I’m all about alt-country, which is a deceptively hard genre to get right. You can’t lean too country, or too indie, or too singer/songwriter. Red Sammy walks the line between all of these with a tune that’s equal parts Tom Waits, Counting Crows, and Jayhawks.
Adam Trice’s rough vocals aren’t the only place that Waits comparisons fit: “Sometimes You Forget What’s Real” is a long, walking-speed tune that relies heavily on a world-weary mood to compel listeners’ ears. There’s a genial, earnest feel to the guitar that calls up August and Everything After-era Counting Crows, while the weeping electric guitar gives the tune a big ‘ol “alt-country” stamp not too far from the Jayhawks’ work. Extra bonus: Mountain Goats-quality yawps at the end of the vocals’ contributions. The whole tune comes together so beautifully that it’s hard to believe that it’s over 6 minutes long. If you’re into old-school, loose folk/country jams or any of the previous acts, this tune will perk your ears up.
“Sometimes You Forget What’s Real” is the lead single on an upcoming album, set to drop Fall 2015.
3. “Picture Picture” – Tall Tall Trees. Kishi Bashi contributed strings to this giddy, major-key alt-hip-hop/singer-songwriter’s tune. It’s pretty amazing.
4. “Billions of Eyes” – Lady Lamb the Beekeeper. Lady Lamb opens her sophomore campaign with a tour de force grower that moves toward indie-rock, away from the Neutral Milk Hotel-ish psych, and maintains the inscrutable, impressionistic lyrics she’s known for.
5. “Laurel Trees/21 Guns” – Jet Plane. The opening moments of this 10-minute post-rock piece mix fragile strings and bagpipes with grumbling guitar noise to set the scene. The rest of the tune is a leisurely unfolding track that follows that same pattern, albeit with more clean guitar.
6. “New Year’s Retribution” – More Than Skies. What if Tom Waits had played in a punk band and adopted modern folk arrangements to go along with it? This sad, pensive 8-minute track has twists and turns galore.
7. “Lo and Behold” – Sarah Marie Young. More and more people are picking up vintage vocal styles and combining them with modern instrumental styles. Young has a crooner’s voice added to some funky R&B bass and keys, making for a smooth, head-bobbing track.
8. “Pores” – Hand Sand Hand. “Rumbling” is what I call things that sound ferocious but never get a sharp, brittle edge. This post-punk track presses forward with all the power of a much heavier band and keeps me glued to my seat.
I got married in November, which means I’ve been celebrating my way through the last few weeks instead of listening to new Christmas music. This means that instead of meaningful reviews, I have a large list of things that you and I should both listen to. I regret nothing. ONWARD!
The Good Shepherd Band, which released a beautiful Christmas album in 2011, are back with a new one entitled All the Bells Shall Ring. If it’s anything like the opener “O Come Let Us Adore Him” (starting off with an Advent hymn; I approve) and the last album, we’re in for big, church-style hymns in oft-triumphant arrangements. Wonderful!
Quirky, reverb-heavy indie-pop band SUNBEARS! offer up a 10-minute EP of Christmas music. It’s sure to be as thoroughly enthusiastic as its name: SUNBEARS! Do CHRISTMAS!
Vintage-style acoustic duo The Singer and the Songwriter are dropping 12 songs (in video form!) for the 12 Days of Christmas. Sounds lovely! Check it at their YouTube.
1. “Great White Shark” – Hollands. Maximalist indie-rock/pop music with groove, noise, melodic clarity, effusive enthusiasm, strings, harp, and just about everything else you can ask for. If the Flaming Lips hadn’t got so paranoid after At War with the Mystics…
2. “Coyote Choir” – Pepa Knight. Still batting 1.000, Pepa Knight brings his exuberant, India-inspired indie-pop to more mellow environs. It’s still amazing. I’m totally on that Pepa Knight train, y’all. (Hopefully it’s The Darjeeling Limited.)
3. “Peaks of Yew” – Mattson 2. I love adventurous instrumental music, and Mattson 2 cover a wide range of sonic territory in this 10-minute track. We’ve got some surf-rock sounds, some post-rock meandering, some poppy melodies, some ambient synths, and a whole lot of ideas. I’m big on this.
4. “Firing Squad” – Jordan Klassen. Sometimes a pop-rock song comes along that just works perfectly. Vaguely dancy, chipper, fun, and not too aggressive (while still allowing listeners to sing it loudly), “Firing Squad” is just excellent.
5. “Droplet” – Tessera Skies. There’s a tough juggling act going on in this breathtaking indie-pop tune: flowing instruments, flailing percussion, cooing vocals, and an urgent sense of energy. It’s like if Jonsi’s work got cluttered up with parts and then organized neatly.
6. “Available Light” – David Corley. If Alexi Murdoch, Tom Waits, and Joseph Arthur all got together and jammed, it might sound something like this gruff yet accessible, vaguely alt-country track.
7. “Blue Eyed Girl” – Sam Joole. I’d like to make a joke about blue-eyed soul here, but it’s actually closer to Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl” than that. Lots of laidback guitars, good vibes, but not Jack Johnson twee, if you know what I mean.
8. “By the Canal” – Elephant Micah. I’m a big fan of people who aren’t afraid to let an acoustic guitar and voice splay out wherever they want and however long they want. Here, EM acts as an upbeat Jason Molina, putting the focus on his voice instead of the spartan-yet-interesting arrangements. Totally stoked for this new album.
9. “If It Does” – Robin Bacior. In this loose, smooth, walking-speed singer-songwriter tune with maximum atmosphere, shades of early ’00s Coldplay appear. That’s a compliment, people.
10. “Storm” – Dear Criminals. Not that often do I hear trip-hop, even in an updated melodic form. Way to go, DC–you pick up that torch that Portishead put down.
11. “You Open to the Idea” – Angelo De Augustine. Beautiful, delicate, wispy, earnest whisper-folk. They don’t make ’em like this very often anymore.
12. “Billowing Clouds” – Electrician. The mournful, affected spoken word over melancholy, trumpet-like synths makes me think of an electro version of the isolated, desolate Get Lonely by The Mountain Goats.
13. “Blue Chicago Moon (demo)” – Songs: Ohia. Until Jason Molina, I’ve never had a personal connection to the art of a troubled artist who died too early–Elliott Smith was gone before I knew of his work. Now with unreleased demos coming out consistently after Mr. Molina’s death, I feel the sadness of his passing over and over. Each new track is a reminder that there was work still to be made; it also feels like a new song from him, even though it’s objectively not.
Is this how a legacy gets made in the digital era? How long will we keep releasing new Molina songs, to remind us that he was there, and now he is not? (Please keep releasing them.) Will the new songs push people back to “The Lioness”? Will we keep these candles burning to light our own rooms, or will we bring them to other people? “Endless, endless, endless / endless depression,” Molina sings here. Is it truly endless? Are you still depressed? Does your permanent recording of the phrase make it truly “unchanging darkness”? “Try to beat it,” he intones, finally. Try to beat it, indeed. Keep trying until you can’t anymore. And then let your work stand forever. I guess this is how I mourn.
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.
Bunches of MP3s have come my way recently, and I’m happy to share some with you. Come back on Friday for the Spring/Summer mix!
1. “Reno” – Shareef Ali. Anti-folk, acoustic-punk, and country converge on this memorable, attitude-filled breakup tune. (Ali’s CD release show is tonight, if you happen to find yourself in San Francisco.)
2. “Blankets” – Matthew Fowler. Fowler has a smooth, soothing voice that sounds far more mature than his 19 years. Fans of Josh Garrels and Ray LaMontagne should take notice.
3. “The Lampolier” – Grover Anderson. As fall moves toward winter, let’s move from pretty singer/songwriters to the haunting, backwoods Appalachian murder ballad tradition. The production here is particularly notable.
4. “Down to My Soul (The Music)” – Kate Vargas. When a woman says she’s influenced by Tom Waits, that gets my attention. Vargas delivers on that promise with raspy, soulful, inspired folk full of banjo and danger.
5. “Strugglin’” – I Am the Albatross. This one also starts out as a Tom Waits-ian folk ramble, but it transforms into a Gogol Bordello folk/punk/polka blaster complete with vengeful religious imagery. All aboard!
6. “All Walks of Life” – Mike Dillon. I’m used to Mike Dillon’s unclassifiable madness played at 3 zillion BPMs. This unclassifiable madness includes a significantly chiller body before a naturally madcap coda but is no less weird: it still includes vibraphone, trombone, drums, and Dillon’s crazy vocals.
7. “Alta / Waterfall” – Fear of Men. Jangly indie-rock urgency married to the rich, dusky landscapes of Bowerbirds and the like.
8. “Blight ft. FatRat Da Czar” – We Roll Like Madmen. Very smooth, dark, crisp electro here. FatRat Da Czar raps some really nice flow over it, really making this track.
9. “Ruin” – Vedas. The PR for this one calls it a “hollow depletion of hope,” which makes me want to try and cheer them up. Their James Blake-ian electro-pop/R&B/indie/whatever stuff is definitely attractive, though. All is not lost, yo!
10. “Reset” – Maggie McClure. Here’s a cathartic, female-fronted, piano-based pop tune for those who never stopped secretly loving The Fray and The Goo Goo Dolls.
11. “RaVe (feat. Kris English)” – Cloud Seeding. Is it folk? Is it electro? The lines keep getting fuzzier. Either way, this one is a lithe, easy-moving track.
12. “There Was a Time” – Corea Blue. Lo-fi can always get grittier, y’all. Props to this track for creating a zen-like mood and tone while using tape hiss as an instrument.
I think we have a true folk voice here. I had never heard of Brook Pridemore, hailing from Brooklyn, New York. (By the way, the title of the live cassette I’m reviewing here is My Name Is Brook Pridemore, And I Live In Brooklyn, NY). I had the chance to talk with Brook, and I think the answers write this review. After sampling his music, I decided to get to know this artist.
Bill Callahan, Thee Headcoats, Tom Waits, The Mountain Goats…
I can see that Brook gravitates toward very real, natural artists. Brook once got to show Bill “Smog” Callahan his Bill Callahan tattoo! Similarly, Brook writes in a true folk tradition. He writes about the immediate, foregoing the struggles of song construction and ambiguity that songwriters often labor over. I ask Brook about performing solo with the type of concrete material he has.
“I am not a ‘singer songwriter.’ Brook Pridemore is a band. It happens to have the same name as I do. It has always been a band, there have just been long patches where I’m the only person playing. I have learned, through thousands of solo shows, how to perform under any circumstances. I could go on for days regarding the weird spots I’ve been in. I got used to running out as soon as the band before me was done, and shout my name and where I was from, and start to play. Fewer people left, if I did that. It has still always been a tough slog. But I wouldn’t trade it for the easier route.”
Brook says his home state of Michigan has nothing to do with his lyrics, but that where he is now does.
“A good bit of my lyrical inspiration comes from years of seeing Kerouac’s America, that is, big wide open spaces, taken through a windshield, the clack-clack of the interstate beneath the wheels, getting stranded atop mountains, making out with strangers, rocking out in Austin after spending the previous night in jail, never giving up, never surrendering, always on the go, always on the run, until you stop and breathe, and realize that the feeling that you’ve been running away from is in your own head. And you stay home (Brooklyn) for a while, and you learn how to occupy the space you’re in. So, yes, location matters a lot in my lyrics.”
Bill Callahan says in his song, “Seagull,” “A barroom may entice a seagull like me right off the sea, and into the barroom. How long have I been gone? How long have I been traveling?” I ask Brook if he is married, single, or happily involved. Also, if he meets a lot of hotties because he makes music… or because he’s at bars more than an average person (performing)… or after performing …after a sweaty rave-up (which are what songs like “Chocolate Cake City” and “The Year I Get It Right” from this new live release are: drenched roof-rockers).
“I’m not in a relationship at the moment. I learned the hard way that I’m not going to meet my wife at a bar. I’m an odd duck. I need to get to know a girl.”
The reviewer interjects. “But, if you’re like (Brook) you run like hell and get to see the world, ‘til you find yourself in Brighton… missing a girl.” -directly from his own song “Oh, E!” – the reviewer’s pick from this release.
I guess we all want to know, then, why did Brook Pridemore start writing songs or, rather, start just putting his reality right on the line… an open book? “I was drawn to music from an early age. I was looking for a creative outlet, and I’d missed the boat on marching band. I got my hands on a guitar in 1993, and have never really looked back. Music is so much more immediate than poetry, or fiction, or acting. It’s also so much more personal.” One can pick any song on this live cassette and just know that you’re going to hear a great story, well-told. It’s really an exciting listen also, because you can hear the die-hards in the front rows near the recording device singing along. Brook finishes, “I didn’t realize until I was much older that the big reason for writing songs is so I could make people listen to what I had to say. And because I wanted to make people dance.”
He gets them dancing around track four of the live cassette (recorded at the Sidewalk Café in Manhattan in 2011), and he only has to suggest it once.
Discover Brook Pridemore. Check out the new live cassette. I hope to see life in the very in-the-present way Brook does. It seems like a great way to exist, experience, and then move forward. -Gary Lee Barrett
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.
I can’t believe it’s been almost two weeks since I posted. Crazy times. Here’s a bunch of quick hits to clear my slate and get back to lengthy reviews I am such a fan of writing.
The fractured melodies and herky-jerky energy of Good News-era Modest Mouse meet the moody ponderousness of Tom Waits’ work in More Than Skies‘ I Am Only Above The Ground. The lyrics are far more positive than either party is accustomed to writing, making the album a unique experience of positive-to-wistful lyrics led by a raspy singer and backed by an enthusiastic band that often breaks out into group vocals. Instrumental chops abound (“Introduction,” “The One Who Wanders Is Not Lost”) and the melodies shine (“Life Declines at Twenty-five,” the title track), but it’s the exuberant “We’re Getting Older” that will stick in your mind and heart. Highly recommended for fans of a full-bodied folk sound that’s still raw and real.
Nonagon‘s People Live Everywhere EP offers up technical post-hardcore that’s big on dissonant melodies, tempo changes, odd time signatures, and shouted vocals. The unusual juxtaposition of guitar lines in opener “Vikings” should tip you off that this is loud music to appreciate with your brain as much as your body. You can definitely mosh to it (the dissonant “Fresnel Lens,” the manic “The Swifts”), but it’s the atypical rhythms and melodic ideas in “Fadeout” and the aforementioned “Vikings” that get me. Nonagon’s working at a high level here.
The Woodrow Wilsons‘ Devil Jonah focuses more on mood and arrangement than hummable melodies, making their acoustic amalgam much less of a traditional “folk” album and more of a chamber-pop album. “I Love the Atlantic” is a beautiful tune that experiments with tempo and arrangement for effect, while “Anthropomorphics” is a jubilant tune with a horn chorale in it. Songs like “The Ocean is Rising to Meet You” and “Heat” play with the conventions of songwriting to great effect. Male and female vocals lead the band in turns, only lending more variety to the album. The highlight is the tense, emotive “The Size of My Fist,” which calls up what Andrew Bird might sound like if he had an interest in conveying emotions. On the whole, fans of The Decemberists and old-school Sufjan Stevens will find much to love in The Woodrow Wilsons.
“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.
Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.