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Fiery Crash’s In Clover packs in a ton of sounds

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Full disclosure is important in journalism, so I have to point out that I was as surprised as anyone to find myself thanked in the liner notes of Fiery Crash‘s In Clover. I’ve covered Joshua Jackson (not the Paste editor) many times before and named For Tomorrow Will Worry About Itself top EP of the year in 2013. Over those years we’ve become friends over e-mail, having never met in person. The chronology was music, then friendship–not the other way around. Okay, enough about that.

In Clover is the high-fi culmination of almost a dozen lo- to mid-fi releases under this and other names. Jackson bounced back and forth between garage rock, dream-pop, and fingerpicked singer/songwriter genres in each of his releases, and here he brings them all together. He opens with the dreamy pop of “Julie,” throws down some ’90s rock with the crunchy guitars of the title track, shows off his singer/songwriter side in the evocative “Loser Street,” and closes with the achingly beautiful acoustic instrumental “Meadowsville.” There are occasional forays into casio beats to back up his dreamy pop (“If You Were Mine”), violins for pathos (“Annie”), and the swift fingerpicking of Alexi Murdoch (“Loving Wish”). Jackson packs a lot into 13 songs. (For ease of use, the front half is louder than the back half.)

What saves In Clover from being an amorphous grab bag is the consistent production vibe (hazy around the edges, focused at the center) and Jackson’s comfortable baritone voice. His vocals guide the listener through each song, whether it be the hollering frustration of “The Divorce,” the yearning tones of “Julie,” or the soothing notes of “Loving Wish.” The most common vocal type sees Jackson surrounded by his own arrangements, leading as the center of the mix, but not its most prominent feature volume-wise. It’s not as speak-sung as CAKE, but it has the same sort of connection to the music: Jackson’s voice is shepherding the rest of the instruments along, even if they’re running out in front of him. It makes for an album that feels relaxed and comfortable while still being confident and tight in the performances.

The centerpiece of the record is “Steeples,” which starts out with simple fingerpicked acoustic guitar and voice. The arrangement builds around that core, bringing in drifting background vocals, gentle electric guitar and distant drums. The lyrics are questions of religion and existentialism, giving us a peek into an ongoing conversation about life: “I’m trying to answer you/dear brother of mine.” Jackson’s vocals are compelling without being theatrical, emotive without being maudlin. The song floats by without seeming to take the four minutes of its run time.

The brilliant In Clover packs a lot of sounds into 13 songs, but all of it hangs together. It’s the sort of listening experience that takes you through an emotional and sonic narrative. Fiery Crash is on top of his game as a melodist and arranger. If you’re looking for an album that will push you through spring and get you to summer, this should be your jam. In other words, if you’re into dream-pop, indie-rock, or tightly arranged singer/songwriter work, you should really check this out.

Fiery Crash Kickstarter!

I will post more about this in the new year, but now I have some BREAKING NEWS: Fiery Crash, whom I have raved about multiple times, is running a Kickstarter to fund the production of his new album In Clover. This one’s going to be amazing: first time in a full studio, and the work sounds amazing so far. If you’re a fan of singer/songwriter indie-dream-pop type work, you’re going to be thrilled by Fiery Crash. I am really, really excited about Josh Jackson as an artist, so I’m posting his Kickstarter (something I don’t often do, as you can check through the files and see).

tl;dr: a Kickstarter of note, worth your time and money.

Fiery Crash: Relaxin, Chillaxin, and Actin All Cool

fierycrashEP

For Tomorrow Will Worry About Itself EP is the fifth release from the immensely productive Fiery Crash in 2013. Instead of being a glut of same-y material, each release has seen Josh Jackson (not the Paste editor) grow as a songwriter. Jackson splits his time between hazy dream pop (heavy on the guitar pedals) and no-frills singer/songwriter fare (early Iron & Wine-style), and he executes both quite well.

Due to my genre loyalties, I’m a bigger fan of the guitar-and-voice ruminations that populate the back half of the album: “Cada Ano (Version Two)” upgrades the standout from June’s Practice Shots by sweetening the vocal performance and tweaking the arrangement to a gentler end. Stealing the show on two different releases, it reminds me of bands like Mojave 3 and Peter Bradley Adams. “Headed Our Way” is the only brand-new song on the back half, and it pairs Jackson in a duet with himself: his baritone low range and his tenor high range. It’s a really effective move that I hope Jackson continues to explore. A relaxed, back-porch rendition of The Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset” adds a nice variety to the set.

The instrumental title track opens the album with intricate guitarwork that shows off Jackson’s composing chops. “Make Sure” and “Close to Big Star” are chill indie-pop tunes which scale back the garage-y vibes that Jackson has explored on previous releases but still keep the dreamy feel.

But it’s “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” that grabbed my attention most. His version of the traditional hymn splits the difference between singer/songwriter and dream-pop, building from humble beginnings to a fully-arranged wonder at the end of the tune. It’s a beautiful rendition of a song that I didn’t think had a lot of creative room left in it after Sufjan Stevens’ masterful version, but Fiery Crash wrings the potential out of it with ragged drums, pedal steel, guitar pedals, and voice. Just beautiful.

Fiery Crash has had quite a 2013, transforming from a untempered outfit awash in reverb to a fine-tuned singer/songwriter project with a clear vision. To say that I expect great things from Fiery Crash is to undersell the great things he’s already accomplishing; I expect that many, many more people will discover Fiery Crash’s greatness soon. For Tomorrow Will Worry About Itself EP is a release you need to hear.

Opposite Sides of the Coin: Fiery Crash / Kye Alfred Hillig

Fiery Crash‘s Practice Shots and Kye Alfred Hillig‘s Together Through It All both have oddly deceptive titles: Practice Shots is breezy and relaxing, while Together Through the Years is way darker and heavier than the name would imply. Both achieve and exceed their goals admirably.

The ever-prolific Fiery Crash has ditched the fuzzed-out dream pop for a much more straightforward acoustic guitar album on Practice Shots. The results sound something like an early M. Ward album on downers: Josh Jackson’s acoustic guitar sound is warm and gentle even while being played in precise rhythms, and his rambling/mumbling/singing vocal style calls up great memories of “Chinese Translation“–although Jackson’s voice is lower than Ward’s. Working with not much more than that throughout the album, Jackson constructs tunes that float the entire way through.

Jackson’s baritone voice could be a dominant feature, a la the National, but he balances it perfectly against the other elements. The result are tunes that flow smoothly on their own and as a cohesive whole. “Equinox” layers three guitar parts, a vocal line, and simple percussion without ever feeling cluttered; opener “Cada Ano” pulls a similar feat while featuring an arresting vocal melody. “For the Canopy” is a little duskier in its mood, allowing for a pleasant variety. Even the louder tracks fit with the lazy, slowly rolling mood: “Volleybeachball!” uses an electric guitar and a speedy drum machine but is dragged back into the mood with a lackadaisical vocal line.

Fiery Crash has kept the quality level incredibly high over this latest dispatch of prolific production. This is the second full album and fourth release in this calendar year, and Practice Shots is the best of the bunch so far. I don’t know when Jackson will let up, but at this point he’s clicking on all cylinders. Fans of cheery, breezy acoustic songwriting like (early) Shins, She & Him, and more will love this. I look forward to his next move.

The title track for Together Through It All must have been an incredibly easy choice for Kye Alfred Hillig: in a 14-song album with few clunkers, “Together Through It All” stands head and shoulders above everything else on the record. Hillig’s forte is creating almost uncomfortably intense tunes, as if Ray LaMontagne’s vocal chords, Josh Garrels’ lyrical depth, latter-day Sam Beam’s arrangements, and David Bazan’s general passion were all crammed into one artist. “Together Through The Years” tracks the downward progression of a troubled son through the eyes of his loving, committed father: by the last verse, Hillig is roaring out over pounding drums and blasting horns that “the tombstone don’t make the man/And that’s not how I choose to remember him.” Hillig then returns to the devastating chorus: “I’m still his father/he’s still my son.” If you don’t get shivers or goosebumps or something during this tune, I don’t think this blog can help you much.

Hillig doesn’t just focus on heavy topics; there are some excellent love tunes here as well. “An Unedited Presentation of Souls,” “You and Me and Time,” and “Trampled/Triumphant” all take the average love ballad and crank up the intensity a few notches. The lyrics themselves are far more intimate and emotionally raw than I expect to hear, and the passionate vocal delivery is jaw-dropping at times. Hillig is a focused, powerful vocalist, but he can also deliver songs sweetly. It’s a rare thing to find.

It’s also rare to hear so much diversity fit so neatly on a record. The dense arrangement of opener “Breaking Lungs” makes it feel like a lost track from Iron and Wine’s Kiss Each Other Clean, while “War in Spring” is a perky piano-pop tune anchored by a Postal Service-esque beat. Closer “Does My Soul Still Sing?” is a majestic, reverential, synth-laden elegy, while “Free the Birds” is a garage-rock track anchored by campy organ. (Okay, “Free the Birds” does stick out a bit.) But other than that one, Hillig makes all of the tracks work by investing each of them with an equal amount of passion and care. No track here feels cast off on a whim: Together Through It All is completely and carefully organized.

If listening through the whole 45+ minutes is a bit of an exhausting experience, it’s a thrillingly exhausting one. There’s more charm and care crammed into this album than most bands can get into three albums. If you love singer/songwriters who aren’t necessarily out to make you happy, but are definitely out to make you feel, you need to know Kye Alfred Hillig. Trust me on this one. Kye Alfred Hillig will make you smile, laugh, and cry.

Red Sammy / Fiery Crash

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I love reading and writing poetry. (I am likely one of the few people in the world who was so moved as to do a happy dance when Natasha Trethewey was named United States Poet Laureate.) So I was thrilled to hear that folk/country outfit Red Sammy had teamed up with poet Steve Matanle for these poems with kerosene. The gritty, gravelly-voiced country fits perfectly with Matanle’s detailed scenes, making for a fascinating album. The two only team up for “Nightriff,” instead preferring to trade spread the four spoken-word tracks among the eight songs. This creates an intriguing flow for the album, making both the songs and the poems memorable.

The tunes are low-slung, largely eschewing treble, cymbals, and screaming guitar solos. This melodic breathing room allows for more nuance in the tunes, giving “Rank & File” a solemn beauty.  “Monstertruck” throws in an acoustic slide-guitar solo from the low end of the frets, something I love to hear in this pop-friendly era. The low-end riffing continues on the collaborative track “Nightriff,” foregrounding Matanle’s dry but still evocative voice over the guitar. The descriptive, abstract poem itself is eclipsed in quality by the much more concrete “Hobbies of the Damned,” “Man with a Suitcase,” and “Bar,” all of which tether their small revelations to finely explained events. Matanle gets a lot done in a few words, as none of his spoken word pieces go over 1:30; this is the perfect length to serve as powerful interludes between the longer Red Sammy songs (roughly 4 minutes each).

these poems with kerosene isn’t near as volatile as its title would suggest: it’s more of a slow-burner, working its way into your consciousness bit by bit. Both Steve Matanle and Red Sammy have contributed pieces that give you space to think: they don’t hit you over the head anything. That’s a welcome blessing. kerosene is a must-hear for alt-country fans.

(p.s.: I would love to hear more pairings like this, songwriters. And I’d love to be a part of one, too.)

fierycrash

Fiery Crash is a prolific songwriting project by Josh Jackson (not the Paste editor-in-chief) that specializes in hazy, acoustic-led dream-pop. There are occasional moments of noisy clutter, but Carbondale is largely a chill affair that finds its stride on ambling, easy-going tunes which allow Jackson’s mid-range voice to meander in an M. Ward-esque way (“Forward,” “Caroline”).

The best tracks show off Jackson’s ability to create and sustain moods through subtle, appealing instrumental arrangements:  “Drought Finale” pairs a quirky lead guitar line with an ethereal arrangement while Jackson casually tosses off a speak/sung vocal melody.  These moves result in an engaging idiom that could be mined for a long time.

There are still some youthful missteps, as in the vocally overbearing “Headrone” and the grating “Half Life,” but they are balanced out by sublime instrumental moments like “Fever Song No. 2” and “The First Moment.” If you’re interested in hazy/dreamy pop, Fiery Crash is a name to watch for in the coming years.

A Whale of a Split: Make Sure and Ezekiel Songs

Today I am absolutely thrilled to bring you news of an EP split between Make Sure and Ezekiel Songs. Longtime followers of this blog will certainly know Make Sure (and its predecessor band Fiery Crash, and its side project Summerooms), whom I cover often. This is the first time I’ve covered Ezekiel Songs, but not the first time I’ve covered the musicians behind the project: Kevin and Chris Skillern (Scales of Motion). But my reIationship with the Skillerns goes back even farther than covering Scales. I don’t get personal on this blog too often, but some things require a bit of backstory.

Back in 2002, my friend Brent said “I am starting a band and I play guitar.” I said, “Well, I can learn to play bass.” We recruited a drummer and called ourselves Tragic Landscape. (Throughout the history of this band, I kept trying to change the name, but to no avail.) After a brief Coldplay/The Fray period, we settled into an art-rock/post-rock/post-metal amalgam that was extremely out of step with everything else in the Tulsa scene. The band consisted of an emo singer who played bass riffs out of Ben Folds songs, an art-school guitarist, and a metalhead drummer. We also later recruited a jazz keyboardist/clarinetist. The guitarist was also a saxophone player and would sometimes swap the guitar for the sax and duet with the clarinet. Over metal drums. We were weird.

Around this time, emo was cool. Very cool. Lots of good emo bands running around (and one good post-rock band called the Programme, who were way out of our league). One of those good emo bands was Scales of Motion. I admired Scales of Motion because among all our peers, they seemed the most like they would actually like our music. They were also Christians and that meant a lot to me, as a Christian playing music. So, I put on my best music networking face and asked Scales of Motion if we could play a show together.

They said yes.

I was delighted out of my mind. We did the show and had a blast. Scales even did at least one more show with us where we were separately put on the same bill. It was awesome. I have always had a spot in my heart for Scales because they, among pretty much everyone else in the Tulsa music scene, kinda took a flyer on us. And Scales, as I mentioned above, was the brainchild of Kevin and Chris Skillern.

And now, all-time IC fave Make Sure is doing a split with the Skillerns under their Ezekiel Songs moniker. Where Scales of Motion was a noisy-but-thoughtful rock band, Ezekiel Songs is quiet-and-thoughtful indie-pop outfit. The patterned distorted electric guitar riffs have been traded for patterned acoustic guitar work. The backdrop has shifted to a peaceful, comforting frame: “Author of Love” is a bright, autumnal piece featuring snare rim-hits, shaker, sleigh bells, muted kick, and gently thrumming bass guitar work below the acoustic guitar and delicate electric guitar work. Kevin Skillern’s high tenor vocals gently soar over the mix, capping off the track in a delightful way. The lyrics are a plea for help, healing, and justice in a troubled time; what could be more beautiful?

Skillern then covers Make Sure’s “Getaway Car,” amping up the dreamy qualities of the track. The track shows how excellently matched these two artists are: the autumnal, acoustic-and-banjo approach is a highly complementary as well as complimentary fit with the original. There are also subtle differences: there’s some more staccato elements interspersed and accentuated in this track than in Make Sure’s (the banjo will do that to you, no matter how kindly you tap the strings). Yet the overall vibe feels dreamy due to inclusion of melodic percussion (marimba?), the vocal choices, and subtle arpeggiator work. It’s a great track.

Make Sure’s new contribution to the EP is “Hearing Yourself,” which is a very punchy track that is on the louder side of the Make Sure oeuvre. It’s not quite pop-punk, what with the twinkly top lines, but there’s a good amount of charging guitars that give this heft. The bridge is quiet and relaxed, giving a good break from the loud proceedings. The track seems to be an “outgrowing this town” song, which is a good fit in a pop-punk-esque frame. (The ka-chunk at the end of the track is very pop-punk.)

Make Sure’s cover of Ezekiel Songs’ “Coming Home” has a solid groove to it, as Josh Jackson ties stomping percussion and winding acoustic guitar together into a fun line. It has some ’90s-era chill Switchfoot vibes: rock approaches without actually going all the way to rocking.

All four of these tracks are highly entertaining, excellently developed pieces of autumnal indie-pop. You’ve got quiet and loud versions of the form here, so there’s diversity throughout. But overall, the quartet is highly consistent and much more cohesive than most splits are. As a bonus: you’re getting to support the Skillerns, whom I highly respect as people and musicians. Highly recommended.

This split comes supported by Renew the Arts and officially drops on December 4.

Anna Meredith, Fernando Lagreca, Summerooms

Anna Meredith‘s Fibs has haunted me for months. I have listened to it over and over, and to say I have found it enigmatic yet electrifying is underselling it. The compositions are by turns confrontational and comforting, abrasive and then warm. Meredith is a composer, a person with a unique sonic vision for a collective of musicians, and the form which she has chosen here is a wild arpeggiated-synth-pop-meets-post-rock-meets-brass-band amalgam. The chord changes are very composerly; they don’t go where the pop ear wants them to go, but after several listens it starts to feel like a necessary shift, a situation that couldn’t have been any different.

Take highlight “Inhale Exhale.” It starts off as a throwback ’80s arch-synth-pop jam. The vocal melody is beautiful and catchy; the lyrics are a compelling second-person statement of a friend suggesting that someone is lying to themself about things. But the chorus takes a hard left, moving out of a traditional pop space into a wordless ah section with an unusual chord shift and different mood. It’s a stark contrast. The rest of the song fleshes out these two moods/structures, building an unresolvable tension that is so engaging. “Killjoy” leans more over to the pop side of the spectrum, evoking texturally ambitious synth-pop bands of the last twenty years with great melodies. “Sawbones” goes full composer, creating a frantic, mindbending synth-pop composition that relies heavily on the sonically disorienting shepherd’s tone for its structure.

“Ribbons” is Meredith’s best interpretation of a ballad; “My goth twin, she sings / a song from past” she sweetly sings as a spacious, spartan landscape with tuba (!) gives Meredith space to effectively draw the listener into the world. This is a truly unique record, like nothing I’ve ever heard. Highly recommended.

One of my favorite records last year was Daft Punk’s Tron: Legacy Reconfigured. Major EDM musicians took Daft Punk’s dark cyberpunk vision and amped up every aspect of it: more distortion, more big melodies, more gritty stuff, more techno thunder, etc. Fernando Lagreca‘s Infamous fits exactly into that vision: this is dancefloor-ready cyberpunk with lots of mystery, intrigue, and aggression. It filters all of those things into an easily-approachable amalgam; it doesn’t move into any of the subcultures it could by amping up any of its individual elements.

Instead, Lagreca’s work is accessible without being watered down and catchy without being pop songs in disguise. In other words, this is a top-shelf techno record that lots of different people in lots of different subcultures could get into. The four-on-the-floor “Galactic” is a great place to start as synths wander in and out of a locked-down-tight dance beat. “Tears of the Future” amps up the spacey aspects, drawing on arpeggiator sounds that immediately call up spaceship thoughts. Doomy bass heightens the drama. “Lone Condition” is a spy thriller that wouldn’t be out of place on RAC’s Master Spy soundtrack. Ultimately, it’s a totally satisfying, very excited collection of tracks that actually work together as a record while producing bangers. Good work, everyone! Highly recommended.

Summerooms is the immensely talented Joshua Aubrey Jackson‘s side-project–his main jam is Make Sure (and used to be Fiery Crash). Summerooms is the place where he experiments with his main sound (a nostalgic mix of acoustic folk, indie-pop, and emo). In The Heat of Summer, he tries out an enormous number of new ideas–not all work, but a whole lot do.

The core of his sound is still an acoustic guitar, but the tinkering runs wild on everything from there on. The title track is a Springsteen-ian epic with iconic snare action, underpinning synth, and a sense of reckless abandon that characterizes all the best Springsteen jams. (He tempers the Springsteen comparisons with stop-on-a-dime quiet sections.) “Turkey Vulture” is a bombastic riff-rocker that appears early in the record and lets the listener know that this is going to be a bit of an adventure.

“Lindsey Whatsherface” is one of the best tracks Jackson’s ever written, a twinkly, dreamy piece that calls up the best of American Football-style twinkle, Death Cab for Cutie-style indie-pop, and more. It’s led by Preslea Elliott’s subtle, careful vocals, which are the perfect foil to the arrangement. Similarly, “Pull Apart” is another highlight in the Jackson oeuvre, a breakup duet with Samantha Eason that shows off all of his indie-pop craft, arranging chops, engineering skills, and big heart. Eason’s emotive vocals are lovely, and the track is just front-to-back gorgeous.

Other tracks land with less force: opener “Red Sun” brings forward a great idea that doesn’t quite capitalize on its initial promise; “Hard to Sleep Hot” has a lyrical set that doesn’t quite connect, especially the initial couplet; the overall record feels long toward the end. The scope itself is part of the experiment–this is an explicit concept record, following the emotional contours of Psalm 32 (and also perhaps an on-again off-again relationship?). There are clear shout-outs at points, but overall the length and scope of the record make it hard to connect all the dots.

Still, the record sounds beautiful: Jackson is an expert engineer and songwriter, and even the “lows” are good songs if considered out of context. As Jackson continues growing as a songwriter and works with larger conceptual frames like these, I have no doubt that his deft touch with the other aspects of songcraft will mature as well. If nothing else, you’ve got to hear “Lindsey Whatsherface” and “Pull Apart.” They rule.

Walk Home Instead is a truly beautiful record

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 Instead is 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

Quick Hits: Mike Crawford and His Secret Siblings / Eerie Gaits / Make Sure / Billy Shaddox

It has been a while since I have been able to consistently post album reviews. I hope I will be able to get back to a more stable pattern of posting soon. Until then, here are four releases that I have been listening to for a while but haven’t had a chance to write up.

Mike Crawford and His Secret Siblings – Bright Hopes!This double album is chock full of the type of sun-dappled, hectic indie-rock that Switchfoot was great at before they turned into arena rock all-stars. The overall vibe is light and bouncy, but there’s some serious melodic and instrumental chops lurking underneath the mood. The songwriting is complex and surprising; there’s not a dull moment throughout the extensive run-time.

The centerpiece of the record is a song you may have heard before if you’re into Christian music: Crawford wrote “Be Still (Psalm 46),” which is treated to a lush version here with lazy horns and tossed-off, jazzy keys. Somehow, it doesn’t jar against the indie-dance-rock of “Balm of Gilead” and the chiptune-inflected “Grace and Peace.” Wild.

Eerie Gaits – Bridge Music: John Ross is as adept at organic, instrumental post-rock as he is at fronting electro-pop (Challenger) and punk (Wild Pink) bands. Bridge Music’s post-rock features an acoustic guitar instead of an electric guitar or keys. This means fans of Goldmund, Balmorhea, Seryn, and The Album Leaf will find much to love here.

The album is serene at heart: you can put this one on and relax effortlessly. It’s got a very autumnal sound, so it’ll be great for those of you who will soon see leaves start to turn. (I live in Phoenix now, so it’ll be a while before any temperatures shift, much less leaves fall.) Beautiful and warm.

Make Sure – Town Runner EP: Josh Jackson (Fiery Crash, Summerooms) has a new outfit. Make Sure builds on Jackson’s strengths of evocative vocals and bright arrangements by adding in even more ethos in the arrangements. The indie-rock/early ’00s emo of the four tracks here has twinkling guitars, delicate vocals, and punchy drums to spare, but it’s the subtle touches (a bass run here, relaxed keys there, an unexpected chord change now and then) that finish the puzzle.

The tight interactions between the trio of instrumentalists in “Basement Halloween” evoke the adventurous instrumental ideas of early Appleseed Cast. “If You Were Mine (Shady Glen Session)” hearkens back to Fiery Crash work, stripping out some of the instrumental gymnastics for a quiet little pop song that yet retains the mood of the whole work. It’s only about 15 minutes long, but Make Sure’s debut holds up way past 15 minutes of listening. Definitely a band to watch.

Billy Shaddox – The Record Keeper: Shaddox’s work synthesizes folk, indie-pop, AM radio rock, and even some country (“When I Hand Myself In”) into a big-hearted, good-natured sound that goes down easy. His latest work focuses on a quieter side of his oeuvre, dialing down some of the crunch and substituting mellow moments. An instantly friendly, approachable, memorable record results.

“Blame Your Eyes” is a perfect example of the approach The Record Keeper takes. Shaddox sings guilelessly over a smooth acoustic guitar line, shortly joined thereafter by strummed mandolin, shaker egg, and distant piano. A whirring organ piles in, and a brass instrument caps it off. Each of these instruments pull the arrangement in slightly different genre directions, but never get the song off track. It’s a lilting, assured piece that would fit seamlessly on unknowable numbers of chill mixtapes and playlists. “Saint Vrain” and the title track both have this sort of genre-defying act going on as well. If you’re into (such diverse acts as) Bishop Allen, David Ramirez, and Jason Isbell, you’ll find lots to enjoy here.

Top Albums of 2014: 20-11

Merry holidays, everyone! Now, back to the music. I sometimes get talky here, but let’s get straight to the best ofs instead, since I’m already late on this. Here’s 11-20, listed from top to bottom. 1-10 comes tomorrow!

11. The Yellow DressFaint Music / Ordinary Light (Review) Most of indie rock used to be rickety, pastiche, oddball, and endearingly weird. Now only certain parts of it are: The Yellow Dress is certainly in that category, as their enthusiastically unusual indie-rock winds, warps, and wanders its way across the landscape. My wife and I sing “Isaac Fitzgerald (bum bum bum)” to ourselves absentmindedly.

12. Wolfcryer – Wild Spaces / The Prospect of Wind / Singles. (Reviews) Wolfcryer’s two EPs escaped the short-player list because his total 2014 output was closer to double-album length. His strum-heavy troubadour style gives a shot of energy to the often ponderous singer/songwriter game, and his engaging vocals deliver great melodies. Wolfcryer is going places, so you should jump on that train now.

13. Falcon ArrowTower. (Review) Falcon Arrow’s post-rock sounds nothing like anything I’ve ever heard in the genre: a drum-and-bass duo, the bassist uses what must be an army of pedals to create octaves upon octaves of notes, patterns aplenty, and looped bits galore. The results are soaring tunes that evoke the title of the record.

14. Zach WintersMonarch. (Review) Snuck in at the end of the year, Monarch is the sort of unassuming album that works its way into your life and then acts like it never wasn’t there. Winters’ powerful arrangement skills are put to use in slowly-developing work that never roars but often washes over you.

15. SummeroomsS/t. (Review) Everything that Josh Jackson does is fun to listen to. Even this lo-fi “side project” that he amused himself with during the production of his new, hi-fi Fiery Crash record is awesome: it has that warm, lovely, dreamy glow that makes me think of summers by the pool.

16. Andrew JudahMonster. (Review) Monster is a technically impressive marvel: an indie-pop record that juxtaposes instruments, styles, and moods with ease. It’s dark and not always fun, but it’ll drop your jaw at places.

17. Leif VollebekkNorth Americana. (Review) I fell in love with Gregory Alan Isakov’s gentle, smooth work last year; Vollebekk’s work isn’t as quiet all the time, but it does rarely get noisy. His drawling, attitude-filled vocal delivery gives a shot of intrigue into the elegant singer/songwriter work.

18. The Lovely FewThe Geminids. (Review) Wide-open, mood-evoking electronic music that uses outer space as its muse and touchstone. Entirely transporting and enveloping.

19. The Good GracesClose to the Sun. (Review) Alt-country and indie-pop meet and mingle throughout this thoughtful record, which includes lots of surprising lyrical and musical moments.

20. Brook PridemoreBrook Pridemore’s Gory Details. (Review) If you sped up a latter-day Mountain Goats record, or if you put a full band behind an early MG record, you’d end up with the folk-punk theatrics of Brook Pridemore. Great melodies, great arrangements, a lot of fun.

Honorary Mention: Colony HouseWhen I Was Younger. (Review) Colony House doesn’t need my help, but their album is the best pop-rock album I heard all year.

Honorary Mention: The Weather MachineThe Weather Machine. (Review) This one came out in 2013 and isn’t eligible for best of 2014, but it came to my attention this year. Brilliant songwriting reminiscent of Josh Ritter, The Mountain Goats, and more: what’s not to love

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