pop of “People Like You” comes around, but if you’re up for a fun ride through a bunch of genres, Waves of Strange is definitely for you.
The Roseline‘s Vast as Sky, on the other hand, delivers a heaping helping of a specific sound. The band is in debt to the country-rock of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young for its ominous, dense sound. Weeping steel guitar, droning organ, saloon-style piano and more play in. You’ve heard this, but you haven’t heard Colin Halliburton sing it. There’s a fine line between revivalism and building on a foundational genre, and that line is crossed about the time that you don’t care which one it is–you just enjoy the tunes.
Vast as Sky passes that mark by the first chorus of “Back of My Mind,” a poignant tune about a distracting woman. Halliburton can also channel harrowing moods, as “You’ll Be Fine” details the fear of a possible cancer diagnosis. The band stays firmly in “band” mode, never letting Halliburton drop too much into the singer/songwriter zone, with the exception of the pristine, stripped-down “All Me.” The Old 97s’-esque shuffle of “A Necessary Distinction” is another highlight. If you’re up for some alt-country that knows its forefathers but has its own joys, The Roseline is your band.