1. “The Age of Man” – Diva Faune. The vocal melodies here are magnetic: I can’t stop thinking about them. They are somehow optimistic and wistful, enthusiastic and pensive. The restrained electro-pop that accompanies the acoustic guitarwork is just as subtly brilliant. Highly recommended.
2. “My God” – Bitter’s Kiss. Bet you weren’t expecting a plucky, swaying piano-pop tune about religious tolerance.
3. “Love Not Hate” – Penny Mob. This rock’n’roll tune isn’t skate punk, but the distinctive vocal style, punchy ska-esque horns, and massive enthusiasm remind me of late ’90s/early ’00s skate-pop-punk. This one is also about tolerance. Bonus!
4. “I Need You Closer” – Eric Reid (A Prince). Muted, bouncy 808s; handclaps; anthemic sing-alongs full of big cursewords; Beatles-esque string arrangements. What more can you ask for in a busted-heart breakup tune?
5. “Take Me Over” – Ari Roar. Most woozy pop has distortion slathered all over it, but Roar prefers to layer slightly-off-kilter casio sounds with his feathery voice to create the a pleasingly woozy effect.
6. “What of Me” – Corey Crumpacker. If you mash the Southern rock of Needtobreathe with old-school Mumford and Sons theatricality, and you’ve got a fist-pumping, stadium-sized folk-pop tune.
7. “The Holy Ghost” – decker. decker really goes for it here, hammering away on every available instrument (including vocals) in creating an almost claustrophobically intense piece of rock’n’roll-meets-folk. Wow.
8. “Liberations” – Martin Forsell. The humble “ooo-ooo” line gets deployed to great effect here in this troubadour folk tune swaddled in layers and layers of reverb. (It’s not quite to Fleet Foxes levels of reverb, though.) The drums and bass ratchet up to a post-punk thrum, giving this folk tune great aspirations that pay off in a rewarding tune.
9. “Cabin Fever” – Candy Cigarettes. A downtempo acoustic guitar at the heart of this track is surrounded by slow-moving strings, descending rhythm guitar, ascending lead guitar, stacks and stacks of background vocals, and eventually pounding drums & keys to make a dense, charging rock tune.
10. “Aristide’s Entry into Paris” – Belly of Paris. So you’re Beirut on a bender with a cohort of gypsies shambling down the back alleys of some ancient-yet-modernizing city, and then you start getting chased. Inventive, carnivalesque, and fascinating.
11. “Or Not” – The Clydes. Everyone needs a good desperate-sounding guitar-rock song at their disposal when things are going off the rails. Keep this one close at hand for business partner backstabbing, romantic deceptions, or certain unsavory characters with outsize influence on your life.
12. “Schtum.” – Lunacre. A subtly askew guitar performance opens up into a deep, Radiohead-esque pool of barely-soothed anxiety.
1. “Happy Heart (Can Go for Miles)” – The Deltahorse. This impressive tune is sort of to the left of all its referents: there’s some skronking sax, some straight-ahead ’90s techno beats, and some Brit-pop vocal melodies all jostling for precedence. It comes together into a genre-less sort of work that will stick with you.
2. “Trip” – The Venus De Melos. Math-rock is often a technical outworking of hardcore, the patterning of brutal spasms. This is the opposite: this is a major-key, burbling technical blitz that has a chorus that sounds like the soft side of Motion City Soundtrack or Copeland. Check it.
3. “Palms” – Native Other. Like a deconstructed Vampire Weekend, Native Other splits herky-jerky afropunk into parts and reconfigures it with elements of R&B, dream-pop, and math-rock. Whoa.
4. “All My Fake Friends” – Ira Lawrence. Lawrence’s overdriven, hypermanipulated mandolin is back! This tune creates a towering sound that’s hollowed out by an almost complete lack of bass. The resulting folk/indie-pop-esque sound is yearning, physically missing something that is reflected in the disappointment of Lawrence’s voice.
5. “Shut Out the Light (Ft. Peter Silberman)” – Tiny Dinosaurs. This low-slung, low-key electro-indie-pop tune didn’t have enough enigmatically romantic iciness to it, so Julie Jay brought in a member of the Antlers. That fixed it right up.
6. “Ellen” – Steph Sweet. An insistent, burbling, rubbery electric guitar line gives way to a syncopated, ratatat melodic line that I would expect to hear in tunes far more electronic than this one. Organ, glockenspiel, harpsichord(?), and ghostly waves of delay weave in and out of the guitarwork to create a truly unique tune that wouldn’t be out of place in ’70s Fleetwood-style rock or at the end of a modern prog-rock album.
7. “Demitasse” – JJASMINE. Cello, delicate piano melodies, synths that genuinely sound like breaths, and stuttering oscillations transform a dusky electro-pop track into a mystic, foggy, evocative landscape.
8. “Illuminate” – Carly Comando. Glockenspiel accents the bass-heavy, river-run-fast piano keys that create this beautiful track.
9. “La voz del sur (Himmelsrichtungen, nr. 4)” – Juan María Solare. Look around that city corner carefully; you never know what will be there, even in broad daylight. It’s a veritable cornucopia of possibilities, but there’s always a threat hanging above your head–you never know what it could be. And then suddenly, it is.
10. “Ded Mel 25” – Moyamoya. The machine lifted from the ocean floor. it had been trapped there for days, after the ship wrecked. It housed two poor souls, rationing everything they could to perhaps survive. And help had come, lifting their craft slowly yet surely toward the water. Breaking the surface was euphoric and crushing; still floating were remnants of their life’s work. The boat was gone, but they remained. Clenching a fist, one looked at the other and nodded. The hatch popped.
11. “Valley” – Sonic Soundscapes. A determined sojourner trudges across a windswept, wintry landscape. The still air is almost pristinely cold, as if every step he takes endangers the perfect landscape around him. But the landscape keeps going on, and so does the sojourner, neither of their determination fading. The light continues to creep over the mountains. He will get there or die trying.
1. “Turtle Doves” – Jenny Elisabeth & the Gunned Down Horses. A. What a band name. B. Like light spreading across a horizon, this tune grows from spiky yet warm tendrils of sound to a full, round alt-country performance. The bassist and JE’s creaky voice get special honors.
2. “Refugee” – Cameron James Henderson. Some artists command a gravitas–a combination of confidence, vocal control, melodic maturity, and (let’s be honest) Dylan influences–that catapults their folk tunes into the upper echelon. This tune very firmly belongs up there with the Joe Pugs, Josh Ritters, and Barr Brotherses of the world.
3. “Louisiana” – Eric & Happie. This is more country than the Civil Wars, but still very pop-oriented. It would be like if folk-pop had a country-pop counterpart, but this has almost nothing in common with Florida Georgia Line, so that’s out. The male/female harmonies are lovely, the arrangement is small but full, the production is bright and tight, and the whole thing comes off like a sunbeam out of a cloudy day. It’s just great.
4. “The Space Between” – Aaron James. Here’s some folk-pop with strong vocal harmonies and lots of subtle production touches that push it just far enough outside of the box to really catch the ear, while still fitting in with all the folk-pop standard-bearers.
5. “Don’t Leave My Side” – McKenzie Lockhart. I’m really into immediate production: it sounds like Lockhart is sitting right next to me, playing and singing her folk-pop/singer-songwriter blend. The drums and electric guitar add a lot of character and atmosphere to this tune, which is often not the case in this type of music–mad props to the band. The results are an unusually gripping singer-songwriter track.
6. “No Gauge” – Ariah&. Ariah’s low alto voice contrasts nicely against a chipper mandolin and blaring trumpet. She can belt like Amanda Palmer, too.
7. “Beans” – Little Hermit. If you threw the ukulele charm of Ingrid Michaelson, the quirky lyrics of Kimya Dawson, and an impressive female duet into a blender, you probably still couldn’t come out with something as attractive, elegant, and intriguing as this.
9. “Yesterday’s News” – Esbie Fonte. Starts off as a torchy tune with some jumbled noise for atmosphere, then blooms into something more electronic and complex than that.
10. “Cold Moon” – Lacei. Vocal-driven folk + wubby spacious bass + skittering beats = (either) the folkiest electro track I’ve heard all year or the most electronic folk track of the same period.
11. “Pluto’s Waltz” – Barrow_. This instrumental inventively combines solo neo-classical/jazz piano with snare-heavy electronic kit drums and the occasional synth for effect. It’s a fresh, impressive vision.
Indie folk rock musicians Red Sammy & Some Charming Trespassers channel some greats here in their latest release, True Believer, dropping this fall. Taking a page from the song book of Tom Waits is a challenge, often landing in a crash. This is definitely not the case here, with a collection of eight songs that feel like a throwback to something past, a campfire along the train tracks of life.
Adam Trice is Red Sammy, and that is an important distinction to make. His songwriting is inspired, simple and down to earth. Storytelling is a lost art to many indie musicians; a few come to mind, like Sedona’s decker. and Brooklyn transplant Charles Ellsworth. Both pull in ghosts from the greats as shadows to call on. Some Charming Trespassers are a band of highly skilled musicians including Sarah Kennedy (violin), John Decker (resonator), and Rebecca Edwards (backing vocals) who, with the help of sparse arrangements, play a simple part in the success of this album. They are vehicles that get out of the way and let the music soar.
Opener “Caribou” takes this release out in a stampede for people not yet familiar with Red Sammy. Subtle and powerful, it weaves together a beautiful violin and loaded lyricism. At a little over three minutes, a lifetime is a picture the song paints. “Barefoot in Baltimore” is a love song in the tradition of Appalachian bluegrass, except this is coming out of Maryland, which makes it all the more transcendent of race and economic status. Music is a great equalizer, and “Barefoot” is just that.
“Chickenwire” is poetry bleeding with pain, and “Western Bound” is pain bleeding with hope, all done with skilled arrangements and poetry. Strange thing is, the message is the same, just wrapped in different ribbon. “Heaven the Electric Sky” is filled with harmonic echoes that flesh out the song, reinforcing the band’s stated desire for sparse arrangements on this album. The music shines. Choices like this make this album, and indie music in general, such a force.
“I Knew You Better” is a testament to thinking and how this is a dangerous pastime. Violin-driven, it is terrific. “Santa Ana Wildfire” is that drawn out feeling that isolates us all. As a bit of sequencing genius, it tells a beautiful story that is a complete contradiction and paradox to the previous song. True Believer closes with “Aunt Mary”: sometimes all there is in life is the comfort of an old song, a campfire, a cold beer or a cup of coffee with friends. Desperation is a shared and palpable thing, with taste, sound, and feel. Let this one settle in like a pair of well-worn boots. —Lisa Whealy
1. “Galatians 2:20” – The Welcome Wagon. TWW is almost genetically engineered specifically to be a perfect fit with my musical tastes: acoustic-based indie-pop married duo inspired to start a band by Sufjan Stevens who sing humble yet joyfully melodic tunes (often with many voices) whose lyrics are sometimes entirely Bible verses (as in this one). I love it all. If you do too, hit up their Kickstarter.
2. “Be My Girl” – Anna Lee Warren. Warren’s strong, clear alto voice is the centerpiece of this vocal/ukulele/stand-up bass/shaker piece, and it shines bright.
3. “The Swells” – Second Husband. A joyful little ditty about (potentially metaphorically) being eaten by a shark that includes a very Juno-esque flute solo and overall attitude.
4. “When I Arrive” – Bryan Diver. Somewhere between Needtobreathe and Josh Garrels lies this high-drama folk tune with an arresting chorus.
5. “Cold Fact” – I Have a Tribe. Gentle trembling at the top of some vocal notes gives a sense of a particular type of intimacy; not theatrical but not entirely restrained either. Just honest, in a certain way. There’s a very European precision about the spacious indie-pop arrangement here.
6. “Uncomfortably Numb” – i.am.hologram. A hypnotic acoustic guitar line that sounds more like a sitar than a six-string anchors this song. Nihil’s barely contained, sneering voice provides an astute counterpoint to the instrumental base.*
7. “Over You” – Pony Hunt. A vintage walking-speed country loll, but fronted by a clear-eyed alto voice, doo-wop background vocals, and delicate–even sweet–pedal steel.
8. “Eggs and Toast” – Redvers Bailey. This charming, quirky, jubilant ode to breakfast food reminds me of the melody of the Boss’s “Dancing in the Dark.” Pretty much everything else possible is different.
9. “Stay a Little Longer” – Knaan Shabtay. Passenger’s vocal style meets a sped-up version of Josh Radin’s delicate intricacies in a charming, engaging tune.
10. “dirt” – Andrea Silva. It’s amazing how arresting a subtle voice, a guitar, and reverb can be.
11. “Used to Be” – Luca Fogale. A dreamy, lovely tune about running out of nostalgia that nonetheless has a deep sense of memory running through it.
12. “Settle Down” – Dark Mean. Jason Molina and Bonnie Prince Billy would approve of this moving, slowly-unfolding tune constructed of simple elements that are imbued with huge emotional importance.
13. “The Thrill of Loneliness” – Honey Stretton. Goes hard for the pastoral feel: a burbling brook, various animal/insect noises, and the hiss of the outdoors accompany a meandering guitar and a fluttering female vocal. You’ll probably want to walk outside after hearing this–it won’t be as pretty as the sonic picture (unless you’re very lucky locationally).
14. “UURKIDNI” – Emily & the Complexes. Most of E&tC’s work is distortion heavy indie-rock, a la Silversun Pickups and the like. But this is a gentle yet sturdy love song of just an acoustic guitar, even-handed vocals, and atypical lyrics that draw me in. Stunning.
*Full disclosure: i.am.hologram’s PR contact recently began writing for Independent Clauses. This happened after selection of this song for coverage and did not affect the selection of the song.
Brother Moses‘ sophomore EP Legendsbuilds on their debut Thanks for All Your Patienceby upgrading the sonics of their rubbery, laidback, Spoon-meets-Pavement indie-rock. Their debut EP was almost preternaturally chill; Raymond Richards (Local Natives) gives their sound some punch, while not losing their goofy, waltz-through-it-all charm.
The easiest place to see this is in “Older,” the lone track present on both EPs. The opening synth has become fatter, the drums are more resonant, the tempo is slightly sped up, and the guitars are brighter. The overall effect is like cranking up the saturate knob on a picture: it’s the same thing, but bigger, brighter, and warmer. Elsewhere, the saturation holds in the form of more reverb (the guitars on “Time to Leave”), more ambiance (“Crazy Eyes”), and more expansive songwriting touches (“Pretend”). Some tracks sound like post-punk; some sound like Vampire Weekend chilling way, way out. Throughout, the band is playing with what they can do in a studio, experimenting with what exactly the sounds in their heads can be with a lot of equipment at their disposal.
Closer “Please Stop” is probably the furthest push of their experiments, putting all of their sonic elements together into one track. Mashing all of their ideas into one place results in a tune that doesn’t quite sound like anyone: James Lockhart’s lolling drawl amps up to an anthemic soar over an indie-rock band that has thoroughly ingested modern indie music and spit out their own distinct version of it. It’s a fantastic tune that is more than the sum of its parts–and the parts are all pretty great on their own.
Legends is a brief six songs, but the growth and development from their first EP shows that they’ve got a lot of ideas. Brother Moses has got a great thing going, and you should jump on that.
John John Brown‘s The Roadis brilliant, drawing heavily from traditional Appalachian sounds and modern folk revivalists to create 10 songs of back-porch folk that are fully realized in scope and yet casual in mood.
Brown’s dusky voice, an immaculate production job, and a deft arranging hand makes this duality possible. “Dust and Bones” pairs a laid-back percussion line with a spacious fingerpicking rhythm at the beginning, before introducing subtle bass work and two different organ sounds for color. Brown’s superbly comfortable vocal delivery caps off the song beautifully. Even from the first listen, it’s as familiar and lovely as a shirt you put on for the first time and immediately know it will be your favorite one.
“On Our Own” pulls the same trick: the yearning solo violin, distant pedal steel, and hushed background vocals accentuate a lyric set of loss and redemption beautifully. “The Wind” is about as ominous as Brown gets, creating a sense of adventurous danger via keening harmonica. The title track is a jubilant folk tune grounded in big, round bass and a huge chorus vocal melody. “Spirits in the Silence” and “What I Really Want to Do” are a bit more pop-oriented-folk, sort of like Counting Crows, Five for Fighting, or Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi.” Brown carefully crafts each tune to have individual elements that set the songs apart, yet never deviate from the overall chill experience.
This album is magnetic: it’s hard to stop listening once you start. You’ll know all the sounds on each of the songs in The Road, but they way Brown makes them come together is barely short of magic. It’s a rare artist that can make the familiar sound brand new and exciting; Brown is that artist.
Last time I checked in with B. Snipes, he was singing a pristine, delicate folk tune about death taking him on a tour of a city. So it was quite a surprise to find that American Dreameropens up with a wide-open, convertible-top-down, vintage American pop-rock tune. It’s a double surprise to realize that it’s the title track. (“We’re going somewhere new, y’all!”) I may miss folky B. Snipes, but his new direction is just as satisfying. If you’re into American pop, 1950-now, you’ll be all over this record.
After the blast of AM radio that is the opener, Snipes throws down a tune that’s an Isbell-style country rocker in the verses with a sunshiny ’50s pop chorus. It comes off a bit like Ivan and Alyosha’s work. The middle of the record hearkens back to a time when Roy Orbison was huge (“Amy, in Chicago”), country was turning into rock via pop music (“Sweet Eleanor”), and unironic sentiment was cool (“Easy Things,” which has a spiritual sibling in Jason Mraz’s non-rapping work). If you love the Avett Brothers at their most pensive, “Completely” will scratch an itch that probably hasn’t been touched much since “Murder in the City.”
The record is smooth, clean, clear, and deeply listenable. It’s a pop record shorn of the high glitz that the wall of sound and its children would put on the pop sound. They don’t make ’em like this much anymore.
But right when it seems like B. Snipes is ready to cap off a timeless-sounding record, he makes another shift. “Red White Blues” is a gentle yet concerned rebuke of political polarization couched in a tune that sounds like a mix of Bright Eyes, Sufjan Stevens, and the Arcade Fire. That’s a lot of referents to pack into one song, but there’s a lot of song to go around. It’s the easy highlight of the record, made all the more impressive because it still manages to hang with the rest of the record in mood despite being completely different thematically. The sonics here are louder, but they’re still in the same, very American vein. (Which is funny, because The Arcade Fire is Canadian.) The tune provides a fitting bookend to the opener, which puts faith in being an American dreamer; “Red White Blues” is full of practical exhortations about what we need to do to keep being American dreamers.
American Dreamer is an American pop record through and through. It draws from earlier eras of pop’s history but makes statements about our current condition through them. The songs are fun, pretty, interesting and thought-provoking. How much more can you ask for in a pop record? This is great work. Highly recommended.
Kyle Cox‘s “Trusty Ol’ Pair of Boots” is an old-school train-whistle country song, complete with traditional bass work (love me some standup here), vocal harmonies galore, and even a guitar solo. The vocal melodies are familiar and warm, but not derivative; the love song lyrics are simple, earnest, and a perfect fit for the song. It’s basically everything good about country music.
So to make that excellent song even better, Cox paired it with a charmingly simple video. Instead of going to high-drama lengths (which wouldn’t fit the song at all), Cox recruited his wife to play HORSE on the basketball court outside their house. The very pedestrian yet fun and funny activity matches the candor of the tune, which is a pledge of steadfast marital allegiance. Some people would chafe at hearing their relationship called a trusty ol’ pair of boots, but those who wouldn’t are going to understand both the song and the video. I love it all.
Also, I just really like basketball.
Kyle Cox’s Trio and Friends came out in June; you can pick it up at iTunes. He’s got a bunch of shows through the South coming up, so you should check him out on those. Maybe you’ll get to play some hoops with him.
Seth Nathan‘s Swimopens up with a fuzzed-out blast of ’90s indie-rock in “Four Corners,” building on the discography he’s created recently of fractured indie-rock fusions with various other genres. The rest of the album streamlines out some of the genre mash-ups, focusing on an updated Pavement/Guided by Voices sound. With the music streamlined, it leaves room for Nathan’s attention to turn toward lyrical concerns for most of Swim. “How did you still love me / when everything was wrong in my head?” opens up second track “Pieces of Jade.” The rest of the album could be subtitled Love in the Time of Mental Illness, as Nathan takes the listener on a tour of what love looks like in the midst of “everything was wrong in my head.”
Nathan is remarkably open and detailed about this period of his life, whether that’s the flute-laden psych-pop of “Diagonal” declaring a Mountain Goats-esque couple paralysis (“we’re stuck in a tangle / or a strangle / we can’t handle”), the loping “Sealed My Fate” trying to make sense of a relationship “crashing down,” or the country-esque “This Big Old House” unspooling a rebuilding narrative with an ominous ticking clock in the background. It’s a deeply personal album, but not in the claustrophobic way that many records can be when they try to go this route. The one exception is the title track, which closes the record with a brittle, intense solo acoustic performance that caps the story of the record in an inconclusive, loose-threads sort of way. If you’re into indie-rock albums that are genuinely trying to do things that you can’t do in a regular rock format (that was the goal once, no?), you’ll find a lot to love in Swim.
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.