Austin alt-country outfit Salesman’s output up until this point has been eerie, avant-garde, and complex. With theLet’s Go Jump into the Fire 7″, they’ve gone in a different direction that they admit is “a new page” in their book. And boy, is it.
Instead of dark and foreboding tunes that take a while to make their way to your heart, the title track of the seven-inch is an immediately endearing tune. It opens with a jaunty, celebratory, major-key fingerpicking pattern on an electric guitar, which is a shock in itself.
The rest of the arrangement unfolds in a careful way that builds the song seemingly organically to a jubilant point two minutes in where Devin James Fry yells “Yeah!” not out of terror, but out of enthusiasm. Wavering pedal steel, tasteful drums, and thrumming bass create a warm atmosphere that’s hard to resist. It’s very much alt-country, and the rhythms and vocals still mark it as a Salesman track, but their powers are definitely engaged in a different direction.
“Let’s Go Jump into the Fire” is backed with “Riddle of the Source,” which is darker in tone and timbre. It’s still not as difficult as their previous work (or Fry’s previous work with apocalyptic post-rock band Lord Buffalo), but the vibes are darker, more forlorn, more at home in the minor key. Fry stretches out his vocals here, leading the song with his nuanced performance. There’s an awesome (and all too short) guitar solo as well. Salesman’s new look is less obtuse, more direct, and thoroughly enjoyable. “Let’s Go Jump into the Fire” is a brilliant track that speaks optimistically toward things to come.
Janet Devlin‘s Running With Scissors is a thoroughly modern acoustic pop album, putting all the things we’ve learned since Nevermind to good use. The Irish singer/songwriter channels The Lumineers, Lilith Fair, Ingrid Michaelson, and KT Tunstall throughout the album, creating tunes that fit the best adjectives of each turn. Opener “Creatures of the Night” is a perky mid-’00s acoustic-pop song with mandolin and stomping drums; the booming kick bass turns into the walloped, four-on-the-floor tom of “House of Cards,” which is a female-fronted Lumineers track if there ever was one. (It’s even got the obligatory “hey!”)
The tunes set the tone for the album: fun, smart, and melodically mature. The surprisingly maturity with which she traipses through genres is worth noting here: “Hide and Seek” is straight-ahead ’90s female pop (Jewel?), “Lifeboat” includes melodica and separated strumming a la Ingrid Michaelson, “Things We Lost in the Fire” is an introspective piano ballad (Fiona Apple!), and her cover of the The Cure’s “Friday I’m in Love” is all folk fingerpicking and whispered vocals. “Wonderful” has a regrettable lyrical concept, but if you just ignore the words, it’s another cheery ’90s pop tune. (On second thought, maybe the goofy lyrics are just part and parcel of her commitment to the style.)
Janet Devlin’s Running With Scissors is a carousel of delights: no matter which song you pick, it will take you for a warm, lovely trip. If you’re into acoustic pop, you should know about Devlin.
I much prefer Colorado to Cozumel. Everything seems clearer, cleaner and more alive up in the mountains. I know that some prefer the easy pace of tropical living, but I associate it with sunburns and itchy sand. I relax much easier on a cabin porch in the woods.
Singer/songwriter Laurel Brauns’ blog is titled Indie Girl in a Mountain Town, and that aesthetic informs all of House of Snow. The album possesses a clear, crisp, refreshing sound that reminds me of my time in Colorado Springs: relaxed, unhurried, simple. From beginning to end, the album ripples with a pleasant, confident vibe. It’s the soundtrack to the montage of good moments before the real trouble of the film sets in.
Brauns’ songwriting pulls from inspiration from the folk sounds expected of a rural, high mountains community, but there’s also a lot of modern singer/songwriter mixed in her sound. Highlight “Westfall” sounds more like Brandi Carlile than Mumford and Sons, and “Kaleidoscope Eyes” is very much the same. “Puppy Love” draws more from a ’50s pop groove than anything else. “Dreams” is reminiscent of angrier singer/songwriters like Ani DiFranco, Fiona Apple, and even Damien Rice.
Throughout the tapestry of tunes weaves a few consistent threads: acoustic guitar, hefty string contributions, and Brauns’ dusky alto voice. The strings are the most surprisingly element of the sound, as they are employed in very different ways, from the forceful thrust of “Dreams” to the graceful swoon of the title track. The album would certainly not be the same without them.
Brauns’ alto is most often the counterpoint to the strings, delivering melodies that ping off the strings and hook in the listener’s mind. She does have elements of more traditional country and bluegrass singers (Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss, etc.) in her voice, but her songs are varied enough that she doesn’t get pigeonholed into anyone’s footsteps.
House of Snow is a wonderful listen; in an age where the album is getting less and less love, this one is a whole and complete piece. There are standout tunes, but they sound even better in the context of the whole work. That’s something that I admire in a release, which is why I am so enamored with Laurel Brauns efforts here. If you’re up for a folksy, charming album, this one should be on your shortlist.
Valerie Nicole’s lead track on her album From the Heart is “Misunderstood,” a mood-heavy, piano-driven singer/songwriter piece that fits in nicely with the Fiona Apple/Sara Bareilles school of songwriting. The kiss-off lyrics are straightforward and punchy, delivered nicely by her dusky voice. The band fills out the sound well, with the bassist delivering some particularly memorable work. The song is a mature and filled-out piece of work, and an excellent kick-off to the album.
Unfortunately, nothing else on the album comes close to reaching the level of quality that “Misunderstood” sets as the standard. Valerie Nicole plays guitar as well as piano, but she plays piano with much more gravitas. Her guitar work is jangly, upbeat and beach-inflected rhythmically. This bubblegum pop sound is dramatically different than the mature, moody sound created on “Misunderstood.”
The bubblegum is what sticks for the majority of the album, resulting in a serious headscratcher for this critic. She clearly identified her best track, placed it first on the album, and then wrote a whole bunch of songs that have nothing to do with the first track to back it up. Even when she returns to piano for tunes like “Meant to Be” and “From the Heart,” the bubbly mood is retained instead of the strong, mature one.
From the Heart sets up a promise that it doesn’t even try to keep with the excellent “Misunderstood.” I hope that future releases from Valerie Nicole see her streamlining her approach and focusing on moods that are less disparate.
I’ve been reading reviews of Regina Spektor’s far with some confusion. Many of them say that it is not her best work because it’s less experimental and more “normal.” Then I read an essay by David Hajdu in which he asserts that Jack White is beloved because he never really finishes songs. These together cause me to think that there are two types of great songwriter in the world: the great songwriter that is actually incompetent of being a “normal” songwriter and thus writes unusual and wacky works that stick in our head (which is why Spektor’s disjointed breakout album Soviet Kitsch is wonderful, and why everything that Jack White does with a real band is hopelessly boring), and the songwriter that those wacky ones aspire to be.
The problem is that the wacky ones often mature out of their wacky phase, but they don’t often mature into the great songwriters they aspire to be. far has some wonderful tracks on it, but it’s not a Ben Folds album by any stretch of the imagination. Neither is it a Fiona Apple album (although there is some debate as to whether that is something to aspire to, these days). The Dead Weather doesn’t sound normal, but it’s a lot closer to normal than “Black Math” or “Hotel Yorba” or “Seven Nation Army.” The Raconteurs sound, for better or for worse, incredibly average.
It seems that the great songwriters appear full-formed. Ben Folds was cranking out the great songs while he was still in his earliest stages with the Ben Folds Five; Damien Jurado’s best work is spread throughout his fantastic career. They just, you know, show up being awesome.
I think Jonathan Vassar is in the Ben Folds category of great songwriters. The reason for this is that the best tracks on The Fire Next Time are not the minimalist, eccentric ones, but the fully-realized folk/Americana songs. “A Match Made in Heaven” features some great mandolin, a violin, a cello, and a warbling saw in addition to his plaintive acoustic guitar and voice. But instead of feeling cluttered of amateur, each piece locks in. The song wouldn’t be the song without all the parts. It’s a perfectly written song, in that there’s nothing I can knock about it. It has a great melody, it has solid lyrics with meaning and wit, the song sways, and it has a deeply felt emotive quality that refrains from becoming maudlin. In short, it’s perfect. If you like acoustic Americana/folk/country, you will like “A Match Made in Heaven.” It’s impossible not to.
“Saint Josephina” is another fully-realized track that suceeds admirably. “San Jacinto” isn’t quite as engaging as the previous two, but it’s still a solid song. These filled-out songs are the cream of the crop; it would behoove Vassar to stay in this vein. The more experimental tracks, while interesting, aren’t up to part with these songs.
Opener “Nearer My Father’s Wounded Side” starts out with a minute-long intro that serves to confuse more than set the scene. It segues neatly into the rest of the track, which is a profoundly minimalist composition that runs for over five minutes. It’s not a bad song, but it’s just not as engaging as the tightly woven “Match Made in Heaven.” I’ll take “Nearer…” over most folk, but it’s just sad to me that one of the six tracks Jonathan Vassar treats us to is simply not his best work.
To bring it all together, Jonathan Vassar and the Speckled Bird don’t need to get wacky to be heralded as good. Vassar is simply a good songwriter, and the Speckled Bird plays tight and close to that vision. I hope that Vassar and the Speckled Bird continue their partnership and write much more work together, honing their already tight vision. Then they will be huge. They should already be there, but that’s just a matter of time. The Fire Next Time is an excellent EP of tight songwriting, strong melodies, and great mood. It’s a must for folk-lovers.
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.