1. “Hypachoi” – The Project. A thrumming distorted bass riff underlines this song, which moves from a spartan tune punctuated by clanking chains into a crunchy, towering, dramatic piece. The lyrics are a passionate re-telling of Christ’s death and resurrection. Happy Easter!
2. “Trucksea (feat. Dean McGrath)” – Nonsemble. This indie-pop chamber orchestra packs “Trucksea” full of fluttering strings, dramatic cello, grounding keys, perky drums. The vocals are the most modern thing about the tune, other than perhaps the confidence with which the difficult fusion is pulled off. This is an impressive tune that demands attention.
3. “Wildflower” – Shiloh Hill. Chipper full-band folk that starts with perky trumpet and brings in banjo like rays of sunshine coming out from behind a cloud. The chorus has an anthemic cast similar to The Decemberists, which is always welcome. This album looks like it’s going to be a lot of fun. Check out their Kickstarter.
4. “Dust” – Ryan Martin John, Todd Sibbin, and Tom West. Kind of like an Australian Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, this ominous track has a ’70s folk vibe, solid group vocals, and a dense, immediate atmosphere.
5. “I Know I” – The Tin Man. A pensive minor-key first verse leads into an ultimately hopeful, thumping folk-pop/alt-pop tune augmented by some distorted guitar providing some background grumble. Goes for a lot of drama and yet stops one inch from going over the top–an admirable skill.
6. “Same Boat” – Vanessa Forero. This is a swift, upbeat, smile-inducing folk-pop tune that doesn’t jump the shark in its arrangement (however, there are mermaids in the stead of Left Shark as part of the video).
7. “Million Miles” – Jesse Konrad. A calm strum, gentle guitar counterpoint, and a friendly organ push this track along in a very chill way.
8. “You Need to Hear It From Someone Else” – Protestant Work Ethic. Lazy horns play against a large choir, an autoharp, melodica, and assorted random percussion–the outcome is like a European version of Typhoon, all the way down to the passionate vocals.
9. “Already Gone” – Travis Smith. A surging, major-key chord progression reminiscent of Dan Mangan, a fun organ performance, and a smooth vocal performance come together over a shuffle snare for a tune seems already comfortable and worn in, like a comfy sweater, when you first hear it.
10. “Marigold” – Neil Holyoak. Holyoak’s hazy yet gravitas-laden voice presides over this very carefully constructed folk tune, complete with pedal steel, mandolin, and reverb-washed electric guitar. It’s kind of like Dana Sipos’ work, but in a major key and more instrument-laden. Float away with this track.
11. “Love Is Like a Market Crash” – Thurdy. It takes a lot of work to sound casual. Thurdy’s laid-back, back-porch vibe permeates his baritone vocals, rolling guitar playing, and honest lyrics. It’s a tune that gives you back more than it asks of you.
12. “This Will Be Our Year – Zombies Cover” – Novi Split. David J’s magnetic, utterly gorgeous voice is in full flower here, matching his oh-so-lovely pipes with a “doo-wop meets old-school country in a subtle, spare modern bar” arrangement. It’s just great.
13. “Bed of Nails” – Logan Magness. “Tender” and “romantic” maybe aren’t the phrases most associated with alt-country, but this stripped-down, Isbell-esque acoustic ballad is both. Magness’s smooth tenor is a joy to listen to.
1. “Heart Song” – Samuel Alty. Captures the enthusiasm of flamenco and distills it into a two-and-a-half-minute romp that I can’t get out of my head. The music video perfectly complements the ecstatic vibe of the tune: a group of people slowly getting accustomed to dancing in public. This is way, way fun.
2. “Silent Moon” – Supersmall. It’s a warm blanket of a tune–the soft guitars, the comfortable vocals, and the gentle arrangement all come together to just be a lovely acoustic indie-pop tune.
3. “Roman Tic” – John Helix. Fans of Elliott Smith will fall hard for this spare-yet-endearing tune.
4. “21 Years” – Malory Torr. The quirky songwriting and vocal delivery of Regina Spektor (except on guitar) fused to a Bohemian version of Five for Fighting’s “100 Years.” Love the group vocals throughout.
5. “Drinking Song” – Haley Heynderickx. This slightly woozy, charming tune sounds like Laura Marling and Laura Stephenson collaborated on an acoustic jam. The vocals here are quirky and lovely.
6. “Turn to Stone” – Nice Motor. Combines back-porch picking with West Coast, Laurel Canyon country vibes to create a tune that’s not quite either thing: it kinda sounds like The Eagles somehow turned into a folk band.
7. “Sweet Innocence” – Kylie Odetta. It’s rare that the drums stand out in a singer/songwriter tune, but they provide the perfect counterpoint to Odetta’s warm alto lines in this calm, confident tune.
8. “We Sing with Angels” – The Project. With a singer/songwriter chorus, Spanish finger-style guitar verses, and traditional melodic structure evocative of ancient hymnody, this tune goes in directions you wouldn’t expect. The pieces come together for a unique experience.
9. “The One” – Erik Fastén. There’s a sense of noble, dignified romantic angst here, employed through a careful guitar performance, breathy vocals, and fluttering strings.
10. “Follow the Sun” – Hand Drawn Maps. An early-’00s sense of full-band indie-pop melancholy permeates this track–it makes perfect sense that they’re from LA, the home of Phantom Planet and inspiration of Death Cab’s “Why You’d Want to Live Here.”
11. “The Planets Align” – Chris Belson. A deep, silky, enveloping, enigmatic voice dances over a simple guitar.
12. “1963” – Nikki Gregoroff. Gregoroff makes a simple piano line arresting with a bright, clear, magnetic vocal performance.
13. “Kaydence” – Triana Presley. Sometimes you just want to hear a melancholy piano-pop ballad. I’ve been known to love Something Corporate and Taylor Swift. I’ll admit it.
14. “Can’t Erase It” – Kylie Odetta. Somewhere between Norah Jones and Adele lives this beatuiful, wistful track. Odetta’s voice reads far older than her years. (Rare double entry on the same post!)
I’ve been getting into electronic music a little bit more recently, but I still have the deepest part of my musical heart reserved for singer/songwriters armed with nothing but an acoustic guitar. Scott Fant fits that description perfectly, as he employs his careworn tenor over a six-string for the five tunes of Pig Iron. Fant balances precise, melodic guitarwork with a careworn voice that includes weariness but isn’t defined by it. It’s not a gruff or rough tone, but one that has nicks around the edges, as in the excellent “Worse for the Wear.” The memorable vocals are framed well by both chord strumming and fingerpicking. Fant likes to remain in folk-singer mode, but there are some worthy blues inclusions (“8 Lb. Sledge”) and even a bit of classical influence (“Restless Wind”). Fans of Joe Pug, Joe Purdy and maybe even Ray LaMontagne (although without the romantic overtones) will eat this up. Fant is a strong songwriter that should be watched closely: as they say in the draft, he’s got a lot of upside and a really high ceiling.
Christian martyrs Quirinus, Sadoth, and Ri may not be household names, but Martyr’s Prayers by The Project moves them out of the Fox’s Book of Martyrs and into the musical sphere. The album’s best moments come when the band focuses on acoustic folk treatments like lead single “Romero,” the cello-led “Becket,” and the melodically memorable “Clement.” Most of the album leans this way, but there are some louder moments in the stories of the martyrs. The dramatic “Carpus” opens with arch piano arrangement before unveiling some wailing guitar work over the despondent chords. While “Bonhoeffer” has unexpected alt-rock guitar that disrupts the flow of the album, “Sadoth” is a straight-up classic rocker that fits the character of the album much more. It fits because the “classic” tag leans into some of the folk work too, as “Ignatius” and “Ravensbruck” recall the arrangements of older folk heroes like America and Simon & Garfunkel. Martyr’s Prayers is a unique album that’s worth a listen for fans of folk and/or church history, as long as some unexpected turns don’t bother you.
Killing Kuddles was introduced to me as a rockabilly band, but some of the “abilly” edges have worn off between then and now. Odd Man Out is a five-song release that leans heavily on old-school rock’n’roll sounds for its sonic and lyrical material (“Rock & Roll Is Dead”). The guitars clang admirably, the cymbals thrash mightily, and the bass wallops. The element that most signifies any sort of country-ish vibe is Elwood Kuddles’ raspy throat, which lands between a punk sneer and a Tom Waits growl. It leans toward the former on the rapid-fire opener “Not Coming Back” and more toward the latter in the folk-punk “Dropped the Pop.”
Killing Kuddles’ old-school rock sound has some connection to modern punk rock bands like The Gaslight Anthem and Titus Andronicus: bands that adhere to an old-school idea that rock should be loud and fast and unadorned by labels. Those bands might be right; it could be that I’m doing these songs a disservice trying to categorize them. If you like rock with the amps turned up and a rebellious sneer, Odd Man Out is going to be in your wheelhouse.
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.