I’m pretty worn out from divorce records this year, but Glen Phillips‘ Swallowed by the New is a divorce record so good that I’m breaking my moratorium on the form to tell you about it. Phillips is the former songwriter of Toad the Wet Sprocket who has turned himself into a songwriter approximately like Glen Hansard crossed with Alexi Murdoch while living in America. In other words, these are rich, fully-developed singer/songwriter songs that can be hushed or roaring with equal emotional impact.
The highlights of the record are the emotionally-wrung-out opener “Go,” the gospel-inflected major key of “Grief and Praise,” the Brill Building popcraft of “Reconstructing the Diary” and the stomping neo-blues rave-up that is “Held Up.” The rest of the tunes are strong as well, showing off Phillips’ oh-so-perfect vocal tone and smooth songwriting (“The Easy Ones,” “Baptistina,” “Leaving Oldtown”). The whole thing is about as warm and lovely as the thoroughly attractive album art. In other words, it doesn’t drag you through the dirt to get to the gold–at least, not too much.
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.
Matt Carter has a beautiful low-tenor voice. He inflects the delivery of lines in “Weary Traveler” with deft grace, echoing the skills of calm-yet-passionate singers such as Alexi Murdoch. His careful delivery belies some weariness in himself, but doesn’t let that overcome the structured dignity of the track.
The tender, approachable alt-pop arrangement behind the gentle vocal melody consists of acoustic strum, grounding piano, burbling electric guitar and weightless strings that provide a big lift to the tune. It’s the sort of song whose excellence can pass easily by (maybe even totally unnoticed) if you’re not paying close attention; it’s pretty, melodic, and relaxing–but it’s a lot more than that. Carter brings a lot of nuances to the tune that make it a beautiful track.
It’s the first track off the Patterns EP that will be released later this fall. Listen here:
Here’s the lush, foliage-filled video for the song:
Full disclosure is important in journalism, so I have to point out that I was as surprised as anyone to find myself thanked in the liner notes of Fiery Crash‘s In Clover. I’ve covered Joshua Jackson (not the Paste editor) many times before and named For Tomorrow Will Worry About Itselftop EP of the year in 2013. Over those years we’ve become friends over e-mail, having never met in person. The chronology was music, then friendship–not the other way around. Okay, enough about that.
In Clover is the high-fi culmination of almost a dozen lo- to mid-fi releases under this and other names. Jackson bounced back and forth between garage rock, dream-pop, and fingerpicked singer/songwriter genres in each of his releases, and here he brings them all together. He opens with the dreamy pop of “Julie,” throws down some ’90s rock with the crunchy guitars of the title track, shows off his singer/songwriter side in the evocative “Loser Street,” and closes with the achingly beautiful acoustic instrumental “Meadowsville.” There are occasional forays into casio beats to back up his dreamy pop (“If You Were Mine”), violins for pathos (“Annie”), and the swift fingerpicking of Alexi Murdoch (“Loving Wish”). Jackson packs a lot into 13 songs. (For ease of use, the front half is louder than the back half.)
What saves In Clover from being an amorphous grab bag is the consistent production vibe (hazy around the edges, focused at the center) and Jackson’s comfortable baritone voice. His vocals guide the listener through each song, whether it be the hollering frustration of “The Divorce,” the yearning tones of “Julie,” or the soothing notes of “Loving Wish.” The most common vocal type sees Jackson surrounded by his own arrangements, leading as the center of the mix, but not its most prominent feature volume-wise. It’s not as speak-sung as CAKE, but it has the same sort of connection to the music: Jackson’s voice is shepherding the rest of the instruments along, even if they’re running out in front of him. It makes for an album that feels relaxed and comfortable while still being confident and tight in the performances.
The centerpiece of the record is “Steeples,” which starts out with simple fingerpicked acoustic guitar and voice. The arrangement builds around that core, bringing in drifting background vocals, gentle electric guitar and distant drums. The lyrics are questions of religion and existentialism, giving us a peek into an ongoing conversation about life: “I’m trying to answer you/dear brother of mine.” Jackson’s vocals are compelling without being theatrical, emotive without being maudlin. The song floats by without seeming to take the four minutes of its run time.
The brilliant In Clover packs a lot of sounds into 13 songs, but all of it hangs together. It’s the sort of listening experience that takes you through an emotional and sonic narrative. Fiery Crash is on top of his game as a melodist and arranger. If you’re looking for an album that will push you through spring and get you to summer, this should be your jam. In other words, if you’re into dream-pop, indie-rock, or tightly arranged singer/songwriter work, you should really check this out.
Singer/songwriter Kris Orlowski has been a shooting star for the fast few years, moving quickly from local roots to premiering his latest album Believer on Pandora to recording a three-song EP with the venerable Damien Jurado at the helm. Columbia City Theater Sessions is the outcome of that collaboration: three songs of stripped-down acoustic work with delicate touches that are indicative of Jurado’s ear.
The new version of “Believer” retains the heavy strum pattern of the original, but foregrounds the lead and backup vocals. It creates a more collective vibe to the tune, as opposed to the very individualistic vibe that runs through the lyrics and original full-band version. (You can check the full version of “Believer” as the bonus track on this EP.)
The revelation here is “Fighting the War,” which is transformed from an anthemic pop-rock song into a tender, delicate tune that incorporates distant piano, warm background vocals, and even flute. It feels very much like a Jurado tune, in its tension between spare vibes and lush aspirations. It’s a stand-out tune both ways Orlowksi has cut it so far, which is truly remarkable.
The new track, “Winter, Winter” is truly a solo effort, vocals and guitar only. I don’t know how much influence Jurado had on it, but the insistent strum pattern is similar to the work that Damien would put out. Jurado’s fingerprints are all over these three quiet re-interpretations, and it shows a side of Orlowski that he hasn’t flexed in a while. If you’re looking for a solid little EP to play on a snowy day (like today), this one would be a great choice.
The folk-grounded indie-pop of In Tall Buildings‘ Driver gets better as it gets weirder. Opener “Bawl Cry Wail” is a traditional modern folk tune that wouldn’t be out of place in a Elephant Micah record, and it’s by no means bad. But things start to sparkle on “All You Pine,” as Erik Hall introduces rubbery, staccato bass; complex drumming; and subtle synth undertones. Then a gritty, grungy guitar solo appears. It’s all very “other” to modern folk, and it’s intriguing. Lead single “Flare Gun” relies on arpeggiated synth and perky drumming to float his guitar picking and vocals; the overall effect is remarkable. “I’ll Be Up Soon” manages to create the separated, synthetic electronic vibe without any obvious electronics, which is an impressive feat.
Once you’ve heard the album once, go back and listen to it again; once you’ve listened through, the context of the whole thing becomes clear and even dramatically un-electronic songs like “Bawl Cry Wail” fit into the amalgam. Songs like “Aloft” could be electronic or organic–it doesn’t matter. They just sound right together. If you’re into adventurous, sonically experimental music (but not in an avant-garde sort of way), Driver is for you.
Usually when I get a music release from someone who’s already famous in another artistic medium, I ignore it. The space that I have is best used on people trying to work their way up from nothin’. However, Michael Malarkey is an exception because his music is really good. Feed the Flames EP shows Malarkey in optimistic fingerpicking troubadour mode, like some cross between Alexi Murdoch, Josh Ritter and Josh Radin.
The chorus vocal line of “Through the Night and Back Again” has been stuck in my head for days, as Malarkey’s gentle baritone lilts its way through a pastoral setting that includes lazy pedal steel. It’s an impressive, mature tune. “Lost and Sound” and “Bells Still Ring” keep that feel going, giving a sense of motion and lightness to the release that can’t be dragged down by two darker tunes. The title track is a minor key tune, still with strong melodicism and fingerpicking, that plays up a romantic feel. “Everything’s Burned” is a helter-skelter klezmer/gypsy tune that taxes Malarkey’s vocals in delivery speed. It’s a fun, quirky tune that never feels overly kitschy.
Acting (Vampire Diaries) first made Michael Malarkey famous, but his singer/songwriter chops are just as strong as any one-art artist could hope for. I really look forward to what Malarkey will do in the future, musically–his first offering is impressive.
1. “Great White Shark” – Hollands. Maximalist indie-rock/pop music with groove, noise, melodic clarity, effusive enthusiasm, strings, harp, and just about everything else you can ask for. If the Flaming Lips hadn’t got so paranoid after At War with the Mystics…
2. “Coyote Choir” – Pepa Knight. Still batting 1.000, Pepa Knight brings his exuberant, India-inspired indie-pop to more mellow environs. It’s still amazing. I’m totally on that Pepa Knight train, y’all. (Hopefully it’s The Darjeeling Limited.)
3. “Peaks of Yew” – Mattson 2. I love adventurous instrumental music, and Mattson 2 cover a wide range of sonic territory in this 10-minute track. We’ve got some surf-rock sounds, some post-rock meandering, some poppy melodies, some ambient synths, and a whole lot of ideas. I’m big on this.
4. “Firing Squad” – Jordan Klassen. Sometimes a pop-rock song comes along that just works perfectly. Vaguely dancy, chipper, fun, and not too aggressive (while still allowing listeners to sing it loudly), “Firing Squad” is just excellent.
5. “Droplet” – Tessera Skies. There’s a tough juggling act going on in this breathtaking indie-pop tune: flowing instruments, flailing percussion, cooing vocals, and an urgent sense of energy. It’s like if Jonsi’s work got cluttered up with parts and then organized neatly.
6. “Available Light” – David Corley. If Alexi Murdoch, Tom Waits, and Joseph Arthur all got together and jammed, it might sound something like this gruff yet accessible, vaguely alt-country track.
7. “Blue Eyed Girl” – Sam Joole. I’d like to make a joke about blue-eyed soul here, but it’s actually closer to Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl” than that. Lots of laidback guitars, good vibes, but not Jack Johnson twee, if you know what I mean.
8. “By the Canal” – Elephant Micah. I’m a big fan of people who aren’t afraid to let an acoustic guitar and voice splay out wherever they want and however long they want. Here, EM acts as an upbeat Jason Molina, putting the focus on his voice instead of the spartan-yet-interesting arrangements. Totally stoked for this new album.
9. “If It Does” – Robin Bacior. In this loose, smooth, walking-speed singer-songwriter tune with maximum atmosphere, shades of early ’00s Coldplay appear. That’s a compliment, people.
10. “Storm” – Dear Criminals. Not that often do I hear trip-hop, even in an updated melodic form. Way to go, DC–you pick up that torch that Portishead put down.
11. “You Open to the Idea” – Angelo De Augustine. Beautiful, delicate, wispy, earnest whisper-folk. They don’t make ’em like this very often anymore.
12. “Billowing Clouds” – Electrician. The mournful, affected spoken word over melancholy, trumpet-like synths makes me think of an electro version of the isolated, desolate Get Lonely by The Mountain Goats.
13. “Blue Chicago Moon (demo)” – Songs: Ohia. Until Jason Molina, I’ve never had a personal connection to the art of a troubled artist who died too early–Elliott Smith was gone before I knew of his work. Now with unreleased demos coming out consistently after Mr. Molina’s death, I feel the sadness of his passing over and over. Each new track is a reminder that there was work still to be made; it also feels like a new song from him, even though it’s objectively not.
Is this how a legacy gets made in the digital era? How long will we keep releasing new Molina songs, to remind us that he was there, and now he is not? (Please keep releasing them.) Will the new songs push people back to “The Lioness”? Will we keep these candles burning to light our own rooms, or will we bring them to other people? “Endless, endless, endless / endless depression,” Molina sings here. Is it truly endless? Are you still depressed? Does your permanent recording of the phrase make it truly “unchanging darkness”? “Try to beat it,” he intones, finally. Try to beat it, indeed. Keep trying until you can’t anymore. And then let your work stand forever. I guess this is how I mourn.
The best songs move me. The best music videos take the best songs and make them even more powerful. Andrew Judah, already one of the most inventive and creative songwriters I’ve discovered this year, just dropped an absolutely astonishing video for “I Know You Know” that ranks high among the best I’ve seen this year and this decade.
Exzavier Whitley’s “How Will You Be” channels Nick Drake, Alexi Murdoch and other chill fingerpickers of note. Don’t sleep on Exzavier Whitley–he’s got huge talent.
Kye Alfred Hillig performs his song “Ex” as part of an a capella trio, making the already excellent song even more haunting and unique. Hillig, people. HILLIG. GET ON HIS LEVEL.
Stellar power-pop band Bishop Allen with only 14,000 views? WHAT IS THIS?! Give them your view. You will not be disappointed.
Ghost to Falco is that sort of folk/rock band that seems to ooze atmosphere. Whether it’s ominous (“Born to Win”), martial (“Enemies Calling”) or warm (“High Treason”), Eric Crespo and co. know how to make me feel things on Soft Shield. Deer Tick and Two Gallants also have this vibe, so Crespo is in good company. These songs lean more toward Two Gallants’ minimalism; even though Ghost to Falco employs a full band throughout, space is an important part of the sound (“No Reward,” “Feel the Glory”).
This gives the songs a cinematic quality different than that of film scores: these songs literally feel like stories, like journeys that have a beginning and end. It’s a rare skill, to take songs out of the realm of “pop song” and situate them in another milieu entirely. But listening to Soft Shield, it’s hard to imagine these songs in the same realm as The Avett Brothers. These songs have grit, body, and a life of their own outside of the preconceived, circumscribed bounds of three-minute pop songs.
Crespo’s vocal delivery documents every swoop and sway of his emotional state in the tiny bends and wrenches of phrases and words. This gives his songs even more emotive punch than the songwriting alone in the hands of a different vocalist might provide. Between the cinematic songwriting and evocative vocals, Ghost to Falco is a band doing things in a unique and exciting way. If you’re into folk-rock that doesn’t prize “singing along” as the only virtue, Ghost to Falco is a necessary listen.
Robert Deeble has been putting out albums at his own pace since 1997. (As a person who’s run the same blog for almost 11 years: game recognize game.) His most recent release is a celebration of that history, as Letters from an Expatriate is a live recording that revisits 1998’s Earthside Down with the original band.
Deeble’s gentle, measured folk vibe is in full flower here; his earnest, emotive lyrics and quiet arrangements come together to make beauty. Fans of Gregory Alan Isakov and Alexi Murdoch will find Deeble’s unhurried moods familiar. But where both of those emphasize lyrical romanticism, Deeble works in much heavier territory, spinning tales of woe and redemption. It’s a very entertaining live set, especially for those who enjoy the quieter side of things. If you haven’t been introduced to Robert Deeble, Letters from an Expatriate is a great place to start.
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.