1. “Mirrors” – Mos Isley. Triumphant folk-pop that’s exciting without going over the top into cliche.
2. “Glow” – The National Parks. Big instrumental melodies, lots of instruments, charming vocal melodies, subtle-enough-to-not-be-gimmicky underlying electronic beats; this folky indie song is just a blast.
3. “Vintage” – High Dive Heart. Throw technicolor girl pop, white rap, a banjo, and folk-pop harmonies in a blender and you get out this enigmatically engaging song. This song doesn’t make any sense to me in so many ways and yet I love it. It just works. Amazing. (Video direct link: )
4. “Ancient Burial Ground” – Kye Alfred Hillig. Hillig gives us the demos of his new album before it’s released, and you can color me excited: this tune and the handful of others that come with it are chipper musically and intricate lyrically, just like his best work. Watch for Great Falls Memorial Interchange in 2016.
5. “Canada” – Nikki Gregoroff. “The people are nice cross the border,” sings Gregoroff, which is just a really nice thing to write into a Simon and Garfunkel-esque tune.
6. “Chantilly Grace” – Granville Automatic. Bell-clear female vocals lead this tune that looks back to vintage Americana (that fiddle!) and forward to modern alt-country melodies.
7. “Bliss Mill” – Matthew Carter. The laid-back chill vibe and unhurried vocals of Alexi Murdoch meets the shuffle-snare of traditional country/folk for a memorable tune.
8. “Set Sail” – Matt Monoogian. Monoogian’s calm voice leads this acoustic track with an intricate arrangement that pulls the Gregory Alan Isakov trick of feeling both comfortingly small and confidently big.
9. “Bentonville Blues” – Adam Hill. A protest song for the modern day working poor, Hill captures the everyman ethos with great delivery of relatable lyrics, simpple arrangement of singalong melodies, and a the burned-but-not-killed mentality similar to old-time protest work songs.
10. “Itasca County” – Rosa del Duca. The frontman of folk outfit hunters. releases her own album of singer/songwriter tunes that focus on her voice and lyrics, both of which are in fine form on this rolling, harmonica-splashed tune.
11. “Tongue Tied” – Oktoba. That space between soul, folk, and singer/songwriter keeps getting more populated: let in Oktoba, whose offering isn’t as overtly sensuous as some but is just as romantic (and hummable)!
12. “The Blue” – David Porteous. Canadian Porteous beautifully splits the difference between two UK singer/songwriters here by invoking Damien Rice’s sense of intense romantic intimacy and David Gray’s widescreen pop arrangements.
13. “Whirlpool Hymnal” – Matthew Squires and the Learning Disorders. Squires expands his yearning, searching alt-folk to include found sounds–the lyrics are just as thought-provoking and honest as ever.
14. “Playground” – Myopic. The fragile swoon of a violin bounces off the stately plunk of melodic percussion in this thoughtful instrumental piece.
15. “Siphoning Gas” – Luke Redfield. This gentle, ambient soundscape is the sound of looking out the window when rain is coming down and you don’t have to go anywhere or do anything but cuddle up with a blanket and a book in a big bay window and enjoy it.
Adam Hill‘s Two Hands, Tulips is the fourth folk release of Hill’s that has crossed my desk. Nate Williams raved about the firsttwo (which Hill released under his own name), I put in a good word for the collaborative Magrane Hill release, and now I’m about to say great things about this one. That consistency should be as strong a selling point as the following words.
Even without that context, I would heartily recommend this album. Since Hill played every instrument and collected every bit of found sound, the album is an incredibly coherent statement. Hill weaves in radio clips, found performances and other noise throughout the album; some sounds are given their own interludes (“Sarabande I,” “For Me and My Gal,” “Sarabande II”) while others add context and emotive power to the bigger songs (“Dust Disease,” “Raleigh and Spencer,” “He Calls That Religion”). Josh Caress’ Letting Go of a Dream, my favorite album that I’ve ever discovered through Independent Clauses, uses this idea skillfully as well–so I’m totally excited about this idea. While Hill aims less for the romantic side of things with the tactic than Caress, the emotional impact of the interludes is similar between the two albums.
Hill stays lyrically in folk-singer mode for much of Two Hands, Tulips, protesting fake pastors (“He Calls That Religion”), poor working conditions for miners (“Dust Disease), and other doomed characters (“These Vignettes”). When he takes a break from that, it’s for a couple well-placed lovelorn songs (“French Films,” “The Train That Carried My Girl From Town”).
Musically, Hill primarily gives us folk and country; since he’s gotten good at it, why change it up? His confident, reedy tenor meshes naturally with his acoustic guitar. Tunes like “With Wistful Glances” and “Dust Disease” just work; everything comes together for a satisfying tune. It’s the sound of experience meeting hard work, and I love it.
When he does take risks, the results are mixed. The dramatic mood and arrangement of “These Vignettes” doesn’t make it the highlight of the album, but it’s still a good song. “CLQK” is a quiet fingerpicker cluttered by extraneous zooming found sound, while “She Heard a Sound” is a gypsy folk tune that doesn’t fit on the album at all (and since it’s second-to-last, it’s easy to ignore). Still, it’s nice to hear an artist clearly exercise the skills that have become a comfort zone (to the listener’s benefit!) as well as experiment a bit.
Adam Hill knows his way around a folk tune, and he knows it. Hearing him press his boundaries while exerting his strengths makes for a very enjoyable album of folk. Fans of troubadour strummers like Johnny Flynn and Justin Townes Earle should take note.
It’s twice in a row now that Adam Hill has delivered. If another one of his discs winds up on my desk, he’s going to have to work hard to outdo himself again.
When examining Hill’s work, he starts to seem less like a folk musician and more like a folk composer. This album is not the work of a group that took the name of its leader. Hill, in fact, plays every instrument on Them Dirty Roads (except for the fiddle) and provides all the vocals (aside from some of the backups). Hill is in control of every aspect of the album and compiles it into a sort of an operatic Americana symphony.
Whereas his previous album, Four Shades of Green, was more subdued in tone, Them Dirty Roads comes off as restless and in need of wandering. Guitars, pianos, walking bass lines, and an almost total lack of percussion, along with Hill’s twangy vocals (which often come with some echoing reverb) provide an atmosphere akin to the wide open spaces that make up the album’s cover art.
Hill’s sound takes a more indie-minded turn in Them Dirty Roads, especially with the insertion of piano ballads like “Fool’s Gold” and his cover of Dave Carter’s “The River, Where She Sleeps.” The cover is especially wonderful with Hill’s choice to stick with piano and what sounds like wine glasses being played with spoons for the accompaniment to his vocals. The song exudes a sense of joy that will prove infectious to anyone.
In a sense, Hill also takes a turn toward classical music in the arrangement of the album. Similar to the way he put four versions of the song “Down In The Valley” in Four Shades of Green to provide cohesiveness to the album, Hill inserts transitional and framing tracks, “Prelude,” “Intermezzo I,” “Intermezzo II,” and “Coda” in Them Dirty Roads. These tracks are generally just a collection of sound effects, though “Prelude” includes a Bach arrangement played on trumpet over the sound of radio static. While normally I might write tracks like this off as superfluous to an album, when taken within the whole album, these tracks give Them Dirty Roads unity and cohesiveness.
Tracks of note are “Fueled Up,” which is very reminiscent of the later work of Johnny Cash, and the aforementioned “The River, Where She Sleeps,” as well as “State of Grace” and “Ribbons and Curls.”
Anyone who appreciates folk, bluegrass, or country should find something to love about Them Dirty Roads. And those who don’t should definitely give it a try as well.
Let’s face it: one-man-bands can be really hard to pull off. There can occasionally be one or two instruments that just suffer because the musician just doesn’t have a grasp for it. Luckily, Adam Hill of Portland, Ore., shows stellar musicianship and songwriting with his one-man-bluegrass album Four Shades of Green.
With obvious inspirations from traditional bluegrass, folk and gospel, Hill weaves together a string of originals that exude the joys and sorrows of everyday life.
From guitar, bass and rhythm to mandolin, banjo, fiddle, trumpet and trombone, Hill manages to impress with his wide range of skills. He’s technically not the only person on the album, since a couple of tracks feature the voices of the Dekum Deck Choir, but close enough. The only instrument that doesn’t quite fit is his own voice, sounding more like it belongs in a pop-punk band rather than a bluegrass band. However, this gives the music a unique quality and gives it a particularly more indie sound.
Hill takes an interesting route throughout the album. He continually returns to instrumental tracks, four in all, that are all named “Down In The Valley.” Each is a different version of the same essential melody, first with fiddle, then guitar, then banjo and finally, finishing the album, with the choir. These give the album a very nice cohesiveness and also give some hint at its title, Four Shades of Green, by having four “shades” of the same tune.
Hill obviously has an affinity for twangy vocals, taking many opportunities to belt out. “Next Stop, Winona,” is especially fun to sing along to as Hill sings about that old bluegrass/folk/country standby, a train ride.
Hill’s songwriting style lends itself to the musical style. His lyrics and arrangements are simple and about everyday life. It gives the album a certain reassuring quality that makes you feel like everything is right in the world.
Standout tracks include the aforementioned “Next Stop, Winona,” as well as “Beulahland.” “Portland Winter Blues” is especially interesting due to its heavy influence from early Dixieland jazz.
I really enjoyed “Banks of the Ohio,” though it regularly distracts me. The melody and chord progression of the song in certain portions are remarkably similar to Ewan MacColl’s “Dirty Old Town,” which has been made popular by The Pogues and other Celtic bands. It’s not really a bad thing and most people wouldn’t pick up on it, but it distracted me from the song.
All in all, Four Shades of Green is an extremely solid effort for one musician to think up and record by himself. The world could always use more talented musicians like him.
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.