1. “Devil Yellow Sun” – Small Town Glow. If the emotional indie-rock of Frightened Rabbit had been born in the grunge-laden ’90s, it would have been as gloriously slackery, goofy, and relatable as this tune.
2. “Fossil” – Readership. The present or future ghosts of Modest Mouse, The Rural Alberta Advantage, Arcade Fire, and Spoon dance to the beat of this impeccably crafted, relentlessly endearing indie-rock tune. It’s a rare tune that ends way before I wanted it to.
3. “You Know It’s True” – Quinn Devlin & The Bridge Street Kings. Van Morrison has been popping up in my life a lot recently. Whether it’s in essays, songs, or Spotify recommendations, Van the Man is calling my name. Is this a getting older thing? Is this like classical music? Whatever it is, here’s some earthy-yet-ethereal blue-eyed soul that carries that Van torch forward. Also there’s some Hall & Oates in there? I mean that in the most positive way possible. You know what, ignore all that. It’s just a great song.
4. “Be There” – Buddha Trixie. Hectic/loping, quirky/formal, exuberant/laidback, manic/careful; there’s a lot of duality going on in this joyous indie-pop tune.
5. “there’s nothing better” – Eugene Gallagher. A beautiful, tender, herky-jerky love-song that feels like Delicate Steve’s burbling enthusiasms mixed with a male version of Kimya Dawson’s vocals. (I think you’ll forgive the seemingly ridiculous comparisons once you hear it.)
6. “Bow Down” – TD Lind. Protest folk at its vocal belting, harmonica-toting, major-key best.
7. “The Swim” – Case Conrad. One of those alt-country tunes that balances on the edge of so many things (is it a singer/songwriter tune? is it about to go full-on rock? are the vocals about to explode?) that it keeps the listener on her toes the whole way. Surprisingly, it’s deeply satisfying through all the tension. A fantastic tune.
8. “Melting” – Lindy Vopnfjord. Have you ever walked up a forested mountain near dusk? The beauty of the setting sun unveils a sort of ominous beauty, where the unknown is both gorgeous and dangerous. Those tensions are encompassed in this acoustic/electric minor-key folk tune.
9. “Aelia Laelia (Edit)” – Christopher Chaplin. I can give this complex, complicated piece one of my highest compliments: it defied easy conventions, making me ask, “What is this?” Part post-rock, part ambient/industrial electronic, part neo-classical performance, part operatic vocal songcraft, this composition bends the boundaries. Chaplin is really inventive and engaging here.
10. “Bombs” – EDGES. Reverb can serve to obscure, but it can also make things more intimate, as if you’re sitting next to the musician in a huge church. This acoustic tune is the latter, as the patient guitar and gently yearning vocals create a sense of closeness and warmth amid a giant building.
11. “Like a Funeral (Joel Rampage Duet Remake)” – Erik Jonasson. There will be approximately 1,000,000 slow-jam electro ballads released this year, but I would wager that maybe five will make me want to cry. This heartbreaking, expansive tune is one of them.
12. “She Floats” – Van-Anh Nguyen. Ambient by dint of crackles, breaths, and distant noises that run throughout, this delicate, piano-driven piece evokes a seaside boardwalk in the early morning.
1. “New Survival” – The Medicine Hat. Taut, tightly-wound indie-rock verses open up into an expansive, melodic chorus. The whole thing is reminiscent of a female-fronted Bloc Party, if they were slightly less neurotic. They don’t make ’em like this very often. (editor’s note: this band changed its name to Ellevator after this post was published.)
2. “More” – Queue. A slinky, winding bass line and gently staccato percussion power this indie-rock tune that would make Wye Oak jealous.
3. “Four Corners” – Seth Nathan. Brash, noisy, immediate garage-y indie-rock that owes as much to Pavement as it does to The Vaccines. The attitude-filled vocal delivery is on point, and the whole thing comes off like a charm.
4. “You” – Wall Sun Sun. Two nylon-string acoustic guitars, two drummers, and nine-part harmonies compose the entire arrangement here. While comparisons to the Polyphonic Spree are sort of inevitable, they sound more like a ’50s girl-pop band fused to an acoustic version of Vampire Weekend. Which is to say: “whoa, this is the jam.”
5. “Birthday Blues” – Team Picture. If Frightened Rabbit got mixed up with a krautrock band, they might turn out a churning, lightly-psyched-out, major-key, six-minute rock jam like this one.
6. “Black Gold” – HOMES. Is this a dance-rock song (those rhythms!)? An indie-rock song (those vocals!)? A Southern rock song (that riff!)? Yes and no and all. Whatever it is, it rocks.
7. “Far Away (Saudade)” – Marsicans. The vocals are not usually the most intriguing part of British garage rock, but there’s a quirky, lovely section in the middle here where Marsicans goes a capella. It just totally makes the song. Also the bass playing is rad.
8. “Shapes” – Old Mountain Station. Low-slung, low-key indie rock a la Grandaddy, shot through with big guitar distortion a la post-rock bands. High drama music, but not in an overly theatrical way.
9. “The Absolute” – Jackson Dyer. Starts off as a Bon Iver-esque dreamy jam with lightly neo-R&B vocals, but we get some post-dub groove dropped in and some super slinky guitar on top of that. By the end, I’m groovin’ hard and genre labels don’t matter much to me.
10. “Metropole Des Anges Pt. 1” – EH46. Speaking of post-rock, here’s a slowly unfurling piece that’s heavy on drone and distortion/static. The counterpoint is a delicate keyboard line that evokes the elegance of water dropping on heavy vibrating machinery. The sonic elements bend and contort over the nearly-six-minute length, but the mood remains consistent.
11. “Falling Sky” – October’s Child. Heavy on pad synths, this electro song threatens to explode from dream-pop to electro-jam but never does. Instead, they wash sounds over the listener and sing of “reverie.”
12. “Collapse” – ILY. The pressing movement of techno combined with the mysterious, laidback chill of Postal Service-electro pop creates a very summery jam.
1. “Days With Wings” – Black Balsam. In a post-Mumford world, folk-pop is seen with some suspicion. Tunes as genuinely engaging and fun as this one should help with the fears of those who are over-banjoed.
2. “Sugar Moon” – Jonas Friddle. Folk-pop can also regain its footing by not taking itself too seriously, and Friddle’s artwork of a man playing a banjo that turns into a pelican by the end of the fretboard is a good start. The tune itself sounds like Illinois-era Sufjan mashed up with a Lumineers track at a Beirut concert. In other words, it pulls from everywhere and ultimately becomes a Friddle tune. Totally stoked for this album.
3. “Star of Hope” – Mairearad Green (feat. King Creosote). Green is what Frightened Rabbit would sound like if they weren’t constantly thinking about death: chipper, major-key, acoustic-led indie-rock led by a vocalist with an unapologetically Scottish accent. It’s just fantastic.
4. “We’ll Live” – Stephen Douglas Wolfe. Wolfe’s tenor voice carries this alt-country tune with great aplomb. The pedal steel also provides a great amount of character here.
5. “Only Time” – Ryan Downey. I know you’re not going to believe this, but this is a multitracked-vocals-and-clapping version of the Enya staple. It seems remarkably honest in its intentions, and it’s remarkably engaging as a result. You think you’ve seen it all, and then…
6. “If I Could Fly Away” – Alan Engelmann. The warm brightness of this acoustic pop song makes me think of the spring with a great longing.
7. “Where Am I?” – Amy Virginia. A clear, bright voice cutting across a stark folk frame makes for engaging listening.
8. “Either Way” – Sorority Noise. We’ve come a long, long way from “Good Riddance” on the punk-bands-with-acoustic-guitars front: Cam Boucher’s musing on suicide and loss is a heartrendingly beautiful, spare tune that can fit right next to any early Damien Jurado track (who, of course, was once a punk with an acoustic guitar).
9. “The Curse (Acoustic)” – The Eastern Sea. An intimate performance of rapid fingerpicking and emotional vocals. Not much more I could ask for.
10. “Prologue” – Letters to You. A gentle, pensive acoustic ditty expands into a beauty-minded post-rock bit.
11. “what if i fall in love (with you)” – Isaac Magalhães. A soothing, nylon-stringed guitar performance matches a bedroom-pop, lo-fi vocal performance to create something deeply personal-sounding. Impressionistic RIYLs: Iron and Wine and Elliott Smith.
12. “Most of the Time I Can’t Even Pay Attention” – Crocodile. An off-the-cuff sort of air floats through this one, as if you showed up at your friend’s house and he was already playing a song, so you let him finish and then you both go off to hang out. The lyrics are a bit heavy, but the soft, kind vocal performance calms me anyway. It won’t ask too much of you, but it gives you a lot if you’re into it. You could end up writing a lot about it, you know?
13. “Pickup Truck” – Avi Jacob. It’s hard to quantify maturity, but it’s sort of a mix between knowing your skills, knowing how to maximize them, and not trying to push beyond that. It’s the “sweet spot.” Avi Jacobs hits it here, putting accordion, piano, fingerpicked guitar, and female background vocals into an arrangement that perfectly suits his just-a-bit-creaky-around-the-edges voice. From the first second to the last, it hits hard. Keep a close watch on Jacob.
So I dragged myself out of bed at 7:30 a.m. to get downtown by 8 to see Frightened Rabbit play live for KUT. I made it by 8:15 and was able to catch the last few songs of Scott Hutchison’s solo set. I was especially fond of “State Hospital” and old-school inclusion “The Modern Leper,” both of which translated quite nicely to the acoustic setting. Hutchison’s singing voice is simply a goldmine of emotive energy, and it was just as impressive live as it is recorded. Hutchison’s sense of humor was in fine form, as he cracked clever jokes between songs and had the audience smiling and happy to be awake that early in the morning. Wish I could have seen more, but whoa, 8 a.m. was early.
However, I caught the full set of Josh Ritter’s recording, which was absolutely astonishing. I’ve been in love with his new release The Beast in Its Tracks, which came out March 5. He played the four best tunes from it (“Joy to You, Baby” “New Lover,” “Hopeful,” “The Appleblossom Rag”), covered John Prine’s beautiful “Mexican Home,” and invited Hutchison back out to duet with him on The Animal Years‘ “Girl in the War.” “Girl” is my favorite Ritter song that I haven’t heard live, as he didn’t play it when I saw him a few years ago. To see it performed with not one but two of my favorite vocalists in the world was absolutely thrilling. It was easily the highlight of SXSW so far and probably for the rest of SXSW too: it will be incredibly hard to top that.
Ritter’s easygoing songwriting and incisive lyrical turns are just as masterful as Isbell’s, but are delivered in a vastly different way. Instead of booming and commanding his way through the tunes, Ritter playfully stepped through them, tossing off jaw-dropping lyrics as if it were easy to write them. He and an accompanying acoustic guitarist also made the tunes sound easy as well, rolling through the tunes with an easy swagger. If you haven’t heard The Beast in Its Tracks, you really need to: it’s going to be on my end of year list for sure. Simply a brilliant performance by Josh Ritter, both in album and on stage.
Spring’s major releases didn’t impress me much, but today blew my socks off: all-time fave The Mountain Goats, up-and-coming fave The Very Best and long-time love Frightened Rabbit all came across my radar with new album announcements. I’m especially excited for the last one, because Isaac Indiana’s self-titled EP had me thinking, “Man, I’d like to see these guys play with Frightened Rabbit someday.”
The English indie-rock/indie-pop band calls up Hutchison and Co’s swooning bombast on its more emotive tracks, while presenting a more rollicking pop front when they get happy. Opener “Everything’s Fine” turns the verse’s wiry guitar riff into a huge pop chorus complete with synths, group harmonies and thrashing cymbals. “Speak Up” is an equally fun tune, powered by a jaunty piano line and augmented with perky horns.
Some may find the baritone vocals don’t jive with their idea of a playful indie-pop band, but I like it. Those who are used to low vocals carrying import will find themselves more in tune with “Make Me Laugh,” where the band keeps the pace but turns it in a more serious direction. The piano again plays a big role, providing counterpoint to the vocals. But the highlight is closer “You and I,” where the two approaches come together. There’s an underlying energy to the tune, but the horns and keys keep the tension instead of announcing their arrivals with riffs. The tune has the mood and the melody down, showing the best that Isaac Indiana has to offer.
Isaac Indiana’s self-titled debut shows a band exploring their sound. There’s a lot of room for them to grow inside what they’ve already established, as well as the boundary-pushing that all bands can and should do. I’m looking forward to see what they come up with next.
I’m showing up late to The Naked and the Famous’ album Passive Me Aggressive You because I agreed with the naysayers who thought “Young Blood” sounded like second-rate Passion Pit. But since I ran across the much more subtle and interesting “Girls Like You” and “Punching In,” I’ve been hooked on the band’s sound. I even like “Young Blood” more, because I know that it’s backed up with nuance, as opposed to cash-in, rip-off glee. Official apology complete.
Bands that can pull off glee and nuance with equal passion are of deep interest to me, which is why TNATF and I Used to Be a Sparrow both have been piquing my interest recently. The duo named I Used to Be a Sparrow hails from Sweden, composed of IC fave Andrea Caccese (Songs for the Sleepwalkers) and Dick Pettersson. Caccese brings thoughtful post-rock/dream-pop influences from his previous work to their debut Luke, while Pettersson contributes an upbeat indie-rock aesthetic reminiscent of Frightened Rabbit. The result is an optimistic, energetic, beautiful album with plenty of room to grow.
The album has a lot of musical touchpoints: the churning post-rock of Sigur Ros has some pull on the sound, while the heavily rhythmic beauty of their lead singer Jonsi’s work figures in (“Lovers on the Moon”). The optimistic mysticism of ’80s U2 (optimysticism?) influences some of the guitar work (“Cambodia,” especially), while the passionate charge of Scott Hutchison’s Frightened Rabbit is unavoidable to mention (“Cambodia,” again). Their more anthemic turns call up Kings of Leon and U2 again.
So is this a derivative mess? No, not at all. The touchstones never devolve into aping another’s sound, because the dream-pop, post-rock and indie-rock ideas are all pulling on each other at the same time. The best example of this is the title track: “Luke” starts off with a wall of squalling guitars and feedback before fading the noise into a dreamy, patterned electronic rhythm and four-part vocal chorus. The background drops out, leaving just the transcendent vocals. It’s an odd tune, but an endearing one, because the vocals are just so good. The song ends, seguing into “Give It Up,” which is an acoustic track of sorts.
The best of the tunes here are idiosyncratic like “Luke.” “Smoke” starts off with a chiming mellophone, introduces some interesting rhythmic patterns, and then augments the construction with a stomping, four-on-the-floor drumbeat. “Lovers on the Moon” builds from an acoustic guitar and distant “ooo” into a unique tune complete with shakers, toms, and screaming guitar. “Give It Up” builds an acoustic track out into a darker mood, again with fitting drumming and evocative guitar.
When I Used to Be a Sparrow pushes the “anthemic” button too often, though, things start to get less easily discernable from each other. “Copenhagen” and “Life is Good” sound a lot like each other; “Hawaii” is not that far off. The songs aren’t bad, but they’re repetitive. (Of the three, “Life is Good” sounds like the original, and the other two the copies.) “Moby Dick,” one of the more memorable vocal melodies on the album, owes a debt to the Passion Pit/The Naked and the Famous school. (Which, I suppose, is a good or bad thing, depending.)
Caccese is starting a habit of doing one-off projects, but I hope this is one that he sticks with. The things that he and Pettersson bring to the table make for a unique blend of nuance, passion and enthusiasm. With some more songwriting under their collective belt, I Used to Be a Sparrow could be something really great. Tunes like “Luke” and “Lovers on the Moon” already prove that their vision is an interesting and unique one. Here’s to hoping they refine and mature it, because I would love to hear more of this.
Plants and Animals‘ The End of That enthusiastically and successfully combines “Wonderwall”-esque Brit-pop with modern indie bombast a la Frightened Rabbit (“Lightshow,” “2010”). If you’re excited about that sentence, check out the aforementioned tunes and then go forth to the album. If you think, “I’ve heard that before,” you’re correct—analysis of that sentiment follows.
Plants and Animals understands that in 2012, people ask a lot of indie bands. They’ve got to churn out a single, a viral video, and a fully-formed album to be seen as the complete package. Some bands excel so greatly at one aspect (Sleigh Bells, OK Go, Radiohead, respectively) that their attempts at the other two go underappreciated or even maligned.
That’s in the left hand. In the right hand is a growing “end of history” mentality in indie-rock, which was neatly encapsulated last week when Jayson Greene of Pitchfork pondered: “If there’s no grand cultural war left for you to wage, how are you supposed make friction?” (Greene’s response: “Indie rock responded by fanning out into a thousand sub-genre deltas.”) People are genuinely worried that there’s nothing left to say, not just in indie-rock but in, uh, everything. Simon Reynolds spends all of Retromania laying the death of creativity at the feet of a myriad of sources that include YouTube and Flying Lotus. What’s a band supposed to do when it’s asked to do more than ever, but people believe less than ever that it is saying and sounding something meaningful?
Answer: whatever it wants. In a critical environment that’s so hyper-analytical, so backward-referencing, so instantly affirmative or negative, there’s no recourse but to simply put stuff out. I hope this sounds reductive, because it is. Bands shouldn’t be afraid of or even antagonistic toward critics anymore, because hot on the heels of both the aforementioned quandaries is a third problem that is purely a critic’s concern: readers of criticism now have access to whatever they want. Critics don’t have exclusive access to the goods anymore, and that means that the original power of the critic is greatly reduced.
Lest I pull the trigger on the gun pointed at my foot, a clarification: The original power of the critic was the power to exalt or destroy, by telling people to not waste their cash on something terrible. Because cash is now not a bar to access, the writer’s power to destroy is much less; the critical backlash to Tapes’N’Tapes was almost a palpable thing at one point, but people still listened to the band’s music. (And the band still put out more music.) Critics, even the still-hugely-influential Pitchfork, can’t kill a band. (Not even Black Kids.)
With that in mind, there’s a conclusion here that relates to the very short but specific review of The End of That posited above: There is now no reason to write bad reviews. Why would space that could be given to something incredible be dedicated to something mediocre? Part of the reason indie music is wallowing in mediocrity (if you agree that it is, but that’s a different article altogether) is that we consistently foreground it. By giving bad reviews and mediocre reviews equal space and footing in our media outlets, critics create an environment that gives the all-coveted “exposure” to bands that are just okay. This is devastating to the state of music because “exposure” is the critic’s new power: a ready-made audience, dedicated to reading what the writer has to say. The access is available to all, but if “all” doesn’t know that the access is there to be had, no one accesses it.
“Lightshow” and “2010” are great tunes, and that’s where the review kicked off. Honestly, the review could have ended there, and that would have said (most of) what I wanted to say. I left off naming any other songs, because in my analysis they should be left off, as they aren’t particularly as exciting as the first two. However, the album as a whole can be praised as a well-conceived long-player for a certain audience. That includes shades of the Jayson Greene analysis, for sure, but that is still a recommendation for people who are into that particular subgenre.
But does my par-for-the-course analysis of “Crisis!” and “Why & Why” mean that those songs don’t have as much worth as “Lightshow”? No. There are writers out there enthusiastically parsing their depths. With the myriad of available voices, a critic is only as quantifiably meaningful as the size of his audience. As Clap Your Hands Say Yeah will note, not even the whole current critical audience moving in one direction is all-powerful. So even though this review will not result in Plants and Animals ending up on my year-end list, it is entirely likely that someone will read it, hear “Lightshow,” and love it—which is what I intended the first line of this review to do, because “Lightshow” might end up on my 50 best songs of the year list. It’s that good.
So if critics can’t kill a band, but they might expose its work to the masses if it does something awesome, why not go make something completely, idiosyncratically its own? And critics, ignore those idiosyncratic things unless and until you love them. Readers, support the bands that you find and love with money (in the form of album sales, Kickstarter contributions, donations to the band while they’re on tour, whatever). The mediocrity be lessened; the good will out; music will grow.
Multiple genres is often a huge red flag, but Wiredrawn bucks the trend. Debut EP Loose Lips Sink Ships has five great songs in four different genres. I’m not sure what Wiredrawn will turn out to be in the long run, but if these tunes are any indication, it will be very, very good.
Patrick Baird, the Scot behind Wiredrawn, keeps the EP together with a surprisingly mature melodic skill. Through the various genres of the EP, Baird makes a point to get to the melody quick. This saves alt-rocking opener “This City on Fire” from falling into the tedium that dominates much post-grunge these days and gives the pensive post-rock in “Isle of Glass” an immediacy that is rarely heard in the genre. The latter eschews the drawn-out crescendoes of much instrumental post-rock and instead places the listener in an always-morphing present. On top of being incredibly interesting, it’s poignant to boot!
That mood is another element that links these tunes together: Baird is great at calling up emotions without getting maudlin. (His deft, precise melodic touch helps with this immensely.) The songs each feel incredibly meaningful without feeling overwrought: if Scott Hutchison wasn’t a gigantic emotive smear, Frightened Rabbit’s sound would be a good equivalent. Right now it’s just the instrumentals of the two bands that are reminiscent; Baird’s patient, effective vocals take his songs in different directions than FR’s cathartic anthems.
It’s the best of both worlds when Baird applies those vocals and the post-rock expansiveness of “Isle” to the title track. “Loose Lips Sink Ships” allows for a bit more build than previously, but it never starts to feel like it’s post-rock for the sake of post-rock. It’s emotive without being manipulative, well-composed without being ostentatious and confident without being arrogant.
Throw in a decent ballad-esque acoustic track and the Guided By Voices-esque slacker-pop of “The Silver Screen” (which I previously covered), and you’ve got a great EP. The only thing holding back Wiredrawn is a clear statement of musical purpose, as this EP shows that Patrick Baird has the elements to succeed almost anywhere he goes.
Loose Lips Sink Ships is a pretty great way to start out the year in reviews: you should start your year in listening here as well. Then watch for the name in 2012.
It’s very telling that Kevin McMahon produced Battle Ave.‘s War Paint, as McMahon had a hand in both Titus Andronicus releases, work by The Walkmen and Frightened Rabbit’s The Midnight Organ Fight. Each of these bands feature an extremely emotional singer going nuts in an atypical musical setting, and War Paint is not outside McMahon’s oeuvre in that regard.
Battle Ave’s unhinged frontman is Jesse Alexander, whose anguished voice ranges from indignant slurring to full-on roar. It’s highly reminescent of Patrick Stickles’ voice (Titus Andronicus). But instead of couching it in a workingman’s punk ethos, Battle Ave. sets Alexander in the midst of an indie-rock maelstrom.
The band can get just as furious and frantic as TA (“Whose Hands Are These?”, every other song on the album), but the bands start at different ends of the spectrum. Andronicus’ pathos comes after a calming down of rage, while Battle Ave ratchets up to a cacophony.
Battle Ave. strangely calls to mind the band that Patrick Stickles least likes to be compared to: Bright Eyes. Those who love the catharsis of “Road to Joy” and the conviction of tunes like “Train Underwater” and “Another Traveling Song” will find emotional analogues here, especially in the gorgeous, horn-filled “Complications w/The Home (Hernia)”. Most of BA’s tunes blow up past the heavy end of “Road to Joy” at their apex, but you’ll feel a similar emotional connection.
In stark contrast to I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, however, the songs sprawl all over the place. Their length and seeming formlessness (exactly zero choruses) call to mind Braids’ Native Speaker, although these guitars definitely go to 11 (“Puke Lust”). Because of that, it’s a tough album to grab onto. It’s not designed to be catchy, nor is it organized in easily digestible bits. This is art. The band is saying something, and if that’s not your thing, then this isn’t your thing.
Thanks to the vocal delivery, however, it’s difficult to make out what the point is. Track titles, album art and snatches of lyrics here and there make out the beginnings of a picture, but this (like The Monitor) is an album to which listeners should dedicate time. That’s an incredible artistic risk in this day and age, but I believe music is worth that, so time it will get (from me, at least).
I realize that I’ve spent less time describing songs and sounds than I usually do. I can explain that “Complications w/Traveling” is a noise-laden dream dirge, but that doesn’t make a lot of sense. Battle Ave.’s compositions are pretty unique, so I don’t want to waste time explaining every detail. I do, however, want to convince the people who might listen to it that they should – and the import of the album is the best way to discuss that.
The album really does have weight. The guitar tones and styles lend the album a cohesive feel, even when the band incorporates carnivalesque rhythms (as in the standout, 10-minute “”K. Divorce” (For Mildred)”). This was painstakingly written, crafted and ordered, and as a result War Paint is one of the most interesting indie-rock albums I’ve heard all year. If you’re into noisy indie-rock as art, then you should do yourself a favor and pick up Battle Ave.’s latest – you’ll find many moments of bliss.
Portland seems to be the new Seattle (except for this downer), so I was surprised when I heard Kris Orlowski & the Passenger String Quartet out of Seattle. Seattle is the new Portland, which was the new Seattle?
Scenes aside, Kris Orlowski has established a foundation for himself in the five-song At the Fremont Abbey EP. His voice is a slurry delight, somewhere between the low-pitched snark of Craig Finn (The Hold Steady) and the high-pitched emotionality of Scott Hutchison (Frightened Rabbit). He applies that voice to a batch of solid acoustic guitar-based songs augmented with strings; this particular group was recorded live at the titular space.
I more often feel that songwriters need to loosen up than get more serious, but Orlowski flips the script. He bookends his set standouts “Your Move” and “Jessi,” both weight, impassioned tunes that a man could make a career out of purveying. But in between there are various levels of frivolity, from charming (the inspired “Waltz at Petunia”) to out-of-character (the Mraz-esque pseudo-scatting of “Steady and Slow”). Orlowski attempts to save the latter with a good chorus, but it’s perky and weird. Orlowski does best when he sounds like a non-roaring Damien Rice or Joseph Arthur.
The string quartet makes a surprisingly limited stamp on the lesser tracks (especially “Postcard Man,” which sounds like a Parachutes reject). But they absolutely make the chorus of the beautiful, mournful “Jessi.” “Your Move” is given life by the strings, but it’s the mixed chorus that takes the song home and onto mixes.
Orlowski has shown a lot of variation throughout this EP, but there’s no defining feature. The strings are an integral part of his sound, but they aren’t the x factor. Orlowski needs to work on what his thing is: whether that’s melodies, tight lyrics, songwriting style (sparse/full), unique rhythms (all straightforward here) or whatever else. There’s a lot of raw potential in Orlowski, but he’s got to capture the best parts of “Jessi” and “Your Move” and make them work for him – or, the other songs, if that’s the way he’s gonna roll.
Either way, I’ll be watching Kris Orlowski as an up-and-comer.
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.