Builder of the House‘s Ornaments is way more Christmas in July than actually a December record. The acoustic album is warm, sunny, mellow, and happy. The tunes unspool at an easy pace, unhurried and unworried. If you’re in a bad mood and want to slowly rise out of it, I can’t think of a better record for it. The standout title track has a bit of Lord Huron in the melodic structure, while “When No One Is Here” feels like a mood-inverted Rocky Votolato song. Smooth, elegant, and yet crisp in its arrangements, this album just hits the spot for lazy summer days and aspirational winter ones. Highly recommended.
As jittery and frenetic as that last one was calm and relaxing, Emperor X‘s Oversleepers International is a feast for fans of that spot where pop-punk, alt-folk, indie-pop, literary studies, political science, and psychology intersect. In other terms, it’s as if late ’90s John Darnielle joined the Weakerthans instead of being compared to them.
“Wasted on the Senate Floor” is a verbal blitzkrieg married to a frantic acoustic-punk band; “Schopenhauer in Berlin” slows down the pace enough for the lyrics to be understandable but still requires you to look up who Schopenhauer is. Elsewhere, Emperor X goes all wacky Ben Folds (“Riot for Descendant Command”), references Anonymous and North Korea in a song called “Low Orbit Ion Cannon” (!!), and creates one of the weirdest travel journals ever (that also doubles as a breakup tune of sorts; it’s the title track, because of course).
Also there’s a techno-dance song and an ambient tune. The English town of Dorset and Vilnius, Lithuania are involved. The songs are crazy and memorable, musically and lyrically–what else could you ask for? Highly recommended.
Zach Winters‘ latest folk records were delicate-yet-intense constructions of great seriousness and import. On To Have You Around, Winters sounds downright loose. “Sometimes I Wonder” starts off in his traditionally ghostly acoustic vein, but turns into a more-than-subtly funky pop song by chorus. It is rad. “If the Sun is Shining” doubles down and gets a funky bass line on a stand-up bass and snazzily jazzy horns involved.
“Do You Really” starts off with the line “taking a shower with a known carcinogen” and proceeds to be a “chill out, stop worrying” song. “Love My Woman” is exactly what you would expect from the title and previous descriptions. Even the instrumental “Buffalo” has a chipper vibe. It’s a new look for Winters, and it’s a great one. If you’re looking for some acoustic-fronted, low-key-funky pop songs, look no further for a great time. Highly recommended.
1. “Friends” – Marsicans. Marsicans appeared fully-formed writing masterful indie-pop-rock songs. I have no idea how that happened, but we’re all beneficiaries. This one manages to get heavy on the lyrical content and yet still manages to be one of the catchiest songs I’ve heard since … uh … “Swimming” by Marsicans.
2. “My Roommate Is a Snake and the Landlord’s a Bat” – Gregory Pepper and His Problems. If the conceit of Sleigh Bells is “hardcore guitars tamed by pop melodies,” the conceit of Pepper’s new album Black Metal Demo Tape is “sludge metal guitar and indie pop melodies.” This particular track starts off as a doomy dirge before transitioning into a early-Weezer power-pop tribute to metal. It’s a fun ride the whole way through the track. The rest of the album is equally inventive, charming, and gloomy (sometimes in a tongue-in-cheek sort of way, but also sometimes not).
3. “Weathering” – moonweather. Fans of the acoustic work on Modest Mouse’s Good News album will love the unique vocal style and swaying, shambling, enthusiastic folk arrangement of this tune. The lilting, floating horns/string arrangement is excellent.
4. “€30,000” – Emperor X. If John Darnielle had collaborated with Pedro the Lion in between his All Hail West Texas and Tallahassee days, the results would have sounded as enigmatic and engaging as this incredible track. It’s almost pointless to tag this with genres–it’s a thoughtful, passionate, wild indie-pop (okay, I did it anyway) track.
5. “Unbroken Chains” – WolfCryer. If you’re not listening to WolfCryer yet, you’re missing out on some of the most vital, important folk songs being sung today. Baumann’s vocal delivery, vocal melodies, and lyrics are all top-shelf in this weary, burdened protest tune.
7. “I Won’t Rest Until” – Brianna Gaither. Following in the vein of Moda Spira, this tune seamlessly blends electro-pop synths, instrospective singer/songwriter piano, soulful vocals, and indie-rock drums for a thoroughly modern-sounding take on serious pop.
8. “We Notice Homes When They Break” – Loyal Wife. An earnest, charming love song that’s part alt-country (via the blaring organ), part indie-pop (through the vocal tone and vocal melodies), and part singer/songwriter (through the lyrics).
9. “Hold On” – Midnight Pilot. The title track to Midnight Pilot’s latest EP is a distillation of their Paul Simon-meets-Americana sound, a yearning piano-driven ballad augmented by lovely fluttering strings and capped off by a beautiful male vocal performance. The vocal melodies in the chorus are catchy and sophisticated, a balance rarely struck well.
10. “Alone with the Stars” – Ofeliadorme. Portishead-style trip-hop with a heavy dose of spacey/ambient synths for atmosphere. The video is in black and white because the song sounds like it is in noir tones.
11. “Eternally” – Julia Lucille. Fans of the complex emotional states of Julianna Barwick will find much to love in this track, which has similar focus on wordless vocals (although not looped and layered ones) to convey the dramatic, almost mystical mood. This track does have a full band supporting Lucille’s voice, and the band’s patient, thoughtful accompaniment creates a dusky evening for her voice to wander through.
12. “Islands III” – Svarta Stugan. Instead of releasing a video, this Swedish post-rock outfit released a video game. Set in a gray, bleak warzone environment, the game has elements of Helicopter Game and a side-scrolling space shooter. (It’s fun!) The song itself is a slowly-moving, minor-key, guitar-heavy post-rock piece of the Godspeed You Black Emperor! school. The game and the song really mesh well–it was a great idea.
Redvers Bailey‘s if you want to fly you’ve got to let go is a charming, evocative album that sounds like a cross between The Mountain Goats, Belle and Sebastian, and Wes Anderson. Whoa, you might be thinking, that’s a lot of hipstery junk. Well sure. But if you’re into that sort of thing, this is the sort of thing you’ll really like.
For instance, opener “Young Romance” contains 450 words, some of which are Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, microfibre cloth, and several puns about the word “arm.” Follow-on “Elephant Ballerina” contains 537 words and includes the fact that a group of angels is a murmuration, some characters doing Gangnam Style, and “a hundred Michael Jackson zombies filling the dance floor.” Both of these tunes include only acoustic guitar and Bailey’s quirky, endearing, affected tenor (except for a very brief intrusion by a pseudo-marching band to the latter tune). By this point you’re in or you’re out, but if you’re in, here’s some more information.
Past those two opening tunes, things level out a bit into a melodic singer/songwriter with a Mountain Goats bent. “You and Me and My VW” includes a glockenspiel over the fingerpicking to give the pop tune a eternally-sunny Avalanche City vibe, while “The Key to Happiness” has furious, chunky guitar chords straight out of John Darnielle’s early ’90s period. “Living Well is the Best Revenge” and “Sarah” are ballads that lean heavily on the descriptive lyrics instead of the quirky guitar-based songwriting; they fit with the earlier songs through a similar hyper-specific lyrical disposition and Bailey’s voice, but musically they’re a lot different.
Still, Bailey wraps up the collection with the title track, a tune just as verbose, humorous, and enthusiastic as the opening two tunes. The track is a mission statement of sorts, relating the poignant yet still smile-inducing story of how Bailey ended up trying (and failing) to disavow being a musician. (Spoiler alert: he comes back to music.) It’s the perfect mid-point between the earnest emotionalism of his quiet tracks and the passionate theatricality of his poppier tracks.
If you’re into self-aware singer-songwriters with a huge vocabulary and tons of cultural references, you’ll find a gem in Redvers Bailey. if you want to fly is a whirlwind trip through someone else’s mind, and it’s a thoroughly invigorating experience. Here’s to knowing what you do and doing it unabashedly.
Lee Reit‘s self-titled record is largely played on a nylon-stringed guitar. In addition to adding a gentle sonic quality to the tunes, those strings import Spanish and Latin American connotations to the nine songs included here. When Reit’s evocative vocal tone and narrative vocal delivery are added in, the result is an engrossing, calming album full of intriguing tunes.
Opener “Dream Another Night” gives a good look at Reit’s guitar playing and his suave, subtly dramatic baritone vocal tone. The rolling fingerpicking is underscored by an insistent, shuffling, brushed drumbeat that would fit in a country tune; the constant press forward creates a tension against the guitar line and Reit’s easygoing vocal delivery. That tension holds even when Caitlin Marie Bell takes the mic for a verse; it’s a pleasant sort of push and pull that engages me in the tune.
There are Spanish vibes in “Dream Another Night,” both sonic and visual. The sonic ones aren’t as pronounced as they are in later songs, but the choice of all-white clothes for the band in the video gives the clip a light, airy feel that makes me think of relaxing languidly in a Spanish vineyard. (We’re honored to premiere the video above today!) “The Pleasure of the Fall” has a dusky Spanish nightclub vibe–not Ibiza, but 1920s literary expat Spanish nightclub. (The distant trumpet and sighing strings reinforce the initial thought.) “Visions of Eternity” amps up this style by incorporating Dylan-esque, cryptic, religious/political/social commentary and ratcheting up the minor-key drama. “Thanks for the Lessons” calls back to that Spanish vineyard, while also pointing toward Parachutes-era Coldplay work.
Most of the tunes on the record benefit from the control Reit has of his voice. “The Pleasure of the Fall” allows him to accentuate different points of the narrative by modifying the register and tone of his voice, from light and high to low and serious. It sounds like a simple transaction, but it’s not: there’s a significant, mysterious gravitas that he’s able to conjure up with the vocal shifts. He’s also great at delivering phrases and words, filling particular ones with meaning just by inflecting them in a certain way (“Thanks for the Lessons” and “Grace Alone” in particular, although it’s evident everywhere).
It’s not all Latin American vibes–“Grace Alone” is folky, even with hints of blues and gospel vibes. The fast-paced, keys-laden “Here, As in Heaven” has a speak/sing, Lou Reed/CAKE thing going on, which presents a very different angle on Reit’s songwriting. But in general, this is a walking-speed, unhurried album. “Wheel Within a Wheel” and “Shangri La,” the chronological center of the record, are flowing, relaxed tunes that make me want to go on a low-stress beach vacation–they’re indicative of the overall response I have to the record.
Lee Reit’s self-titled record is one that can be appreciated for its beauty immediately and for its subtlety over multiple listens. Like John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats (although in a very different milieu), Reit has developed his voice to be a fine-tuned instrument for delivering melodies and lyrics that stick in my head and keep me coming back. You could cover a Lee Reit song, but you wouldn’t sing it the way that he does. That’s a distinctive mark. If you’re into slowcore acoustic (Mark Kozelek, Songs: Ohia, Mojave 3) or thoughtful acoustic work (Josh Ritter, Joe Pug, Jason Isbell), you’ll enjoy Lee Reit’s work.
1. “I Touch My Face in Hyperspace Oh Yeah” – Devin James Fry. You shouldn’t need my encouragement to listen to a song with a title so enigmatic and intriguing, but if you do, the fiery, wild-eyed psych-folk-rock is just as immediately engaging and mind-expanding as the title.
2. “Cheap Shades” – Chris Staples. Staples tosses off lyrics in this gentle, walking-speed acoustic tune as if they were easy to come by, as if they weren’t complex and unique and deeply thoughtful. This doesn’t sound like the Mountain Goats at all, but fans of John Darnielle will hear the lyrical kinship (even if the music is closer to Sufjan’s Michigan than anything TMG has put out, except maybe Get Lonely). If you’re of the age and vintage that 238’s “Modern Day Prayer” is tattooed on your consciousness, get prepared to have your mind blown: this is that Chris Staples.
3. “Can’t Undo This” – Heather Bond. It’s tough to do a dramatic, introspective ballad without getting formalist or maudlin. Bond balances gravitas and vulnerability to come up with a searing, poignant, piano-driven tune.
4. “Take You Away” – The National Parks. Handclaps, pizzicato violin, punchy horns, and bright-eyed guy/girl vocals buoy this cross between orchestral-folk-pop, party-friendly indie-pop-rock, and even some disco vibes (!). Weighty genre labels aside, this is a cheery, thoughtful tune that does more than bash out chords on a well-trod road.
5. “Ida” – El Tryptophan. Was Pet Sounds an orchestral explosion of the Phil Spector sound? If so, “Ida” could fit in the chronological and sonic space right between ’60s girl-pop arrangements and Brian Wilson’s masterpiece (with some Velvet Underground thrown in for good measure). [Editor’s note: El Tryptophan is now known as Gryphon Rue.]
6. “Pink Lemonade” – Monogold. Sometimes the title is all you need to know.
8. “Kids” – Dara Sisterhen. Somehow manages to blend country, ’50s pop, and folk-pop into one breezy, carefree tune perfect for your next road trip.
9. “The Script” – The Treacherous French. Almost any accordion-laden acoustic tune is going to come off like a sea shanty; the washboard percussion, enthusiastic high-tenor vocal performance, and “whoa-ohs” solidify the notion.
10. “Willingham” – Echo Bloom. Somehow combines the murky sounds of a forest, high-drama noir vocals, indie-rock slinkiness, and ghostly aura. Wildly inventive.
11. “Little Dreamer” – Charlotte & Magon. Delicate electric guitar, gently dramatic vocals, and an overall sense of lazy Saturday mornings.
12. “Gotta Wanna” – Gun Outfit. I turn the key and the engine hums. I turn out of the gas station and back onto an empty Arizona highway, headed back toward California. The insistent drumming underscores my sense of motion, but the vocals and guitar lean back to make sure that everyone knows it’s not all that urgent. We’re gonna hang out and enjoy ourselves when we get there; we’ll enjoy it on the way, too.
13. “Hold Hands for Dry Land” – Oryx and Crake. The gleeful community feel of Funeral was part of what made it so engaging: Oryx and Crake develop that same sort of group vibe in this punchy-yet-thoughtful melodic indie-rock track. Anyone named after a Margaret Atwood novel is asking for your full attention–they reward, both musically and lyrically.
Chris Staples’ “Dark Side of the Moon” pairs old clips about the reaction to a space launch with a earnest, plaintively hooky acoustic pop tune. It’s a great tune and a great video.
Stein Sang’s “House of Sticks” video tells the story of a tumultuous (but not totally broken) relationship. The cinematography is great, and the song fits excellently.
Peach Kelli Pop’s clip for “Princess Castle 1987” sees the female quartet running around a city in full Princess Peach dresses. It is a hilarious and fitting clip for the bubblegum pop garage rock of PKP.
Iron & Wine’s “Everyone’s Summer of ’95” clip features semi-pro wrestling prominently–maybe Sam Beam and John Darnielle should hook and have a discussion about how the sport impacts their creative processes (The Mountain Goats’ recently-released Beat the Champ is about wrestling.) The video is tender, thoughtful, and poignant.
I’ve been covering More than Skies for a while, because their blend of folk, indie-rock, and emo/punk is a unique one. On their self-titled double album, Adam Tomlinson’s brainchild sprawls out in all directions, delivering a powerful sound that encompasses all three of its genres on a spectrum. The band is adept at switching between the three within the same song, often staging them back to back for maximum effect. Their adherence to any particular sound is only so great as is called for by the tune: The emotions powering these tracks are what dictate how loud or quiet they should be. This allows center stage to be taken by swooping cellos, soaring violins, crunchy electric guitar riffs, gentle finger-picked acoustic lines, and Tomlinson’s creaky voice at different points throughout the album.
Tomlinson’s voice is an important point here: his nasal vocal tones aren’t hidden in any way, shape, or form. People who like the vocals (which could be compared to those of MeWithoutYou’s Aaron Weiss, Neutral Milk Hotel’s Jeff Mangum, and early John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats) will have a great shot at loving the record; people who aren’t down with atypical vocal styles might struggle a bit. A second make-or-break point is its titanic length: it’s a full 24 songs, and they aren’t short tunes. This album runs almost 100 minutes. Settle in, friends.
However, if you’re into it, you’ll be very into the total scope of the album: wild, moody, frantic, despondent, and everything in between. Tunes like 8-minute closer “New Year’s Retribution” show off the impressive range of emotion that More than Skies is capable of, moving from gentle folk to string-accompanied indie-rock, then to unaccompanied acoustic guitar, before ramping back up in a punk/emo style (but with soaring strings on top of it). It’s an uncompromising, adventurous song that encompasses this spirit of this uniquely realized release. More than Skies drops March 24.
Hyper-literate story songs and Dylan-esque prophetic jams take time to write, but there’s high upside to anyone who attempts them. If you get good at that, you’re going to be really good: you have more syllables per line to make melodies with, more lyrical lines with which to be clever and interesting with, and more respect from this little corner of the blog world. Let me tell you about The Weather Machine‘s self-titled record, then.
The Weather Machine (band) comes out of Portland like some miraculous child of The Mountain Goats, Josh Ritter, and Andrew Jackson Jihad. Their 2013 self-titled record features the organic acoustic sound of Josh Ritter, meticulous wordplay similar to John Darnielle’s, and the occasional rambunctious energy that AJJ is famous for. For instance, there’s a three-song arc that revolves around stealing the crown of immortality from Satan himself that incorporates all of these influences into one of the more impressive suites this side of the Decemberists (because of course, being from Portland, there are instruments aplenty).
“Puppet” even starts off with similar picking style to Ritter’s magnificent “Girl in the War,” but turns with the vocal line into a plaintive plea for love. It’s earnest, passionate, and yet calm. “Back O’er Oregon” is even more powerful, again using understatement to convey heavy emotions. The gentle string arrangement, unassuming vocals, and quick guitar combine beautifully in a truly memorable track. “Galaxies!” pairs complex percussion work with an impressively complicated (yet not esoteric or snobby) set of lyrics for another highlight. “Leviathans Get Lonely” has AJJ angst and tempo all over it; you’ll be playing it loud and singing along (“CAUSE THIS COULD BE OUR TIME!”).
But the takeaway, the one you’ll be humming, is opener “So, What Exactly Does It Say?” A once-in-a-blue-moon melody combines with evocative, surrealistic lyrics (a la Joe Pug’s “hymns”) to provide the driving force for a track that features great guitar work, steel drums (?!), and a hypnotic groove that is very uncommon in folk. It might sound like I’m going overboard on this, but I’m not. The Weather Machine is a special album, and if the band can keep the quality up, they’ll be big (and soon).
There’s a long history of happy sounds that contain sad lyrics. My mom’s favorite one is the absurdly happy breakup tune “Smoke from a Distant Fire” by Sanford-Townsend Band. I’m fond of the entirety of Paul Simon’s Graceland (except “That Was Your Mother”). Human Behavior‘s Golgotha might be my favorite “actually kind of devastating when you really listen close” album for 2013.
If you just press play instead of thinking about how the band name, title and album art go together, you’re treated to perky indie-folk-punk. Bandleader Andres Parada has a voice that works perfectly for the genre: it’s warbly, a touch nasal, and completely earnest. If you’re intrigued by Aaron Weiss of MeWithoutYou, early John Darnielle (The Mountain Goats), Andrew Jackson Jihad, and the like, you’ll be immediately sucked in to Golgotha. The rest of the sound fits perfectly around Parada’s voice: a small choir of female voices (who sing in the same earnest manner), instrumental performances that retain an urgent “first takes only” feel, and arrangements that are large without feeling pretentious. It’s all grounded in Parada’s voice, and all flows back to his voice.
It’s “Crag” that opens the album, a jaunty tune that calls up vintage-y, Pinterest-y hipsters who attach deer antlers to their heads and such. It’s all fun and games, right? Right. “Yeshua at 12” is dark, but the enthusiastic “Odocoileus Virginianus” is 40 seconds of wonderful! (That’s the Latin name for the whitetail deer, incidentally.) But as I progressed through the album, a dark undercurrent started to suck me in. “Vintage Dad” ends with the band forlornly, repeatedly singing “I am raccoon, and your father thinks that I am beautiful,” which is intriguing/discomforting in a Neutral Milk Hotel sort of way. “Raphus Cucullatus” is the Latinate of the dodo, and it’s a despondent acoustic strum with spoken word that seems to draw a little too close of a metaphor. It’s not overtly depressing, like Brand New or anything, but it’s, you know, just kinda hanging out in background of my brain as maybe not what it seems.
But then I listen to “Crag” again, and the phrases of the chorus are “I’ll strap antlers to my head/and I’ll attract wild dog packs/and I’ll make the woods walkable,” which is either a threat to wild dogs or a commitment to sacrifice in a bizarre way. Also the lines “I don’t want to be attractive,” “I know that I don’t love you two too,” “I’ll probably die sad/and I’ll probably do it by my hand” appear, all of which make me deeply reconsider the wisdom of sending this to my girlfriend because it’s perky and fun. In short, the layers at which you can appreciate Golgotha are multiple, but the deeper ones may render your shallower ones a little bit impotent.
So, are you into folk-punk? Are you into depressed singer/songwriters? Are you into both? If you’re into either of the first two, Golgotha is a fascinating and engaging album. If you’re in the third camp, I suspect that Human Behavior will be quite a find. It’s like a dark mirror of Illinois-era Sufjan, or an alternate-reality Mountain Goats.
If you haven’t read Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, you probably shouldn’t start unless you have a lot of time to kill. The series is currently 13 books long, with a fourteenth (and final, thankfully) coming; worse than that, the books range from 600-1000 pages each. The word “timesink” doesn’t do the phenomenon enough justice.
But since I read with music going, it’s given me plenty of time to listen to music. And as enveloping as the tale of three taveren has been, it’s been even better with Cameron Blake‘s musical accompaniment.
Blake’s two most recent albums show an unique songwriter who has the ability to be a staying power in folk music for years to come, based on his lyrical skill and vocals.
Blake’s guitar and piano skills are formidable, but that’s not what makes him so great. His voice is a finely-tuned instrument recalling the best elements of John Darnielle, Colin Meloy and indie hero Ben Gibbard without losing its distinctiveness.
His latest studio album Hide and Go Seek is a low-key but focused affair that features his voice over spare songwriting. Gospel arrangements permeate his best works, as in the standard “I’ll Fly Away” and the excellent, jaunty original “Down to the River.” Both are anchored by piano: the former church-inspired, and the latter almost in an almost honky-tonk style that fits his smooth vocals perfectly.
His lyrics are also a high point, as he shows in “Moonshiner,” the title track and opening track “Every Hundred Miles.” The spacious arrangements give his lyrics room to breathe, and when floated by his excellent vocals, the songs become much more than the sum of their parts.
In that way, Blake functions like a mellower, more user-friendly version of The Mountain Goats; Blake takes on less heady themes in a much more palatable voice, but he gives the same attention to each word that Darnielle does. He tells stories with the same panache and flair, making the quoting of lines relatively unhelpful in showing the reasons why his lyrics are great.
The inflections that Blake employs on his higher vocal register recall those of Gibbard, although Blake’s range is much lower. The pleasing way that Meloy chops some of his vowels finds an analogue in Blake occasionally, as well.
Hide and Go Seek is the rare album that has layers to reward the serious listener. It’s entirely possible to listen and hear some lithe folky pop, but there is so much more here to get, lyrically and musically.
Blake develops another dimension of his sound in Cameron Blake with Strings: Live. Having already used tasteful string arrangements on his latest collection, this is not so much an exploration as an expansion of his sound. It also serves to introduce listeners to work from his previous album En Route. From that disc, “The Love Song Never Died” is the highlight of this album, as the complex song structure lends itself beautifully to the emotionally powerful crescendo that the strings afford it.
The depressing “Hudson Line” is made all the more poignant by the inclusion of strings, as well. Even more impressive than the arrangements is the success with which the recording is pulled off. Rarely do the strings get whiny, and Blake’s voice is steady as a rock. The only misstep is the 8-minute string piece “Hymn,” which is marked as “by Geoff Knorr.” It’s about 5 minutes too long and bears absolutely no connection to the rest of the work. Other than that, the album is a triumph.
Both albums show off Blake’s lyrical power and ease in his own skin. With his distinctive voice, memorable songwriting and that easy showman’s touch, Blake could go very far. I would love to see him support Josh Ritter or another songwriter of that caliber sometime soon. Highly recommended.
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.