I listen to a ton of acoustic-related music, so I like things to get a little experimental. I look for artists to wow me with some tasteful-yet-unique genre mashups, go deep on the lyrical concept, package it with a multimedia experience, or in general do something that stands out. But every now and then, a band comes along that just does one thing really well. Ted Z and the Wranglers play ’90s-style alt-country (pedal steel, organ, sneering vocals, galloping drums), nothing more or less. Their five-song EP Like a King relies on infectious melodies and complete identification with the alt-country ideal to be impressive.
Ted Z is such an alt-country purist that his band is named The Wranglers. Everything about this fits right into your mental map of alt-country, but in a way that celebrates the genre, not copies it. It helps that the musicians are incredibly talented, the songwriting is so smooth, and the production is incredibly tight. This is the definition of “listenable,” in that it’s fun to hear. By the end of the title track and “Heaven’s Rent,” I was hooked on the faithful representation of the alt-country ethos. “Heaven’s Rent” includes some western swing vibes, while the title throws down straight-ahead work. “Virginia” is a love song, which switches things up a bit; the ’50s-rock-inspired “Ball and Chain” follows it up, in case you were thinking that they were getting too sentimental on you.
Closer “Tomorrow” really shows off the band’s songcraft, mining vocal harmonies, woozy pedal steel, and an intimate feel that draws me close. This one is a little less country and a little more Paul Simon, but it’s still in the genre. The beautiful vocal chorus is remarkable, as well. Ted Z and the Wranglers’ Like a King is the rare release that sticks out from the crowd simply by perfecting its genre. They know how to write an alt-country song, and sometimes that’s all I ask: to tap my foot, sing along, and feel good.
Ringer T has honed their alt-country to a near-perfect point on Nothing But Time. Their sound is equal parts Paul Simon melodicism, Jayhawks crunch, and Switchfoot-style tension between the two, which results in some of the most beautiful, listenable alt-country you could ever hope to hear. The songs spring out of my speakers, fit and fine: nothing seems left to chance, nothing seems out of place. Fans of lo-fi stuff need not apply, as everything from vocal performances to drum rhythms is spot-on. For example, the crunchy “Into Your Own” aligns on a strict meter that sees everything clicking together: had the song been in the hands of a band less concerned with precision, it would have a much different feel and effect.
While the band can throw down the guitar distortion, I prefer their gentler, beautiful songs like “What Lies Ahead” and “Good Morning.” These strip out the crunch from the alt-country and focus on intricate strumming/fingerpicking, subtle melodicism, and well-developed moods. “Good Morning” is a lilting instrumental track that just stole my heart with its rolling melodies and strong arrangement. (Sleigh bells!!) Grant Geertsma’s voice really soars on quieter tracks like “What Lies Ahead,” as it’s the primary focus of the tune. His voice is a proverbial “phone book voice,” making it difficult for me to tear my ears away. The excellent backup vocal contributions on “What Lies Ahead” put it over the top and make it a highlight. These quieter tunes give Geertsma room to really move, and that’s wonderful.
That’s not to say that there aren’t strong vocal performances in the louder songs: the title track features excellent efforts from the lead and backup vocalists, who stand out amid the distorted guitars. Then they bring in horns to cap off the tune, so you can definitely count that one as a highlight. That’s the sort of album that Ringer T has crafted in Nothing But Time: things are going great, and then they go even better than that. If you’re into alt-country, you need to hear Ringer T now. This is an album that should go places.
I hold a special place in my heart for pianists: I play several instruments, but I got my start in bands and solo work on the ivories. I keep a flame for lyricists with a lot to say, as well, so it was an easy fit to fall in love with Brendan James‘ Simplify. James splits time between being Josh Ritter on the keys and Billy Joel in the modern era, both treats that we don’t get very often.
James’ 13-song album splits roughly into two parts: the first half adheres toward indie-pop principles in arrangement, production, and lyrical topics; the back half leans toward Joel-esque piano-pop storytelling and balladry. James has highs in both of these arenas, although I prefer the indie-pop leanings more. I’m a big Joel fan, so it’s not any anti-The Kid bias; I think it’s purely that his indie-pop is more consistently strong. This is evident from the one-two punch of “Windblown” and the title track, where James sets up catchy but relatively simple piano lines as the base for his intricate, syncopated vocal lines to play over. This playful approach to songwriting caught my ear immediately and kept my attention for the duration of both songs. “Windblown” is an introspective piece about the toils of a longsuffering artist, while “Simplify” is a bit more wide-ranging manifesto. Both are beautiful, clever and engaging, making me want more.
On the other end of the spectrum is “Hillary,” which even apes some vocal rhythms and tics from Joel. There’s also a pronounced Paul Simon influence in the arrangement, which is another excellent inclusion. The story-song tells of a student who works with the narrator’s wife, detailing the conversations between the wife and Hillary. It’s a great song lyrically, and it includes clapping and a “whoa-oh” section to charm my soul. “He Loved” dips into ballad mode while maintaining the storytelling, showing off a different set of skills.
“Constellations” and “Counting Hours” also stand out for special note. Both struck me as very quiet tunes of the variety that Josh Ritter would have included on The Animal Years; their expansive, wide-open feel is refreshing and rewarding. Brendan James’ varied skills (lyricism, songwriting, arrangements) are on great display in Simplify, creating a thoroughly entertaining album. The highlight tracks are some that I can see myself spinning for a long, long time.
In the brilliant Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground 1981-1991, author Michael Azerrad describes Beat Happening as flaunting “rudimentary musicianship and primitive recordings, a retro-pop style, and a fey naivete in a genre that became known as ‘twee-pop’ or ‘love rock.'” Twee would continue on through the ’90s, and its fey naivete would become a driving force in indie-pop (which was twee without the junky recordings). Indie-pop begat indie-folk of Iron + Wine and Sufjan Stevens, which crashed into the singer/songwriter genre just as the latter was trying to differentiate itself from Lilith Fair and alt.country. Thus, the two sides of indie-folk met in the middle to create a new aesthetic, and that (along with a little bit of bluegrass and some Great Depression imagery thrown in along the way) is how we ended up with Mumford and Sons.
All that to say, there’s a serious side and a playful side to indie-folk, and The Ridges most definitely fall on the serious side. The band’s Daytrotter session shows them building on the strings-heavy folk sound that they crafted on their debut EP. The three EP tunes don’t stray much from their previously-recorded incarnations: “Not a Ghost” is still a rambling, shambling, catchy song with atmosphere; “War Bonds” shows a bit of their playful side with a bell kit, while still commenting on “dead friends”; “Overboard” is a sea shanty of merit. The upsides: the strings sound even more vital in these recordings, while the vocalist Victor Rasgatis gets unhinged. If you haven’t heard the Ridges yet, this is as good a way as any.
The real treat is the two unreleased songs. (I expect that a great many more bands will start sending me Daytrotter sessions of new music, because if a band’s up to one-take recording, that’s a five-song EP with no recording costs, yo!) “Dawn of Night” would have fit in perfectly with their self-titled EP, as a raw energy pulses through the tune, punctuated by ragged “oh-oh”s. The underlying intensity that The Ridges bring to the table is something that’s rarely seen in folk; there seems to be something truly ominous about their work, and not in a “ha! look! this is creepy!” sort of way. “Jackson Pollock” tones down the eerie for a four-on-the-floor fast song. Despite the speed, the arrangement is remarkably complex for a live recording, which makes me all the more impressed by The Ridges. The string melodies are especially solid.
The Ridges’ “melodic strengths are honed to a fine point” here, as I hoped in my last review. If you’re into serious indie-folk (Fleet Foxes, Bon Iver, Little Teeth), you should be all over this. Look for the Ridges to make a splash in 2012.
A quintessential staple of ’90s rock was the slacker who sounded as if the song he was singing was all that was worth getting excited about in the world. Man Made Sea takes that mentality and runs with it, adding in a liberal dose of alt-country to create a laconic yet engaging sound for the 15 minutes of Super Saver.
The band opens with “Devil,” which is a walking-pace country tune that gets swallowed up by ’90s distortion. It’s an ear-catching opener, subverting expectations at every turn. The title track is a slower take on the same sound that’s short enough to get by on the ominous vocal performance and nostalgia factor. It’s “Hammer” where the band finally lets it rip: Vocal hooks galore traipse about on top of a backdrop that perfectly meshes the sweeping feel of alt-country to the slacker ideals of Weezer’s era. The song builds to all sorts of excellent at the end of the track, and it’s easily the best track here.
After a too-’90s Beck-ian tune (“Heart of a Grizzly”), the band closes up shop with the acoustic “Holmes Sweet Holmes,” which fits quite well. The song lands somewhere between Joseph Arthur and Alexi Murdoch on the chill-ometer.
Man Made Sea has an easily likable sound and songwriting chops to pull it off. You’ll be rocking out to “Devil,” humming “Hammer” and putting “Holmes Sweet Holmes” on mixtapes for girls, and as I’ve noted before, those are pretty much the three best reasons I listen to music. That’s a trifecta for Man Made Sea and a win for you, if you check the band out.
The alt-country/Americana songs that Charlie Betts presents on Under Construction all hinge on his unique voice. His tunes don’t traverse far from time-honored instrumental traditions in the country genre: snare shuffle, accordion, slide guitar, acoustic strum and stand-up bass. The rustic sound hits the ear very well; the performances are spot-on, and the production is tight and bright. The immaculate instrumentation and songwriting don’t allow for those elements to be the defining aspect of Betts’ sound, and thus that honor falls to his voice.
The British Betts has a voice that you will remember instantly, for good or for ill. Those on the ill side will say that his nasally warble is off-putting and irreconcilable with the otherwise standard tunes. Those on the pro- side of things will say that the instruments provide a vessel for Betts’ real instrument. Those who are drawn in by unusual voices will find much to love in Betts’ songwriting, as it is the centerpiece of each of these tunes. Even The Mountain Goats don’t stress the vocals as much as Betts does.
Again, there are some who will say that he’s leaning too hard on a bad thing. Others will celebrate his songwriting and punk-rock spirit (“Just ’cause you say I can’t doesn’t mean I can’t”). This is a call you’ll have to make yourself, because whether I like it or not will have no effect on how it hits your ear. As for me, I like his calmer songs (“The Meaning of Freedom,” “Remember the Sun”) better than his faster ones, as I feel his voice fits best in them. Fans of alt-country and Americana should check this out.
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.