1. “The Last Generation of Love” – The Holy Gasp. Hugely theatrical vocals, driving conga drums, stabbing horns, and an overall feel of wild desperation permeate this wild track. It feels like a lost ’60s bossa nova played at triple the speed with an apocalyptic poet dropping remix bars over it. In short, this one’s different.
2. “Hot Coffee” – Greg Chiapello. Somewhere between Brill Building formal pop songcraft and Beatles-esque arrangement affectations sits this perky, smile-inducing, timeless tune.
3. “Wake Up and Fight” – Gaston Light. If you’re looking for a widescreen folk creed, this tune builds from a single bass note to a fist-raised anthem. Gaston Light attempts to channel Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Conor Oberst, and more.
4. “Evil Dreams” – Elstow. ’50s girl-pop mixed with some 9 p.m. vibes and reverb = solid track.
6. “All This Wandering Around” – Ivan and Alyosha. Ivan and Alyosha are back with a chipper indie-rock song that will get you tapping your toes.
7. “Less Traveled” – Johanna Warren. A lilting soprano supported by low flutes and burbling fingerpicking developed into technical guitarwork that lifted my eyebrows. There’s a lot of talent going on here. I love what Team Love is up to this year.
8. “Folding” – Martin Callingham. Callingham has crafted the sort of tune that’s almost inarguable: it floats lightly on your consciousness, gently working its way through to the end of the tune. If Joshua Radin had gotten a few more instruments involved without going rock…
9. “Wild at Heart” – Trans Van Santos. Does Calexico have a patent of the sound of the high desert? Mark Matos hopes not, as the baritone-voiced songwriter of Trans Van Santos has a way with the guitar delays and reverbs of that venerable sound. Perfect for your jaunts to or from Flagstaff.
10. “Don’t You Honey Me” – Timothy Jaromir. Here’s a bluesy country duet with excellent come-hither female vocals, muted horns, and romance on the mind.
The Oklahoma four-piece’s debut has a lot of promise in it, as well as a lot of homages to their influences (hello, cover art). And although they also mention “the taxman” in the almost-title track “Midwest,” their love of the Beatles is more in connection with their dedication to the hard work of songwriting than any particular musical inferences. Their songs temper the pop-punk tropes of uncontrollable enthusiasm and huge guitar sound with a dose of determined populism that lands the band close to both the wide-open Midwestern rock sound (old-school Wilco, Mellencamp, Horse Thief) and Midwestern folk lyrical tradition (Woody Guthrie, Bob “People forget I’m from rural Minnesota” Dylan, etc.).
The melodies are appropriately huge; it sounds like the members know how to rile up a crowd. “Gone Gone Gone” features rumbling toms, blaring organ and group vocals, while opener “Let Me Live” employs the same basic elements but with a bell kit on top of it for charm. The verses of the latter cut to tom rolls, sleigh bells and nakedly honest vocals, and I am not kidding when I say they make me miss Oklahoma something fierce. It’s a dangerous move for a band to put its best track first, but man, “Let Me Live” absolutely knocks it out from the get go.
Their aforementioned populist strain is on full display: “All I know is the American Dream / All I know is what I see on TV / All I know is the American Dream / All I know is what I can’t reach” in “Connecticut to Paris (I Don’t Know)”; “The taxman came to my home / Said we might have to foreclose / But I said this is where I’ve spent my whole life” in “Midwest”; and “My God I’ve got to find a better way / Before I suffer Gatsby’s fate” in “Gone Gone Gone.” If you dig it, you dig it – that’s all there is to it.
The Typist is a young band composed of seasoned vets, and it shows: their careful attention to detail in the arrangements allows the entire album to flow in one consistent mood. This is a double-edged sword: it’s easy to hear in one sitting, but it’s a bit tough to distinguish between songs toward the end of the album. As individual tracks, nearly every song works, but they all work for the same exact reason. As the band grows over time and gets more comfortable with its chemistry, I expect some more melodic and rhythmic variation. This will greatly improve the overall experience and produce some even more interesting tunes.
Midwestern High Life is quite a rocking start for The Typist. I thoroughly expect to hear more from this outfit, as their energy, passion, and understanding of both historical lyrics and songwriting have me excited.
A lot can be done with an acoustic strum and a snare shuffle. Old Man’s Beard knows this and puts it to good effect on The River. They specialize in pristinely-recorded folk songs, making the familiar elements of folk and country into bright, shiny parts of pop songs.
This is not a bad thing; the instruments sound gorgeous, the vocals are beautiful, and the snare shuffle has never sounded more elegant. Purists will complain that Old Man’s Beard has more in common with Guster than Alan Lomax, and that’s true. But I don’t see that as something to complain about. There are plenty of Woody Guthrie wannabes, and not enough songs that sound like “Empty Pockets” (the purists will debate this point too, but I don’t care).
Most of these songs ease about at a stately pace, giving the listener time to enjoy the immaculate recording. Some of them move slowly because there are deep reggae influences (“Dawson Bound,” “Tofino”). The former even has the signature drumbeat and strum pattern as reggae. Still, the note-perfect production of the song ties it in with the rest in feel.
The River is an absolutely gorgeous record. There is nothing out of place and no mistakes: nothing but pristine sound. The songs are memorable, fun and interesting. And seriously, the production is amazing. I love The River. Highly recommended for fans of acoustic pop or a wide interpretation of the word “folk.”
There are various schools of thought when it comes to folk music. Woody Guthrie leads the traditionalists. The Dylan school is all cryptic lyrics and chunky chords. There’s the Nick Drake school, which is quiet, pensive, and emotive. The Sufjanites pack their songs full of instruments. There’s the freak-folk Banhart followers, which are just out of their minds. And then there’s the Joseph Arthur school, which is plaintive lyrics and lots of pop influence. No folk artist can escape the influence of these artists.
Jacob Furr falls squarely in the Joseph Arthur school. His songs are definitely folk-laden, but have a lot of pop influences. The strumming is smooth, the recording is tight, and the songwriting is structured in concise pop structures more than the meandering, free-form folk odysseys of other artists. His voice is warm and inviting; no creaking, breaking or howling here. These seven tunes on The Only Road are very emotive, but not hysterical or pre-occupied with their own emotionality.
In short, these are honest songs that are enjoyable. They don’t belabor the point, and they don’t make it cryptic or inaccessible. “Many Times” is about being lonely on the road, and its musical echoes of Skynyrd’s “Free Bird” only accentuate the point that being free and on your own is not always all that it’s cracked up to be. Tom Waits would have been proud to write “Poor Wayfaring Stranger,” as the eerie sway and low-slung plod invoke an atmosphere of danger, dark alleys and more. Furr’s invocation of Jewish legend and religion (“going over river Jordan”) makes the song even more foreign and thus all the more interesting.
Furr’s command of melody on “Poor Wayfaring Stranger” is another element that helps the song succeed. His vocal melodies, carried by his calm and inviting voice, are some of the longest-sticking remnants after the album is done.
Other than “Stranger,” the highlight here is “Where Are You Going?” The song expertly combines all the elements that Furr is best at: solid songwriting conveying honest emotion, a memorable vocal line, and an inviting atmosphere. It’s the type of song that fits in the emotional climax of TV shows, and I mean that as high praise.
Also in “Where Are You Going,” he delivers his best lyrical line. The lyrics in The Only Road are clear, concise, and, in comparison to other folk artists, not something to write home about. But he delivers a crushing set in the middle of this song: “She said why are you flying?/Cause it’s faster than a bus/There’s no stops along the long way./What became of us?” In the midst of the mundane conversation he’s relating, he drops in the whole point of the song, then jumps off again, ready for the next lyric. The stark contrast and particular delivery made me take notice from the very first time I heard it, and that’s a good thing.
The Only Road is a good debut. Furr has established himself as a strong songwriter in the vein of Joseph Arthur and Josh Rouse. He can strengthen his lyrics (and, in folk, that’s a big consideration), but the musicianship is tight. If you’re interested in folk that will please your ears and tickle your emotions, Jacob Furr should be in your near future. And seeing as you can get his album in a “pay-what-you-want” scheme, you really should.
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.