Rarely have I had so much fun listening to a longhear than when listening to Lullatone‘s Thinking about Thursdays. The twee instrumental outfit, already an IC fave, recently compiled their “a song every Thursday in 2016” project into one big album of 52 songs. Their twee instrumentals are brilliant as ever, but their expanded sonic palette is what makes this album so wonderful.
Lullatone excels at making child-like music, turning toy pianos, music boxes, ukuleles, flutes and other small-sounding instruments into delicate and charming tunes (mostly in major keys). Their basic sound is something like The Album Leaf’s tender expansiveness mashed with Wes Anderson’s distinct, precise nostalgia. Openers “trying something again (again)” and “a photograph from the day you were born” stick to this script, creating memorable entries in the Lullatone oeuvre. This type of chipper, bright, clever song appears throughout the album; collectively, they are proof that Lullatone has mastered their craft and yet not exhausted it.
Things get even more exciting as they spread their wings. “how frost grows” signals a widening of their sonic scope, as a slurring, glacial, distorted guitar creates a desolate post-rock landscape. “cooped up at home with a fever and a tape loop” is just that: a hazy, tape hiss-laden fever dream that reminds me of a vocal-less version of The Microphones. “two turn tables and a casiotone” is a fun riff on the titular concept, while follow-on “how i broke my parents’ record player (when i was five)” is even more beat-heavy, landing somewhere between instrumental hip-hop and The Postal Service. “aboard Korean Air flight 742 to Seoul” continues what is ultimately a four-week beat fancy, adding stuttering snares and a melodic hook to a cherubic synth.
Things get even more exciting from there: “puddles full of petals (of Sakura)” combines harp, East Asian melodic ideas, and video game soundtrack drama (one of two back-to-back Asian sonic entries); “father-son adventures” has a jaunty, spry electric guitar line that will please any fan of major key post-rock a la Delicate Steve or Fang Island; “concrete waves” is filtered through a dense, stylish mesh of DJ Shadow. Other referents (real or imagined) include Matt and Kim, klezmer music, elevator music/vaporwave, and chillwave. I won’t spoil all the surprises (there are 52 songs!!), but suffice it to say that this is a great collection with almost no dead weight. Beyond the lovely individual songs, there’s a subtle joy in listening to a whole year of someone’s creation in what seems like chronological order, tracking through the seasons with the moods and titles of each song.
Thinking About Thursdays is that rare release that combines serious composition, thoughtful moods, intriguing instrumentation, quality sonic diversity, and out-and-out fun. It’s an incredible release, and it’s one of my early contenders for album of the year. Highly recommended.
Life can be a stark gritty landscape dotted with hope and heartache, but dreams of another tomorrow will bring you back. The American West captures the bleak beauty of Steinbeck’s America with debut album The Soot Will Bring Us Back Again, allowing listeners to immerse themselves in a dust storm of roots Americana music.
The album had humble beginnings. Zeltzer immersed himself in his songwriting as caretaker at an organic farm in Half Moon Bay, south of San Francisco. Living in an Airstream made these songs real, haunting, and alive. The Soot Will Bring Us Back Again was recorded live to two-inch tape in three days at The Hallowed Halls in Portland, with the help of engineer Jordan Richter (Band Of Horses, Legendary Shack Shakers, Plastic Ono Band). Not a bad way to start.
Matthew Zeltzer and Maria Maita-Keppeler create magic together in a harmonic mesh with guitarist Will Haas, bassist Lewi Longmire, drummer Erich Spielmann, and keyboardist Benjamin Nathan O’Brien. The group of musicians assembled here fit together like a wagon train scouting up ahead. No one element instrument stands alone except for Zeltzer’s voice, which leads the music with a graceful, light hand. Standout “Ghost Town” shows off another important element of the album: Maita-Keppeler and Zeltzer work really well together. (Both have supported each other with appearances on each other’s work.) The Soot would be an echo of something great without the pair.
The band delivers an authentic dustbowl vibe, bringing stark images to mind like a Dorothea Lange photograph. Pedal steel shines on “Ritalin” shifting gears into harmonies that tug at the soul. “Ritalin” embraces the folk roots feel brilliantly. “Heart of Stone” is solid country, as angst-filled listeners can feel the rain coming down. “Patience, Young Conquistador” shines a light on the simplistic finger picking from Zeltzer illuminating the challenges from a land that was raped and working to be reborn. The attention-grabbing “Voices” creates an uptempo country-rock ramble with an urgency that stands out to the ear. Lyrically, it hearkens back to the near-apocalyptic destruction of central California land.
The lyrical quality shines elsewhere as well: “Roadsick Blues” and “Westward Man” showcase the masterful lyricism on this release. The latter has a chorus that demands attention: “He’s a shipwreck/He’s a bounced check/He’ll cut you down in the muddy street/He’s a tin can/He’s a fake tan/If you can read his lie you know you’re halfway there.” It’s a stellar mash of Townes Van Zandt and a present-day warning, like smooth bourbon going down smooth at the end of a long night. In the land of longing, “Looking For You” encompasses the sweet indie vibe, like a bee that cannot find the blossom on which to land. The language of longing and love take on different objects of affection with a cool lounge singer feel. Intimacy is the prize here.
Sometimes a listener just does not want a story to end. Such is the case here on the debut album from The American West. Coming to the end, “Let Me Love You Like A Pauper Does” pleads for a love that certainly suggests that fans will tire of the troubadour and his saga of life. The thing is: that’s not true. The Soot Will Bring Us Back Again is adding to the Great American Songbook, and we can only patiently wait for the next volume. Get yours March 17th, 2017.–Lisa Whealy
Maybe having an arsenal of Tennyson and Yeats really was the key to survival for songwriter, composer, and fiddle player Jenny Scheinman. “Okay, Jenny,” I imagine her mother telling her, “One more time, repeat after me…‘He clasps the crag with crooked hands.’” “What does any of that have to do with an album of fiddle tunes?” Scheinman asks. “The fiddle has that same raw, outlaw, dirt-on-your-knees spirit of prison poetry. The fiddle can be played by anyone with rudimentary musical skill,” her mother says. “It can entertain a crowd. Its songs are the people’s music. And honestly, if I ever end up in prison, I’d much rather have a fiddle on me than a poem,” retorts Scheinman. Her instrumental album Here on Earth is a reflection of that storytelling through the voice of the instrument Scheinman knows best.
The fifteen-song album has seen many of its songs find a home in Kannapolis: A Moving Portrait, a collaboration with filmmaker Finn Taylor that was commissioned by Aaron Greenwald at Duke Performances. The music completes the picture, which collects archival footage taken between 1936-42 by H. Lee Waters (1902-1997). Waters was a North Carolina photographer who traveled across the Piedmont, a region spanning much of central North Carolina that includes parts of Appalachia. During his travels, he made short movies of people living ordinary lives during the Great Depression. This backdrop for the music makes the album extraordinary.
Scheinman based her band for these recordings on a specific scene from the movie, where three musicians (fiddle, banjo and guitar) are playing at a dance party. Danny Barnes (banjo, guitar, tuba), Robbie Fulks (guitar, banjo), Bill Frisell (guitar) and Robbie Gjersoe (resonator guitar) were brought in not just for their brilliant skills and deep-rooted understanding of fiddle music, but because they brought the barn-stomping, slightly unhinged energy she was trying to conjure.
By collecting this authenticity in the studio, the magic of a specific period in time is captured inHere On Earth. From the opening song “A Kid Named Lily” to “Broken Pipeline” and all those in between, each sings Americana in the purest form. It’s a treat for the ears to listen to American history. Scheinman makes the fiddle sing, delivering elegant beauty in the time capsule. The songs here are diverse: listeners will hear a jig (“Up On Shenanigan”) coupled with mournful work from Robbie Faulks (“Pent Up Boy”). It seems pointless to single out an individual track when they are part of a whole evoking deep emotion. The best suggestion is close your eyes and listen. Listening to Here on Earth by Jenny Scheinman is a joyful, haunting, hopeful journey that is not to be missed. For those lucky enough to be on the east coast, there are two upcoming opportunities to see this piece live in Maine or New York. Don’t miss out. —Lisa Whealy
1. “Friends” – Marsicans. Marsicans appeared fully-formed writing masterful indie-pop-rock songs. I have no idea how that happened, but we’re all beneficiaries. This one manages to get heavy on the lyrical content and yet still manages to be one of the catchiest songs I’ve heard since … uh … “Swimming” by Marsicans.
2. “My Roommate Is a Snake and the Landlord’s a Bat” – Gregory Pepper and His Problems. If the conceit of Sleigh Bells is “hardcore guitars tamed by pop melodies,” the conceit of Pepper’s new album Black Metal Demo Tape is “sludge metal guitar and indie pop melodies.” This particular track starts off as a doomy dirge before transitioning into a early-Weezer power-pop tribute to metal. It’s a fun ride the whole way through the track. The rest of the album is equally inventive, charming, and gloomy (sometimes in a tongue-in-cheek sort of way, but also sometimes not).
3. “Weathering” – moonweather. Fans of the acoustic work on Modest Mouse’s Good News album will love the unique vocal style and swaying, shambling, enthusiastic folk arrangement of this tune. The lilting, floating horns/string arrangement is excellent.
4. “€30,000” – Emperor X. If John Darnielle had collaborated with Pedro the Lion in between his All Hail West Texas and Tallahassee days, the results would have sounded as enigmatic and engaging as this incredible track. It’s almost pointless to tag this with genres–it’s a thoughtful, passionate, wild indie-pop (okay, I did it anyway) track.
5. “Unbroken Chains” – WolfCryer. If you’re not listening to WolfCryer yet, you’re missing out on some of the most vital, important folk songs being sung today. Baumann’s vocal delivery, vocal melodies, and lyrics are all top-shelf in this weary, burdened protest tune.
7. “I Won’t Rest Until” – Brianna Gaither. Following in the vein of Moda Spira, this tune seamlessly blends electro-pop synths, instrospective singer/songwriter piano, soulful vocals, and indie-rock drums for a thoroughly modern-sounding take on serious pop.
8. “We Notice Homes When They Break” – Loyal Wife. An earnest, charming love song that’s part alt-country (via the blaring organ), part indie-pop (through the vocal tone and vocal melodies), and part singer/songwriter (through the lyrics).
9. “Hold On” – Midnight Pilot. The title track to Midnight Pilot’s latest EP is a distillation of their Paul Simon-meets-Americana sound, a yearning piano-driven ballad augmented by lovely fluttering strings and capped off by a beautiful male vocal performance. The vocal melodies in the chorus are catchy and sophisticated, a balance rarely struck well.
10. “Alone with the Stars” – Ofeliadorme. Portishead-style trip-hop with a heavy dose of spacey/ambient synths for atmosphere. The video is in black and white because the song sounds like it is in noir tones.
11. “Eternally” – Julia Lucille. Fans of the complex emotional states of Julianna Barwick will find much to love in this track, which has similar focus on wordless vocals (although not looped and layered ones) to convey the dramatic, almost mystical mood. This track does have a full band supporting Lucille’s voice, and the band’s patient, thoughtful accompaniment creates a dusky evening for her voice to wander through.
12. “Islands III” – Svarta Stugan. Instead of releasing a video, this Swedish post-rock outfit released a video game. Set in a gray, bleak warzone environment, the game has elements of Helicopter Game and a side-scrolling space shooter. (It’s fun!) The song itself is a slowly-moving, minor-key, guitar-heavy post-rock piece of the Godspeed You Black Emperor! school. The game and the song really mesh well–it was a great idea.
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.