Joshua Aubrey Jackson has always been about mood, whether as Fiery Crash, Summerooms, or now as part of a small outfit in Make Sure. The sentimental, lush, reverberant indie-pop that he offers in Walk Home Insteadis his current apex of his pretty-laser-focused goal of great moods: my wife asked me to turn the album back on because it made her feel “homey.” And if you had no more review than that, I hope you know that her recommendation is a very high bar indeed.
But that’s not all the review you get here! The 96-second titular opener is a beautiful instrumental intro to the album, setting the stage excellently. There’s delicate electric guitar with just enough reverb on it to give it a wistful feel intertwining with subtle acoustic guitar and chiming piano melodies. The depth of Jackson’s recording experience is evident, as the album is recorded and produced magnificently; this is just the sign of things to come. “Deal Breakers” is the first full song of the record, and it is incredible: Jackson’s vocals are kind, gentle, and yet yearning on top of carefully developed indie-pop orchestration. This song is like a warm shirt on a cool day that fits perfectly. You can sing this song, or you can just let it enfold you; it’s the sort of work that fits beautifully wherever it may lie.
Elsewhere Jackson continues his excellent work. “Home This Weekend” features the lovely line “I don’t feel any older / other than just an ache in my knee”; it looks pedestrian when written out, but it’s sung with such care and attention to detail that the line is a standout of the song and the album. “After School” features drums more prominently than in other places, but they’re very carefully recorded and mixed drums to fit with the lush, wistful mood of this instrumental track and the overall album. That track leads directly into “I Thought I Could Do Better Than You,” which has faint echoes of Relient K in its lyrical approach and vocal line construction. It’s the most straightforward of the songs here in terms of the pop realms of his songwriting; there’s a lot more snap in this one, and fewer wistful bits (even though the lyrics are directly laced with regrets here, more so than others). The coda of the song makes me think of Transatlanticism by Death Cab for Cutie (that’s never anything but a good thing). In case the thread has been lost: the moods here are just so, so great, no matter which song you pick.
There is a huge amount to enjoy in Walk Home Instead. Joshua Aubrey Jackson’s vision for the sonic palette of the record is clear and fully-recognized. The songs are tight and beautifully-written. The performances are solid, and the production is immaculate. Walk Home Instead is a truly beautiful record in just about every way a record can be (check the gorgeous album art, too!). If you’re an indie-pop fan and haven’t heard of Make Sure yet, you need to do so as soon as possible and treat your ears. Joshua Aubrey Jackson remains the country’s best kept secret in songwriting, and he’s only getting better; you’d do well to get on the train as quickly as possible. —Stephen Carradini
The Mountain Goats‘ In League With Dragonsis a thoroughly okay Mountain Goats record. It has some great jams, some forgettable tunes, and some your-mileage-may-vary songs. I suspect due to its emphasis on subtlety that it is a grower, so check back in a year or two to see if it has worked its magic on me. That’s what happened to me with Goths, and now I love that album. Maybe John’s just doing growers these days. More power to you.
If you’re a longtime fan of tMG, ILWD is a non-concept record that is more memorable than All Eternals Deck but not as sonically compelling as Heretic Pride or Transcendental Youth. [I’ve grown to judge all tMG records against the albums of their type, lumping together overt concept records (All Hail West Texas, Tallahassee, We Shall All Be Healed, The Sunset Tree, The Life of the World to Come, Beat the Champ) and largely-non-concept records (Get Lonely, Heretic Pride, All Eternals Deck, Transcendental Youth, Goths, and now In League With Dragons).]
“But wait,” you might say, “I was promised a concept record about wizards! It was gonna do for D&D what Beat the Champ did for wrestling and The Life of the World to Come did for the Bible!” We were promised that. Sadly, we do not get that. John abandoned the thread midway, leaving us with only a handful of tunes that get sufficiently weird as to fulfill that wild premise (“Younger,” “Clemency for the Wizard King,” “Sicilian Crest,” maybe “An Antidote for Strychnine”). It’s a non-concept record, unless you’re playing D&D campaigns that include a New York Mets pitcher, Black Sabbath, and Waylon Jennings. (And if you are, I give you free rein to compare it with the concept records, but I should think it would fare rather poorly. Also, please record your sessions and release them as a podcast, I would listen to that very much.)
Yet, nothing in tMG land is that simple. This record serves an incredibly different purpose other than being a non-concept entry in the tMG oeuvre. It is, in fact, a key. If you are trying to introduce your family and friends to the Mountain Goats (and as a tMG person, you are of course doing this a fair bit of the time), you can play this record for them, ask them which tune/tunes they liked the most, and then direct them to the tMG album they will like the most. I can’t say John planned it this way, but ILWD is actually a remarkably clever way to get people in to the fandom. So, for the rest of the review, I’m going to illuminate the key. I may make off-handed remarks about whether or not I like a particular track, but mostly I’m going to make each song an RIYL.
Here we go.
1. “Done Bleeding” – If your friend is deeply moved by depiction of a drug addict getting clean, send them directly to the opening track of We Shall All Be Healed.
2. “Younger” – This is the single fromthe record and it is a good choice to represent the album. It’s a bit of a jam, and that’s good. It sounds like a cross between the gloomy vibes of All Eternals Deck and the confidently-doomed vocal approach from Transcendental Youth (particularly “Lakeside View Apartment Suite”). The lyrics have a highly stylistized narrator approach that comes directly out of Beat the Champ, so if you like the lyrics, jump up “Heel Turn 2” or “Stabbed to Death Outside San Juan”.
3. “Passaic 1975” – Goths is about working musicians and about celebrating the music of youth. This is both of those in one track: a story about what it must have been like to be Black Sabbath. In a different vein, the song itself is weirdly major-key, sort of like that time the chipper “Genesis 3:23” snuck its way into the mostly-somber The Life of the World to Come. (“Genesis 3:23” is a more compelling song, though, so if you’re into “Passaic 1975” you’re gonna be jazzed about “Genesis 3:23”).
4. “Clemency for the Wizard King” – If your listener is super-stoked by this mystic folk experience, you are going to unfortunately have to tell them “sorry, this is the album ILWD should have been, this is all we’ve got, hopefully he does more of this next time.” This is my favorite track on the record, which is why I am particularly disappointed that he chucked the concept halfway through.
5. “Possum by Night” – This is a great John piano ballad–I love his ballads, so I’m a 100% sucker for this song. It’s my second favorite song on the record, probably because you could slap it right on in to The Life of the World to Come sonically and lyrically; all you’d need to do is pick a bible verse for its title and it’s done. (Given the lyrical content and what I’m reading these days, I’d choose “Zephaniah 3:19.”) If you like this song, you will be hardcore in love with World to Come.
6. “In League With Dragons” – The introspective, solitary nature of the narrator makes the lyrics apex Get Lonely. It’s more chipper than most of Get Lonely, but not by much.
7. “Doc Gooden” – Are you very interested in stories of people dealing with the loss of dignity? John wrote a whole album for you called All Eternals Deck. “The Autopsy Garland” is a good place to start.
8. “Going Invisible 2” – The big indie-pop vocal melody here is straight up Heretic Pride; if you want more indie-pop jams then you’re gonna love all of that record (except, uh, maybe not the two reggae songs). I feel obliged to note that “Going Invisible” was a deep-cut b-side for Get Lonely, so this title directly calls back to that album, even though I feel like this one doesn’t really have the spirit of Get Lonely; there’s way more initiative than was present in Get Lonely. (This is a fairly minor quibble, I’ll grant.)
9. “Waylon Jennings Live” – Goths again, this one directly naming a musician in the title. Also, it’s a country song. I’ve got nothing on that front.
10. “Cadaver Sniffing Dog” – If you listen to the podcast Song Exploder, you’ve already been informed that this is a full-on metaphor song that’s actually about a messy breakup. Tallahassee it is!
11. “An Antidote for Strychnine” – This is a six-minute deeeeeeeep groove and my third favorite track on the record. It’s got that ominous Transcendental Youth vibe.
12. “Sicilian Crest” – If your listener is really into this jam, maybe you should direct them to ABBA instead of tMG. That’s no knock on this track or on ABBA–this track actually sounds like a Swedish vocal-disco cut. I’m as confused as you are. It’s fun anyway.
tMG fans may be wondering why there’s no reference here to The Sunset Tree and that’s because I’m not comfortable comparing anything to The Sunset Tree. Sunset is that good. You should recommend your friend go listen to Sunset no matter what song they liked off In League With Dragons. —Stephen Carradini
CJ Stranger is the latest incarnation of Australian songwriter Cameron James Henderson, whose 2016 blues-folk album Storm Rollin’ In was a personal favorite that culminated with a Phoenix, Arizona performance. Now Henderson is set to follow up in 2020 with a shift in direction. The Ro Miles video for “Strange One” leads the show:
Dennis Coomer is driving the train (literally; there’s a train in the video, and Dennis Coomer is driving it), while Cameron James Henderson (vox/guitar), Harry Day (drums), and Nick Henderson (bass) throw out a heavier indie vibe that is just great. Mixed by Anton Hagop with mastering skillfully done by Matthew Gray, this is funky indie cool! How long until the rest of the album drops? I hope we get to hear it first! —Lisa Whealy
Live USA 17 – The Fierce and the Dead. This is a great primer to a post-rock band that draws more on punk energy than sludgy metal for its animating force. As one of the members calls out after frantic opener “1991”: “We’re the band you can dance to.” And while there’s a bit of self-deprecating humor there, there’s a real sense where tunes like “Spooky Action” and “Truck” could be credibly accused of being “fun” in addition to rocking. I mean, there’s community clapping in “Flint”. People are having a good time. And you could be too! There’s a lot to explore on this record, and that’s a joy.
Moon Preach – Sun Speak. This album resists easy definition, but I’ll give it a go anyway. This is a guitar-and-drums duo, but this is not a garage-rock outfit or a math-rock beast; instead, it’s a cross between a down-tempo trip-hop album, a post-rock album, and an introspective slowcore record. It’s unlike much else I’ve heard in the instrumental-duo realm; Sun Speak doesn’t try to sound like more people than it is or amplify the minimalist aspects of their set-up. Instead, they create a whole universe to inhabit of subtle grooves (“ALASKA,” “ROOST”), jazzy experiments (“FOXON,” “OFFHUE”), and even a calming acoustic folk-like track (“DAVLIN”). Along the way, Sun Speak paints a picture of a dense, carefully constructed, evocative space that Sun Speak clearly know every inch of. This is great, great stuff. Highly recommended.
I used to follow a blog that would throw down 10-15 MP3s at the end of posts and say “listen to these, they are all great.” Ah, the halcyon days days of the MP3 blog. Well, I’m adapting that practice because I’m so far behind in all things IC that I just need to get these out into the world. Listen to these; they are all great.
I’m always going to be interested in expertly-done lo-fi work. Even though much lo-fi work is marked by limited instrumental palettes and lack of technical polish, that just means it has to have to make up for all of that with actual songwriting. The prolific Chaperone Picks knows this and turns out work that’s heavy on the important stuff and light on the bells and whistles.
The opener to his latest work Haiku Houses cuts everything down to the bare minimum not just in instrumentation but also in length. “and follow through” is only 66 seconds long, but both the verse melody and the chorus melody are catchy. The rattling percussion matches perfectly with the bright acoustic guitar. The roaring backup vocals contrast beautifully with the chill/deadpan delivery of the main vocal line. It all comes together into a perfect little package: an acoustic lo-fi track that I can’t get out of my head that’s almost literally gone in 60 seconds. If you’re a fan of lo-fi guitar singer/songwriter stuff, you’re gonna love this track and its subsequent album. Check out the song on Soundcloud.
The Gold and Silver Sessions– Elder. This is 32 minutes of adventurous, technically-excellent instrumental psych-rock. Elder have managed to create sonic gold out of expansive, spacy psych jams–they’re neither too noodly as to lose the thread of the tune or too concise to really turn into jams. Instead, these three tracks spread over the halfhour develop at their own pace, slowly accreting ideas and movement until individual moments of release. Special shout-out to the bassist, who does excellent work not just holding down the low end but also providing some melodic work. Fans of mystic/spacy/loose psychedelic work will find much to celebrate here. Fans of instrumental music in general should give this one a look: the composition quality is very high.
MØDVLXXR – 0010×0010. This album is one of the most unusual, adventurous electronic albums of the year. The album itself is a soundtrack to A/V visual art exhibitions by the musician/artist; I would be fascinated to see what type of visual art goes with these wild electronic cuts. The opening track is a dark, eerie modular synth wash similar to r beny’s work; it smashcuts into breakbeat/footwork-style roiling beats and rhythmic bass synths. Elsewhere there’s scorching techno beats, strange noise experiments, and stuff that defies explanation. Whether it’s fast or slow, it’s all dark, heavy, and very electronic–it puts the alien-ness of electronic music firmly in your face (and your ears). I’ve not heard anything like it all year, and I’ve subsequently been spinning it a lot. If you’re up for very experimental, beat-driven work, you need to listen to this.
Hasta El Cielo– Khruangbin. I’m told by the press release that Hasta El Cielo is a dub version of their album Con Todo El Mundo. Whatever that means to them and whatever that means to you, it means to me that this is a way more chill and groove-laden version of Khruangbin than I’m used to hearing. It’s laidback and cool–I mean, Khruangbin was already very cool, but this is coooool cool. The whole record is basically a bass and drums jam now–you can pick any song at random and just hit the groove (“”Sisters & Brothers,” “How I Love,” “The Red Book,” etc.). If you’re a bass player (or a bass lover), you’re gonna love this record. Such a cool idea, and such an interesting execution of the concept.
Mustard After Dinner – An Anthology of Fighting Kites – Fighting Kites. “Mustard after dinner” is a little-used idiom that means “something that arrives after you actually need it.” Fighting Kites picked it for the title because, unfortunately, the band has already broken up. But that doesn’t mean you still can’t enjoy some inventive math-rock! This band has all the patterned guitar melodies stereotypical of the genre (and their bassist can really rip ’em; get it get it get ittttttttt) but has a lot more indie pop and modern emo in their blood than most mathy outfits. (They don’t do a lot of distorted rhythm guitar or heavy drumming, and that sets them apart dramatically.)
You can hear all of this on display in opener “Anthony Gankin,” which opens with a Football, Etc.-style intro, jumps into patterned guitars led by a wild bass run accompanied by electronic click (instead of drums), and then closes with a reprise of the melody from the intro in a sweet setting. “Cat is Egg” shows off more of that, but “FR.” is more post-rock than math-rock in its slow build, while “Slowly Slowly” is an acoustic post-rock song in the vein of Balmorhea or The Album Leaf. There are eighteen more songs beyond those. One is a Christmas song. Trust me, you’ll like this record if you have any interest in melodic instrumental music.
The Nineteen – Nate Kohrs. Nate Kohrs’ record is an unusual animal. It’s not quite a soundtrack (it is not soundtracking anything) nor is it a traditional electronic record that has at least some relationship to dance music. It’s more akin to classical composition than to techno, but it’s written in the sounds and idioms of electronic music (synths, beats, drums, etc.). It’s very thought-provoking and very inventive. The clanking piano and grumbling undertones of opener “501” could situate this in a suspense film, especially given the contrast with the delicate, pretty piano line that runs through the piece. “Alasya and the Train Tracks” is like a chase scene with whirring percussion/beats. “Gilpin Park” sounds like being dropped in a windswept, barren, ominous wasteland. It’s followed by “Super Cheap Fabrics,” which relies heavily on piano for gravitas. It’s not a major-key record by any means, but it has its light moments; while dense and gloomy in its overall timbre, it’s got enough rays of light to keep the listener held. (For instance, the lovely marimba on “Super Cheap Fabrics.”) This is an unusual, fascinating record, and one that rewards many listens. Kohrs is doing great work with this record.
Great songwriters create community through the shared experience of their art, adding a boost of energy to live performances. Brandon Decker (known better as decker.) has emerged from the incredibly talented Arizona music scene as one of this global generation’s voices of sanity. On his new live release Greetings All Ye Playful Prisoners of Spacetime, decker invites us all to dance in the moonlight–getting global by looking local.
From Danny Torgensen’s (Captain Squeegee) opening trumpet call, this is an invitation into this troubadour’s haven. Joining Brandon Decker are his band’ pianist Amber Johnson, bassist Andrew Bates, back up vocalist Dante LoPresti and Chelsea Coleman, drummer Joel Knight, and guitarist Meliza Jackson. Jackson’s beastly guitar exploits seemed superhuman even before hearing she’d been at the ER earlier in the day. (What?!)
There are remnants of Sedona’s red rock mystery captured in the essence of this eighteen-track live recording at Phoenix, Arizona’s premier music venue Last Exit Live. Brannon Kleinlein, the owner of Last Exit Live, has shared his love of and commitment to Arizona music through ever-expanding possibilities for live recording. He and his staff, led by sound and recording engineer Brian Stubblefield, are able to offer musicians wanting to create a live album an incredible experience in a venue such as this.
This is a deep dive into the decker catalog, from his take on the Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog” to many of my personal favorites from the album Born to Wake Up. Covering an extensive mix of Decker’s career, the essence of this sizable collection is the homey feeling that is captured. “Down By the Water” and its tribal drums helped ground my spirit as it will for listeners around the world. Home really is a feeling, and “Famous Blue Raincoat” and “Mexico” are two songs that have a connection to Decker’s son Cohen. Each is hauntingly beautiful and memorable in simplistic beauty. It’s not all warm and cozy, though. Hollow, haunting chords ooze with fear and distress in the horror of “State Trooper.”
The standout tracks on the album are definitely “The Garden” and “Breakout,” which both tap into the full depth of metaphor in conjunction with the stellar vocal range of this man whose birthday it was the night of recording. Ultimately, Greetings is a masterclass in musicianship. Decker assembled the absolutely perfect group of people in his home base to make music for the universe.
Greetings All Ye Playful Prisoners of Spacetime is out October 25 via Royal Potato Family. —Lisa Whealy
Man, it’s been a weird last few months. I gotta give a maximum shout-out to Lisa Whealy, who has basically kept this place publishing since roughly April when my second child was born. (Welcome to the world, little baby!) Things are starting to settle down a bit, and I’m taking a moment to catch up on all that I’ve listened to recently.
Master Spy (Original Soundtrack) – RAC. Better known to me for his remixes (his mix of Rostam’s “This Song” is a personal fave), this is completely different. This is a high-drama electro spy movie soundtrack, and it is sufficiently tense and dense. It’s got a lot more Mission: Impossible in its blood than Pink Panther in terms of vibe–lots of thumpin’ and jumpin’ instead of slinking and drinking. But there are some ambient bits (“Cutscene 3”) and some even poppy bits [“Mission 3 (Hk)”]. It’s really rad, and great working music.
The Fleeting Light of Impermanence – The Appleseed Cast. Some bands reinvent themselves constantly (The Flaming Lips, The Mountain Goats, Teen Daze, just to think of a few) and some drill down into the core of what makes the band itself. Appleseed Cast is of the latter ilk, as anyone who’s listened to an Appleseed record since 2006’s excellent Peregrine will recognize The Fleeting Light of Impermanence immediately. It’s got the same evocative guitar tones, huge drums, yearning vocals, expansive song frames, and searching lyrics that make The Appleseed Cast so great, and it does all of it really, really well. (“Chaotic Waves” could literally be on any TAC record, and that’s a testament to their high quality over years and their continued focus.)
There’s a bit of a shift in the lyrics toward more earnest and straightforward work, as standout track “The Journey” is a clear statement of principles: “Now I get the lesson / Of the words that my father said / Life ain’t easy / But if you do it right, it’s worth it.” You betcha. Keep on keepin’ on, Appleseed Cast. Highly recommended for TAC fans, recommended for everyone else.
Mister Lies – Mister Lies. This album is hard to describe. There’s ambient work, occasional soulful vocals, downtempo electronic bits, jazzy interludes, and more on this dusky record. It’s hard to pin down, yet it’s hard to stay away from. I keep coming back to it over and over; it’s been a near companion for the last few months. It captures a certain sort of mood where the days blend together and time is difficult to parse; things are happening fast, or slow, or fast-then-slow, and it’s all a lot to process. That mood. You know, modern life mood.
Multiple – LITE. I was in a situation where I had to explain what math-rock was to a friend, and I discharged my duties as faithfully as I could (and included examples). I should have just sent him a link to this record. In an era where many bands are disavowing math-rock as a term and math-rock’s idiosyncrasies as outdated/irrelavant, LITE is leaning hard into it. All of the patterned guitars, atypical song structures, complex rhythms, and punchy melodies that you can imagine are right here waiting for you. Opener “Double” is about as good an opening salvo as you can get for this type of work, while “Zone 3” is an elegantly frantic blitz. But they can also chill it out: “One Last Mile” shows their jazzy chops. An excellent work of math-rock, this one.
Back to the Fuzz – Panfur. This is a big, fun, instrumental electro record. There’s influences from everywhere (trap, dream-pop, trance, video games, and more), making this a blast to listen to. It’s heavy on the electronic instrument samples as an aesthetic, so if you’ll be very into this if you’re up for “this sounds like strings but not” as part of the mood.
Poke and Chill – Mikel, GameChops. The people behind the excellent Zelda music mashup from earlier this year are back with a really fun follow-up: a selection of the chill music from various Pokemon games, set to downtempo beats. There’s none of the uptempo stuff, just all chill all the time. They chose a lot of iconic themes, so fans of the series will be immediately pleased. But the compositions are so tight that even people who don’t do Pokemon will find much to love in the inventive, immaculately done tracks. Excellent work.
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.
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.