Togetherby Message to Bears and Will Samson is the gentlest, most relaxing release that the Album Leaf never made. It is everything I want out of calming music: an aura of peace while deceptively keeping the tempo moving through subtle percussion, sneaky entrances and exits, and careful restraint. This, like all calming music, is a masterpiece of restraint: any of these moments could have soared into a huge crescendo, and they don’t. Instead, they reveal the moment of gold that each track has in it (see “Saola” for a perfect example of this), and then slowly disappear.
While this is primarily an acoustic-guitar-based record with the rest of the instruments in support, they mix things up from track to track by keeping the keys and beats in different tones (very smart). Yet through all of their variations, changes, and tempo moving, they remain peaceful to the core. If you’re looking for something beautiful, calming, and deceptively expert in its songwriting, Together is the EP you need. I can’t get enough of it. Fans of the chill parts of Teen Daze will love it. Mad props. Highly recommended.
1. “Saw You Through the Trees” – Eerie Gaits. This combines folk, ambient, and indie-pop in a way that just thrills my soul. It shouldn’t be surprising to me that John Ross, who has fronted a synth-pop band, a punk rock band, and an ambient band, could somehow make a song that ties all of my interests together perfectly. Highly recommended.
2. “Leap of Faith” – Darius. This is instrumental post-hardcore; it falls somewhere between Russian Circles’ post-metal and GY!BE’s expansive post-rock. It’s got a ton of charge at the beginning, but the early aggression gives way to more atmospheric approaches as the song progresses (although the drummer gets increasingly ballistic as the song goes on–I’m fully here for it) until the big conclusion. This creates a nuanced, layered song that is aggressive but also delicate in its approach. (And, there’s even a mid-song breakdown!) It is impressive. Highly recommended.
3. “El Caracol” – Whale Fall. You’re telling me that this 18-minute piece was a mostly-improvised single take that’s part of a larger 38-minute piece? For real? This is an astonishing achievement. It’s great, sweeping, dense, textured music; the sort of piece that people who have been playing together for a long time can make by knowing not just what the other person is likely to do musically, but the sorts of music that is possible when working together. It’s post-rock, but beyond that describing it does it a disservice. Whale Fall do an amazing job here. Highly recommended.
4. “Farther Along (Instrumental Version)” – Josh Garrels. Garrels’ instrumental arrangements have always been underappreciated (and when you have a voice as smooth and mellifluous as Garrels’, that’s for good reason). Now they can be fully appreciated, as Garrels has released instrumental versions of five albums. He just literally took out all the vocals. The songs are still so good. My personal fave, “Farther Along,” is transformed from a vocal-centric pop song into a slow-burning folk jam anchored by organ drone. I’m gonna be spending a lot of time with these records.
5. “Displacement A” – JZ Replacement. Wow, this covers a lot of territory in 8:39. You’ve got some freakout jazz, some groove-heavy slow jazz, experimental flows, spacey stuff, and more. If you like experimental music and/or jazz, please inquire within.
6. “210” – Matt Karmil. This house track splits the difference between tough-as-nails, four-on-the-floor techno and atmospheric chillwave with admirable aplomb. This is moody and atmospheric without losing any of the drive or groove of club bangers. An excellent track.
7. “Testament” – Luo. I’ve never been much for prog, but up until recently I’d never been much for jazz either, so maybe we’re just turning over all those rocks. To be fair, this is a lot more than prog, as it’s got electronic bits, space-rock bits, jazz-inflected percussion drive, and lots more. A very, very cool piece.
8. “The Pheasant” – Realizer and A.B. Chediski. Acoustic guitar collaborations can be a nuanced journey, dancing through imagination. Following their debut EP Rose Door, Matt C. White (through his moniker Realizer) and Charles Ellsworth (introducing his instrumental alias A. B. Chediski) capture resplendent beauty for listeners when their two guitars meet in composition. Diverse starting points from the two artists create an intricate conversation of folk-rock in “The Pheasant,” rising and falling like undulating explorations into another time and place. Subtle and restrained, each moment of every note has room to breathe. Stunning! Check out all of the socials for these two artists and their various projects. –Lisa Whealy
9. “Little Bit Sweet” – The Wood Brothers. The Wood Brothers’ recent album Kingdom in My Mind feels like a retro throwback that wanders through their sonic imagination. Stylistically enchanting animation artwork from Texas-based Gary Dorsey glimmers with brilliance in this video for “Little Bit Sweet.” A dreamscape storyboard of cutout art, whose style mirrors Belgian surrealist René Magritte, is vividly alive. It’s also reminiscent of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, with expressive muted colors bringing to mind simple times. Aligned with the lyrical contradictions, a longing for simpler times is realized visually with Chris Wood’s vocals as the perfect soundtrack. Fingerpicking is not the star here, just the ideal accompaniment to imagination’s wandering. Mirroring the essence of the album and its title track, this video creates an animation playground that is never fixed in reality, allowing an ever-changing relationship to evolve with each person’s interpretation. As a thread connecting us all, “Little Bit Sweet” has a video that is truly a work of art. —Lisa Whealy
10. “Special Berry” – Standards. This math-rock tune takes all of the sophisticated guitar patterning and complex percussion syncopation of traditional math-rock and infuses a pop-inspired sense of joie de vivre. The melodies are beautiful and technical and magical. It’s just a joy to listen to.
11. “New Rock Thingy” – Joshua Crumbly. There’s a whole burgeoning school of artists with jazz backgrounds who seem to have developed into a space where they’ve completely obliterated normal genres: Kamasi Washington, Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, Mark Guiliana, loads more. Add Joshua Crumbly to that list. This starts off as a bass guitar reverie, transforms into a space-funk jam, goes ambient, and then dissolves in enthusiastic rock-drumming theatrics with a frantic saxophone run over the top. In 2:28. It’s a head-spinner in the best of ways.
The world seems filled with people oozing fear. Music’s art is humanity’s way out of the darkness, illuminating the way to a brighter tomorrow. Rainy‘s Fell For the World blows fresh, needed sounds into my soul. Though surfacing seemingly from nowhere, this third album may help satisfy humanity’s undiscovered craving in these challenging times.
Scientific predictions suggesting there would be more plastics in the world’s oceans seemed unlikely until organizations like Ocean CleanUp found a solution. Similarly, powerful storytelling from great singer-songwriters can pushback on the insanity, a counterattack globally on all the panic from COVID-19. Calling out the truth in song, multi-instrumentalist Rainy is a road dog, having toured the world crafting messages set to music. Beyond just an idea, Rainy has dedicated his album to positive change. Committing proceeds from this album at the moment to The Ocean CleanUp may seem like a tiny gesture, yet each small change we all make in a global community impacts us all.
Rainy’s stint as resident engineer at the Lincolnshire’s Chapel Studios helped him craft an eclectic album on this third go-round. These twelve tracks, whose journey crosses a spectrum of styles, is like a fresh breeze as one sets sail into a new adventure. Opening with “Strangest of Circumstance” seems the perfect introduction. Rhythmic intricacies combine with a compositional style that feels like a mixture of Dave Mathews and Jack Johnson. Vocal tones caress, both familiar and unique all at once. Crazy, right?
“Change” is nothing short of genius musically. Compositionally functioning in a space between jazz, singer-songwriter, and folk-rock, the rhythmic force of Rainy’s guitar work juxtaposed against bass and percussion launches itself into one of my favorite tracks of the year. Lush, intricate truths feel prophetic. Wow! Following with “Slow Down” and its funky groove, Ben Harper’s blues groove finds its home. Production values define this record, and the artist’s experience as an engineer shines here in each gritty gang vocal. Providing a rest, the title track’s syncopated rhythms sweetly sprinkled with mandolin breathes with life. “Fell for the World” defines Rainy the man and the artist’s vision, one instrument at a time.
Despite our digitized world, an album is still an art form, like a collection of poems or short stories. “Still Here” shines as a simple song of defiance, reminiscent in spirit to George Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun” with its hope of a new day. In contrast, “Freedom Bound” feels like a percussive anthem, carrying us all into this weird future in which we coexist. Okay–a really bizarre, socially distant moment we share, despite where in the world we are. Prophetic genius rises from songwriters who can create poetry from the melody. Landscapes vibrant with life dance under the stars, each note painting the possibility of who we are together. Now, it’s just remembering we can be more than what we fear.
Gritty emotions bleed through “Not Lead to the Light” in each rhythmic vibe. Lush vocals blend with eastern instrumentation to create a hypnotic mix. It’s stark, elemental, foreboding brilliance reminiscent of Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals’ finest work. Stories need some sort of resolution, and the calypso feel of “Get Your Fire” is a celebration pointing toward conclusion. Compositionally, each note and space between creates a dream state where an ocean rocks the soul. The guitar work shines, a place where intricate hand drums, bongo, and percussion can weave freely like waves of sound. Remember this is a journey, and “Home” is that resting place. Soulful truth, layered vocals with acoustic guitar and banjo reinforce the fact that beyond all else, great songwriters are poets wrapping their sonnets in notes.
Heading out of an album like this,“Riverway” brings us all back to the artist’s purpose with this album through a reflection on its original purpose. All proceeds from this record are earmarked for The Ocean CleanUp, who is also addressing pollution in global waterways. Sure, we are all just focusing on this minute, but what better time to reflect on how we can be a positive impact on our world’s waterways than through this banjo-driven folk tune? Closing out the album is the elegantly simple “Wishing Well,” whose acoustic guitar and violin bring to mind HBO’s Westworld.
None of us know what will happen tomorrow. Lightning may strike us all, and hopefully, the sunlight will warm us all. Rainy’s soothing vocal tones shower down with the sound of a thunderstorm, hand drums, and guitar to share music’s light with us all. In these uncertain times, let’s find shelter here with Rainy’s Fell For the World. —Lisa Whealy
JuffBass‘s Hiraethis a chill, calm album that consists entirely of intertwining melodic bass lines and accompanying drums. The drums are recorded as spaciously as possible; they almost feel like they’re sitting far off the mic, with the basses right up in the mic. This gives the bass work obvious front and center, and the plan pays off: tunes like openers “Maybe Tomorrow” and “Daydreaming” are beautiful, chill-on-chill-on-chill pieces that make the most of what they’re working with. Shoutouts to “Tiniest Cactus I’ve Ever Seen” and “Planes” for being notably relaxing.
No matter whether the pieces are fast or slow, JuffBass has the chops to make the pieces warm my soul. In a world struggling with so much right now, it’s a comfort to have calm music. Hiraeth does admirably on that front. I’ve been spinning this one a lot. (It helps that I’m a bassist, too–built-in affinity.) If you like the Album Leaf, you’ll find some resonances here.
Here’s a thing: Bluestaeb & S. Fidelity Present Underground Canopyis the name of the album, the name of the band, and the names of the DJs/engineers all at once. This complicated title is the most difficult thing about the whole record, as Underground Canopy’s self-titled jam is a smooth, subtle, effortless piece of work. This is a fusion of instrumental hip-hop and groove-heavy slow jazz that oozes cool. There are no rough edges on this work; it’s just all smooth rolling from the opening phased synths of “Stoopid Game” to the subtle closing jam of “UC Visions.” I am not expert enough to explain why this is awesome, as I’m just getting into jazz. But I can tell you that I love it. It’s got lots of things going on without being erratic. It’s got density without sucking attention to itself. It’s just really, really good.
In other news of things I now like but am sort of at a loss to describe, I’ve been listening to Pascal Schumacher‘s SOL and been very into it. It’s an album entirely composed of vibraphone, glockenspiel, organelle, and tubular bells. It’s like a solo piano record, but way more resonant, mysterious, and elegant. (With appropriate apologies to the venerable piano.) I’ve loved melodic percussion for a long time (I included it on an indie-pop album I recorded in 2009), and I’ve enjoyed “Canto Ostinato for Marimbas” many times. (Second shout out in one week!)
So I was much more well-prepped for “hey, here’s a whole album of melodic percussion” than I expected. And it’s not just one vibraphone going at it, either–Schumacher stacks and layers the instruments, creating big swells of sound (“TROPISMES”). The compositions are mostly Schumacher’s, but there are covers by Ryuichi Sakamoto and Mike Oldfield. In short, if you like the sound of vibraphone, you can listen to a 14-composition set of predominantly vibraphone music in the hands of an expert vibraphonist and composer. Compelling, yes? I certainly thought so. Beautiful, sonorous, endearing.
1. “Do You Love Me Lately” – Emily Keener. Emily Keener’s current reality may have started as a contestant on NBC’s The Voice, but that is not all there is shaping her future. With the release of the single “Do You Love Me Lately” ahead of Valentine’s Day on February 10th, the strategy may have worked. Fans of authentic folk vocalists like Courtney Marie Andrews will love this track. Keener’s vocal tone is reminiscent of Joan Baez. Though just a single, “Do You Love Me Lately” shows a lot of potential for her debut album, as she’s already in the company of some great folk-rock vocalists. —Lisa Whealy
2. “Through You” – Andrew Judah. Judah’s taken his indie-rock in a real funky, arty direction. There’s a lot of solid vibe going on here, with the bass line and guitar line working together perfectly with the drums and Judah’s vocal line. A very cool direction for his next album Impossible Staircase, which comes out in April!
3. “Pull Apart” – Summerooms. The production on Joshua Aubrey Jackson’s bedroom indie-pop project is better than most indie-pop studio-recorded projects. Everything is just immaculately recorded: warm, lush, bright, distinct, nostalgic. The song itself is a tender breakup ode, but the arrangment is the true star here. It’s just perfect.
4. “Tidal Wave” – Butcher Brown. I’m getting very into hip-hop/jazz fusions. The hip-hop gives it a steady groove and reins in some of the big flights of jazz, while the jazz side keeps me on my toes. This outfit hits a pocket and just goes and goes.
5. “Kelly Moran – Sodalis” – Field Works. Here’s some mysterious, neo-classical instrumental work built on bat echolocation and what sounds like prepared piano. It’s beautiful in a unique way.
6. “Full Squid” – Matt Evans. Evans describes his work as “ambient adjacent, hypnotic landscapes” and that’s a pretty self-aware description. There’s a lot of hallmarks of ambient: low-key drone, melodies that aren’t quuiiiiite pop melodies, and delicate percussion. However, the adjacent bit is that the percussion elements are skittering and thumping all over the place, like if ambient got trapped in a free jazz room. It’s exciting.
7. “No Rise” – TALSounds. Improvised synths and feathery vocals come together in a tune that sounds like a modular synthesizer work, but (probably?) isn’t. This has an incredibly strong focus and direction for an improvisation; it’s impressive.
8. “Lone Condition” – Fernando Lagreca. Club-ready dance music with an eerie, moody vibe; there’s plenty of beat and synth to go around, but the melodies stop just short of triumphant. Instead, they’re catchy but also clever, sort of like spy-movie cool.
9. “No Direction” – Jared Rabin. “I never had no direction / just a lot of bad advice” is the song of a lot of my people. If you like Jason Isbell’s lyrics, Dawes’ folk-rock arrangements, or the road-friendliness of West Coast/Laurel Canyon country, then you’ll love this.
10. “Twilight” – Valeska Rautenberg. This piano composition includes subtle tape hiss and birdsong to give the already-evocative piece more emotional context. It’s a delicate, well-developed recording that creates a welcome calm.
11. “Achime” – TENGGER. The synth-laden work that TENGGER makes here is heavenly–it sounds as if I’m floating off this mortal plane and entering into total bliss. The ah-ing vocals over the hypnotic, looping synths and the birdsong (two songs in a row!) are remarkably peaceful. Highly recommended.
Jonah Parzen-Johnson‘s Imagine Giving Up is a big leap for JPJ. His previous work has been complex, adventurous, unique work combining solo baritone guitar work with textured synths. It falls somewhere between avant-garde jazz and ambient work, but it’s atypical for both. Imagine Giving Up is no less complex, adventurous, or unique, but some of the gnarly, abrasive edges have been replaced with a refined, refreshing sense of underlying rhythm.
As a result, the enthusiastic “Everything is Everything Else” is almost dance music (almost), and thus very ready for electro remixes, thank you very much. The internal motion of the rattling synth and its byproduct (an almost-accidental lo-fi beat) create a solid backdrop for some really great melodies from JPJ’s sax. It’s a highlight of his oeuvre. Closer “Stand Still” touches down in the dance space as well, anchored by a loping, looping arpeggiator (and thrown a bit off-kilter by atypical beat patterns, but hey, like I said, it touches down in dance territory).
That’s not to say that all of Imagine Giving Up is hitting the dance floor. You can have underlying rhythm without it being four-on-the-floor techno. “The Smile When You Fall” feels like an inverted complement to “Everything is Everything Else,” moving along as a solo saxophone rumination that toys with the same sorts of rhythms as “Everything” but never fulfills their dancy qualities; it instead evolves/devolves into an intentionally glitchy mess. “Up” is long on drawn-out tones and subtle synth plodding, opening up more atmospheric, jazzy, experimental, sonically textured approaches (instead of the “let’s just play some riffs, yeah?” approach of “Everything is Everything Else”). Opener “Find the Feeling” is like the soundtrack to a creepy-for-its-time NES game (anyone else remember Maniac Mansion?): full of eerie noises and haunting sax noises that are kept moving along by the tick-tick-ticking of the synth beat. I suppose you could dance to it, if you’re interested in this sort of vibe.
In short, Jonah Parzen-Johnson continues to deliver incredibly unique, astonishingly complex, emotionally stirring music with just a baritone saxophone, synths, and beats. It’s remarkable. Highly recommended.
1. “Pixelated Skin” – JOYFULTALK. My quest to get weird with music started partly with “Canto Ostinato,” so I am very down for long, repetitious, trance-like vibes. If those long, repetitious, trance-like vibes are a combination of deep-cuts, punches-for-bass techno and perky arpeggiators, I am on the bandwagon. Throw in some marimba-esque sounds to keep things going (maybe even chop’em up for fun), and you’ve got yourself a hypeman. Highly recommended.
2. “Melt!” – Kelly Lee Owens. Did I mention that I was very into deep-cuts, deep-vibe, no-frills techno? Kelly Lee Owens has it on lock. Highly recommended.
3. “Kalim” – VISE. I also love really sharp, well-turned fusions of orchestral, choral, and electronic music. VISE has the churning beats of electronic fused to ethereal choral ahs with string/marimba/woodwind arrangements to tie the two together. It is a deeply compelling track. Highly recommended.
4. “Ehab Tawfik” – Sahrany (Tjade Edit). This, right here, is a real hip-shakin’ electro cut that mashes a faint whiff of neo-disco, a lot of straight-ahead techno blitz, and a surprising amount middle-eastern vibes into a frantic, impressive track. I’m a big fan. Highly recommended.
5. “Erzeben Strasse” – Antti Lötjönen. I knew I was getting interested in jazz, but what has surprised me is the speed with which my jazz ears have started to pick up on things. I’m still not into full-on free jazz (even though things start to get real free around 7:30, here). But this sort of jazz combo–kickin’ drummer, movin’ bassist, sax and horn solos, and an overall sense of open space and adventurous possibilities–makes me understand the appeal and attraction of jazz. I’ve appreciated ineffable highs of music in many genres, but now I see how jazz does it. I’ve never been able to appreciate it before. So if you’re in that boat with me, I can vouch that Lötjönen has a lot to offer. Someone had to be the key that turned the lock, and, maybe just maybe, Lötjönen was that for me here.
6. “Battery” – Guerraz. Guerraz calls this noise rock but it’s way, way, way more listenable than most noise rock; this is like a less-punky Fang Island: thick, melodic guitars with effects over kick-ass drums. (There’s also some post-rock melodies thrown in for good measure.) This is dense but also wiry; there’s a taut power to this that doesn’t let up, even though this never goes full-on noise or metal.
7. “Atomised” – GoGo Penguin. GGP keep up their goal of making jazz more like post-rock. They start with spicy, snare-heavy, nearly breakbeat-esque drumming to connect atmospheric rolling piano work with the jazzy bass work. The thing moves in all sorts of fascinating ways and has way more vibe than three instrumentalists can usually make.
8. “People’s Park” – Horse Lords. Horse Lords’ prog/krautrock mash-up is in full force here, grooving hard and solid with a haze of synths keeping it emotional. In keeping: 3/4ths of the way through, it goes fully and forcefully somewhere else that I was not expecting.
9. “The Drop live” – SEN3. I suppose you could call this jazz if you’d like (it was recorded at The Jazz Cafe), but really this is an adventurous post-rock trio (electric guitar, electric bass, drums) that grabs things from all over to create a fascinating, compelling sound. This is speedy, intricate, hyperconnected music–this trio is fully on-point to make all of this lock in the way it does.
10. “The Minotaur (Mesto in A Minor)” – The Holy Road. This is ominous, mysterious work–the piano-led piece grows from elegant beginnings to a pounding minimalist percussion meeting soaring, high-drama strings. A very evocative piece.
11. “Halle Berry” – Lord Buffalo. Lord Buffalo’s apocalyptic folk has been trending more and more toward an early-Modest Mouse-esque indie-rock fury, and this track continues the trend: instead of great clouds of reverb, there’s an urgent bass and drums lockstep pushing the track to its furious ends. The reverb comes in, don’t worry, and ominous proclamations appear as well (“Sing Hallelujah”, this time, which is the scariest hallelujah I’ve heard in a while), but there’s a lot more rumble to this one. Fits them well.
The flow of music from Neal Casal comes back to Circles Around the Sun, the self-titled third album that will be his last. Almost all fans of Casal understood that Casal wanted to hear Circles Around the Sun completed after his death by suicide. The seven tracks work in an integrated, enmeshed jazz groove made possible via the stellar musicianship of keyboardist Adam MacDougall, drummer Mark Levy, bassist Dan Horne, and engineer Jim Scott at Southern Life.
“Babyman” reminds listeners to sit back and chill: this is a jam band experience, like an ocean of sonic waves. Defining this collection of freeform jazz-infused flashbacks to the Grateful Dead’s eclectic mixture seems almost counterproductive–even possibly offensive–to the maniacal compositions. Among the cuts, “Leaving,” with its otherworldly guitar chord progressions woven into an array of instrumentation, seems obvious yet genius all at the same time. “You Got To Start Somewhere” brings that slow, sexy groove mashed up with jam-band brilliance. The most meaningful aspect of Circles Around the Sun could be how the band’s instrumental sound raises shared awareness. In many ways, this album may be the final recordings of one of rock’s great guitarists.
Neal Casal made his desire for Circles Around the Sun to live beyond his death known. Living beyond the music, Casal’s legacy carries on, framed with McDougall’s keyboards, the backline of Levy’s drums and Horne’s bass. Listening to the opening track with Casal’s final performances looming, one cannot begin to fathom what treasures had yet to be discovered. CATS lovers may all want and need closure, and that closure may begin with something as simple as celebrating this unconventional, expansive, cinematic sound.–Lisa Whealy
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.