I live in the Phoenix area now, which means that my predisposition towards seasonally-themed music is suffering from a seemingly perpetual summer. It’s almost October, dang it, and it should be fall. Joel Madison Blount‘s “Inner Monologue” is a tune helping me get into that autumnal spirit.
“Inner Monologue” is a dusky, twilit tune with a bit of a split personality. The verses are downcast, summoning feelings of urban nightly gloom. (The lyrics about middle-of-the-night doubts help this mood along.) The chorus, though, is all soaring lines, yearning guitars, and hopeful lyrics: “release your burdens / let it go / just let it go.” This section has just as much ’90s Oasis-esque Brit-pop in it as it does contemporary acoustic work.
Ultimately, the back-and-forth mirrors some of the alternating cold and warmth of fall. Fans of Gregory Alan Isakov will immediately gravitate toward the tension-and-release nature of the work and the cloudy-yet-tight arrangements.
“Inner Monologue” comes from Our New Moon, which drops September 29. You can pre-order it here.
1. “The Road” – John John Brown. It’s an impressive skill to breathe fresh vitality into musical staples. John John Brown makes a beautiful concoction out of folk fingerpicking, sawing fiddle, and gentle tenor vocals.
2. “Does She” – Caroline Lazar. Someday I’ll get tired of a thumping kick drum under a fingerpicked acoustic guitar line, but not today: Lazar’s folk pop is bright, charming, and fun (handclaps!). [Editor’s note: This song is no longer available.]
3. “Offering” – Mischief Night. The recording style on this acoustic track makes it feel both cavernous and intimate; the vocals soar in the near distance, while the drums and casio tones are close at hand. The lyrics are intriguing, as well.
4. “I’m Not the Good One” – Ossayol. The delicate fingerpicking is perfectly counterpointed by a violin throughout. The chorus here just nailed me to the wall with its emotive power.
5. “Christine” – Orly Bendavid & the Mona Dahls. An ode to beautiful young women who grow old that balances rueful, pensive concern with an internal energy which pushes the track forward.
6. “Lucid Dreams” – Ego Death. A trembling, quiet performance that evokes solitude.
7. “We Both Know” – Andrew Butler. The pristine, precise arrangements of Andrew Bird, but now with significantly more emotions in the lyrics and vocal delivery.
7. “No God in Mexico” – Danny Whitecotton. Danny Whitecotton is continuing the long tradition of windswept, wide-screen folk troubadour storytelling with political undertones admirably. The sound itself is along the lines of Isbell’s quieter stuff instead of being a folk strumfest.
8. “Liars” – Gregory Alan Isakov. Isakov has expanded from his intimate, cryptic tunes of yore to being back by the Colorado Symphony on this tour-de-force. (The lyrics are still enigmatic in an evocative way.)
9. “Single” – Frith. The walking-speed tempo and distinctive melodic percussion sound of this comfortable, easygoing pop track give it a pleasant “Someone I Used to Know” feel.
10. “Zen Jam” – Joyriot. The title works: the tension between zen and joy is in full display on this mid-’00s indie-pop-rock track. There’s some Tokyo Police Club in there, maybe some Vampire Weekend, but all filtered through a chill, maybe even Death Cab-esque lens. Totally cool.
11. “Dance With Love” – Sam Joole. Joole forgoes his usual reggae vibes for Strokesian early ’00s indie-rock, complete with tambourine, distinctive strumming pattern, and slightly distorted vocals. It’s a blast.
12. “719 Desire Street” – Palm Ghosts. Jangle rock never dies, it just fits itself into the modern paradigm and moves on right along. This one’s a fun, sway-inducing, smile-creating song.
13. “Ten Lines (The Land Below Remix)” – MISSINCAT. I kept expecting this song to do stereotypical pop song things, and it always seemed to have a different corner for me to turn. Mad props for the unexpected in electro-pop.
“Nowhere to Be Found,” the first single from Frances Luke Accord‘s most recent album, is about as mature, pristine, and lovely as a folk-pop tune can get; it’s right up there with Josh Ritter and Gregory Alan Isakov. It’s a stunner, then, to find that the rest of Flukeis just as good in a different vein: the airy, major-key mysticism of opener “Who Do You Run From” evokes Shepherd’s Dog and Kiss Each Other Clean-era Iron & Wine. The rest of the album combines the delicate immediacy of the former influences with the expansive arrangements of the latter influence.
“Something Moving” is an appropriate title, as the second song on the record has an arrangement that sounds like running gently through a forest: claps, tambourine, distant auxiliary percussion, woozy strings, and breathy vocals combine to create a warm tune with an unusual groove as its chassis. “Stones I’ve Thrown” and “Egoeye” continue this arrangement style, putting a heavy emphasis on the mood that is created by the many instrumental pieces coming together. “David” starts off as a more direct tune; the band pulls some of the layers back to focus on vocals, lyrics, and saxophone. It doesn’t last long, as Accord expands the simple beginnings into one of the most complex pieces on the record.
Fluke is an engaging, intriguing album that weaves an incredible amount of instruments and sounds together to create a unique mood. The songs can be appreciated on their own, but the album sounds best as a whole, when Frances Luke Accord can tour you through a distinct sonic world. There are many nooks and crannies to explore on Fluke, and you can have a great time finding them all. It’s not a traditional hands-in-the-air summer record, but if you’re in the woods on a lake and take a walk in the next few months, this record would be a great companion.
Printers’s Son by Kalispell adheres to the Gregory Alan Isakov school of folk: direct, serious, modern. Kalispell’s hook is the immediate production; where Isakov likes ghostly reverb and delay, Shane Leonard presents his instruments and voice mostly unadorned.
This choice results in crisp, tight, uncluttered, and clear arrangements throughout. But the album isn’t stark: Leonard cares deeply about arrangements, including wind instruments, strings, and a full band to create wide-open panoramas of sound. (Song titles “In Chicago” and “Gary, IN” give clues to the landscapes he’s sonically describing.) These songs aren’t particularly designed to be catchy, but there are melodic thrills to be had throughout: “Beautiful Doll” features a cascading banjo melody, while “Hand” opens with a memorable acoustic guitar line and keening strings. The title track has a song structure and emotional vibe that are more attuned to singing along.
Still, the joy of this record is not audience participation, but marveling at the serene, intricate work that Leonard has put together. It’s more along the lines of S. Carey than Bon Iver in that regard, although fans of either musician will find much to love in Printer’s Son. The album drops on June 3; you can pre-order it now.
Wilder Adkins‘ Hope and Sorrow is a beautiful record. The Birmingham-by-way-of-metro-Atlanta singer/songwriter has created an impeccable, gorgeous modern folk record that shows off the value of maturity. It’s the sort of record that stretches the limits of my writing ability, making me want to write simply: “Just go listen to this record. You won’t regret it.”
Adkins has been plying the folk trade for a long time; his discography stretches back to 2009. As a result, Hope and Sorrow is a record that avoids the pitfalls of young artists’ work. Adkins is a patient songwriter, knowing exactly when to include a new instrument, bulk up an arrangement, deliver a word, or hold his silence. The tunes here are measured, careful, and well-edited. Instead of making them boring (as our culture of now might assume), this makes them riveting. There is nothing wasted here: no songs are throwaway, no performance is wallpaper, no lyrics should have been left on the cutting-room floor. To repeat: this album is riveting.
Adkins’ skill is in the delicate, tender folk tune; he expertly lays down gentle fingerpicking with arrangements that don’t drag down the lightness of the foundation notes. His voice is perfectly suited to this work: he has a lithe, evocative tenor that is confident without being brash. It’s not whisperfolk; Adkins can sing. But it’s beautifully suited, melodically and volume-wise, to the songs surrounding it. You can see his vocal deftness in the one-two punch of “Mecca” and “When I’m Married.” The first is a thoughtful, reverent religious discussion, and the second is a beautiful, realistic love song; both vocal performances underscore the lyrics and the mood of the song.
Those twin lyrical themes of romance and religion appear throughout the record; the balance between the two topics keeps the record moving along just as well as the engaging songwiting does. The aforementioned tunes are the highlight on both fronts. “Our Love is a Garden,” “Gentle Woman,” and “Cherry Blossoms” are also beautiful love songs; the title track and “Wrestle” hold down the other front well. But those two topics aren’t the only things on the record, as Hope and Sorrow is a full 12 tracks. It’s a testament to Adkins’ expertise that this record never feels weighty or bulky–it’s long, but it’s the best sort of long. I wanted it to be this long.
Hope and Sorrow is a remarkable record; it’s the sort of record that I keep coming back to over and over. It perfectly blends songwriting, arrangement, lyrics, and vocal performances into a can’t-miss release. This is definitely one of the best albums of the year so far, and one that anyone who loves folk music (Barr Brothers, Josh Garrels, Gregory Alan Isakov, and Iron & Wine, especially) should seek out right now.
Jeremy Tuplin‘s Open LettersEP is a gorgeous, swooning, romantic EP that takes full advantage of his lush baritone. Tuplin surrounds his arresting voice with gentle acoustic folk arrangements, all fingerpicking, pump organ, and background strings. The songs are leisurely, unfolding slowly; they’re not dirges, but they certainly aren’t going anywhere quickly.
Standout “Time’s Essence” is a beautiful slice of modern folk that will resonate with those who love The Low Anthem and The Barr Brothers, while “The Morning Sun” has the distant notes and atmosphere of a Gregory Alan Isakov tune. Tuplin’s Open Letters EP creates a tight, careful, ornate beauty over five tracks. It sounds effortless, which is a grand achievement.
1. “Mirrors” – Mos Isley. Triumphant folk-pop that’s exciting without going over the top into cliche.
2. “Glow” – The National Parks. Big instrumental melodies, lots of instruments, charming vocal melodies, subtle-enough-to-not-be-gimmicky underlying electronic beats; this folky indie song is just a blast.
3. “Vintage” – High Dive Heart. Throw technicolor girl pop, white rap, a banjo, and folk-pop harmonies in a blender and you get out this enigmatically engaging song. This song doesn’t make any sense to me in so many ways and yet I love it. It just works. Amazing. (Video direct link: )
4. “Ancient Burial Ground” – Kye Alfred Hillig. Hillig gives us the demos of his new album before it’s released, and you can color me excited: this tune and the handful of others that come with it are chipper musically and intricate lyrically, just like his best work. Watch for Great Falls Memorial Interchange in 2016.
5. “Canada” – Nikki Gregoroff. “The people are nice cross the border,” sings Gregoroff, which is just a really nice thing to write into a Simon and Garfunkel-esque tune.
6. “Chantilly Grace” – Granville Automatic. Bell-clear female vocals lead this tune that looks back to vintage Americana (that fiddle!) and forward to modern alt-country melodies.
7. “Bliss Mill” – Matthew Carter. The laid-back chill vibe and unhurried vocals of Alexi Murdoch meets the shuffle-snare of traditional country/folk for a memorable tune.
8. “Set Sail” – Matt Monoogian. Monoogian’s calm voice leads this acoustic track with an intricate arrangement that pulls the Gregory Alan Isakov trick of feeling both comfortingly small and confidently big.
9. “Bentonville Blues” – Adam Hill. A protest song for the modern day working poor, Hill captures the everyman ethos with great delivery of relatable lyrics, simpple arrangement of singalong melodies, and a the burned-but-not-killed mentality similar to old-time protest work songs.
10. “Itasca County” – Rosa del Duca. The frontman of folk outfit hunters. releases her own album of singer/songwriter tunes that focus on her voice and lyrics, both of which are in fine form on this rolling, harmonica-splashed tune.
11. “Tongue Tied” – Oktoba. That space between soul, folk, and singer/songwriter keeps getting more populated: let in Oktoba, whose offering isn’t as overtly sensuous as some but is just as romantic (and hummable)!
12. “The Blue” – David Porteous. Canadian Porteous beautifully splits the difference between two UK singer/songwriters here by invoking Damien Rice’s sense of intense romantic intimacy and David Gray’s widescreen pop arrangements.
13. “Whirlpool Hymnal” – Matthew Squires and the Learning Disorders. Squires expands his yearning, searching alt-folk to include found sounds–the lyrics are just as thought-provoking and honest as ever.
14. “Playground” – Myopic. The fragile swoon of a violin bounces off the stately plunk of melodic percussion in this thoughtful instrumental piece.
15. “Siphoning Gas” – Luke Redfield. This gentle, ambient soundscape is the sound of looking out the window when rain is coming down and you don’t have to go anywhere or do anything but cuddle up with a blanket and a book in a big bay window and enjoy it.
1. “Spring” – Sam Burchfield. Measured guitar strum and an evocative vocal performance draw me in, but it’s the gentle keys and the ragged drumming that give the song character. The rest of the song just seals the deal. Shades of Brett Dennen here–nothin’ but a good thing. What a single.
2. “Vacation” – Florist. Within seconds the tentative, relatable guitar picking has drawn me in entirely. Emily Sprague’s tender, confessional delivery gives this a magnetic appeal usually reserved for acts like Laura Stephenson, Lady Lamb, and old-school Kimya Dawson.
3. “Little By Little” – Niamh Crowther. The melodic folk-pop is charming, and then she starts singing and it jumps way up into the stratosphere. Her voice is just remarkable. Serious one to watch here.
4. “Nevada City” – John Heart Jackie. Pulls the incredible trick of not feeling like a song, but like part of the environment you were already in, turning the corners brighter and lightening the vibe throughout. The easy maturity of this tune is not to be underrated or underestimated, especially when it bursts into a beautiful crescendo near its midpoint. Undeniably powerful.
5. “Reality Show” – Sam Joole. Adept at reggae and acoustic pop, Joole blends the lyrical and musical sentiments of both into a piece of spot-on social criticism about social media that doubles as a chill-out track.
6. “A Bone to Pick” – Ten Ton Man. The gravelly, circus-like drama of Tom Waits’ work collides with the enthusiastic world-music vibes of Gogol Bordello to create an ominous, memorable track.
7. “Walk Right” – Pete Lanctot and the Stray Dogs. An old-timey revival is the site of this tune, where the stray dogs admonish all those listening to forsake their lives of sin and “walk right.” The vintage sound is updated with great production and a hint of a knowing wink.
8. “15 Step” – Phia. The kalimba-wielding indie-popstress drops a gently mindbending cover of the Radiohead tune with just thumb piano, distant guitar, claps, stomps, and layered vocals. Just whoa.
9. “It’s Not Your Fault” – Gregory Uhlmann. Soft woodwinds deliver pleasant texture to this swaying, loose, thoughtful piece. Uhlmann captures a beautiful, unstructured mood here.
10. “If I Go” – Jake McMullen. Hollow and distant yet visceral and immediate, McMullen creates slowcore acoustic tunes similar to those of Jesse Marchant or Gregory Alan Isakov at his most ethereal. Shades of Damien Jurado’s tortured voice creep in too. It’s gorgeous stuff.
It’s always nice to hear from people again. Ira Lawrence was in a band called Even So in the mid-00s that I really loved–their EP Homecomings and Departures has some tunes that I still listen to, years later. So it’s great to hear his distinct vocal stylings in his solo project Ira Lawrences Haunted Mandolin. His six-song release Elegant Freefall showcases both his vocals and the titular mandolin to great effect.
This EP is composed entirely of mandolin sounds. But before you run for the bluegrassy hills, it’s important to note that distortion, reverb, heavy chord strumming, and pitch augmentation are the name of the game here. There are probably folk tunes buried somewhere in these songs, but with Lawrence’s voice and the remarkable arrangements considered, there’s little you can call these but indie-rock tunes. For examples of the gymnastics that the mandolin goes through, “Lucky Lucretia” sees the mandolin pitch-shifted down to sound like a distorted bass guitar. The title track layers multiple strumming lines on top of each other to create clouds of reverbed mandolin; “Babarbara” throws so many effects at it by the end of the tune that it sounds almost exactly like an electric guitar. I’m not sure how huge Lawrence’s pedal board is, but I would wager that it’s big or that he knows how to wring every last sound out of the few pieces he’s got.
“Warp Drive” is an example of a tune where the effects on the mandolin aren’t as central to the tune (well, at least at the beginning). He does put a pretty huge reverb on his own vocals, though, creating a unique vibe for the tune (similar to how Gregory Alan Isakov reverbs/gently distorts his voice). His vocals are part of the allure of this EP for me, as Lawrence’s tenor has a unique tone and timbre. There’s an edge to his voice that can’t be denied, but he uses it in a melodic way much of the time–he sounds both exasperated and under control. It’s the sort of voice that makes me think of the “dancing about architecture” quote: me trying to explain it cheapens it. Just know that his vocals are great and worth checking out for their own merits.
But it’s ultimately the songs that pull this together: they’re hooky, melodic, and unusual. With such a specific constraint (only sounds from a mandolin), the songs could start to sound similar–Lawrence avoids that pitfall. “Babarbara” is a mid-tempo pop song that could perhaps be a ’90s rock song in a different instrumental milieu. The title track is just as elegant as the title would claim, as the various mandolin lines combine with a careful vocal line to make a beautiful tune. “Jeremy Crackers” sounds like a lost Decemberists song, both in the vocal performance and the songwriting style; “Lucky Lucretia” is noisy and cool. They’re all tunes that make me want to come back to them.
Elegant Freefall by Ira Lawrences Haunted Mandolin is the rare “constraint project” that can be appreciated without knowing what the rules were. These songs stand up on their own as hummable, admirable, thoughtful pieces. I’d recommend this to anyone, but I think it would be particularly relevant for those who are interested in the type of indie-rock that pushes the rules for the sake of wondering what’s out there past them. Highly recommended.
David Wimbish‘s lyrics are incredible, but with so much going on in his 7-to-18-piece indie-rock orchestra The Collection, the lyrics sometimes take a backseat to the enormous amount of things going on around them. His solo EP On Separation strips away some (some) of the musicians to put the focus squarely on his voice and lyrics. The tender, gentle acoustic tunes that result will please fans of the Collection and gather new fans of quiet music under his wing.
In a nod to the solo nature of the work, Wimbish takes the time to write out some explanatory liner notes in the first person. In explaining the title, he writes, “Each song on On Separation deals with different aspects of disconnection, whether it be marital divorce experienced by my friends lately, or self-imposed loss of close friendships from the past.” To whit, standout “Circles and Lines” begins with, “Today she dropped the glass and shattered many things / and you had not yet thought of where you’d set your ring.” Yet not all of the lyrics are so literal, as Wimbish prefers to plumb the interior spaces of the involved parties and observers of the events (“A Ghost and A Scale,” “Back and Forth”). They’re complex, multi-layered lyrics, full of personal musings, places, and religious allusions: Cain and Abel make appearances in their eponymous tune, and the prodigal son makes a reappearance (from the Collection’s “Broken Tether”) in “Lost and Found.” Wimbish’s ability to turn a phrase that both sounds great and has meaning is in top form here.
These lyrics are paired with some of the most beautiful music Wimbish has yet written. “Circles and Lines” pairs the heavy lyrics against a beautiful, fingerpicked, cascading acoustic guitar line. The song builds to the loudest moment on the EP with the inclusion of strings and slapped cello for percussion, but it returns to its delicate roots for the conclusion of the tune. That underscores the approach here: while these are songs that deal with dramatic events, the overall tone and timbre of this EP is quiet and even understated at times (at least in comparison to the weightiness of the lyrics). The rhythms and string arrangement of “Back and Forth” seem a little like a Collection song with the bombast removed–the chiming autoharp of “A Ghost and a Scale” recalls his band as well. But other than those occasional flourishes, these songs do feel like a statement by Wimbish instead of stripped-out versions of full-band work. They’re elegant, not empty.
Part of the understatedness of the release is realized in the sharp focus that Wimbish puts on his voice delivering the lyrics, to the exclusion of complexity elsewhere. This is particularly true in “Cain and Abel,” which uses Wimbish’s voice as both lead and background vocals. Gentle marimba and cello occasionally show up, but this one’s about the voice. Wimbish’s tenor, so often used for roaring in The Collection’s work, is gorgeous in this quieter setting, as his range, tone, and nuances of delivery stand out. (All those are present in The Collection’s work, but as previously noted, there’s a lot more elements going on there.) His voice is soft, clear, and comforting–if you didn’t listen to the lyrics, these tunes would be the sort of thing to lull you peacefully to sleep.
David Wimbish’s On Separation is a beautiful EP that showcases a singer/songwriter with a clear sonic and lyrical vision. Fans of Damien Jurado, Josh Ritter, or Gregory Alan Isakov will find much to love in the music, while fans of the dense, thoughtful lyrics of The Mountain Goats or Sufjan Stevens’ Michigan/Illinois work will celebrate this one. Highly recommended.
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.