This year I have 14 albums of the year. Numbers 14-8 are covered here, while numbers 7-1 will be covered in a few days. Enjoy!
14. State Center – The Hasslers. “An impressively smooth fusion of country, indie-pop and folk; they’re so adept at handling the genre mashing that it’s hard to pick out exactly where one stops and the other starts.” (full review)
12. Songs of Loss – JPH. “Songs of Loss would be hard to explain even if it weren’t so openly dealing with the loss of the artist’s father. … Imagine if LCD Soundsystem had committed to only using acoustic instruments but still wanted to make the same sort of rhythms, or if Jandek had become dancier. These are strange things to try to imagine, I am aware.” (full review)
11. Gardens – Ryan Dugre. “The solo guitar record has a zen-like focus and a clarity that make the music incredibly soothing to a harried mind. … It sounds like audio origami–complex and angular, but only when looked at up close: from afar it seems beautiful, unified, and peaceful.” (full review)
10. The Road – John John Brown. “Brilliant, drawing heavily from traditional Appalachian sounds and modern folk revivalists to create 10 songs of back-porch folk that are fully realized in scope and yet casual in mood. Brown’s dusky voice, an immaculate production job, and a deft arranging hand makes this duality possible.” (full review)
9. Crooked Orchards – Darling Valley. “Stuffed full of tunes with vocal melodies that I can’t say no to, elite instrumental performances, and enough lyrical poignancy to knock the socks off a skeptic or two. It’s the sort of album that makes you remember why folk-pop was fun in the first place.” (full review)
8. S/t – Moda Spira. “A beautiful, intriguing work that combines pensive indie-pop, thoughtful electro-pop, R&B and more into a distinctive sound. The lyrics are just as impressive, tackling the little-discussed topic of marital commitment with candor, verve, and impact.” (full review)
Darling Valley is the new name of Accents, a band that reveled in combining all sorts of genres into gleeful, occasionally rocket-powered folk-rock. Darling Valley changed some members along with their name, and as a result Crooked Orchardsis less folk-rock and more Lumineers-style folk-pop. But the quality of the work is still elite: the album is stuffed full of tunes with vocal melodies that I can’t say no to, elite instrumental performances, and enough lyrical poignancy to knock the socks off a skeptic or two. It’s the sort of album that makes you remember why folk-pop was fun in the first place, while showing that the genre can support more than skin-deep sentiments.
Darling Valley now sports three vocalists who trade off lead: two women and one man. Their vocal tones and melodic lines are each different; a traditional country female croon (“Moonshine”), a warm indie female coo (“‘Til Morning”), and a brash folk-rock male tenor (“Make It Right”) each get their own moment to shine. But this isn’t three soloists hogging the spotlight from each other, as they routinely back each other up with elegantly constructed harmonies. Songs like “Who You Hold On To” and “You’ll Go Far, Kid” see them sharing the microphone, trading off lines and harmonies at whim. It kept me on my toes in the best of ways, wondering who was going to come in next.
The melodies that they deliver are diverse: from the weary tone and formal structure of “Moonshine” to the yearning power-pop melodies of “Graces” to the giddy folk-pop choruses of “Widows and Revolutionaries,” there’s an array of sounds in their upbeat work. Their quieter tunes also show pleasant variation. The love song “Written on My Bones” is as earnest and winsome as you would hope, while “Monsters” is a ’50s soul/Motown ballad filtered through a three-part folk harmony. By the time “Half Your Life”‘s anthemic vocal line “You won’t / always love me / like you do now” comes around to close out the album, it’s easy to be accustomed to how cool it is, until they up the ante in a way that’s so engaging that I’m not going to spoil it for you. Suffice it to say, they know their voices and melodies are awesome, and they use them to their best ends on this song (and on the whole album).
This is not to malign the instrumental work, though! Their standard folk-pop set up (acoustic guitar, electric guitar, bass, drums) is augmented by regular appearances of a brass section. Mumford and Sons could have ruined the horn line for them, but Darling Valley’s arrangements are so impeccably done that the horns feel triumphant instead of trite on “Who You Hold On To” and “You’ll Go Far, Kid.” The genre thefts that they so expertly pulled off in their previous incarnation are more subtle this time: “Who You Hold On To” has its giant closing section amped up by a 1-and-3-4 reggaeton drumbeat (for real), “Moonshine” nods more than a little to classic country, and “Monsters” has those Motown vibes. But even when they’re just playing their major-key brand of folk-pop/folk-rock, they show off guitar chops and careful arranging skills. A great example of this is the complex “Graces,” which has a lot more going on than meets the ear at first.
The lyrics also have a lot more happening than you’d expect: Darling Valley is composed of two married couples, so the lyrics skew toward married-people concerns. Oh, there’s still some dating songs on here (“Moonshine,” “‘Til Morning”), but even the dating songs have the weariness of having been around the block a few times. Then you get to the two different apology songs (“Graces,” “Make it Right”), a song favorably comparing a lover to a song on repeat (“Written on My Bones”), and a song about how getting married is sort of terrifying because it involves potentially giving up your dreams (“Monsters,” which has my vote for realest/rawest lyrical confession of 2016 so far), and you’re not in lyrical Kansas anymore.
These are not songs about infatuation; these are serious, grown-up lyrics about serious, grown-up love. You can still read dating into these words: the coda of the album, the repeated line “You won’t / always love me / like you do now,” can mean “You’re going to leave me someday.” However, in the context of the song, it could also mean “your love for me will change and not be the same as it is right now, because we are married and we’re going to be doing this for a long time and I have no idea what this will look like when we’re still doing this in 50 years and that is scary.” Again, real real. If you’d rather have enthusiastic folk-pop about how life is awesome, there’s always “You’ll Go Far, Kid”; but if you’re looking for something else, that’s here too. (“You’ll Go Far, Kid” is fantastic in its own right: vocally and instrumentally, it’s probably my favorite on the record. Its lyrics are hopeful and uplifting, too. But nothing in it is as emotionally lancing as the delivery of “‘Cus all my endings, they came from good intents” on “Make it Right,” or all of “Monsters.”)
I always hesitate to bring too much of myself to reviewing; I’m not a critic looking into music to write something about myself. But sometimes the connection jumps out: the Crooked Orchards of the title might be marriage itself, a joyous thing full of lovely fruit that doesn’t look exactly like I thought it would. In some ways it’s even more amazing than I thought it would be! And in some ways it’s just weird, sort of askew to what I imagined. I wouldn’t ever change it. But I could go back and tell my pre-married self that there’s just some things you can’t know until you’re there. (Also, the album title could just be really pretty words, like “cellar door,” or something else entirely.) Crooked Orchards is a beautiful album: it delves into matters of depth, taking relationships much farther than the standard album. To do so, they deliver incredible melodies and instrumental arrangements. It’s just excellent. Highly recommended.