I have several friends and relatives who are seriously into Ke$ha. Like, not just “bought the album” into it, but “this album is the soundtrack to my life” and/or “Seriously, listen to all of the songwriting moves on this track” into it. I have listened to Warrior in its entirety, and I like some of it, but it just doesn’t connect with me. I never thought I would find anything that bridged the gap between earnest, up-front electro-pop and singer/songwriter. Then Xoë Wise‘s Breakfast EP happened to me.
I say “happened to me” because it’s not very often that a release broadsides my expectations. I first heard Wise as a pensive acoustic singer/songwriter in 2012. Her new EP Breakfast still has a strong acoustic element, but it’s mashed up with some very svelte electro elements. And that’s real cool. Opener “Too Young” features rapper Nikki Lynette for a few bars amid a clicking beat, grumbling bass synths, and Wise’s calm alto speak/sing. It’s highly unexpected and really fun to listen to. Follow-up “Brunch” is an R&B jam that keeps with the intriguing minimalist production and introduces a clean electric guitar, bringing back a rooted sound I’m familiar with from Wise.
The title track brings Breakfast even closer to the singer/songwriter sound I know, but places it in the context of the clever production that underlines this EP. It’s a brilliant move, turning what could be an average female-fronted acoustic tune into a fascinating part of a continued melodic statement. People only try this sort of prolonged consistency on an album, when they have the time to expound on themes and sounds; Xoë Wise knocks the artistic statement out of the park on a five-track EP. The songwriting and Ethan Stoller‘s production work together seamlessly to really create something unique. By the time that album highlight “Toyota” rolls around, the no-frills acoustic tune fits perfectly into the mood, even without electronic elements. It’s the heart of the EP, showing that Wise and Stoller know how to craft consistency with or without a dominant musical palette. That’s a surprising versatility.
The EP concludes with a sad little jam called “Cigarette Break” that gives closure to the EP in the same way that a rough morning is a fitting end to the crazy night before. The whole EP shines, pointing out different facets of Wise’s sound in exciting and interesting ways. It took me a little bit to adjust my expectations for Breakfast, but after I did, what I found was delicious and highly recommended. (Couldn’t get out without a food pun.)
I’m new to Scout Niblett‘s work, so I don’t have anything to say about how this work fits into her decade-plus of previous releases. I can note, however, that the ghost of Jason Molina hovers lightly over It’s Up to Emma. The solitary, forlorn guitar crunch that so endeared me to Songs: Ohia is the main weapon in Niblett’s arsenal, from opener “Gun” to the is-that-Molina-in-the-strings heaviness of “My Man” to the eerie, haunting cover of “No Scrubs.” Niblett’s voice is wrenching and occasionally howling, drawing out every ounce of emotion from the pipes that she’s working with. This is intense stuff, pulled from quiet, sparse elements that hardly seem able to create such an atmosphere. It’s not a surprise to me that a split 7″ with Songs:Ohia from 2001 is the first thing in her discography.
The same disclaimer I gave to all those trying out Molina’s work applies here: the songs are long, melancholy, and unaccommodating. (Although, some quick research shows that this may be her most approachable work in a while, which is kind of impressive and makes me wonder what the other stuff was like). New listeners are about to submerge in a fully realized world where gut-wrenching minimalism is not something come by accidentally. These songs are supposed to sound like that, and if you’re not down with that, then there are other things to listen to. As it stands, Niblett’s highly specialized brand of sadness is honed to a fine point on It’s Up to Emma. Some will rejoice (while being sad, in keeping with the album’s theme); some will be sad, because they’d rather rejoice. Both are acceptable responses to an uncompromising, fully-realized record.
I have documented my love for Jason Molina’s music all over Independent Clauses. I just got word that a memorial album has been put together to benefit Molina’s survivors. The 39 (!!) songs on the album aren’t all covers of Molina songs, but tributes of various varieties. I love that there’s this much outpouring of support for those that Molina left behind. Give what you can to “Songs:Molina.”
I love alliteration, so here’s some of that in this mix of MP3s.
Acoustic April Mix
1. “Honeycomb Heart” – True Gents. A magnificent chorus powers this indie-folk tune from a unique Scottish outfit.
2. “Leave Me Where I Want to Be” – Safe Haven. Front-porch intimacy flows through this combination of New Orleans jazz and Appalachian Americana.
3. “Grew Up Here” – The End of America. Appalachian harmony and a rootsy instrumental arrangement make this an irresistible nugget.
4. “Maybe It’s Best” – Justin Heron. Shuffle snare, bright guitar tone, and whispery vocals? Yup, I’m in.
5. “Sharks!” – Common Shiner. This band’s website is SayNoToBadPop.com. That’s awesome. Their acoustic-fronted power-pop echoes Something Corporate and Motion City Soundtrack.
6. “Pretty Face” – Among Giants. I love the vocals here: raw, passionate, and real.
7. “Playing Pretend” – Joshua Steven Ling. The deeply saddening passing of Jason Molina has gotten me back into slow-moving, quiet, morose recordings and their particular type of beauty.
8. “The Lionness” – OfeliaDorme. On that note, here’s a beautiful cover of my favorite Jason Molina song.
9. “Myopic” – Jura. Transcendent beauty that invokes The Album Leaf’s sense of patience.
Vic Alvarez has a long history with IC. By talking about his new project Saint Popes, I’ve now covered three of his bands, stretching all the way back to (incredibly) 2004. He’s also written for the site at points. So it’s with a certain confidence that comes from seeing the whole backstory that I can tell you this: The gentle singer/songwriter tunes of Saint Popes’ self-titled EP are my favorite songs that Alvarez has ever attached his name to.
Having a strong collaborator helps: Michelle Keating handles a lot of the vocals. Her strong, clear mezzo-soprano voice fits perfectly with the unadorned, stark arrangements. Even though there are only five entries on the EP, they are varied in style: “Atlas” is a tune reminiscent of the Weepies in its perky yet not overly energetic strumming; “Warm” and “Paperbag” evoke Jason Molina’s slowcore in different ways; “Somewhere” is a charming, peppy pop song. I hear a lot of singer/songwriters, but the spare, tight production cuts through the clutter of what I usually hear.
Even though this band doesn’t share the country affectations that The Civil Wars included in their sound, those looking for a band to fill the post-CW hole in their hearts could do real well to check out Saint Popes. It’s beautiful, crisp, emotional music played without pretense; I don’t ask for much more out of bands.
There are few things more soothing and beautiful than an a cappella choir used to its full potential. The Silver Lake Chorus understands this, and has released the two-song EP Wreckage to prove it. They’ve got Ben Lee producing and A.C. Newman writing on the track, so it can be understood why “Wreckage” is a quirky, upbeat indie-pop tune with piano. It’s fun and clever, but it’s not the jewel. “From the Snow Tipped Hills” is a gorgeous piece that hearkens directly back to what a cappella means in Italian: “in the manner of the chapel.” It shows off what sort or reverent magic choirs can produce for an audience that (potentially) has never heard a full SATB go for an Eric Whitacre piece. Need more proof that it’s worth your time? Justin Vernon of Bon Iver wrote it. Yes. You need to hear this thing right now.
Avant-garde music generally doesn’t agree with me, so I don’t cover it much on IC. But there are exceptions, such as Kai Straw‘s To Pearl Whitney, From Howland Grouse In Loathing. The album was pitched to me as “experimental poetry”; that might make you think of rap, but lead track “sexlovesoul” is an intense a capella piece that blurs the lines between rap and spoken word. The story it tells is one of a relationship found and lost and found, spread over an entire life. It was deeply moving, inspiring me to check out the rest of the 21-song album. What proceeds is a highly idiosyncratic mix of poetry, rapping, electronica, jazz and even some acoustic guitar. The lead is always Straw’s voice, which he has fine-tuned to be precise and highly tonal (even when speaking). The lyrics he sings and speaks are varied, from songs of death and destruction (“The Champion,” “2,000”) to elaborate daydreams (the near-parody “Vanity Fair,” “Boogie Nights”) to relationship troubles (“Drunk,” “sexlovesoul”).
The best tunes are the ones that don’t invest the most in the arrangement; while tunes like “Yakuza 21” and “Dionysius” have well-developed backing beats (squelching electronica and traditional R&B, respectively), taking the focus off the vocals is not the best move for Straw. That’s not because the beats aren’t strong; it’s that his voice is so engaging and intriguing that I want to hear it unfiltered. If you’re into hip-hop for the lyrical prowess, you should check out Kai Straw’s work. I doubt you’ll be disappointed.
Me and My Ribcage by The Widest Smiling Faces doesn’t sound that experimental on first blush. The wistful title track opens the album and introduces the listener to a sound somewhere between the moving soundscapes of The Album Leaf and the minimalist slowcore of Jason Molina and Red House Painters. The high, tentative, child-like vocals tip this off as slightly out of the ordinary, however. The album unfolds as a collection of beautiful, relaxing tunes, not so far off from bands like Empire! Empire! (I Was a Lonely Estate) or Pedro the Lion at its quietest. None of the elements in the album are particularly virtuosic in their performance, but the arrangements of piano, guitar and voice are arresting. If you’re looking for a quiet, melodic, gorgeous album, you should look the way of The Widest Smiling Faces.
I was aware that The Miami had some experimental in them when I reviewed their album “I’ll Be Who You Want Me to Be”, but they ratchet that mode up in their exciting EP “Ring Shouts”. The Miami is a duo that recreates old spirituals, hymns and folk tunes in often-mournful style, stretching the source material in unusual and unexpected ways. “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” has a grating noise butting up against the plain, acoustic accompaniment; this juxtaposition seems to inspire fear in the vocalist/narrator and uneasiness in this listener. The 78 seconds of “Barbed Wire” are an a capella tune with only one person clapping and stomping to back it up, while the swirling, mysterious synths of “Motherless Child” combine with the acoustic guitar and vocals for a heartwrenchingly sad piece.
Then, they throw all that sad stuff overboard and close out the EP with “Kneebone,” a call-and-response tune that is easily the catchiest and happiest tune they’ve ever put out. It’s still got a long introduction that abruptly quits before the vocals come in and a drowsy coda to connect it with the rest of the tunes, but it’s a fun song to hear and to sing along with. Because even the most experimental of us enjoy a good singalong every now and then.
Songs:Ohia plays a critical role in my musical history, somewhat akin to the lack of respect Bob Welch gets for keeping Fleetwood Mac together until they could get around to recording awesome things.
In my transition from “Super Good Feeling” to “Get Lonely,” Songs:Ohia was one of two artists who would entice me to jump from the poppy precipice of Transatlanticism to the downtempo jeremiads of Damien Jurado and The Mountain Goats. Without the influence of those latter two bands, this blog would probably not still exist. So, indirectly, you and I both owe a debt to Jason Molina (and David J of Novi Split, who was the second guide).
The emotions that Elephant Micah‘s Louder Than Thou conjures up in me match almost exactly the ones I felt while listening to Songs:Ohia’s “The Lioness” as a teenager. This is an incredible statement: I had chalked up this intense connection with S:A’s slow, weighty songs up to “my first time.” For a band to repeat in me that sort of emotion amid my now-steady diet of folk and singer/songwriter is stunning.
Pre-Magnolia ELectric Co. Jason Molina originally intrigued me for several reasons. I am intrigued by Joseph O’Connell (the songwriter behind EM) for the same reasons:
1. He is very talented, although the simple musicianship bears no ostentatious markers of technical skill.
2. He imbues songs with honest, weighty emotion.
3. He is unafraid to play a slow, quiet song for a very long time.
I started to feel the old longing during the second track, “Won These Wings.” A slowly thumped tom and sparse yet terse notes on an acoustic guitar create the backdrop for O’Connell’s plaintive voice; far-off background vocals and some sort of woodwind form intermittent ghostly asides. The whole thing just feels heavy; but more than that, it feels compelling. Instead of being wallpaper music, this is gripping. You know those movies where the soundtrack is so integral and vital that it should be credited as a supporting actor? The 7:25 “Won These Wings” is that sort of tune.
The length here is notable in the context of everyone else’s work, but not so much in comparison to the rest of the album. The six songs on Louder Than Thou run just over 36 minutes, meaning that one EM song averages the span of two pop songs. The shambling, uplifting “My Cousin’s King,” the shortest song, clocks in at 4:29. It could have gone longer and been totally fine: these songs sprawl, and they’re all the better for it.
That’s the lesson to be learned from “If I Were a Surfer,” which is the song that caused me to think of Songs:Ohia for the first time in years. The strum pattern isn’t complicated, the drum part isn’t difficult, and the vocal line isn’t virtuosic. But the parts come together in such a heart-rending way that none of that matters. “Let it lie where it lands / I’ll start all over again,” O’Connell sings with female harmony over a graceful, whirring organ. It’s no lyric shooting for the heart of reality, nor is it a hugely orchestrated epic moment. It is, instead, a testament to patience, dignity and craft. It is beautiful.
The skill and hard work it takes to write songs of such seemingly effortless elegance is hard to overstate. Elephant Micah‘s Louder Than Thou is not louder than much, really. But it is far more resonant than most, and that’s why I can’t stop listening to it.
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.