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.
1. “Morning House” – Teen Daze. Chillwave ain’t the cool kids anymore, but it’s still the best genre we’ve come up with in a long time. Teen Daze makes some beautiful stuff here.
2. “2Star” – Decent Lovers. Fractured, funky, unique indie-pop-rock via autoharp? Must be Decent Lovers.
3. “Minute Maid” – Hustle Roses. Big, splashy electro-pop.
4. “Diamond” – Lightning Dust. Sometimes a track just jumps off the screen at me, and the moving simplicity of Lightning Dust’s latest, ’80s-inflected single is one of those. It’s reminiscent of Wye Oak, but more importantly it’s got that X factor.
5. “Cyclone” – Polytype. R&B with a futurist bent is not usually what I cover here, but this one blew me away.
6. “Get Healed” – Way Yes. Second single, second home run. Crooning lead vocals are tempered by plaintive female ones in a strangely tribal setting. Way Yes is doing way cool stuff.
Whispery indie-rock outfit Listolet’s “Lullaby” video includes animation on dot matrix printer paper. Even if it’s just an animation of dot matrix printer paper, I’m excited that there’s still cultural cachet in that old technology. Love this.
The video for Akron/Family’s “Until the Morning” is a sort of impressionistic take on the electro/folk/indie-pop tune. Engaging, in an odd way.
Brook Pridemore’s “Listening to TPM” video actually is impressionistic, as it’s shot in a style that roughly translates to the actual painting style. The song, reminiscent of latter-day Mountain Goats indie-pop, is also great.
Grossymmetric is the video and music art project of NYC’s Kyle Marler. Marler gives “How Are My Thoughts Not My Own?” an inverted mix of sorts, stripping out the blaring treble synths and squelching bass synths. In their stead, Marler inserts plenty of bedroom synth doodles, found-sound, and gentle beats. This turns the formerly jubilant track into the perfect accompaniment for a 3 a.m. drive home. It’s a unique take on Challenger that I very much enjoy.
I’m usually not a fan of videos that feature their principal musicians playing the song in question, as I vastly prefer to see music videos as their own medium capable of meaning-making. However, sometimes the song is just so good that it’s worth the performance vid.
If you’re going to name your band Tonstartssbandht, you’d better have some goods to back that up. Thankfully Tonstartssbandht totally does, as the duo plays a breakneck sort of indie-rock that incorporates wiry indie-rock, some metal bombast, folky groove, and even some blues. It’s like Two Gallants on steroids. Weird, weird steroids.
I don’t know what’s in the water there, but it seems that every time someone says, “We’re from Scotland,” I’m pretty stoked with their output. Meet Tango in the Attic, an artsy indie-rock band with some electro leanings. Looking forward to more from this band.
Dave McPherson’s deeply emotive acoustic guitarwork and vocals call up David Gray and Damien Rice comparisons, the latter of which is exciting because Rice works at a pace roughly known as glacial. “Kingdom” is is quite the engaging tune.
I love alliteration, so here’s some of that in this mix of MP3s.
Acoustic April Mix
1. “Honeycomb Heart” – True Gents. A magnificent chorus powers this indie-folk tune from a unique Scottish outfit.
2. “Leave Me Where I Want to Be” – Safe Haven. Front-porch intimacy flows through this combination of New Orleans jazz and Appalachian Americana.
3. “Grew Up Here” – The End of America. Appalachian harmony and a rootsy instrumental arrangement make this an irresistible nugget.
4. “Maybe It’s Best” – Justin Heron. Shuffle snare, bright guitar tone, and whispery vocals? Yup, I’m in.
5. “Sharks!” – Common Shiner. This band’s website is SayNoToBadPop.com. That’s awesome. Their acoustic-fronted power-pop echoes Something Corporate and Motion City Soundtrack.
6. “Pretty Face” – Among Giants. I love the vocals here: raw, passionate, and real.
7. “Playing Pretend” – Joshua Steven Ling. The deeply saddening passing of Jason Molina has gotten me back into slow-moving, quiet, morose recordings and their particular type of beauty.
8. “The Lionness” – OfeliaDorme. On that note, here’s a beautiful cover of my favorite Jason Molina song.
9. “Myopic” – Jura. Transcendent beauty that invokes The Album Leaf’s sense of patience.
The good guys at Soundsupp.ly do monthly “drops” that include 10 really good albums for 15 bucks. This month they’re doing weekly Mini Drops of 5 albums for $10! This week’s is “Two X Chromosomes and a Microphone,” which features bands led by women. IC faves Venna and Secret Mountains are both included! Seriously, check it out. These guys are working hard to get good music out to the public at an affordable rate.
Fiery Crash, whose recent album CarbondaleI really enjoyed, has dropped a compilation album of b-sides and covers called Gable Woods. I highly recommend that fans of Elliott Smith check it out.
And, because I’m getting back into running shape for a half-marathon in November, it’s time for the RunHundred update.
The Top 10 Workout Songs For April
Collaborations reign in this month’s workout playlist. Justin Bieber lent Will.I.Am a hand on the latter’s latest. Italian super producer Alex Gaudino turned the mic over to Jordin Sparks. Lastly, Pitbull and Christina Aguilera urged folks to seize the day–while seizing, for themselves, the hook from ’80s classic “Take On Me.”
Here’s the full list, according to votes placed at Run Hundred–the web’s most popular workout music blog.
Alex Gaudino & Jordin Sparks – Is This Love – 129 BPM
Miranda Lambert – Mama’s Broken Heart – 112 BPM
Of Monsters and Men – Little Talks – 107 BPM
Will.I.Am & Justin Bieber – #thatPOWER – 129 BPM
Kylie Minogue – Timebomb – 128 BPM
Afrojack & Chris Brown – As Your Friend – 128 BPM
One Direction – One Way or Another (Teenage Kicks) – 163 BPM
Pitbull & Christina Aguilera – Feel This Moment – 137 BPM
I’ve written before about how I’d like to expand the definition of post-rock to include all bands who reject the rock mythos. Over the Ocean‘s Be Given to the Soil is a perfect example of this mindset. The band’s complex, intricately constructed album ranges from thrashy post-hardcore (“God in My Own Image”) to ambient compositions (“Kiss the Ground”) to forlorn piano elegies (“Ecology”) in service of the overall success of the work. It’s relevant that this was initially released on vinyl earlier this month (it will drop April 30th on digital retailers), as the ebb and flow of the mood throughout the 55 minutes is much more in line with a continuous listening experience than the erratic, 3-minutes-and-out listening style that our digital era promotes.
In some ways, the gloomy, wintry album (check that totally prescient album art) has more in common with classical music than pop, rock or metal, as the composition treats every part of the songs as relevant (and mostly equal) in delivering meaning. Vocals aren’t the most important thing here, nor are they even always present: “Obscene” features spoken word, while “God in My Own Image” includes the post-hardcore screaming I previously mentioned. “Air in My Lungs” features mumbled sung vocals. These songs are all next to each other in the album. If you come from a place where post-rock means thinking deeply about composition, you’ll be very interested in Over the Ocean’s excellent Given to the Soil. This is what it means to push boundaries in post-rock.
Light Company takes a different view on post-rock that is closer to Athletics’ view of the genre on their debut EP The Boy Who Sat on Ocean Floors. The band takes the heavy guitars, thrashing drums, poppy vocal melodies and dark moods of modern rock and stretches them out, extracting every bit of emotion that can be had. The band does add in some clean guitar work for foundation and some soaring guitar work for the highpoint of the crescendos, which are genre-savvy moves. The best example of their sound is “Giants and Hammers,” which opens with rapidly strummed guitars and frantic drumming before breaking into a groove for the verse. They ratchet the rock riffs back up for the “chorus” of sorts, demanding that stereotypical rock moves bend and twist to their emotive ends.
While their co-opting of modern rock is fun, their best move comes in the title track. Here they’re able to appropriate the familiarity of rock songwriting structures without adhering to the roaring guitars of the genre; the guitars intertwine with the meticulous drumming to create a fascinating piece. They let the song meander down to its smallest element–a single guitar elegantly plucking sporadic note–before snapping to attention in the heaviest, loudest section of the album. Quiet/loud isn’t a new trick, but Light Company employs it to devastating effect in their title track. They don’t let the heavy section run out very long, either, curtailing it in just over 40 seconds. It’s these sorts of songwriting moves that intrigue me.
Light Company’s take on the post-rock genre is vastly different than Over the Ocean’s, and that’s not bad. Light Company’s work is energetic and engaging in ways that a more measure approach is not. Each side of the genre will have its advocates, but it’s enough for this review to note that Light Company write interesting songs with room to grow and experiment.
Precise yet fluid, the clean electric guitar work of Coldplay’s debut album Parachutes was a hallmark, even though its smash “Yellow” was not a good depiction of the characteristic. The band abandoned the sound for piano-rock on its follow-up and hasn’t looked back, leaving a hole that Australians Sleepy Tea are finally starting to fill. It’s tough for me to hear opener “Make Believe” or closer “Ghosts” without thinking of how well they would fit on Parachutes. Thankfully, that’s a massive compliment from this corner, as I mean that Sleepy Tea’s debut The Place Where We Lay contains beautiful, lithe vocals that intertwine with immaculate arrangements which belie how much work it takes to make a perfect-sounding song.
“Make Believe” establishes the mood of the five-song EP right off the bat, with an easygoing confidence in the gently swaying arrangement of tasteful drums, burbling atmospherics, and spot-on vocal performance that calls to mind a theoretical male-fronted version of Braids. It’s a rare tune that catches my attention like this one. The rest of the EP lives up to the billing, whether the tense juxtaposition of energetic trip-hop drumming and pensive piano in “At World’s End” or the towering crescendo throughout the entirety of “Safer.” This is a band with a tightly constructed idea of what it wants to sound like, and that’s rarely a bad thing. Sleepy Tea has chops and taste, so I look forward to much more from them.
I’ve written before about running out of band names, but if I hadn’t, Here Is Your Temple would be a good reason to question whether or not all the good band names have already been taken. Besides the name, though, HIYT are worthy of discussion for the quality of their music: The Swedish quintet plays music that sounds like all of Spiritualized’s discography jammed together onto one EP. Opener and title track “So High” is a propulsive piece marked by a marching rhythm, fuzzed-out bass, a choir, and synths. It’s like something that might appear on Ladies and Gentlemen, We Are Floating In Space. “Big Way” is built on a dominating guitar riff and synthesized vocals, which also sounds like Ladies and Gentlemen. “Once Rich” is a quieter tune, pairing the omnipresent synths with downtempo acoustic guitar (as in J. Spaceman’s Amazing Grace era), while “Say Hey” adds an optimistic edge to the acoustic sound. It’s a very varied EP.
The one thing that holds the sound together is HIYT’s commitment to melody; all of these songs hinge on either a vocal or guitar melody that is punched way up in the mix. Whether creating Fleetwood Mac-esque mystery (“Say Hey”) or rock’n’roll (of a sort), the band zeros in on melody. And that’s what keeps this wildly varied EP from being disjointed: their melodic center remains true, showing off a band with many facets. If you’re into synth-rock or synth-pop without cheesiness, So High should be in your ears.
Some bands don’t acquire fanbases as much as they create converts. Bands like The Tallest Man on Earth, The Mountain Goats, or Animal Collective all have some feature (nasal voice, nasal voice, oddball tendencies) that make them unpalatable to the general population. But for those who do get it, the passion is intense: not only is there a new, distinct musical sound to be loved, the built-in community of people who get what most people don’t is a boon. I’m ready to meet the rest of my people in the Dolfish camp, because Max Sollisch’s I’d Rather Disappear Than Fade Away is definitely not for everyone.
However, Dolfish is for me, because Sollisch combines the fingerpicking mastery of The Tallest Man on Earth, the emotive yawp and highly literate lyrics of The Mountain Goats, and atypical song structures to create an absolutely gripping sound. I never can figure out if calling a person a songwriter’s songwriter is a compliment or not, but those who have written songs will be able to appreciate the complexity, quality and sheer risk that Sollisch takes with these songs. Opener “Grown Ups” rambles pointedly through five minutes of odd chords, sporadic fingerpicking, and deliberately affected vocals; it’s a beautiful, unusual, intriguing song that only Dolfish could have come up with. While his strumming pattern gets far more standard and his vocals are tamed a bit in follow-up “The One Who Burns the Coffee,” he creates a deeply detailed, esoteric narrative in two minutes, reminiscent of The Mountain Goats’ best work.
None of the twelve songs here are longer than 3:30, and none of them need to be: they shine like gems without having to beat repetition into your head. Occasionally drums and electric guitar appear (“Lucky Caller,” “Don’t Kick Me When I’m Down”), but mostly it’s an acoustic affair. Highlight “There Must Be Something Wrong With These Shoes” calls up old-school Bob Dylan, while “All That Keeps Us on the Ground” is pure Tallest Man on Earth-style fingerpicking bliss. I could keep going on about I’d Rather Disappear than Fade Away, but you should just check it out. It’s a treasure trove of lyrics, songwriting and unique vocal performances. It’s not for everyone, but for those who get it, this will be an incredible find.
Vondelpark’s Seabed draws liberally from R&B, downtempo indie-pop and chillwave to create “bedroom music” (whatever that means to you). What that means to me today is that I’m not getting out of bed after an incredibly long week, and Seabed is the perfect soundtrack to that laziness. From beginning to end, the trio of Londoners keep the sonic palette intentionally tight: dreamy keys, swirling synths, murky bass, gentle beats, and ghostly yet groovy vocals dominate the proceedings. This creates an extremely cohesive album that is more suited to whole listening than individual singles. Can you tell “Come On” apart from its predecessor “Dracula” or its follow-up “Always Forever”? Not really, not unless you’re trying. But that doesn’t diminish the power of Seabed; it enhances it. Few albums are written as experiences these days, but Seabed certainly feels like one.
One of the few tracks that doesn’t adhere to the strict instrumental palette is single “California Analog Dream,” which is literally an analog version of Vondelpark’s sound: real drums replace the beats, harmonica replaces synth, the keys are replaced by guitar, and the electric guitar that sometimes swoops in on the proceedings swoops on in. An arpeggiator and rhodes keyboard do come in later, but it’s still a striking change (and a great choice for a single, as it sticks out most). Seabed is a beautiful album that wrings majesty out of its hushed sonic qualities; it’s a remarkable achievement.
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.