The three songs of Nevernames by Silences hold intimacy and expansiveness in close quarters due to impressive songwriting and an incredible production job. Silences’ sound fits neatly at the intersection of Grizzly Bear’s arrangements, Fleet Foxes’ casual vibes, and Death Cab for Cutie’s vocal styles; this makes for songs that are incredibly easy to listen to but also challenging enough to like with your hipster hat on. If you sometimes turn on music and want it to hug you, Silences might be your band. “Santa Cruz” culminates in soaring beauty that will make you want to hit repeat; “Emma” is inspired more by hushed Iron & Wine folk. It’s a very impressive outing from a band I hope to hear much more about.
The humble, earnest simplicity of Pop and Obachan‘s female-fronted singer/songwriter work reminds me of Waxahatchie. I get that comparison in early, because these raw, quiet tracks have that hard-to-qualify x factor that makes this really worth hearing and not just another person with a guitar. Is it the endearing vocal delivery? Is the vocal melodies? Is it the use of strummed banjo? I don’t know what it is, but I heard Unfurl and immediately said, “yes. that.” If you love the feel of punk bands that slowly turn into alt-country bands and then into straight-up folk-singers (you know who they are), then you’ll love the vibe of Pop and Obachan.
The Debonzo Brothers‘ Carolina Stars does pop-rock that reminds of early 2000s bands like Grandaddy, Vertical Horizon, and the non-“Stacy’s Mom” things Fountains of Wayne did (and yes, they did plenty of those). There’s guitar crunch with some dreamy arrangement layered on it, plenty of emotional angst, but also a warm vibe that keeps this aimed at pop. The five tracks of Carolina Stars are catchy but also invested with sonic depth that keeps things interesting after multiple listens. The title track and “More than This” capture their vibe really well.
Cereus Bright combines acoustic pop and folk in a way that doesn’t diminish either tendency. The band plays really bright, cheerful songs that feature mandolin in a way that sounds like a mandolin (not just like a mandolin playing a guitar part). Oddly, the one sad track is the title track of Happier Than Me. If you’re a fan of Nickel Creek, Cereus Bright will have you tapping your toes, singing along, and recommending them to friends. Not everyone can balance pop and folk without skewing toward one or the other, but Cereus Bright does an impressive job of it. “Stella” in particular will perk your ears.
I don’t listen to Rocky Votolato much anymore, because the intensity of his emotion deeply impacted me at a pretty pivotal point in my life. Rocky is stuck as a historical moment for me, but Austin Miller has a similar vibe that I hope to listen to for a long time.
More Than One Way sees Miller in thoughtful troubadour mode, dispensing calm, comfortable songs with an easy gravitas. “When the Rain Comes” sticks with me long after I stop listening to it; the melodies are arresting, but it’s the tone of his voice and the lyrics that keep coming back to me. “When the rain comes / I will welcome it with open arms / what else am I supposed to do?” Miller posits, and it’s the delivery that turns that from a prosaic statement into a haunting-yet-optimistic one.
Miller doesn’t traffic in overwrought emotions: he’s no Damien Rice, or even Damien Jurado. Miller pulls me in with his calm appraisals of actions, people, and emotions. There’s a lot of action in this album, despite it being a quiet, walking-speed collection of tunes; the titles “Moving On,” “Moving Along,” “I’ll Walk,” and “How Far” show his concern with all things going. His arrangements aren’t big, but they flesh out and differentiate the songs: “How Far” features a pedal steel guitar, “Moving On” includes harmonium, and “Where We Fell” displays piano and stand-up bass. No matter what he uses, it sounds sweet and winsome; Miller sings and plays with beautiful candor.
I’m reminded of Iron & Wine a little, in the tender way which the songs come off, but the arrangements and vocals aren’t that similar there. It’s a mood sort of thing, I suppose. Rocky Votolato really is the best comparison, which is why I started with him. But I don’t want to sell Miller short; these songs can stand on their own, without any RIYLs. If Miller had invented the genre, it’d be quite a nice genre indeed. Those into earnest, calm, beautiful singer/songwriter tunes should go for More Than One Way.
For Tomorrow Will Worry About Itself EP is the fifth release from the immensely productive Fiery Crash in 2013. Instead of being a glut of same-y material, each release has seen Josh Jackson (not the Paste editor) grow as a songwriter. Jackson splits his time between hazy dream pop (heavy on the guitar pedals) and no-frills singer/songwriter fare (early Iron & Wine-style), and he executes both quite well.
Due to my genre loyalties, I’m a bigger fan of the guitar-and-voice ruminations that populate the back half of the album: “Cada Ano (Version Two)” upgrades the standout from June’s Practice Shots by sweetening the vocal performance and tweaking the arrangement to a gentler end. Stealing the show on two different releases, it reminds me of bands like Mojave 3 and Peter Bradley Adams. “Headed Our Way” is the only brand-new song on the back half, and it pairs Jackson in a duet with himself: his baritone low range and his tenor high range. It’s a really effective move that I hope Jackson continues to explore. A relaxed, back-porch rendition of The Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset” adds a nice variety to the set.
The instrumental title track opens the album with intricate guitarwork that shows off Jackson’s composing chops. “Make Sure” and “Close to Big Star” are chill indie-pop tunes which scale back the garage-y vibes that Jackson has explored on previous releases but still keep the dreamy feel.
But it’s “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” that grabbed my attention most. His version of the traditional hymn splits the difference between singer/songwriter and dream-pop, building from humble beginnings to a fully-arranged wonder at the end of the tune. It’s a beautiful rendition of a song that I didn’t think had a lot of creative room left in it after Sufjan Stevens’ masterful version, but Fiery Crash wrings the potential out of it with ragged drums, pedal steel, guitar pedals, and voice. Just beautiful.
Fiery Crash has had quite a 2013, transforming from a untempered outfit awash in reverb to a fine-tuned singer/songwriter project with a clear vision. To say that I expect great things from Fiery Crash is to undersell the great things he’s already accomplishing; I expect that many, many more people will discover Fiery Crash’s greatness soon. For Tomorrow Will Worry About Itself EP is a release you need to hear.
The delicate, personal work of Novi Split is deeply underappreciated. I understand why: the songwriting project of David J specializes in erratically-timed releases that seem purposefully calculated to fly under the radar. His 2004 release Keep Moving blew my mind, so I have powered through these roadblocks ever since then to track down his music. However, not everyone enjoys scouring the corners of the Internet for tunes (2005 forever!), so Novi Split has stayed a mostly personal joy.
But now David J has collected four songs into the Creeping Around Your Face EP, his first proper release since 2011. The two originals and two covers are delicate, gorgeous tunes that showcase everything that is good and right with this band. David J’s gentle voice sounds completely effortless, as his tenor is clear, warm, and precise. He pairs his easygoing vocals with tidy, even fragile fingerpicked acoustic work. If Iron & Wine’s early work had been recorded hi-fi, it may have sounded like this.
The title track opens the set: “hold me in the dark/until the morning light come creeping around your face.” It’s a deeply romantic tune that looks not just at the highs of love, but the trials and travails of commitment to another person: “It’s so hard to be back home/and it’s so brutal to be on your own/and it’s been two weeks now, and I haven’t changed/says we are who we are, and we essentially stay the same.” The strings swell, the banjo plucks, and the drums create a nice backdrop to the optimistic, moving conclusion: “Baby, let’s have another baby,” repeated until David J’s voice fades away.
Iris Dement’s “Our Town” comes next, with David J adding his own arrangement style to it nicely. (You may know it as the song that played throughout the whole last scene of the last episode of Northern Exposure.) David J has an ear for finding songs that have sweetness and sadness in them; among the obscure tracks spread about the Internet are covers of Robyn Hitchcock’s “Madonna of the Wasps” and Material Issue’s “Very First Lie,” which both show off the talent. “Our Town” and the other cover, Daniel Ahearn’s “Light of God,” both have that tension of sweet and sad, which I’m a total sucker for. I don’t think I’ll able to hear the originals without thinking of Novi’s versions. That’s the mark of a great cover.
“Stupid” is a little more upbeat than the other three tunes, but it still retains a gentle, nylon-strings guitar feel. A country vibe rings in this one, with an electric guitar doing its best pedal steel impression. Distant horns give the track a majestic, stately feel, and the overall impact is impressive. It’s clear that a great amount of work went into making these songs sound like they happened effortlessly.
I don’t usually throw down 500 words about four songs, but Novi Split is completely worth the treatment. The Creeping Around Your Face EP is a masterful quartet of tunes by an artist who has been doing this for a very long time. If you’re a fan of intimate, personal, romantic singer/songwriters like Ray LaMontagne and David Ramirez, then you need to know about Novi Split. David J is one of the best songwriters we have writing today, and there needs to be more people on that train.
Jacob Furr, whose fingerpicked marvel FinchesI raved over last June, has a batch of new songs called Farther Shores coming on Tuesday. He kindly allowed us to share the first single “Voices on the Sea” in advance of the release.
The song features a chord-heavy version of folk that nods toward his debut album The Only Road. Keening pedal steel, sparse percussion, and accordion lend a high desert feel to the track. The lyrics deal with regrets and travel, which are two of Furr’s consistent themes. The arrangement, vocals and lyrics work together to create a deep sense of longing. If you’re into storytellers like Damien Jurado, Denison Witmer or the Calexico/Iron+Wine collaboration, you’ll be into this.
In the brilliant Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground 1981-1991, author Michael Azerrad describes Beat Happening as flaunting “rudimentary musicianship and primitive recordings, a retro-pop style, and a fey naivete in a genre that became known as ‘twee-pop’ or ‘love rock.'” Twee would continue on through the ’90s, and its fey naivete would become a driving force in indie-pop (which was twee without the junky recordings). Indie-pop begat indie-folk of Iron + Wine and Sufjan Stevens, which crashed into the singer/songwriter genre just as the latter was trying to differentiate itself from Lilith Fair and alt.country. Thus, the two sides of indie-folk met in the middle to create a new aesthetic, and that (along with a little bit of bluegrass and some Great Depression imagery thrown in along the way) is how we ended up with Mumford and Sons.
All that to say, there’s a serious side and a playful side to indie-folk, and The Ridges most definitely fall on the serious side. The band’s Daytrotter session shows them building on the strings-heavy folk sound that they crafted on their debut EP. The three EP tunes don’t stray much from their previously-recorded incarnations: “Not a Ghost” is still a rambling, shambling, catchy song with atmosphere; “War Bonds” shows a bit of their playful side with a bell kit, while still commenting on “dead friends”; “Overboard” is a sea shanty of merit. The upsides: the strings sound even more vital in these recordings, while the vocalist Victor Rasgatis gets unhinged. If you haven’t heard the Ridges yet, this is as good a way as any.
The real treat is the two unreleased songs. (I expect that a great many more bands will start sending me Daytrotter sessions of new music, because if a band’s up to one-take recording, that’s a five-song EP with no recording costs, yo!) “Dawn of Night” would have fit in perfectly with their self-titled EP, as a raw energy pulses through the tune, punctuated by ragged “oh-oh”s. The underlying intensity that The Ridges bring to the table is something that’s rarely seen in folk; there seems to be something truly ominous about their work, and not in a “ha! look! this is creepy!” sort of way. “Jackson Pollock” tones down the eerie for a four-on-the-floor fast song. Despite the speed, the arrangement is remarkably complex for a live recording, which makes me all the more impressed by The Ridges. The string melodies are especially solid.
The Ridges’ “melodic strengths are honed to a fine point” here, as I hoped in my last review. If you’re into serious indie-folk (Fleet Foxes, Bon Iver, Little Teeth), you should be all over this. Look for the Ridges to make a splash in 2012.
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.