I’ve been a big fan of Magic Giant over the past few years as they’ve been releasing singles and online EPs. They’ve finally released a full-length collecting that work and adding in new tunes. In the Windis a fun, bouncy, catchy album of pop-rock, showing how Magic Giant has expanded from a folk-pop outfit heavily reliant on banjo to being a diverse group that can wear many hats.
Magic Giant was always had a bit of dance-rock in them, as the giddy dance-ability of the folk-dance-pop tune “Glass Heart” was what drew me to them. “Glass Heart” is reproduced in a shorter version (no drum circle outro, sadly), but it’s still a blast. Other tunes like “Hideaway” and “Celebrate the Reckless” show off their enthusiastic folk-dance-pop skills that put them in league with Judah and the Lion. But other tunes show off their straight-ahead pop skills, like the thrilling trumpet playing and “na-nas” of “Eyes Wide” and the new-school-Coldplay-esque opener “Jade.” These songs have more in common with Bastille than Mumford and Sons. To round out their abilities, “Nothin’ Left” is a breakup tune that’s straight down the folk-pop pike: it’s all fingerpicked guitar, plucked banjo, three-part harmonies, group vocals, tom percussion, and harmonica (!).
In the Wind is a fun album that would be great on the stereo on a summer road trip. It shows off a wide array of the trio’s skills and sets up a wide-open trajectory for them in the future. At the moment, though, it’s certainly a big collection of summer jams.
Magic Giant‘s Free 3-Song EP is the catchiest, funniest, and most fun pop-folk EP I’ve heard in a long time. Not since Twin Forks’ debut has a band had such a laser-guided sense of how melodies catch an ear. But Magic Giant is much more than your average folk-pop outfit. This quartet combines influences from Jason Mraz, Mumford & Sons, Muse, and dubstep to create an irresistible brew.
Muse has long known that the strength of pop music is that the various genres can be infinitely combined, if you spend enough time making the sounds mesh together; Magic Giant is all in on that game. “Let’s Start Again” opens with a trad-style fiddle run, then segues into a Jason Mraz-style alt-pop verse and pre-chorus. The lyrics are both modern and timeless, talking about cell phones and the desire to start over with a lover. Then the chorus explodes in a stuttering sampled horn line, a blaring marching band line, a soaring fiddle, and wub-style synth bass. It seems like it shouldn’t work, but it works perfectly. It’s like Imagine Dragons, but folkier. It’s rave-folk, but it’s not even the best example of rave-folk on the EP. (The fact that there are so many disparate influences coming together is what makes this the “funniest” EP I’ve heard in a while.)
“The Dawn” starts off with Lumineers-style fingerpicking and group harmony vocals before bursting into a full folk-pop arrangement, pulling the arrangement back to pick up the tempo, then turning into full-on Mumford & Sons: banjo, roar vocals, thrashing drums. There are also some synths for atmosphere. It’s tough to explain how effective this song is, because it sounds fully derivative on paper and yet completely exciting in the ear. The last chorus has some more stomping, four-on-the-floor dance beats, but it’s still not the best rave-folk song on this EP.
Finally we get to “Glass Heart,” which is my early candidate (basically, my bar) for song of the year. It starts off with a slow-moving banjo line, doo-wop background vocals, and tape noise for effect. It suddenly transforms by adding a saxophone section (alto/tenor/bari, by the sounds of it) stabbing its way through the verse. The chorus drops a great vocal line, but it’s the next section that makes the song: a jubilant, exultant horn line combined with the techno beat, wub bass, and enthusiastic background vocals (you can guess what they are) that have me waving my hands in the air. Then they layer the chorus over the bridge and seriously I’m in a one-man headphones club.
Rave-folk isn’t a thing yet, but Magic Giant is seriously trying to make it happen. They’re a shoo-in to go on tour with Imagine Dragons, but I daresay they’re more exciting to me than Imagine Dragons. They’re not going to be winning any traditional Americana awards, but I kinda doubt that’s the audience they’re shooting for. If you’re into huge, shoot-for-the-charts pop songs, then Magic Giant should be in your ears. You can get the free EP by signing up for their e-mail list.
1. “Dylan Thomas / Bitter Bitter” – The Duke of Norfolk. A Dylan Thomas spoken word clip opens the gates of this track onto a field of wavering strings, distant vocals, gentle percussion, sea waves, and beautiful guitar melodies. It’s a very hopeful scene that gets only more so with the addition of subtle arpeggiator bleeps and a ramped-up tempo. The hope and warm enthusiasm of the track contrast with the lyrics, which are about coming to grips with death of loved one. It’s a statement track, for certain, and it’s a great stake to stick in the ground. Highly recommended. (Full Disclosure: I gave feedback on a pre-mastered version of this track.)
2. “Heat” – Kira May. Well, this is something new and different. There’s some ambient vibes to start the track; a lot of thick, manipulated vocals (think Imogen Heap); engaging “lead bass” work; and a strong, direct vocal performance on top of all of that via May. All of that runs slinky pop vibes (a la Dido) through an art-school filter (a la Talking Heads) to turn up something exciting and unusual. Highly Recommended.
3. “From Osaka, With Love” – Mixtaped Monk. This totally chill instrumental track manages to create the relaxing, soothing vibes of ambient music without losing the sense of forward motion. Gentle electric guitar, intriguing melodic percussion noises, and the oh-so-rare effective use of a slow sweeping/phasing effect on the synths. The addition of full kit percussion adds some post-rock panache, which gives the track heft.
4. “Walkin’ Through” – Emilie Mover. This hushed, intimate folk tune doesn’t walk so much as leisurely float. Mover’s beautiful voice unspools careful melodies over a gently pulsing fingerpicking pattern on a nylon-string guitar. There are crickets in the background, suggesting that Mover is out in a forest near a pond, perhaps, living the romantic life of nature. All in all, a lovely track.
5. “Fake Out” – MUNROE. This is a piano ballad, but it’s not maudlin, campy, overextended, or overstuffed. It features a deeply affecting vocal performance, an insistent piano arrangement, and vocal melodies that are hard to get out of my head. If only all piano work could be this earnest, affecting, and strong.
6. “Shelter” – Stephen Karl & Handsome Animals. I was listening to John K. Samson’s excellent work yesterday. I found myself discussing with my wife that, despite 15 years of listening to new music almost every day, there are some artists that have the X factor (my wife called it “umami“) that can transcend a standard form in an almost indiscernable, indescribable way. Stephen Karl’s work has that umami quality–this is a folk/country tune with train-track percussion, weeping pedal steel, and a baritone vocal performance. Nothing of the piece jumps out as the thing that makes the track great, but every piece contributes to making this song a cut above the rest of the pack doing much the same type of work. Good job, Stephen Karl & Handsome Animals.
7. “Oh Honey” – Neighbor Lady. I can say, “Filters the best of ’50s pop vibes through chill ’90s low-key Britpop and contemporary indie-pop with a dash of punk rock attitude in the vocal performance” or I can say, “This is the sort of song that ends up on so many of your playlists and mix CDs that you start giving this song to people multiple times, unapologetically.”
8. “The Balance” – Tenderfoot. Put The Antlers, The National, and Alt-J in a blender and this smooth, assured indie track might just come out. The way all the elements (strings, vocals, drums, bass, guitars) come together into a single, slicked-back unit is impressive.
9. “The Future” – BAILEY. Here’s a chipper, major-key folk-pop tune that reminds me of Bronze Radio Return and the quieter moments of Magic Giant. The inclusion of keys and whistling is a lot of fun, adding to the good vibes coming from the base arrangement, vocal performance, and lyrics.
10. “Stay” – The Drew Thomson Foundation. This is ’90s-style alt-country (do we still say country-punk?) that has all the charge of a rock song with juuuuust enough country to keep it fresh. The punchy vocal performance and the yearning lyrics are icing on the songwriting cake.
11. “Got It Cheap” – Tom West. This tune makes genre distinctions meaningless: there’s a banjo, some sort of saxophone, horns, some crunchy electric guitar, walking speed tempos, and mournful (yet still catchy) vocals. It’s a pop song of some sort, maybe, but whatever it is, it sounds really “in the pocket.” One that’s worth repeating, for sure.
12. “Doughnuts Forever” – The Orb. Downtempo electronica with trip-hop influences, tropical vibes, and a total sense of cool running through the whole thing. Very polished from this veteran outfit.
1. “Good Advice (feat. Jeff Goldblum)” – FEVERHIGH. Come for the “what? for real? Jeff Goldblum?” (Yes, it actually is.) Stay for the female-fronted, Fatboy Slim-esque dance music.
2. “Window” – Magic Giant. The folk-pop-rave mash-ups that Magic Giant creates are just ludicrously fun. Add to this a simply ridiculous (in the best of ways) music video and you’ve got a undeniably fun experience waiting for you.
3. “Gentleman” – The Curious. Thank goodness that the UK turns out a steady stream of perky guitar-rock bands a la the Arctic Monkeys and The Vaccines. This tune has crisp, chiming guitars and soaring vocals in spades.
4. “Eliza” – Lauran Hibberd. Fans of Laura Stevenson’s blend of folk, indie-pop, and indie-rock will immediately recognize the enthusiastic songwriting of this track. Hibberd’s sensibilities are finely tuned here to pull in the best of each genre and discard the overdone elements of each. The result is a sort of super-charged Regina Spektor or a new tour mate for Stevenson.
5. “Move On” – The Brixton Riot. This punchy, high-quality guitar-rock that is carefully written, perfectly played, and expertly engineered (J. Robbins). It’s crunchy without being relying on distortion as a crutch. The vocal performance is stellar as well.
6. “Opinionated” – New Luna. Reminds me of old-school Bloc Party: frenetic vocals, carefully constructed rock arrangements reminiscent of late-night urban environs, and a healthy dose of paranoia.
7. “35 Year Olds Dancin’” – Romeo Dance Cheetah. Being closer to 35 than to 18, I appreciate this fantastic glam rock parody of the not-so-pretty transition from hipster to hip injury.
8. “Aphrodite” – Zorita. Try to create a triangulation between ska, klezmer, and indie-rock, and you’ll end up with this svelte, suave track. The low-toned vocals in the chorus are evocative and addictive.
9. “Big G” – Neosho. Here’s a really fascinating mix of spacey synths, trap-inspired beats, electro-pop vibes, lush instrumental arrangements, and rhythmic vocals. The band pulls off this unusual sound in a totally sophisticated and impressive way.
10. “For the Last Time” – Two Sets of Eyes. Mashes together the plaintive emotion of ’00s emo, the saxophone of smooth jazz, the cascading guitars of indie rock, and a few surprises I won’t spoil into an impressive, unique stew. I’m very excited for their future work.
1. “Outlandish Poetica” – Jonathan Something. A wild, whirling track that takes bits of Pavement slacker rock, lo-fi enthusiasm, kitchen sink-arrangement, and mystical/religious fervor and blends them into something unclassifiable. Also, Larry Bird is involved. Not kidding.
2. “Jungle – Saint Mesa. Starts off as a deconstructed electro-pop song and slowly edits all the missing parts back in until it’s just a big, towering, Bastille x ODESZA jam. Whoa now.
3. “Unsymmetrical” – Eli Raybon. A spitfire vocal attack and groove-heavy bass anchor this deconstructed post-punk/indie-rock blitz.
4. “Dear Abby” – Rees Finley. This song operates exactly in the space where indie-pop meets pop-punk, which is an area where Relient K and Say Anything have spent a lot of time. The vocal and instrumental melodies are infectious.
5. “Big Deceiver” – Foresteater. Fans of twee indie-pop with full-band arrangements (like It’s a King Thing) will find much to love in the distinctly charming vocal style, twinkling guitars, and warm background vocals.
6. “The Shield” – Syntax Club. They hail from Oklahoma and have the least tropical name I’ve ever heard, but this outfit has the reverb-heavy, super-laid-back, beach-friendly indie-pop thing on lock. The earnestness with which it is all pulled off keeps them just shy of yacht rock. And that’s a great thing.
7. “The Glow” – Mateo Katsu. Fans of Neutral Milk Hotel will have their eyes brightened by this rambling, shambling indie-pop tune led by a wistful, winsome accordion melody. There’s also some Weezer influences in the chug to the strum and the arc of the melodies. In short: long live the indie ’90s.
8. “Up” – Ships Have Sailed. SHS follows in the vein of Grouplove, Magic Giant, and Moon Taxi in creating really fun dance-oriented pop-rock out of primarily acoustic parts. This one’s a mid-tempo piece, but that makes it no less fun.
9. “No Going Back” – Ghosts of Social Networks. If Funeral-era Arcade Fire and the Killers had a child, it would sound a lot like this enthusiastically dancy indie-rock track.
10. “Honey Honey” – SISTERS. Subtle things sometimes make all the difference: the claves here match perfectly with the guitar tone and the soft vocals to create a great atmosphere. From that beginning, the song blossoms out into an expansive, post-Transatlanticism indie-pop-rock track. They incorporate synths well too, creating a synthesis of a lot of different ideas on indie-rock into one very exciting track.
1. “Georgia” – Raccoon Raccoon. A stand-up bass, fluttery acoustic guitar, and a breathy duet come together uniquely: if this is where their sound is headed, they could carve out their own unique space between The Weepies, Josh Radin, and St. Even. Good, good stuff here.
2. “Un De Plus” – The Coconut Kids. You definitely need a lilting, suave ballad sung entirely in French and accompanied by Beirut-esque trumpet in your life.
3. “Lock & Key” – Mouths of Babes. Who can resist whistling in a chipper acoustic-pop/Americana tune?
4. “Over Romantic” – The Watanabes. Here’s a wistful, restrained, romantic acoustic indie-pop song about being too romantic. May it never be!
5. “LYM (Leave Your Man)” – Stevie Talks. Takes a well-turned adult-alternative vibe and transforms it into something different with a feathery Sufjan-esque vocal melody and arrangement in the chorus.
6. “Great Pumpkin Waltz” – Brad Myers and Michael Sharfe. This low-key, unassuming jazz trio performance of the Vince Guaraldi (Charlie Brown) tune retains all the wistful melodic qualities that Guaraldi was so keen on but also explores the spaces created by the translation of the piano-led work into a guitar-led one. Thoughtful and interesting.
7. “Left My Heart” – Matthew Leeb. Man, once upon a time I was big into Mat Kearney’s sound. Leeb’s smooth, soulful take on acoustic-based hip-hop pushes all those same buttons for me. Also, I always love an Oklahoma shout-out. Represent.
8. “Spanish Bird” – Common Jack. Think back to the first time you heard “Boots of Spanish Leather” by The Tallest Man on Earth: the blast of vocal enthusiasm, the charging guitars, the sunshiny mood of the whole thing. Now add some extra Dylan vocal intonation into that, and that was my experience of hearing this song for the first time. (And this song references leather boots and Spain!)
9. “Wake the Dawn” – The Frontier. A bold, brash, pop-rock-informed folk-pop tune that hits along Magic Giant lines with some Black Keys-inspired lead guitar work. Tasty.
10. “Romance Abroad” – -ness. I’m a sucker for a cool piano line, so of course the intro to this song hooked me. The anthemic, dramatic acoustic pop kept me after that. It should be noted that I was a fan of OneRepublic before I heard their stuff one million times in every possible public space, so keep that in mind as you listen.
11. “From Rest” – Cold Weather Company. The rushing, passionate piano that undergirds this track counterpoints (and then matches) the speedy guitar melodies here, resulting in a torrential whirlwind of a song.
12. “As Far as I Can” – Kylypso. Transforms a keyboard and an 808 into a smooth, lithe electro-pop track. It’s sort of like when you look at holographic plastic undulating slowly: a mesmerizing yet sleek experience.
13. “Police” – KING. I’m not going to lie, this has a lot of connection to “Lean On.” Also true: I had my hands in the air while I was sitting in my cubicle listening to this. (No shame.) That chorus tho.
EPs are becoming more popular than ever, and I love the trend: there’s no room for filler on an EP. As a result, a lot of artists brought their A game to the smaller format this year. Here’s to them:
1. Thanks for All Your Patience – Brother Moses. (Review) I spun this one the most often because the easygoing, almost effortless indie-rock vibe gave rise to some seamless, indelible melodies. Clean, tight, clever, and earnest, I gravitated to this one early and often in 2015.
2. On Separation – David Wimbish. (Review) Wimbish, frontman of The Collection, stripped out some of the intricate arrangements of his day job for a more intimate set of portraits that focused in on the lyrics. Elegant, haunting, and beautiful.
3. Loca EP – Valley Shine. (Review) Folk-pop can be a formula these days, but Valley Shine is all about exploding the formula with raw enthusiasm, brash melodies, and surprising pathos.
6. Regards – We are the West. (Review) A wisp of an EP that barely has time to meet you before it’s gone, but oh does it deliver: this Low Anthem-style Americana sounds like a warm blanket around my ears.
7. Joe Kaplow EP – Joe Kaplow. (Review) One of my favorite debuts of the year, as Kaplow showed off his versatility in several different acoustic-based styles. Looking forward to more from Kaplow.
8. Away, Away – B. Snipes. (Review) Another excellent debut that introduces Snipes’ low-slung troubadour singer/songwriter voice to the world, taking the lyrics of Rocky Votolato in a more Americana direction.
The acoustic indie-pop of Living Decent‘s Do What Makes You BraveEPshows a different side of the band, which released their self-titled pop-punk EP in July 2015. Brave relies on the singer/songwriter background of Vic Alvarez, featuring his voice against an acoustic guitar and minimal arrangement around that. The minimalism ranges from nothing but voice and guitar in “Minus 10” to the bass and tambourine of the perky (but still not pop-punk perky) “Crystal Palace” and the crescendoing drums and bass of “Moving the Sun.” The four songs here each maintain a balance between punchy and melancholy–it’s unsurprising that they list “emo” as one of their tags. They could tour with Football, Etc. as part of the emo revival, making music that draws off emo’s forefather influences but sounds modern and relateable.
The standout is closer “I Could Not Be Here,” the most realized of the tunes here: Alvarez’s breathy, earnest tenor is surrounded by warm keys and gentle percussion to create a tune that almost sounds like a Plans-era Death Cab for Cutie song. Living Decent has songwriting chops that they’ve now showed off in two different realms very quickly. They’re an exciting outfit to watch for in 2016.
Distant Cousins’ self-titled EP finds a way to triangulate contemplative folk, folk-pop, and Imagine Dragons-style radio pop in a fun, catchy product. Opener “Taste of Tomorrow” combines all three of their elements in an enthusiastic, sax-blasted tune that reminds me of Magic Giant’s work. “Your Story” is a straight-up-and-down folk pop tune that ropes in female vocalist Jessie Payo for the back-and-forth elements. Closer “For a Moment” is a pristine folk tune buoyed by multiple-part harmonies that sticks out for its beauty. The rest of the tracks on the six-song EP turn up the pop volume and get fun–if you’re into that style of music, Distant Cousins are right on that wavelength. Their debut EP shows off that they can write a snappy tune, and there are flashes of beauty in there too. I’m interested to see where they go next.
The four songs of Marc Maynon‘s Watch Pot have thoroughly ingested British Invasion songcraft but don’t just spit that back out. Instead, Maynon’s songwriting has a bit of a power-pop cast to it at times (“Something to Live For”) and a piano-pop flair at other times (“Sensation,” “Vintage Lens”). Maynon’s high-pitched tenor is deployed nicely throughout the EP; in “Sensation” and “Vintage Lens” his vocals pair especially well with the bright piano tone. Even though he has solid pop bonafides, this isn’t all upbeat major-key work; Maynon has a solid control of mid-tempo and minor-key work. Add in the thoughtful arrangement touches throughout, from strings to synths to trumpet, and you’ve got a solid EP of pop songwriting. Watch Pot is a good slice of sound for fans of formal pop songwriting.
Sundaug‘s Nocturnality is a full album of instrumental compositions that primarily revolve around a fingerpicked acoustic guitar. Each of the 14 tracks is remarkably relaxing, from the gently grooving opener “Pyramid” to the moody closer “Chasing Angels.” The album is strongly cohesive, and you can listen to the album as one long tune if you wish. (It’s particularly good for setting on in an afternoon where you don’t have much to do and just want to chill–I can vouch). Some highlights that stick out (but only ever so slightly–it’s all really good) are “When Solitude Becomes Isolation,” a cascading tune that sounds more contemplative and positive than the title suggests, and “The Submersion,” which pairs pad synths with interesting guitar runs. (Some might not be thrilled with the occasional overture toward new age music, but I don’t think it diminishes the overall impact of the release.) If you’re interested in relaxing guitar-centric music, you should check out Sundaug’s Nocturnality.
1. “Running Away” – The Royal Foundry. It’s actually kind of astonishing that we’ve had less acoustic-pop/electro mashups than we’ve had (I see you, Magic Giant!). TRF manage to pull the best elements of both chipper-yet-thoughtful acoustic pop and fist-raising MGMT electro-pop into this really rad tune.
2. “One Less Thing” – Curtsy. I should be used to the type of distortion that makes things sound dreamy instead of grungy, but every now and then you hear something that restores your faith in an effect. This tune walks the line between hazy and energetic beautifully.
3. “Mixer” – Nap Eyes. You know that dude who shows up at your parties and he’s the friend of a guy you know, and you’ve met once, and he turns out to be awesome, and your friend never shows up, but the friend-of-a-friend is coming over next Tuesday? Nap Eyes isn’t a garage rock band on this track, but their chilled-out Cali rock is rad.
4. “Is He Gone” – The Echo Field. Giddy indie-pop that could easily pass for a first-British Invasion “rock” track.
5. “Monday Morning” – Paradise Animals. The arpeggiator synths create a post-chillwave framework for the baritone vocals to leap about in. It’s like Teen Daze paired with an alternate universe version of Matt Berninger from The National.
6. “Believer” – Paper Lions. Think of the most pleasant possible mash-up of Tokyo Police Club and Passion Pit, and you’d get this grin-inducing track. We need a better work for this specific indie-pop-rock-dance type work, ’cause it’s totally a thing.
7. “Technicolor Souls” – Flight of Ryan. Manages to combine wubby bass, chopped vocals, vocoder and high-tenor wails in an exciting way that doesn’t sound overdone. (Okay, maybe the vocoder is a bit much.) If you can’t wait for The Naked and Famous to finish up that third record…
8. LA Takedown– LA Takedown. This 44-minute album streams as one track on the linked website. It works perfectly because the electro-heavy post-rock/digital soundscape is the sort of abstract wonder that can make me stare at an empty screen quiet contently while the sounds swirl about my ears.
9. “Headlights” – Grandsister ft. Sarah Belkner. The vocals, arpeggiated bass, and percussion just all come together great on this one.
10. “TMI” – Daphne Willis. Sick of Meghan Trainor dominating all public spaces but actually love her style of music and really wish you had an alternative? Daphne Willis’s latest EP is exactly the sort of too-fun-to-be-real pop that you’ve been secretly hoping for. Seriously sasstastic.
11. “No Way” – Naives. This off-kilter electro jam sounds like M.I.A. rejected a beat made for her and to salvage it the beatmaker tried to repurpose it into an indie-electro jam, coming up with something altogether different along the way.
12. “Tokyo Megaplex” – Art Contest. I wonder if Coleman Monroe showed up at their practice space and said, “Yo, Garrett, I wrote this insane, fast guitar line that doesn’t really believe in time signatures. Think you can keep up?” If you need your mind bent by a good-natured math-rock tune today, here’s a good candidate.
13. “Flame” – Controller. So you’ve got a good fuzzed-out guitar riff, a great vocal line, and a big chorus: you, my friend, are in business.
Stephen Carradini and Lisa Whealy write reviews of instrumental, folk, and singer/songwriter music. We write about those trying to make the next step in their careers and established artists.