Jacob Furr’s Sierra Madre is a wide-open, spacious alt-country/folk album that evokes fully-realized outfits like Hiss Golden Messenger, Magnolia Electric Co., and even Calexico. Furr’s weathered tenor sets the tone for the record: his sturdy yet lithe vocals mirror the music’s ability to thunder and whisper. The title track/opener is the thunder part: crunchy distorted guitars lead into a bass-led stomp that perfectly frames the opening line “Look into the darkened sky.” Closer “Easy Waves” brings more of that electric guitar fire, ratcheting up to a tremendous, towering album conclusion.
But Furr got his start as a folk troubadour, and there’s still good evidence of that here. The central songs of the album see Furr with just his voice and a fingerpicked guitar, telling stories like “The River” and “El Paso.” These are intense, minor-key works, not the major-key folk ramblers you might expect; they are almost as emotionally tumultuous as the stomping rockers are sonically tumultuous. The complexity of Furr’s voice and delivery are on full display here, showing him to be a careful, delicate performer in this vein. Sierra Madre is a complex, serious album that will be deeply enjoyed by fans of thoughtful, intense alt-country/folk.
Without further adieu, numbers 1-10 in the best albums of the year.
Album of the Year: The Collection – Ars Moriendi. (Review) This album epitomizes the type of music I look for: intricate, complex arrangements of acoustic-led, folk-inspired indie-pop tunes with deeply thoughtful lyrics about life, death, and religion. The fact that you can shout along to half of the tunes only makes this more impressive. This was a no-contest winner for album of the year.
2. Kye Alfred Hillig – Real Snow. (Review) Temporarily shedding the acoustic singer/songwriter mantle, Hillig struck gold with a set of electro anthems cut through with his well-developed indie-pop songwriting techniques and evocative, thought-provoking lyrics. “None of Them Know Me Now” is the jaaaaaaam.
3. St. Even – Self-titled. (Review) I love concrete poetry that relies on images to portray meaning instead of adjectives. St. Even knocks that type of work out of the ballpark here, pairing it with playful, unexpected, herky-jerky, innovative arrangements of horns, piano, and strings. “Home Is Where You Hang Your Head” is a stand-out among stand-outs.
4. Brittany Jean and Will Copps – Places. (Review) Giant washes of sound meet indie-rock emotion over acoustic instruments to create something that’s not exactly electronica, indie-rock, or singer/songwriter. It hit me in unexpected ways, and always from unexpected angles.
5. The Fox and the Bird – Darkest Hours. (Review) The folk-pop boom is largely over, meaning that we can get back to people doing folk-pop because it’s their thing, not because it’s a trend. The Fox and the Bird produced the best straight folk-pop this year, both lyrically and musically. Challenging lyrics and breezy, easy-to-love music is a great combo for folk-pop, and Darkest Hours has both.
6. Cancellieri – Closet Songs. (Review) Welcome to Mount Pleasant was a gorgeous album, but this collection of demos, b-sides, and covers was the Cancellieri release that stole the most of my listening time this year. Ryan Hutchens’ delicate voice is beautifully juxtaposed against a single acoustic guitar, putting his songwriting, song re-envisionments, and impeccable taste in covers on display. A perfect chill-out album.
7. Little Chief – Lion’s Den. (Review) Arkansas folk-pop outfit Little Chief took the path trod by The Head and the Heart in creating chamber-pop arrangements to fit on their pastoral, rolling songwriting ways. The subtlety and maturity in the songwriting is astonishing from such a young outfit. If you need an album to drive around to in fall or winter, here’s your disc.
8. Novi Split – If Not This, Then What / Keep Moving Disc 2 / Spare Songs / Split. (Reviews) My favorite hyper-personal, intimate songwriting project got a massive bump in exposure this year. David J took the recordings of a decade that were spread about the internet and finally compiled them in one place. I’ve heard almost all of them before, but the fact that they’re official and can be easily accessed caused me to listen through them again. They’re all still amazing examples of painfully poignant bedroom singer/songwriter work. Do yourself a favor and get acquainted with Novi Split.
9. M. Lockwood Porter – 27. (Review) Porter’s second full-length expanded his alt-country sound in dynamic ways while developing his lyrical bent. The results are memorable rock tracks (“I Know You’re Gonna Leave Me”) and memorable ballads (“Mountains”), a rare thing indeed.
10. Jacob Furr – Trails and Traces. (Review) The subject matter of Trails and Traces is even heavier than Ars Moriendi, but Furr takes a nimble, light approach to his alt-country. Instead of wallowing in despair, Furr’s heartbreaking lyrics are backed up with hopeful, searching melodies. I’d usually say “not for the faint of heart” on matters like these, but Furr has truly put together one that speaks hope for the hurting and hopeless. Search on, friends.
Breakups are tough, no way around it–but there are things that are harder. When Jacob Furr sings “Does love still sit on our front porch / although your chair is empty?” in “Drift Away,” he’s not referencing some girl who ran off (or that he chased off with bad behavior); he’s talking about his wife, who died of cancer suddenly. I’m not a man to spill other people’s news, so here’s a long article about the album’s backstory from the Dallas Observer. But I mention it because it gives an accurate perspective on Trails and Traces.
With such heavy subject matter, it’s particularly impressive that these alt-country songs are so nimble, light, and upbeat. I don’t mean that we’ve got party rock going on here, but that songs like “Mockingbird,” “One More Round” and “Blakes Song” all rely on swift fingerpicking, major keys, gentle moods, and an overall melodic feeling of wistful calm. To have gone through the wringer and come out alive and intact is one thing; to be able to sing calmly, even hopefully, about it is another thing altogether.
There are some louder country-rock tunes here: opener “Branches” and follow-up “Lines” both get that Texas feel into the full-band arrangements. “Branches” has a wide-open rock feel, while “Lines” gets some honky-tonk vibe going on. Single “Falling Stars” is led by a squalling, reverb-heavy guitar line that evokes The Walkmen (a cross-genre reference, but an apt one). The end of the wrenching “I Remember You,” one of the few times that the depths of sorrow and angst emerge, is a crushing stomp populated by towering distorted guitars, staccato drums, and howling vocals. So there’s definitely some oomph and crunch here, if you’re into that.
But I’m most excited about the calmer tracks: “Drift Away,” “Sunrise Slow” and the three I mentioned earlier, where Furr’s wandering troubadour spirit shines. When Furr lets his voice and guitar do the heavy lifting, the songs push past their rock counterparts in moving quality. “Drift Away” is not the saddest sounding song on the record, nor is it the most devastating in lyric (although it’s pretty close). It does have a expertly nuanced vocal performance that grabs me and vaults the song above its counterparts into a highlight. “Blakes Song” pairs a beautiful guitar line with a mournful vocal line. These are gorgeous songs that are so neatly constructed that you can miss the depth if you don’t pay attention. Listen close.
“Mockingbird” closes the record on an upbeat note. It’s particularly telling of Furr’s intention with the album that he didn’t close with “I Remember You” or “Blakes Song”; he could have sent the listener away with a brutal reminder of loss and the difficulties of this world. Instead, he closes the whole album with a proclamation: “I sing to break the dying calm.” There is a darkness and a heaviness to death, and it affects the living. But it doesn’t have to define the living, as Furr knows. It’s a wonderful thing to discover; it’s an amazing thing to leave a listener with.
Furr labels Trails and Traces as Americana, as many people have been doing these days. He does bring in elements of folk-rock, country-rock, and folk fingerpicking; maybe that sound is what Americana means these days. Regardless of the genre labels, Trails and Traces is a powerful record about life and death that doesn’t get bogged down in morose musings–a rare and remarkable release, indeed.
Jacob Furr’s Trails and Traces is going to a heavy album, as he wrote it after losing his young wife to cancer. The mournful folk opening of “Falling Stars” turns into a raging alt-country stomper by the end of the track. To cap it off, the wide-open, Western videography is gorgeous.
I can’t get The Collection off my mind, and this exuberant video for “The Gown of Green” is one of the reasons why. I’m particularly a fan of the bassist in this clip, who is going hard in the paint 100%. The cellist, clarinetist, and trombonist all are stoked to be there, but for real. The bassist. He knows what is up.
Gosh, Brother O Brother make such desperate-sounding songs. From the raucous guitars to the thrashing drums to outraged vocal delivery, it sounds like “Without Love” is about to come crashing down on you at all times. In times like these, though, perhaps we need desperate outrage at the lack of love in the world.
In addition to being able to sing and shred wicked guitar riffs, Megafauna’s Dani Neff can dance. She puts all three of those skills on display for the “Haunted Factory” clip.
I get sent a lot of crowdfunding projects (Kickstarter, Indiegogo, Pledgemusic, others), but I only feature the ones I really believe in. I don’t even feature all of the Kickstarters that I personally support.
I believe in Jacob Furr’s Indiegogo campaign for new album Trails and Traces. The Fort Worth singer/songwriter is (to date) the only person who has made me tear up while watching a crowdfunding video. The new song in the video is gorgeous, and the story he tells in the text of the video is beautiful.
If you’re a fan of Josh Ritter, Gregory Alan Isakov, or old-school Joe Pug, you’ll love Jacob Furr’s new work. Hopefully you’ll love it enough to support its existence.
I usually like to get this post to a nice round number, but I didn’t get it there this year. Here’s what my year sounded like, y’all! This post isn’t ranked; instead, it’s a playlist of sorts. My ranked post will come tomorrow.
Jacob Furr‘s folk EP Farther Shores opens up with the high desert feel of “Voices on the Sea,” which he kindly allowed us to debut. Furr’s fully-realized vision gives a strategically-placed shaker equal footing with accordion and pedal steel in creating the mood, while warbling background voices conjure images of awe-inspiring ghost riders. “Set Your Mind” follows in the same Southwestern sort of mindset before giving way to the more emotional last three tunes of the set. The fingerpicked “Farewell Old Friend” is an intimate, quiet tune that sits in stark contrast to the stately, carefully-arranged tracks before it. “Sailed Away” and “Sunrise in the City” show that he can arrange for emotional effect as well as the theatrical, but the fragile beauty of “Farewell Old Friend” gets to the heart of the matter: leaving means sadness at what’s behind and wonder at what’s before. Here’s to that idea, and to one of the first truly memorable songs I’ve heard all year.
Soft Swells‘ self-titled debut has several things going for it: the duo knows how to orchestrate a mid-tempo pop song, mesh fuzzy synths and acoustic instruments together seamlessly, and use a good melody when they’ve got it. The first two qualities appear throughout the ten-song album, while the third is mostly concentrated in the first half of the order. “Every Little Thing” establishes the soft but energetic sound and sells it with a desperate white boy melody/lyric of “You look so much smarter than me!” The killer track here is “Overrated,” which kept me humming along for a few days with perky synths and vocal melodies in a narrator’s attempt to “trust this love isn’t overrated.” The acoustic-led “Say It Like You Mean It” breaks up the consistent feel that the band has established, but it doesn’t stick—the band is too enamored with its titular sound to build this into a Transatlanticism-style indie-pop adventure. Still, the early songs are a ride in and of themselves.
FU is a Japanese indie-rock band led an enthusiastic guitarist/vocalist who goes by Ubi Quitous. I mention the nationality for two reasons: A) to make the point that despite the country, there’s not that much difference in indie rock structure and B) To explain why I can’t quote most of the song titles in ON THE EARTH!!!. And that first point rings remarkably true, as the three-piece blazes through guitar-based music that calls up everything from The Appleseed Cast’s optimistically growing epics to Rage Against the Machine’s guitar noodling to the Gin Blossoms’ mid-’90s alt-countryish guitar rock. I have no idea if FU has heard of any of these bands, but American listeners will make the comparisons quickly. The fact that all of this is mashed into one sound is distinctly interesting; it’s held together by neat guitar/bass interplay and the fascinating, beautiful guitar tone. The one cultural difference: the theatrical, affected vocal style is a bit of an acquired taste, but I think it’s worth it. The 16-song album offers up interesting offerings throughout, but, admittedly, there will be some who can’t get through the element noted in the previous sentence. For those on the opposite end of the spectrum, the band will be in America later this year.
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.
Much new folk music doesn’t sound like old folk music; it’s merely an appropriation of the instruments and aesthetic of folk (i.e. the West London Folk Scene, with the occasional exception of Johnny Flynn). There’s nothing wrong with playing strummy pop on acoustic instruments; I feel that the world could use more of that, not less. But in terms of rustic beauty, I’ve been coming up short recently without going deep into the country genre.
And not all folk music was country, so this is disappointing. That’s why Jacob Furr‘s music is so refreshing. His three-song EP Finches features opener “Running,” which appropriates the rustic sound of a single acoustic guitar and solo voice beautifully. The songwriting feels timeless in a way that many other folk songs don’t: there’s a bit of gospel undertone in the way he enters the chorus; the harmonica is mournful and high; the rhythm has a gentle, plodding bass line evocative of country music. By the time Furr gently sings, “Hold the world inside your hands” in his calm tenor halfway through, I’m totally sold.
“Still as My Heart” calls up Nick Drake comparisons in the guitar’s melodic structure, and that’s high praise over here. If you haven’t been introduced to Nick Drake, hear this now. If you have, be excited about Jacob Furr. It’s not rustic, but man, it’s just as great to hear someone enfolding Drake influences (or reinventing a rarely found wheel, if Furr came by it naturally).
If that weren’t enough, Furr flexes his modern folk muscles and a bit of Dylan influence on “Marching on to Zion.” Even though the first two thrill me, the third is the only one that gives me straight-up shivers. The poignantly delivered line “Don’t let your worry/steal your joy away” is followed by three percussive guitar taps and a sweetly played harmonica; I don’t know why it is such a powerful moment, but it is.
If you’re a fan of folk music of any variety, Finches by Jacob Furr should be in heavy rotation. It is a flawless trio of beautiful folk tunes, and I don’t use that word lightly. Get it right here for free.
The talented Mr. Jacob Furr sent me a message the other day encouraging me to check out Aaron Hale. Mr. Hale had released a little Christmas EP, and it was going for the low, low price of free over at his website. Being a fan of Christmas, free, and things Jacob Furr recommends, I immediately went. I was excited to hear the calm, folk sensibilities of Aaron Hale come through my speakers minutes later.
Aaron Hale’s Hark! The Christmas EP features one original [“Good News! (For Everyone!).”] and two standards (“I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” and “The First Noel”), all played on an acoustic guitar and accompanied by a plaintive voice. Hale’s voice is simple, unadorned and beautiful. His acoustic guitar playing is the same. Even when other instruments join the party, even when a choir joins the mix (!), it sounds intimate and humble. The highlight is “The First Noel,” which is sounds simply gorgeous in the stark version that Hale plays. The humming at the end of the song really captures the unashamed dignity of this release.
The original “Good News! (For Everyone).” is excellent as well; instead of trying to write an epic Christmas song that will end up in the Great American Songbook, Hale wrote a great folk song that has Christmas words. It’s catchy, its chorus is “Glory to God in the Highest!”, and there are sleigh bells. What else could you ask for? It’s going on my Christmas music list, along with the other two songs on this EP. You should definitely check out this little EP if you like folk, Christmas, or Christmas songs.
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.