Dietrich Strause‘s How Cruel That Hunger Binds is a sneaky breakup album: it starts off with a folk-pop ode to the narrator’s own human depravity and takes all the way till the eighth track (“Spring Has Sprung”) to get explicit about the fact that getting over someone is hard. Along the way, Strause ponders religion (“Boy Born to Die”), homecoming (“Pennsylvania”), the limits of nostalgia in the face of reality (“Home From the Heartland”), and other introspective topics.
The music is similarly thoughtful: starting from a mature folk standpoint (opener “The Beast That Rolls Within” calls up Josh Ritter, Justin Townes Earle, etc.), Strause adds in all sorts of subtle flourishes to make the tracks pop: horns feature throughout the album, whether blaring (“Lying in Your Arms,” “The World Once Turning”) or warbling sentimentally (“Pennsylvania”), a harmonium provides the backdrop for the mysterious “Around the World,” and Strause incorporates doowop elements throughout (but never in a kitschy way). The end result is a majestic, carefully-wrought album folk-pop album that stands up against multiple listens. Highly recommended.
It’s Christmastime! And if you’re over Sufjan’s Christmas songs (but how could you be??), there are definitely some new options to love this yuletide.
I love Christmas almost as much as I love puns, so Candy Cigarette’s “A Whale’s Christmas in Childress, TX” is endeared to me in multiple ways. (The pun is a reversal of the terms in Dylan Thomas’ “A Child’s Christmas in Wales.”) It’s a chipper acoustic-led indie-pop tune that has a heaping helping of Christmas cheer poured into it (and sleigh bells! always sleigh bells!). The unique direction of the lyrics make it even more fun. Awesome.
SHEL goes for a light-touch approach on “Sleigh Ride,” not deviating too far from the classic approach (because what would it be without sleigh bells?). That makes the warm lead vocals the star here.
IC fave Latifah Phillips (of Moda Spira and Page CXVI) has teamed up with Aaron Strumpel to create an album of vintage-sounding Christmas tunes called Heck Ya the Halls (awesome title, y’all). It’s surprisingly non-kitschy: plenty of jazzy trumpet, staccato piano, and smooth vibes to go around.
Jenny & Tyler, another IC fave, just dropped a Christmas album. Their recent folk-pop/indie-rock output has been pretty magnificent, so I expect this release to be no different.
Andrew Belle’s offering for this holiday season is a dense, moody electro-pop outing called “Back for Christmas” that may not end up sung around the yule log but has a lot of staying power. If you hear me kickin’ this one in July, don’t be surprised. Really tight work here.
1. “The Adventures of Prince Achmed” – Morricone Youth. This wild, expansive piece grabs from a wide array of movie soundtrack, traditional, and current indie-rock influences as part of a soundtrack for Lotte Reiniger’s 1926 German animated silent film of the same name. (The film is the oldest known surviving animated film.) It’s the sort of genre-defying, eclectic, intensely unique music that doubles as a “stump the music journalist” game.
2. “Cumulus” – Koltbach. This is straight-up what trip-hop sounds like in 2016. The stark, staccato beats, the dusky mood, and the lush piano all hearken back to early trip-hop. The burbling, zippy synths update the sound pleasantly. This is solid, impressive work.
3. “Rattlesnake No. 3” – The Aquaerials. Thundering piano low-end commands my attention pretty thoroughly, and this high-drama instrumental piece has it in spades. Some pad synths play in for atmosphere, but this one’s all about the piano.
4. “Vi 1” – DYLDO. A cascading, woozy bit of piano and violin, like a quartet on psychedelics. It’s a bit of a disorienting piece–it feels like something familiar hidden in the waves, but the modulations make it uniquely other. Fascinating.
5. “Anillo delicado encantado” – Jorge Segovia. A playful, quirky piece from Segovia that sounds at the beginning like the sort of work you might find in the adventuring segments of an RPG (Final Fantasy came to mind first, then Zelda), but it rapidly transitions into a lusher, fuller section and back out. There’s a lot going on in this short piece, which is what makes it such fun to listen to.
6. “Slooshy Klang” – Niles Cooper. Not actually slooshy or clangy, this piano-and-violin work is a sort of deconstructed Carly Comando piece, as a pulsing, pressing lead melody gets anxiety and breaks up into staccato parts. The violin just adds to the air of uncertainty. It’s the sort of thing that appears at the nadir of a protagonist’s arc in movies: really sad, in a majestic sort of way.
7. “Rain” – Frode-5. Not too long, not too short, this solo piano piece sets up a pensive mood, inhabits it, and lets it fade off into the distance. Restraint is key here, and overall the piece works wonderfully.
1. “Backseat Pressure (Summer Dregs Remix)” – Dirty Blonde. I don’t know what filter, patch, or setting Summer Dregs used to augment the piano here, but it sounds unique and just plain cool. The rest of the arrangement plays out with the best lessons learned from both EDM and indie-electro pop. A thoroughly satisfying jam.
2. “Time Traveler” – Emeryld. A squiggly electro-pop verse arrangement unfolds into a delicate, moving chorus. Then the post-chorus instrumental section explodes into a Postal Service-style soaring electro-indie-pop bit. It all is held together by Emeryld’s perfectly-fit vocals.
3. “On a Bus” – Baseball Gregg. Bouncy, charming, a little goofy, but grounded enough by a rattling percussion line to not float off into untethered whimsy, this indie-pop tune is the audio equivalent of a gap-toothed smile on a sunny day.
4. “Trails” – Sisters. Somehow manages to sound exactly like 1985 and 2016 at the same time: the trumpeting synths, the arpeggiator press, the way-up-front vocal mix, the whole nine yards. Is it Paul Simon? Yes? Arcade Fire? CHVRCHES? Who can say?
5. “Colors” – Honest Men. Everybody needs a bouncy electro-pop jam in their life every now and then. You can’t really roll the windows down in a lot of places right now, but if you’re still in a place where you can…
6. “Close to Be Close to Me” – Echo Ladies. My general formula on popular music 1980-1989 is “closer to the ’80s = farther from my interest.” There was just a lot going on in that era that didn’t connect with me: gated drums, giant towers of guitar reverb, icy moods, and lots of medium-speed tempos. Somehow, Echo Ladies took all those things I hated about ’80s pop and turned them into a really sharp, enjoyable electro-pop tune. The vocal melodies really pop in this one.
7. “Half a Billion Miles” – Vagabond Specter. Space-rock was always kind of hanging out just off-screen. Sure, David Bowie did his thing, and yeah, there was that early ’00s moment where space-rock got real serious, but in a lot of ways we haven’t mined all we can of space-rock. (There’s also The Lovely Few, who are holding it down.) Vagabond Specter gives us a version of space-rock that sounds like what a spacefaring roadtrip song might sound like. It’s all burbling synths, headbobbing percussion, and soothing vocals. Rad.
8. “Red Roses” – Leisure Tank. This female-fronted indie-rock track has ominous overtones all over it, from the powerful vocal performance to the charging full-band coda. Sounds like an early Elbow track on steroids.
9. “Manta Ray” – Sam Brockington. Lightly funky, rhythmically interesting, and blessed with a bouncy bass line, this indie-rock tune rattles, dances, and sways its way through the three-minute runtime.
10. “Cupid’s Drunk” – Danny Starr. Fans of Oasis will find much to love in this acoustic-rock tune, especially Starr’s vocal melodies in the chorus.
11. “Staying Together” – ATTU. Combines mopey bedroom pop with unassuming dance-rock to create something that’s not either thing. It’s friendly but not exactly warm; it’s approachable but not saccharine; it’s fun but not giddy. It floats, but it’s not wispy. I could go on.
12. “By the Ocean” – Kid Indigo. Chipper acoustic melodies, a refreshingly earnest mood, and a subtle cool make this song into a smile-inducing charmer that’s reminiscent of early Jason Mraz work. (Remember when he was the coolest? I do.)
13. “Dreamers” – Delafaye. The mood Delafaye sets fits the title perfectly in this one, as the soft reverb and carefully-selected instrumental tones give this acoustic-led track a dreamy indie-pop feel. It’s a little more alt-country than Grandaddy, but it’s in the ballpark.
14. “Boulders” – Lucas Laufen. Pop in the way that Damien Rice and Jose Gonzalez are pop–not exactly folk, not adult alternative, but distinctly drawing on formal pop traditions in an acoustic vein. The “Quiet is the New Loud” folks would be all into this for sure. Laufen’s vocals fit excellently with the arrangement.
1. “The Tallest Woman on Earth” – Prints Jackson. Jackson’s on a never-ending song-a-month project (this one is month 33), and it seems like it’s only honing his skills: this fingerpicked folk tune is near-perfect. The vocals are engaging, the arrangement keeps morphing and changing, and the whole thing is a “can’t take my ears off it” success. Turn off the video you’re watching and just give this one your full attention: it will reward you.
2. “Still Believe in Love” – Darrin James Band. A spiritual successor to the swift, self-confident protest songs of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, this fingerpicked travelin’ song is a protest anthem and a call for love all at once.
3. “Snake in the Grass” – Autumn Chorus. This a thoughtfully arranged chamber-folk piece with soft, arresting vocals. If you want a jolt, look up the story behind the song. Even if you’re not the researchy type, you can feel the gravitas here.
4. “Penny for Your Thoughts” – Einar Stray Orchestra. It takes chutzpah to put together an indie orchestra in 2016–the economics and logistics of it are just nightmarish. But the music that you can produce: whoa. This piano-led piece is punchy and yet organic, keeping a drumkit, thrumming bass, and pizzicato strings all balanced perfectly. It’s a complex whirligig that doesn’t draw attention to its moving parts and instead shows off the whole, awesome result.
5. “Astrovan” – Mt. Joy. Comes straight out of the SUSTO school of laidback irreverence: chilled-out alt-country that imagines Jesus driving an Astro van (among other things). I’m not on team Astro Van lyrically (“maybe there is no heaven”), but man, the melodic appeal and gentle groove of this song are hard to reject.
6. “Until I Fall Asleep” – Paul Cook & The Chronicles. Who doesn’t love a sub-two-minute acoustic pop lullaby? This one is sweet, kind, and lovely.
7. “Chasing Heights” – Bamik. No genre is ever dead–it just gets harder and harder to do something that’s genuinely riveting without just calling back to old cliches. But it is totally doable, and Bamik demonstrates it by making incredibly engaging folk-pop–that still sounds like Mumford and Sons crossed with Fleet Foxes. But in that juxtaposition is magic, and Bamik finds that magic. Fantastic.
8. “4th of July” – STILLS. The close vocal harmonies and harmonium make this a warm, immersive, intimate folk tune. I love what the harmonium can do for a song, and STILLS put it to great use here.
9. “Rising Men Down” – Kate O’Callaghan. O’Callaghan’s lovely Irish lilt leads this track, as she uses it softly and powerfully throughout the tune. The arrangement is sophisticated and impressive.
10. “Goodbye” – Lucas Laufen. The sound of sheep bleating and wind rustling in the background give this gentle ballad even more pastoral bonafides. Laufen’s voice meshes with the pristine guitar playing beautifully.
11. “Lover After” – Luke De-Sciscio. Fans of Jeff Buckley will appreciate the yearning, ethereal vocals over delicate washes of acoustic notes that compose this emotive tune.
12. “Let Me Down Easy” – Andrea von Kampen. von Kampen has impressive control over her voice, swooping from a dignified near-whisper to a keening wail to an even-handed plea with tremendous ease. This amount of diversity is a mark of songwriting maturity, and this break-up tune has a rare thoughtful quality to it that drives home the idea even more.
13. “Hewing Crowns” – Her Harbour. A solitary, lonesome rumination over a solo piano–the room echo gives the vocal performance even more gravitas than the commanding-yet-vulnerable vocal performance itself brings to the table. Good news for people who like sad news.
1. “Home Away” – Valley Shine. This song excellently combines two things I love: enthusiastic folk-pop and Graceland-style African music influences. It’s the sort of jubilant yet suave work that transcends genre barriers and should be appreciated by people across the pop music spectrum. Just a fantastic song.
2. “Brother” – Jack the Fox. Doesn’t need more than an acoustic guitar, some warm pad synths and an arresting voice to totally take over a room. It’s quality on par with Josh Ritter and Fleet Foxes, but doesn’t sound like either artist.
3. “One Day I’ll Be Your Ears” – Mateo Katsu. Ramshackle, enthusiastic, chunky, herky-jerky acoustic indie-pop from the school of Daniel Johnston and Page France. It’s the sort of charmingly off-kilter work that lo-fi was meant to celebrate.
4. “Lil to Late” – Brother Paul. Here’s a fun, easygoing acoustic blues shuffle with hints of rockabilly, vintage country and self-deprecating humor sprinkled throughout. It’s topped off with just the right amount of Motown soul-style horns.
5. “The Time It Takes” – The Show Ponies. This Americana outfit sounds like a Joe Walsh moonlighting as the leader of a Nashville country outfit: saloon-style piano, radio-rock ramblin’ vibe, and male/female duet vocals straight off your local country radio. It’s not usually what I’m into, but it hooked me and kept me.
6. “Return to the Scene” – Aaron Atkins. Weary yet sturdy, this alt-country/folk tune ambles along on the strength of great rumbling bass lines and a convincingly-achy vocal performance.
7. “Phoenix Fire” – Simon Alexander. From the Josh Garrels/Hozier school of intense singers comes this thoughtful, mature pop song with a great chorus.
8. “Melody, I” – Pluto and Charon. A warm, intimate acoustic performance that retains the fret squeaks and string buzz. It’s more rough in its fidelity than Damien Jurado ever was, but it has a similar sort of vibe in the dignified vocals.
9. “Waterski to Texas” – Budo and Kris Orlowski. Now this one really does sound like Damien Jurado, but the latter-day Jurado. Budo and Orlowski walk a fine line between big, sweeping arrangements of singer/songwriter work and a very personal, even raw, emotive quality. The vocals here are particularly fine.
10. “Gold Ring” – Redvers Bailey. This one’s a lovely, romantic, gently layered song that floats somewhere between Josh Radin’s delicate work and the wide-eyed wonder of “Casimir Pulaski Day”-style Sufjan Stevens.
11. “High Rolling” – Jake Aaron. This acoustic instrumental manages to be complex and inviting at the same time, subverting expectations by not just jumping to the highest treble notes for the lead melody. By keeping the melody low and close to the fingerpicked foundation of the piece, the tune feels both comfortable and complicated. It’s very worth your time, even for those who aren’t generally into acoustic instrumentals.
The last time IC checked in with Jake McKelvie, he was blasting off at rocket speed over folk-punk strumming. If the title track/first single of McKelvie’s new EP The Rhinestone Busboy is any indication, this release is going to be a lot different.
“Rhinestone Busboy” is a pristine, walking-speed country shuffle with indie arranging tendencies, much like Clem Snide’s work. Over a brushed snare shuffle and unhurried acoustic strum, warm keys and electric guitar with vintage-style reverb settings ring out in a precise yet charming method. The engineering is bright and sharp, which results in a very effective fusion of the traditional with the modern.
The delicate, carefully constructed arrangement is matched by McKelvie’s languid, easygoing vocal delivery–he’s perfectly at ease here, allowing his voice to have all sorts of honest, subtle emotional inflections. The lyrics tell a story of a romantic reconnection that actually turned into ships passing in the night–a tale with more twists and turns than I’d expect from the musical style. But even in simplicity, McKelvie can draw out complexity. It’s a fascinating track that calls for repeated listens and has me quite excited for the full EP, which drops December 20.
Saxophone and horn have definitely moved out of marching band. Moon Hooch is a trio consisting of James Muschler (drums) and Mike Wilbur and Wenzl McGowen (saxophone). Students at The New School of Jazz and Contemporary Music in New York City, they honed their performance style in the subway system of New York City and recorded Red Sky at The Bunker in Brooklyn. Red Sky brings together a host of talents in composition coupled with raw energy: the energy of the city turns the album into a trip on the dance floor–no matter where you are. A captivating third release, this fourteen track album (including bonus track) dances its way into a transcendent experience for the listener.
“I think Red Sky is more focused than any of our past albums,” reflects McGowen. “We practice meditation and yoga, and I think that we’re more evolved as people than we’ve ever been right now. That evolution expresses itself as focus, and through focus comes our energy.” Thoughtful sequencing is part of this release. They open with the title track, then follow with “That’s What They Say,” where the celebrated baritone sax flows into the first intoxicating melody. Influenced by electronica, there is an auditory rave going on here. Making a sax sing is an amazing talent, and the jazz influences are evident. Intricate tenor sax runs only punctuate the complex composition. NY Mag got it right, once referring to their sound as “Jay Gatsby on ecstasy.”
Bringing it down a notch is “Sunken Ship,” featuring introspective, seductive lyrics. This song reflects the fact that the band uses found items to manipulate the sound of their instruments. It is also just plain cool. Stomping back in with trademark horn runs is “Love 5”; the horns give a familiarity that kicks toe-tapping into dancing gear. The reference points range from John Coltrane to Clarence Clemons and beyond, coming together into a unique tongueing style that makes this music magic.
“Psychotubes” goes ethereal, leading with a beastly percussion invitation to fall in head first. Having spent time in India and practicing meditation, “On The Sun” flows in a stream of consciousness set to music. “I went to India, and the first morning I woke up, it was like 5am, and I followed this music along the banks of the Ganges,” McGowan remembers. “I eventually ended up finding this amazing tabla player, and after his performance, I asked him for lessons. He agreed, and I went for daily lessons with him and another guy for the next two weeks. After that, I took a train to Calcutta, where I met with the guru that I’d studied with in New York, and I did morning lessons with him and practiced throughout the day. It was an incredible musical immersion experience.”
Kicking in with the only countdown is “Booty Call” as a return to the exuberance of the now-familiar melodies twisted up a notch. The song continues to evolve in new ways with a subtle jazz vibe. “Shot” redefines what the music here is and how the instruments are used. Energetic and expansive mixes help the vocals on this song feel special, making it an integral piece of the puzzle. Tripping into “Something Else,” the music soars and plunges like a roller coaster with mini breaks in exuberance. “Rough Sex” brings back that rave club vibe, driving and sexy sax blended with the DJ thing that keeps the party rocking. From high hat to the building melody, the experience is real, all the way down to the final breakdown.
Taking the album out is an “Alien Invasion,” which at this point does not feel alien at all. The out of this world musicianship of this trio from Brooklyn shines: funky beats with the trademark bass lines make this song shine out of this world. Intricate melodies are layered with stellar grace, giving each instrument a chance to shine. Moon Hooch is continuing to tour in support of Red Sky with upcoming dates in Reno, Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, San Diego, Pawling (New York), Providence, and Portland (Maine). In the meantime, make sure and listen to Red Sky by Moon Hooch. This album is out of this world.–Lisa Whealy
1. “Crocodile” – Folk is People. With that gentle repudiation of the term folk in the band name, you’d expect this to be a genre-savvy work. And it is: there’s some nice acoustic fingerpicking welded to a pop-rock drums-and-bass chassis, but it explodes into overdriven garage rock for the chorus (but retains strong melodic vocal lines). A really fun ride.
2. “The Hardest Lesson” – Brock’s Folly. Starts out as a pensive, pastoral folk song, then ratchets up to a scratchy indie-rock stomp: “the hardest lesson I ever learned / was to let my young ambitions burn / now they’re gone.”
3. “Stovetop Coffee” – The Northern Folk. There’s a touch of Gregory Alan Isakov’s romanticism here paired with a more punchy folk arrangement that features a warm horn section.
4. “Summer Nun” – Tri-State. Punchy, thoughtful indie-pop-rock that incorporates some Eastern sounds into its mix without sacrificing any of their pop charm.
5. “Je Danse Dans La Discotheque Avec Toulouse Lautrec” – Christine Leakey. This relentlessly inventive, wild pastiche of sounds comes off like being trapped in a music box that is rapidly becoming unhinged: operatic vocals, frantic piano, saxophone, French, and more contribute to an incredibly fascinating tune.
6. “Nobody Else” – Wy. Starts off as a cavernous electro freeze-out and then blossoms into punchy mid-tempo guitar-pop for the chorus.
7. “Late Night Store” – Husky. This indie rock tune with some electro-dance elements actual sounds like the vibe you might find at a late night store as you’re going out to the club (or if you’re really excited to be going home)–not giddy, but excited, and with some seedy atmosphere in the background.
8. “Break” – ADLT VIDEO. This electro-pop tune hooked me entirely on the strength and prominence of the bass work (The bassist/bass keyboardist/downtuned guitar gets a solo!). The rest of the song is pretty solid, from the vocals to the arrangements, but I’m here for the bass.
9. “Genesis” – Grex. Pensive, patient electro that is a little more active than ambient but not by much. The mood is delicious.
1. “Freight Train” – Micah Huang. This is how you do lo-fi: instead of using lo-fi as a cover for lack of skills, the tape hiss/atmospheric sounds lend a humility and gravitas to the Elizabeth Cotten cover. It’s a beautiful rendition of a beautiful song.
2. “Falling For You” – Eric and Happie. Bouncy, punchy folk-pop with big melodies and (yes) the occasional “hey!”–I’m still into it, y’all. I am. Twin Forks forever.
3. “Man Upon The Hill” – Stars and Rabbit. Fans of instantly recognizable vocal styles will connect with Stars and Rabbit, as the lead singer is reminiscent of Joanna Newsom but not quite. The way she uses her voice is intriguing as well, beyond the tone of it. The rest of the tune is an adventure of building sounds, from alt-folky to indie rock to even Sigur Ros-like. All in all, a wild ride.
4. “Heart’s Desire” – The Loft Club. Sort of Zeppelin meets Laurel Canyon, which is a delicate balance to hold.
6. “Bridges” – Jordan Moe. There’s usually a pretty clear line between Adult Alternative and folk (Matt Nathanson/Jack Johnson vs. Joe Pug/Josh Ritter), but Jordan Moe blurs the line with delicate guitar, emotional vocal performance, and thoughtful arrangement. It ends up being more like Parachutes-era Coldplay than either of the genres mentioned.
7. “Freedom or This” – Joe Wilkinson. I was never a huge Dispatch fan, but I can appreciate groove-laden acoustic folk of that ilk. Wilkinson’s work here incorporates the usual suspects (hand percussion, acoustic guitars, group vocals, speak/singing) but puts them together in a warm, inviting manner that has appeal outside the niche.
8. “Scared of America” – Jesse Ruben. We’re going to see a whole lot more protest songs, I think, and here’s a literate, well-considered one. The chipper guitar and hummable vocal lines try to offset the bitterness of the protest; the whole “spoonful of sugar” approach.
9. “Heavy Metal” – Furniture from the Fifties. The lyrics of this delicate tune start off like a “amicable split” work, but then wander off in more intriguing directions. The song’s only 1:25, but it opens spaces to ask questions and ponder. It’s really cool.
10. “In Your Arms” – Katie Ferrara. Straightforward singer/songwriter tunes rely heavily on the vocal tone and vocal melodies. Ferrara’s vocal tone is beautiful, and her melodies here are unusually soothing and warm. Sold.
11. “Wolves of the Revolution” – The Arcadian Wild. The sort of spacious, well-outfitted, wintry folk that sounds like the soundtrack to running through a forest with snow on the ground and freedom on the mind.
12. “Amethyst” – Deda. This dusky acoustic jaunt joins whisper-folk and giant-expansive-arrangement folk to create a unique vibe.
13. “Come Back” – Rosin. When all four of the quartet get going at about 3:40 in, this Appalachian/classical string outfit really starts to connect their chops with emotional punch.
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.