1. “Mine/Yours” – Long Neck. The rattling fingerpicking, the female speak/sing delivery, and the rumbling enthusiasm of the guitar rock make this one of the coolest songs I’ve heard in a long time. I keep thinking of The Hold Steady but maybe that’s just me? 100% rad, regardless.
2. “all these worlds are yours” – HOLY. If you forgive the 10-car pileup of guitar distortion and drums that takes up the first 25 seconds of this tune, the the next 8.5 minutes are an indie-pop wonderland. There’s perky piano, sighing vocals, found sounds, layers on layers on layers, big drums, everything becoming ascendant, and then some more layers. It lives up to its runtime and will remind you of Spiritualized.
3. “You Are An Ocean” – Beams. Staccato drums accent the lead banjo line in a satisfying way. The rest of the song floats along as an indie-pop tune would, just with banjo. It’s a lot of fun.
4. “We Make Do” – Martha Ffion. “With an overwhelming sense of / making do” caps off the lovely chorus of this low piano-pop tune. It’s got bits of Regina Spektor and Lisa Hannigan in the stew, but it has an air of confidence that’s all Ffion’s.
6. “Forget Me” – Born Ruffians. Cheery, chipper, emotive indie-pop with gleefully yelpy vocals and effervescent handclaps. Fans of the vintage-y ideas of Stornoway or Bishop Allen will love this.
7. “Relay Runner” – Loma. The insistent beat of this indie-pop track anchors a song that wavers from major to minor key repeatedly. That beat has the sort of groove reserved for deep electronica tracks, but the band tempers that flow with mysterious, ethereal sounds, glitchy bits, and odd vibes. It’s a weird, intriguing track, like some sort of chopped-and-screwed Wye Oak jam.
Finishing out the year in the year is a tough thing to do. We got closer than ever before in 2017, but there’s still a few things to be wrapped up. Here are some of the last tunes of 2017, rolled in with some early returns from 2018.
1. “True Refuge” – Ezra Feinberg. This incredible instrumental track has all of the build of a post-rock song without any electric guitars and all of the exuberance of a Dan Deacon song without any synthesizers. The arrangement is all layered acoustic guitars and piano, which is just amazing. It’s a warm, sun-dappled drive in the country; it’s uplifting in so many ways. Highly recommended.
2. “Tiny Moses” – The Rough & Tumble. The harmonica and accordion come together mellifluously to almost sound like a harmonium–one of my favorite sounds in all of folk. This folky, country-inflected acoustic tune will make fans of the Low Anthem sigh and swoon. The female/male vocal performances here are bright, strong, and memorable.
3. “Open Space” – Micah Olsan. There’s always room in my heart for a fingerpicked acoustic guitar, a distant pedal steel, and a pure voice. This is fantastic folk music.
4. “Little Sparrow” – Racoon Racoon. The vocal performance in this delicate folk tune is equal parts vulnerability and confidence, which is a powerful mix. The rest of the arrangement mirrors that blend, with individually tender sounds put together into a strong arrangement.
5. “Standing on a Corner” – Grace Basement. Alt-country that’s half-Jayhawks blueprint, half-Mojave Three dreaminess. If you’re into alt-country, you may have a flashback to the ’90s in the best possible way.
6. “Northern Town” – Fruition. Oh my goodness, that chorus. It’s short, but the vocal melody, the high harmonies, just everything about it is ace. It gave me shivers. There’s a great acoustic arrangement around that chorus, but whoa. Check this one out.
7. “World of Pain” – Phil Lomac. Some excellent groove-heavy percussion, lovely Wurlitzer, and grumbling guitar distortion meld in unique ways to give this folk a distinct vibe. Seriously, that drumming is tight.
8. “Town Hall” – Youth in a Roman Field. The first half of this tune is a pleasant folk tune led by female vocals from Claire Wellin (San Fermin). The second half bursts open into a horns/strings/vocals party, like vintage Arcade Fire or The Collection. It’s an impressive, throw-open-the-doors move for the second act, and it makes this tune a winner.
9. “Fragments” – Dane Joneshill. This swaying, lilting track fuses a contemporary set of singer/songwriter lyrics to music reminiscent of Josh Ritter’s “The Curse.”
10. “Holdin’ Back the Heart” – The Naked Sun. A jaunty, rollicking Americana/rock’n’roll tune that would make Ivan and Alyosha jealous and make Dawes turn its head. The pure falsetto is a really nice touch.
Ben Anderson is a unique man in the glut of indie singer-songwriters. The four songs of his November 2017 release YouTopia, produced by Olivier Zahm and recorded at Electric Lotus, are a showcase for this Phoenix-based talent. Standing out in one of the strongest music scenes in the country is a feat in itself.
On his fifth release, Anderson has taken his music and tossed it into a blender with a twist. The essences of Thom Yorke, Placebo, and Philip Selway beg attention and reflect the eclectic substance in the quartet of tracks. This makes an adventure for listeners heading in. The vibe shifts easily from dark, haunting rock to pop to soul. The connective tissue is authentic tone Ben Anderson brings, the tonic of this release. Interesting here is the juxtaposition of the music against lyrics. Bright music acts as a counterbalance to dark lyrics, making for a fresh indie voice.
All songs on YouTopia are a collaborative effort by Anderson, Zahm, and a host of contributors. Giving this record its life are Ben Anderson on vocals and guitar; Olivier Zahm on vocals, guitar, bass, piano, keyboard, and percussion; Greg Jacks on drums; Mario Mendivil on bass; Dan Puccio on horn arrangement; Shea Marshall on baritone sax and keys; Danny Doyle on trumpet; Anthony Reed on trombone; Holly Pyle on background vocals; M.S. Kannan on violin; and Ganesan Gajendran on mridangam.
Opening with “Clay Pigeons,” the lyricism supports the titular metaphor with destructive imagery. Lush with guitar and gang vocals, the song was one of the lead singles and accompanied by a video. One of the most haunting tracks from the artist is enhanced by some great production values.
“Absentia” pulls in instrumentation that sometimes overshadows the soft-spoken artist in a good way. Feeling like a dream, the chaos is intentional; piano-driven, feeling like an abstract painting by Picasso. Zahm delivers a piano masterclass here, finding a way to connect with the smoky piano bar, Al Green substance that lurks behind the dark vocal delivery. Following up with the uptempo “Goodbye Serenity,” listeners can be lulled into missing out on the lyrical message. Truly a masterful rabbit out of the hat, this song creates the path that the final track can follow.
Dropping in to the sweet spot vocally makes for a Ben Anderson wet dream. The place of “Lukewarm” in the quartet of songs is a perfect bit of sequencing. Putting the Sam Smith sexy on this song : slow and easy, the song is a satisfying sensual crescendo.
Taking into consideration that art is a combination of all elements, a singer-songwriter has a difficult job. The suspension of disbelief must be based on an authentic connection to the finished masterpiece. If listeners need a visual to go with the audio, the Ben Anderson YouTube loops the musical art. Like fingers intertwined while holding hands, lyrics and music are the spark to this indie acoustic flame.–Lisa Whealy
The video is a collage of clips culled from 1000 hours of tour video. That herculean effort on the part of filmmaker Annie McCain Engman results in an impressionistic piece that evokes both the speed of moving cars and the warm brightness of Bass’ music. There’s a lot crammed in the video, and it works best as the whole it was intended to be (instead of me trying to explain it too much). If you’re thinking, “Ugh, collage, I hate collage, anyone can collage,” know that I’m with you. This one caught my attention anyway due to the deft handling of the work by Engman. Anyone can collage, but pros can collage better.
The tune that the video accompanies is a chipper tune that splits the difference between indie-pop (those handclaps! the keys riff!) and adult alternative (the smooth arrangement! the soaring vocals!) without being self-consciously part of either genre. Fans of old-school Death Cab for Cutie and fans of Sam Smith will each find things to love in this tune, and the marrying of those disparate groups (or are they disparate? I’d like to believe they aren’t) is a great credit to Bass.
The Greatest Fire releases on January 19 via Jungle Strut Music. (Now there’s an evocative label name.)
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.