1. “I Touch My Face in Hyperspace Oh Yeah” – Devin James Fry. You shouldn’t need my encouragement to listen to a song with a title so enigmatic and intriguing, but if you do, the fiery, wild-eyed psych-folk-rock is just as immediately engaging and mind-expanding as the title.
2. “Cheap Shades” – Chris Staples. Staples tosses off lyrics in this gentle, walking-speed acoustic tune as if they were easy to come by, as if they weren’t complex and unique and deeply thoughtful. This doesn’t sound like the Mountain Goats at all, but fans of John Darnielle will hear the lyrical kinship (even if the music is closer to Sufjan’s Michigan than anything TMG has put out, except maybe Get Lonely). If you’re of the age and vintage that 238’s “Modern Day Prayer” is tattooed on your consciousness, get prepared to have your mind blown: this is that Chris Staples.
3. “Can’t Undo This” – Heather Bond. It’s tough to do a dramatic, introspective ballad without getting formalist or maudlin. Bond balances gravitas and vulnerability to come up with a searing, poignant, piano-driven tune.
4. “Take You Away” – The National Parks. Handclaps, pizzicato violin, punchy horns, and bright-eyed guy/girl vocals buoy this cross between orchestral-folk-pop, party-friendly indie-pop-rock, and even some disco vibes (!). Weighty genre labels aside, this is a cheery, thoughtful tune that does more than bash out chords on a well-trod road.
5. “Ida” – El Tryptophan. Was Pet Sounds an orchestral explosion of the Phil Spector sound? If so, “Ida” could fit in the chronological and sonic space right between ’60s girl-pop arrangements and Brian Wilson’s masterpiece (with some Velvet Underground thrown in for good measure). [Editor’s note: El Tryptophan is now known as Gryphon Rue.]
6. “Pink Lemonade” – Monogold. Sometimes the title is all you need to know.
8. “Kids” – Dara Sisterhen. Somehow manages to blend country, ’50s pop, and folk-pop into one breezy, carefree tune perfect for your next road trip.
9. “The Script” – The Treacherous French. Almost any accordion-laden acoustic tune is going to come off like a sea shanty; the washboard percussion, enthusiastic high-tenor vocal performance, and “whoa-ohs” solidify the notion.
10. “Willingham” – Echo Bloom. Somehow combines the murky sounds of a forest, high-drama noir vocals, indie-rock slinkiness, and ghostly aura. Wildly inventive.
11. “Little Dreamer” – Charlotte & Magon. Delicate electric guitar, gently dramatic vocals, and an overall sense of lazy Saturday mornings.
12. “Gotta Wanna” – Gun Outfit. I turn the key and the engine hums. I turn out of the gas station and back onto an empty Arizona highway, headed back toward California. The insistent drumming underscores my sense of motion, but the vocals and guitar lean back to make sure that everyone knows it’s not all that urgent. We’re gonna hang out and enjoy ourselves when we get there; we’ll enjoy it on the way, too.
13. “Hold Hands for Dry Land” – Oryx and Crake. The gleeful community feel of Funeral was part of what made it so engaging: Oryx and Crake develop that same sort of group vibe in this punchy-yet-thoughtful melodic indie-rock track. Anyone named after a Margaret Atwood novel is asking for your full attention–they reward, both musically and lyrically.
1. “Great White Shark” – Hollands. Maximalist indie-rock/pop music with groove, noise, melodic clarity, effusive enthusiasm, strings, harp, and just about everything else you can ask for. If the Flaming Lips hadn’t got so paranoid after At War with the Mystics…
2. “Coyote Choir” – Pepa Knight. Still batting 1.000, Pepa Knight brings his exuberant, India-inspired indie-pop to more mellow environs. It’s still amazing. I’m totally on that Pepa Knight train, y’all. (Hopefully it’s The Darjeeling Limited.)
3. “Peaks of Yew” – Mattson 2. I love adventurous instrumental music, and Mattson 2 cover a wide range of sonic territory in this 10-minute track. We’ve got some surf-rock sounds, some post-rock meandering, some poppy melodies, some ambient synths, and a whole lot of ideas. I’m big on this.
4. “Firing Squad” – Jordan Klassen. Sometimes a pop-rock song comes along that just works perfectly. Vaguely dancy, chipper, fun, and not too aggressive (while still allowing listeners to sing it loudly), “Firing Squad” is just excellent.
5. “Droplet” – Tessera Skies. There’s a tough juggling act going on in this breathtaking indie-pop tune: flowing instruments, flailing percussion, cooing vocals, and an urgent sense of energy. It’s like if Jonsi’s work got cluttered up with parts and then organized neatly.
6. “Available Light” – David Corley. If Alexi Murdoch, Tom Waits, and Joseph Arthur all got together and jammed, it might sound something like this gruff yet accessible, vaguely alt-country track.
7. “Blue Eyed Girl” – Sam Joole. I’d like to make a joke about blue-eyed soul here, but it’s actually closer to Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl” than that. Lots of laidback guitars, good vibes, but not Jack Johnson twee, if you know what I mean.
8. “By the Canal” – Elephant Micah. I’m a big fan of people who aren’t afraid to let an acoustic guitar and voice splay out wherever they want and however long they want. Here, EM acts as an upbeat Jason Molina, putting the focus on his voice instead of the spartan-yet-interesting arrangements. Totally stoked for this new album.
9. “If It Does” – Robin Bacior. In this loose, smooth, walking-speed singer-songwriter tune with maximum atmosphere, shades of early ’00s Coldplay appear. That’s a compliment, people.
10. “Storm” – Dear Criminals. Not that often do I hear trip-hop, even in an updated melodic form. Way to go, DC–you pick up that torch that Portishead put down.
11. “You Open to the Idea” – Angelo De Augustine. Beautiful, delicate, wispy, earnest whisper-folk. They don’t make ’em like this very often anymore.
12. “Billowing Clouds” – Electrician. The mournful, affected spoken word over melancholy, trumpet-like synths makes me think of an electro version of the isolated, desolate Get Lonely by The Mountain Goats.
13. “Blue Chicago Moon (demo)” – Songs: Ohia. Until Jason Molina, I’ve never had a personal connection to the art of a troubled artist who died too early–Elliott Smith was gone before I knew of his work. Now with unreleased demos coming out consistently after Mr. Molina’s death, I feel the sadness of his passing over and over. Each new track is a reminder that there was work still to be made; it also feels like a new song from him, even though it’s objectively not.
Is this how a legacy gets made in the digital era? How long will we keep releasing new Molina songs, to remind us that he was there, and now he is not? (Please keep releasing them.) Will the new songs push people back to “The Lioness”? Will we keep these candles burning to light our own rooms, or will we bring them to other people? “Endless, endless, endless / endless depression,” Molina sings here. Is it truly endless? Are you still depressed? Does your permanent recording of the phrase make it truly “unchanging darkness”? “Try to beat it,” he intones, finally. Try to beat it, indeed. Keep trying until you can’t anymore. And then let your work stand forever. I guess this is how I mourn.
Songs:Ohia plays a critical role in my musical history, somewhat akin to the lack of respect Bob Welch gets for keeping Fleetwood Mac together until they could get around to recording awesome things.
In my transition from “Super Good Feeling” to “Get Lonely,” Songs:Ohia was one of two artists who would entice me to jump from the poppy precipice of Transatlanticism to the downtempo jeremiads of Damien Jurado and The Mountain Goats. Without the influence of those latter two bands, this blog would probably not still exist. So, indirectly, you and I both owe a debt to Jason Molina (and David J of Novi Split, who was the second guide).
The emotions that Elephant Micah‘s Louder Than Thou conjures up in me match almost exactly the ones I felt while listening to Songs:Ohia’s “The Lioness” as a teenager. This is an incredible statement: I had chalked up this intense connection with S:A’s slow, weighty songs up to “my first time.” For a band to repeat in me that sort of emotion amid my now-steady diet of folk and singer/songwriter is stunning.
Pre-Magnolia ELectric Co. Jason Molina originally intrigued me for several reasons. I am intrigued by Joseph O’Connell (the songwriter behind EM) for the same reasons:
1. He is very talented, although the simple musicianship bears no ostentatious markers of technical skill.
2. He imbues songs with honest, weighty emotion.
3. He is unafraid to play a slow, quiet song for a very long time.
I started to feel the old longing during the second track, “Won These Wings.” A slowly thumped tom and sparse yet terse notes on an acoustic guitar create the backdrop for O’Connell’s plaintive voice; far-off background vocals and some sort of woodwind form intermittent ghostly asides. The whole thing just feels heavy; but more than that, it feels compelling. Instead of being wallpaper music, this is gripping. You know those movies where the soundtrack is so integral and vital that it should be credited as a supporting actor? The 7:25 “Won These Wings” is that sort of tune.
The length here is notable in the context of everyone else’s work, but not so much in comparison to the rest of the album. The six songs on Louder Than Thou run just over 36 minutes, meaning that one EM song averages the span of two pop songs. The shambling, uplifting “My Cousin’s King,” the shortest song, clocks in at 4:29. It could have gone longer and been totally fine: these songs sprawl, and they’re all the better for it.
That’s the lesson to be learned from “If I Were a Surfer,” which is the song that caused me to think of Songs:Ohia for the first time in years. The strum pattern isn’t complicated, the drum part isn’t difficult, and the vocal line isn’t virtuosic. But the parts come together in such a heart-rending way that none of that matters. “Let it lie where it lands / I’ll start all over again,” O’Connell sings with female harmony over a graceful, whirring organ. It’s no lyric shooting for the heart of reality, nor is it a hugely orchestrated epic moment. It is, instead, a testament to patience, dignity and craft. It is beautiful.
The skill and hard work it takes to write songs of such seemingly effortless elegance is hard to overstate. Elephant Micah‘s Louder Than Thou is not louder than much, really. But it is far more resonant than most, and that’s why I can’t stop listening to it.
I came into an appreciation of folk music at about the same time the folk revival was beginning to gain prominence (roughly four or five years ago). I was finally lucky enough to catch a thing at its peak; it seems I always go back and discover the goodness of a thing after the fact (point: I saw Death Cab for Cutie on their Plans tour, the Mountain Goats on their Get Lonely tour, Coldplay on its X&Y tour, and Guster on its Ganging up on the Sun tour; all of which were one album after their best album). But this time, I’m on the edge with the rest of the people rocking out to Mumford and Sons, because folk finally reclaimed energy.
La Strada’s New Home does Mumford and Sons one better. Instead of just being a folk band on speed (which, as M+S’s immense popularity shows, is quite alright), they’re a folk band on speed eating an indie band. It’s like gentler Beirut with a guy who can sing; it’s like Arcade Fire with acoustic guitars. This album is so incredibly hip and current that I’m afraid I’m not cool enough to review it. But I reject that notion, because the songs are brilliant. These songs aren’t just for the cool; they’re for people who like anything related to pop music.
“The Traveler” features a bouncy drum line, a mini-orchestra and a jaunty vocal line. The smooth quality of the vocals is immensely reassuring from the beginning of the album; he has the best elements of many different vocalists. His ability to convey emotion without oversinging recalls Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard; his effortless delivery recalls people with gifted voices like Novi Split’s David Jerkovich. The fact that he meshes so well with the band makes me think of the National, even though their voices seem separated by (several?) octaves.
The ragged yet gentle rhythms of “The Traveler,” plus the immensely reverbed guitar solo, strings, trumpets, tubas, and keys make for a richly ornamented, impossible-to-dislike song. There’s tons going on here, but as in an Anathallo song, it all works together. Even when they kill the beat, punch up the accordion and turn the song into a Parisian street waltz (not kidding), it sounds amazing.
Then they kick into “Wash On By,” which brings a indie-rock surge of energy to their still-instrument-heavy mix. This song will make you move, as well as yell and cheer with the band. The rhythms, which are distinctly foreign but not exactly easy to pin down, simply bring the house down. I wish I could be in the audience for a performance of “Wash on By.”
Then there’s the title track, which for once is appropriately chosen. I hate it when bands don’t choose the right title track, but this one is far and away the most memorable track of the album (and you thought I’d lavished all the exuberant praise I had in me? naaa). The song is sparse, but it’s not sparse in the lack of instruments; they use the instruments sparingly, locking them in together to pull a distinct and certain mood out of the tune. The word masterful is not an exaggeration of this tune’s quality.
The whole thing is held together by the vocals, again, which are glorious and command several beautiful melodies. The brass band and strings contribute significantly to this tune. You will be singing “Hello strange familiar, you’re my new home; oh, wha-o, wha-o wha-o.” Trust me, it looks goofy there, but you’ll know exactly what I mean when it happens. You will be powerless to resist it.
My highest praise for an album is “I could write a small book about this album.” And it is very, very true of New Home by La Strada. I didn’t even get to talk about the lyrics, the art, the rest of the tunes (and seriously, that’s a tragedy to me, because “Baptism” and “Where You Want to Go” and “Go Forward” are all wonderful and worthy of covering). All I can say is, for your own good, buy this album. It will improve your mood for weeks.
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.