Fans of lo-fi slowcore like Songs:Ohia, Elephant Micah, and old-school Damien Jurado will have something new to cheer about in Tender Mercy. As Someone Else You Embrace the Moment in Us consists of five songs that never get louder than a single fingerpicked guitar, Mark Kramer’s forlorn voice, and tape hiss. The songs are slow, low, and heavy on atmosphere: discerning between the songs is possible (there are breaks in the tape hiss to mark song changes), but it’s not really the best way to enjoy this set of tunes. Instead, it’s best to let it wash over you; there’s enough gentle reverb on the tracks to imagine that you and Kramer are in a big room where he’s singing just to you. If you move too quickly, you’ll miss the tranquil beauty in it.
This is music to experience, not to sing along to or play in the background of your life; the nuances of the individual performances make the tunes what they are. Individual voice warbles, the pluck of one string harder than the last, and the subtle changes in timing that suggest emotions behind the work are all compelling. The songs seem very simple on the surface, but there is depth to be plumbed here. Some variation could be incorporated in future work to help differentiate between tracks, but this release is still great for fans who enjoy more difficult music (i.e. old-school Mountain Goats, Jandek, Silver Jews, et al.).
Australia is my favorite international music scene. The latest thing to fall in my lap from The Land Down Under is the buzzy, friendly power-pop of Major Leagues‘ Weird Season EP. The Aussie quartet plays chipper, female-fronted tunes that strike a nice balance between energetic and chill; you can listen to these tunes while driving, surfing, or while laying around in your backyard. Each activity would bring out a different nuance: the driving rhythm section, the sweet guitar tone, or the laconic vocal delivery. Weird Season is a fun way to remind yourself that it may be winter, but summer’s coming. Actually, it’s summer in Australia. Ponder that.
Aaron Lee Tasjan employs a songwriting style on the Crooked River Burning EP that mirrors with Joe Pug’s newer work: a folk troubadour working with a full band. Both singer/songwriters bring their own unique confidence and internal rhythm to the work, which makes resulting songs an interesting mix of personal and group efforts. The balance works best on “Everything I Have is Broken” and “Junk Food and Drugs,” which give enough space to Tasjan’s voice and guitar that his personality shines through. Both have intricate lyrics, quirky vocal rhythms, and an overall sense of energetic possibility. They would be a blast to sing along with live, certainly. “Number One” is a hushed ballad in Jackson Browne style that surprised me with its depth of emotion and tasteful inclusion of strings; it shows off the best of his solo work. Tasjan has strong songwriting chops, and I look forward to seeing what he puts out after the Crooked River Burning EP. Photo by BP Fallon.
Christa Wells‘ music is weighty without feeling heavy, as the singer/songwriter balances heft and grace with ease on Feed Your Soul. Wells relies on smooth arrangements and incredible vocal performances to create and sustain that tension. Songwriters like Sara Groves are the best comparison for Wells’ sound: mature, grounded songs with strong melodies and a melancholy streak.
When Wells delves into that sadness which looks longingly toward hopefulness, her songs soar. Closer “Being Loved” is a powerful tune distilled to a simple truth (“being loved is a hard thing to take/I will try”). “You Are My Defense” shows off the complete comfort that she has in her own skin, musically and lyrically. The opening of “Come Close Now” somehow balances being objectively gentle musically (piano/vocals/tapped drums) and subjectively crushing emotionally. Wells knows how to suck the listener in with a minimum of fuss, and that’s a deceptively difficult skill to master.
When Feed Your Soul heads in louder, funkier territory such as “Vanity Vanity” and the title track, the results are less immediately satisfying. I’d much prefer to keep hearing Wells play simple piano and level me emotionally with tunes like “For My Child” and “This Thing Is Not Going to Break You.” The exception is “The Way That You Love Me,” which funnels her emotional command into an upbeat love song much in the same way that Brooke Fraser turned out the wonderful “Something in the Water.”
Wells’ Feed Your Soul is a beautiful, soul-baring record that works with seemingly little effort. The amount of skill, hard work, and time that go into a record like that are almost never recognized, so I’m celebrating those elements here. Wells knows how to write a compelling song, and she knows that the way to turn it from “good” to “great” isn’t always to add more arrangement. I look forward to hearing more from Wells.
Caitlin Marie Bell does simplicity a very different way. At the extreme, the Americana singer/songwriter goes totally barebones by singing traditional murder ballad “Omie Wise” with only staccato percussion as accompaniment. Bell’s resonant alto voice sells the song perfectly, bringing an Irish flair to the work. Bell relies on her strong pipes throughout Blood and The Water, as she doesn’t employ anything more than a fingerpicked guitar, stringed bass, and gentle percussion to set the backdrop.
The most impressive thing about this spartan setup is not the live feel, but that Bell packs so much personality into the sound. Tracks like “River Song” and “Pallet on the Floor” slot her right in next to some of the giants of the genre both in sound and quality: the former pairs Bell’s lilting voice with the sound of a thunderstorm, while the latter displays a complex intimacy in lyric and vocal delivery. Both will stick with you long past their run time.
Both tunes spin together a small world in a few minutes–that’s hard for any songwriter to do, much less one who isn’t backed by a huge, involved band. The tunes on Blood and the Water possess a gravitas and maturity far beyond what I expect from a debut. These weighty tunes are very worth checking out for anyone who’s a fan of Gillian Welch, Lucinda Williams, Emmylou Harris and other female Americana singer/songwriters.
The best moments of singer/songwriter Steph Casey‘s Whisper and Holler fall on the “whisper” side of that equation: when Casey’s songs are stripped down to sparse acoustic guitar and voice, her work shines. “Heavy Warm Heart” and the title track are lent an immediacy by their simplicity, as it feels like Casey had the melodies burning a hole in her pocket and just had to get them out there. The delicate guitarwork and engaging vocal tone mesh beautifully, creating magic.
There are some more full arrangements that shine as well: lead track “Nice to Almost Know You” gives off a relaxed, back-porch vibe in its assured/regretful stance looking back on a failed relationship. “Kapiti”builds out a simple Jack Johnson-esque beach vibe into a highly enjoyable track. Both of those tunes fall right in line with the ethos that characterizes the highlights: take one thing and do it well. Added bonus: Casey is a Kiwi. (Australia and New Zealand are just excellent these days.)
I’m already starting to spread the word on Pete Davis’ The Pottsville Conglomerate, because it’s 95 minutes of awesome. Because it’s the length of 3ish albums and 6ish EPs, it’s gonna take a little longer than usual to review. But fans of Sufjan’s most bombastic moments should start listening to it now.
In lieu of a review, here’s a stunner of a video from Archer Black, for “Onward and Down.” I love videos that tell a story, and this one’s simple but powerful. The song is also incredible, like Beirut channeling The National.
So I somehow ended up on this incredible Australian PR list, and I’ve been receiving all sorts of crazy music from our friends down under: Teleprompter, New Manic Spree, and now Founds.
Founds’ latest single “Holograms” is the sort of lush indie-pop/rock that I’m coming to covet. Rave Magazine already beat me to the Jonsi comparisons, but they’re accurate: breathy, wide-eyed wonder is set atop (and contrasted against) jaunty rhythms and a immaculately recorded instruments in “Holograms.”
It starts off with a gentle guitar and cooed female vocals, then ratchets the intensity from there all the way up. In that way it’s a sort of optimistic post-rock, only crammed full of pop touches. That combination causes the song to exude a unique vibe, drawing me to it repeatedly; it’s not anything I’ve heard before in exactly this way. There’s no “chorus,” per se, but it doesn’t need one, based on the way the song flows.
This makes me want more Founds as quickly as possible. Let’s make this happen, people. Get the track for free here.
What if David Bowie was from Australia instead of London, England? Maybe his glam, flashy (and let’s face it – awesome) style would be a little more acoustic and folk-focused. But I’d be willing to bet that he would have the same low and strong, yet quavering, voice, and he’d still have an undeniable streak of originality and rebellion. Also – his name might be Tom Bolton.
Australian Tom Bolton’s album When I Cross the River is awesome. Besides the fact that he really does sound like an alternate-reality version of Bowie, Bolton’s folk-rock tunes are highly original – I don’t think I’ve heard anything like them. The album opens with its title track, which couples acoustic guitar with keyboards and accordion. (The accordion pops up again later, too.) The effect is whimsical, and it’s just odd enough to be delightful instead of strange. You can catch Bolton’s accent from the beginning, too, which also gives “When I Cross the River” an air of complete uniqueness.
The acoustic in “Three Hearts” stands out because instead of sounding pretty and poetry-reading-coffeehouse-worthy, it comes across as gritty, grungy, and rockin’. The contrast is really neat, especially with Bolton belting out the chorus with his no-fuss, dead-on, Australian-accented vocals.
The ballad “Silver” matches electric lap-slide guitar with synth and violin, creating a spacey, mysterious, echoey atmosphere. It doesn’t sound out of place, though, because there is still an element of gritty folk amid the psychedelia. The extremely diverse “Whose Army” is one of the best of the album. There’s bluesy electric guitar, a backup singer providing rhythmic breathing (really! and it sounds cool!), snappy female harmonies, a head-bobbing steady tempo, and a hint of the Talking Heads in the eerie hooks before the chorus.
“Hey You, Yeah You” is hard to explain, but I’ll try. It has bits of spoken word throughout, and the narrative lyrics make it almost sound like a kid’s song at times. It’s also funny, and you’ll sing along to the “hey you, yeah, you, I’m talking to you!” after the first listen. The song is assuredly weird, but accessible at the same time, which might make it even weirder. The simplistic, sweet, country-tinged ballad “All I Can Do” is a good choice to follow “Hey You, Yeah You.”
Later on in When I Cross the River, Bolton uses the melody of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” in his song “Little Star.” He plays it with only acoustic guitar and a few backup singers, which is the sparsest instrumentation on the album, but the song doesn’t need anything else. It doesn’t even need more than its minimal lyrics: “little star, help me shine.”
Overall, Tom Bolton’s When I Cross the River is really enjoyable, and would be good for anyone who’s bored with their music collection and wants something totally new and different. I’ve never reviewed anything from Australia, or from anyone above the age of 35, but I’m really glad that I did. Check out Tom Bolton on his myspace and website.
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.