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Quick Hits: Monk Parker / Ghost and Tape / Holy ’57

Clem Snide always seemed a little out of phase with the rest of the world: not quite country, not quite indie, heavily literate, deeply ironic, secretly hopeful. I loved their work, and it’s with great joy that I report this: Monk Parker has picked up their torch and run with it. But that’s only a starting point, as Parker’s slow-paced, dense, expansive, heavily atmospheric take on country music blazes its own path from Snide’s starting point. Crown of Sparrows is thus one of the most exciting alt-country releases of the year.

Parker’s voice is smooth and often elegant, leading the way through lush arrangements of pedal steel, broad horns, ambient sound (as in the opening of the title track) and more. The songs are melancholy but not depressing–they have an internal, almost subterranean, jubilance due to the vibrance of the arrangements. The songs are also long. There are only six tunes here in a runtime of over a half hour. This gives tunes like the title track and “Oh Cousin” the time they need to produce their magic. Hopefully Monk Parker will capture country’s attention the way Clem Snide never did–if so, country has another ship to add to the armada of new artists pushing country forward in unique ways.

Ghost and Tape‘s Vár is a perfect album to feature after Parker’s work. It is a warm, delicate, open-hearted ambient album that sounds matches some of the warm, patient qualities of Parker’s work. It is an album of intense detail and careful attention to the whole experience.

For example, the album art is some of the most fitting I’ve seen on a record this year: the colors are bright yet sun-dappled, the petals floating away convey a weightless feeling, and the image looks very sharp but starts to get a little soft as you get closer and closer. These are all apt descriptions of the music itself, from the drone of “Eostre” to the sound recording of walking through a forest (“hatch”) to the ocean waves and synth waves of closer “Seabird.” This is a beautifully calming record, a place to clear your mind and be made aware of the beauty around you. If you’re not into ambient music, this is a great place to start learning about how ambient can be amazing.

L is the sound of a musician pushing himself. Holy ’57 knows how to write great Vampire Weekend-inflected indie-pop songs, and does not disappoint on that front (“Water // Chrome,” “Canary,” “A Fragile Thing,” “Alison, Pt. 1”). Each of them have bouncy rhythms, clever arrangements, hummable melodies, and bright moods.

Placed around this very solid collection of pop tunes are interstitial found sounds [“(voicemail)”], instrumental variations on a theme (“Alison, Pt. II”), an ambient album coda (“Walkie Talkie Reprise”) and a fantastically ambitious opener track called “Bombay – Nairobi – London (Repeater).” The first three elements I mentioned there give the release heft–they make this into a total artistic idea instead of just a bunch of tunes. The fourth is where the total artistic idea begins.

“Bombay – Nairobi – London (Repeater)” is a long, complex instrumental tune that draws in elements of ambient, indie-rock, jazz, afrobeat, and more. There are towering horns, shimmering synths, and melismatic vocals amid the more-layers-than-you-can-shake-a-stick-at. The instruments are the backdrop to the dramatic life story of songwriter Alex Mankoo’s grandmother, told autobiographically through a recorded interview. It’s an impressive, engrossing opening track that leads the way into the rest of the mini-LP. If you’re into adventurous work that pushes the bounds of pop but also delivers some solid pop tracks along the way, go for this one.