Happy Halloween, y’all! It’s time to get your creepy on, whether it’s tonight or this weekend. I personally haven’t figured out my costume yet. I’m leaning toward Nyan Cat, but I’m not sure where to find a PopTart that large.
O Fidelis is celebrating by releasing the 3-song A Trick or Treat EP. The trick is “Happy Song #2 (Zombie Goat Version),” which is a metal cover by Eyes Made Ready of the O Fid staple. It’s pretty hilarious, especially if you’ve heard the original. The treats are the live acoustic tracks “On the Mountainside” and “New Mexico,” which show off Brian and Laney Gilliland’s excellent songwriting skills. “On the Mountainside” is a chill version of a barnburner that I have giddily danced to many times (but has not yet been released in full band form), while “New Mexico” is a newer tune that features Laney’s alto pipes. If you can listen to “On the Mountainside” without getting it stuck in your head, you’re a stronger person than I.
For those of you into chill folk-pop tunes, O Fidelis should be on your watch list. I hope that this release means that they’re going to be dropping a full album soon.
In addition to writing a blog about new music, I work with musicians. I’ve booked tours, run press, produced albums, consulted on projects, and lots more. I know a little bit how music works right now, and I can say with definition that it’s a brave new world for musicians. Old business models are inaccessible, unreliable, or totally defunct. There’s a lot more artists have to do on their own. The problem is, of course, that there are few people to teach them how to do it.
Enter Musicians’ Desk Reference. Put together by the fine folks over at Counter Rhythm Group, the Reference gives step by step guides on how to do everything associated with being a band. I do mean everything, from starting a band, to branding, to managing rights, to booking tours. It is a comprehensive guide of how to get things done. Furthermore, it’s set up in five neat chapters, because you don’t need to know all of that at the beginning of your musical venture’s life. If that weren’t enough, there are checkboxes for when you get each section of the chapter done. If you’re a go-getter, Type A person, this is just the absolute best.
The Reference website allows you to run multiple projects at once, as well; so if you’re managing several bands, you can keep them all in the same account. Various people can be looped in, and they can be given different privileges corresponding to their level of need-to-know and editing privileges. In short, this is a comprehensive self-managing (or small manager of a few bands) system. I haven’t gotten to work with it extensively yet, but just from what I’ve been able to do and find so far, I give it my highest recommendation. This will teach you everything you need to know about how to be a musician right now. The fact that it’s an interactive system as well just makes it even more impressive.
If you’re an artist who wants to make career of it but doesn’t know where to start, you need the Musicians’ Desk Reference. That’s all there is to it. This is excellent, excellent stuff. It’s currently a one-time fee of $75, which is an absolute steal. I spent 10 years and thousands of dollars learning the hard way what you can get for less than a Benjamin in under a minute. I can’t stress to you how much of a good deal that is.
I love lo-fi things. I spent the back half of the summer listening to The Mountain Goats’ All Hail West Texas, and I’m doing research right now on the history and present of cassette tapes (they never died, y’all!). Unadorned, barebones performances are just appealing to me. So Summer of Sam’s Slumlord struck a chord in its Mountain Goats-meets-Iron & Wine earnestness.
Armed with nothing but an acoustic guitar, his voice, and a recording device, Sam Egenes creates short, endearing songs. The “it’s done when it feels done” songwriting style of the Mountain Goats is present, along with the meandering, thoughtful moods more indicative of Iron & Wine’s early days. “Just Bitter” surfaces fully-formed as a dark, moody song vaguely reminiscent of Damien Rice in ominous overtones, while the memorable “Dream On” appears and disappears abruptly. The title track is a forceful piece that revels in its own lo-fi aesthetic; the notes rattle, the recording isn’t perfect, and the vocals are distant. It’s still great.
These are notes, a travelogue, a series of broadcasts; these are invitations to listen to someone else’s thoughts. There’s no pop sheen here, nor do these songs need it. They aren’t charming in a twee way, but they do charm me: in the age of everyone as their own orchestra, it’s rare to find someone very satisfied in making humble tunes with one instrument and a voice. These songs aren’t perfect, and that’s wonderful to me. There’s tape hiss and a bit of distortion where the sound clipped. That’s part of the joy of these tunes. If you’re into lo-fi singer/songwriters, Summer of Sam needs to be on your radar. [Editor’s note: this album is no longer available, but I suppose you can contact samegenesillustration at gmail dot com if you are very interested.]
My three favorite types of music are absurdly happy (Anamanaguchi), extremely sad (Damien Jurado), and cerebral (The Mountain Goats). Pan combines absurdly happy and cerebral in their post-rock, and it’s just a wonder to behold. Their new EP Meta Major! is exactly as optimistic as that title would suggest, and that’s excellent.
The five-piece instrumental band (the usual suspects and a violin) recorded this 15-minute EP live, so the four tracks feel more like movements of the same song than individual songs on their own. That’s also excellent; the live recording lends a pounding energy to the tracks, and the individual movements ensure that they didn’t go nuts trying to record a 15-minute tune in one flawless take. As it stands, the recording is pretty impressive: the guitars soar majestically, the rhythm section provides strong counterpoint, and the violin caps it all off as the link between melody and rhythm. It’s overall a very impressive achievement: fans of Fang Island, And So I Watch You From Afar, should start at the beginning and listen all the way through (with special attention paid to “Miracle Mile”).
RCRDS‘ Summer Aches EP is also a 15-minute experience that flows together as one track. Where Pan goes for the exuberant, RCRDS goes for the cerebral: their mash-up of indie-rock, trip-hop, and a dark form of chillwave ends up being akin to artsy, instrumental hip-hop. The songs are composed primarily of live bass, washed-out vocals, effects-heavy guitars, and non-intrusive beats that work together to give the recording a distinct feel. It’s not obviously sad (like singer/songwriter fare can be), but it carries a sense of the forlorn in it. It’s a gripping moment when “Release” strips down to thrumming bass line, staccato beat, and pitchshifted vocals at the end of the song; that striking bass work continues throughout the release. As I mentioned, the whole album feels like one cohesive work, which is a strong quality to have in work like this. Recommended for those into Clams Casino, Balam Acab, et al.
Smash cut to the next scene: Gifts or Creatures plays thoughtful alt-country that draws heavily on traditions that emphasize songwriting over virtuoso performances. It’s not a bad comparison to say that Yesteryear Western Darkness sounds like a Wilco-ized version of The Civil Wars, although that’s selling their talents short in the service of quick reference.
“Relicts & Ghosts” and “Gospel of Glaciers” spin two sides of the same tapestry: the former sets the core motion of the dual vocals and thoughtful lyrics in a walking-pace alt-country idiom, while the latter slows things down with a Wurlitzer and weeping pedal steel. The Low Anthem blows out the ends of their sound way more, but the impulse to cover a wide range of sounds without leaving alt-country altogether is similar in the two bands. Highlight “Blind Pigs” features memorable melodies, a dreamy mood, and protest lyrics; “American Pockets” couches similar discomfort with the state of things in a comfortable alt-country tune. Gifts or Creatures aren’t into riffs or attitude-filled ragers, but they sure know how to write a song that cuts to the bone. Fans of bands as disparate as Over the Rhine, Wilco, Damien Jurado, and The Lesser Birds of Paradise would do well to check out Gifts or Creatures’ Yesteryear Western Darkness.
Quiet Stories is Matt Moran of the short-lived (but personally beloved) band The Typist. “Quiet” is a bit of a misnomer, as the acoustic-led songs of the Where I Belong EP combine the passion of Dashboard Confessional (“Step One”) with the driving piano of Bruce Springsteen (“I Know,” “Dog Days”). The two parts interweave into a unique whole; the choruses of “I Know” and “Dog Days” are strongly reminiscent of Dashboard Confessional’s melodies, and “Where I Belong” marries those two concepts to a rousing, triumphant horn section for a highlight track.
But the most remarkable track here is the titular ‘quiet story’ of “Forever and Always,” which pairs gentle fingerpicking, emotive sung vocals (as opposed to enthusiastic hollering), and dreamy toy piano to create a poignant, mature tune. Moran has an abundance of songwriting chops, and they all come out in “Forever and Always” to create in me a lot of excitement about what’s to come for and from him. Many singer/songwriters can be slotted into followers as one particular band, and it may seem like that for Quiet Stories, from the way I’ve written this review. But the impressiveness of “Forever and Always” and the memorably fun title track point toward the fact that Moran has a unique skill worth celebrating. Watch out for Quiet Stories in the near future.
A couple days ago I talked about some influences that can cause a band to become a folk-pop band. It was by no means comprehensive, and today I can point out another influence on folk-pop: punk rock. I don’t know if any of the members of Queen Beard have pop-punk roots, but the brash, frenetic fervor of “Pop Song, Pt. 2” speaks to the manic four-on-the-floor mentality than Americana roots. This is a compliment: “Pop Song, Pt. 2” is thrilling. While “Villains” includes flutes, banjo, and a general Americana vibe, the rough vocals teeter right on the edge of yelling, calling up punk forebears.
The Ruder Years EP isn’t all on that end of the spectrum: “Old Friend” is a melancholy tune with sung vocals that lean toward the speak/sing style that folkies often adopt. “Stage Lights” and the title track adopt an upbeat vocal style that fits more in line with mile-a-minute new folk lyricists like Josh Ritter and Dan Mangan. Ruder Years is an upbeat, lively, and quite fun new-folk EP. If you’re into folk that gets you moving, you’ll be all about Queen Beard.
England in 1819 was a Brit-influenced piano-pop band last time they sent something my way. With Fireball Electric Tomorrow, the band has slimmed down size-wise to a duo and completely recrafted its sound. Calling their sound “grandwave,” they combine operatic vocals (a la Antony and the Johnsons), waves and waves of synths, and beats to create a lush, flowing sound. It’s not chillwave; the sound draws off the most expansive elements of the ’80s new wave sound. The band doesn’t attempt to write pop tunes (although tunes like “Himmel” do function that way), but to truly make an overall experience. They succeed, as Fireball Electric Tomorrow is a lovely, lively 45 minutes. Definitely a fun and worthwhile trip.
Cloud Person‘s Monochrome Places mashes up Irish folk arrangements, Spaghetti Western drama, folk-pop melodies, and a dash of indie-pop flair to create a unique amalgam that is anything but monochromatic. From the Gaelic rhythms and sounds of “Robber Barons” to the ominous Western/Southern mash-up of “Old Demeter” to the Neutral Milk Hotel-ish “Lamppost Eyes,” Cloud Person never lets the listener’s attention wane.
Despite the variety of sounds, the albums hangs together: each part has its turn in the spotlight before all sharing the stage in triumphant closer “Men of Good Fortune.” It’s a full and fascinating album, showing off the significant songwriting skills of Pete Jordan. It takes a strong imagination to even conceive of a thing like this; it takes a humongous amount of work to pull it off with the seeming ease and easy confidence that Jordan and company do. Monochrome Places is a work that should be of great interest to those who like seeing boundaries pushed and disparate sounds integrated into a cohesive whole.
Cfit‘s Morning Bruise EP is an aptly titled release, dousing a hazy, early-morning feel with a deep melancholy. Instead of going the fuzzy, chillwave route, the band modifies the trip-hop format: opener “Coke and Spiriters” transforms strings and stark vocals with a brittle drumbeat to create tension. The ambiguity of the mood is repeated in the lyrics; say the name out loud and listen to what you’re saying. “Heliophelia” uses the same musical tactics of loose, smooth vibe vs. structured rhythmic elements; the morose-yet-soaring “Tenderfoot” sounds like Cfit’s version of “Karma Police” (which is high praise, over here). The vocalist doesn’t sound exactly like Thom Yorke, but it’s close enough for a good comparison–and comparing Cfit to mid/late-era Radiohead isn’t that bad a comparison either. Both are fond of creating disorientation and discomfort out of musical pieces that we’re otherwise very comfortable with. Artsy indie-rock will always have a place in my heart, and so it goes with Cfit.
Inner Outlaws‘ self-titled two-song EP also can be compared to a Radiohead work, both in scope and mood. “Points of Fire” is almost six and a half minutes long, while “Bodies of Water” is nine and a half. The two tunes are rock tunes that subsume all sorts of things within them: pseudo-funky breakdowns, folky asides, ’70s rock sections, crunchy riffs of harder indie rock, even psychedelic bits.
The songs are journeys that are impossible to predict: that’s half the joy in listening, to follow around the whims and fancies of the band. The other half is their melodic prowess, which allows for discrete memorable sections within the overall wholes. One of the most memorable is a dreamy, Lord Huron-esque section toward the end of “Bodies of Water;” another highlight is the OK Computer-esque rock just after the intro of “Points of Fire.” If you’re into adventurous music that will defy your expectations, Inner Outlaws is your band.
Folk-pop by definition has singable melodies in it. But there are gradations within that distinction: Mumford and Sons’ tunes are essentially pop songs that happen to be played on folk instruments, while bands like o’death come much more clearly out of a storytelling-heavy Americana tradition. An easy indicator of where a band falls on this spectrum is the level of attention given to the vocals in the mix.
Schucks Road falls toward the poppy side, playing songs in the vein of The Avett Brothers, The Lumineers, and old-school Caedmon’s Call (when Derek Webb was still with them). Their five-song EP One By Land features vocals prominently, but never neglects putting a song under the vocal melody. This gives fans of singing along plenty to exercise their vocal cords upon, while still showing that there are songwriting chops to be appreciated. Opener “Flesh & Bone” and piano-heavy “The Bar” deliver rapid-fire, Avetts-style singing, while “Heart of the Country” and “Lantern” deliver resonant, comfortable vocal harmonies. The latter strips some of the pop sheen away to focus on the hymn-esque, gospel vocal melodies and a poignant fiddle performance. It’s a highlight track that gives their strengths the full spotlight.
Schucks Road’s One by Land is a good introduction to a band with vocal poise and songwriting skill. If you’re still into the genre (someone told me that The Lumineers are “over”; are we reaching the end of the folk-pop moment?) as hard as I am, this will be a worthy listen for your upcoming relaxing weekend.
I’ve had a hectic morning, but Penny and Sparrow are calming me down. The Austin-based duo plays quiet-yet-sweeping acoustic singer/songwriter tunes that elevate sadness to majestic levels on Tenboom. The Swell Seasons, Damien Rice, and Ray LaMontagne are quick comparisons, as the soaring opener “Just and Just As” creates the same sense of passionate, earnest romance that makes it hard for me to listen to LaMontagne when I’m not in a relationship.
Not all of the arrangements shoot for torrential emoting; “Brothers” sounds like a very chill version of Mumford and Sons, while the separated chords of “Heroes and Monsters” reminds me of old-school Bon Iver. But the lyrics stay very much in an emotional vein, culminating in the heartrending storytelling duo of “Patience, First” and “Patience, Please.” Penny and Sparrow note in their bio that they like musicals, and there are definite overtures toward that style of writing in “Patience, First”; it also explains some of the huge vocal lines. If you’re into deeply emotive singer/songwriter fare, then Penny and Sparrow will be the next big thing for you.
The state of the acoustic guitar: It has become helpful, perhaps even necessary, to say the word “folk” in reference to yourself if you play songs that include an acoustic prominently. This is sad, because it muddies the real definition of folk and devalues other genres that also use the six-string prominently. Pageant plays songs based in old-school country, ’50s girl-pop, and perky piano indie-pop. It is a fascinating and engaging amalgam, and Lost Ourselves deserves its own praise (not just the overused label of “folk!”). But linguistically we must say what we must to get people to listen. Oh well.
This intriguing genre soup is most easily evident in single “Trustfunders,” which combines tambourine, pedal steel, plunking bass and saloon piano as a foundation. On this very country structure, Erika Porter and her back-up males sing verses that sound straight out of 1958. The chorus makes me wonder why they aren’t on tour with Mates of State right now. It all flows seamlessly, which is no small feat. Bravo, Pageant. Bravo.
This fluid merging of genres is assisted by Derek Porter’s presence in the band: Porter has experience with experimental pop that comes through on “I Live in My Father’s House.” The song starts off in an a capella format before morphing into a bass-driven indie-pop tune. It takes yet another turn into a madcap, sort-of rock tune before slamming the door. That all happens in under two minutes. It’s followed up by the title track, a straight-ahead vintage pop nugget with a sweet sax-led horn section. “Thinking Makes It So” sees Derek take the lead vocals on a song that leans all the way over to Western swing. It’s excellently pulled off. Then there’s the gorgeous “Shut the Door,” which pulls all of their affectations together into something beautifully, distinctly Pageant.
Pageant has a lot going on, but it never feels like they do. They’ve managed to situate all of their songwriting flights of fancy so that none of them feel out of place. That’s a rare feat. Lost Ourselves is an inventive, creative record that packs a ton of ideas into seven tunes. I eagerly look forward to what else Pageant comes up with, and encourage you to jump on the Pageant train before it takes off from the station.
The line between Peter Bradley Adams’ nuanced singer/songwriter fare and Matt Nathanson’s bright, obvious pop is sometimes a matter of magnitude and emphasis: the most cerebral of tunesmiths can fall in love with a big melody, while populists can get complex too. Russell Howard lives in the space between these poles, drifting toward one side or the other as the song demands on his City Heart + double EP.
“Home Sweet Home” is his most Adams-esque tune, as Howard pairs a gentle, fingerpicked guitar line with shakers and a pristine vocal performance. His confident but not overbearing voice carries the sense of loss that runs through the tune beautifully. Add in some light arrangement and an octave-jumping vocal finale, and Howard’s mined gold. On the other side of the spectrum, “Under the Weight” and “You, Me & Someday” mine Room for Squares-era John Mayer in the guitar and drum styles. The quiet closer “Morning” leans toward more pensive work, giving his voice a showcase again.
The acoustic side of the double EP isn’t markedly different from the full-band version of the release, as his arrangements are tasteful and uncluttered in their fleshed-out form. City Heart + shows Howard as a songwriter who has the skills to write compellingly for different audiences. It’s a fine introduction to a new voice, if you’re not acquainted with any of his back catalog.
Jonny Rodgers really cares about the qualities of water in various metropolitan areas, because he needs hard water so that his wine glasses will resonate. Now I know: Chapel Hill has awesome water. Washington, DC: not so much. All in a day’s stage banter, you know?
While his interstitial comments were charming, they underscored the fragility and complexity of his performance. When one is trying to keep the resonance of glass in the forefront of a composition, there’s not much room for distortion or multi-instrument arrangement. Armed with his 17-piece glass set, a guitar, a tiny keyboard (with drum machine), and a complex foot pedal, Rodgers spun ethereal, delicate tunes. Rodgers’ songwriting style is so well-developed that the songs commanded attention, regardless of the fact that they never got very loud at all; his varied rhythms and ever-intriguing patterns of wine glass tapping kept me fascinated.
He opened with single “Everything is Yours,” which features the glass prominently. It resonated beautifully despite the tiny, low-ceiling room. (It’s not called “The Cave” for nothing.) He also impressed with the ornate, haunting “Spero,” which is featured on a compilation raising funds against human trafficking. Rodgers’ high, soaring voice fit perfectly over the intricate fingerpicking that he filled out the body of his songs with, especially in tunes like “Don’t Be Afraid to Be Small.” “Small” also featured the most complex drum machine work of the night, with Rodgers showing a bit of his love for electronica.
Rodgers knows how to impress and engage an audience. The visual spectacle of watching him manipulate the wine glasses is impressive, and the songs that he coaxes out of his gear are equally exciting. If you’re up for an intriguing, unique music experience, you should check out Rodgers tonight at The Pour House or somewhere else along his current tour.
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.