1. “The Devil Bird” – Albert af Ekenstam. An unhurried, expansive acoustic-led song reminiscent of Leif Vollebekk or Gregory Alan Isakov’s work.
2. “The Beast That Rolls Within” – Dietrich Strause. A troubadour’s confident vocals, abstract lyrics, and gently rolling guitar make Strause an artist to watch in the vein of Joe Pug and Josh Ritter. This song is excellent.
3. “I Love Immigration” – This Frontier Needs Heroes. Refocuses the talk of immigration by pointing out that unless you’re a Native American, literally everyone in this country is the relative of an immigrant. As Brad Lauretti and I are both descended from Italian immigrants, I felt a special resonance with this charming, shuffling, upbeat acoustic pop tune with a deeply important message.
4. “Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin” – The Chairman Dances. The finely detailed lyrics of the Mountain Goats paired with indie-pop that has a wider range, from dreamier at one end to more formal and Beatles-esque at the other. But there’s still a great “hey!” thrown in. Always a good yawp, you know. Highly recommended.
5. “A Lonely Road” – Jordan O’Jordan. It’s hard to make rattling banjo chords sound delicate, but O’Jordan’s oh-so-sweet voice tempers the rough edges and creates a warm, immersive song. (Toss-up on the “ahs” section: some people are going to think it’s lovely, and some are going to wonder what just happened. Just so you know.)
6. “Fingers Crossed” – The Marrieds. Bright, clear, female-led acoustic-pop with a little more Americana than the Weepies but not as much as the Civil Wars. It’s remarkably pretty, especially when the strings come in. You could dance to this at a wedding.
7. “Suite pour Justin” – Yves Lambert Trio. Traditional Quebecois folk music includes accordion, fiddle, guitar and percussion, in case you (like me) didn’t know. It sounds sort of like a mix of bluegrass and Zydeco, which is incredibly rad. The rest of the album includes vocals in French; this one’s instrumental. The musical quality is elite, so if you’re an adventurous listener I would highly recommend checking the whole album out.
8. “Generation, Love” – Jon Reynolds. Doo-wop, Beach Boys harmonies, and old-school rock’n’roll vibes come together to be pleasantly, nostalgically retro, while yearning for love instead of hate (a very modern concern).
9. “How Quickly Your Heart Mends” – Courtney Marie Andrews. This woman has the female version of Jason Isbell’s voice. I kid you not: the stress on certain syllables, the swoops in volume, the vocal strain on the fronts of lines…it’s all there. It’s awesome. The songwriting is a great trad-country vibe, but whoa. That voice. Check this out.
10. “Brink of Love (ft. Ladysmith Black Mambazo)” – Vian Izak. While we’re on the topic of love, why not indulge in a adult alternative acoustic tune that includes a hugely famous African choir? (You may know them from Graceland, only one the best albums of all time.)
11. “The Other Side” – VACAY. A romantic folk-pop song with some solid falsetto; a little less Lumineers and a little more adult alternative.
12. “the fall” – Andrea Silva. Somewhere between haunting and lilting, Silva’s vocal performance is an enigmatic, engaging figure over an acoustic guitar.
Jons’ Serfs of Today is low-fi bliss. The Canadian band’s psychedelic rock recorded with iPhones and cassette recorders whisks listeners away to a heavenly place where the electric guitar reigns supreme.
“Sugarfree,” the first track off the album, throws us into a beautiful place of grainy recording quality and smooth-talking electric guitar. In fact, using one or two electric guitars as the main aspect of each of the tracks occurs throughout the album, fitting for psychedelic rock. Yet, “I Haven’t Learned” breaks that rule and uses a hearty acoustic guitar as its primary instrument. Secondary instruments include a drumkit and bass for the most part, but more unique instruments come into play on many tracks, such as the shakers in “Sugarfree” and perhaps wooden castanets in “Serfs of Today.”
The title track does not really sound like any of the other tracks. It jumps around in style throughout the song, with a long stretch of castanet-like instrument playing the song out. “Serfs of Today” works to separate the first half of the album’s sound from the second. A lot of the earlier tracks deliver this hazy lo-fi version of The Beach Boys (“Don’t Complain,” “Last Minute,” and “Orchachief”). The beachy guitar and chill vocals are primary characteristics of these tracks. Most of the later tracks are more saucy psychedelic rock like The Doors (“Other Room,” “Catamaran,” and “Softspot”) where the dream-like quality remains, but the bolder electric guitar and use of the bass stand out more.
“Last Call for Buss” closes the album out perfectly. At an even two minutes, the track is the shortest of them all. It opens with the more playful electric guitar from the first half of the record letting out whimsical rhythms. And just as you find yourself enjoying the track’s larkish nature, it gently fades out.
Serfs of Todayis the perfect combination of sublime and gritty. The soothing vocals, ravishing electric guitar, and grainy musical quality will surely send you off to dreamland.–Krisann Janowitz
Midnight Pilot has spent a lot of time since their last release listening to new music. Their latest EP The Good Life expands on their previous alt-country-meets-Paul-Simon palette in all directions, throwing in sunshiny indie-pop melodies, Dawes-ian roots rock, and even some Muse-esque high drama rock. Listeners are in for some sharp lefts and unexpected detours, but they’ll end up with a smile nonetheless.
The opening cut makes their new approach obvious from the getgo, as “Offer Up My Love” has a “woo-woo-ooo” chorus that will put you in a breezy Southern California mood. It’s dropped right into their roots-rock verses, which isn’t as jarring as it would seem from writing that out. The rock has an American tinge, like Ivan and Alyosha’s. The title track is even more wide-open rock’n’roll, a major-key romp that declares: “I’m living the good life / nothing comes easy / I’m living the good life / for free / yeah-yeah / yeah-yeah.”
Things get a bit darker on “Follow Where You Lead,” which has disco vibes in the bass rhythms and stabbing string style, but has some Sufjan Stevens’ Illinois approaches to background vocals in the intro. The chorus is a bit sunnier than the minor key verses, but still the song has “drama” written over it. This is most spectacularly evident in the deconstructed bridge section, which drops to almost nothing before ramping up to an almost Muse-esque wall of noise. Closer “You’re My Friend” splits the difference between major and minor keys with some ’80s influences and Beach Boy ba-da-da-das. It’s eclectic, but it all hangs together.
The Good Life is an EP that shows a band experimenting and maturing rapidly. To hold together as many influences as they’ve included in this EP while still maintaining a recognizable core sound is no easy feat for any band. That all of the four songs are enjoyable is even more impressive; these aren’t just technical feats, they’re enjoyable ones. If you’re into good ‘ol American music, check out Midnight Pilot’s latest.
Marc with a C is a pop culture-addicted goofball with an insightful eye on culture at large. He’s the sort of guy who can and will critique the unspoken presumptions of our culture (“Ethics in Gaming”–a Gamergate reference, but the song isn’t about Gamergate), dedicate a whole song to an elaborate dick joke (“The Ballad of Dick Steel”), incisively analyze interpersonal relationships (“Epic Fail”), ask the hard questions that we all wonder about under the guise of joking statements (“Where’s My Giant Robot”) and suckerpunch listeners with a beautiful love song that includes one of the best twists I’ve heard in a long time (“Make You Better”) in one album. All that right there is enough to commend Unicorns Get More Bacon to you.
The music is solid too. The bulk of the tunes on Unicorns Get More Bacon are stripped down power-pop tunes played on electric or acoustic guitar, although towards the end Marc invests in some larger arrangements to go with some of his longer songs. The tunes have hummable melodies and instruments that don’t get in the way of the lyrics or the melodies, which is important–this album is pretty squarely about the lyrics.
This is also a bit of a “solo” record; you want to hear this one on your own to get to know it and love it. Or, you can get to know it with friends who will learn the lyrics and sing along with you very loudly. That would work too. But it’s not a record that works as background music–Marc with a C wants to talk with you on Unicorns Get More Bacon, and if you’re interested in Marc’s fourth-wall-breaking, here-there-and-everywhere lyrical style, you’ll have a great time in that conversation.
Trevor Green‘s Voice of the Wind is somewhat like an Indigenous Australian Graceland; the Californian Green, who already included didgeridoo in his music, actually traveled to Australia to learn more about the music of that country before making this album. The songs are a mix of laidback folk, Australian music, and modern indie-rock touches.
The main difference from Graceland is that Paul Simon wanted to make a pop record that celebrated South African sounds with his own, very American lyrics on top–Green’s songs draw heavily not only from the sounds of the land, but the lyrics and religious themes of the land. The second difference is in seriousness: Voice sounds more like The Shepherd’s Dog-era Iron & Wine than a pop record, as the folk and Australian sounds mesh in ways that evoke Sam Beam’s attempts at expanding his intimate sound to include more instruments.
This means that the album is by turns incredibly intense and then very solemn; tunes like “Red Road” are a breath of fresh air next to tunes which sound like Tusk-era Fleetwood Mac. But throughout the whole record, there’s a very clear sense of being outside the normal bounds of what acoustic music is generally like. If you’re adventurous, Trevor Green’s Voice of the Wind is a trip worth taking.
I’m a big believer in seasonal music, and it doesn’t get more summery than Coma Girls’ “Runaround.” The tune has the teen energy and vocal harmonies of ’60s surf-pop, the noisy enthusiasm of pop-punk, and the organ-heavy arrangements of a surf-punk tune. There’s nothing I’ve heard so far this year that makes me want to head to the beach more than this.
The tune starts off with a rad bass line that segues into a twirly, arpeggiated organ line, sandwiching a clanging distorted guitar somewhere in there. The vocals, a mix of Beach Boys melodies and modern hollering, come in and add even more infectious quality to this. The lyrics are about a girl who runs around with every boy in town but the narrator–a tried and true problem of surf-pop tunes (and, let’s face it, all pop tunes). Whoa-ohs are had. Back-up vocals add their value. It does pretty much everything you could ask of a summery pop song with vintage vibes. That’s why I’m stoked that I get to premiere the track. Jump on this one for all your summer mixtapes, mix CDs, and playlists.
“Without A Care” – Turn to Crime. The insistent arpeggiator, the squawking guitar, pushing drums, and repetitive nature of the song make this perfect road rock’n’roll. Also the topical matter, now that you mention it.
“Killer Flamingo Báy” – Flamingo Bay. Manages to be raw and snarling while still also conveying droll boredom with the subject matter. In essence, the most rock’n’roll stance you could take, according to the Vines and Cage the Elephant.
“Loose People” – Sans Parents. This feels like a garage rock song jammed together with a melancholy Beach Boys track, but as if those two things have been waiting to be put together forever.
“Get It Out” – Two Sheds. Lumbering, towering, yet oddly good-natured rock that seems to be trying to engulf its lead singer entirely.
“Struck Matches” – Bop English. It says “English” on the tin, but this cross between roots-rock and Styx is about as American as classic rock stylings can get.
“The Devil Got to Go” – The Through & Through Gospel Review. If Of Montreal ever got conscripted for a prison chain gang work crew…
“All the Time” – Nai Harvest. You look like you need some good, straight-ahead power-pop in your life.
“City Livin’” – Round Eye. Frantic, zinging, careening punk from China. What’s not interesting about that?
“One More Life” – Shy For Shore. I suppose if you hate electro-pop, it’s this sort of thing that you rail against. But I don’t know what’s wrong with high drama, big synths, and yearning vocals–if you’re looking for subtlety, just turn away. If you’re looking for that big moment: feast on, friends.
“Holy Fire (Radio Edit)” – Many Things. Due to its hypnotic ostinato piano line, U2-level bombastic production, and demands to “throw up your hands now,” this thumping-beat pop anthem is contractually obligated to be played only in stadiums and at least 10 feet above the heads of the floor audience.
“Build a Sun” – Wartime Blues. This outfit is trying to cram gleeful abandon into a tastefully restrained orchestral folk-pop band. The results are like Josh Ritter with old-school Arcade Fire creeping out from around the edges.
3. “Picture Picture” – Tall Tall Trees. Kishi Bashi contributed strings to this giddy, major-key alt-hip-hop/singer-songwriter’s tune. It’s pretty amazing.
4. “Billions of Eyes” – Lady Lamb the Beekeeper. Lady Lamb opens her sophomore campaign with a tour de force grower that moves toward indie-rock, away from the Neutral Milk Hotel-ish psych, and maintains the inscrutable, impressionistic lyrics she’s known for.
5. “Laurel Trees/21 Guns” – Jet Plane. The opening moments of this 10-minute post-rock piece mix fragile strings and bagpipes with grumbling guitar noise to set the scene. The rest of the tune is a leisurely unfolding track that follows that same pattern, albeit with more clean guitar.
6. “New Year’s Retribution” – More Than Skies. What if Tom Waits had played in a punk band and adopted modern folk arrangements to go along with it? This sad, pensive 8-minute track has twists and turns galore.
7. “Lo and Behold” – Sarah Marie Young. More and more people are picking up vintage vocal styles and combining them with modern instrumental styles. Young has a crooner’s voice added to some funky R&B bass and keys, making for a smooth, head-bobbing track.
8. “Pores” – Hand Sand Hand. “Rumbling” is what I call things that sound ferocious but never get a sharp, brittle edge. This post-punk track presses forward with all the power of a much heavier band and keeps me glued to my seat.
It’s nearly summer, which means that it’s time for optimistic, jaunty music. Teenager‘s bright, melodic San Francisco pop is just the thing to help you shake those wintry blues. (And goodness knows there were enough of them in this long winter.) The Magic of True Love has everything you need in a summer album: relaxed vibe, warm moods, driving songs, wistful ballads, and lyrics for young lovers.
It’s tough to nail the relaxed/energetic balance, but Teenager gets it just right here. There are fast songs and slow songs in good amounts, but it’s the mid-tempo tunes that shine brightest. In that most difficult of tempos, striking arrangements, brash vocal melodies, and careful songwriting keep me glued to the sound.
Songwriter Bevan Herbekian draws from a vast amount of influences to enact this deft pop dance. Queen could have written the vocal arrangements in the 6-minute highlight “Black is Back.” Subtle Beatles touches color the arrangements throughout. The punctilious piano rhythms and swirling psychedelia-lite of The Morning Benders/POP ETC come to mind in “Broke” (which Independent Clauses was proud to debut). The Beach Boys’ distinct background vocal style appears in the title track. There’s some Paul Simon hiding in “Two Timing Machines”–and that one starts out with the lyric “One is a lonely number.” (What up, Three Dog Night?!)
Even with all these references to other sounds, The Magic of True Love avoids becoming just a giant pastiche by providing memorable melodies and lyrics. “Broke” is relatable to anyone who’s been young and poor and in love, while “A Believer (40 Days & 40 Nights)” hits a similar audience by starting off with “Hung over in our Sunday’s best / there’s nothing like a smile from a friend.” The title itself is a banner that very aptly spreads over all the tunes: even if you don’t hear all the lyrics, the vibe is very much one of romance and optimism.
Still, it’s not all chipper popcraft here: “Sunday Afternoon” is a falsetto-heavy, lounge-ready piano ballad, while the title track itself is a wistful acoustic guitar-led ode to the fact that the lovers we break up with slowly become strangers again. In fact, that is the “magic” of true love: “I turn strangers to friends into lovers/ and then back again/ta-da.” Oof. I won’t spoil anymore of the lyrics, but there are some sharp turns of phrase in this tune.
But even in its wistful low point, it still doesn’t give over to unescapable sadness. This is a diverse, freewheeling album that has a large number of points to check out. If you’re a fan of traditional pop songwriting, not just the forefathers but stuff like comes out on Merge Records, you’ll be all up in The Magic of True Love. Put it on the car stereo and drive with your lover in the other seat; it’s a perfect soundtrack.
APL‘s Ancient Tunes requires an operational definition of “ancient.” If “ancient” is first century hymns, we’re not exactly there. If it’s late ’70s/ early ’80s radio, then this album is titled perfectly. Ancient Sounds sounds as if Adam Lindquist (who is APL) ate a radio set to an “oldies” station and then spit out thirteen tunes in response to the indigestion.
Not to suggest that these are repulsive or heartburn-inducing, as they’re not. But there is a direct line between the iconic sounds of Queen/The Who/Beach Boys/Elton John/Leonard Cohen and APL. These songs would have no basis if not for those forebears. But this is no pastiche. Lindquist filters the sounds through a distinctly modern tonal idiom: the angular, manic snarkiness of Say Anything-style punk. It’s present predominantly in the vocals, but it sneaks into the music a bit as well.
Add up all those pieces in your head and try to imagine it. Difficult, right? Well, it’s a bit challenging for Lindquist to synthesize into a cohesive whole, too. He jerks back and forth between styles, almost as if he were changing the dial on a radio. “Blistered Fingers” features blistering organ playing reminescent of ’70s rock; the tune butts up against “An Ancient Tune (How to Rip Off Leonard Cohen With The Best of Them),” which is a glorious acoustic musing on the meaning of “Hallelujah” before it gets bored and goes Joe Walsh pop (it’s as weird as it sounds). Then it goes on for two and half more minutes. It’s a good song, but it’s baffling. It follows zero rules, conventions or considerations. It just is.
That’s the way many of the tunes here are. They’re packed full of good ideas that come up unexpectedly; so unexpectedly, in fact, that they jarred me. I’m all for stops and starts (I knew what math rock was before I knew pop radio existed), but this is just a headscratcher. And at 48 minutes, there is more than enough time for Lindquist to unspool his singular vision (and to keep you puzzled).
There are highlights, though. “Reunion Day” makes the most of Lindquist’s love of odd chord structures and unique instrumentation (accordion/shaker/bgvs, for one section) and pours it into a modern pop idiom. Closer “Tell Me, Are You Pulling Away?” appropriates a Jackson Browne/James Taylor acoustic vibe to ground the gutwrenching vocal/lyrical finale.
The other songs, as I have noted, are a veritable who’s who of musical styles from the late seventies and early eighties, as filtered through a modern lens. Queen’s exuberant, jam-packed pop features prominently at least by comparison, and probably as inspiration.
I would love to hear more from APL. Lindquist seems like the sort who has ambitions so massive that it’s going to take a while before he can wrangle those impulses into their best form. Ancient Tunes is a good release, but it’s not the best he can do. Get in on the ground floor and take the elevator up with his subsequent releases.
You don’t need a good voice to make it in pop music anymore, but you have a way better shot if you do (we’re not all Avi Buffalo). The Jesus Rehab‘s Jared Cortese has a great voice, so when his pop/rock songwriting catches up to his vocal prowess (and I suspect it will, if he keeps at it), he should be a just a hop, skip and a jump away from “making it” (whatever his idea of “making it” is).
Cortese’s strong, emotive tenor is a gift – it makes me want to listen to it. When it’s put into exuberant pop songs like “If It Feels Good It Is Good” and “The Highest Highs and the Lowest Lows,” the combination is magic. Cortese’s best bet instrument is piano, although his guitar playing is present throughout the album. That’s part of the problem; when Cortese punches the distortion pedal, he sets his voice out of its element in trying to sing rock. This is especially obvious on “Nervous Energy” and “Behind Closed Doors,” but is present in other places as well.
The best tune here, is “Seattle,” a straightforward acoustic tune that sounds like a lost Beach Boys cut, circa Wild Honey, before it breaks into a fuzzbox stomp. Here Cortese keeps his voice from the uncomfortable strain adopted in other electric sections and even adds a counterpoint; it’s this section of music (as well as the glorious slice of summer pop that is “If It Feels Good It Is Good”) that makes me believe The Jesus Rehab could be a stellar vehicle for Cortese going forward.
There’s room to grow for Cortese as a songwriter and performer; he just needs to keep making songs and learn how to turn his impulses into perfection. Recommended for those who like jumping on the bandwagon early.
So, while we’re in the spirit of full disclosure from yesterday, here’s another one. Gary Barrett, who is the Gary B of Gary B and the Notions, has written for Independent Clauses even more recently than Nate Williams has. Doesn’t mean I don’t have opinions about his record, but it does mean that they’re not totally sterilized. I mean, no one’s really objective these days. So passe.
Anyway. Gary B and the Notions just released New Twist and Shout, and it’s an incredibly appropriate title. Barrett has a strong affinity for ’50s pop, and he creates his own fractured and twisted version of it on this album. Barrett nicks the big pop swing and a chord progression straight out of 1954 in “Unannounced,” drops some creepy organ and oddly dissonant guitars over it, and turns it loose onto the world. “Jenny” has a bit of a surf-pop vibe to it (although I’m pretty sure Brian Wilson and Co. never accused anyone of being “Motherf****** who want to dance and get out of control”). “Hall and Oates” has a bouncy pop feel to it, similar to the girl-pop of the era (anything-ettes).
If the subverted and repurposed ’50s songwriting doesn’t turn you off, Barrett’s vocals might. Barrett has what can be best described as a Northern drawl; he lets syllables hang a long time, sings odd vocal lines, and generally does whatever he wants. The tone is a bit nasal, but not so much that he doesn’t have low notes. It’s just enough to drive a listener crazy on repeated listens. It’s really unique, but it’s an acquired taste.
The highlights here are “Sally,” “Jenny” and the dark “New York Jet Set Trash,” which was exciting because it was different that the rest. The honky tonk of “Landscapes & Skylines” also stands out, providing a punch of energy toward the end of the album.
If you like the ’50s revisited and don’t mind Gary Barrett’s distinctive, unusual vocals, you will like New Twist and Shout. If either of those things don’t happen for you, it’ll be unlikely that you won’t enjoy this.
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.