The Gray Havens‘ Ghost of a King is a strikingly diverse record; the duo’s work previously has fallen into piano pop or folk-pop realms, but Ghost sees them expanding their core sound to include cinematic pop-rock, ambient art tunes, and even electro-pop. Their expansion of borders doesn’t diminish at all their continuing maturity in the folk-pop realm, as the album contains some of the best folk-pop tunes they’ve ever written. In short, Ghost of a King shows growth in every area, and that results in an incredible album.
The two points of entry are pretty obvious on this record: “Shadows of the Dawn” and “Diamonds and Gold” both gave me shivers. I don’t get goosebumps very often, and I can’t think of the last time that I got goosebumps twice in one album. “Shadows of the Dawn” is a folk-pop tune that is imbued with a well-tuned sense of the dramatic–the verses are delicate yet taut with tension, while the memorable chorus opens up the song to release the tension. But it’s the triumphant, jubilant counterpoint choral vocals in the third chorus that dropped my jaw. While Dave Radford holds down the lead vocals, a choir led by Licia Radford exultantly sings wordless arias that point toward the transcendence the lyrics call for. I’m doing an injustice even trying to describe it. You have to hear it to understand how affecting and effective it is.
“Diamonds and Gold” is, surprisingly, their full-on electro-pop jaunt, but it’s thoroughly a highlight of the record. Folkies who try to go electro often result in embarrassing facsimiles of the genre, but “Diamonds” hits all the beats of a electro-pop song flawlessly. It’s hands-down the best electro-pop song I’ve heard all year. Dave Radford nails the attitude that you need to have in electro-pop, confidently swaggering his way through a giddy synth atmosphere. “They say we’re crazy / that’s fine / they say we’re out of our mind / well tell’em, tell’em alright / alright / if the world is all we got / then alright, alright / but it’s not,” Radford states, pointing again to the transcendence that is a deep theme of the record. I would be remiss if I didn’t point out the excellent background vocals, again–The Gray Havens really know how to maximize a vocal performance.
Other tunes point in different sonic directions. “Band of Gold” is a romantic, married-person folk-pop tune along the lines of the Lumineers and the Oh Hellos; you’ll be singing along shortly. The title track, “This My Soul,” and “At Last, the King” have a sort of minor-key cinematic cast that reminds me of Imagine Dragons’ great pop tune “Demons”; “Take This Slowly” employs wide-open, organ-seared, major-key folk reminiscent of Josh Ritter’s “Kathleen” (and oh, is it fun). “A Living Hope” is a two-minute tune built on a base of cascading piano notes that crescendos to a haunting climax full of synths, pounding drums, and distant autotuned vocals. It’s a remarkably ambitious track to put on a folk-pop record, recalling some of Gungor’s more adventurous compositions in scope.
Ghost of a King is a remarkable achievement. It’s the rare album with clear heights supported by a large number of high-quality tunes. There’s not a lot of chaff on this record, which is doubly impressive for the wide range of sounds included on the record. The Gray Havens are hitting a stride here, and I am excited to see where they go from here. Right now, though, I’m picking my jaw up off the floor and enjoying Ghost of a King thoroughly. Highly recommended.
The acoustic indie-pop of Living Decent‘s Do What Makes You BraveEPshows a different side of the band, which released their self-titled pop-punk EP in July 2015. Brave relies on the singer/songwriter background of Vic Alvarez, featuring his voice against an acoustic guitar and minimal arrangement around that. The minimalism ranges from nothing but voice and guitar in “Minus 10” to the bass and tambourine of the perky (but still not pop-punk perky) “Crystal Palace” and the crescendoing drums and bass of “Moving the Sun.” The four songs here each maintain a balance between punchy and melancholy–it’s unsurprising that they list “emo” as one of their tags. They could tour with Football, Etc. as part of the emo revival, making music that draws off emo’s forefather influences but sounds modern and relateable.
The standout is closer “I Could Not Be Here,” the most realized of the tunes here: Alvarez’s breathy, earnest tenor is surrounded by warm keys and gentle percussion to create a tune that almost sounds like a Plans-era Death Cab for Cutie song. Living Decent has songwriting chops that they’ve now showed off in two different realms very quickly. They’re an exciting outfit to watch for in 2016.
Distant Cousins’ self-titled EP finds a way to triangulate contemplative folk, folk-pop, and Imagine Dragons-style radio pop in a fun, catchy product. Opener “Taste of Tomorrow” combines all three of their elements in an enthusiastic, sax-blasted tune that reminds me of Magic Giant’s work. “Your Story” is a straight-up-and-down folk pop tune that ropes in female vocalist Jessie Payo for the back-and-forth elements. Closer “For a Moment” is a pristine folk tune buoyed by multiple-part harmonies that sticks out for its beauty. The rest of the tracks on the six-song EP turn up the pop volume and get fun–if you’re into that style of music, Distant Cousins are right on that wavelength. Their debut EP shows off that they can write a snappy tune, and there are flashes of beauty in there too. I’m interested to see where they go next.
The four songs of Marc Maynon‘s Watch Pot have thoroughly ingested British Invasion songcraft but don’t just spit that back out. Instead, Maynon’s songwriting has a bit of a power-pop cast to it at times (“Something to Live For”) and a piano-pop flair at other times (“Sensation,” “Vintage Lens”). Maynon’s high-pitched tenor is deployed nicely throughout the EP; in “Sensation” and “Vintage Lens” his vocals pair especially well with the bright piano tone. Even though he has solid pop bonafides, this isn’t all upbeat major-key work; Maynon has a solid control of mid-tempo and minor-key work. Add in the thoughtful arrangement touches throughout, from strings to synths to trumpet, and you’ve got a solid EP of pop songwriting. Watch Pot is a good slice of sound for fans of formal pop songwriting.
Sundaug‘s Nocturnality is a full album of instrumental compositions that primarily revolve around a fingerpicked acoustic guitar. Each of the 14 tracks is remarkably relaxing, from the gently grooving opener “Pyramid” to the moody closer “Chasing Angels.” The album is strongly cohesive, and you can listen to the album as one long tune if you wish. (It’s particularly good for setting on in an afternoon where you don’t have much to do and just want to chill–I can vouch). Some highlights that stick out (but only ever so slightly–it’s all really good) are “When Solitude Becomes Isolation,” a cascading tune that sounds more contemplative and positive than the title suggests, and “The Submersion,” which pairs pad synths with interesting guitar runs. (Some might not be thrilled with the occasional overture toward new age music, but I don’t think it diminishes the overall impact of the release.) If you’re interested in relaxing guitar-centric music, you should check out Sundaug’s Nocturnality.
1. “Run With Me” – Heather LaRose. A great pop song that has that Imagine Dragons / Magic Giant / Lumineers type of enthusiasm tinged with minor-key drama. You’ll be humming this one.
2. “New Minuits” – Tri-State. This low-slung rock tune escaped from some preternaturally chill realm: it’s smart, cool, moody, lyrically clever and vocally impressive without breaking a sweat.
3. “Nothing to Say” – WOOF. THAT BASS LINE. (Also, this a burbling, frenetic, arpeggiator-decorated mid-’00s indie-pop-rock tune. Tokyo Police Club would be proud.) SERIOUSLY THOUGH. THAT BASS.
4. “Take Me To a Party” – Sweet Spirit. “I’ve got a broken heart / so take me to a party” hollers the lead female vocalist over energetic, fractured rock music that sounds suitably unhinged.
5. “Corduroy” – Redcast. Gosh, there’s just something irresistible about a fresh-faced, clean-scrubbed pop-rock group with equal parts Beatles, twee indie-pop, and The Cars references.
6. “Soldiers” – Swim Season. Everything about this track makes way more success when you realize that it’s about to be summer in the band’s native Australia. This summery electro-rock jam slinks, sways and swaggers its way into your ears.
7. “Movies” – Captain Kudzu. Meticulous slacker pop seems like a paradox, but Captain Kudzu’s carefully crafted tune here sounds excellently like it’s not trying too hard. Foresty, moody vibes track with the easiness, making it an intriguing song.
8. “Captive” – WYLDR. Temper Trap + Passion Pit + a dash of Colony House = radio gold.
9. “Every Day” – Dream Culture. Here’s a funky psych-rock nugget with one foot firmly in the ’70s and one in outer space. The tension between grounded riffing and free-floating atmosphere pulls at each other in all the right ways.
10. “Hey Little League” – Michael Daughtry. John Mayer’s suave alt-pop touch collides with some tight ’90s pop-rock vibes to turn out this tune.
11. “Time to Share” – Model Village. Grows from a delicate pop tune to a surprising, swirling post-disco tune without ever losing a gentle touch.
12. “You Have Saved Our Lives, We Are Eternally Grateful” – Wovoka Gentle. Chiming voices float over shape-shifting synths, bouncy guitars, and an overall joyous mood. It’s kind of like a female-fronted Freelance Whales, only weirder in the best possible way.
Double albums are a massive endeavor in every sense of the word. They take a long time to write, record, listen to, and review. All of these things are relative: it does not take as long to write a double album as it does to listen to one, but it does take much longer than average to review a double album than it does a single one.
So Mon Draggor is probably wondering why I keep saying “soon! soon!” in relation to this review, especially since I love the album so much–it should be easy to write about something you’re really into, right? But these things take time, even (especially?) when I’m reviewing a dense, textured, complex, beautiful album such as Pushing Buttons / Pulling Strings.
Further complicating the work of this double album is that there are two different genres: Pushing Buttons is a nine-track electro-rock album reminiscent of The Naked and the Famous, Passion Pit, and Bloc Party. Pulling Strings‘s nine tracks are more organically oriented, although the electronic elements spill over into the indie-rock more than the indie rock spills over into the electro.
Take “Painted Wings,” which is most electro cut of Pushing Buttons. There’s a bit of Muse’s high-drama vocals, sweeping soundscapes made by layers of distant synths, and massively reverbed percussion booms. There’s a “whoa-oh” section. It’s a slow-jam club banger of the cosmic variety, instead of the sensual variety–it feels like outer space.
“Armageddon Baby” has many of the same elements, but with more straight-ahead EDM/trance beats and energy. Opener “Everyone Runs” fits Passion Pit stabs of synths over a wubby, pulsing bass for a tune that would make fans of the aforementioned and Imagine Dragons happy.
I know it’s not cool to invoke Imagine Dragons, but they know how to write an infectious pop song. So does Mon Draggor. The vocal melodies throughout both albums are the sort that stick in your mind. Richard Jankovich’s vocals have the high-pitched tone that can firm up into perfect pop melodies or get yelpy into ecstatic/aggrieved howls (see Bright Eyes). The ease with which the songs go through your ears and into your mind is a credit: it’s hard to write 18 songs that are all distinct enough that the listener remembers them. Sure, I can hum individual tracks like “On Your Own” because of the soaring vocals, but keeping a whole double album going is a rare skill. I don’t want to skip tracks here, and that is a rare thing in the double album.
I want to keep touting Pushing Buttons, because I could (“Secret Science”! “We Found the Limit”!)–but I have to get to Pulling Strings before I start writing a tome. (That double album problem again.) Pulling Strings is a more relaxed affair, but it’s not quite folk. It has more affinity with The National, a band that’s quiet in their own idiosyncratic way and has the ability to get loud. The best example of this is “It’s Quiet Now,” which could be lazily called folk but has a lot more moving parts that create a unique atmosphere. The trilling, keening guitar is reminiscent of The Walkmen’s work, but the thrumming bass, gentle fingerpicking and delicate piano create a unique atmosphere. It’s a standout in regard to either album.
“Recon by Candlelight” starts with a similarly spacious arrangement of fingerpicked guitar and delicate piano before expanding into a beautiful tune that grows by adding more and more parts on top of each other. (That’s an electro song structure and arrangement style peeking through.) “Curtains” starts off with looped violin notes before layering vocoder on top; the giddy experimentation and unusual juxtapositions call to mind Sufjan Stevens’ The Age of Adz, but in a darker sonic realm. The song eventually cranks up with drums and screaming guitar; it’s a moving, beautifully arranged tune. “Love is All Around” blurs the lines between the two albums, as electronic beats and fuzzy synths live in harmony with melancholy electric guitar. The eerie “Magic Shilo” does the same. They’re all excellent.
Pushing Buttons / Pulling Strings is that rare double album that’s worth every minute. Richard Jankovich is at the top of his game, delivering an astonishing amount of thoughtful, well-arranged work in two different (but subtly related) genres. If you’re into electronic pop or indie-rock with an electronic bent, Mon Draggor will scratch both itches in grand fashion.
Alan Doyle‘s So Let’s Go is an incredibly fun amalgam of foot-stomping folk, celtic vibes, and radio pop conventions that makes it a goal to connect with its audience. From the Imagine Dragons-esque whistling of the opening title track to the infectious barroom chant of “1, 2, 3, 4” to the claps in alt-pop/folk-pop tune “I Can’t Dance Without You,” there’s barely a moment throughout that isn’t written for maximum participant inclusion. There are woah-ohs, sing-alongs, clapping, stomping, and all manner of dramatic moments that make for great pop songs.
Doyle is the frontman of long-running band Great Big Sea, and the songwriting experience shows here. This is the sort of album that makes a convincing argument for the necessity of pop radio: how could anybody who likes pop songs not enjoy Alan Doyle’s music if they just heard it? It’s not a giant artistic statement, it’s not depthy or weighty, it’s just an incredible straight-ahead pop album. If you like fun, happy, uplifting pop songs, you need to check out So Let’s Go.
Magic Giant‘s Free 3-Song EP is the catchiest, funniest, and most fun pop-folk EP I’ve heard in a long time. Not since Twin Forks’ debut has a band had such a laser-guided sense of how melodies catch an ear. But Magic Giant is much more than your average folk-pop outfit. This quartet combines influences from Jason Mraz, Mumford & Sons, Muse, and dubstep to create an irresistible brew.
Muse has long known that the strength of pop music is that the various genres can be infinitely combined, if you spend enough time making the sounds mesh together; Magic Giant is all in on that game. “Let’s Start Again” opens with a trad-style fiddle run, then segues into a Jason Mraz-style alt-pop verse and pre-chorus. The lyrics are both modern and timeless, talking about cell phones and the desire to start over with a lover. Then the chorus explodes in a stuttering sampled horn line, a blaring marching band line, a soaring fiddle, and wub-style synth bass. It seems like it shouldn’t work, but it works perfectly. It’s like Imagine Dragons, but folkier. It’s rave-folk, but it’s not even the best example of rave-folk on the EP. (The fact that there are so many disparate influences coming together is what makes this the “funniest” EP I’ve heard in a while.)
“The Dawn” starts off with Lumineers-style fingerpicking and group harmony vocals before bursting into a full folk-pop arrangement, pulling the arrangement back to pick up the tempo, then turning into full-on Mumford & Sons: banjo, roar vocals, thrashing drums. There are also some synths for atmosphere. It’s tough to explain how effective this song is, because it sounds fully derivative on paper and yet completely exciting in the ear. The last chorus has some more stomping, four-on-the-floor dance beats, but it’s still not the best rave-folk song on this EP.
Finally we get to “Glass Heart,” which is my early candidate (basically, my bar) for song of the year. It starts off with a slow-moving banjo line, doo-wop background vocals, and tape noise for effect. It suddenly transforms by adding a saxophone section (alto/tenor/bari, by the sounds of it) stabbing its way through the verse. The chorus drops a great vocal line, but it’s the next section that makes the song: a jubilant, exultant horn line combined with the techno beat, wub bass, and enthusiastic background vocals (you can guess what they are) that have me waving my hands in the air. Then they layer the chorus over the bridge and seriously I’m in a one-man headphones club.
Rave-folk isn’t a thing yet, but Magic Giant is seriously trying to make it happen. They’re a shoo-in to go on tour with Imagine Dragons, but I daresay they’re more exciting to me than Imagine Dragons. They’re not going to be winning any traditional Americana awards, but I kinda doubt that’s the audience they’re shooting for. If you’re into huge, shoot-for-the-charts pop songs, then Magic Giant should be in your ears. You can get the free EP by signing up for their e-mail list.
Here’s my recounting of the best EPs of the year that was.
1. Drift Wood Miracle – Between Three and Four. (Review) After a triumphant emo/punk debut, DWM built on their artsy sentiment and churned out a well-textured, complex, mature follow-up EP. Heavy and light intermingle in one consistent flow of music that honestly sounds like one really long track. The songwriting instincts are already incredibly well-developed, which makes me excited for their future work.
2. Afterlife Parade – A Million Miles Away. (Review) What can I say? It’s the best pop-rock EP I’ve heard all year: it’s basically Coldplay, U2, and Imagine Dragons in a blender. Haters gonna hate. Lovers gonna love.
3. Arctic Tern – Hopeful Heart. (Review) Romantic in both the literary and literal sense of the word, these lush, gorgeous tunes blew me away with their arrangement and production.
4. Morgan Mecaskey – Lover Less Wild. (Review) One of the most ambitious releases of the year, Mecaskey attempts to cram dozens of ideas into a very short space. The resulting adventure is a National-esque indie-rock base packed full of twists and turns.
5. Smoke Season – Hot Coals Cold Souls. (Review) Like Morgan Mecaskey, a whiplash bullet train ride through multiple genres. Smoke Season leans more toward the alt-rock end of things for their remarkable tunes, ending up like a folkier version of Muse.
Honorable Mention: Death and the Penguin – Accidents Happen. (Review) The first rush of listening to Death and the Penguin was an adrenaline jolt the likes of which I haven’t felt in a long time. Post-hardcore of the finest order.
I’ve been posting singles and videos from Colony House since January, because their alt-rock had that anthemic edge which usually portends great things. And while “Keep On Keepin’ On,” “Silhouettes,” and “Waiting for My Time to Come” are great by themselves, they’re amazing when crammed together and packaged with 11 other great tunes on When I Was Younger.
“Moving Forward” is the sort of deep cut that bands realize is amazing late in the album’s cycle, haphazardly throw to radio, and manage to get a career-defining hit from (see “All These Things That I’ve Done” by the Killers). It has a jubilant riff that turns into a revelatory, shiver-inducing “whoa-oh” coda; that arching melody is the sort that Coldplay at its Viva La Vida finest was putting out. It’s the type I wear out the repeat button over.
“Waiting For My Time To Come” is still great in album version–more whoa-ohs, horns, and general good vibes. In other places Colony House echoes an amped-up Black Keys (“2:20”), the Killers, U2, Imagine Dragons, ’80s new-wave (“Roll With the Punches”), and more. Those influences might read like a derivative mess, but they sound like a eye-opening wonder. I haven’t heard anything this immediately engaging and potentially career-launching since I heard .fun’s Some Nights. And we all know how that turned out. If you like fun, cheery alt-rock-pop music, you’ll love Colony House.
Americo‘s style of rock would fit neatly in with Spoon: the rhythms, melodies, and instrumental performances fit together in a very tight, almost clockwork-like way. As a result, their recent release I is a tight, polished EP instead of a frantic, shoot-from-the-hip garage-rock set of tunes. “Stylized” doesn’t mean a lot in its dictionary definition, but the music-world connotations of restless aesthetes crafting and honing sounds seems to (mostly) fit here.
I say “mostly” because the duo also has laidback vibes as one of the core tenets of the sound. Opener “Blastin’ Off” has a stuttering strum and a liberal use of space as its calling cards, not giant guitar antics. (You have to wait for second track “Sled” for those.) “Slingshot” has a ’90s slackerish vibe in the way the chords lazily morph into each other; “Perfect World” relies on rim-clicks and jazzy vibes. This is a band that has both chops and restraint–most bands don’t even have one of those things. (Some of my favorite bands are just fine without either one.) They can even get a little weird and experimental if you’d like (“Prizes”).
Americo’s I shows off a well-developed songwriting sensibility that will appeal to fans of thoughtful rockers. The duo has made it clear that they can rock out and a lot of other things. That versatility could blossom into a particular style down the road, or they could stick with the Swiss Army Knife approach. Either way, I is commendable.
Depending on your interest in the genre, Brother O’ Brother is either carrying on the tradition of or thoroughly indebted to The White Stripes and The Black Keys. The guitar and drums duo rips through heavy blues rock stompers with screaming guitars, howling vocals, and basic drumming. The band’s self-titled record doesn’t let up for the 30+ minute runtime; there are no pop-friendly arena rock tunes or quirky acoustic ditties to break the mood. From the outraged opener “Without Love” to the last high-hat snap of “Mice & Men,” Chris Banta barrels, blasts, struts, strains, and powers his way through through riff-heavy tunes galore.
“Means to Be a Woman” is a highlight of the set. After its bluesy guitar intro reminiscent of the White Stripes, Banta lets his voice take most of the drama. He alternates between snarling speak-singing in the verses and outright howling in the chorus. If you’re into heavy guitars and moral indignation at how the media portrays women, you’ll be all over this tune. Throughout the album, Banta is interested in spiritual and moral themes; it gives another edge to the screaming guitars. Everyone needs some good righteous indignation over the injustices of the world now and then. If that sounds like a good time, Brother O’ Brother can hook you up.
The line between indie-rock and Imagine Dragons-style pop-rock is not so far, sometimes–and if you’re a band that has previously flown their “U2 FAN” flag, maybe it’s not such a bad thing to be compared to pop hitmakers. Afterlife Parade is a indie-rock/pop-rock band that writes emotionally-charged anthems with huge choruses, whoa-oh sections, and verses that just sound like they belong there. AP’s sound is tight, polished, and fun on the three-song Afterlife Parade EP–what more could you want?
Opener “Break Away” does everything right to be a big hit: there’s a perky, bubbly opening riff, a yearning vocal line in the verse (a la Coldplay), a soaring vocal chorus hook, really strong crescendo layering throughout the song, and a culminating whoa-oh section. It’s pretty close to a perfect pop song, which is not a term I dole out liberally. “Break Away” should be in your life.
The other two tracks are similarly moving pop tunes. “Conquer It All” has a bit more of a confrontational vibe reminiscent of Needtobreathe and vocal melodies again reminiscent of Coldplay. The slow build of “A Million Miles Away” brings a more pensive, quiet side of the band to the forefront. They’re both really engaging tunes, but it’s hard to top the A+ that is “Break Away.”
Are you an unabashed fan of pop music? By all means, run/don’t walk to Afterlife Parade. If you’re a more undercover fan of the brasher charms, sidle your way on over. Just get there, because this is how it’s done, folks.