Bright Eyes’ I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning left an indelible mark on my musical brain. I’ve never liked anything that Conor Oberst has put out so thoroughly: the neurotic energy, youthful fervor, and surrealist lyrics fit perfectly with that specific rambunctious alt-country backdrop. I seek out shades of those raw, impassioned blasts of acoustic guitar and barked vocals wherever I can. Josiah and the Bonnevilles‘ Cold BloodEP is the direct successor of that landmark album. It’s a stake in the ground that establishes the outfit as one to watch: a specific vision expertly handled within the goalposts of a genre framework that people are already familiar with.
The title track took five seconds to entrance me: Josiah calls out into empty space “I’ve got a girl / she only puts out water in the night, in the day, and in the morning” over a nimble fingerpicking pattern. His tenor has a rough edge on it, tempered a bit by the gentle reverb added to it: it’s a magnetic, arresting voice. The rest of the band tag-teams their band through the song: a solitary tambourine is joined by a shaker to create the full percussion line; the round, full bass opens the song up; and the marimba (what) gives a mysterious air to the tune. Instruments come in and fall out (strings! background vocals!), but the whole thing is guided confidently toward a full product by Josiah’s bent, worried lyrics and evocative vocal performance. It’s an expertly crafted tune that you need to hear.
The other three tunes build on the promise of the first track. “Can You Hear It” amps up the singalong vibe and throws down a jaunty piano line to buoy the major-key song. “Lie to Me” returns to the minor key and bashes out a full-band apology to a girl in a relationship that’s falling apart; this one reprises the tambourine from “Cold Blood” and the piano of “Can You Hear It,” but puts in a full drumkit to come up with the most rock-oriented track here. It would sound like Dawes if Josiah’s voice sounded anything like Taylor Goldsmith’s. Closer “Long Gone” features more fingerpicking in a slightly unusual pattern that seems to be tripping over itself trying to get to the end of the riff, perfectly mirroring the narrator’s activity in the song. The band floats in for a final chorus, but it’s most a solo effort, showing Josiah’s troubadour abilities.
The four-song EP is gone much too quickly, but the songs are of such diversity (and such high quality) that you can just loop it back to the beginning and you’ll be good to go for another twelve minutes (or 24, or 36, or…). It’s that good. Call it alt-country, alt-folk, whatever; you’ll know what it is when you hear it. The shadow of youthful alt-countriers past hangs over it but never engulfs it; instead Josiah points the way toward his own path. I’m verging on the purple prose here, but the songs really are that good. Josiah and the Bonneville’s Cold Blood EP is a remarkable first effort that shows off unique arranging skills, intriguing vocals, and strong overall songs. I can’t wait to hear more from this outfit. Highly recommended.
(There were a ton of good songs these last two weeks, so I included a lot more than usual in this post. Here’s to a good problem to have: too many tunes!)
1. “Can You Hear It” – Josiah and the Bonnevilles. A piano-led cross between mid-’00s alt-country (The New Amsterdams, I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning) and contemporary indie-pop whose enthusiasm just jumps out of the speakers.
2. “Mammoth” – Brothers Among Wera. Astonishingly, this is the second song I’ve heard in the last few weeks sung from the perspective of a mammoth at the end of the Ice Age: where Rock, Paper, Cynic’s tune was played for laughs, this one’s a bit more serious in its lyrics. However, the music here is an invigorating blast of folk-pop that has arrangements similar to Of Monsters and Men but tempos more similar to Twin Forks. The horns are just excellent here.
3. “The Man That I’ve Become” – Night Drifting. A blast of sunshine in indie-pop form, this tune has a skittering guitar line, jubilant vocals, and a bass line that bounces all over the place. There’s just enough going to be really interesting without getting hectic.
4. “Time Goes On” – Brothers. Sometimes you don’t have to break ground, you just have to nail the best elements of the formula. Brothers’ tune here is a straightforward folk tune with round acoustic guitar tone in a fingerpicked style, shuffle-snare drumming, root-chord bass with some nice fills, and sing-along vocal melodies. It just does everything I’m looking for in a folk tune (there’s even an organ solo, which isn’t strictly necessary for a folk tune but is greatly appreciated). Keep on keepin’ on, Brothers.
5. “Rose Petals” – Kindatheart. Here’s a fun tune: “Rose Petals” has indie-pop sensibilities (delicate vocal and guitar melodies, feathery background vocals) played at power-pop tempos.
6. “Stray Cats” – Robbing Johnny. There’s more vocal attitude packed into this single infectious acoustic-pop song than into some entire albums; John Murrell has impressive charisma and presence.
7. “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning” – Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams. Swampy, immediate, forceful, neo-gothic gospel that raised my eyebrows. It’s recorded immaculately, arranged dramatically (whoa organ), and performed intensely. It’s a workout, and I was only listening to it.
8. “THOUGHTS” – Gabriele Miracle. This unique tune ties the theatricality of flamenco guitar and vocals to a minimalist percussion line and mesmerizing guitar lines. It’s a wild trip.
9. “One Good Night” – Candy Cigarettes. Somewhere in the corners of my mind is a picture of a forlorn individual standing outside a hotel while the camera pans backwards away to show off the bleak desolation of the parking lot, barely-lit swimming pool, and the run-down building. The shot is fuzzy around the edges, a sympathetic reading of the place that’s seen better days. I immediately thought of this image when I heard this slice-of-life, mid-tempo acoustic jam.
10. “I Do” – Meiko. I’m a sucker for an intimate singer/songwriter tune about marital bliss, and Meiko’s latest single pushes all those buttons. The strings are great as well.
11. “Single Mountain Fiddle” – Jared Hard. Hard has a country-style tone to his baritone and a bit of country structure to his vocal melodies, but the folk-style arrangement is clean, uncluttered, and engaging.
12. “Thirteen Years Astray” – Glider Pilots. Speaking of big, empty spaces, Glider Pilots plays the kind of slow-motion alt-country that Mojave 3 was so good at. This song is heartbreaking without going for any of the big moves–it simply is infused with the majestic sense of sadness that seems so fitting.
13. “Washed Away” – Katmaz. The album’s called Nautical Things, and this relaxing, easygoing acoustic tune certainly has a gentle tidal vibe to it: there’s a slow, rolling vibe evoked from the picking pattern and a hazy, fluid mood coming out of the vocals.
14. “Never Heard Nothin’” – Galapaghost. A confident vocal performance of a resigned, sad melody plays on top of an insistent ukulele strum. The tune doesn’t outstay its welcome, leaving me wanting more.
15. “passing” – Dead Skunk. Lo-fi singer/songwriter material that falls somewhere between the hazy mood of Iron & Wine’s early work and the angular guitar work of The Mountain Goats’ early phase. It’s warm and relatable.
16. “Anyhow Anyway Anyday” – Wholewheat. Lo-fi work with casio that evokes the old-school lo-fi masters: there’s a clear song structure, off-kilter pun-making, and a clear vision that includes the tape hiss as a vital part of the tune. Lo-fi fans should jump at this.
17. “We Fell Apart” – Abby Litman. Evocative singer/songwriter work that hangs on subtle, thoughtful lyrical shifts and pleasingly melancholy guitar fingerpicking.
18. “Kissing Faded (feat. Timid Soul)” – Bohkeh. If Amanaguchi tried to write a chillwave song, it might sound like this neon-colored, glitchy-yet-chill electro piece.
19. “twentythousand” – Exes. Slow-jam electro-indie with delicate vocals and a convincing emotional palette. The smart use of vocals throughout is a highlight.
Some bands fit easily into categories, and some bands are Wall-Eyed. Kentucky Gentleman is a seven-song, half-hour blast of sound that combines garage rock, folk-punk, a nortena-style horn line, and cabaret pop (that piano intro to “Cold Black Ink”) into one brooding, foreboding experience.
It’s got punk energy, nasally vocals, and a textured approach to songwriting that goes completely against any stereotypes you might figure for the first two elements. Maybe it’s like a less-glam, more-folk version of My Chemical Romance, but I’m stretching here. Wall-Eyed’s well-developed sound is just tough to explain, which sucks if your job is putting that sound in words. It’s great, however, if you’re a listener interested in unique and interesting sounds.
Opener “Wise County” and follow-up “Cold Black Ink” set the darkly manic stage with performances fit for an alternate-universe version of Conor Oberst’s unhinged side. “Exile” flips the script and drops a perky alt-country tune that wouldn’t be out of place next to “Another Traveling Song” on I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning. It even includes whistling! “I Want to Wreck Your Car” later returns to the major key in a ’50s-inspired pop song, but mostly Wall-Eyed wants to purvey tunes of grit and dusk here. And when you’re good at it, more power to you.
“Holy War” amps up the volume of the horn line and uses it as a blaring, stabbing hip-hop-style marching outfit. The whole song is built off the fat, staccato rhythms, giving the tune an inescapable swagger. It’s only 2:12, but you know it’s there for all 132 seconds. “Red Marks” follows it up, and it sounds like a murder ballad (!). The band ties it all together with closer “The Long Folk Revival”: five and a half minutes of booming arrangements, hectic vocals, and ominous vibes. It’s impressive.
Kentucky Gentleman is a release that is far more consistent than my ability to write about it would purport. These songs all hang together in a tight cohort: this is very much an album. Wall-Eyed has a unique sound that they’ve developed to a fine point here, and that pays off for them and the listener. If you’re into adventurous, seedy versions of Americana, you’ll be thrilled to hear Wall-Eyed.
Airy, bright, anthemic indie-rock is having a heyday right now: with folk-inspired musicians leaning ever more on the “inspired” and less on the “folk,” tons of bands are embracing big, bright, organic-feeling indie-rock.
Leanids is one of them. The Swedish outfit’s debut album A Wildly mines complex fingerpicking folk territory that fellow countryman The Tallest Man on Earth has done some work in (“Candid & Frank,” “All I Wanted,” the title track), while also nodding toward more power-pop inclinations (“And Then”).
But it’s on tunes like “Trust” that Leanids shine best, mixing complex rhythms, varying tempos, pop melodies, and art-school sentiments into warm, shifting, bursting tracks. The vocalist’s high, occasionally nasal voice is a perfect foil for the sound, as it has a jubilant, celebratory aspect about it. It’s easy to imagine this band as a less-mopey version of Copeland, or a alternate future in which Bright Eyes had turned the treble way up on his guitar. But in this reality, this talented folk-inspired indie-rock act is writing beautiful and interesting tunes. Highly recommended.
I think that Dawes has some pretty outstanding songwriting, even though most of their songs are way depressing. Their country-rock sound is fresh-faced and tight, making it the perfect sort of alt-country to put forward into the indie-rock world. Robert Francis and the Night Tide‘s Heaven has a similar vibe, combining the tightly compacted sound of power-pop, the rhythms of alt-country, and vocal melodies of modern indie rock. Standout “Baby Was the Devil” also includes a passing resemblance to the synth-powered jams of M83, and that’s no coincidence either. Francis is making the most of the sounds he’s hearing and crafting them into his own tunes.
He’s a bit of a chameleon; lead single “Love is a Chemical” is a straightforward country-rocker, while the title track is a soul-inspired crooner. “Pain” is reminiscent of full-band folk like Fleet Foxes, while “Wasted on You” is an acoustic-and-voice track that is a solid-gold lonely troubadour tune reminiscent of I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning-era Bright Eyes. (Standout “I’ve Been Meaning to Call” is also voice-and-guitar; he’s damn good at that, and he should do more of it.) The Josh Ritter-esque rhythms of “Take You to the Water” explode into a synth-pop song (!). But if he circles alt-country, he always comes back to it–nothing ever sounds completely out of that sphere. In the same way that it’s hard to describe Dawes without saying, “It just sounds really good,” it’s hard to describe Francis without it. Heaven is a strong collection of alt-country/folk tunes that never repeat themselves. Sounds pretty great to me.
I love songs that buck trends. It’s refreshing to hear a song that operates in the way its author feels is right, instead of a predetermined “right” pattern. This sort of idiosyncratic songwriting has caused me to shower praise on Regina Spektor’s Soviet Kitsch (severaltimes), Mansions’ Best of the Bees and The Mountain Goats’ entire discography.
Superstar Runner’s “Advice From People Who Shouldn’t Give It (Don’t Take It)” is my latest favorite wrong song. Songwriter Ben Johnson builds the tune from a slow, gently fingerpicked intro to a fast-paced group-sing accompanied by piano and beatboxing over the span of 3:43. There’s no real chorus; instead, Johnson sprinkles repeated melodies and phrases throughout the tune. (Also, yes, the percussion is a guy beatboxing.) No matter; “Advice” feels incredibly organic, passionate and relatable.
It made me think of Nitsuh Abebe’s recent rumination that “The motor behind [Fiona] Apple’s shows seemed to be inside her– some kind of emotion with no cultural reference point.” We want songwriters to tell us stuff about themselves and ourselves, so we rightly decry songwriters who try to cop someone else’s style or produce weirdness for the sake of weirdness. When idiosyncratic, weird songwriting meets an emotion that’s difficult to express, that’s where the magic happens. And “Advice From People Who Shouldn’t Give It (Don’t Take It)” is certainly magic.
The emotion that’s so difficult has much to do with the tensions and strains that come with leaving a birth family (physically and metaphorically) to start a new family. There’s plenty of bildungsroman novels and songs, but much less ink spilled over pinpointing how and when we change from one family to the other as our primary marker (especially when this generation puts it off so much). That sprawling tension is all over the title and content of Heritage/Lineage/Hand-Me Downs/Scars (Your Birthmarks Do Not Bother Me).
Johnson’s highlight track and emotive themes peg him in unique (and potentially difficult) territory, but he remains in the realm of the relatable by doing his homework. Instead of going all tUnE-yArDs with “Advice” as a jumping off point, Johnson reveals a solo songwriting project that calls to mind the passionate, low-complexity arrangements prominent in the early periods of both Bright Eyes and The Mountain Goats. Johnson has learned how to use song structures, lyrics, melodies and moods for differentiation; each song is unique and interesting.
“You must fall down / if you ever want to grow up / You must leave town / if you ever want to find home,” Johnson sings in “Growing Pain,” an I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning—style country tune complete with snare shuffle and up/down bass line. His unadorned, sincere tenor keeps the song from ever coming unhinged. That control of conviction allows for the tender “Just a Lullaby,” the adamant semi-title track “Your Birthmarks Do Not Bother Me” and the wistful “Cribs and Kids” to all peacefully exist on the same album. The only place his stridency becomes a liability is when he lets his strumming and singing roar on the overdramatic “Dylan Come Home,” which draws too hard on Dashboard Confessional influences.
With 11 songs with meaningful lyrics spread over nearly 40 minutes, there’s a lot to digest in Heritage/Lineage/Hand-Me Downs/Scars (Your Birthmarks Do Not Bother Me). But Johnson’s songwriting skill is such that this feels like a guided tour instead of an art spectacle, and that marks Superstar Runner as a rising talent.
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.
I often wonder how artists title things. It’s become a little less of a mystery since I started writing my own albums, but I’m still boggled sometimes. Jacob Magers’ EP Pendulums is named after not only the least entertaining song on his EP, but the only one that relies on a gimmick.
See, Jacob Magers’ folk-inspired music is melodic, spacious, and engrossing; from the choir of “ah”s opening up “Point of Reference” to the trumpets on “Shanghai,” this EP is faultlessly entertaining. Except. Except. The title track “Pendulums” uses what sounds like an inverted and backwards loop of “Life in Technicolor” by Coldplay as its basis. It sounds weird, and it doesn’t contribute to the song at all. The song that follows after the goofy gimmick is solid, but it’s tarnished by the spectre of the odd loop. I have no clue why Magers chose to use the weird loop, or why he chose to use it as the title track, because there are wonders to behold elsewhere.
Jacob Magers is a supreme storyteller, and the best moments of this album are the most fully-realized stories. “Overboard and Down” is the last thoughts of a drowning sailor; “Smiling at Strangers” is the tragic tale of a woeful bet. “Shanghai,” the highlight of the EP, is the tale of two separated lovers longing to get back together.
The songwriting in “Shanghai” makes the tale pop with excellence, as Magers eschews stripped down folk antics for a more fully-realized sound, reminescent of Margot and the Nuclear So and Sos or maybe even I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning-era Bright Eyes. There are trumpets, violins, twinkling electric guitar, bass guitar, and even a drum kit filling out the song. It sounds wonderful. It’s easily the best track here, as Magers sounds the most comfortable within the confines of the song. That confidence makes the melodies glow with a warmth and passion that are hinted at throughout the album. When Magers calls out “No, no, no!” and the violins pick up his sorrow with frantic bowing, it feels like the Decemberists but without the jagged edges.
In short, the best songs here are pop songs full of warmth and good storytelling. Magers’ voice and guitar produce melodies that are simply enjoyable. Other than that very odd track in the middle of the EP, Magers’ Pendulums is quite an exciting and well-realized piece. I hope to hear more from him.
Clock Hands Strangle suffered from a peculiar syndrome when I was reviewing this album. I enjoyed this album so much that I put it in my car and started listening to it like I would if it were an album that I purchased from a record store. But when I do that, I don’t think about things like “when I need to have it reviewed by” and things of that nature. Hey, we’re definitely not pros here at IC. Only here will producing a fantastic album actually delay your review. Sorry.
But Disticatti is an incredible album that deserves the words I’m about to lavish on it. It’s a folk/punk album, and the punctuation is chosen particularly. It’s not folk-punk, where the folk has a whole lot of punk strumming and attitude (O Death comes to mind) or folk punk, which is a punk band playing folk instruments (The Violent Femmes, for example). This is a band that plays folk and punk in equal measure. Continue readingThere's Folk and Punk in Clock Hands' Stranglehold…
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.