Learning how to write in a genre can be a lifelong exploration, even for the most talented of musicians: Josh Ritter has made a whole career exploring the nooks and crannies of modern folk. The Mountain Goats spent a whole decade mastering the lo-fi recording before spending another 15 years doing indie-pop in tons of different styles. As a result of the difficulty and time required to be an expert in one genre, skepticism is warranted when an artist leaves their home genre for another.
This is an even more risky proposition when the target isn’t one new genre, but a multi-genre, broadly “pop” album. Yet despite these many cards stacked against Alex Dezen‘s second solo outing II, the former Damnwells frontman has created a fascinating, incredibly enjoyable album that dabbles in half-a-dozen pop genres. It’s proof of Dezen’s songwriting prowess that he’s not just great in one genre: he’s great in a bunch of them.
Dezen doesn’t try to hide that’s he indulging in any flight of fancy that comes his way: The album opens with “When You Give Up,” a Miami Vice-esque noir new wave tune. Dezen’s lithe voice shines here; not only could he sing the phone book and make it sound great, he could sing it in a wide variety of genres, as well. His knack for catchy melodies is on display everywhere, from the vocal melodies to acoustic guitar riffs to blocky synth blasts. “Holding on to You (Holding on to Me)” has more ’80s rock vibes–this time more Heart than Blondie (“Barracuda,” in particular). As ever, the chorus hook is polished till it glows–you’ll be mumbling “holdingontoyou / holdingontoME” for a long while afterwards.
From there on, Dezen goes in full-on world tour mode. “Randolph Tonight” is CCR-esque swamp rock; “I Am a Racist” is a straight-up doo-wop tune; “New York to Paradise” is a lost Billy Joel piano ballad; “Fuck or Fight” is an Eagles-style country-rock rambler. None of these songs feel insincere or mishandled; Dezen waltzes his way through each of them with a deft hand. It’s even more to his credit that he played almost every instrument on this album. It’s one thing to write a melody in a different genre, and it’s another thing entirely to have the chops on multiple instruments to pull off a whole arrangement in another genre.
My favorite tunes here are ones that pair excellent arrangements with incisive, carefully wrought lyrics. The REM jangle of “I Had a Band” relates anecdotes from a coming-of-age tale with the emotionally charged punch line “I never had much of a father / but I had a band / yeah, I had a band.” Anyone who’s been in a band will relate to the loving, wry tone that runs through the lyrics, whether or not your relationship with your father was great. IC had the distinct honor of premiering the Graceland-inspired “Everything’s Great (Everything’s Terrible),” which has a thoughtful set of lyrics about people in the contemporary moment just trying to make it through. The acoustic closer “The Boys of Bummer” is a lovely song about people who write sad songs by a person who writes sad songs. The dignity with which the characters meander through the tune makes me think of The Hold Steady.
Because of the herculean effort Dezen expends on every track, the album is only 9 songs. Yet in those nine songs he creates his own personal version of the radio, putting his imprint on pop music. It’s a rare album that manages to pull off all that Dezen does here: this is a fully-realized album on “extra difficulty” mode. If you like pop music in any way, shape, or form, you need to hear this album. Highly recommended.
1. “Arizon” – La Cerca. Thoughtful, walking-speed Western music: gentle keys, reverbed clean electric guitars, thrumming bass, easygoing vocals. Sometimes the title (sic, by the way) is all you need to know.
2. “Jimmy & Bob & Jack” – Edward David Anderson. Some songs don’t need or deserve lyric videos, but this rollicking tale of three would-be criminals had me hanging on every word from Anderson’s mouth. The swampy, country instrumentation that floats the lyrics is pretty great too.
3. “Need a Break” – David Myles. I don’t get sent that many old-school, rapid-fire, talking-country tunes, but David Myles has delivered me a tune that I can’t stop tapping my foot to.
4. “Falling in Love” – Nathan Fox. Right what it says on the tin, with raspy/gritty vocals reminiscent of bluesy hollerers.
5. “Beacons” – Scott Bartenhagen. Structured, mature, serious acoustic music that made me think of Turin Brakes for the first time in a long time. Regardless of what happened to the “Quiet is the New Loud” movement, I’ll still be a fan of intense, focused acoustic singer/songwriter work.
6. “Lazy Moon” – Brave the Night. If you’ve ever (secretly or unabashedly) enjoyed an ’80s Billy Joel ballad OR were enamored with Norah Jones OR don’t think “lounge” is a bad word, this tune will tickle your fancy. Sweet trumpet, too.
7. “One More Time” – Cape Snow. Bree Scanlon’s voice sounds so composed and mature in this tune that it’s tough to not start assigning positive moral qualities to it. She guides this gentle tune through its four minutes, sounding like the direct descendants of Mojave 3 the entire time.
8. “Easy on Me” – Runner of the Woods. The premiere of this song includes songwriter Nick Beaudoing coining the term countrygaze. As this mashes up country and shoegaze (and, by my own personal extension, chillwave), I am on board with this term. I want to believe.
9. “Origins” – Jesse Payne. Excellent widescreen, engaging indie-folk calling up The National comparisons as easily as of the obvious Fleet Foxes/Grizzly Bear woodsy bands.
10. “White Queen” – Benedikt and Friends. You’ve had a hard week. You need a song that gets that, as well as helping you slip into relaxation. This tune offers tons of pathos to empathize with, as well as crisp melodies and tight engineering of the nuanced, subtle arrangement. And it’s Norwegian.
11. “RMDN” – +Aziz. Linking ancient religious practice with social media and traditional acoustic guitar with gentle beats results in a song that realizes its lyrics in its sound and vice versa. It’s an intriguing song that never lets the concept take away from being a good tune.
I’ve been behind on MP3s and videos, so there’s going to be a lot of them posted in the next few days in addition to album reviews. I’m breaking my “one post a day” rule, but I’ll get back there shortly enough.
Fun in the Sun
1. “Bring You Down” – Ships Have Sailed. Oh man, remember early 2000s indie pop-rock? Like Watashi Wa and stuff? The bright-eyed sound, the self-abasing lyrics, the high harmonies, the twinkly guitars? It’s all here. I can’t help but love this song entirely. That lead riff is just so great.
2. “Bitter Branches” – Static in Verona. I’ve always got room in my heart for a pulse-pounding, towering power-pop song. This one features high, melodic, non-aggressive vocals. It’ll be in your head for a while.
3. “Silhouettes” – Colony House. Are you looking for a fun, upbeat rock track to blast in a car? Here’s my pick for this week.
4. “Boulders” – Dear Blanca. Dear Blanca’s Talker was one of my favorite records of 2013, so it’s thrilling to hear the noisy folk/rock band back with an even tighter sound and lyrical sense. Can we get this band on tour with Conor Oberst already? Please and thank you.
5. “Figure Eight” – Pageant. Peppy acoustic guitars get kicked into overdrive by electric organ and hyperactive drums, turning a folky/poppy tune into a charging pop-rock tune. Fresh, tight, and fun.
6. “Insults and Polemics” – Wall-Eyed. I bet you’ve never head a punk band mashed up with a Norteño band. I bet you’ve never heard a Norteño band. I bet you’re really going to like it.
8. “Come Up and See” – Tree Dwellers. Instrumental hip-hop with an acoustic bent: we’ve got acoustic guitars, cello, and Spanish guitar vibes going on here. Totally cool.
9. “Could Be Real” – Diners. Lazy, chilled-out, but not chillwave, this acoustic (but not folk!) band carves out the hardest space: the space that’s always been there. This is pop music, for real.
10. “Licorice the Dog” – Kye Alfred Hillig. Hillig has been on a songwriting bender lately, pushing the bounds of prolific by doing all of his songwriting in vastly different genres. “Licorice” sees him return to his hometown of intimate singer/songwriter music with great results.
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.
The defining characteristic of Raymondale and the Family Band is youth. The band looks young, sounds young and has lots of room to grow in their piano-pop sound. It’s no dig to them that they’re young; on the contrary, more power to them for figuring out what they want to do and doing it. But there are flashes of brilliance that are dampened by youthful peculiar decisions.
The piano pop here is of a stately, indie variety, as if Sufjan Stevens’ aesthetic choices were distilled into Ben Folds’ piano with Billy Joel playing it. RD Bonner (who is also Raymondale, both names I’m assuming as affectations of Raymond Dale) handles the piano and the vocals, Kiah Bonner holds down the percussion, and Alyson Bonner takes on most of the other instruments (trumpet, vocals, etc). The songs are dominated by pop piano stylings, similar to the way that Ben Folds’ piano dominates most of his songs. While the approaches are the same, the Bonners do a good job of not nicking Folds’ shtick. The closest they come to ripping off Mr. Rockin’ the Suburbs is on “For Her,” where the smooth piano line and the background “ahs” just scream “Fred Jones Pt. 2.” They kill the comparison by significantly altering the mood at the end of the song (and not really in a good way, unfortunately). But they are taking pains to distinguish themselves, and that’s a good thing.
The lyrics fall somewhere between the incredibly emotional tales of Bright Eyes and the incredibly detailed story songs of The Mountain Goats. “Rosa de Chiapas” details a failed attempt to cross the border from Mexico to America. “For Her” tells of a boy dying in a hospital before an girl can get to him from six states away. Highlight “God Bless You, Archbishop” tells of a South American peasant uprising. The lyrics are clever and interesting, if a little bit stilted at times by trying to cram too many or too few syllables into a line.
All of these parts together create the Raymondale and the Family Band sound: a wide-eyed, piano-heavy pop sound. There are harmonies, rounds, counterpoints, and more tricks up their sleeve. But they never fill the sound, as Sufjan does. The band is content to let the piano carry the band, and that sets them apart. The songs don’t always flow perfectly, as there are odd jumps and mood shifts occasionally, but it’s the sound of a band discovering its own sound. It’s not a sign of incompetence; it’s a sign of overshooting their experience at the moment. Raymondale and the Family Band want to be great, and they’re gunning for it hard.
Some bands are scattered as a way of life. Some bands are just scattered on this particular pit stop as they get their things together. Raymondale and the Family Band is definitely the latter. The melodic quality and aesthetic ideas of this band point toward great things for the band, even if it’s not exactly all together on this release. I would highly recommend Consider the Birds to any fan of piano pop, as RD Bonner is going to be a name that you hear more often, with or without the Family Band. I hope that he sticks with it and gets the success he (and the rest of the band) will soon deserve.
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.