Here’s my recounting of the best EPs of the year that was.
1. Drift Wood Miracle – Between Three and Four. (Review) After a triumphant emo/punk debut, DWM built on their artsy sentiment and churned out a well-textured, complex, mature follow-up EP. Heavy and light intermingle in one consistent flow of music that honestly sounds like one really long track. The songwriting instincts are already incredibly well-developed, which makes me excited for their future work.
2. Afterlife Parade – A Million Miles Away. (Review) What can I say? It’s the best pop-rock EP I’ve heard all year: it’s basically Coldplay, U2, and Imagine Dragons in a blender. Haters gonna hate. Lovers gonna love.
3. Arctic Tern – Hopeful Heart. (Review) Romantic in both the literary and literal sense of the word, these lush, gorgeous tunes blew me away with their arrangement and production.
4. Morgan Mecaskey – Lover Less Wild. (Review) One of the most ambitious releases of the year, Mecaskey attempts to cram dozens of ideas into a very short space. The resulting adventure is a National-esque indie-rock base packed full of twists and turns.
5. Smoke Season – Hot Coals Cold Souls. (Review) Like Morgan Mecaskey, a whiplash bullet train ride through multiple genres. Smoke Season leans more toward the alt-rock end of things for their remarkable tunes, ending up like a folkier version of Muse.
Honorable Mention: Death and the Penguin – Accidents Happen. (Review) The first rush of listening to Death and the Penguin was an adrenaline jolt the likes of which I haven’t felt in a long time. Post-hardcore of the finest order.
The Main Chance‘s album Lunagraphy is absolutely gorgeous. I’ve been listening to it for weeks, and it’s been hard to describe it other than that. Will Gosner’s singer/songwriter tunes have the unassuming confidence that marked the earliest Iron and Wine recordings: they’re beautiful, moving, and memorable with seemingly little effort. His low, comforting voice tumbles from his throat gracefully, and his gentle fingerpicking flows without tension or difficulty.
“The Thinnest Ice,” “In My Young Life” and “The End is Sweet and Near” calm me no matter what mood I’m in, which is a bold statement from over here. Gosner augments the staples of acoustic guitar and voice with occasional gentle arrangements, and he scores whenever he does. Lunagraphy is the sort of record that comes out of nowhere, bowls you over, and keeps you coming back for more. Gosner’s collection of songs here shows off an enormous talent that should take him places. I was astonished and thrilled by Lunagraphy; I think you will be too.
Arctic Tern‘s Hopeful Heart is a wonder to listen to as well. Songwriter Chris Campbell goes for the David Gray style of singer/songwriter tunes: writing deeply romantic tunes with delicate yet full arrangements. There’s also some Bon Iver drama, both in lyric and arrangement (but not too much).
Campbell’s trembling tenor leads the way, setting a mood of vulnerability for these songs. They’re heavily reliant on acoustic guitar and piano, but the ethereal background vocals of “Wax,” the delicate piano of “The Break & the Fall,” and the swooning violin of “In the Cold White” are all subtle touches that take these songs from good to wonderful. The five tunes of Hopeful Heart aim to be beautiful, and they all are; there’s not a slacker in the bunch. If you like romantic, beautiful songs from the likes of Sleeping at Last, Trent Dabbs, and similar artists, you’ll be in love with Arctic Tern. Hopeful Heart is one of the best EPs I’ve heard so far this year.
Having a gravelly voice gets you compared to Bruce Springsteen or Tom Waits, depending on the amount of roughness. It’s not necessarily a fair comparison all the time. Bill Scorzari‘s Just the Same relies on his gravelly voice to power his folk/country tunes, but he uses it differently than the aforementioned fellows.
Opener “Eight of Nine (Just the Same)” shows how he fits his vocal tone into acoustic-led arrangements that also feature mandolin, organ, and shakers. The vocal melody is catchy, showing off a surprising and stereotype-breaking range. His lyrics are of the first-person storytelling persuasion, spinning yarns of life and loss and drinking. The album is quite long, giving fans plenty to hear; about half of the 13 songs are over four minutes or more. If you’re into storytellin’ folk, you’ll be into Bill Scorzari.
It’s always a bit unusual for me when songs that I’ve known only in performance make their way to tape. The Fox and The Bird‘s Darkest Hours is composed of songs that I’ve heard the Dallas-based band perform over the past three years since their impressive 2011 debut Floating Feather. “Saints,” “Valley,” and “No Man’s Land” are tunes that have lived in my memory long before they ever found a home on this album, so it’s a bit like welcoming old friends back into my home than meeting new people. Keep that in mind as I praise the album.
The Fox and the Bird is a real chipper folk-pop outfit musically, but their lyrics have a complicated, melancholy tinge. Darkest Hours makes obvious with the title a strand of thought started in their debut. “The Wreck of the Fallible,” “Valley,” and “Habit” all weave together human frailty, the petty ugliness of our actions, redemption, and hope into complex lyrics that keep me pondering as I hum along. “Valley” is especially contradictory in this regard, as I find myself humming the dramatic line “And it was every bit as bad / as our father said” without feeling particularly bad. “Habit” is about a history of violence, sung in an perky, old-school Decemberists vein.
Amid the tension and feeling, there is at least one track that is just happy. “No Man’s Land” is a song of hope, passion, and western expansion that includes jubilant trumpet and a sweeping set of “oh-whoa-oh”s in the chorus. But other than that, it’s charming melodies and back-porch banjo of “Ashes” supporting a conflicted lyric set about loneliness, and the beautiful vintage country harmonies of “Dallas” elucidating how Dallas is a pretty terrible place. (“Dallas is a rich man with a death wish in his eyes / A steel and concrete soul with a warm hearted love disguise.”)
So The Fox and the Bird are not The Lumineers: while both can write folk-pop and country tunes that are melodic, memorable, even masterful, the goals of Darkest Hours are quite different than those of “Ho Hey” or “Classy Girls.” This isn’t to knock either band–it’s to point out that fans of Lumineers’ musical qualities might very well enjoy The Fox and the Bird’s music, but might find the lyrics frustrating or even difficult. Others who are fans of challenging lyrics will find an impressive amount of care and thought put into the lyrics, and they might just dig the extremely strong folk-pop stylings. It’s clear that Darkest Hours was crafted over years instead of months: these tunes shine musically and lyrically. The result is one of my favorite albums of the year so far.
I have often sung the praises of Novi Split, so I’m thrilled that David J is moving into an active phase of his production. His most recent release is a split 7″ with fellow Los Angelenos Brown and Blue. Amazingly, the two bands secured Split7Inch.Bandcamp.com to host the thing–although the availability of their seems-like-it-would-already-be-taken website is only one of the impressive things about the split.
Both bands incorporate country influences and focus on gentle vocals; B&B adds a country sway to a quiet indie-rock ballad of sorts in “Honeymoon Suite,” while Novi Split adds pedal steel to the hushed singer/songwriter vibe of “Stupid.” Both bands have a deeply romantic streak running through the lyrics and overall feel, making them great split partners. My only quibble with this is 7 minutes is awfully short for such a great match. Thankfully, both bands are releasing EPs in March–I’ll just play them back to back and call it good. Definitely check out this release.
It is extremely hard for me to resist romantic music. I don’t just mean love songs, although I’m hard-pressed to ignore those; I mean romantic in the literary sense, romanticism that idealizes love and loss and feeling as near to the highest manifestations of the human soul. Damien Rice and early 2000s emo have a lot in common, you know?
Arctic Tern‘s Leaves EP is a passionately romantic album that combines the emotive vocals of David Gray or Josh Garrels with pristine, gentle arrangements of Sleeping at Last and Gregory Alan Isakov. A lilting Irish air to the vocals only makes the sound more appealing. “Light a Fire” is the most polished of the tunes, a full arrangement with good motion, even a quiet urgency, throughout the track. Other tracks show off Arctic Tern’s (one person, naturally: the solitary genius is a beloved romantic-era invention) prowess with just an acoustic guitar: “Love is Not a Game” and “Ties” have stark sections and yet are still smooth. “Love is Not a Game” expands into a tune with swooping cello, melancholy piano, and glockenspiel–it’s an absolutely beautiful piece.
Arctic Tern’s sound falls somewhere between searching and content: the lyrics speak of the anxious space between love and not, but the arrangements are strong and confident. This is music to chill out to, to make out to, to be thoughtful to. It’s music that gets into the spaces of your mind and smooths those jagged edges, even if only for a little while. It’s an EP that caused me to repeat it 8 times in one day. That’s a mighty accomplishment.
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.