1. “Audubon” – Jon Solo. Here’s a gentle yet expansive sonic soundscape dedicated to the famous naturalist. The arrangement here is simple-sounding yet complex in its construction, which makes for great work.
2. “Taller” – Silas William Alexander. An intimate folk tune that has the gravitas of the best folk singers, an earnest vocal performance that reminds me of my long-lost Page France, and a wistful sweetness that’s irresistible. Alexander is one to watch.
3. “Young Romance” – Redvers Bailey. Makes me think of Juno, The Life Aquatic, Beirut, Belle and Sebastian, honest quirkiness (“I don’t try to do this, this is just how I sing”), and lots of good songs. Mile-a-minute lyrics, chunky chords, humble melodies–what more can you ask for in an indie-pop tune?
4. “Going Home” – Jesse Rowlands. We don’t write real folk tunes that much anymore, but here’s one about a Southern deserter (I’m guessing from the Civil War) who tries to get back to his home. The voice-and-guitar songwriting sounds way more full than just those two pieces. It’s an engaging, beautiful tune.
5. “Little Moment” – Luke Rathborne. Delicate guitar work always gets me; so does the confidence to create small, quiet pop songs. This tune just makes me smile.
6. “Someone to Love Me” – Jont and the Infinite Possibility. Do you miss early-eras Coldplay? Rush of Blood to the Head, Parachutes, etc.? You’ll love the full-band, wide-screen, acoustic-grounded pop-rock here.
7. “Strangers” – Brad Fillatre. The vocal performances in this alt-country tune are deeply affecting, all the more so because of the unexpected nature of the clear, yearning chorus melody in relation to Fillatre’s gritty, rough verse performances.
8. “Hymns” – Grado. A subtle but strong opening guitar line leads into a unique combination of rainy-day indie-pop, modern folk music, and upbeat indie-pop enthusiasm. There’s quite a lot going on here in what seems like a simple, confident tune.
9. “Gentle Giant” – Yankee & the Foreigners. Charming, woodsy, full-band folk for fans of Fleet Foxes, The Fox and the Bird, new-school Decemberists, and Beirut’s vocalist.
10. “Anchor Up” – Eric George. Walking-speed folk troubadour work with great vocals, a stellar production job, and a remarkably chill vibe.
11. “Anchor (Argentum Remix)” – Novo Amor. A For Emma-style Bon Iver vocal performance over fingerpicked guitar and piano chords gets an ’90s techno beat backdrop; to my surprise, it sounds totally rad.
12. “Believe in Me” – Jason P. Krug. A tender keys line (maybe kalimba?) and a swooning cello accompany Krug’s smooth voice and lyrics of Eastern mysticism; reminds me of the quieter Dan Mangan songs, in that there’s a lot of emotion but not a lot of melodrama.
13. “Fire Engine Red” – Robert Francis. Francis sounds completely assured and at home in this minimalist songwriting environment: with a few rim clicks, distant synths, and a rubbery bass line, Francis creates a distinct, careful mood. It gets even better when he layers his acoustic guitar over it.
14. “The Haunted Song” – Maiah Wynne. Wynne wrote a solo vocal piece, then performed it in a big empty space accompanied by claps, stomps, and creepy background vocals. At just over 1:19, it’s intriguing and unconventional.
15. “Fork End Road” – Ark Royal. Big harmonies, swift picking, and great strings–this song hits you with a lot right up front. Gotta love a track that captures you from the get-go. Things get better from there, too.
1. “Who Are You” – The March Divide. Jared Putnam turns to formal popcraft, creating a splendid little perky acoustic pop tune. Somewhere between “I Will Follow You Into the Dark” and a Shins song, this tune is a lovely surprise.
2. “I’ll Be True” – Crockett Hall. Standing in front of a big Stax Records sign, a raw, rough-throated reverie with soulful, mournful horns in the background.
3. “Low Hymnal” – Told Slant. The dark flipside of twee shows its sleepy, anxious head here. This song is somehow both tiny and expansive in how it sounds.
4. “Already Gone” – Travis Smith. Like a less hyperactive version of Dan Mangan, Smith has a bouncy, chipper flair to his troubadour folk.
5. “Vanishing Shores” – Tom West. Here’s a big, Australian indie-folk singalong with gentle, marimba-esque arpeggiator below it. Hard for me to dislike anything with that description.
6. “C’Mon and Sing” – Chaperone Picks. While we’re on the topic of singalongs, here’s a song about singing along. A rootsy, bass-laden guitar strum creates the structure and most of the arrangement for this not-quite-folk-punk tune, and the results are smile-inducing and foot-tapping.
7. “Burning Bridges” – 2/3 Goat. Led by a clear, bright, strong female vocal, this alt-country tune has a killer chorus that stuck in my mind.
8. “Francesca” – Thurdy. Sometimes you need a gentle, kind ukulele instrumental in your life.
9. “Windfall” – Kalispell. The majestic folk spaciousness of Bon Iver paired with striking, disarming, immediate tenor vocals creates a unique, deeply enjoyable atmosphere. The arranging and recording engineering here are truly remarkable.
10. “Curse the Road” – Austin Miller. The easygoing shuffle of a old-school country song meets careworn vocals to create a tune reminiscent of Rocky Votolato’s early work.
11. “Rattlesnake” – Fog Lake. An appropriate band name to fit this hazy, swaying tune. There’s some angular guitar and some abstract sounds thrown in for good measure, but other than that this is grade-A strength walking-speed bedroom pop.
12. “Everything” – Cavalry. First it made me feel like the first rays of dawn coming over the horizon, then like a gem opening up to the light for the first time, then the great expanses of wide canyons and huge mountains. It’s indie-rock that uses the same instruments you would expect, but their sense of wonder and careful restraint make this an incredible track.
13. “Ruelle (feat. Olivia Dixon)” – Trevor Ransom. Starts off in beautiful piano-based minimalism, grows to dramatic post-rock grandeur, then drops off to develop again.
1. “Hypachoi” – The Project. A thrumming distorted bass riff underlines this song, which moves from a spartan tune punctuated by clanking chains into a crunchy, towering, dramatic piece. The lyrics are a passionate re-telling of Christ’s death and resurrection. Happy Easter!
2. “Trucksea (feat. Dean McGrath)” – Nonsemble. This indie-pop chamber orchestra packs “Trucksea” full of fluttering strings, dramatic cello, grounding keys, perky drums. The vocals are the most modern thing about the tune, other than perhaps the confidence with which the difficult fusion is pulled off. This is an impressive tune that demands attention.
3. “Wildflower” – Shiloh Hill. Chipper full-band folk that starts with perky trumpet and brings in banjo like rays of sunshine coming out from behind a cloud. The chorus has an anthemic cast similar to The Decemberists, which is always welcome. This album looks like it’s going to be a lot of fun. Check out their Kickstarter.
4. “Dust” – Ryan Martin John, Todd Sibbin, and Tom West. Kind of like an Australian Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, this ominous track has a ’70s folk vibe, solid group vocals, and a dense, immediate atmosphere.
5. “I Know I” – The Tin Man. A pensive minor-key first verse leads into an ultimately hopeful, thumping folk-pop/alt-pop tune augmented by some distorted guitar providing some background grumble. Goes for a lot of drama and yet stops one inch from going over the top–an admirable skill.
6. “Same Boat” – Vanessa Forero. This is a swift, upbeat, smile-inducing folk-pop tune that doesn’t jump the shark in its arrangement (however, there are mermaids in the stead of Left Shark as part of the video).
7. “Million Miles” – Jesse Konrad. A calm strum, gentle guitar counterpoint, and a friendly organ push this track along in a very chill way.
8. “You Need to Hear It From Someone Else” – Protestant Work Ethic. Lazy horns play against a large choir, an autoharp, melodica, and assorted random percussion–the outcome is like a European version of Typhoon, all the way down to the passionate vocals.
9. “Already Gone” – Travis Smith. A surging, major-key chord progression reminiscent of Dan Mangan, a fun organ performance, and a smooth vocal performance come together over a shuffle snare for a tune seems already comfortable and worn in, like a comfy sweater, when you first hear it.
10. “Marigold” – Neil Holyoak. Holyoak’s hazy yet gravitas-laden voice presides over this very carefully constructed folk tune, complete with pedal steel, mandolin, and reverb-washed electric guitar. It’s kind of like Dana Sipos’ work, but in a major key and more instrument-laden. Float away with this track.
11. “Love Is Like a Market Crash” – Thurdy. It takes a lot of work to sound casual. Thurdy’s laid-back, back-porch vibe permeates his baritone vocals, rolling guitar playing, and honest lyrics. It’s a tune that gives you back more than it asks of you.
12. “This Will Be Our Year – Zombies Cover” – Novi Split. David J’s magnetic, utterly gorgeous voice is in full flower here, matching his oh-so-lovely pipes with a “doo-wop meets old-school country in a subtle, spare modern bar” arrangement. It’s just great.
13. “Bed of Nails” – Logan Magness. “Tender” and “romantic” maybe aren’t the phrases most associated with alt-country, but this stripped-down, Isbell-esque acoustic ballad is both. Magness’s smooth tenor is a joy to listen to.
David Rosales‘ Along the Way is the sort of full-throated, big-hearted alt-country that gets play on Hot Country stations as the authentic arm of their coverage. It’s poignant yet poppy; perky, but not saccharine. The vocals occasionally veer into John Mayer zones, then realign themselves with Zac Brown, then mope sullenly off into David Ramirez territory. It’s the perfect midpoint between rough’n’tumble and (old school) Taylor Swift.
The first half of “Amelie’s Song” is full of swooping pedal steel, pensive banjo, and soaring vocals that tug at the heartstrings; they kick up the pace for the back half and turn it into a foot-stomping barnburner. “Strike Gold” uses harmonica expertly. Rattling train-whistle snare drum patterns appear everywhere.
The songs are most endearing when Rosales fully accepts this role of balladeer-gets-happy: “Slice of Heaven” is a turn-it-up singalong with indelible melodies, while “Too Young to Know Any Better” shows the opposite side by teasing the sadness out of his sound with a mournful melody and lyric. There’s levity in the arrangement, but it’s still a wistful tune. I’m really into dudes with acoustic guitars and pop chops singing (alt-?) country tunes without the giant Nashville sheen, so I’m into David Rosales. There’s still some sheen, but I’m not put off by it. It sells me. I’m sold.
St. Even is that rare record that is captivating in its vocal melodies, arrangements, lyrics, and album art design. Captivating me with one of these things is enough to score a rave review, but this self-titled record from the nom de guerre of singer/songwriter Steven Hefter gives me everything at once. This quirky, lovely, challenging record is a surefire bet to be on my Top 10 of the year list.
His vocals are warm and engaging: his emotive baritone can sound pain-stricken, hopeful, and confident all in the same song. His years of writing and performing have earned him a quiet control of his range, which makes the melodies that he chooses to go for seem effortless. Even at his dour, Dan Mangan-esque moments, he’s got a little bit of a wry smile going on. The performances are memorable in their distinctness; his is not an interchangeable voice, and these are not disposable performances. Many of the melodies are beautiful not only for their well-craftedness, but for their earnest, nuanced, often subtly-imperfect performances. They’ve got character.
The arrangements are also full of life and verve: Hefter doesn’t like to have each instrument play straight through the song. Instead, he fits parts together like a jigsaw puzzle, making a sprawling chamber orchestra/New Orleans Jazz line into an awe-inspiring musical Rube Goldberg machine. This creates a joyful uncertainty, giving the listener little clue what wonder will be behind the next corner. Will it be the jubilant New Orleans piano of “Don’t Hold Your Breath”? The woozy horns of “Until Now Forever”? The odd rhythms of “Home Is Where You Hang Your Head” that make it feel as if the whole song is leaning forward? Hefter keeps you guessing in the best way. You will sing along with songs that don’t seem like you should be able to sing along; Hefter can make complex things fun, and fun things complex.
The “fun things complex” really comes into play with the lyrics, the weight of which is incredible for a singer/songwriter album that’s written in major keys and with intricate arrangements. Not many would layer another layer of depth onto what’s already going on, but Hefter goes right there in “Been a Little Better,” “Until Now Forever” and “Homesick.” His ruminations on the struggles of life feature lines that stick out in the best of ways, grabbing my attention and making me think about them. Because much of their gravitas comes from their delivery, I won’t spill them here, but I can point you toward “Until Now Forever” and “Really Real” for places where this might come upon you.
The art for the album is beautiful as well, with the case arriving in a burlap bag with gorgous print on both sides. The case itself has art too, which keeps proving that Hefter is really special in his attention to detail and that Gorbie International is a doing a wonderful thing for music. The other record label that put out this record is Party Damage Records, which only has five releases under its belt, but is already climbing my list of labels to watch. They opened up their catalog with the excellent dance-oriented indie-pop of Keep It Safe by Wild Ones; they’ve moved on to recognizing the immense talents of St. Even. Hard to argue with that track record.
St. Even is a sophisticated, intricate, beguiling album that gave me an immediate kick but kept the rest of the iceberg submerged. With some careful attention, the rest of the beauty became apparent–and I’m still discovering it with current listens. Absolutely wonderful. Highly recommended.
Robert Deeble‘s weary, careworn voice steals the spotlight for most of Heart Like Feathers. He takes good care of that which he has stolen, as the whole album feels gently loved into existence. I would guess that this is what Dan Mangan will be putting out in thirty years: arresting acoustic tunes that treasure each little part in the arrangement. The background noise in “Hearing Voices Seeing Ghosts,” the fragile piano of “Undertow,” the bass line movement on the title track—these are all pieces that make these tunes into the seemingly effortless marvels they are. There are a few forgettable tunes, but the highs are quite high. Go for the title track and “Undertow” first.
I had two presentations and classes to teach this week, so I spent an unusual amount of time doing mental exercises to keep myself calm and focused. One of those was “pushing play on my iPod to hear St. Even‘s Spirit Animal.” It worked almost as well as deep breaths and [nerdy Wheel of Time joke redacted].
It’s easy to chill when listening to St. Even, who longtime readers may recognize from Steve Hefter and Friends (and Friends of Friends), as Spirit Animal‘s acoustic-based folk/indie-pop combines the preternatural chill of Breathe Owl Breathe with the downtrodden theatricality of Dan Mangan. Hefter’s baritone adds to the effect, as his few moments of urgency only serve to reinforce that Spirit Animal is predominantly a leisurely stroll.
Hefter’s low, calming tone spreads from his voice to the arrangements. They are meticulously crafted, but never invasive or heavy: the violins float along in “The Piano Inflates,” while the horns in “Cocksure” are poignant instead of flamboyant. This is due in part to the fact that Hefter hits it and quits it: Most songs hover around 2:40, with some falling near or under two minutes. Nothing has time to overstay its welcome.
The resulting tunes range from the chipper “Blinding Love” and very pleasant “Dreams/My Rope” to the self-effacing “Ariel” and the wrenching sadness of “Long Distance Calls.” The major exception is the Mangan-esque, self-aware closer “This Is Not a Song,” which ends in a ten-car folk pile-up of erratic guitar strum, flutes, choirs, vocal soloists, saloon piano and cello. It’s markedly different than the rest of the album, but it feels fine as an outro.
I listen to a great deal of music, but some albums stick with me past their week. St. Even’s latest seems quite promising to end up on the list with Beirut’s The Rip Tide as most recent entries. Fans of mature, thoughtful songwriting (Mangan, Breathe Owl Breathe, Josh Ritter, Josh Radin, Damien Jurado) should get their paws on a copy of Spirit Animal.
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.