Stephen Babcock‘s “Someday” is a smooth acoustic pop track that alerts you his “thing for Southern girls / wrapped in sundresses and pearls.” There’s rarely been a more confident statement of intended audience since John Mayer threw down “Your Body is a Wonderland.”
Babcock has more than a little of Mayer’s early-career suave to his pop songwriting, as he easily lays down a syncopated vocal line over lightly funky guitar and screamin’ organ. But it’s not played off as nerdy cool, like a Mraz tune: this is all eyebrow-raised flirtation and suggestion. (Just listen to those lyrics for more proof.) The results are both familiar and fresh, like a suit that you wear for the first time and automatically feel right in.
“Someday” kicks off Said and Done, where Babcock continues to develop his acoustic-pop milieu. He follows the opening salvo with “Lines of a Love Song,” which is actually a looking-back tune; there’s major wistfulness in the lyrics and a strong dose of melancholy in the verses, but Babcock can’t resist a major-key chorus with a catchy vocal line. Pop songs like those form the majority of Said and Done, with subtle variety throughout: while “Tightrope” and “Kings” continue the full-band alt-pop funkiness, “Worth” punches up the drive a bit by infusing a bit of rock push into the pop tune; “Amy” has some introspective singer/songwriter touches in the guitar line and the lyrics. “Cape Cod” amps up the funky and puts it in a minor key. Without losing his core style, Babcock is able to put distinctive spins on the tracks.
But Babcock’s not just a southern-lovin’, acoustic-toting good ‘ol boy. Babcock’s multi-faceted tenor is a selling point of the record, as the subtle touches in his delivery set the songs apart from other alt-pop tunes. He can easily shift his delivery between evocative and dry, creating tension between verses and chorus–sometimes even between lines. It’s clear that he’s got strong control of what his voice can do, from soaring melodies to wry speak-singing bits. That’s a rare, stand-out skill.
The eight songs of Said and Done show Babcock as an alt-pop singer-songwriter with a strong control of his voice and craft. If you’re looking for some bright, tight, well-penned acoustic pop to slot next to Matt Nathanson, Griffin House, and (yup) John Mayer, you’ll find much to enjoy in Stephen Babcock’s work.
Rob Williams‘ Southern FMis a quirky, impressive record that takes something familiar and makes it unusual and interesting again. Williams offers acoustic-driven work that falls in the timeworn space between folk and country, but his inherent charm and unique rhythmic sensibility make it all seem fresh and new. The most important element to Williams’ success is the idiosyncratic vocal lines delivered by his round, mellow tenor: instead of long, flowing melodies, Williams chops his lines into unusual patterns and shapes. This creates an endearing off-the-cuff, ad-hoc feel to tunes like the pickin’-and-grinnin’ “Best I Can Do,” the enthusiastic “Where You Hang Your Heart,” and the on-your-toes singalong “You’ve Been a Bad Christian.” Nothing feels forced in his delivery, even when his vocal patterns are at their most complex–it all seems to just float along on the airy, effortless arrangements.
Williams’ charms don’t just stem from his quirky delivery: he can write remarkable songs. “Sometimes It’s a Song” is a poignant, evocative ballad that never drags or commits navelgazing, while “Henry and Maria” is a lovely tale delicately told. It’s the melodies, the structure, and the arrangements that make these songs shine. “Sometimes It’s a Song” is sold by a beautiful piano performance and strengthened by just-the-right-amount of percussion; “Henry and Maria” displays some nimble acoustic guitar work and perfectly-placed accordion. (I’m a sucker for an accordion.) Williams knows what his songs need to sound their best, and as a result the vast majority of these tunes shine. With Williams’ comfortable voice, unique vocal lines, and well-suited arrangements all contributing, Southern FM becomes one of the most enjoyable listens of the year. Check out the album and keep Williams on your radar.
(This one comes out December 14, so it’s not technically an ICYMI, but it fits with the rest of the reviews I’m running today.)
You don’t have to listen beyond Of This I’m Sure‘s first track to hear how Jenny and Tyler‘s sound has progressed and matured from Open Your Doors–everything on the title track sounds tighter, fuller, and more urgent. In that way, it echoes some of the drama of Faint Not–they even re-recorded “Song for You”–but with a maturation of lyrical themes and arrangement styles.
Their folk-pop roots are becoming just that: roots. There are shades of U2 and Coldplay–as there always have been–but the biggest change is the fullness that was occasional in their previous releases is the modus operandi here. Yet it doesn’t sound like their “gone electric” album. The songs feel like a natural progression of their work over time; for example, “Where to Begin” echoes Faint Not‘s “Through Your Eyes” in sonic quality, but it expands the palette to include the subtle electronic elements that wend their way through the record. There are truly quiet moments, for those worried about a big rock shift: they’ve not completely abandoned the folk-pop that drew me to them. That’s a testament to the immaculate arranging, recording, and engineering efforts that went into this record–they’re growing without sacrificing their foundation to the new-shiny of added instrumentation.
The intimacy that characterized their previous work is retained here, but in different ways. It’s hard to argue that “My Dear One” isn’t one of the most towering tunes they’ve ever put together, but the lyrical concerns and pristine vocals point to the unchanged core of their work. Each tune is about love in some way, shape or form, which has always been at the heart of their work–however, as new parents, the love of child is included in “Where to Begin” and “In Everything You Do.” They both are honest and not saccharine, as tunes about children can be, which is a strong compliment to their ability to self-edit the massive bursts of emotion that appear as new parents. They’ve managed to change without alienating the old listeners, and delivered a spectacular album along the way. Overall, it’s a brilliant, beautiful album.
(This J&T review is an expanded and, sadly, spell-checked version of a review posted on iTunes.)
Jared Rabin‘s Something Left to Say melds Southern Rock guitar theatrics to gentle acoustic-led country tunes for a mellow, easygoing sound. The title track opens the record with the distinctive bass drum thump, guitar strum, and patterned clapping of folk-pop, but Rabin seasons his take on the genre with zinging pedal steel and a big guitar solo bridge. It doesn’t turn the song into a Southern anthem, but it does help the song fit into the rest of the record. Follow-up “Eight Trips Around the Sun” starts out with crunchy distorted guitars, but layers a John Mayer-esque vocal line on top of it to temper the arrangement. The two tunes set up the poles of Rabin’s sound (except for closer “Ride the Wheel,” which reprises the approach of “Eight Trips” but perhaps even a little crunchier).
From there, Rabin settles into his groove: “A Memory Forever,” “I Remember Last December,” and “Not Heart Broken” are emotive tunes that rely on the tension between acoustic country-pop and electric guitar-driven country-rock. The lyrics and music of “A Memory Forever” evoke the poignant side of saloon troubadours, while the ballad “I Remember Last December” amps up the country-pop melodies and arrangement. “Not Heart Broken” is an “over you” song that includes banjo and weeping pedal steel. The lyrics of love and loss evoke Taylor Swift et al, while the bit of southern rock thrown in on every track keeps things fresh. Something Left to Say is an easy listen, great for putting on while you relax on a back porch somewhere.
David Rosales‘ Along the Way is the sort of full-throated, big-hearted alt-country that gets play on Hot Country stations as the authentic arm of their coverage. It’s poignant yet poppy; perky, but not saccharine. The vocals occasionally veer into John Mayer zones, then realign themselves with Zac Brown, then mope sullenly off into David Ramirez territory. It’s the perfect midpoint between rough’n’tumble and (old school) Taylor Swift.
The first half of “Amelie’s Song” is full of swooping pedal steel, pensive banjo, and soaring vocals that tug at the heartstrings; they kick up the pace for the back half and turn it into a foot-stomping barnburner. “Strike Gold” uses harmonica expertly. Rattling train-whistle snare drum patterns appear everywhere.
The songs are most endearing when Rosales fully accepts this role of balladeer-gets-happy: “Slice of Heaven” is a turn-it-up singalong with indelible melodies, while “Too Young to Know Any Better” shows the opposite side by teasing the sadness out of his sound with a mournful melody and lyric. There’s levity in the arrangement, but it’s still a wistful tune. I’m really into dudes with acoustic guitars and pop chops singing (alt-?) country tunes without the giant Nashville sheen, so I’m into David Rosales. There’s still some sheen, but I’m not put off by it. It sells me. I’m sold.
I love a good pop song. I know it makes me uncool that I’m a big fan of Train’s “Hey Soul Sister,” BUT WHATEVER Y’ALL. UKULELE POWER. JD Eicher and the Goodnights know the value of pop songs. Eicher and his crew fit squarely in the adult alternative pop genre (which I shorthand as the Matt Nathanson/John Mayer sound). And they’re awesome at it on Into Place. Tunes like “You’ve Got a Lot of Growing Up To Do” and “I’d Like To Get To Know You” are perky, poppy tunes with excellent melodies, memorable lyrics, and fun choruses that you can’t help but sing along with. It’s perfect summer music.
There are some heavier moments: “People” pulls the heartstrings in a Goo Goo Dolls sort of way, “Oh My God” is a pensive piano rumination, and “Edgar Greene’s Time Machines” tells a long story to make a point about the way history and us intersect. The best tune on the album, though, combines the excellent pop songwriting chops with the heavier musings. “Aaron” brings in some banjo and clapping, moving the melodic center a little more toward Mumford/Lumineers territory. The tune is basically an audio version of Nick Hornsby’s High Fidelity: it looks at our relationship to sad songs through the lens of one musician. “I don’t like sad songs, they just seem to write me,” the narrator shrugs before blasting off into a monster that should be all over radio right now. It’s far and away the best display of songwriting on the album, and I’ve had “Aaron” on repeat for several weeks. It’s just excellent.
If you’re into a good pop song, Into Place by JD Eicher and the Goodnights should be on your iPod. That’s all there is to it.
Fun fact: Almost two years ago, I started the Quick Hits feature with Anna Madorsky‘s Talk is Cheap. I used it as a forum to feature bands that were worth listening to but that I didn’t have a bunch to say about for one reason or another (an EP, a limited release, a sound-in-progress, an easy recommendation, among others). Anna Madorsky’s Triumph & Symphony is definitely not an EP, at an hour-long 14 tracks, but it is easy to recommend. Madorsky has largely dropped the dreamy aspects of her pop, going for a straightforward, piano-based singer/songwriter vibe here. Her distinctive vocals get a higher place in the mix, and that will intrigue some and turn some away. She also leans heavily on piano for the songwriting here, which is a good thing: she previously split time between guitar and piano, and still does that some here, but the best songs are on piano (“Civil War,” “Both Feet In,” “Oh My Friend”). But if you’re a fan of Amanda Palmer, Regina Spektor (especially her darker work), or the like, this will be right up your alley.
Jim Ivins Band‘s Everything We Wanted delivers seven songs of modern pop in the vein of Matt Nathanson, John Mayer and the Goo Goo Dolls. The release doesn’t shake up a formula that has worked for them in the past: guitars chime, drums crash, and vocals cut through the mix to deliver the payoff melodies. “The Sight of Fire” hinges on a nice lyrical turn and a solid chorus, becoming the standout here. “Emergency” plays up the drama with a bass intro, insistent drum thump and distorted vocals before crashing into one of their heaviest rock’n’roll sections. As it clocks in at under two minutes, I would have loved to hear more of this sound, but perhaps it points to where JIB is headed in the future. The pop songs on Everything We Wanted are fun, upbeat and ready to be heard by a larger audience. You can check out a free JIB sampler at Noisetrade.
Genre names exist to quickly allow someone to identify whether they’ll be interested in a band. But the baggage they carry is conflicted: saying “acoustic pop” can clue in fans of John Mayer and Jenny & Tyler—and there’s a chasm between the two artists’ sounds. There’s an ocean between their ideologies, too, and that complicates things. Then comes the imported freight: “Acoustic pop” has become synonymous with the radio-created “genre” of Adult Contemporary (Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, James Blunt, Sara Bareilles). All of these things can be classified as acoustic pop.
Folk is even worse. Folk music, according to Ronald D. Cohen in Folk Music: The Basics, is “old songs, with no known composers.” However, American folk music has a distinct style and sound, as compiled by the Lomaxes. Indie-kids adopted this history through appropriation, and we ended up in a situation where “American folk” is immediately associated with Mumford & Sons and Fleet Foxes (one of whom is from England, and the which chose a name because it sounded English). And they don’t play folk covers, anyway.
So please bear with me; it’s genuinely difficult to explain what Bowerbirds‘ The Clearing sounds like. Our en vogue musical terms offer me little to explain how their incredibly moving music actually sounds. There’s chamber-pop, but this isn’t sterilized like Andrew Bird. There’s orchestral-folk, but this isn’t characterized by its arrangements—even if they do make beautiful use of strings on opener and single “Tuck the Darkness In.” There’s singer/songwriter, but the Bowerbirds’ sound is made of two equal partners and a full instrumental range; this is a true collaborative effort. But enough hedging and complaining about what it is not. I’ve shot around the subject enough that perhaps you’ll be able to put together a composite after this statement:
The Clearing is a wide, sweeping, gorgeous palette that externalizes intimate, difficult emotions through atypical song structures and beautiful melodies.
The main instruments are piano and guitar, but distorted synths provide the highlight of “In the Yard” and organ is the critical sound in “This Year.” “Overcome With Light” is the only song that even sounds remotely close to something that could be canonized and in 100 years be a song without author; its glorious, stately majesty becomes the core of the album, because it encapsulates the emotion that the album is trying to build out. The world is a difficult place, full of tension and struggle; but even though that, there is beauty, and wonder, and worth.
The divide between high art and low art is a complex question that deserves its own post, but this piece resonated with me on one point that the author thinks defines “high art” (and I think defines “good art,” which are not the same): “Complexity of the responses to the works’ emotions, which sometimes have no name.” Saying that The Clearing is a beautiful orchestral-folk album is not only potentially confusing, it’s selling the album short in numerous ways. There’s no easy handle for what this music sounds like to me nor what it conjures up in me, and that’s good. There’s a unique vision here that transcends my pre-formatted ideas to confine it, and that’s what the best art forces me to do: I have to hear and think in different ways, albeit slight, to process and inhabit the piece. (And even slight change is significant in our era of filtering out what we dislike by removing it from our social feeds.)
The Clearing is immediately accessible in some ways: “Tuck the Darkness In” is deeply affecting from the first listen. The rest of the album unfolds its joys in multiple listens; I would recommend that you stick around for those as well.
Rebecca Zapen’s delicate “Swamp Pit” sways with a charm reminiscent of a stately, classy woman leaning over to you and unexpectedly revealing her affections. There’s no big move or huge shift; it’s just a lovely little waltz. The lyrics are wonderful and perfectly matched to the melodies, as well.
Torn Shoe Records, which is run by quirky acoustic dudes The Mothafolkin’ Soul, will soon release a comp called Torn Shoe Vol. 1. The release includes TMS, The Cimarron Music Show, Timmy Lane, Arthur Elias, and Josh Hathcock. You can check out two tracks from it at the label’s Bandcamp. Both are really earnest, melodic acoustic tunes without the polished sheen of John Mayer or Matt Nathanson. [Editor’s note: This label is inactive and this release is unavailable.]
It seems that I am obsessed with the indie music of Australia. The number of bands from down under that I’ve been repping is now close to ten with the addition of Smith & Frank. Their gentle ambient/acoustic tune “Charlie” is more concrete than most ambient tracks, but less structured than most acoustic-pop. The well-handled balance of spacious vibe and layered arrangement results in a unique and interesting experience. I’m definitely looking forward to more tunes from this duo.
I can’t stomach Jack Johnson. I like “Bubble Toes” and assorted other singles by him, but on the whole it just strikes me as vapid. You can be minimalist and not useless; Damien Jurado’s made a career on it, to name just one.
Jon and Roy also are staking their career on it. Their Homes inhabits a space very similar to Jack Johnson’s camping grounds: mellow acoustic tunes with a surfer mindset. Where Johnson tosses in John Mayer-esque pop overtones, Jon and Roy throw in reggae underpinnings. Jon and Roy have soul, too, which makes the whole album go down even smoother.
Yes, this is thoroughly a beach album. It’s absolutely perfect for putting on when lounging about and relaxing. But it’s by no means filler or vapid; the tunes are solid in their songwriting, melodies and rhythms. Just because a thing is simple doesn’t mean it’s well-done, and Jon and Roy work hard to make their simplicity excellent. Not a thing is out of place on Homes: the casual-sounding acoustic strum is quite precise, the seemingly effortless vocals are measured and placed specifically, and the drums are so well-written that they seem entirely uninvasive. Jon and Roy so incredibly talented as songwriters and performers that it doesn’t even sound like they’re trying.
From the folk shuffle of “Boon Helm” to the beachfront sway of “947” to the Ben Harper strum of “Get Myself a Gun” to the inviting pop of “Any Day Now,” Jon and Roy conquer anything they try by making it seem utterly effortless. If there’s one serious criticism to be levied against the album, it’s that they make it sound too easy; if one is not paying close attention, Homes could be dismissed as repetitive, boring or uninspired. None of these things are true. After an initial recognition of that fact hooks you, the ease of mood becomes the glue that keeps you stuck on Homes instead of a detractor.
It is incredibly rare for me to be calmed by music as I review it. Reviewing requires being on my toes, scouring for the right words. Jon and Roy’s Homes disarmed my uptight writing and honestly chilled me out. I knocked out these words in one sitting with the tunes mellowing me the entire way. Homes is a brilliantly written, impeccably performed and astoundingly entertaining release. Fans of Jack Johnson, Ben Harper, early Switchfoot, Teitur or beach music in general will find a new candidate for album of the year.
It always worries me when someone gets compared to James Taylor. Whether it’s a self-comparison or an outside evaluation, it’s just discomforting to hear new artists compared to the king of nice. JT, for all his talent, specialized in nice tunes. They didn’t push the envelope, rock the boat, make waves, innovate, or blow the doors off. They just were really solid, pretty, nice songs. The reason he got away with being so static in his songwriting was that his voice is ab-so-lute-ly gorgeous. “Mexico” is not that exciting musically, but I feel like James Taylor is hugging me when he starts singing.
And unless you’ve got golden pipes, getting compared to James Taylor means bad things for your songwriting.
The Steve Pomplon Band compared themselves to JT in their neatly handwritten note accompanying their album (note to other artists: handwritten notes = WIN WIN WIN WIN WIN). After hearing 9:31 several times through, I can come to no better comparison than that. Pomplon’s voice, while not as smooth and effortless as Taylor’s, is definitely easy on the ears. The songs incorporate folk influences into the easy-going pop sound, but not enough to make this a folk album. This is a straight-up pop album, a little to the right of Coldplay’s Parachutes and a little to the left of Ben Harper. It’s a solid debut that avoids all missteps by not taking big steps of any kind.
Highlights include the bouncy “Journeys”; the easy-swaying, romantic closer “This Little Song”; and the dreamy “Pripyat.” There isn’t a bad song in the nine, but those that aren’t mentioned are all just nice. They don’t offend, but they don’t excite too strongly either.
The Steve Pomplon band has chops and songwriting skill, but it feels like they played it safe on this album. If this is their sound, they’ve got some tweaking to do before they have a recognizable signature. If this is just the jumping-off point for something bigger and better, then bring it on. I hear the talent here, but only in snatches and phrases here and there. There’s a lot of room for growth in the Steve Pomplon Band; but until then, they’ve put out some very listenable tunes in 9:31. For fans of Maroon 5, early Coldplay, Five for Fighting, Jack Johnson, early John Mayer, and the like. Oh, and James Taylor.
Woven Green wears everything on its sleeve. Even the band’s name points toward its philosophy; while not necessarily “green,” the members of Woven Green espouse taking care of the earth, being unified with each other, and loving one another. The lyrics bear no subtlety; Woven Green is what it is, and it’s not hiding it.
The same aesthetic carries over into the songs on their self-titled EP. They have a sound similar to what you might imagine from the themes presented; a few parts wah-pedal funk, a few parts upbeat acoustic pop, a few parts middle eastern instrumentation. They wear their influences on their sleeve, not trying to hide. This total honesty is to be commended, as posturing, irony and cynicism has become the norm in independent music.
Thankfully, Woven Green meets their honest aesthetic with songwriting skill. Woven Green has taken steps to make their songs not just your average song. “Sixth Sun” experiments not just with middle eastern instruments, but with middle eastern chord structures (which are unusual to the western ear, but intriguing!). “Between Worlds” uses strings in an unusual breakdown of sorts. “Generation Zero” has an extended guitar solo. “Wild Love” has a violin solo in the way that other bands would have a guitar solo. It’s these touches that make their songs better than the standard upbeat acoustic-pop fare.
This four-song EP establishes Woven Green as a band that wants to take a tired genre and make it interesting again. I hope that their creative energy and unique ideas keep flowing to future releases. Their songwriting skill makes them a band to watch for fans of John Mayer, Dave Matthews Band, OAR, Jason Mraz and others of the like.
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.