1. “Stanley and Seafort’s” – Kye Alfred Hillig. Hillig has been at this singer/songwriter game so long that he’s gone through his rock phase and his voice-and-guitar-only phase to come back out at the other end with a sound that’s matured but not all that different than his original ideas. What has developed is his lyrical approach–moving from (devastatingly effective) straightforward folk storytelling to a much more poetic approach, dropping evocative, picturesque lines next to each other and asking the listener to interpret. This song is short but packs a huge punch lyrically; there’s more going on that can be easily explained, and explaining any of it would detract from the joy of listening to it. Highly recommended.
2. “Here We Go Again” – Big Little Lions. We can always use more uplifting, group-sung pop-folk goodness.
3. “Conversations” – Little Chief. I basically don’t believe that any band is actually broken up these days, and so it’s with great excitement that I found out that Little Chief is back (albeit greatly slimmed down in the personnel department). This track is slightly less stomp-‘n-holler than their earlier stuff; there’s more sonic diversity and mature melodic development. Except for the big guitar build toward the end of the song, it sounds like a quieter version of The Head and the Heart (themselves graduates of the stomp and holler class, mostly). If you’re in for folk-pop, you’ll be in for this.
4. “At a Bar Downtown” – Steph Casey. Here’s some really great storytelling in an easygoing indie-folk track. The arrangement is rock-solid, Casey’s vocals soar, and the whole piece comes together beautifully.
5. “Point of no return” – Slowburner. It takes a lot of skill to make a solo piano piece tense and yet not overtly dissonant. This is a cleverly written and recorded piece that has lots of atmosphere.
6. “Siberia” – Lorenzo Masotto. Mid-way through summer in Phoenix, I start to long for Siberia and other incredibly cold places; get me to where it’s chilly and I’ll be happy. Lorenzo Masotto can’t take me there physically, but he’s certainly trying to take me there sonically. This piece is actually a bit warmer and friendlier than you might expect, but it still has rich, dark overtones of the perpetual winter. There’s also some classy, Romantic elements in the melodies. A lovely piece.
7. “Something” – Wall of Trophies. Dense walls of distortion and staccato arpeggiated rhythms are tamed into a backdrop for an track that’s somehow both grooving and thumping. Throw in some group chant and Brittany Jean’s excellent vocal delivery, and you’ve got a winner that’s not quite any genre: it lives in its own airspace between electro, indie-pop, and School of Seven Bells.
8. “How Do You Like Me Now” – The Local Strangers. Well, hot dang–that’s one way to start a record. A torrential blast of alt-country guitar and attitude-filled vocals power this big ‘ol kiss-off track. There’s even a brass line thrown in there to make it a bigger, badder, get-out-of-here tale. This is some killer alt-country. Highly recommended.
9. “Air On Line” – Anamanaguchi. There’s nothing quite like Anamanaguchi.
1. “Monolith 1” – The Kompressor Experiment. Here’s 15 minutes and 43 seconds of gloriously thunderous post-rock/post-metal that draws its inspiration from Kubrick’s 2001. Need I say more?
2. “Ocean in a Drop” – GoGo Penguin. This churning, dense piece resists classification. Is it a post-rock piece being played by a jazz trio? Is it experimental jazz? Is it something entirely different? Whatever it is, it is wildly engrossing and deeply interesting. The bass gets a lot to do, which I very much enjoy.
3. “White” – Liam Pitcher. This is the first track of the first album of an eleven-album synchronous release. Ambition much? The solo piano work is delicate and lovely; it’s very sweet but with notes of dissonance throughout. It is evocative of the Japanese video game soundtracks (FFVIII in particular) that Pitcher grew up on. (Full Disclosure: IC writer Lisa Whealy is doing the PR for this.)
4. “Blackberry Wine” – Jon Bennett. If you think that they don’t make folk singers like they used to, then you’ll love the early ’60s finger-pickin’ folk of Jon Bennett. It’s evocative of a singer whose name rhymes with Rob Millen.
5. “His Name Was the Color That I Loved” – the Good Graces. A sentimental, touching ode to a male family figure (grandfather? father?) in the tried-and-true alt-country vein: train-track drums, crunchy lead guitar, and acoustic guitar. The Good Graces are always a safe bet, and this one pays off in spades.
6. “Rush to Spark” – Foxes in Fiction. The former chillwaver has settled neatly into a dream-pop vein, taking some (some) of the big synth washes away in lieu of more intricate, delicate arrangements here. The feathery vocals are a great touch over the keys and gently insistent percussion beat.
7. “Bruises on Your Shoulders” – Thirsty Curses. A piano-driven folk-pop jam that’s a cross between the Lumineers’s pop chops and The (old-school) Avett Brothers’ vocal enthusiasms. The tune is about suddenly realizing you’ve become an adult out of nowhere, which I certainly have experienced more than once.
8. “Holding On” – Tracy Shedd. Shedd is moving in the opposite direction from Foxes in Fiction, going from an introspective singer-songwriter space into a dancy, electro-pop-inspired vein. It’s not quite the big dance-pop of her other project The Band and the Beat, but it’s got stacked big synths and a lot of forward motion accompanying Shedd’s intimate vocals and lyrics. It’s a head-bobber.
9. “At Night They Race Through the Stars” – Clara Engel. If you’re down for some vocal-centric slowcore acoustic work, Clara Engel has you covered. The slow-paced, slow-motion-fingerpicking tune has atmosphere to spare from solid supporting cello work.
10. “Johnny Went Off to War” – The Long Farewells. Here’s a historically-inspired (although it could be about any war at any time, the mark of a true folk song) folk song with a tragic ending. The arrangement is spartan but effective, and the female vocals are strong.
11. “Something in the Background” – Samuel. Funky, soulful, downtempo instrumental work with a sax as the lead voice. I’m sure someone somewhere is claiming this as some variant of jazz, too. Whatever you call it, it’s chill and would work great in the chill-out section of your next party playlist.
12. “O World! I Remain No Longer Here” – Glacier. I’m far from the first person to note this, but the fact that crushing post-rock band Glacier named their latest release No Light Ever is basically all you need to know about this release. There’s so much heavy guitar distortion here on this track that you’d be forgiven for thinking Glacier is a metal or doom band. This stuff is sludged-out to the max–until it goes almost silent. This is quiet/loud/quiet taken to its utter extreme. Oh, and it’s 14 minutes long.
I’ve been buried under work for my day job recently and dealing with a whole lot outside work too. But all difficult seasons pass! Spring comes after winter. And lo, I’m trying to get the IC backlog back down. Here are some singles from … uh … July onward that are good and that you should listen to. These are in chronological order from when they arrived in my inbox.
1. “Howl at the Moon” – The Rough & Tumble. This engaging track has the dignity and maturity of grown-up folk while maintaining the enthusiasm and powerful melodies of folk-pop. The us-against-the-world, we’ll-go-it-alone mentality only adds to the great vibe. The arrangement is perfect, too; it perfectly enhances the mood created by the vocals and lyrics.
2. “Remote” – Tyler Berd. Berd’s latest anti-folk track consists of hyper-specific, stream-of-consciousness lyrics unspooling against a delightfully unstructured acoustic backdrop. It’s like a cross between The Mountain Goats, Daniel Johnston (RIP), and old-school Joe Pug. It’s pretty short, but it rewards multiple listens.
3. “Discover” – Kazyak. This is a get-high-and-listen-to-Kazyak major-key psychedelic jam straight out of the ’70s. It is six minutes long and I’d be disappointed if it isn’t twice that live. The vocal performance here is particularly inspired, which is not something that you get with jammy psych; this has all the best aspects of classic psych rock with few of the downsides. And I thought Kazyak was a folk outfit! Imagine.
4. “Crooked Games” – Moon Under Water. Here’s an impressive, moody indie-rock track that features an exultant chorus and outro tempered by an unusually calm vocal delivery. It makes me think back when indie rock meant “weird types of rock that you wouldn’t hear anywhere else,” because this is certainly atypical to big, bombastic rock. A very compelling track for fans of Manchester Orchestra, et al.
5. “American Fever Dream” – Matthew Squires. There’s a moment that people who stick around with an artist long enough get sometimes get to experience: the moment where you realize that the talent has become fully realized and everything from here on out is on a different plane. The moment for Matthew Squires is teased at about 20 seconds into this song, but the real moment is at 1:04. I won’t spoil it for you, but I got shivers and goosebumps on the first listen and again on the second listen. Squires’ squirrelly slacker-rock compositions are leveled up here, and his propensity for cryptic and religious lyrics is streamlined into zinging satire/commentary using the same themes. This is a winner, and if the rest of the album is like this, we’re gonna have a whole lot of album on our hands very soon.
6. “Visions of America” – Matthew Squires. PREVIOUS ANALYSIS CONFIRMED. We have quite an album on our hands here. Go get this album immediately.
7. “Showoff” – Black Violin. If you need some pump-up music today, here’s Black Violin mashing up classical composition and sick beats the way only they know how. This is awesome. The video is great too.
8. “Really Deep Snow” – Lindstrøm. Was I looking for nine minutes of pulsing, icy, ominous techno this morning? No. Am I thrilled to receive it? You bet I am.
9. “mind” – Mouse on the Keys. If you want adventurous composition, you can always count on Mouse on the Keys, who take jazz, post-rock, math-rock, and synth-rock and just ruthlessly mash them together. There is no one quite like Mouse on the Keys, and we are all better for it. This one has guitars that sound like Anamanaguchi’s, which is just the sweet, sweet icing on the cake.
10. “Ubuntu” – Desingly. My love of ’90s Beck makes me a big fan of this chill-beats-and-acoustic-instruments jam. It’s good-natured, good songwriting, and just good.
11. “Stack the Miles” – Gabriel Birnbaum. The ghost of Elliot Smith hangs over this one in the songwriting and production choices, and that’s a good thing. The melodies are haunting and lovely.
12. “Dawn Chorus” – Racoon Racoon. The male and female voices blend together here perfectly, creating a lilting, sun-dappled, charming folk tune.
13. “Best” – Young Mister. The world can always use more romantic, gentle pop love songs that talk about taking care of each other. Take care of each other out there.
Brooklyn rockers Grandpa Jack breeze in with Staggered Steps, the new acoustic folk-rock EP dropping October 11th via Lost Moon Records. Is this acoustic work an abandonment of the band’s more beastly rock nature? Nah. This is just another incarnation of Matt C. White’s work; the intensity is very much there.
Matt C. White (Guitar, Vocals, Mandolin, Percussion, Didgeridoo) leads the three-part harmonies with Johnny Strom (Guitar, Vocals) and Jared Schapker (Bass, Vocals) in this lush mayhem of orchestrated folk-rock restraint. The vocals drive this EP: this band is really three men who are equals vocally and a triple threat musically. Recorded and mixed by Matt C. White, with the record mastered by Matt Labozza, this is stunning art. Great acoustic records achieve sonic separation, each note resonating with clarity, and this album achieves it.
From the opening notes of “Limbs” (with the soft sounds of fall fleshing out the tune) to the ominous progression of “Creatures,” this is special. White’s vocal delivery is unmistakable and transformative in its soulful connection to the music. His authentic roar is complemented by Shapker’s steady bass drive in this reincarnation of “Creatures,” a favorite of Grandpa Jack’ catalog. The included didgeridoo is a wild creature, and White plays serpent sounds too. This is a wild release.
“Staggered Steps” sets the stage for the strange times in which we live. This dark yet lighthearted gloom featuring violin by Adriana Molello seems the perfect close to this trio of tracks. Simple fingerpicking drives the music, and any tension is provided through vocal phrasing and intonation. Angst-laden vocals rotate among the trio of subdued rockers, somehow coming together in a unified, stark horror. Though there are only three songs on the Staggered Steps EP, it’s enough to make Grandpa Jack fans. —Lisa Whealy
I’ve gotten into contemporary composed music over the past few years, starting with John Luther Adams’ Become Ocean and Simeon ten Holt’s Canto Ostinato. Since my realization that classical music didn’t cease to be at some point in the 1800s, I’ve become very interested in instrumental compositions that can do things which no other genre of music can do. Jim Perkins‘ “As Light Moves” is a piece of music that wouldn’t work in any other genre; it speaks in the voice of classical composition and says something unique.
“As Light Moves” is a piece for string sextet that draws heavily on the deep dynamic range of stringed instruments to create great surges of sound from a few instruments. The dynamic range is huge, moving from near-silence to completely full repeatedly. The sound washes over the ear, rising and falling, creating a beautiful, lush experience that you wouldn’t expect from just six players. The melodic elements place some drone-style violin bowing against a slowly unfolding, walking-pace melody. The piece feels light and also serious; the gravitas here is not heavy-handed. Instead, the piece has a dignity that comes of patience and clarity. The instrumental parts weave in and out of each other elegantly; this lovely composition work paired with the intensity of dynamic range create the feeling of lushness and the experience of not knowing how many people are playing.
The mood does darken and feel a bit more ominous towards the high point of the piece (around four minutes), but the coda returns to the lightness of the opening and smooths the piece’s conclusion. It’s a lovely piece that moves in a real way through the four-minute run-time, revealing aspects of the composition as it goes. The ideas are strong, the composition is deftly handled, the performances are strong, and the recording job is excellent. It speaks in a specific voice. Overall, a very satisfying composition for strings.
“As Light Moves” comes from Jim Perkins’ Pools, which is out on October 3 from Bigo & Twigetti. —Stephen Carradini
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.