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Tag: Bob Dylan

The Typist's Midwestern rock and lyrics resonate

With that big ‘ol space in my heart for pop-punk, I am drawn by charging guitars and restless youth sounding Whitman’s “barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.” It’s not pop-punk, but The Typist‘s Midwestern High Life has both in spades.

The Oklahoma four-piece’s debut has a lot of promise in it, as well as a lot of homages to their influences (hello, cover art). And although they also mention “the taxman” in the almost-title track “Midwest,” their love of the Beatles is more in connection with their dedication to the hard work of songwriting than any particular musical inferences. Their songs temper the pop-punk tropes of uncontrollable enthusiasm and huge guitar sound with a dose of determined populism that lands the band close to both the wide-open Midwestern rock sound (old-school Wilco, Mellencamp, Horse Thief) and Midwestern folk lyrical tradition (Woody Guthrie, Bob “People forget I’m from rural Minnesota” Dylan, etc.).

The melodies are appropriately huge; it sounds like the members know how to rile up a crowd. “Gone Gone Gone” features rumbling toms, blaring organ and group vocals, while opener “Let Me Live” employs the same basic elements but with a bell kit on top of it for charm. The verses of the latter cut to tom rolls, sleigh bells and nakedly honest vocals, and I am not kidding when I say they make me miss Oklahoma something fierce. It’s a dangerous move for a band to put its best track first, but man, “Let Me Live” absolutely knocks it out from the get go.

Their aforementioned populist strain is on full display: “All I know is the American Dream / All I know is what I see on TV / All I know is the American Dream / All I know is what I can’t reach” in “Connecticut to Paris (I Don’t Know)”; “The taxman came to my home / Said we might have to foreclose / But I said this is where I’ve spent my whole life” in “Midwest”; and “My God I’ve got to find a better way / Before I suffer Gatsby’s fate” in “Gone Gone Gone.” If you dig it, you dig it – that’s all there is to it.

The Typist is a young band composed of seasoned vets, and it shows: their careful attention to detail in the arrangements allows the entire album to flow in one consistent mood. This is a double-edged sword: it’s easy to hear in one sitting, but it’s a bit tough to distinguish between songs toward the end of the album. As individual tracks, nearly every song works, but they all work for the same exact reason. As the band grows over time and gets more comfortable with its chemistry, I expect some more melodic and rhythmic variation. This will greatly improve the overall experience and produce some even more interesting tunes.

Midwestern High Life is quite a rocking start for The Typist. I thoroughly expect to hear more from this outfit, as their energy, passion, and understanding of both historical lyrics and songwriting have me excited.

Leonard Mynx’s morose vocal mastery takes a trip through roots rock

Leonard Mynx’s last album Vesper was a stately wonder, composed of hopelessly depressing folk songs that hung on every note he let fall from his mouth. It was an absolutely riveting album, if an unsettling one. Son of the Famous So and So finds him in a more upbeat idiom, and while it’s less discomforting, it’s less attention-grabbing as well.

Like Dylan went, so goes Mynx; there’s a lot more instrumentation here, and if it can’t exactly be called rock, it’s something close. There’s intimations of everyone from Tom Waits to Bob Seger here (On “Sing Radio,” Mynx calls up both), making for a mini-tour of American roots rock. Son has its own charms and joys, but it inches a little closer toward what the rest of the folk world is doing right now.

Mynx has shifted his focus from vocal melodies to overall songwriting. It doesn’t seem like a big deal until you hear how different “Stolen” and “Last Time” sound. The forlorn horns of “Stolen” accent the vocal performance; the horns of “Last Time” are part of the structure (along with bass/acoustic guitar/electric guitar/drums/piano/organ) that rope in Mynx’s vocals.

Even the gorgeous, relatively stark “My Old Friend” fits Mynx’s vocals into a song, a departure from his former idea of letting the vocals dominate the proceedings. The result is a collection of tunes that mid-to-late-era Dylan fans will love, both for vocal and instrumental reasons.

“Stolen” and “Sail On” best reference his last album with haunting moods created by letting his voice and lyrics paint the whole scene. The lyrical structure on Son is modified to fit the new songwriting style, meaning that he’s less a literal storyteller than a scene painter on much of the album. “Sail On” dispels that, returning to his wordy, lengthy lyrical style that I love.  He sticks a beautiful acoustic coda there, too; major props to that.

“Miss You” best matches his morose mastery of drawn-out, creaky vocal performances with his new songwriting idiom. It is easily the best song on the album, hinting that the best is yet to come from Leonard Mynx.

Son of the Famous So and So never drops below “solid.”  “Stolen,” “Sail On” and “Miss You” are next-level pieces that stand up next to tracks by Iron and Wine, Bon Iver and Damien Jurado; the rest are average-to-good pieces that show a (hopefully) transitional stage in Mynx’s songwriting. Leonard Mynx is an artist you need to watch closely; he’s right on the verge of breaking through.

Derek Porter has a composer's ear for atmospheric folk

There are artists in this world that cut a huge swath across their genre. They’re the Bob Dylan, Arcade Fire, Death Cab for Cutie and Shins-type bands; their sound is so distinct that it’s hard for them to escape it, much less anyone who sounds like them. This is a shame, because as any hipster will tell you, Nirvana wasn’t the first band to sound like Nirvana. There were people before and after Nirvana who sounded just like ’em, but those before didn’t get the glory and those after glommed onto the glory without earning it or were shunted to the side as copycats.

I hope that Derek Porter can fall into the former category; it would be easy to shove him aside as a Bon Iver disciple, but that’s not a fair judgment. There are striking similarities in the folk tunes of the two men: both have a rustic sound, favor spare arrangements and feature a high, trembling vocalist. But where Bon Iver makes paeans to the cold desolation of heartbreak, Derek Porter’s Strangers, Vol. 1 is a humble and inviting exploration of memory.

It’s probably good that these tunes aren’t as wholesale despair-laden as Bon Iver’s work. I don’t know if I could take much more of that. I much prefer Porter’s lively, bluegrass-inflected “I Remember” to the atmospheric density he employs in “All I Know Will Be Forgotten.” When “I Remember” drifts off into a weary haze, it still doesn’t meander into navel-gazing depression. This is because Porter takes careful care of the moods he creates; he’s not creating standard depressing fare, but his strength is still the moods he is putting out.

“I Forgot” is a cheery, wide-eyed tune, incorporating an accordion to great effect. It doesn’t have the direct, powerful melodies that some bands make their living on, but the overall mood cultivated is just as satisfying in this and other cases. There are good melodies sprinkled throughout, but the moods are much more consistent and thereby more praiseworthy.

Derek Porter’s Strangers, Vol. 1 is a solid EP. If you’re big on atmosphere (or a film scorer), Derek Porter should jump high up in your queue. He’s got a composer’s ear and skills. The tunes aren’t as direct, clear and elegant as Avett Brothers or Low Anthem tunes, but his command of mood transforms a room. It will be interesting to see if he develops his melodic prowess in the future or whether he pours himself even more into the atmosphere work. No matter which way he goes, Strangers, Vol. 1 is a great EP to put on during a lazy day and just be with.

The Points North create unique folk from a myriad of influences and styles

thepointsnorthOne of my best friends and I are huge folk fans. We share some of the same loves (Josh Ritter, Simon and Garfunkel, Iron and Wine), but we diverge pretty hard at one point: he’s a big fan of the British folk sound, and I’m a big fan of the American folk sound. The British folk sound has a very open sound: capturing the sound of rolling hills on the English countryside, the music often abounds with flutes, mandolin, and other optimistic sounds. American folk has a much less optimistic air about it; Dylan’s strum-heavy protest songs and Simon and Garfunkel’s world-weary pop/folk tunes set the stage for the depressing world that American folk resides in.

The Points North take a distinctly British approach to folk, although they hail from Boston. Accordion, flute, delicately fingerpicked guitar, piano, mandolin and more permeate the sound, creating a rollicking sound. But even though these songs are charming, melodic, and sunny, they never become less weighty. Page France was one of the only other bands I know of that was able to capture the balance between giddy music and serious content. And The Points North don’t geek out on a Michael Nau-esque level; they’re much more tempered than that. Stately, as the Brits might say.

If Sufjan Stevens were a little more obsessed with flute, he could have written “Cape Tryon”; the background vocals and general feel of the song would have fit perfectly on Illinoise! If the Low Anthem cracked a smile every now and then, they would be happy to claim the elegaic accordion intro of “I Awoke a Child.” If Nick Drake had found friends to play with him, he could have written half these songs, from the peculiar picking rhythm of “Ever Bright White” to the carefree feel of “Tires & the Pavement.” There are elements of Nickel Creek’s joyful pop (minus the bluegrass), and Novi Split’s goofy swooping musical instruments.

Although I’ve spent most of this album saying who the Points North sound like, that’s not to their discredit. This isn’t an album that causes me to wince every time I hear a musical familiarity. On the other hand, these references (intentional or otherwise) cause excitement and increase enjoyment. The sound isn’t as intimate as my favorite folk bands, due to the myriad of sounds going on, but that’s not what The Points North were shooting for.

The Points North’s I Saw Across the Sound is a unique release, written and recorded with clarity of idea. It’s a very distinctive brand of folk that draws off all the aforementioned bands, but copies none of them. Quite enjoyable and talented.

Gerard Daley's different states are confusing but listenable

The best artists have distinct phases of their work. Some confine their phase to a single album (i.e. Coldplay), a few albums (Radiohead), wide swaths of albums (The Mountain Goats). Some artists jam all of their phases together (uh, Low Anthem? Are you a rock band or a folk band?).

Gerard Daley, longtime member of The Stuntcar Drivers and Delta House (two bands I’ve never heard), decided to release all of his solo demos from a nine-year period on one CD and call it Diff’rent States. The overlying problem is not his songwriting skill, but the fact that there are an incredible amount of genres and moods on this CD. It’s very clearly a collection of demos. For a person who doesn’t have a love affair with either of the main bands, it’s difficult to muster up enough enthusiasm to power through the myriad of mood changes to make sense of the material.

And I do mean myriad. There’s Counting Crows-esque pop (“Diff’rent States”), a downtempo Pink Floyd-esque number (“Romantic”), punk rock with shoegaze-style vocals (“Superstar”), folky protest tunes (“Stranded Generation”), and a pensive acoustic guitar track with the sound of the waves playing through the entire track. That’s just the first five tracks.

The three things that are constant on Diff’rent States are Daley’s prowess with an acoustic guitar, his lyrical themes and his vocals. Whenever he drops the distortion and goes for the acoustic, his results are solid and enjoyable. His distorted tracks can not consistently lay claim to that honor. From the dramatic beginning of  “Buildings” to the romantic “My Lady” to the full-band folk of “The Wrongness of Righteousness,” the results of the acoustic-heavy tracks are just more reliably good than their distorted brethren.

The lyrics are consistently searching throughout. He talks consistently about seeking out truth, understanding what he believes, and questioning perceptions. It’s a refreshing change from breakup albums and love songs, which is what I’ve been encountering tons of lately. Not that there aren’t love songs here (the aforementioned “My Lady”), but it’s not the main focus. And that’s nice.

Daley’s vocals are consistent as well. He has a folk-singer’s voice; it breaks, it cracks, and it generally isn’t perfect. If you’re into the Bob Dylan sound, you may even find Daley’s vocals endearing. If you think that Bob Dylan was one of the worst things to happen to pop music (and there are those people), you should not check out Daley. You will not be pleased.

Diff’rent States is the type of release I would be all over if one of my favorite bands released it. Nine years of unheard demos is just a treasure chest of unheard ideas. But if you’re not familiar with the original work that made the artist worth listening to in the first place, it’s like looking in someone’s attic to try to get to know them. It doesn’t make much sense. There are some good tunes here (“Stranded Generation,” “Forgotten How to Fake” and more), but it’s just hard to “get” it.

Paul Phillips' folk/country is a work in progress

The most satisfying breakup album I’ve ever heard is the Postal Service’s Give Up. It’s not that Tamborello and Gibbard pinned the sound of breaking up perfectly (that honor goes to Spiritualized’s miserable/wonderful Ladies and Gentlemen, We are Floating in Space). It sits above the rest because the whole thing is told in chronological order. Attentive listeners can know exactly what’s happening at every point in the album. It turns the collection of songs into an experience.

Paul Phillips’ Every Time I Leave might be a breakup album. There are breakup songs on it, but there are also love songs and worship songs. The jumble makes it difficult to discern what the point of this folk/country album is. And, alas, there may not be one. It may simply be a collection of songs. As a collection of songs, it’s not bad at all, but I feel like Phillips could aspire to so much more than just a collection of songs.

Phillips comes from the Bob Dylan school of vocals: they’re an immediate turn-off that slowly grow on you to the point of affection. His tenor is warbling and creaky, similar to Dylan’s, but thankfully, Phillips doesn’t have that horrible nasal tone that Dylan has. When Phillips keeps his voice low on songs like “Time, Time,” it’s hard to even discern the warbles and breaks.

Taking the focus off the vocals allows the songwriting to shine. I wish it would happen more often, as Phillips crafts some excellent tunes on Every Time I Leave. “Time, Time,” “Come What May” and “Until We Meet Again” are simply gorgeous tunes. The common denominator in all of these is the removal of the excess instrumentation. When Phillips gets down to the bare bones of songwriting, he strikes gold with fingerpicked melodies, subtle keys, and a calm mood. His upbeat tunes accentuate the problems of his songwriting; the slower, quieter ones play up his strengths. He even busts out a solid falsetto on “Come What May,” which surprised me.

There are upbeat tunes here as well, but they’re standard for the genre. The downtempo work is what shines. If Phillips could apply the lessons learned from the slow tracks to the aesthetics of the uptempo tracks, he would be able to accomplish a lot. He’s got solid songwriting skills that need to be refined. His voice needs to be reined in. Future albums could be structured to not be so confusing to the listener.  Still, Every Time I Leave is a solid effort from a developing songwriter. I hope to hear more from Paul Phillips in the future.

Ty Maxon has "New (Folk) Magic" for You

I love folk music. I’ll admit that folk singers traditionally don’t have the most stellar voices, but they can often do things with acoustic guitars that simply blow my mind. Ty Maxon fits both of those categories. No one’s going to be hailing him as the next Frank Sinatra, but his guitar chops and songwriting skills vault him high above any potshots that can be taken at his voice.

Maxon sets up shop by playing “New Magic.” This is a brilliant move; it’s one of the best tracks on the album. It’s an acoustic-only song, as all the songs on this album are. The intricate fingerpicking makes it sound like he has several extra hands creating the song. “New Magic” makes a single guitar sound like an orchestra, complete with rhythmic and melodic ornamentation. In addition to pure guitar skill, he deftly moves the song through several sections without ever really giving in to verse/chorus/verse. The song unfolds unexpectedly but pleasantly; there are no sudden jerks or uncomfortable moves. The whole thing flows. The song gave me goosebumps the first time I heard it.

As he moves into the rest of the album, he displays that the best parts of “New Magic” were not anomalies. It’s the way he rolls. The intricate fingerpicking, high-tenor warble, clever songwriting and smooth presentation continue throughout the album. “Free (From Time to Time)” has a more traditional chord structure, but even that is subject to fingerpicking interludes. It’s rare that he uses full chords, and even rarer that he uses traditional verse/chorus/verse stucture. In short, there’s nothing derivative here; even the most basic of the time-tested folk ideas (you know, the ones that anyone can get away with in the name of folk tradition) have been spun, twisted, and re-worked.

The album unfolds its many joys much too quickly, depositing the listener at “So They Say” in just under a half-hour. But it’s at “So They Say” that Maxon releases the best song in the collection. He has learned the art of song order: hook ’em early and leave ’em wanting more. “So They Say” has the best vocal melody in the collection, as it is the only one which could be counted as “catchy.” The song is swift; the fingerpicking is incredible. It is the piece de resistance on the album. And, in a move that I just couldn’t believe, the song fades out as opposed to ending. Talk about memorable exits.

The lyrics aren’t exactly memorable, and that could be improved. Similarly, the vocal lines are not always engaging. Sometimes they even detract from the guitar playing. But, as his songs have many parts, this ill is never around long. That’s part of his clever genius.

This folk album is one of the best I’ve heard all year. Fans of Jose Gonzalez, Nick Drake, and/or Bob Dylan will find much to admire and enjoy here. Astonishing guitar work and clever songwriting are the hallmarks of Ty Maxon’s incredible Furthest From the Tree.

Jacob Furr debuts strong folk songwriting

There are various schools of thought when it comes to folk music. Woody Guthrie leads the traditionalists. The Dylan school is all cryptic lyrics and chunky chords. There’s the Nick Drake school, which is quiet, pensive, and emotive. The Sufjanites pack their songs full of instruments. There’s the freak-folk Banhart followers, which are just out of their minds. And then there’s the Joseph Arthur school, which is plaintive lyrics and lots of pop influence. No folk artist can escape the influence of these artists.

Jacob Furr falls squarely in the Joseph Arthur school. His songs are definitely folk-laden, but have a lot of pop influences. The strumming is smooth, the recording is tight, and the songwriting is structured in concise pop structures more than the meandering, free-form folk odysseys of other artists. His voice is warm and inviting; no creaking, breaking or howling here. These seven tunes on The Only Road are very emotive, but not hysterical or pre-occupied with their own emotionality.

In short, these are honest songs that are enjoyable. They don’t belabor the point, and they don’t make it cryptic or inaccessible. “Many Times” is about being lonely on the road, and its musical echoes of Skynyrd’s “Free Bird” only accentuate the point that being free and on your own is not always all that it’s cracked up to be. Tom Waits would have been proud to write “Poor Wayfaring Stranger,” as the eerie sway and low-slung plod invoke an atmosphere of danger, dark alleys and more. Furr’s invocation of Jewish legend and religion (“going over river Jordan”) makes the song even more foreign and thus all the more interesting.

Furr’s command of melody on “Poor Wayfaring Stranger” is another element that helps the song succeed. His vocal melodies, carried by his calm and inviting voice, are some of the longest-sticking remnants after the album is done.

Other than “Stranger,” the highlight here is “Where Are You Going?” The song expertly combines all the elements that Furr is best at:  solid songwriting conveying honest emotion, a memorable vocal line,  and an inviting atmosphere. It’s the type of song that fits in the emotional climax of TV shows, and I mean that as high praise.

Also in “Where Are You Going,” he delivers his best lyrical line. The lyrics in The Only Road are clear, concise, and, in comparison to other folk artists, not something to write home about. But he delivers a crushing set in the middle of this song:  “She said why are you flying?/Cause it’s faster than a bus/There’s no stops along the long way./What became of us?” In the midst of the mundane conversation he’s relating, he drops in the whole point of the song, then jumps off again, ready for the next lyric. The stark contrast and particular delivery made me take notice from the very first time I heard it, and that’s a good thing.

The Only Road is a good debut. Furr has established himself as a strong songwriter in the vein of Joseph Arthur and Josh Rouse. He can strengthen his lyrics (and, in folk, that’s a big consideration), but the musicianship is tight. If you’re interested in folk that will please your ears and tickle your emotions, Jacob Furr should be in your near future. And seeing as you can get his album in a “pay-what-you-want” scheme, you really should.