1. “Mirrors” – Mos Isley. Triumphant folk-pop that’s exciting without going over the top into cliche.
2. “Glow” – The National Parks. Big instrumental melodies, lots of instruments, charming vocal melodies, subtle-enough-to-not-be-gimmicky underlying electronic beats; this folky indie song is just a blast.
3. “Vintage” – High Dive Heart. Throw technicolor girl pop, white rap, a banjo, and folk-pop harmonies in a blender and you get out this enigmatically engaging song. This song doesn’t make any sense to me in so many ways and yet I love it. It just works. Amazing. (Video direct link: )
4. “Ancient Burial Ground” – Kye Alfred Hillig. Hillig gives us the demos of his new album before it’s released, and you can color me excited: this tune and the handful of others that come with it are chipper musically and intricate lyrically, just like his best work. Watch for Great Falls Memorial Interchange in 2016.
5. “Canada” – Nikki Gregoroff. “The people are nice cross the border,” sings Gregoroff, which is just a really nice thing to write into a Simon and Garfunkel-esque tune.
6. “Chantilly Grace” – Granville Automatic. Bell-clear female vocals lead this tune that looks back to vintage Americana (that fiddle!) and forward to modern alt-country melodies.
7. “Bliss Mill” – Matthew Carter. The laid-back chill vibe and unhurried vocals of Alexi Murdoch meets the shuffle-snare of traditional country/folk for a memorable tune.
8. “Set Sail” – Matt Monoogian. Monoogian’s calm voice leads this acoustic track with an intricate arrangement that pulls the Gregory Alan Isakov trick of feeling both comfortingly small and confidently big.
9. “Bentonville Blues” – Adam Hill. A protest song for the modern day working poor, Hill captures the everyman ethos with great delivery of relatable lyrics, simpple arrangement of singalong melodies, and a the burned-but-not-killed mentality similar to old-time protest work songs.
10. “Itasca County” – Rosa del Duca. The frontman of folk outfit hunters. releases her own album of singer/songwriter tunes that focus on her voice and lyrics, both of which are in fine form on this rolling, harmonica-splashed tune.
11. “Tongue Tied” – Oktoba. That space between soul, folk, and singer/songwriter keeps getting more populated: let in Oktoba, whose offering isn’t as overtly sensuous as some but is just as romantic (and hummable)!
12. “The Blue” – David Porteous. Canadian Porteous beautifully splits the difference between two UK singer/songwriters here by invoking Damien Rice’s sense of intense romantic intimacy and David Gray’s widescreen pop arrangements.
13. “Whirlpool Hymnal” – Matthew Squires and the Learning Disorders. Squires expands his yearning, searching alt-folk to include found sounds–the lyrics are just as thought-provoking and honest as ever.
14. “Playground” – Myopic. The fragile swoon of a violin bounces off the stately plunk of melodic percussion in this thoughtful instrumental piece.
15. “Siphoning Gas” – Luke Redfield. This gentle, ambient soundscape is the sound of looking out the window when rain is coming down and you don’t have to go anywhere or do anything but cuddle up with a blanket and a book in a big bay window and enjoy it.
MD Woods‘ Young and Vain, Vol. 2 may describe the lifestyles of characters with the titular qualities, but it approaches the studies from a world-weary perspective instead of an impetuous one. The alt-country band, led by the whiskey-soaked voice of Nicholas Moore, comes off desperate and ragged in its moods, like Damien Rice on the alt-country frontier. It should be noted that these are strictly compliments: tunes like “Vomit” make being emotionally wracked seem like a noble idea, if not a desirable one. The melodies are compelling, the lyrics are tight, and the song styles are varied–there’s definitely a lot going on despite the general timbre of the lyrics.
The arrangements compliment the emotional damage by being surprisingly tight: from background vocals to swooping strings to rock-steady drums, the band provides a framework for Moore to get unhinged in. The bright, clear recording and engineering make the final product more accessible, providing a clean window to see the band through. The results are compelling mix of major key and minor key tunes that you can sing along to and enjoy in a Frightened Rabbit sort of way.
It’s easy to put Gregory Pepper‘s Chorus! Chorus! Chorus! in the ICYMI category, because if you blink you’ll miss it: Pepper blitzes through 10 songs in under 14 minutes. This uncommonly aggressive approach to the “hit it and quit it” songwriting mentality creates an album of perfect melodies that appear once or twice, lodge in your brain forever, and then disappear into the next tune. The post-Weezer pop-rock that blazes its way through your eardrums is undeniably, irresistibly pristine: “Crush On You” and “Smart Phones for Stupid People” are fuzzed-out midtempo glory; “There In The Meadow (Was I Not a Flower At All?)” is a pseudo-metal pop-rock stomper; “Come By It Honestly” is an “Only in Dreams”-esque slow jam and the longest tune on the record, tipping the scales at 1:40.
But it’s not all Weezer-esque crunchy guitars. Pepper has an idiosyncratic vocal and melodic sensibility that delivers highly sarcastic and ironic lyrics in an earnest pop-rock style reminiscent of It’s a King Thing, only without the breathy sweetness. Pepper is singing straightforward melodies that still manage to bend my mind, as the endlessly fascinating, gymnastic opener “Welcome to the Dullhouse” shows. But it’s not enough to just create wild melodies, clever tunes and ironic lyrics: occasionally all the sarcasm drops and reveals pretty raw honesty as an extra layer to the tune (“I Wonder Whose Dick You Had to Suck?,” “There In The Meadow (Was I Not a Flower At All?)”). It’s a lot to ride on songs that barely (or don’t) break 60 seconds, but Pepper masterfully handles the incredible amount of things going on. It’s not easy to edit yourself down to the bare bones and still deliver a multi-layered experience that’s both fun and deep, but Chorus! Chorus! Chorus! is that rarest of albums that pulls it off. If you’re into indie-pop-rock, you need this one in your life.
I try to keep up with what’s cool in indie rock so that I’m not constantly namechecking the Hives and Death Cab for Cutie, but keeping up with what’s going on in alt-rock is way harder for me. As I was casually reading through Spin’s (biased, subjective, etc.) list of 50 best rock bands right now, I was pleasantly surprised to see Paramore up at number 9. I thought they had been lumped in with Flyleaf as lame, but I was wrong! (Is Flyleaf cool?) Which is great, because I feel totally guiltless comparing Tyto Alba’s Oh Tame One EP to a more mood-heavy Paramore. Melanie Steinway’s vocals soar and roar in front of an alt-rock backdrop that isn’t as gritty as everyone’s favorite indie grunge band Silversun Pickups (check the arpeggiated guitar on “Passenger”) but isn’t as post-rock-flavored as bands like Athletics.
Instead, they prefer to mix artsy rhythms and nuanced guitarscapes with rock song structures: “Deer” mixes a carefully patterned rhythm guitar line with a moseying lead guitar line that echoes back to The Photo Album-era Death Cab before exploding into guitar theatrics for the chorus (of sorts). The careful picking of the lead guitar line in “Divide” juxtaposes with groove-heavy bass and drums (but not as dance-tastic as in standout “New Apathy,” which is simply impressive) before building into the most memorable chorus on the EP, driven by multiple vocal melodies interacting. It’s the sort of work Tyto Alba excels at: twisting your expectations of what a rock song should do without totally overhauling the model. If you’re into thoughtfully distorted guitars with some groove-heavy elements, Oh Tame One will fit nicely in your collection.
There’s a wide diversity of sounds you can make with an acoustic guitar and voice; being able to sing Missippi blues doesn’t ensure that you can play Irish folk tunes. Some people work to become a master at one style, while others can absorb the core elements of a variety of sounds.
Joe Kaplow is the latter, as his sound is grounded in troubadour folk with influences from a variety of other acoustic genres. His self-titled debut EP showcases a singer/songwriter with a huge amount of promise, as his songwriting and distinctive voice offer great rewards to the listener.
“Bookshop Blues” opens the release with a fast, strummed folk tune accompanied by his own foot stomping. Kaplow’s insistent, urgent tenor dances over a tune that sounds perfect for busking: an earnest, upbeat tune that balances lyrical introspection and smile-inducing melodies and chords. He follows it up with the harmonica-and-swift-fingerpicking tune “How Old is My Soul,” which evokes the raw, pure sound of The Freewheeling Bob Dylan. It stays out of tribute range due to (again) the swooping vocals, which flip from tender to insistent on a dime. This ability to control his delivery calls to mind a less-abrasive Kristian Mattson of The Tallest Man on Earth, especially in the “oh-oh” conclusion of the tune.
Kaplow can unhinge his voice, too–both “It’s Me Girl” and “When I Open Up at Last” allow Kaplow to let it all air out. The banjo-led blues of “It’s Me Girl” sees him scrubbing grit and wail into his delivery to fit the mood of the tune, while “When I Open Up at Last” contains Damien Rice-style howls. “Give My Eyes” provides a respite between the two songs, a delicate pastoral tune that reminds me of a cross between Irish folk tunes and Justin Townes Earle’s American sounds. The addition of a female voice turns this duet into a highlight of the already-strong EP.
There’s a lot going on in this self-titled EP, but it all hangs together because of the bright, mid-fi production vibe. This is clearly a man and his guitar (on most tracks), as the occasional ambient room noise, gentle tape hiss and sound of foot taps show. But Kaplow’s not reveling in the tracks’ smallness–this feels like an earnest document of work, not a bid to participate in the bedroom-folk scene. (“When I Open Up at Last” is about as far from whisper-folk as it gets.) There’s no intentional obscuring, no reverb, no distance placed between the listener and the song. These songs are immediate–they grabbed me on first listen, and they still grab me ten listens on. That’s a credit both to the songs and the way they’re recorded.
Kaplow’s self-titled EP is an energizing listen. Whether it’s a slow or fast song I’m listening to, the music is exciting. Kaplow’s well-controlled voice is employed in a diversity of styles, making for a sprightly, fast-paced 20 minutes. It’s tough to pick out highlight tracks, because each has its own charms; I’m personally partial to “How Old is My Soul” and “Give My Eyes,” but someone who likes darker, dramatic music more than I could find “When I Open Up at Last” or “It’s Me Girl” to be their highlight. It’s a rare artist who can make memorable tunes in diverse idioms, and that bodes well for Joe Kaplow. I can’t wait to see how his next releases develop. Highly recommended.
December is a tough month to release music: you’ve got orgs like Paste that have already released their year-end lists by the beginning of the month, blogs that are trying to clear out the files from November (or October, or September) to get all their 2014 commitments done, and listeners who are re-living the year instead of hearing new tunes. You should probably just wait till January. But if you don’t, and your release is really good, you might sneak one in under the radar. Morgan Mecaskey is 100% radar sneaking, because anyone who sounds like Sharon Van Etten fronting The National in an eclectic record store is going to get some good words from this camp.
Lover Less Wild is an adventurous, sultry, enigmatic EP that captured me on first listen. Mecaskey’s husky alto/tenor voice leads the charge on music that skirts boundary labels and ends up firmly in that catch-all camp of “indie rock.” Opener “White Horse” has soaring horns, female back-up vocals, churning guitars, push-tempo drums, and some royal fury in the vocals of Mecaskey herself. It sounds like she mentions the name “Jolene” in the chorus, which would hook her up to a long tradition of artists to find an admirable muse in that name. By the coda of the tune, Mecaskey is hollering “Sometimes I don’t feel like who I really am,” which is amazing, because she sounds completely like herself on that tune.
It’s followed up by three tunes that are a few notches down on the tour-de-force scale (but only a few; they all register). “Fighting Extinction” starts out as a distant, questioning mix between The Walkmen and Radiohead before erupting into some funky bass (?!), calling out some Motown horns, and bringing in a male vocalist for a contentious, exciting duet. It also includes the best saxophone solo this side of M83. Because it’s hard for Morgan Mecaskey to do anything twice, the title track opens with Wurlitzer and distant vocals before unfolding into a jazzy, hip-hop/R&B groove. Right about the time that I start to feel we should call up the Antlers and get them on the same tour, the song explodes into towering guitar walls and distorted bass. “Crushed” starts with nylon-string guitar in Spanish rhythms and ends with a full choir (a real one, not just a gang-vocal offering). In short, there is about as much happening in four songs as you can possibly imagine.
Mecaskey holds this whirlwind tour of music genres and styles together with her voice, which is a versatile, powerful, emotive engine. No matter what arrangement she’s leading, she’s in firm control of what’s happening. Her voice is at home wherever she lands it, which is as much a testament to her attitude and confidence as it is her immense songwriting chops. I don’t care if you’re listening to your favorite album of the year again (I know I am, no hate), you’ve got to check out Morgan Mecaskey’s Lover Less Wild. It will keep you spinning.
James Robinson‘s Start a Fire EP is a charming four-song release. Robinson’s acoustic-centric style fits somewhere between singer/songwriter confessionals and adult-alternative pop sheen, like a more mystical Matt Nathanson or a more polished Damien Rice. This mash-up results in the best of both worlds (instead of the dreaded inverse), with Robinson’s smooth vocals getting all silky around arrangements that have some indie mystery and ambiguity in them. Think less Ed Sheeran crooning and more of that feeling you felt the first time you heard Coldplay’s Parachutes.
The quartet of tunes works nicely together, moving along a high-quality clip without drawing attention to any song in particular. “Demons” has some great bass work and a nice, memorable vocal line; “Holes in the Sky” opens with some nice guitar and vocals that evoke Jason Mraz; “Smoke & Ashes” is the most tender of the collection. But it’s the title track that takes high marks here: its polished arrangement frames Robinson’s voice perfectly, making this an impeccably done song that you’ll be humming for a while. If you’re looking for some gentle singer/songwriter fare with some mystery in it, go for James Robinson.
Any discussion of Angelo De Augustine‘s Spirals of Silence must be prefaced by this information: de Augustine sounds, musically, vocally, and even lyrically, like Elliott Smith mashed up with Nick Drake. For many people, this is enough to send them running in its direction. I forwarded this to the resident Smith fan in my life and was promptly given compliments on my character after his first listen. It’s a hit.
But it’s not just that it sounds like Smith: the songs are incredibly well-done. de Augustine has the fingerpicking/breathy vocals/tape hiss thing down, but the things he chooses to fingerpick are beautiful, contemplative, melodic works that move sprightly along. Lead single “Old Hope” is a perfect example of this, as de Augustine whispers his way across a traveling, bouncy-yet-not-cheesy guitar line. (Side note: because this song sounds like Josh Radin, I realized that I’d never noticed how much Elliott Smith influenced Josh Radin.) Other highlights include the oddly heartbreaking “Married Mother,” the tender “I Spend Days,” and the intriguing “You Open to the Idea.”
I could say more about Spirals of Silence, but I think I’ve said all I need to in order to get you to listen to this or not. Viva Angelo de Augustine, please and thank you.
1. “Old Hope” – Angelo de Augustine. It’s like Elliott Smith is alive. Maybe there’s some Joshua Radin and Nick Drake in there, but mostly the whispered vocals and style of acoustic guitar remind me of Smith.
2. “Amarillo” – Anna Vogelzang. Combine the charm of Ingrid Michaelson with the full arrangements of Laura Stevenson, and you’ve got a little bit of an idea of Vogelzang’s talent. She’s one to watch.
3. “Red River” – Tyler Sjöström. Fans of Mumford and Sons will love this theatrical, finger-picked folk-pop tune.
4. “Forever Gone” – Andrew Marica. The morose romanticism of Damien Rice + the distant reverb-heavy atmospherics of Bon Iver create this downtempo ballad.
5. “Delilah” – Tony Lucca. This one’s pretty boss: Wide-open, sneering, engaging full-band country-rock with an eye toward Coldplay-style, radio-friendly vocal melodies. Also, there’s some awesome saloon-style piano playing.
6. “Angel Tonight” – Peter Galperin. Musical adventurer Galperin moves from his bossa nova experiments towards ’80s country-flavored classic rock. There’s some Springsteen, some Paul Simon, and more all combined here.
7. “Time” – Night Windows. Acoustic-based indie-pop a la David Bazan that teeters on the edge between twee and melancholy.
8. “I Got Creepy When Lou Reed Died” – Red Sammy. The husky, gravel-throated country of Red Sammy gets an electric makeover for this tribute tune. The title a weird thing to chant, but you’ll probably want to sing along repeatedly to the mantra-esque chorus.
Trebuchet’s “The End” is a magnificent song: a synthesis of everything we’ve learned from The Lumineers, Mumford and Sons, and The Head and the Heart. Instead of being derivative, it feels like they’ve finally unlocked the pattern. The video is fun too.
The Wild Reeds’ “Blind and Brave” is a love letter to Los Angeles in song and video. Their female-fronted folk sound starts in pristine First Aid Kit mode, but swells to a lovely, full conclusion.
Brian Lopez’s “Persephone” video is the sort where I started watching and forgot that the song was playing. It’s a visually interesting piece that tells a good story, and also is accompanied by some great folky music.
Matthew Fowler walks down a city street, strumming and singing. He happens to come across his trumpet player. Great things ensue. His calm, composed songwriting makes me think of Damien Rice’s quietest moments or Rocky Votolato.
It’s always a bit unusual for me when songs that I’ve known only in performance make their way to tape. The Fox and The Bird‘s Darkest Hours is composed of songs that I’ve heard the Dallas-based band perform over the past three years since their impressive 2011 debut Floating Feather. “Saints,” “Valley,” and “No Man’s Land” are tunes that have lived in my memory long before they ever found a home on this album, so it’s a bit like welcoming old friends back into my home than meeting new people. Keep that in mind as I praise the album.
The Fox and the Bird is a real chipper folk-pop outfit musically, but their lyrics have a complicated, melancholy tinge. Darkest Hours makes obvious with the title a strand of thought started in their debut. “The Wreck of the Fallible,” “Valley,” and “Habit” all weave together human frailty, the petty ugliness of our actions, redemption, and hope into complex lyrics that keep me pondering as I hum along. “Valley” is especially contradictory in this regard, as I find myself humming the dramatic line “And it was every bit as bad / as our father said” without feeling particularly bad. “Habit” is about a history of violence, sung in an perky, old-school Decemberists vein.
Amid the tension and feeling, there is at least one track that is just happy. “No Man’s Land” is a song of hope, passion, and western expansion that includes jubilant trumpet and a sweeping set of “oh-whoa-oh”s in the chorus. But other than that, it’s charming melodies and back-porch banjo of “Ashes” supporting a conflicted lyric set about loneliness, and the beautiful vintage country harmonies of “Dallas” elucidating how Dallas is a pretty terrible place. (“Dallas is a rich man with a death wish in his eyes / A steel and concrete soul with a warm hearted love disguise.”)
So The Fox and the Bird are not The Lumineers: while both can write folk-pop and country tunes that are melodic, memorable, even masterful, the goals of Darkest Hours are quite different than those of “Ho Hey” or “Classy Girls.” This isn’t to knock either band–it’s to point out that fans of Lumineers’ musical qualities might very well enjoy The Fox and the Bird’s music, but might find the lyrics frustrating or even difficult. Others who are fans of challenging lyrics will find an impressive amount of care and thought put into the lyrics, and they might just dig the extremely strong folk-pop stylings. It’s clear that Darkest Hours was crafted over years instead of months: these tunes shine musically and lyrically. The result is one of my favorite albums of the year so far.
I have often sung the praises of Novi Split, so I’m thrilled that David J is moving into an active phase of his production. His most recent release is a split 7″ with fellow Los Angelenos Brown and Blue. Amazingly, the two bands secured Split7Inch.Bandcamp.com to host the thing–although the availability of their seems-like-it-would-already-be-taken website is only one of the impressive things about the split.
Both bands incorporate country influences and focus on gentle vocals; B&B adds a country sway to a quiet indie-rock ballad of sorts in “Honeymoon Suite,” while Novi Split adds pedal steel to the hushed singer/songwriter vibe of “Stupid.” Both bands have a deeply romantic streak running through the lyrics and overall feel, making them great split partners. My only quibble with this is 7 minutes is awfully short for such a great match. Thankfully, both bands are releasing EPs in March–I’ll just play them back to back and call it good. Definitely check out this release.
It is extremely hard for me to resist romantic music. I don’t just mean love songs, although I’m hard-pressed to ignore those; I mean romantic in the literary sense, romanticism that idealizes love and loss and feeling as near to the highest manifestations of the human soul. Damien Rice and early 2000s emo have a lot in common, you know?
Arctic Tern‘s Leaves EP is a passionately romantic album that combines the emotive vocals of David Gray or Josh Garrels with pristine, gentle arrangements of Sleeping at Last and Gregory Alan Isakov. A lilting Irish air to the vocals only makes the sound more appealing. “Light a Fire” is the most polished of the tunes, a full arrangement with good motion, even a quiet urgency, throughout the track. Other tracks show off Arctic Tern’s (one person, naturally: the solitary genius is a beloved romantic-era invention) prowess with just an acoustic guitar: “Love is Not a Game” and “Ties” have stark sections and yet are still smooth. “Love is Not a Game” expands into a tune with swooping cello, melancholy piano, and glockenspiel–it’s an absolutely beautiful piece.
Arctic Tern’s sound falls somewhere between searching and content: the lyrics speak of the anxious space between love and not, but the arrangements are strong and confident. This is music to chill out to, to make out to, to be thoughtful to. It’s music that gets into the spaces of your mind and smooths those jagged edges, even if only for a little while. It’s an EP that caused me to repeat it 8 times in one day. That’s a mighty accomplishment.
I don’t listen to Rocky Votolato much anymore, because the intensity of his emotion deeply impacted me at a pretty pivotal point in my life. Rocky is stuck as a historical moment for me, but Austin Miller has a similar vibe that I hope to listen to for a long time.
More Than One Way sees Miller in thoughtful troubadour mode, dispensing calm, comfortable songs with an easy gravitas. “When the Rain Comes” sticks with me long after I stop listening to it; the melodies are arresting, but it’s the tone of his voice and the lyrics that keep coming back to me. “When the rain comes / I will welcome it with open arms / what else am I supposed to do?” Miller posits, and it’s the delivery that turns that from a prosaic statement into a haunting-yet-optimistic one.
Miller doesn’t traffic in overwrought emotions: he’s no Damien Rice, or even Damien Jurado. Miller pulls me in with his calm appraisals of actions, people, and emotions. There’s a lot of action in this album, despite it being a quiet, walking-speed collection of tunes; the titles “Moving On,” “Moving Along,” “I’ll Walk,” and “How Far” show his concern with all things going. His arrangements aren’t big, but they flesh out and differentiate the songs: “How Far” features a pedal steel guitar, “Moving On” includes harmonium, and “Where We Fell” displays piano and stand-up bass. No matter what he uses, it sounds sweet and winsome; Miller sings and plays with beautiful candor.
I’m reminded of Iron & Wine a little, in the tender way which the songs come off, but the arrangements and vocals aren’t that similar there. It’s a mood sort of thing, I suppose. Rocky Votolato really is the best comparison, which is why I started with him. But I don’t want to sell Miller short; these songs can stand on their own, without any RIYLs. If Miller had invented the genre, it’d be quite a nice genre indeed. Those into earnest, calm, beautiful singer/songwriter tunes should go for More Than One Way.
I’m usually not a fan of videos that feature their principal musicians playing the song in question, as I vastly prefer to see music videos as their own medium capable of meaning-making. However, sometimes the song is just so good that it’s worth the performance vid.
If you’re going to name your band Tonstartssbandht, you’d better have some goods to back that up. Thankfully Tonstartssbandht totally does, as the duo plays a breakneck sort of indie-rock that incorporates wiry indie-rock, some metal bombast, folky groove, and even some blues. It’s like Two Gallants on steroids. Weird, weird steroids.
I don’t know what’s in the water there, but it seems that every time someone says, “We’re from Scotland,” I’m pretty stoked with their output. Meet Tango in the Attic, an artsy indie-rock band with some electro leanings. Looking forward to more from this band.
Dave McPherson’s deeply emotive acoustic guitarwork and vocals call up David Gray and Damien Rice comparisons, the latter of which is exciting because Rice works at a pace roughly known as glacial. “Kingdom” is is quite the engaging tune.