Charles Ellsworth and Vincent Draper’s Salt Lake City; A Love Story is a triumph for American songwriting. The pair spin ten stories that stretch out across the deserts of the southwest, blending outlaw grit with a raw streak of self-awareness.
The format could best be described as an “un-split.” Ellsworth and Draper, who are best friends, alternate songs on the record, but the songs share a sonic palette and instrumentation. Ellsworth’s voice is the more conventional of the two–a breathy baritone clear and strong enough that it wouldn’t be out of place in a straight-ahead pop-country outfit. Draper’s attack is deep and mournful, a highly ornamented bass that shows versatility when he jumps an octave and a half to belt harmonies on the title track.
Each man’s voice and a bright acoustic guitar sit squarely at the center of any given song, backed at various times by crackling drums, lilting cello and fiddle, a clanging Telecaster, and vocal harmonies by Josaleigh Pollett. Salt Lake City‘s production is stellar: it bounces manically from stripped-to-the-bone stillness to lush washes of compressed cymbals and strings. Ellsworth and Draper are credited with bass and drums, respectively, and their chemistry as a rhythm section is impressive. The tone for the orchestration across the board is definitely dramatic, but not overdone.
What sets this pair apart from the legion of young practitioners of Americana is the diversity of influences that come through on the record. For every anthemic moment that brings to mind Waylon or Bruce, there’s an entangled strain reminiscent of Mount Eerie or The National that drifts up from beneath a shadowy shroud.
The same contrast emerges lyrically. Ellsworth writes with an approach that’s full of big ideas (“She said believe in yourself, ’cause there ain’t no one else. But I’m still holding on to this love I know that you felt when I held you in my arms.”) and builds narratives that are moving and relatable. Draper’s lyrics are perhaps the bleaker of the two, driven by endearing detail. Both explore the care and feeding of personal demons, travel, and uncertainty.
All things considered, this is a hidden gem: 43 minutes of melancholy country-folk songs with no filler, written and executed with precision. If you’re feeling down, pour a glass of bourbon and give it a listen. You can stream the album here.-Declan Ryan
One of my favorite things about Independent Clauses is developing relationships with young artists and writers. Declan Ryan is both: I covered his split EP with Josh Mordecai recently, and he has written for IC in the past. His new EP Introducing Close Calls marries his singer/songwriter sensibilities to a full band with great results.
Ryan comes from the Dylan/Oberst line of singers that allows the passion of vocals to trump their technical correctness. This is best shown in “Then Don’t Hipst,” which creates a spacious, open-highway feel to the tune for his voice to ramble around in. The first line of the song is “All my lovers name’s are on highway signs/so blow a kiss to the state line,” so the unfettered feel of the vocals perfectly interprets the lyrics. That’s gold. This spacious sound reappears in sparse closer “Two and Seven,” which calls up Two Gallants–another band that uses vocals in an unusual way. Some people aren’t into this style of vocals, but Ryan does it well; if you’re a fan of this sound, Ryan will be up your alley.
His band contributes well throughout, framing Ryan’s vocals and lyrics neatly without becoming the main focus. Opener “Manhattan Square” has a full arrangement, but never cranks any part so high that you don’t know who’s the main draw. The band also doesn’t play up the twang too much, relying on clean notes, straight rhythms, and gentle tones for most of the arrangements. It’s nice to hear an alt-country offering that starts from a different point than The Jayhawks or Old 97s, as this approach has a lot more in common with indie-pop and indie-rock. Still, the end result is strongly alt-country, even if it gets there an unusual way.
Declan Ryan’s Introducing Close Calls allows Ryan to stretch his musical legs and cover some new ground. With “Then Don’t Hipst” as a starting point, fans of alt-country with distinct vocals should find much to love.
“Adventuresome,” “experimental” and “quirky” are not the usual terms I append to “pop-rock,” but Lindby‘s Erikson necessitates it. How else to describe an album that celebrates six different people (two fictional) named Erikson in songs that are re-situations of the same melody? How about a band that sings an aggressive ska tune named “King of Condiments”? Lindby makes stream-of-consciousness pop music that includes jazzy asides, choral movements, funky rhythms, squelching synths, soulful belting, group shouts and more; it’s a head-spinning, smile-inducing whirlwind. I could go on listing things that are in this album, but it would get tedious for you: just know that there’s a ton happening. (One more: pseudo-Asian tune about a boxer!) The album isn’t as out-there as a Half-Handed Cloud record, but they’re approaching that level of eclecticism, with similar fantastical results. If you’re into something a little left of center but still hummable, this one’s for you.
Songwriters Josh Mordecai and Declan Ryan each contributed four tunes to create The Sad Bastards split EP. The title is indicative of the content, but not in the way you’d expect: the wry self-awareness of the title carries over to the lyrics more than the emotion they namecheck. In fact, the chorus of Mordecai’s “Repeat After Me” ends with “never let the sadness settle in your bones”; hardly a downer sentiment. Former IC writer Ryan’s “Maybe I’ll Go to Gainesville And Start a Band” shows him self-aware enough to realize that moving to another place may not be the solution to the problem anyway. (He decides to stay in the same city he started the song in.)
And the self-aware, DIY, populist, punk-tradition lyrics are the main draw here, as neither artist chooses to feature perfect performances in the recordings. Ryan pushes his baritone voice too hard in places, and Mordecai’s hyperactive strums and high voice evoke early Mountain Goats (which could mean you’re about to buy this or you’re about to flee). Instead, their performances substitute a bracing vigor and engaging enthusiasm for studio-made, pristine sounds. It’s self-awareness as celebration: Mordecai sings jubilantly in “Don’t Cut Yr Hair,” “And everything I’d want to say’s been said much better anyway / by guys who could write and sing and actually play.” But you know what? Singing your own song because you can is still cool. The world is better for it. If you’re into passionate, enthusiastic singer/songwriters in the DIY folk-punk tradition, check out The Sad Bastards EP.
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.