Folk-rock, alt-country, and indie-rock fuse in A Valley Son’s “Lights in the Sky”: it’s got call-and-response vocals, crunchy guitar twang, and a breakdown instrumental outro. The song is such a tight marriage of the three genres that it’s not entirely productive to discuss it more than to get you interested.
Trey Powell’s baritone vocals lead the tune, giving way occasionally to bright, crunchy electric guitar work between sections. The band is really tight: the arrangement feels comfortable and assured, giving the vocals just the right amount of space without blending amorphously into the background. (And check out that rad instrumental outro, too.) The backup vocalists play a big part in the atmosphere of the song, coming in consistently as support at the end of verse lines and throughout the chorus. Their efforts contribute to the warm, collective feel of the tune.
“Lights in the Sky” is a top-shelf tune that should help put the band in the conversation with much more established bands. It’s more alt-country than The Low Anthem, but not so much as the Old ’97s; I immediately thought of the major-key alt-country of Denver’s 4H Royalty as a comparable sound. Dawes and Ivan & Alyosha also would fit as peers. If you’re into noisier folk-inspired work, this track will be right up your alley.
This song is the first single off A Valley Son’s debut release Sunset Park, which will drop late July/early August. If you’re going to be in the Northeast, you can check the band out on these dates:
June 11th, The Fire (Philly Single Release) – Philadelphia, PA
June 18th, The Waystation, Brooklyn, NY
June 24th, DROM (NYC Single Release), NY, NY
July 8th, Hometown, Brooklyn, NY
August 13th, Union Hall, Brooklyn, NY
Drone in indie-rock work is a funny thing: it features in some of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard (The Low Anthem’s “This Goddamn House,” Headlights’ “Get Your Head Around It”) and also can kill a song entirely. (I’m eliding electronic and metal uses of the technique here, because the ways that drone works there are very different.) The Pollies‘ “Paperback Books” uses warm drone as a gentle, subtle intro–a backdrop for the tune to play out against, invoked but not integral after the band crashes in.
Jay Burgess’ voice evenly balances the quiet reverie of memory with the rueful quality of the same; it’s a tune that can amplify either uplifting vibes or the sort of desirably-sad feelings that we all look for sometimes. It’s a rare tune that can fit multiple emotional spaces with a single sonic one. That drone helps it cut both ways–it can mean stability or uncertainty, depending on how you look at it. The lyrics revel in that sort of backwards/forwards look, that positive/negative combination that we can’t avoid in life. This song is quickly moving into my permanent rotation, because it so perfectly captures a mood that I’m often looking for.
But even if you’re not the sort to get emotionally attached to your tunes (should you, mythical creature, actually exist), it’s hard to deny the skill with which this song is crafted. The alt-country band transcends the genre here, focusing on meandering-yet-careful lead vocals, soaring bgvs, twinkly lead guitar, and a reverb-laden sense of nostalgia. The arrangement is carefully layered and mixed to perfection–it feels effortless, even though there’s quite a bit going on. All the pieces melt into each other to create one sonic idea–a feat that should not be downplayed. Even if you don’t want to get emotional and “remember the days when we were just teens,” “Paperback Books” is a warm, lush tune that deserves your attention.
I love sonic blankets: songs and records that encourage you to grab a quilt, find a comfy spot, and rest a while. We Are the West‘s Regards is a sonic blanket of the finest order: their relaxing folk tunes create soundscapes similar to those of The Low Anthem at their prettiest. The three songs of this all-too-short release don’t waste time, as opener “Hold On” gives the listener gentle fingerpicking, stand-up bass, a wistful accordion, and sounds of the rain outside the performer’s doors. By the time that distant back-up vocals come in, the idyllic scene has already been fully realized. Everything else is icing.
The rain continues gently in the background of the two following tracks, creating a pleasant through-line that ties the work together. “The Thin Red Line” adds the sounds of frogs croaking in the distance and changes the focus a bit: Brett Hool’s velvety tenor is the central character, with guitar and stand-up bass providing the grounding. More BGVs and a fiddle come in toward the end, but nothing takes the spotlight from Hool. The lead in the closer and title track could be Hool’s voice or guitar, but in my mind it’s the pump organ: there are few instruments more heartbreaking when employed to their best effect, and the pump organ is treated expertly here. The fragile certainty of the pump organ echoes the tensions in Hool’s voice, as he offers up his most dramatic performance. It’s still not what one might consider theatrical, but he emotes.
Regards is just a bit under 15 minutes, but I could stand for much more. The careful construction of sounds here results in songs that hit all the right emotional chords in me. If you’ve got a summer storm headed your way, get Regards, a blanket, and a big window ready. (This is especially grand if you’re in some sort of countryside, but urban spaces work too.) Now that I mention it, I can’t think of much more I want to do right now. Here’s to We Are the West–check them out.
The Weather Machine‘s self-titled record was a marvel powered by inventive folk-inspired acoustic songwriting, deft lyrics, and an earnest DIY sheen. The “hyper-literate story songs and Dylan-esque prophetic jams” of their 2013 release are still present in Peach, but they’re tucked inside a new-found appreciation for Americana rock. Peach‘s focus is squarely on the sounds that The Weather Machine is able to wring from a well-rounded quintet, and this results in new charms.
But before I start detailing the changes, let me not get too carried away. Peach is still The Weather Machine’s doing. The ominous “Lilium” is right there with “Skeleton Jack” and “Alexei Mikhail.” The jaunty folk of “Some Evenings Are for Dancing” has the same wonderful tension between wry and passionate that characterized so much of their previous release. Okay, so, there’s a little more electric guitar, and it’s not “So, what exactly does it say?” (To paraphrase the genius’ refrain: “But what is?”) There’s still enough acoustic work to appease fans of that which was–and I am one of them.
So, about that electric guitar. The Weather Machine is now very firmly a rock band (among other things), because you can’t write a Springsteen-esque rock song as good as “Wannabe Cowboys” and not at least throw -rock on the end of your genre. There’s a cello* swooping its way through the track, but it’s not a folk-rock tune in the same way that The Low Anthem occasionally makes folk-rock. This is not a rocked-out folk tune: this is a rock song that has some folk instruments in it. The distinction is important for tunes like the super-fun “As Long as We Get Along,” because there’s more screamin’ guitar in that tune than you could possibly expect from a folk outfit. But it still has cello running all through it. It’s a tension–something The Weather Machine is good at.
Even though tension is their forte, they’re making steps toward integration: “Wild West Coast” and “How to Get to Roseburg” are the minor and major key exemplars, respectively, of melding the ideals and instrumentaion of folk and rock on this record. “Wild West Coast” is a low-slung tune that calls up some “The National lost in Arizona” thoughts, while “Roseburg” fuses hyperactive drums and insistent bass to a string-led hoedown stomp.
But right when you think you’ve got them figured out, the title track includes feathery arpeggiators, dreamy bossa nova vibes, and prominent acoustic fingerpicking in a track that sounds like Braids ft. Josh Ritter. (And what a track that would be.) “Breakup Song” and “MC vs. The Digital Age” are as theatrical as a good show tune should be. Things are happening on this record, y’all.
Peach is a record that expands on the template set out by their self-titled record, pushing them in all sorts of directions. Purists need not apply, but those who are interested in what else creative minds* have up their sleeves will enjoy the record immensely.
*correction: originally written as “violin.” It’s way high, though.
**correction: originally written as “the minds that set steel drums in a folk tune.” Apparently the thing that sounds like steel drums is also a cello. I’m as surprised as you are.
Elephant Micah‘s Where In Our Woods is the lovely sort of album that makes everything seem warmer and more intimate. Micah is prone to long, droning minimalist folk tunes, but on this album he dismisses a lot of the dreary connotations by throwing open the curtains and letting the light in.
This is clear from opener “By the Canal,” which is a 3-minute guitar, percussion, and voice tune in a major key and a hummable vocal line. It’s very pastoral and rolling, the sort of wide-open tune that might score a romp through a field or a lazy day by a river. Even when he stretches songs back out to his preferred length, tunes like the 5-minute “Albino Animals” and 7-minute “Slow Time Vultures” ditch the despondency for gentle considerations of things.
There are moments that sound like old-school Iron & Wine, which is greatly to be praised; other moments sound like the pristine moments of The Low Anthem (also very exciting). But the overall effect is strictly Elephant Micah: he has his own style, and it’s beautiful. If you’re a fan of acoustic music and you don’t know about Elephant Micah, you’re missing out–one of the best songwriters around is operating in peak form.
Clara Barker‘s songwriting is impeccable on Fine Art and the Breslins. The Isle of Man (!) resident’s folk and acoustic indie-pop tunes have a classic songcraft flair about them; she breathes life into rhythms and arrangements that would seem like tropes in others’ hands.
She’s able to do this in part because of charming moods: it’s just fun to listen to tunes like “Angel” and “Love (Fill My Heart).” Both are happy songs that make me bob my head, clap my hands, and sing along. Are the strum and percussive patterns familiar? Yep. But that’s what makes it so immediately lovable. She also dabbles in melancholy, Verve Pipe-style Brit-pop (“Dodging Bullets,” “Seth’s Song”), which is a nice change of pace.
Her lovely voice also helps get through any complaints about formal songwriting. Her perky, buoyant voice gives her a bit of a manic pixie dream girl vibe. It puts her in league with other beloved indie singer-songwriters like Ingrid Michaelson and She and Him. This is nowhere as prevalent as “The Bees Song,” which is a twee love song that includes a toy piano (or similar sound). In short, Clara Barker’s songs are comfortable, lovable, and fun to listen to. I’m behind anyone who can hit that trifecta.
Bon Iver may sparked a surge in mopey folk singers (whom I love, let it be known), but it’s good to know that there are still bands who think that folk music is wild, crazy, and a little dangerous. Push play on The Loose Canyons‘ Strivers’ Row and you’ll get immediately introduced to the raucous “If We Don’t Know By Now,” which sees the band blasting forward with train-whistle rhythms, energy galore, and a slicing harmonica. The next track lets the guitarist rip off a blazing guitar solo in-between gruff, growling vocals. Tom Waits lite plus The Low Anthem? Yes please.
Even when the band slows things down they retain that ragged flair. “My Tendencies” is technically slower and led by a female vocalist, but this just means that they sound like they’re luring you into a back alley somewhere. And they still manage to get an overdriven guitar and wailing harmonica into the arrangement.
By the time you get to “7th Day,” the vocal-centric, harmony-friendly, even sweet tune seems like it’s coming from some other band. It shows the impressive diversity of Loose Canyons; they can fully inhabit their moods and shed them just as quickly. They circle the wagons for a final track, where all the moods (tenderness, gruffness, instrumental prowess, vocal-centricness) come together. “John Lennon” is a pretty impressive track, if only for the amount of things it crams in. I’m still partial to those raucous first two tracks, but that’s a personal preference thing. The Loose Canyons are great on each of these five songs, and you’d do well to check them out if you’re into folk music.
Devin James Fry (Lord Buffalo, Salesman) is a busy man, but he’s taken a break from those two wild pursuits to drop the pensive, ruminative Headwater Songs. The 9-song album is a pleasantly stark affair–most tracks are just his smooth tenor voice and a fingerpicked instrument (guitar or banjo). The dual tragedies that inspired this album (the fire and floods that have happened this year near Canon City, Colorado) give the album a hushed sense of calm, as if Fry is surveying the damage to his beloved hometown. Some songs deal directly with the disasters (“After the Royal Gorge Fire,” “Headwaters (Song for Gatherer)”), while others deal with the incidents more indirectly (“Real Fire”). The whole album flows seamlessly, as if the songs flowed out of Fry like the waters they chronicle. Keening falsetto, intricate picking guitarwork, and a deep sense of patience characterize these tunes. If you’re up for some gorgeous, spartan acoustic songs, Headwater Songs should be on your to-hear list.
On the far opposite end of the spectrum in acoustic music is Mutual Benefit’s Love’s Crushing Diamond, which is a full-on chamber-pop experience. Sure, there are banjos and guitars, but there are violins, electronic sounds, and intricate arrangements that create gorgeous pile-ups of sound. This is an album that washes over a room, transforming the tone from normal to slightly more warm and comforting. Jordan Lee’s gentle voice is the perfect foil for these tender tunes, bringing out all the sweetness that can be extracted from them. If Bon Iver turned his attention to love instead of its loss, or Sufjan Stevens was less idiosyncratically percussive, or if the Low Anthem indie’d up a bit more, you’d have Mutual Benefit. This is just an absolutely gorgeous record that deserves your attention. A year-end gem.
Scott Fant‘s singer/songwriter tunes are rough-edged without getting gruff. Fant writes with just him and a guitar, giving the tunes on Goatweed Bouquet a raw, earnest feel. These tunes would feel at home at both a Tom Waits-ian bar (“Bottom of the Hole”) and a Budweiser-toting honky-tonk (“Don’t Touch That Dog,” “Walk in the Light”). There are also some ballads intermingled among the upbeat tunes, best exemplified by the pristine guitar work of “Adagio for the Lonely.” Shades of David Ramirez, Counting Crows, and old-school country come through in the short runtime, showing Fant a diverse and interesting songwriter. Very different than Headwater Songs in mood, these songs are meant to be heard live and maybe even sung along to–especially if you’ve got a cold beer in your hand.
So I’m getting toward the end of my review year, and there’s still a few things in queue. That’s right. It’s time for a REVIEW BLITZ.
Cavepainters – For the Sea. Cavepainters subscribe to the vision of Americana that sees rock’n’roll and singer/songwriter on one long spectrum, with folk, country, jazz, and everything else just somewhere between the two poles. This vision, espoused by bands like The Low Anthem, produces a necessarily varied album that hangs together by the overall spirit of the thing. “Minnesota Blues” is a blues/rag thing, “Falling Leaves” has a Neil Young-esque vibe, and standout “This Crow Flies Alone” cops an Old Crow Medicine Show sing-along style. On the quieter side, “We All Need” and “Kid Gloves” are deeply moving singer/songwriter ballads heavy on atmosphere. “Kid Gloves” is powerful lyrically as well. Cavepainters’ Americana is passionate, literate, and knowledgeable in the genres it appropriates. If you love The Low Anthem as deeply as I do, you will find a new band to love in Cavepainters.
Destroy Nate Allen – Glow in the Dark. DNA is a rowdy folk-punk duo that’s been kicking it for a while, and GITD is a vinyl retrospective of crowd favorites. You’ll get the hilarious “My Parents Managed Apartments,” the uniquely earnest and tender “Loving You,” and a bunch more. If you’re into fast, brash, unkempt songs that you can yell along to in a basement with 30 of your new best friends, this should be your jam. If you doubt that assessment, I direct you to “Jesus, Keep Us Safe From the Cops,” which is the duo and a group of men stomping, clapping, and hollering the titular phrase with increasing frenzy. And, if you’ve gone completely and exclusively banjo, the truly beautiful title track will help you out.
Laura and Greg – Songs EP. It’s an increasingly common tale: out of the ashes of short-lived pop-rock-punk tunesmiths Automotive High School comes a guy/girl folk duo. Laura and Greg lean toward the Jose Gonzalez school of guitar-playing, with gentle yet complex fingerpicking providing the backdrop to the vocals. The titular singers share the mic, giving this duo a bit of an edge on duos that have one primary singer. Opener “Forever For Sure” expands from a little acoustic guitar line into a wide-open indie-pop arrangement, setting a great precedent for their sound. “Same World” is a cheery tune in the vein of the Weepies, while “with nothing” shows off their great skill with melody and rhythm. This 3-song tease shows some incredible songs, and I’m thoroughly excited to see what Laura and Greg cook up next. If you’re into chill guy/girl folk-pop duos, here’s another notable for your (probable) arsenal of them.
MTNS – Salvage EP. Four songs (and a remix) of chill, smooth electronic pop that draws equally from R&B and indie-pop for inspiration. If you like atmospheric tracks that are simultaneously claustrophobic and expansive, hit up “Lost Track of Time”; if you like sexy slow jams, hit up “Lost Track of Time (M-Phazes Remix).” They go most indie on the acoustic guitar-driven “Crave,” while “Fears” is electro goodness. For fans of James Blake, et al.
“If there’s no grand cultural war left for you to wage, how are you supposed make friction? Indie rock responded by fanning out into a thousand sub-genre deltas, each with their own set of reference points. The best stuff, every year, is the stuff that somehow leaps across those gaps, like a firing synapse.” -Jayson Greene, Pitchfork, “Making Overtures: The Emergence of Indie Classical”
I’ve been quoting this paragraph copiously in conversation and text since it was published, because it perfectly frames the situation in which indie rock currently sits. Should you be really, really good at one genre? The answer as an extension of this paragraph is “Probably not”: the genre already has a hero (or heroes), and you’re just going to be appropriating heroes if you aspire to greatness in a genre. You should mix and match, because that’s the stuff that gets applause these days: Bon Iver abandoning pure folk for a confluence of acoustic and ’80s synthscapes, Arcade Fire adopting a wiry ’80s touch for “Sprawl II: Mountains Beyond Mountains.” If we’ve heard it all before, we must repackage it in new ways. (This is why we have “new” lawyer dramas every year.)
I disagree that there is no room for purists; folksters The Low Anthem immediately come to mind as a great example of forging forward in a historically-established sound, as well as singer/songwriters like Brianna Gaither. Still, it’s true that the hip and cool stuff right now is interdisciplinary. (The technically appropriate term would intergenrenary, but that’s a clunky, made-up word.) Everything in the world is becoming interconnected; why not music?
Gabriel and the Hounds‘ Kiss Full of Teeth is the sound of a band working hard on its interdisciplinary mix. The basic elements of the sound are stark folk in the For Emma vein, The National-style gloomy indie rock, and a composer’s sense of symphonic instrumentation (more Firebird Suite, less “Eleanor Rigby”). Like my late grandfather’s attempts to recreate Bailey’s Irish Cream from his own personal brewing and mixing, the results aren’t perfect—but they still taste great.
“Lovely Thief” is the most memorable track of the album, both for its successes and head-scratching excesses. The first minute consists of a grooving, lightly distorted guitar rhythm and comfortable tenor vocals. Trumpets, horns and oboes arrive without warning, colliding with the rhythmically solid guitar in erratic foxhunt calls. The guitar and foxhunt end simultaneously, giving way to an elegant symphonic break. Drums and guitar are then introduced on top of the continued symphonic elements. It’s a beautiful tune, especially in its final, fully-realized minute.
However, its abrupt switches show either a desire to rupture normative ideas of modern songwriting or an unfamiliarity with the delicate balance between all the song’s moving parts (or both!). The first is admirable, the second understandable; both show that they’re trying stuff. When the band sticks to one genre, they make very consistent songs that are less dynamic and interesting that their experiments: “The World Unfolds” uses strings as a support element to a straight-forward indie-rock tune; “What Good Would That Do” is Tom Waits for electric guitar.
So it’s pleasing that Gabriel and the Hounds try more ambitious tunes than standard ones: the very pretty “When We Die in South America” uses an unexpected entry point of strings to disrupt usual songwriting structure, while “Wire and Stone” sets an orchestra as the grounding point instead of traditional rock instruments. The swelling, building “An In-Between (Full Where You Are)” provides even more emphasis on symphonic composition—Colin Stetson listeners will nod and smile. “Who Will Fall on Knees” sets the symphonic arrangement against a pensive folk piece, using the strings as the forceful element in the piece.
Gabriel and the Hounds’ Kiss Full of Teeth is a wildly interesting piece of work packed with vitality and thought. The unique ideas shine, even if the pieces don’t come together in a completely unified way. It’s like listening to Regina Spektor’s Soviet Kitsch: It’s clear that she is either purposefully ignoring conventions of songwriting or isn’t yet skilled enough to write proper songs she hears in her head—regardless, Soviet Kitsch is wonderful. (Based on the markedly less erratic quality of her later output, I’d bank the latter idea.) Put another way: formal success does not ensure quality. Sometimes the half-baked mistakes are far more interesting and vital than the fully-formed, conventionally-sound work, and that’s the case for Gabriel and the Hounds. Hopefully more bands follow their lead and risk putting out this sort of genre-bending, might-be-a-mess-but-who-cares work.
I’m heading back to hipster Christmas SXSW this year, freelancing for the Oklahoma Gazette with talented chap Matt Carney. I’m scouring through the announced bands so that I’m ready when it comes time to suit up make my schedule. Here’s some A’s and B’s that I hope to check out in Austin:
The Black and White Years play indie-rock with electro influences, but it’s their insightful lyrics that really hooked me. Okay, and the melodies.
The Barr Brothers. Josh Ritter’s gravitas + The Low Anthem’s transcendent beauty + Avett Brothers’ brotheriness. This is solid folk gold, people.
Adam and the Amethysts. Gleeful folky/calypso/whatevery goodness. Givers and Lord Huron should be all up on them as tourmates.
The American Secrets. You know this band as the FreeCreditScore.com Band. But did you know that all five are long-time indie-rock vets? And one of the members is in Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.? And that they write pretty brilliant songs when not composing ditties for commercials?
There will be oh so many more to come. I hope to post these weekly until SXSW.
Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.