I don’t usually header these lists anymore, but I feel like I need to give you the heads up on this one. This one starts off chipper and then goes deep into ominous, dark vibes for most of the mix. It comes up for sunlight in the last two tracks. If you’re not in that headspace, I get that! We’ll have more singles soon.
1. “Keumgang” – Tampo. This sextet plays South American cumbia and mambo in traditional ways, even down to the recording style. The melodies are charming and the vibe is impeccable. Also they’re from Finland?
2. “From a Golden State” – Grover Anderson and the Lampoliers. The third single from All The Lies That I Have Told is a tearjerking letter to a mother who died of cancer. The storytelling is impeccable, driving the mid-tempo ballad along beautifully.
3. “Vol de Nuit” – Jon Durant & Stephan Thelen. This duo blurs the boundary between ambient and post-rock to create a wind-swept, evocative, cinematic landscape that takes more than 10 minutes to fully unfold.
4. “Fashion” – Flowers 15. The Russian based creatives known as Flowers 15 reimagine the direction of Eastern European alternative rock with this mind blowing single from the upcoming album Friends Team. The soul of icon David Bowie fused with David Byrne of the Talking Heads graces this. Embracing the human body’s beauty with a Grecian essence of androgyny, singer and composer Vlad’s partnership with electronic composer and musician Artiom is essential to the nuanced edge the piece achieves.–Lisa Whealy
5. “The Skull” – ^L_. This track starts off with an extended barrage of gunfire, explosions, and emergency sounds before forming up into a grim, bleak, murky cut. There’s a pause, and then it takes off in a dead-eyed blast of percussive beats, distorted synths, and ominous swathes of sound. This is not friendly or happy music, but it’s uniquely intriguing electronic work. The horror of the single art adds to the feel.
7. “A Blues for My Father” – Giancarlo Erra. Lots of ambient tunes sound like clouds moving slowly by, but the grief is palpable in this one; the slow movement of keys, gentle synths, and guitar-esque lead melodies work together for a reason, making this a beautiful, moving tribute.
8. “Of Scents and Dust” – Fallen. Have you picked up a theme yet? Here’s another ominous/beautiful ambient cut that relies heavily on reverb and empty space to create mystery.
9. “Nue Sous sa Chemise” – Thomas Simon Saddier (feat. Rem Rembuzzi). Okay here’s a song that is almost cheerful! At the very least this dreamy indie-pop track has a dancer in it; that’s gotta be some sort of penance for all the heavy tracks I’ve put forward so far. Saddier’s whispery voice fits nicely against low-key guitar and synth to create a fun vibe.
10. “Lemon Lime” – Emancipator, Cloudchord. Okay, here’s your jam: lightly funky lo-fi instrumental hip-hop with wispy flute action and a beat so leaned back it’s basically touching the ground with its head, drum-major-style. You’re welcome.
No matter how done I am with a genre, the top-shelf stuff can still bring me back in. Whether it’s folk-pop, hardcore, or piano ballads, the good stuff is still the good stuff. Grace Womack‘s “Oblivion” is that good stuff in the emotive piano ballad genre. It hits on all cylinders: the vocal performance, the lyrics, the piano, strings, it’s all perfect.
Womack’s voice is earthy and full, a disciple of the Adele school without being overbearingly similar in her delivery. The lyrics evoke the endless spans of time that come in the aftermath of an emotional event (or a pandemic!). Womack’s broad, swooping delivery matches the goals of the lyrics perfectly. The many references to Christian religion pepper the bars with interesting connections (the flood, resurrection, once was lost, river through my soul, etc.). The overall product is a beautiful ballad that I just want to hear over and over again.
We also had the great chance to get Grace to answer some questions for us about the song:
What prompted you to write this song? What is it about? Was there a flash of inspiration behind it?
The simple answer to this question would probably be the global pandemic hitting and ruining all of our lives, ha ha, but it’s a bit more layered than that. I had recently gone through a rough breakup, transferred colleges (for what would not be the last time), had completely changed my major twice, and had then gotten sent home from college two months into the Spring semester where I was finally making friends and doing okay for once. I truly had no idea what was going on. I moved back in with my parents and felt like I had failed at being a grown-up, even though the circumstances were well beyond my control. I remember dragging the at least 20-year-old electric piano from the game room into a corner of my poorly-lit bedroom and just trying to let it all out. Writing is cathartic for me, like it is for many writers, but this song was particularly helpful for me emotionally. It felt like I was grieving the normalcy that I had taken for granted for so long.
This song is from your forthcoming EP. What made you want to release this song into the world before the EP comes out?
I wanted to release this song separately because of how much it means to me. It feels very vulnerable to put some of my heaviest emotions on display in this format, but I also know that there are other people in every walk of life who feel this same sense of confusion and fear of the unknown, especially now. Every painful emotion is worse when you feel like you’re alone in it, so I wanted to release this as a sort of comfort for anyone who ‘s going through similar stuff as we try to emerge out of this past year and a half. The song has also found a sort of re-birth for me personally during this transition period. It’s really hard when, after staying inside and having a solid, tangible reason to be depressed or anxious for all this time, suddenly the barriers and restrictions are lifted and you’re catapulted back into a normalcy that you forgot how to navigate. It really does feel like oblivion, with no direction or precedent to rely on. But even regardless of the current timing, I think this song catches peoples attention because it has a timelessness to it. At one point or another, whether you lost your job or broke up with someone or moved across the country, we’ve all felt this way before, and I hope people find solace in that relatability.
This song isn’t lightweight, lyrically speaking, and musically it has such a gorgeousness to it. Was it fun to record in the studio? Did the finished song come out like you imagined it would, or is it totally different? How so? What was the recording session like for this song? Any great stories from the studio for this one?
Thank you!! This was actually the first one we recorded in the studio, meaning it was the first thing I’d actually ever professionally recorded, so it was a really cool experience for me. I used to do live theatre, so I remember the way your stomach ties up in knots right before a performance, but, for me at least, that feeling would always immediately go away the second I stepped on stage. Recording this was a pretty similar experience for me, emotionally, to that feeling. I was so anxious the night before and even all the way up to stepping into the recording booth, but as soon as I started to sing it through, all of that kind of melted away. You’re definitely right about this song being pretty heavy, so I just let myself enter the headspace I was in when first writing this song back in my childhood bedroom, and it all just kind of came out. There’s something about singing, specifically my own lyrics and melodies, that just puts all of the anxiety I deal with at ease, and the recording process for this song really helped me to discover that. Hearing it all come together was such a surreal moment for me. It truly feels crazy to hear such professional musicians play stuff that you wrote. It was like every little instrumentation and harmony that had only ever lived in my own head was finally coming out of a speaker.
You are a great lyricist — it’s obvious you work hard on that craft. What’s your favorite lyric line in the song? Why is it your favorite?
Thank you! Writing lyrics is my favorite part of the songwriting process by far. I’m an English major, too, so I’m really a writer at heart. As for my favorite lyric, that’s definitely a hard one. I think, if I had to narrow it down, it would probably be in the bridge when I say “I’m losing all sense of control, dried up the river flowing through my soul. But four wise men once said just ‘let it be,’ but I can’t help but wonder who you are without me.” These lyrics really summarize my feelings when writing “Oblivion.” I felt so lost and confused about where I was going and like I had lost a part of myself. I felt numb and scared and like the spark that existed somewhere in my brain was gone. And, of course, there’s the subtle nod to The Beatles, whose song “Let it Be” served as a sort of calm-down song for me over the course of the summer (and my whole life, ha ha). My “Mother Mary” came in the form of my mom who let me vent about every little detail of my feelings every chance I got, and my dad, who once held my big ol’ 19-year-old body and let me bawl in his arms like a baby about a teenage boy who he knew all along wasn’t “the one” no matter how hard I argued. I’ll never be able to repay them for their love, but I do try to through my lyrics. I think these lyrics, and honestly all of them in the song, reflect this feeling of forgiving yourself for feeling and allowing yourself to be unashamed of emotion. I would beat myself up for crying or for transferring schools or changing my major over and over but this song just allowed me to feel my feelings to their fullest extent without apologizing for it.
What do you hope the message of this song is to those who hear it?
I just want it to give people hope. Hope that they’re not alone, and that it’s okay to feel lost and to let yourself sit in that emotion for however long you need to. We’re so surrounded by this culture that tells us to go! Go! Go! But that’s ultimately just not realistic, and there’s going to be times the world forces you to slow down, even if it feels like punishment. I learned so much about myself and my relationships during what I would say was the hardest period of my life so far, and I hope people find some kind of hope in that. Art comes out of oblivion.
Ever since Sufjan Stevens’ Illinois, I have had a fascination with albums about states. In the wake of Sufjan’s failure to complete the project, this fascination grew to the point that I write imagined track lists for state albums that don’t exist. So I am not exaggerating when I say that the rare album that honors a state or region gives me great joy, such as the Mountain Goats’ All Hail West Texas, Gifts or Creatures’ Fair Mitten (New Songs of the Historic Great Lakes Basin),the oddball crowdsourcing of the Our Fifty States Project, and now Harrison Lemke‘s Forever Only Idaho. The concept of Lemke’s album makes the record one that I want to like, prima facie. Thankfully, Lemke’s songwriting and lyrics repay the desire, as this is an easy candidate for album of the year for me.
I am not the only one enamored with the Mountain Goats’ All Hail West Texas: sonically, Forever Only Idaho is an album that could slot neatly between the aggressively lo-fi All Hail West Texas and the scuzzy, brilliant Tallahassee in the Mountain Goats’ chronology. Lemke’s vocals are sweeter than John Darnielle’s nasal yawp, but the melodic structures and arrangement styles are spot-on for early ’00s tMG. Good news for me, a huge Mountain Goats fan!
The majority of the album is a chipper, mid-fi acoustic indie sound that would be a perfect fit in the early ’00s and in any revival of that sound thereupon. Brilliant opener “Only Idaho, Forever” fits a strummy, lightly jangly guitar line over a perky kit, then adorns it with Lemke’s impassioned vocals. Follow-up “Silverlake” slows the tempo into a croon of sorts and amps up the bass, but overall it’s the same vibe. There’s echoes of the casual indie-country of Clem Snide throughout, most prominently in the charming “Exonerated.” The horns in “Silverlake” are lovely and languid. The only low point in this vein is the overly-affected 2:13 of “Hayden Hello”; if the lyrics weren’t critical for the narrative of the record, the main melodic ideas probably could have been folded into one of the other 8-9 brilliant tunes here in the same sonic vein with little fuss.
Beyond the chipper indie-folk, some well-placed sonic outliers exist: the nostalgic ’80s no-wave of “The Old Band”; the ominous blues-shuffle of “Burn Down the Title Loan”; and the spartan, touching ballad “Missed Connection Blues.”
“Missed Connection Blues” is admirable not just because of its beauty, but because of the poignancy of its lyrics. Lemke is a keen observer and a direct reporter of facts, passing caring but unsparing judgment on the lives of the people who can never quite seem to leave their hometown of Couer D’Alene, Idaho. Lemke currently hails from Austin, but his sudden shift from third-person to first-person in the last line of opus “Your Hometown” strongly suggests that he is also from Kootenai County. A person from a small town can write about this feeling in “Missed Connection Blues” with ease: “This one’s for all our friends who never made it free / never bought a Thunderbird / never went to Italy / never made it free.”
I grew up in a suburb instead of a small town, but nevertheless the lyrics of Forever Only Idaho resonate deeply with me. All of Tulsa, Oklahoma is a giant suburb of nothing, but the southern part is a suburb of that suburb, before you hit the little towns that are literally suburbs: Bixby, Broken Arrow, Owasso, points farther on. To wit, I have lived this exact experience from “Local Business”:
In town for the weekend
wedding of a former friend
and everything has changed again
The stores and bars on Sherman
look just like Portland or Brooklyn;
it’s all been rearranged again.
Furthermore, I could quote you any line of “Visit Beautiful Couer D’Alene” as close to my personal experience. But it’s the epic at the end of the record, the seven-minute (!) “Your Hometown,” that sells this experience most boldly. At the high point, the main character who couldn’t escape town calls out, “”You want to be a city / and I want to be a star / but when you get down to it / that isn’t what we are.” Now that raised the hair on my arms. “Robbie moved to Arizona / Josiah tried out LA / Courtney got married to a Mormon guy / Michael ended in A.A.,” Lemke wistfully notes in “The Old Band.” I’m writing to you from Chandler, Phoenix, Arizona.
While these songs individually speak to my experience, the immaculate structure of the record further lands this record in my heart. “Only Idaho, Forever” opens the record as a perfect thesis statement of what’s going to happen: “Fools with dollar signs for eyes / have been selling you your life / one weekend at a time, saying you’ll go far / but you’re still nowhere, so far.” The 2:19 of the opener is about as tidy a 138 seconds as you can get: distinctive lyrics in the verses, clever chorus, earworm melody, and a clear sense of what the song (and the record) is trying to achieve. The rest of the album spools out various tales of small-town struggle, from a condemnation of materialism as personal meaning in “Silverlake” to a complex relationship with Christianity in “Wonderful Life” to the person still dreaming of getting out of there late in life on the devastatingly-titled “This Is Not the Year.” The songs speak to and improve each other, thematically: consider “Hayden Hello,” “Burn Down the Title Loan,” and “Exonerated,” in that order. After the bulk of the record, “Your Hometown” comes along and re-tells the album, like when Sufjan uses “Impossible Soul” to retell Age of Adz.
But instead of leaving it there, Lemke delivers the title track as the closer. He returns to the chorus structure from “Only Idaho, Forever,” but slows down the tempo so that the last line of the original chorus needs to be held out longer than Lemke can really even hold it. It sounds like his will losing a fight to the limitations of his body, which is pretty much how you end up staying in your hometown. The song becomes a rumination on the infinite loop of life in a small town: “Now Amy’s on the steps, watchful-eyed / seven months with child.” And that loop is, for some, truly inescapable: “Any fool’s gonna tell you / this is no kind of life / but they don’t know where the echoes go / forever only Idaho.”
Harrison Lemke’s Forever Only Idaho is the culmination of years of “tape-hiss symphonies to God.” The work has paid off: this record is a top-shelf, best-of-the-year sort of album. Sonically, the writing and performance is almost uniformly fully-realized. Lyrically, it’s the rare concept record where each song is better because it is part of this particular record with its sibling songs. Even the album art is perfect. If you like any type of indie music, this is a must-listen for 2021. Highly recommended.
All the Seasons of the Day from Venice, Italy’s Tommaso Varisco (available on Youtube Music and Spotify) is a uniquely delivered piece of art. The original eleven-track 2019 release received extensive coverage in Europe, leading to the addition of eight more more “bonus tracks” in 2021.
Analog simplicity graces each of the 19-track soundscape. Musically, the collection drifts from pure acoustic instrumentation with Varisco’s rich vocal tone to electrified shades of Italian rock and metal on various cuts. Admittedly, eighteen songs is an investment to connect with a new artist. Yet this is a complete composition, with each note and lyric fitting together seamlessly. My two favorite moments of the narrative are “Lake (Song of the Tower)” with its creepy, sultry lust in an edgy Eddie-Vedder-meets-Maynard-James-Keenan creation and “Blind to See.”
“Times” proves that strong lyricism with authentic vocal delivery will create nuanced style. The takeaway here is the limitlessness of Tommaso Varisco’s All the Seasons of the Day: an album that continues its own artistic evolution. — Lisa Whealy
1. “No Road Without a Turn” – Mano Le Tough. This tropical instrumental cut is one long elastic groove accentuated by reverbed percussion trying to puncture the vibe. The punchy hits can’t damage it, though; the intrusions merely give the smooth energy an even more infinite feel. Nothing can bring this song down.
2. “Even When it Rains” – Jeremy Fisher. Fisher’s opener from his latest album misfits. could be the perfect creep-back-into-life cut of our post-pandemic summer, with its perfectly irreverent strut matching its indie pop musicality. —Lisa Whealy
3. “I Know You Know” – Lore City. Portland, Oregon’s Lore City chose “I Know You Know” as the lead single for its fourth album Participation Mystique. Songwriters Laura Mariposa Williams and Eric Angelo Bessel’s perfected hypnoticism emulates an aura of soul-shifting transformation. Visual simplicity demands deeper contemplation, as the male and female figures are shrouded in shades of saffron. Signifying abundance, this golden tone serves as the transport vehicle into the rose tone of Shakti. Hindu belief personifies these through a host of goddesses with universal virtues and archetypal energies we all share. For new and old fans, this track connects the primal to its spiritual source visually and sonically. As a taste of Participation Mystique, this one might be 2021’s coolest drumbeat to follow yet.–Lisa Whealy
4. “Roadkill” – Joe Hythe. A haunting, elegant alt-folk track about the fears inherent in the narrator’s experience of the gay hookup scene. The airy, flowing track reminds me of Sufjan’s Michigan in its arrangement.
5. “Drive the Cold Winter Away” – Agent Starling. The band has this to say about the excitable, Medieval-sounding romp: “This tune is taken from Playford’s Dancing Master published in 1651.” Agent Starling breathes a lot of life into this 370-year-old song.
6. “Vila dos Pássaros” – Ricardo Bacelar & Cainã Cavalcante. Speedy fingerpicking and a rush of piano keys introduce this jazzy piece that manages to be smooth and yet frenetic. Very intriguing.
7. “Bad Karma” – Paper Man. A delightfully off-kilter folk-rock tune that throws back to the raw production of days before pristine indie-folk. Brian Sousa’s voice sounds perfect amid ragged rhythms, whoo-oo-oos, and sprightly guitar lines.
8. “Kerouac Revisions” – Red Sammy. The band advertises itself as “honest, slow-burn Americana”; this track is honest but moves up a notch to medium-burn with a two-minute jam complete with jangly guitars that would make the Jayhawks happy. Adam Trice’s vocal melodies are catchy and fun.
9. “Soil” – Zement. I did not expect that combining motorik precision with high-drama post-rock guitar would create an outsider dance-rock tune, but lo, here we are. Manages to be fun and serious at the same time; pretty impressive.
10. “Where I Am” – Atto Seguente. A delicate, mysterious cascade of what sounds like nylon-string guitar notes is the gentle, elegant opening to this piece. By the end of the piece, lonely vocals keen “Where are you?” over a buzzing synth and that suddenly-relentless guitar pattern. The transformation doesn’t require much, but the shift from calm to desperate is distinctive and impressive.
11. “Dee Dee” – Nimrawd. Meshes ’90s big beat with smooth ’80s synthesizer action to create a playful future-past mashup.