I mentioned recently that lo-fi records often have the benefit of being “all of a piece”; the tendency for lo-fi artists to write, record, and release in rapid succession lets listeners get a sense of how artists feel at a given point in time. This look-in isn’t only reserved for lo-fi artists; Jenny & Tyler have been putting out songs almost weekly for about six months, courtesy of a studio they own.
Their newest album is the latest batch of work from that burst of disciplined, hard-working creativity. Jenny and Tyler recently mentioned on their Patreon that they aren’t very good at naming things, which is why their latest album is called Album Two [Patreon].
I have a humble suggestion for a name: Jenny and Tyler Fight the Darkness. Every song on this record is about fighting through hard times–eight out of ten songs mention the words “dark” or “night”. The other two are powerful opener “Who I’m Not,” which is about struggling to feel like a real person while constantly on the road, and closer “Rejoice,” which is about trusting and rejoicing in God to get through hard times. This album is for those struggling personally (“The Sun Will Rise”), relationally (“I’m Sorry”), spiritually (“Now When the Dusky Shades of Night”) and/or existentially (“In These Bones”).
These struggles are real, pitched on massive and intimate scales. On one end, there’s the cosmic sweep of God fighting evil in this mortal plane amid the lives of his people (“The Sun Will Rise,” “In These Bones”); on the intimate side, there are liner notes showing the tiny details of life (“Written on 7/11/2017 during naptime after doctor’s appointment” and “Started writing on 9/29/2017 in guest bedroom while feeding Mary at 6a”) that are no less a struggle at times. The lullabies and assurances written for their children (“Baby I Got You,” “We Will Be Here For You”) also show off the intimacy of these tunes.
The tension between epic scope and intimate detail continues on into the music. “In These Bones” is one of the best, most mature expressions of their indie-folk/indie-rock fusion they’ve yet produced. It starts off all ominous vibes and fingerpicking before building from that small kernel to a huge “whoa-oh-oh” section accompanied by thrashing cymbals, thrumming bass, and distant distorted guitar. It’ll get your blood pumping.
It’s followed up by “Now When the Dusky Shades of Night,” an old hymn sung in duet style against gently fuzzed-out electric guitar fingerpicking. It’s the sort of recording that makes it feel like Jenny and Tyler are in the room with the listener. These two extremes show that J&T have honed and are honing their sound to become consistent and recognizable across many different arrangements and settings.
Other highlights include the straight-up folk-pop of “When I Hold Your Hand I’m Home” and the sun-dappled, Jack Johnson-y, lightly funky groove of “Baby I Got You.” Both are throwbacks to their very earliest albums–it’s a great thing to hear that sound not be completely be abandoned. “Rejoice” is a solo tune from Jenny that shines in its melody as well being a fitting end to the album. Fans of Sandra McCracken will enjoy this one in particular.
This latest Patreon album is available if you become patrons of Jenny & Tyler’s. They will be re-recording tracks from Album One, Album Two, and the upcoming Album Three to develop into a full-length, public release record, so you’ll hear some of these tracks in the future even if you don’t join the Patreon. However you hear these tracks, you should get excited about them if you’re into indie folk or indie rock. Jenny and Tyler are producing high-level work at an astonishing clip, and listeners are the winners.
This is a combination essay and music review. If you’re more interested in Jenny and Tyler’s latest music than the state of the music industry, skip to the paragraph starting with “So you may be thinking”.
I know three things about the current state of the music industry:
1. People want to hear new music.
2. Business models are changing.
3. Music bloggers haven’t stopped writing about music.
The forward-thinking indie-folk/indie-rock duo Jenny & Tyler understand all of these trends and have come up with an impressive way to respond to all three. Album One [Patreon] gives the people what they want in a way that makes monetary sense for the duo and in a format that bloggers can write about. Everybody wins!
The thing J&T use to pull this coup off is right there in the title:Album One [Patreon] is only available if you’re a patron of Jenny and Tyler’s Patreon account. (However, you can see a trailer for the album on Facebook.) For those unfamiliar with Patreon, it’s a subscription service where fans of an artist can pledge to pay money to the artist on a set schedule (per month, per piece of media, etc.) in return for a reward. Jenny and Tyler are using Patreon to record and release a new song at the incredibly prolific rate of one a week, every week. All listeners who subscribe to the Patreon get to hear and download these songs. [I pay $5 a month–roughly $1 per song, or basically iTunes rates. (Remember iTunes? Good times.)] As a result of this process, Jenny and Tyler are guaranteed some monthly income and listeners get 4-5 new Jenny and Tyler songs a month.
So that’s how Jenny and Tyler give the people more new music in a sustainable way. But Patreon music is tough to review: the music lives behind a paywall, arrives incrementally over a long period of time, and often represents the sort of work not really intended for review (such as demos, never-gonna-be-released b-sides, live takes, etc.). To compound these logistical troubles, most music reviewers don’t have enough business income to subscribe to the Patreon account of every band they want to review music from. As such, this is the first Patreon account I’ve ever covered at Independent Clauses, despite the fact that I know the service well enough to fund a non-IC project of my own.
Jenny and Tyler have so far made two savvy moves with their Patreon:
a. releasing high-quality, “real” songs and
b. packaging the first 10 songs they released on Patreon as an album.
In eschewing goofy b-sides, live recordings, listener updates, and other types of content that can all (very satisfyingly) populate a Patreon, they are experimenting with how they get paid for the main work that they do.* Making Patreon central to their work instead of peripheral to it is an important, savvy move. They are certainly not the only people doing this, but it makes the other savvy move even more smart. By packaging their songs released on Patreon as an album, it shows off that the work they are doing on the Patreon is not extraneous to their discography: if you want to be a person following J&T’s full discography, Patreon is the way they are releasing this latest era of their work. It is an important message that helps let people know that the duo is serious about Patreon and hopefully will transform more people who were initially skeptical into subscribers.
The second thing it does is show to the media and bloggers that they want this work to be considered for media in the same way as a studio album. (And I know how to review albums.) The album has credits, liner notes, lyrics, album art, and more–all the materials I would expect from a studio album. I’m picking up this review of my own accord instead of getting a pitch from J&T, but I would love to see musicians compile content from Patreon accounts as J&T have done and then take the next step of pitching it to me for review. I want this to happen because it meets this blog’s goals: it gives me more stuff to review, keeps me on the cutting edge of developments in the field, and allows me to help artists (by promoting the artist’s money-making Patreon). I have always wanted to help artists here at Independent Clauses–in an era where “go buy this” is archaic and press quotes are getting less valuable than they used to be, I’m looking to find the best ways to help artists get up and on in their careers.
So you may be thinking: “Okay, so, cool, music business, yes, neat, but I’m reading a music review blog. Is the music good? Is this just an odds-and-ends affair? Is the quality low?” To wit: yes, no, no. Album One shows off the increasingly mature songwriting and rock-solid production skills of Jenny & Tyler. The song-a-week constraints that they’re working with don’t diminish the quality of the songwriting or recording one bit: instead, these songs are sharp, well-arranged, and carefully developed.
I’ve been following Jenny and Tyler’s career via reviews here at Independent Clauses for a long time. Their earliest work was light, warm, fun folk-pop, while mid-era work such as Faint Not created huge, dramatic towers of sound from folk underpinnings. Album One encompasses both of these poles: “When the Sun Shines Bright” is a beachy, sun-dappled, easygoing tune; highlight “Stars Shone Over Nashville” is about as sonically thundering as anything they’ve yet put together. The rest of the album falls somewhere between: “I Miss You” is as bass-heavy as it is emotionally heavy, opener “Wrote Us a Story” has a romantic lyric and a deftly handled piano/guitar arrangement that sounds bigger than just two instruments, and “Hills and Valleys” is a yearning solo tune with Jenny behind a guitar. The quality of these songs is very high: “Stars Shone,” “Wrote Us a Story” and “When You Awake” are some of the most emotionally moving, melodically interesting songs Jenny and Tyler have yet penned.
But what’s more amazing than the previously-proven fact that Jenny and Tyler can write great songs is that the song-a-week arrangements are often complex, layered, and dense. Patreon supporters are not getting raw demos, scratch tracks, or castoff songs. Tyler is becoming quite adept as a producer and engineer, experimenting with approaches and instruments (like the electronic beats in “Home”) in a satisfying way. The mixes are well-developed, keeping the vocals at the fore but also allowing the instruments to shine. In short, these songs are the real deal.**
This approach to Patreon (and Patreon overall) is not for every artist. Some people permanently need an editor and should not be releasing as much music as Jenny and Tyler are here. But Jenny and Tyler shine in this medium: producing lots of work in a short span of time has tightened their work instead of lessening it. Their musical muscles are trained and flexed here. I’m excited to see what the next album brings. If you’re a fan of emotionally-driven folk-pop with full arrangements, you should be supporting this Patreon and getting Album One. This album specifically is a strong continuation of themes they have developed in their career, and their overall Patreon project is a thoughtful way to develop their career. It helps Jenny and Tyler be more sustainable financially, and you’ll get a lot of Jenny and Tyler music. What isn’t great about that?
*There is a longer discussion to be had here about what the role of the album is in a Patreon world, but that is an essay for another day. Suffice it to say for now: I think that you can do things with studio albums that you can’t do with Patreon albums and vice versa. Both have a place.
**Now, there’s definitely room for “definitive versions” of these songs to appear: there’s more work in a studio that could result in something closer to the hugely coordinated song choices, lyrical themes, and sonic contours of Faint Not. This is a different take on Jenny and Tyler than the studio, and it is fantastic.
Jenny and Tyler‘s work has moved from sun-flecked acoustic pop to full-band, emotive indie rock over their discography, and 10,000 Miles (Live in 2015) solidifies their mature approach to songwriting. Where their most recent studio release Of This I’m Sure showed their diversity of songwriting and arranging, this collection shows that they can really knock the songs out of the park live. They also show off how to make a live record that really works.
This album could be attributed to Jenny & Tyler featuring Andrew Picha, because their drummer is a game-changer. Picha’s thunderous percussion performances give “Song for You,” “My Dear One,” “Of This I’m Sure,” and “Faint Not” huge swells of dynamics and extra shots of adrenaline. These songs have percussion in the studio versions, but Picha really makes the songs come to life in this setting. The album isn’t all their loudest songs at maximum volume (although I, and probably Andrew Picha, would be totally okay with that); full band interpretations of the tender “In Everything You Do” and the yearning “Beloved One” are given extra dimensions by thoughtful, interesting percussion work. “Beloved One” is a particularly excellent take, as Picha delivers the churning drumbeat that underpins the legato vocals expertly. (Jenny and Tyler’s vocals are on point, as ever–their voices just sound so good together.)
It should also be noted that Picha’s drumming isn’t notably different than the original version of the track, but the recording of this album is expertly mixed and mastered to show off a different side of the tunes from the studio version. Songs never sound exactly the same as they do in the studio on stage, and the engineering team of Trent Stegink, Shane D. Wilson, and Bob Boyd decided to embrace that instead of trying to replicate the studio sound (which often ends up being clunky). Instead, the engineering here is bright, clear, and drums-forward, which gives the songs pop. Some live albums can sound muddy or distant, and none of those sonic missteps are present here. This recording is high quality.
J&T have an increasingly deep discography to draw from, so they had to make some cuts to get 10,000 Miles down to 16 songs. Thankfully, it seems that my interests and their interests align: excellent opener “Song For You” is the fourth different version of it that you can hear (if you include the 7 Songs version), “See the Conqueror” and “Psalm 46” are treated to beautiful acoustic versions, and even fan favorite (but now out-of-character) “One-eyed Cat” makes an appearance with a charming spoken introduction. There’s something for every J&T fan here, whether Of This I’m Sure was your first introduction or if you have early albums by them that can’t even be purchased online anymore.
This album is a must-have for any fan of J&T, and a great introduction to their work for those uninitiated. Even if you own their previous acoustic live album 7 Songs, 10,000 Miles builds on it in every way by including great arrangements of a full band, funny/serious stage banter, and impeccable song selection. Jenny and Tyler are working at a really high level right now: if you’re into earnest, acoustic-based indie-rock, you should check this record out. You can pre-order the record at iTunes now.
Disclaimer: This is an expanded version of a review that I originally posted to their iTunes pre-order.
Being prolific is one thing, but being consistent while in the midst of a never-ending release cycle is quite another. Folk/pop duo Jenny and Tyler have trumped mere consistency with Open Your Doors, maturing in musical and lyrical skill while keeping a high release rate. Each song here moves me in a different way, while still holding together beautifully as an album: what else are you looking for?
Full of towering arrangements and difficult emotions, Faint Not is a turbulent record. Even the happiest of the tunes are tinged with pain; as a result, it’s a comforting listen on a hard day and tough to hear when things are going well. Open Your Doors splits the difference between those two poles in a realistic way, creating an album that can be enjoyed by those in the struggle and those in the sun.
This means that this, their most mature work, ties together fans of their two eras in both lyric and music: the charming acoustic pop tunes of A Prelude and the heavy folk/rock tunes of Faint Not. Opener “Little Balloon” is a perfect example: it begins as a gentle, sunny ditty with melancholy lyrics before unfolding into a more assured, full-band proclamation of hope.
And hope is the theme of the album. It’s structured almost as an epilogue to the storms of Faint Not; from the get-go the tempos are calm, and the mood feels like the relief of a still day after a long week of rain. There are moments of stress (“O That the Light,” “Fear Thou Not”), but the tone of the album is upwardly ascending, literally and metaphorically. The album’s third act consists of an evocative setting of “Psalm 86,” a triumphant modern hymn about the end of history (“See the Conqueror”), a reverent tune about subsequent celestial perfection (“Kingdom of Heaven”) and the worshipful piano intrumental “Selah,” which is so hushed that the sound of the pedals moving can be heard. A full listen of this album is genuinely comforting. The care with which it was assembled and ordered is evident, and it’s easily the most complete effort they’ve produced.
But the songs contained within it can stand alone as well. “Fear Thou Not” is a powerful sonic holdover from the tension of the last album, but the lyrics tell the other side of the story: instead of the narrator “Faint Not” telling her own soul to keep on, the narrator of “Fear Thou Not” assures, “For I am with thee/for I am thy God/and I will strengthen thee/Fear thou not!” The heartrending “O That the Light” is a lament for someone trapped in addiction; “You Keep Loving Me” is a stark, lo-fi tune that cuts to the core of things.
But it’s “See the Conqueror” that’s in the running for Song of the Year. The beautiful lyrics are carefully written and ordered into a specific scheme, then fit to an equally detail-oriented musical framework. The arrangement builds in tension, but the expectant sort: it’s that feeling you have when you know that the beat is about to drop and everything is about to get crazy up in the club—except it’s a folk song, and the beat is sleigh bells. (They’re that good.) It’s an exhilarating tune, and one that doesn’t drag out the proceedings. It leaves me wanting more.
The first act of the album leans heavily on their pop side, while the middle draws from their emotive folk-rock. But that final chapter is a new direction for the band, synthesizing both visions into something greater. And that’s ultimately the most incredible thing about this album: not only did they surpass their last work, they’re setting up another album. This feels like a full statement, but of the summing up and moving on variety; there is more to come from Jenny & Tyler, and I’m stoked about that. Open Your Doors lives up to its title and opens up their sound through a complete artistic vision. You need to get this album: it’s going to be one of the best of the year.
I’ve been following Jenny and Tyler for some time now. I’ve heard their music, seen them live and talked with them. Their charming folk-pop fell a little to the more serious side of the Weepies, and that was just great.
Faint Not blows everything out of the water. It’s almost not worth it to compare their new work with their old songs, because they’re just so much better. In one album, they’ve matured from a duo making fun and romantic music to a band crafting powerful songs.
They make this very clear on opening track “Song For You,” which unfolds from a gentle mandolin and guitar strum to a pounding, enveloping track that includes drums, bass, piano, guitar, mandolin, dual lead vocals and choir background vocals. I usually hate cymbals, but when the drummer starts mashing the crash in the high point of the song, it gives me goosebumps. When I turn it up loud, I forget to breathe.
The incredible part about the opener is that it’s not even the best track on the album. “Song For You” has powerful instrumentation, but its lyrics pale in comparison to the devastating “Faint Not” and “Through Your Eyes.” Even though “Through Your Eyes” doesn’t have as marked a music crescendo, the emotional power wrenched out in the phrase “No one else has to know/about this” is incredible. The desperate cling to hope that is “Faint Not” resonated with me almost instantly. The great piano and guitar work helped out, of course; the gorgeous music video just put it over the top.
Jenny and Tyler share the vocal duties much more comfortably on this album than in previous efforts; they’re growing into themselves as a songwriting duo, and it shows in dynamic, powerful songs that draw from raw and honest wells. There are no maudlin breakup tunes here; instead, they ask deep soul and life questions. Just an attempt at lyrical depth makes me perk up; successful shots at it are simply remarkable.
The love songs have been cut down in number, but “As Long As Our Hearts Are Beating” bears more weight than their previous charming tunes. When you’re married you get to know each other pretty well, and while it shows not just in this song, this love song seems more real for the shared experience it’s grown out of.
The songs of Faint Not are an astonishing jump from their previous work. The whole album hangs together with an excellent flow, which is the sign of attention to detail. No matter if the songs are fast or slow, these tunes make my heart pound. Their newly fleshed-out tunes are head and shoulders above their old stuff, and above almost everything else I’ve heard this year.
Faint Not is a deep, meaningful folk/pop triumph, and it’s only their third full album. You’re forgiven for the clapping and jumping around you’re doing right now. Okay, maybe that’s just me.
I’m really picky about female vocalists; it’s just the way I am. That’s why my discovery of Jenny and Tyler is so exciting. The former part of the moniker has a wonderful voice that elevates the duo’s acoustic-based folk tunes to a level that wouldn’t be achieved simply by the rest of the album alone.
That’s not to minimize Tyler’s contributions at all. He contributes the guitar work that dominates the songwriting on this album. And it’s great folk songwriting that occasionally transcends the barriers of the genre and moves into epic pop song mode (as “The Deepest Part of Me” does).
Good Weld by Luke and Emily is a great folk-pop album that also happens to include some New Orleans Second Line/dixie-land jazz in it, because why not? That’s how you kick things up a notch, kids.
The first three tracks are strong folk-pop entries, good for people who wanted the Civil Wars to be a little less intense or the Weepies to be a little less sad or Jenny and Tyler to be more like the Low Anthem. (Come to think of it, naming your band The Civil Wars should have been a sign from the beginning that it wasn’t going to end well. But I digress.)
After “Scars for Scars” sets the tone for the record as a meaningful folk-pop work, the fantastic title track appears, all soaring distant trumpets, train-track percussion, and vulnerable male vocals. It’s very moody (love it) until the midway point, when the female vocals come in with an enthusiastic fiddle. The next chorus is an excellent duet. The lyrics are a love song about how a good weld is stronger than either of the pieces of the metal it joins—perfect folk-pop fare. “Rob and Julianna” (by Luke and Emily) is another love song, this time in story-song fashion and featuring an accordion and piano. It’s similarly emotional (still love it).
But then things take a big shift in “When You Look at Me” that shows Luke and Emily aren’t a one-trick pony. Their next love song (sense the theme here) is a dixieland jazz romp, complete with vintage-styled horns and banjo. They follow up “When You Look at Me” with instrumental dixieland jazz piece “You Make Me Want to Praise”, because if you’ve already got the musicians there, why not?
“Abel” introduces religious imagery that was hinted at in “You Make Me Want to Praise,” while also bringing in more trumpets, gentle folk-stomp percussion, lovely strings, and Luke’s compelling vocal performances. “Back to Love” is a strong tune of domestic life capped with a great vocal melody. “Thank My God” is a tune that fans of Jenny and Tyler will love lyrically and melodically.
Good Weld is a strong folk-pop record that has a lot to offer: it’s fun, it’s well-arranged, and it’s interesting in its choices. It’s just flat-out compelling.
1. “Into Yellow” – Martin Luke Brown. You got up early to see it. You had to hike up a mountain in the dark and you nearly rolled an ankle three times. Is all this worth it? Really? You question things. You wonder things. You start to grumble at the person who set you up with this idea. But you crest the last incline onto the peak and you see it: a beautiful yellow warming–delicate, tentative–over the horizon. And pink, and orange, and yellow again, and your heart leaps. You’d do it again. You’d do it again. You’d do it again.
2. “You Gotta Sell Something” – Blair Crimmins and the Hookers. Super-enthusiastic, jaunty Dixieland folk with a viciously satirical take on the contemporary music industry and modern life in general. I don’t know how something this sarcastic can be this much fun, but it’s a party and a half over here.
3. “The Lilac Line” – Karla Kane. Has a little bit of Kimya Dawson in the quirky lyrical content, but it’s the bubbly vocal melody in the chorus that really seals the deal. I also can’t resist a well-placed accordion (a la Laura Stevenson).
4. “Collision” – Hayden Calnin. Layered drones are in right now, and saxophones are in right now, and emotive pop melodies never go out of style, and yet when you put all of them together you get something that transcends them all. If you’re a person who (like me) unironically likes Coldplay, you’ll love the vocal tone and melodies here.
5. “Prom” – Monk Parker. Anyone who loved Clem Snide is going to grab this song in a giant hug and not let go it for a long time: Parker’s vocal tone echoes Eef Barzelay’s, and the weirdly indie-fied country Parker is purveying here was what Snide was best at. This song is an indie alt-country cornucopia, really: it’s even got a theremin.
6. “On My Side” – Gordi. Is folk-pop becoming cool again? Because this is definitely a folk-pop song: all yearning melody and stomping rhythms. Love it.
7. “Soulmate” – The Shivers. You can hear Tom Waits and The Antlers in this vaguely funky, soulful (but not over-the-top soulful), piano-led ballad.
8. “Two Hearts (Two Peninsulas)” – Gifts or Creatures. A vintage-y, spartan electric guitar sound meshes with a round keyboard sound to create the basis of this interesting tune. It’s sort of indie-pop (has a lovely male/female harmony thing going on that’s like Jenny & Tyler or Mates of State), and yet seems like folk (despite the absence of acoustic guitars). Thoroughly interesting.
9. “Inches Apart” – Magana. Trembling yet sturdy vocals sucked me in to this fingerpicked acoustic tune. It’s high-drama in the best way, where you feel the ache and want to know what will come next.
10. “Oh, Spaceman” – Micah P. Hinson. Hinson’s baritone pairs neatly with the trebly, soft fingerpicking of this folk tune. The fiddle and accordion add an old-world character to the piece that sets it apart from other tunes of its ilk.
11. “One More Waltz” – Redvers and Mélissa. A delicate, acoustic, love song waltz that tells the story of how the musicians met? Does it get any more romantic?
12. “The Horses Will Not Ride, The Gospel Won’t Be Spoken” – Tom Brosseau. Almost all of this song is a solo a capella piece, with Brosseau’s mellifluous voice holding the listener close the whole time. Not so many singers can do that, but Brosseau knocks it out of the park.
Eric and Happie‘s It’s Yours is a pristine example of a male/female duo folk-pop album in 2016. The eight songs of the album rarely feature more than guitar/bass/drums, which is just the way I like it. The subtle inclusions of ukulele, strings, and accordion provide great accent to the tracks. Eric and Happie are credited with vocals on every track. It’s an uncomplicated collection of tunes that works excellently.
The songs are not as high-drama as those of The Civil Wars, nor as perky as The Weepies’; it’s not as radio-curated as The Lumineers’ work (with the exception of “Falling For You,” which is a romp complete with “hey!”s). Instead, these are folk songs with pop melodies that you can sing along to with ease. There are romantic songs (the title track, “Falling for You,” “A Dream”), travel songs (“Louisiana,” “Oklahoma,” “Stranger”), and more poetic offerings (“They’ll Never Take Us Alive”).
The tunes often land in the realm of Jenny and Tyler’s early work, which was warm, friendly, and pop-oriented. It’s a pure, unadulterated sound that often doesn’t last past a few albums, as the lure of larger arrangements draws so many. (And those larger arrangements can be awesome too.) But there’s a special glow that shines off an intimate, simply-wrought album like this; that lightning in a bottle is rarely caught.
The Soldier Story‘s Flowers for Anonymous inhabits a dusky, complex space triangulated between the suave nighttime antics of Bloc Party, the howling reveries of The Walkmen, and the manic fever of MuteMath’s first record. The songs of this record absorb the best bits of each of those bands and synthesize them into something new and fresh. The trick here is that Colin Meyer has the chops to pull off frantic, mathy indie-rock, but he distills those melodic and rhythmic tendencies into tension-laden mid-tempo pieces that are just as ghostly as they are grounded.
Tunes like “Drifting Apart” have patterned guitar leads, syncopated drumbeats, whirling vocals, and more, but in the service of a subdued, push-and-pull mood. Follow-up “Talk With Our Eyes” barely contains the underlying power and passion, as it spikes up through the tension in the form of synths, drums, glitchy beats, and more. It’s a tune that carries the OK Computer torch, updating the “contemporary technological fears in sonic form” palette. (It’s not surprising that various eras of Radiohead are a touchstone for these pieces as well.)
But Meyer isn’t all chaotic rock filtered through massive restraint filters. Elsewhere Meyer turns his penchant for complex, burbling guitar lines into an indie-pop mold, creating beautiful, subtle tunes like “Life is Short” and “An Overdue Farewell.” These tunes balance Meyer’s complicated arrangements with his smooth, airy, at-times-feathery vocal melodies. He can soar with the best of them, but he can also disappear off into the distance. This tension between the chaotic and the delicate is a powerful element in making Flowers for Anonymous a big success. There aren’t many people making music like this; adventurous listeners will greatly enjoy hearing Meyer’s carefully constructed sonic landscapes.
I’m pretty far behind the bandwagon on reviewing M. Lockwood Porter‘s How to Dream Again, even though I have it on vinyl. It’s been getting a ton of accolades from people like Paste and No Depression, so it’s been doing pretty well without me chiming in. But as a person who’s reviewed both Judah’s Gone and 27, I did have a few thoughts that maybe haven’t been said before. (Probably not.)
The new lyrical direction of How to Dream Again has been getting a lot of play: it’s a protest record, save for three love songs at the beginning of the record, and it’s an incisive, thoughtful turn. It pushes on both on internal problems (“Sad/Satisfied”) and external issues (every other song) in a style that’s more Woody Guthrie than Bob Dylan; there aren’t a whole lot of stacked metaphors, but there is a whole lot of direct analysis. Porter also continues to grapple with religion, this time taking God to task over the question of God’s lack of direct intervention on issues of injustice. It’s a question that has resonated through the ages, and one that fits in a protest album. Even if Porter and I come to different conclusions on the matter, the question is real and remains.
The musical direction is also different, albeit more slightly. The songs here are a synthesis of the folk of Porter’s first record and the American rock’n’roll of his second; the troubadour folk style that comes along with protest lyrics is present throughout as well. The three sounds come together to make a mature sound for Porter, one that may not be his last stop (who among us can claim to be in our final form?), but certainly indicates his direction. There are dashes of Dawes (“Sad/Satisfied”) in the rhythmic vocal delivery, rattling ’50s rock’n’roll throughout, and more things thrown in the pot. The title track, which closes the album, brings it all together into a very American amalgam. It’s Porter’s distinct voice that leads the way, adding the final element to make the sound unique. If you’re into protest music or American folk/rock/other, How to Dream Again should be on your to-hear list. It probably already is.
Rob Williams‘ Southern FMis a quirky, impressive record that takes something familiar and makes it unusual and interesting again. Williams offers acoustic-driven work that falls in the timeworn space between folk and country, but his inherent charm and unique rhythmic sensibility make it all seem fresh and new. The most important element to Williams’ success is the idiosyncratic vocal lines delivered by his round, mellow tenor: instead of long, flowing melodies, Williams chops his lines into unusual patterns and shapes. This creates an endearing off-the-cuff, ad-hoc feel to tunes like the pickin’-and-grinnin’ “Best I Can Do,” the enthusiastic “Where You Hang Your Heart,” and the on-your-toes singalong “You’ve Been a Bad Christian.” Nothing feels forced in his delivery, even when his vocal patterns are at their most complex–it all seems to just float along on the airy, effortless arrangements.
Williams’ charms don’t just stem from his quirky delivery: he can write remarkable songs. “Sometimes It’s a Song” is a poignant, evocative ballad that never drags or commits navelgazing, while “Henry and Maria” is a lovely tale delicately told. It’s the melodies, the structure, and the arrangements that make these songs shine. “Sometimes It’s a Song” is sold by a beautiful piano performance and strengthened by just-the-right-amount of percussion; “Henry and Maria” displays some nimble acoustic guitar work and perfectly-placed accordion. (I’m a sucker for an accordion.) Williams knows what his songs need to sound their best, and as a result the vast majority of these tunes shine. With Williams’ comfortable voice, unique vocal lines, and well-suited arrangements all contributing, Southern FM becomes one of the most enjoyable listens of the year. Check out the album and keep Williams on your radar.
(This one comes out December 14, so it’s not technically an ICYMI, but it fits with the rest of the reviews I’m running today.)
You don’t have to listen beyond Of This I’m Sure‘s first track to hear how Jenny and Tyler‘s sound has progressed and matured from Open Your Doors–everything on the title track sounds tighter, fuller, and more urgent. In that way, it echoes some of the drama of Faint Not–they even re-recorded “Song for You”–but with a maturation of lyrical themes and arrangement styles.
Their folk-pop roots are becoming just that: roots. There are shades of U2 and Coldplay–as there always have been–but the biggest change is the fullness that was occasional in their previous releases is the modus operandi here. Yet it doesn’t sound like their “gone electric” album. The songs feel like a natural progression of their work over time; for example, “Where to Begin” echoes Faint Not‘s “Through Your Eyes” in sonic quality, but it expands the palette to include the subtle electronic elements that wend their way through the record. There are truly quiet moments, for those worried about a big rock shift: they’ve not completely abandoned the folk-pop that drew me to them. That’s a testament to the immaculate arranging, recording, and engineering efforts that went into this record–they’re growing without sacrificing their foundation to the new-shiny of added instrumentation.
The intimacy that characterized their previous work is retained here, but in different ways. It’s hard to argue that “My Dear One” isn’t one of the most towering tunes they’ve ever put together, but the lyrical concerns and pristine vocals point to the unchanged core of their work. Each tune is about love in some way, shape or form, which has always been at the heart of their work–however, as new parents, the love of child is included in “Where to Begin” and “In Everything You Do.” They both are honest and not saccharine, as tunes about children can be, which is a strong compliment to their ability to self-edit the massive bursts of emotion that appear as new parents. They’ve managed to change without alienating the old listeners, and delivered a spectacular album along the way. Overall, it’s a brilliant, beautiful album.
(This J&T review is an expanded and, sadly, spell-checked version of a review posted on iTunes.)
Jared Rabin‘s Something Left to Say melds Southern Rock guitar theatrics to gentle acoustic-led country tunes for a mellow, easygoing sound. The title track opens the record with the distinctive bass drum thump, guitar strum, and patterned clapping of folk-pop, but Rabin seasons his take on the genre with zinging pedal steel and a big guitar solo bridge. It doesn’t turn the song into a Southern anthem, but it does help the song fit into the rest of the record. Follow-up “Eight Trips Around the Sun” starts out with crunchy distorted guitars, but layers a John Mayer-esque vocal line on top of it to temper the arrangement. The two tunes set up the poles of Rabin’s sound (except for closer “Ride the Wheel,” which reprises the approach of “Eight Trips” but perhaps even a little crunchier).
From there, Rabin settles into his groove: “A Memory Forever,” “I Remember Last December,” and “Not Heart Broken” are emotive tunes that rely on the tension between acoustic country-pop and electric guitar-driven country-rock. The lyrics and music of “A Memory Forever” evoke the poignant side of saloon troubadours, while the ballad “I Remember Last December” amps up the country-pop melodies and arrangement. “Not Heart Broken” is an “over you” song that includes banjo and weeping pedal steel. The lyrics of love and loss evoke Taylor Swift et al, while the bit of southern rock thrown in on every track keeps things fresh. Something Left to Say is an easy listen, great for putting on while you relax on a back porch somewhere.