Sam Hale‘s When in Roam EP opens with the triumphant title track, and that couldn’t be a better choice. Anchored by an indelible chorus melody that I hummed for several days after I first heard it, the enthusiastic acoustic-pop tune rambles and romps through its four-minute length. Hale’s clear, bright tenor is accompanied by Sara Clay’s similarly straightforward alto; the two voices intertwine beautifully. Hale matches the jaunty acoustic strum of the tune with fitting lyrics about wanderlust; the lyrics and sonic palette work together to create an overall experience. (There’s even a few “hey”s thrown in at the end for good measure.) The tune comes together to be a fun and meaningful tune, which is a rare thing.
The rest of the four-song When In Roam shows off the diversity of Hale’s songwriting skills while honing in on his vocals as the central element. “I’ll Wait” is a dramatic ballad grounded in piano that’s sold by a passionate vocal performance that has elements of Ben Folds’ tone in it. The guitar takes the lead again on “Atypical Romance,” which has a romantic narrative element that points toward Dashboard Confessional’s old work (although there’s more fingerpicking and less frantic strumming here). Hale closes out the set with a modern folk tune that incorporates elements of Rocky Votolato’s grim certainty and a full-band flair. Hale moves through these various styles with ease, and each song has its own charms to explore.
It’s Hale’s voice that ties each of these tunes together. He isn’t afraid to sing out on this EP, which gives each of the tunes a constant ability to explode into a huge vocal moment. There’s a fun uncertainty there–does he stay in his calm lower register in “Candle’s Wick”? When will he soar it on “I’ll Wait”? Even with the passionate delivery, he’s able to keep everything together, and he never loses control of his vocal performances. It’s just a fun EP to listen to. When In Roam is a strong introduction to a new voice in folk songwriting, literally and metaphorically.
There’s a striking immediacy to much punk music that endears me to it. Even more that rock, punk music feels connected to the life of the moment. No hook should be delayed, no element should be understated, nuance should be minimized; who knows how long that PA will hold up? If the show will get shut down? If the world ends? Nope, play fast and loud and do it all right now. Quiet Stories‘ Matt Moran cut his teeth in the short-lived punk/rock band The Typist, so he knows the world of sonic immediacy. Even though he’s playing acoustic folk/country right now, he’s maintained that brash, devil-may-care attitude in his melodies and arrangements. Per Aspera Ad Astra is a passionate album that feels both energetic and comforting. [Editor’s Note: Quiet Stories is now known as Matthew Moran.]
The history of musicians leaving punk for acoustic music is long, but it’s one of punk’s lesser-known defects that was most successful as an acoustic performer. Dashboard Confessional’s Chris Carrabba was in punk/emo band Further Seems Forever in the early ’00s before starting DC. Since DC is pretty much sad songs sung to punk strumming on an acoustic guitar, it’s not surprising the first time you hear that fact. Moran has more than a little bit of the brash vocal stylings and energetic arrangements of Carrabba. “1987” and “Seven Years” particularly show off this vibe: the former sees Moran singing loudly and hammering a piano from the outset of the song, while the full band arrangement of the latter includes full-keyboard slides, hollered punk vocals, iconic punk whoas, and punchy drums. This may be a folk/country album, but it’s not Bon Iver by any stretch of the imagination.
“When It’s Over” starts with full arrangement and vocals from the beginning, a no-nonsense approach to getting into a song. It’s a bit more of a melancholy track, per its title. Even though it jumps in with both feet, it still shows a reflective musical and lyrical side. Fingerpicked ballad “This is 25” will be the high point for fans of quiet/sad tunes–it’s a really strong track that shows Moran could play ball with the best of the solo singer/songwriters if he so chose. But when you can holler with the best of them and play loud songs like closer “American Summer,” why would you play only quiet ones? Moran is comfortable with the mix of sounds, as none of the songs here sound out of place to my ear. It’s just a fun album to listen to.
That diversity of sound turns Per Aspera from a collection of tunes into a true album. There are many facets to the album, even though the predominant sound is a brash, punk-inspired folk/country idiom. Moran knows his way around a guitar, and that shows throughout. If you want some folk/country with energy, passion, and strong songwriting, check out Quiet Stories.
Ships Have Sailed tries to accomplish a lot with its Someday EP: pop-rock, alt-rock, and acoustic pop. Of those three, the pop-rock is admirable, and the acoustic pop is solid.
Opener “Midnight” is a slick, hooky, irresistible pop-rock track reminiscent of The All-American Rejects (whom I love), while “Bring You Down” is one of the catchiest songs I’ve heard in any genre all year. The latter benefits from a “give ’em what they want” arrangement: it sets you up to want certain moments, then delivers in spades. Can’t ask much more from a song, really. These two tracks are worth checking the EP out on their own: they show a pop songwriting skill that I hope to hear more of.
The two acoustic pop tracks are nice as well; the male tenor vocals handle the change of pace nicely, and the songs are worthy changes of pace. Closer and title track “Someday” brings the two genres together: it starts off as an acoustic pop tune reminiscent of Dashboard Confessional before bursting into a pop-rock song reminiscent of Angels and Airwaves (although with a lower-pitched vocalist). It’s a fun tune that wraps up a fun EP. I’m really intrigued by the songs that Ships Have Sailed has put out there on the Someday EP; three of them are really polished, tight, and memorable. I look forward to hearing more!
There’s an emo revival on, which is cool, because I loved emo in the early 2000s. (My copy of Andy Greenwald’s Nothing Feels Good is permanently within arms’ reach on my desk.) I loved that emotional vulnerability, adrenaline, and beauty could all be appreciated in the same band. It became uncool there for a while to be earnest, but I’m glad that irony is at least allowing enough space in the culture to let earnest thought to regroup a little bit.
Sinai Vessel doesn’t call their music emo, but they do call it “punk for sissies.” Both descriptors are thick with positive, negative, and re-appropriated positive connotations, which is a perfect situation for Sinai Vessel’s complex music. Songwriter Caleb Cordes does instill his brand of pop-punk with thoughtful lyrics and twinkly guitar reveries common of emo, but neither of these feel self-indulgent or trend-following. The songs on profanity [ep] are very catchy while being thoughtful, retaining that adrenaline that I so treasure in emo. I love Damien Jurado, but sometimes I want to scream about my introspection. Sinai Vessel offers that.
The majority of opener “cats” is actually not very punk-rock in its songwriting style; the mid-tempo tension is much more reminiscent of Dashboard Confessional or Death Cab for Cutie than The Wonder Years or Blink-182. The unassuming beginning allows for a shiver-inducing moment when the ratchet up to a pounding, hollering conclusion. “You mean everything to me,” indeed.
“Cuckold” reminds me of Say Anything in the vocal delivery and rhythmic style, while “Drown Around” makes good on the Pedro the Lion RIYL they sent me. (Longtime David Bazan collaborator TW Walsh mastered profanity.) “Flannery” invokes the Catholic author’s work and words to continue her conflicted feelings about the evil in the world and ourselves. It’s one of the most interesting lyrically and most enjoyable musically.
I’ve gotten this far without noting that David Wimbish of IC faves The Collection played brass, recorded, and mixed the record, but he totally did, and that’s awesome. Thoughtful lyrics, punk-rock adrenaline, David Wimbish, TW Walsh, and free? How can you pass this up? You shouldn’t. Sinai Vessel is an impressive outfit that I look forward to hearing more from. Highly recommended.
Pop-folk has started to take over the radio. I never would have guessed that I’d write that sentence, but there it is. We’ll know that the domination has become total when The Parmesans make it to the radio: they take pop-folk one step farther down the line, playing a very pop-friendly form of bluegrass. Debut album Wolf Eggs is 15 (!) songs of melody-heavy folk/bluegrass that will make you want to tap your foot, clap, and sing along. Opener “Spicy Cigarette” sets the mood for the rest of the album by introducing a guitar/mandolin/stand-up bass trio tracked live, with each of the members contributing harmonized vocals. They even shout “hey!” in the middle of the mandolin solo. How can you not love that sound? “Load Up on Eggs” features a trumpet to great effect; “JuJaJe” recalls the Avett Brothers in blocky, chord-based style; “The Riddle Song” will steal your heart away (or the heart of whatever significant other you play it for).
While “The Riddle Song” is beautiful musically, its title implies that the lyrics are the main point, and so they are. The Parmesans are not slouches in that department, which makes this album even more enjoyable. There are plenty of standard references to alcohol (“Spicy Cigarette,” “Wine in My Mustache”), food (“Load Up On Eggs”), and various agricultural things (“Hay,” “Chicken Yard”), but there’s also a knowing wit in these tunes. The tropes may be a beard, but they’re not fake: the lyrics use the goofy top layer to speak to real emotions and situations. It’s fun and real. How often do you get that?
The Parmesans know what’s up on Wolf Eggs: they give you a large set of tunes that are memorable melodically and lyrically. It’s fun, funny, and even sentimental. What else do you want out of a folk album? Wolf Eggs is one of the best releases I’ve heard all year, and I expect to see it in my end of year lists.
I love chiptune. As I write this sentence, I’m listening to chiptune version of Neutral Milk Hotel’s “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea,” because seriously, I’m committed to this genre. Anamanaguchi is also wholly invested in the genre, as their Endless Fantasy shows. They’ve thrown down 22 songs on the album, and all of them are chock full of mostly-instrumental warp-speed pop-punk shot through with enough jubilant chiptune melodies to make 1988 Nintendo jealous. If you can’t get happy while listening to this music, I don’t know what can help you. This is the aural equivalent of drinking a Red Bull. It’s the most fun music I’ve heard all year. The members are sneakily talented at arranging these songs so that it doesn’t get boring, but that’s not the point. Bouncing off the flippin’ walls is the point. And you should do that. Heartily. With gusto.
I’m not going to lie: I loved Dashboard Confessional. I was the right exact age for that to be my jam in high school, and there’s just no way I can sit here and say that I didn’t holler along with those songs unabashedly. I pulled out The Swiss Army Romance when I heard that the Chris Carrabba-fronted pop-folk band Twin Forks was among us, and it was one of the most nostalgic things I have ever experienced. I felt like I was 16 again, really and truly.
So it should not surprise you that I’m about to say that Twin Forks is awesome. I mean, how could it not be? This guy has tons of experience writing songs on an acoustic guitar, and now he gets to put banjos and mandolins around it. He sings like he sings. If you hate his voice, well, you’re probably not reading this sentence, because you already left. This is exactly what you think it would be, and that’s great. The more critical quandary goes something like this, a la Phillip Phillips: is this a shameless play on what is popular? Is it a “right time at the right place” thing? Is it simply boredom on Carrabba’s part? The populist in me has an answer: I DON’T CARE ONE BIT. If you need more Dashboard Confessional, or more pop-folk, jump on Twin Forks’ self-titled EP. You will sing and stomp and dance and I’m going to stop before I go all caps on this. I’m just all about it. Yes.
I love songs that buck trends. It’s refreshing to hear a song that operates in the way its author feels is right, instead of a predetermined “right” pattern. This sort of idiosyncratic songwriting has caused me to shower praise on Regina Spektor’s Soviet Kitsch (severaltimes), Mansions’ Best of the Bees and The Mountain Goats’ entire discography.
Superstar Runner’s “Advice From People Who Shouldn’t Give It (Don’t Take It)” is my latest favorite wrong song. Songwriter Ben Johnson builds the tune from a slow, gently fingerpicked intro to a fast-paced group-sing accompanied by piano and beatboxing over the span of 3:43. There’s no real chorus; instead, Johnson sprinkles repeated melodies and phrases throughout the tune. (Also, yes, the percussion is a guy beatboxing.) No matter; “Advice” feels incredibly organic, passionate and relatable.
It made me think of Nitsuh Abebe’s recent rumination that “The motor behind [Fiona] Apple’s shows seemed to be inside her– some kind of emotion with no cultural reference point.” We want songwriters to tell us stuff about themselves and ourselves, so we rightly decry songwriters who try to cop someone else’s style or produce weirdness for the sake of weirdness. When idiosyncratic, weird songwriting meets an emotion that’s difficult to express, that’s where the magic happens. And “Advice From People Who Shouldn’t Give It (Don’t Take It)” is certainly magic.
The emotion that’s so difficult has much to do with the tensions and strains that come with leaving a birth family (physically and metaphorically) to start a new family. There’s plenty of bildungsroman novels and songs, but much less ink spilled over pinpointing how and when we change from one family to the other as our primary marker (especially when this generation puts it off so much). That sprawling tension is all over the title and content of Heritage/Lineage/Hand-Me Downs/Scars (Your Birthmarks Do Not Bother Me).
Johnson’s highlight track and emotive themes peg him in unique (and potentially difficult) territory, but he remains in the realm of the relatable by doing his homework. Instead of going all tUnE-yArDs with “Advice” as a jumping off point, Johnson reveals a solo songwriting project that calls to mind the passionate, low-complexity arrangements prominent in the early periods of both Bright Eyes and The Mountain Goats. Johnson has learned how to use song structures, lyrics, melodies and moods for differentiation; each song is unique and interesting.
“You must fall down / if you ever want to grow up / You must leave town / if you ever want to find home,” Johnson sings in “Growing Pain,” an I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning—style country tune complete with snare shuffle and up/down bass line. His unadorned, sincere tenor keeps the song from ever coming unhinged. That control of conviction allows for the tender “Just a Lullaby,” the adamant semi-title track “Your Birthmarks Do Not Bother Me” and the wistful “Cribs and Kids” to all peacefully exist on the same album. The only place his stridency becomes a liability is when he lets his strumming and singing roar on the overdramatic “Dylan Come Home,” which draws too hard on Dashboard Confessional influences.
With 11 songs with meaningful lyrics spread over nearly 40 minutes, there’s a lot to digest in Heritage/Lineage/Hand-Me Downs/Scars (Your Birthmarks Do Not Bother Me). But Johnson’s songwriting skill is such that this feels like a guided tour instead of an art spectacle, and that marks Superstar Runner as a rising talent.
Ampline plays the type of music that makes genres irrelevant. You Will Be Buried Here crams 17 tracks of rock, punk, post-rock, post-punk, indie-pop, folk and more into 43 minutes. To say that it defies classification is like saying Picasso is a painter. It just doesn’t do the phrase justice. Ampline plays music, and they do it brilliantly.
The band kicks the set off with the title track, a mellow rumination complete with piano, bell kit and vocals (which are used sparingly throughout). Having known them primarily as a raucously energetic band, this was a bit of a curve, but a good curve nonetheless. After a very enjoyable minute, they shut the tune down and kick into their first distorted tune, “Our Carbon Dreams.”
Ampline’s sound is very simple: a guitar, a bass guitar, a drummer and occasional vocals. They make much out this by limiting repetition of parts and genres. “Our Carbon Dreams” comes complete with ascendant guitar lines reminiscent of early Appleseed Cast. “Until He Wore Out and Died” opens with a complicated, rhythmic bass line and uses it as the jumping off point for an incredibly enjoyable tune. “Vessels of Dead Weight” turns a low-slung riff into a herky-jerky headbanger. “The Electric City” is an almost-optimistic tune with some great guitar work. “Petals” includes sleigh bells in the mix for a different feel.
It’s all held together by a very tight mood that stays strong even when the songs change. Guitarist Mike Montgomery recorded, mixed and mastered the whole effort, and the fact that someone very close to the tunes did the engineering is clear. The mix is pristine, showing off exactly what the band is. The mix is so immediate that it feels as if Ampline is in the room with you.
The songs within are strong, engaging and worth repeating, each emotional in a far more realistic way than Dashboard Confessional or the latest pop/punk band are. They draw the listener in, clearly display an emotion, and invite the listener to experience that with the musicians. It’s this pull throughout the entire album that makes closer “Room and Pillar” the devastating punch it is; after an entire album of tightly-wound, organized music, they lead you out with a single-note melody on a distant guitar underscored by some mumbling. It says volumes with very little, simply because it means something as a piece of the bigger whole.
It is incredibly rare for a band to have talents this strong at each instrument, and rarer still for them to have interlocking chemistry as tight as Ampline’s. This album is striking; even as a person who listens to music all day every day, this album grabbed me from the get-go and did not relinquish my attention until it was over. This is easily one of my favorite releases of the year; I’m sad that I didn’t hear about it until just now. You Will Be Buried Here is a spectacular achievement.
I really like old-school Dashboard Confessional. The Places You Have Come to Fear the Most was the maximum amount of emotion you could put into an album before it became maudlin; the rest of his discography would bear testament to that. But Places is the perfect combination of raw vocals, skilled guitarwork, powerful melodies and weighty lyrics. I still listen to it, ten years later.
Cady Groves’ The Life of a Pirate has a lot of similarities to Carrabba’s work. Cady has a similar guitar style (although not as raw or as hard – CC was terrible to his guitar strings in the early days), an honest voice and striking melodies. Her lyrical quality isn’t up to Dashboard standards, but it’s easily enough ignored. Just sing “oh” and you won’t even notice.
And these are singalong songs; they aren’t burdened with any tricks or gimmicks. This is songwriting the way I like it: spare and unadorned. There’s nowhere for Groves to hide in these songs, and – thankfully – she doesn’t need to cover her songwriting in layers of junk. It’s solid the way it is.
“Or Else” is an extremely emotive piece that has several ear-catching vocal melodies; “I’m Still Here” makes me wonder if a female version of Jason Mraz would be as loved by male fans as the real Mr. A-Z is by females (for the record: I think yes). “The Life of a Pirate” starts out with pensive sea noises – as opposed to beach-party noise – and never lets the mood of the beach go. It’s a gorgeous song, and it doesn’t feel forced in the least.
If you like singing along to acoustic pop with an open heart and solid melodies, you’re going to enjoy Cady Groves. Her songwriting is clear, bright and infectious. Recommended.
Pull a Star Trip’s E-vasion Inn is one of the more ambitious acoustic projects I’ve heard in a while. Instead of being content to be an acoustic guitar-fronted band singing pretty songs, they set out to fill their songs with memorable touches: background screaming, songs in other languages, electronic beats and more. For the most part, it works.
The base sound isn’t anything that hasn’t been done before. The members of Pull a Star Trip strum their acoustic guitar a lot, stick drums/bass behind it and augment with strings. They sing loudly and passionately, occasionally sacrificing tunefulness for impassioned cries (a la Places You Have Come to Fear the Most-era Dashboard Confessional, which is a compliment). The songs are all worthy of singing along, and some are even worthy of headbanging.
On top of this tried and true base, they layer their personality. The screaming is the most recognizable bit. They do have the sense to always keep it at the same monitor level as background vocals; it’s never in your face. That’s good, because it’s straight-up hardcore/metal raspy screaming. It’s used to good effect in the dramatic “My Last Wish Shall Be a Time Machine,” but in the Jason Mraz-esque “Co-driver,” it just feels really off. By the end of the album, I’d heard it so much that it pretty much registered as static and not as a meaningful element any more.
“Senal” is their offering in another language, and it’s a lush, gorgeous tune. The strings, piano, and electronic elements implemented work together excellently, and the hushed vocals only intensify the mood. The fact that it’s in a cryptic (and therefore, intriguing) language makes it even more fascinating. They do break back into English for the chorus, and that chorus is the best one of the album, as it makes great use of melody and rhythm. “Senal” is definitely one of the most memorable tracks, even though it’s incredibly challenging to sing along with (as you might imagine).”Los Rojiblancos” is in yet another language, and its rattling, consistent Spanish groove and excellent trumpet work creates another winner.
The majority of the album passes in a propulsive yet still breezy mood. If any number of pop/rock bands busted out their acoustic chops more (Boys Like Girls, We the Kings, Yellowcard, etc) but did it with legitimacy and not as a cheap ploy, it would sound similar. As it stands, the sound is similar enough to stuff that’s on the radio to be immediately accessible but different enough to be immediately embraced and enjoyed with out guilt. The large emphasis on strings should make fans of Yellowcard sit up and take notice, while the emphasis on fast, breezy but still intense songs should make fans of Something Corporate and Jack’s Mannequin sign on.
This album is highly recommended for fans of modern pop/rock. It will fit nicely in your collection while filling a space that’s been abandoned since Dashboard Confessional abdicated their spot as kings of acoustic rocking (and, no matter what they say, the Honorary Title is not taking the crown).
As far as experienced lineups go, The City and Skyway seems to have hit the jackpot. Band members have previously played in Dashboard Confessional, Lifetime, Limbeck, The Promise Ring, The Benjamins, and others.
And yet, as the star power doesn’t exactly add up on Everything Looks Worse in Black and White. There are certainly many elements that could create a great album – talented and experienced musicians, tight production and a cohesive sound. But despite having all of these flavorsome ingredients, the result still doesn’t taste quite right. Some of this can be chalked up to the fact that Everything Looks Worse in Black and White is the group’s debut album. With a little more spice thrown into the cooking pot next time, The City and Skyway could really create a stronger release.
The main issue in this album is that while the songs are very consistent, they are so much so that they tend to run together, making it somewhat difficult to distinguish one from another. All, very generally speaking, are electric guitar-driven pop-punk-rock with easy harmonies and predictable choruses that seem to run at extremely similar tempos. Each song on Everything Looks Worse in Black and White could actually sound better on its own instead of being played one after the other as an entire album. This, however, shows how far The City and Skyway could go with their next release.
There is, nonetheless, a lot of good to be heard, too. Drummer Ryan Joyce has some really interesting and unique fills, the harmonies are nicely executed (even if they are kind of conventional), and lead singer Mitch Lyon has the perfect voice for The City and Skyway’s style. If the group takes a few more songwriting risks with their next release, the powerful lineup could really be used to its full potential.
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.