Back when I was a humongous pop-punk fan just getting into acoustic music, I never thought I’d be able to distinguish between alt-country and folk. At some point before I heard Don DiLego‘s music, I figured that distinction out–even if it’s still difficult for me to fully explain. It’s more than the occasional pedal steel and full-band instrumentation that sets DiLego’s music in this category or that; he approaches the whole Western & Atlantic EP with a mature, well-developed gravitas in the melodies and lyrics. “Chicago” is a song about love with a minimum of sap, while “Television Sun” is about “what’s worth fighting for.” “Lonely Couples” is a stark tune that reminds me of Chris Mills’ work, while closer “Carry On” is a powerful tune that impressively never goes for the big hook and remains dignified in its quiet existence.
These tunes are incredibly strong, especially when considering the impromptu sessions that predicated them (you can read the story here). This one unfolds more of its beauty with each subsequent listen. If you’re down for thoughtful lyrics and disarmingly poignant melodies that resist emotive pandering, then Western & Atlantic needs to be in your corner.
The Damn Choir‘s You’re My Secret Called Fire features almost everything I want from an indie-folk band: distinctive yet melodic vocals, full arrangements, confident songwriting, spot-on performances and powerful control of mood. The band strips its sound clear of Mumford and Sons’ grandiose veneer, the cinematic production values of Grizzly Bear, and slow’n’sad tendencies that many songwriters put forth to produce a raw, vital sound. It’s a beautiful, poignant, passionate album–musically. However, as you might expect from a band that doesn’t think twice about putting the word “Damn” in its name, the lyrics are incredibly raw. They’re not vulgar or profane, but “I wish I was Noah, I would watch the world drown” and “I watch the pain in your eyes before you finally drown” (from “Noah”) are representative samples. Let’s just say religion and ex-girlfriends are not high on the list of The Damn Choir’s favorite things. If you can get past that, there’s gold in these hills. (I’d go for “Grace” and “Ghost.”) If those sentiments rub you the wrong way, go for one of the other two albums in this post.
Heyward Howkins’ The Hale and the Hearty is something altogether different from the two albums above. Although it could be filed in a loose interpretation of “indie-folk,” Howkins’ songwriting vision is far outside the traditional folk style (i.e the You Can Play These Songs With Chords school, as the not-folkies in Death Cab for Cutie noted). Howkins’ complex, intricate songwriting is full of twists and turns. There are more sudden stops and starts here than in a math-rock album. The melodies are less structured and singalong, more stream-of-consciousness and meandering. This creates an album that is an experience not easily translated into mixtape fodder. Not that “Waist High and Dry” doesn’t have beautiful moments that could definitely fit between Fleet Foxes and Josh Ritter; it just also has unusual rhythms and arrangements that would make it a weird fit at the same time. The song is 2:55 long.
Again, Howkins’ album is just as beautiful as the other two on this post: it simply gets there in a vastly different way. If you’re into music that makes you think more than it makes you sing, this one’s for you. You’ll still hum the tunes; but they’ll be hums punctuated by unexpected drum riffs (“The Raucous Calls of Morning”), unusual horns (“Cocaine Bill”) and tempo changes (everywhere) that keep your brain on point. Great, great stuff.