Kisses duo, Zinzi Edmundson and Jesse Kivel, have released Rest in Paradise, a neo-disco album that is balanced, jubilant, and just in time for a low-key holiday. With live instrumentation, it gave me the feeling I was at an outdoor disco or funky dinner party, alongside eccentric guests with even more eccentric dance moves.
Opener “Paradise Waiting Room” sets an immediate, cheerful tone via gellin’ rhythm and a recording of people conversing in the background. This blur of conversation is what gives “Paradise Waiting Room” a dinner party essence, lit up by a quick spritzing of jazzy, silver tinsel horn. This funky party boat glides right into a dock of peaceful, conclusive piano that ripples as the voices of the partygoers are amplified.
Nighttime ballads balance this theme, especially on “Sun,” where the male vocalist starts this babymaker track off appropriately with, “I’m feeling something, it’s all in-tune.” With patient percussion, rhythm and vocals, this song takes its good ‘ole time.
This pace is replicated on the flat-out catchy “The Nile,” where I was stoked to hear Kisses boldly bring out the cowbells. Electric guitar sways like a low-waist-lined seductress, but it’s “Fred Roses” that really gets into things. With a full moon of a trumpet and soft, burgundy vocals that sing, “It’s written in the sun, it shines on everyone, you wanna be in love,” “Fred Roses” confirms that Rest in Paradise is just as alluring as it is convivial. This mood returns in the slow, sedated-by-oxytocin, “Eternal,” which has a gondola-like romanticism. And then finally reaches its emotive peak in the placid, swirling, conical, closing title track.
Bedazzling lyrics and the trademark Kisses groove channel a supreme sexiness take-over in “Jam.” The vocalist cries, “Oh, baby sista, please dance with me/I know what you’re thinking, but please dance with me…jam, on, jam on,” creating a subtle naughtiness. That heightened level of emotion appears again in a swelling horn section during the last 45 seconds of “Sunset Ltd.,” which is my version of those locker room jams they play in the final moments before game time.
“Control,” the teasing, half-smirk of a song, is a stand-out on the album. It sizzles and slides through synth and exotic percussion. Poppy male vocals, hand claps, and gentle trombone give “Control” a rollerskating-at-a-disco, dizzying buzz. Flirtatious, easy-going, and almost boy-band-like lyrics, “From the west side to the east side, she don’t know what’s right,” complete it.
I read that the duo recently got married and had a baby. And now the synched-up, jovial energy of the record all makes sense; Rest in Paradise is a celebration of the past that lead us here, of hope for the bright future, and of the freedom of being present in the moment. —Rachel Haney
By the end of any year, pretty much everything in me is fried. I am the sort of person that pushes hard to a particular end, achieves the goal, and then collapses contentedly in a pile for a week or so. There’s probably something unhealthy about treating every year as a goal to be achieved instead of a thing to be experienced, but whatever, I can deal with those emotions when I’m in my resting week. This year you can find me listening to the low-key indie-rock grooves of Your Friendly Neighborhood‘s self-titled EP on repeat during the last week of the year.
R&B and blue eyed soul have been big trends this year, as with a trend toward all things chill. (James Blake would be really animated about predicting the future, if he were ever animated; I choose to believe that his real-life persona and music persona are the same.) Your Friendly Neighborhood grazes the latter without explicitly referencing the former; there’s a touch of R&B drums in “Hello Mire,” a bit of falsetto in “Fall in Line,” and some Antlers-esque moodiness in “Overflow.” But the overall product is less coattail riding and more a groove-heavy exploration of indie-rock’s lighter side. The rhythms throughout the EP are more straightforward than the trendy genres would predict; the work sounds like an indie-rock band at half-time, but in the best possible way. The band calls it “ambient,” but it’s really more like indie-rock as played by a slowcore acoustic band. Imagine twinkly ’00s emo, without the charming sheen; consider ponderous mid-’00s indie-rockers without the distortion.
The results of this unique take on indie-rock are super-chill in ways both engaging and comforting. Opener “Backroads” is the fastest of the tunes here, moseying along under the strength of thrumming bass and consistent tapped cymbal. The guitars and vocals lean back on the motion, creating a barely-there tension that allows for headbobbing as well as close listening. (There’s a lot of headbobbing going on for me on this release.)
“Overflow” sets up the pattern for the next three tunes: the constant motion is replaced with slowly pulsing grooves riding on gentle organ, lazy guitar, and sparse electronic drumming. The vocals have just enough reverb on them to feel warm, but not so much as to feel psychedelic: the goal here is laying back and relaxing, not sending you into space. “Fall in Line” and “Hello Mire” follow suit, delivering beautiful ruminations on quietude and solace. It takes work to make a trio sound like one single player, but they accomplish it here. The songwriting, performances, and engineering all come together beautifully to make a compelling, interesting, way-chilled-out sound.
The only thing that’s not great about this release is that it’s four songs long. I could use a whole album of this lovely music. Your Friendly Neighborhood have a surprisingly clear outlook on who they are and a strong ability to deliver that vision to the listener. If you’re looking for some chill-out music with some pleasantly unique elements, look no farther than Your Friendly Neighborhood.
Funded through a Kickstarter campaign, Casey Dubie’s latest EP Strangers highlights Dubie’s strong voice through the backdrop of varied instrumentation. Every song sounds slightly different yet does not wane in quality. Strangers highlights Dubie for what she really is– an overall solid artist.
Think back to Vanessa Carlton: she began her career by walking “A Thousand Miles” but found a slightly darker sound by her album Harmonium. Dubie’s voice reminds me of Carlton’s steady voice in how she can belt high and low notes without strain, effortlessly transitioning through a rather large range. Dubie demonstrates this in opener “Motion Sick,” where the verses are comprised of much lower notes than the ones she transitions to during the chorus. This pattern repeats itself in many of the other tracks (“Ghost,” “You Make Me Feel”).
The instrumentation of Strangers varies from subdued instrumentation (“Ghost”) to a more high-energy sound (“Motion Sick”). “Fugitive” starts out particularly subtle, with the instrumentation eventually rising as the song progresses. “Ghost” highlights Dubie’s voice through its slightly eerie acoustic guitar performance; the delivery remains consistent throughout to allow Dubie’s voice to soar towards the end. “Stranger” also begins with simple, repetitious guitar strum before the sound eventually explodes at the end with Dubie powerfully singing her “Ooooohhhhh”s. “You Make Me Feel” has the most unique instrumentation of the EP, as the electric guitar contributes harmony alongside the constant acoustic guitar strumming and unique percussive elements that gradually rise and then slowly fade out.
Casey Dubie’s powerful indie pop/folk sound makes Strangers a strong EP.–Krisann Janowitz
Some people can’t listen to music while they work, especially if it has words. It’s hard for me to work if I’m not listening to music, but I do still prefer slow-moving instrumental pieces while getting my job done.
Sonic Soundscapes’ “Flat Figure Eight” is just the sort of thing that fits me (and that I’ve been into lately): it’s ostensibly a drone created with an electric guitar E-bow, but it’s quite dynamic over its near-six-minute length. The tune is full, folding what could be harsh sounds–like the underlying metallic tone that provides tension–into a warm, round, comforting sound. The tune develops melodically by sending the heavily-manipulated pedal steel guitar line briefly into a minor key before joyously returning to the major, then wandering back and forth between them. The glacial movement of the melodic line against the thrumming backdrop creates a unique mood that makes me want more from Sonic Soundscapes. If you’re into instrumental, ambient music, Sonic Soundscapes should catch your ear.
Alek Fin’s latest EP, Án Mynda, is like a mesmerizing love-at-first-sight experience between Bon Iver and an electronic empress. The five tracks are equidistant between earth and atmosphere. Woodsy vocals and instrumentation that gives just enough–nothing more and nothing less–root this EP in natural, earthy undertones, while a gust of electronica lifts it off the ground.
The title track contains a jolting, animated back-and-forth chorus that resembles the sound of quickened monk chants; it is both comforting and confident in its softness. Deep reverberation eventually slips in and guides the track up a winding road of transcendental sound.
“Lift Up” is a dim dance party in slow-mo and the eventual warm, appreciated crash into your bed at the end of the night, all in four minutes and forty-four seconds. “Insight” boasts even more hauntingly beautiful vocals that hollow out, gain depth and hollow out again, like a stream of consciousness rather than lyrics.
“Golden, Blinding (Feat. Galun)” is flat-out sexy, painting an abstract picture of lovers in landscapes, with lyrics like, “I see you on the water/You gravitate to me.” It erupts into a tunneling of sound that reminds those slanting, heavenly cylinder-shaped crepuscular rays that burst through the grayness after rain. “Golden, Blinding” is like a droid gliding over land, getting a whole aerial view of the world.
Alek Fin ends Án Mynda with a track that achieves “lullaby” better than any nursery story I’ve ever heard. “Eyes Open Shut” is a sensually simple song, ruffled by big, buttery, cumulus cloud vocals and soft, jumping percussion that give this track a heart and a heartbeat.
Alek Fin has thought of the whole picture here: the script, how to shoot each scene, the healthy weight of each song. He is a meditative artist, and Án Mynda is the furthest piece of music from ersatz electronic; it’s a successful, authentic experiment of sound.–Rachel Haney
Poppa’s Kitchen is an old-fashioned pop band turning out songs in a variety of styles that are each impeccably classy and eminently singable. The duo’s Hopeful Songcalls back to a (perhaps fictional?) time when it was totally normal to place the gravelly saloon swayer “Devil’s Playground,” the tragic story song ballad “Chinatown,” and a swingin’ tune like “Miner in a Cave In” on the same release, much less as tracks 2-4 on 12-song record. It’s okay that those tracks don’t establish a core sound or identity for Poppa’s Kitchen, because opener “Travis” does it perfectly.
“Travis” is a wonderful opening salvo, as it establishes the gentle acoustic-based arrangements, enthusiastic melodies, and sense of humor that collectively drive the record. You’ll find yourself humming, snapping, and laughing along to “Travis,” and all are the right thing to do. Elsewhere on the record the small outfit goes minor key on “Ain’t 19,” get downright ’50s pop on “All You Love and All You Know,” and deliver a quiet lullaby/ballad to close out the record on the title track. Hopeful Song is just downright pleasant (and don’t you think that’s faint praise for a moment–how many albums can you just put on and kick back to in a good mood?). It doesn’t ask that much of you, but gives lots in return.
Velcro Mary‘s Leave a Light Oncould have popped right out of 1996 rock radio: power-pop, pop-punk, and grunge are each represented and occasionally mashed up together here, creating a record that’s great for throwing on in a old car on the highway. Opener “Whatever Helps You Sleep at Night” hits the power-pop notes, tying muscly guitar distortion to an earnest, easygoing vocal line. “Fourth Quarter Funeral” gets a little more ominous with the vocals and the guitar strum, pushing more into punk territory. “Fifth of July” is vintage grunge arpeggiated guitar and angst: you know right now if you’re into that. The diversity of the record almost ensures that you’ll have a clutch of favorites off this 10-song record–there’s a lot to choose from.
Regardless if it’s noisy grunge or surprisingly chipper acoustic-driven power-pop (“Grow Up to Be Dead”), Jason Erb knows how to write and deliver a vocal melody that sticks. It all comes together in closer “Seasons to Sleep,” an evocative tune that draws from “Glycerine”-style grunge melancholy seasoned with the unassuming grace of modern indie ballads and Erb’s deeply affected vocals. It’s a beautiful, memorable tune. Check out Leave a Light On if you’re looking for something diverse.
Sean McConnell’s Cold Country harvests the “deep in the woods” vibe that projects like Mutual Benefit and Fleet Foxes employ and puts it to intimate use. Tunes like “Letter to My Daughters” and “To Providence” make The Fall EPthe sort of project where I feel like I’m getting to know McConnell instead of listening to a recording of him: his concerns are domestic, personal, and honest. The open-hearted lyrics are delivered beautifully by his unassuming, slightly imperfect high-tenor voice.
The sensitive, gentle-yet-sturdy arrangements complete the picture. Instead of the heavy strumming of Fleet Foxes, McConnell leans much more on an intricate latticework of instruments to create fullness: twinkling keys, lighthearted synth, distant electric guitar, fingerpicked acoustic, sparse drumming, and occasional female backing vocals all work together to create tunes like the beautiful “Song of Return” (which even includes tasteful autotune!) and “To Providence.” It’s a gorgeous EP that manages to sound rustic without being vintage, and earthy without being sparse.
House Above the Sun‘s self-titled EP splits the difference between quiet acoustic work and ’70s-style acoustic rock with strong lyrics on top of both. “Footsteps” and “Love’s Ugly Twin” focus on the acoustic stylings of Jim Moreton, featuring his unadorned voice, immediate melodies, and simple strumming. “(He’s Still) My Flesh and Blood” and “Dangerous Thing to Love” get a bit crunchier, with distorted electric guitar, kit drums, and a more rock-oriented approach.
Both sonic arrangements serve as strong platforms for Moreton’s lyrics to launch from: he’s concerned about difficult types of love on this EP. “(He’s Still) My Flesh and Blood” recalls the painful tale of trying to get through to a family member who you just don’t connect with and won’t connect with you; “A Dangerous Thing to Love” discusses the difficulties of loving someone romantically (“it’s not an intellectual thing, to love”). “Love’s Ugly Twin” deals with the aftermath of a relationship with a brother/friend, while “Footsteps” points to the inadequacy of the narrator to love Christ as well as he’d like. The thorny difficulty of the lyrical content contrasts against the smooth, polished arrangements for a pleasing listen. If you’re interested in lyrics-first acoustic work with a bit of a rock edge, House Above the Sun should be on your to-hear list.
Sometimes there’s a singular moment that pulls together everything you need to know and delivers it on a crystal platter. That moment comes early on Worn Out Skinby Annabelle’s Curse. When Carly Booher picks up the second verse of opener “Lovedrunk Desperado,” her voice floats perfectly above the yearning banjo, the pressing drumbeat, and the thrumming bass. It’s a contrast of fragility and intensity. Her delivery is confident yet vulnerable, assured yet emotional and open to possibility. It seems like hyperbole to pack this much into a single performance, but the rest of the album backs up the shivers that track one gave me. As a result, Worn Out Skin is one of the best releases of the year in any genre.
Annabelle’s Curse is ostensibly some sort of alt-country band, but that’s only a starting place for reference points: Josh Ritter, Dawes, Lumineers, Civil Wars, you name it, they’ve got a toe in the sound. But they combine their influences so deftly that from song one they’ve got their own take on the genre. “Rich Valley” is a jubilant folk-pop song with a beautiful/powerful chorus; “Wolf in Sheep’s Clothes” is a soft, careful, ominous tune that calls up the masterful moods of The Barr Brothers before opening up into a shuffling country rumination of sorts. The enthusiastic “Brother In Arms” has serious indie-rock cred with a non-ironic saxophone leading the melody, while “Skinny Dipping” throws evocative synths and flutes under a flying banjo riff and a Needtobreathe vocal line. “Snake in the Rafters” is a vulnerable but sophisticated confessional that Josh Ritter or Paul Simon could have penned, paired with a nimble guitar line the equal of both those luminaries. I could go on, but you get the point: these songs are diverse.
But more than diverse, they’re deeply moving. “Snake in the Rafters,” as I noted, is the highlight on that front, as Tim Kilbourne opens up with a sober, spare look at what’s in the hearts of men: “hold me down/crush my sins/tell me I’m different from evil men/won’t you tell me I’m different from evil men.” I don’t know about you, but I felt those lyrics go pretty deep down. Elsewhere they reminisce about the innocence of youth (“Skinny Dipping”) and the goodness of finding a partner (“Cornerstone”) in ways that spin cliches on their head. “Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing” doesn’t spin the cliche: instead, the narrator inhabits and expands it to great effect. It’s rare for me to find a lyricist that just nails me to the wall on the first listen, but Kilbourne’s got a whale of a hammer in his pen.
So the songwriting is astonishing and the lyrics are brilliant, but what of the performances and recording? Worry not–they’re spot-on. The performances are each of the beautiful quality that I mentioned earlier, and the production job corrals all their disparate ideas and wide-ranging influences into warm, inviting wholes. From tip to tail, this album knocks it out of the park. I can’t recommend this highly enough. Worn Out Skin by Annabelle’s Curse is just a remarkable album that you really need to hear. I expect to be listening to it for years to come.
We Are Oceans‘s Woodsmoke is billed as a post-metal album (and they do ratchet up to a thoroughly metallic stomp at points), but their sense of restraint and impressive melodic songwriting ability point toward a wider audience than that subgenre. The album contains four songs, three of which start out with very sparse arrangements. “Dead Winds” and “Pressed Flowers” actually start off with clean electric guitar before unfolding into larger arrangements. I purposely am avoiding the word “build” because it would evoke a certain type of post-rock that We Are Oceans doesn’t subscribe to. This isn’t “cinematic” in a sense that it could score the upbeat end of a film: these tunes instead are pensive, thoughtful, searching, careful, and measured.
The bass plays a significant role in these tunes: for one, the whole thing is mixed to be bass-heavy, so even the guitars and drums have a low-slung power to them; secondly, the bass is particularly prominent for a “post-metal” outfit. “Dead Winds” give part of the melodic motion to the bass, while “Solstice” allows the bass to do a lot of work as well in the quieter sections. The louder sections of closer “Solstice” are memorable as well, as the quartet lets loose right from the get-go with speedy drums, soaring guitar riffs, and distorted rhythm guitar–but instead of blast away for the next 12 minutes, they drop out everything but the drums for a drum solo. This is not your ordinary post-rock/post-metal band. Woodsmoke is impressive in its songwriting and engineering: it’s an album of immaculately recorded and mixed instrumental music that can go full post-metal but prefers to deploy their abilities in the service of the “what’s around the next corner”-style surprise. If you’re into artsy instrumental rock with noisy bits, Woodsmoke will please you.
Louis Landry‘s JJ vs. the Digital Whaleis, in a word, ambitious. The album re-situates the story of Jonah from “its roots in Christian, Jewish and Islamic culture” and comments on the “constant barrage of electronics, media, and technology which surround us all” by interpreting all of that as the whale. (The press also mentions Flaming Lips’ Yoshimi and Pink Floyd’s Animals as RIYLs.) So right off the bat, there’s points for conceptual boldness from this corner. The album that results is a largely major-key indie-rock festival that incorporates an incredible amount of sounds and instruments.
By pointing this out as a rock opera, it leaves the standard bounds of reception: JJ vs. The Digital Whale is held together by a repeated motif, the overarching story, and a spirit of adventure instead of any dedication to a stable genre. “Ride the Whale” has some Prince-ian funk going on; “Nothing No One Nowhere Blues” is a grumbling, stomping delta blues; “Ismi Azum” is a near-ambient instrumental rumination that fuses acoustic and electronic; “YOU’VE GOT eWHALE” is a marching, instrumental theatrical reminiscent of (yep!) Yoshimi. It wouldn’t be complete without a sea shanty, so “Ribs and Terrors” gives us a duet between a traditional accordion and a wiry synth before Landry’s voice comes in.
The remarkable thing about JJ is that even though the album has wide-ranging interests, the album never goes awry. Landry is able to corral all the sounds into the sonic framework he’s developed. Now, it’s weird, but it’s a rock opera about a modern re-telling of an ancient tale as understood by our current electronic issues. This never had a small horizon. By the time “Sunbound” rolls around, a six-minute slow-building acoustic-based indie-rock tune with a backing choir, nothing seems out of place at all. If you’ve got an adventurous streak and appreciate musicians with big ideas, then Louis Landry’s JJ vs. the Digital Whale will be right up your alley.
Kris Orlowski references Jonah as well in “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” the opener on The Gershwin Sessions Vol. 1. After that Porgy and Bess tune, folkie-turned-indie-pop/indie-rock musician Orlowski focuses his attention on Gershwin’s love songs in this loving tribute to the early 1900s songwriter best known for Rhapsody in Blue.
The six-song collection treats these tunes with piety, largely retaining their form, structure and vibe (particularly in the strings). The update lies in Orlowski’s voice and delivery, as well as the inclusion of guitar in the largely piano-driven originals. Orlowski’s confident tenor gives a warm sheen to these tunes, and the guitar contributes a modern vibe that pushes against the romantic strings in a productive tension. Those smart touches combine with the rest of the arrangements to create tunes that are both clever and honest: the material never strays too far from the source, but these songs feel differentiated enough to justify their existence. The biggest difference comes in closer “Things Are Looking Up,” which features a much sparser arrangement than the rest. The subtle motion of a gentle electric guitar strum and the engineering of the bass push this in a more modern pop direction, which is just lovely. Elsewhere, “Love Walked In” and “Nice Work If You Can Get It” are particularly neat. If you’re a fan of the old and the new, Orlowski has implicitly promised more than one collection of this work–get excited.
Carly Comando‘s Dreamlifehas two settings: slow and fast. The instrumental pianist best known for the deeply moving “Everyday” offers tunes that have rushes of single-note runs, rapid patterning, and arpeggiation (“Daydream,” “Dragonfly”) alongside those that go for the more stately emotions (“Procession,” “Birthday”).
The former are charged with excitement and passion, as they sound like running, leaping, and playing. The more solemn tunes are less immediate, as they are less similar to pop songs and more like classical compositions. The best side of her work comes out when both the gravitas and the enthusiasm come out at once, as in the middle of “Daydream” and the entirety of “Dusk.” Comando augments fluttering synth patterns with a heavy left hand on the bass piano keys to create a unique tension. The song builds and flows with the two vibes working together to create something larger than both. It’s in that melding that Carly Comando’s unique strengths as a composer are shown. This is beautiful, evocative, powerful music–you’ll be hearing this in places you don’t expect for years to come, so jump on it now and have the surge of recognition at movie trailers and advertisements of the future.
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.