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.
5. “Girls” – Slow Magic. Chillwave meets The Album Leaf meets Pogo. I APPROVE.
6. “Run Run Run” – Jenny Scheinman. Scheinman has a strong voice and a deft Americana songwriting touch. You won’t be able to ignore Scheinman much longer.
7. “Black Crow” – Juliette Jules. A voice mature beyond her years, songwriting beautiful beyond expectations, and production of excellent quality: Jules has everything working for her on this gorgeous, tender track.
8. “Wedding Day” – Anand Wilder and Maxwell Kardon. The lyrics grabbed me by the throat, and the folky/celebratory arrangement kept me involved. This is an impressive tune.
9. “Green Eyes” – Cancellieri. Originally by Coldplay, Cancellieri strips some of the pop sheen from this and gives it a romantic intimacy befitting the gorgeous lyrics.
10. “Is What It Is” – She Keeps Bees. This female-fronted singer/songwriter track is stately, composed, and elegant without becoming icy or distant. SKB creates great atmosphere here.
11. “Confederate Burial” – Snowblind Traveler. Snowblind Traveler matches up the icy arrangements of For Emma and the traditional melodies of old-school Americana to great effect.
12. “Blue Valentine” – Bloom. If you’re a fan of the sad but not hopeless sound that Pedro the Lion made, Bloom will scratch your itch for it with this beautiful track.
13. “Hold on to Your Breath” – Sleepy Tea. These Aussies live up to their name with a relaxing, refreshing vibe reminiscent of a slightly more energetic Parachutes-era Coldplay. Just a beautiful track.
The Oklahoma-founded duo of Walking Waves have an odd connection to Independent Clauses; almost exactly 10 years ago, I reviewed an emo track by the band Roma Secrets. That band broke up, but at least one band member remembered that little blog that covered them. Now that I do folk music instead of screamy emo, and THEY do folk music instead of screamy emo, it was a perfect match–again. We all grow up and chill out sometime, I suppose.
But enough preamble! Their self-titled debut album is great, and deserves applause. Leaning toward the soundscape majesty of Bon Iver but still containing the raw beauty of For Emma, Forever Ago, Walking Waves plays like a mythical middle album between the two extremes. The gentle keyboards of “Echo” lull me into a pristine daze; the folky acoustic strum and keening falsetto of “Letter” sound gorgeous in a completely different way. With Bon Iver on hiatus or something, the world could use more pristine-arrangement, maximum-falsetto, fragile-beauty folk bands.
Walking Waves’ disparate sounds hang together by the force of the mood that runs through each track: whether it’s the reverb-laden standout “Nami” or the complex math-rock-influenced guitar work of instrumental “Winterlude,” winter is a theme that persists. This is music for curling up with your significant other and watching it snow. This is music for warm fires and good friends. It’s comfortable, beautiful music that doesn’t ask too much of you but gives way more than that if you pay attention. The layers of sounds throughout are enough to keep me fascinated for a while.
If you’re into acoustic music that can vaguely be called folk, but is really about being beautiful and nostalgic by any means (and/or labels) necessary, then Walking Waves is for you. It’s easy to say they’re Bon Iver followers, but there’s so much more than that in this self-titled debut. This is a wonderful album, and I hope to hear more from Walking Waves in the future.
The emergence of Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago was an incredibly important event for folk. Although the water had been getting murky for years (decades?), that heavily stylized album broke the dam that separated indie-pop and folk. Now we have Mumford and Sons and The Lumineers and Phillip Phillips and we don’t even think twice about it. My thesis here is that we can’t have “Babel” hollered through your radio without Justin Vernon mournfully ruminating over Emma. What that means for indie-pop and folk as individual genres is complex and interesting. One tiny element is that trad-folk/Americana (which is what we now have to call the stuff that most people who aren’t ethnomusicologists used to call “folk”) has received a boost from the indie-folk scene. Sunny Jim Brown playing the traditional “Darling Corey” may not have been of any interest to people who liked Belle and Sebastian in the early 2000s. Now it seems like the two are near to kindred spirits.
Which is all to say that even if Sunny Jim Brown’s Sweet Virginia EP features primarily guitar and banjo in a very traditional idiom, it’s still a blast from the imagined past. Brown’s earthy baritone imbues passion equally over the aforementioned traditional, the gorgeous original “Black Gold,” and No Use For A Name cover “Pacific Standard Time.” It hardly matters that one was written in time immemorial, one in 2007/2008, and one probably in 2012/2013. This is a testament to Sunny Jim Brown’s vision: these tunes could be disparate and disjointed, but instead they’re coherent and wonderful. “Black Gold” is the sort of fingerpicked guitar line that I got into this business to hear more of, and the world-weary vocals give the song even more to love. “Lonesome” and “Sweet Virginia” are strummers that sway excellently. You want honest, raw, and beautiful? Here you go.
These tunes feel as real and raw as For Emma ever did, and maybe as real and raw as folk did before that. What does that mean for folk in general? Well, probably that what is good never dies, it just gets pushed to the top in different amounts at different times. Culture is weird like that. Maybe in 10 years the folk moment will be over and we’ll be on to something else. What does that mean for this particular EP? That you should go listen to it right now. Start with “Black Gold,” and impress your Tallest Man on Earth-loving self.
Sunday Lane’s cover of Bon Iver’s “Skinny Love” is a good place to start talking about Fauntella Crow‘s debut EP Lost Here. Piano-playing singer/songwriter Lane, half of Fauntella Crow, plays predominantly upbeat pop in her solo work. I first discovered her pensive, emotive side on that 2012 cover of Justin Vernon’s keening, beautiful tune. Lane’s voice fit perfectly in the mood, and I longed for her to do more with that combination. It’s like she heard my thoughtwaves, because Lost Here explores her melancholy side.
The title track of the EP makes a conscious effort to pilfer some sonic touches from For Emma, Forever Ago, and it works like a charm: the song steals the show, as Lane’s voice and Jessy Greene’s violin form a perfect pair to convey a familiar form of tragic beauty. There’s a difference in mood on “Lost Here” from the rest of the EP, which falls more in the ’90s singer/songwriter, Lilith Fair vibe. That’s not a bad thing at all–“Delicate” shines in its own right. But “Lost Here” channels the skills of both members into a tune that can stand up with the best indie ballads of the past ten years. That’s a hugely bold statement (“Maps“! “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.“! “For Emma“!), but I’m prepared to make it. The song is wonderful.
The rest of the EP is strong, composed of the aforementioned singer/songwriter vibes. “Grow” meshes Lane and Greene perfectly, as the piano, both vocals, plucked violin, and bowed violin come together for a wonderful first stanza. Opener “Delicate” deftly balances bitterness and vulnerability, both lyrically and vocally; it’s the most well-developed and mature of the offerings that aren’t “Lost Here.” The rest of the tunes fall somewhere between the poised pop of track 1 and the fragility of track 5; all very pretty, but not as immediately arresting as the twin pillars they support.
Lane is a strong songwriter who has found a perfect foil in Greene; the latter brings out the melancholy melodic gifts that I knew Lane had lying dormant. Lost Here is hopefully an opening salvo in a long career for Fauntella Crow–this is too excellent to languish as a one-off side-project. Even if these five tunes are all we get, I’ll be thankful for them, and you should be too.
As I have written before, I loved and still love chillwave. I love the idea of optimistic, beautiful music that is unsullied by vocals. I love vocals, but the idea that we can have happy music that is also musically challenging is just wonderful. (It’s also why I love Fang Island.) Teen Daze‘s The House on the Mountain is about as good as I can imagine chillwave (or whatever we’re calling it these days) can be.
Single-named producer Jamison takes small melodies and builds them up with fluttery background synths, flowing guitar, and gentle beats to create deeply moving electronic pieces. Blissful is the word I would use to describe opener “Hidden,” but the low-end piano inclusions on “Eagles Above” puts a more pensive spin on the sound. “Classical Guitar” benefits from some great midi synths (as opposed to atmospheric pad synths), a heavier beat than usual and (yes) the titular instrument. While leaning toward the gentle euphoria of “Hidden,” it still forges its own path. (Is it heresy if I say it sounds like Owl City a bit? I swear it’s a compliment.)
The lead single and semi-title track “Morning House” combines the best elements of all three tracks, as it takes a unique rhythmic beat and melds it to atmospheric synths in an optimistic key. Fluttery synths and midi synths come in, giving a great amount of texture to the tune. It’s a beautiful, memorable tune: a star among stars.
If you’re sick of chillwave, sorry. I’m not, and The House on the Mountain is absolutely gorgeous. If you love blissing out, Teen Daze is here to help.
Kazyak used to be a groove-laden jam band of sorts, so it’s a bit surprising that they’ve reinvented as a alt-folk band. However, it’s not surprising that they’ve done it in a unique way, given that they came from another genre. This EP could bridge the gap perfectly between the forlorn For Emma, Forever Ago and lush Bon Iver, if Peter Frey were Justin Vernon. But he’s not, and we instead meet a Kazyak on See the Forest, See the Trees that tries to reunite disparate sounds that currently fall under the same name.
It’s a fitting title, then: the trees of the individual songs stand up, and the entire album fits neatly as a whole. A few tunes can be plucked from the runtime without injuring their effectiveness; others must be heard in context of the whole 26-minute piece. It’s a rare album that can pull off this trick, and it’s what makes me so excited about Kazyak.
The best combo move is opener “Pieces of My Map,” which introduces Kazyak’s love of atmospheric banjo, sweeping guitar swells, and lush arrangements. But amid the mini-symphony, the vocal melody cuts through, shining as the focus on the piece. This splits the difference between vocals-centric and arrangement-centric folk neatly.
“Part I: Rabbiting Fox” and “Part II: Pitch Thick” show off the arrangement-centric side of the sound, with dramatic melodies, intimate moods, and careful arrangements. The gorgeous opening 1;30 of “Rabbiting Fox” is some of the most engaging music on the album. The unique “Tar Baby” shows off the vocals by having the vocalist slide back and forth between falsetto and chest voice repeatedly to accentuate the lyrics. It is an unusual move that some may reject, but it definitely shows a creative mind at work.
Kazyak’s See the Forest, See the Trees is beautiful and substantial; the melodic qualities don’t get lost in the arrangements or vice versa. Instead, it stands as a strong testament to varied songwriting. I hope to hear more from Kazyak’s unique perspective in the future.
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.