SN!TA, the self-titled album by one-man-band Say No! To Architecture, is woozy, warm, and inviting. Groovy bass lines, far out vocals, and layered guitar hug listeners like a handcrafted Navajo blanket would form to their bodies on a dewy morning. For as sonically complex as SN!TA is, the record comes off as casual and rustic, with steady rhythms and a Western desert flair.
Simmering electronic starts “Wieder’s Floor” off, dissipating into a consistent, catchy bass line. Allen Roizman’s dizzying vocals capture an airy, hypnotic experience, like the commencing jam at a desert rave.
Similar electronic distortion is used at the start of “Bullet Proof Liquor Store.” It seduces the listener with subtle tambourine and a motivating rhythm that propels the track toward a climactic sonic horizon. Say No! To Architecture shines in the mobilizing build up and progression that presents itself on every song.
Western flair seeps into the record on “Get Sick,” which incorporates finger-snapping and shiny, sharp tambourine. The far-away vocals make “Get Sick” sound like a Western flick. It has a badass, Johnny Cash feel to it, but with spacey vocals. This vibe is further accentuated on “Cocaine, Eh,” where rattling tambourine shakes sound like the metallic clank of spurs hitting ground as our cowboy struts towards his duel.
Things turn a bit more alternative rock on “Detainees,” which is more hard-hitting than the spacier tracks, like the masterfully layered “Fall in Love at Tape Mountain,” or one of my favorites–the warm, lulling, yellow-colored “Hives.”
Each track on SN!TA allows itself to bloom. They ride on a perfectly straight, X-Acto knife-cut trajectory, like each track must reach its own sonic horizon by song’s end. And Say No! To Architecture reaches it each time. —Rachel Haney
Of the twenty bands in my quest, the newest addition is The Tallest Man on Earth. A masterful cover of Paul Simon’s “Graceland” on Hype Machine first introduced me to Kristian Matsson’s finger-picked folk guitar a little over four months ago. My Last.FM says that I’ve listened to it 158 times since that first introduction, so it’s safe to say that it hooked me.
Matsson’s cover of “Graceland” enamors me because it improves upon a classic. The Tallest Man on Earth remains true to the original song structure but varies dramatically in arrangement and delivery, resulting in a more cohesive tune.
The original “Graceland” is a remarkably conflicted tune. Simon puts forth optimism in the jaunty arrangements whileinserting world-weary lyrics. He tries to have it both ways, and for that reason I’ve always thought that song was particularly annoying.
Matsson’s version redeems the song by syncing up the two contrasting moods. Stripping the tune to its bare minimums (1 voice, 1 guitar) draws the lyrics to the forefront, placing the burden of meaning on the wildly conflicted words. “I’m going to Graceland” transforms from a statement of fact (in Simon’s version) to a last hope (in Matsson’s).
Matsson’s deft guitar work grants an immediacy to the songwriting that the more languid pace of the original “Graceland” could not provide. His ragged, unrestrained voice heightens the sense of urgency originated by the guitar. These two elements sync up with the quiet resignedness inherent in the original lyrics and turn the song into one of overt desperation.
This tension (melodic, rhythmic, and lyrical) culminates in Matsson braying out the titular phrase as the dramatic hinge point of the song that Simon intended it to be. “I’m going to Graceland” doesn’t fit with “She comes back to tell me she’s gone” or “Everybody sees you’re blown apart,” and that’s the point. It’s all the narrator’s got left. It sounds like Kristian Matsson’s life is hanging on the place of “Graceland,” and it subsequently feels like the listener’s is too.
Mostly artists show different sides or possibilities of a song with a cover; rare is the artist that improves a song with a cover. Johnny Cash via Rick Rubin did it consistently, but he’s about the only one I’d found until Matsson’s “Graceland.”
With a cover like that, there’s no way to not seek out his original tunes. I did, and instantly fell in love. All the drama and emotional power of “Graceland” was packed into his own compositions. I told my best friend about The Tallest Man on Earth, and he was equally as enthralled. When I found out The Tallest Man was swinging through Dallas, I called up my friend and we set up the trip.
After getting held up just enough to miss opener S. Carey (so saddened by this), I dropped in right before Matsson’s set on Friday, September 17 at the House of Blues’ Cambridge Room. I had low expectations; I wanted Matsson to be a great live show, but I know that it’s often hard for people to translate recorded performances into live power.
From the opening notes to the last fading melody, he proved that he was up to the task. His voice sounds even more urgent live, and his ability to nail even the most complex of guitar lines while singing sent chills up my spine. Whether playing old favorites like “The Gardner” or brand-spanking-new tunes like “The Dreamer” and a revamped “Like the Wheel,” he commanded the audience with excellent musicianship and confident stage presence.
The amount of fans in Dallas who knew the words to his songs visibly surprised him; he was taken aback (literally, he stepped backwards in shock) during “I Won’t Be Found” by the vocal fan response, but generally grew into the understanding that Dallas collectively has his back. He even dropped his vocals out of a few lines in “King of Spain” and let the audience sing them to him. His visible appreciation corresponded with his audible appreciation, as he thanked the audience multiple times for coming.
The raw power and emotive force that drive “Graceland” drove many of his other tunes, including a particularly powerful “Where Do My Bluebird Fly?” and a rousing “The Wild Hunt.” This, paired with his confident showmanship and easy swagger, made the evening delightful. Even though he didn’t play the cover that got me hooked on his nimble songs, the show was not disappointing in any other way.
A Tallest Man on Earth show is thoroughly recommended for the casual or hardcore fan. I can with glee and fond memories cross this one off the list of the Top Twenty Quest.
Leonard Mynx‘s Vesper is easily one of the most depressing works I have ever had the pleasure of reviewing. I love sad folk music, and in sheer volume of misery, I think only Elliot Smith can trump Mynx. When I get a package endorsed by Leonard Mynx, I jump on that stuff.
So, when I got Beyond a Shadow of a Doubt by On the Stairs, which Mynx not only recommended but played on, I was thoroughly interested. On the Stairs does not disappoint my interest, but it does take it in a different direction. Mynx has three songwriting moods: sad, sadder and “I’m rummaging around for the antidepressants.” Nate Clark, the main man behind On the Stairs, employs a much wider range of moods, although the two artists’ instrumentation is very similar.
The spare notes, distant strumming and sonorous tone of the acoustic guitars transfers over to both artists, but Clark uses it to balance his low voice. And by low, I mean his baritone dips into Johnny Cash range often. Opening track “Already Won” employs his voice to excellent ends, displaying his range and creating a memorable melody out of it. It fluctuates between tempered glee and pondering, which is an awkward sort of description, but the best I can do. Nate Clark creates intensely specific moods with his gospel-tinged folk, and that’s one of his strengths.
The ominous violins and distant drumming of “King” give the song all the drama and tension, as the lyrics don’t really tell the story. The ebb and flow of instruments does, though; if that’s not the mark of a powerful songwriter, I’m not sure what is. But on the other end of the spectrum, there are upbeat moments of similar power, as in the Southern Gospel-tinged “Heaven” and “No Trumpets.” I never thought I’d see the day where I praised anything even related to Southern Gospel music, but Nate Clark has pulled it out of me. Both songs are darn good and totally in line with the usually uncomfortable and overly-sincere genre of white gospel music. “Sing It Off Stage” starts off with found sound of a crowd milling and turns into an indie-pop gem of sorts. There are hardly any cliche or predictable moments on this album; Nate Clark’s vision is far past where I expect songs to go. That’s a good, good thing.
Nate Clark’s songwriting vision is similar to Leonard Mynx’s, but in a different direction. Both use spare instrumentation and lots of space in their primarily acoustic compositions to achieve a desired effect. Mynx’s is always depressing, while Clark opens up his emotional palatte to some genuinely happy moments amidst the pondering and meandering. The honest exploration of many of life’s facets makes On the Stairs’ Beyond a Shadow of a Doubt a highly enjoyable, incredibly interesting and very unique folk/gospel/country album. For fans of classic country, modern folk, Johnny Cash, low voices and unique (but not difficult) songwriting.
For a man who hasn’t recorded an album in 30 years, Mason Daring’s self-titled release is remarkable. The album sounds as if he spent all that time honing his craft. I am extremely impressed with how well it is put together, and how Mason Daring (I just have to say his full name again; it’s such a cool name) manages to make his “oldies”-style-Americana music sound current. It might sound cheesy, but this album feels timeless. If I had to equate it to an object, Mason Daring would be a well-worn jean jacket picked up from a thrift store that fits exactly right, worn on brisk, sunny afternoons.
Throughout this album, Daring fuses many different music styles together in a way that’s not forced but natural and gentle. Most songs have elements of folk, pop, and country, but many sound like revamped jazz standards and others have lush instrumentation. Think Roy Orbison meeting Johnny Cash in New Orleans while listening to Beatles for Sale in the 1970s when The Eagles were really big. But even that loaded analogy doesn’t exactly do Daring justice.
I could easily write in depth about each song, but I’ll just pick out my favorites in the hopes of sparking more interest in this album. “Too Much” is one of the jazziest on Mason Daring, and with its own whimsical charm, I could see this song being played during a montage in a romantic comedy of a couple having a nice date. This actually makes sense, though, when you know that Daring has extensive film scoring experience. And the acoustic ballad “Lightship” is nothing short of beautiful, with gorgeous female harmonies and orchestra strings and brass. The liner notes allude to its special nature: “To be truthful, [‘Lightship’] is the reason I did the entire CD – I simply wanted this song to see the light of day.” And with good reason – it’s perfectly lovely.
“You Can’t Get To Heaven From Here” is a charismatic country-esque tune with a great organ part, a very catchy chorus, and a complementary horn section. Two other gems are “Only For You,” which sounds reminiscent of “When I’m 64” and “Martha My Dear,” and the twangy, uptempo, rollicking and rolling “People Are Talking.”
But I must reinforce that all of this album is truly great, and I can say from experience that it still sounds great when listened to on repeat over and over. I strongly recommend checking out Mason Daring.
I should have known that a band which calls itself “The Black Heart Procession” would be more than a little bit morbid. Somehow, I was still surprised at the amount of death that crowds into the proceedings of their latest album Six. Even more surprising, though, is how incredibly gorgeous this album is, totally in spite of its subject matter.
Yes, from “Suicide” to “Heaven and Hell” to “When You Finish Me” to “Wasteland,” this is a pretty dark album. If you’re not a fan of Nick Cave, Tom Waits or other macabre artists, this is not going to be your cup of tea. Even with piano and strings leading the way through this lush album, it’s tough to get through if you’re affected by such gloomy notes.
Now, if you enjoy or tolerate moribund musings, this album is absolutely necessary for your collection. This is easily one of the most beautiful and engrossing albums I have heard this year. It’s nearly an hour long, and it holds attention for every second. The low male vocals are smooth and powerful, sucking the listener in. It’s like Tom Waits but without the warbling pitch issues, or Johnny Cash without the bite. It’s enticing. There’s a contrasting high male vocal as well, and that works perfectly in the context of the music.
And in that music, The Black Heart Procession has created a perfect backdrop to the engaging vocals. From the plucky strings and shakers of “All My Steps” to the dark guitar pop of “Witching Stone” to the weeping piano of “When You Finish Me,” the members have created a perfectly flowing album. None of these songs are the same; some have distorted guitar, some replace the guitar with an organ. Acoustic guitar plays lead occasionally. But the mood that Six has stays the same throughout. It is the soundtrack to a pondering walk through a cave of poignant, sad memories. The mourning here is genuine; there is not a drop of saccharine anywhere in this album.
This is not an album of singles; this is a fully-realized album project. The Black Heart Procession has created a masterpiece with this album – there’s just nothing to knock in it. If you are a fan of depressing music, this is a must-buy. You will not regret the purchase, although you may encounter some of your regrets as you listen to this album. It’s the type of album that will cause introspection. Simply astounding.
It’s twice in a row now that Adam Hill has delivered. If another one of his discs winds up on my desk, he’s going to have to work hard to outdo himself again.
When examining Hill’s work, he starts to seem less like a folk musician and more like a folk composer. This album is not the work of a group that took the name of its leader. Hill, in fact, plays every instrument on Them Dirty Roads (except for the fiddle) and provides all the vocals (aside from some of the backups). Hill is in control of every aspect of the album and compiles it into a sort of an operatic Americana symphony.
Whereas his previous album, Four Shades of Green, was more subdued in tone, Them Dirty Roads comes off as restless and in need of wandering. Guitars, pianos, walking bass lines, and an almost total lack of percussion, along with Hill’s twangy vocals (which often come with some echoing reverb) provide an atmosphere akin to the wide open spaces that make up the album’s cover art.
Hill’s sound takes a more indie-minded turn in Them Dirty Roads, especially with the insertion of piano ballads like “Fool’s Gold” and his cover of Dave Carter’s “The River, Where She Sleeps.” The cover is especially wonderful with Hill’s choice to stick with piano and what sounds like wine glasses being played with spoons for the accompaniment to his vocals. The song exudes a sense of joy that will prove infectious to anyone.
In a sense, Hill also takes a turn toward classical music in the arrangement of the album. Similar to the way he put four versions of the song “Down In The Valley” in Four Shades of Green to provide cohesiveness to the album, Hill inserts transitional and framing tracks, “Prelude,” “Intermezzo I,” “Intermezzo II,” and “Coda” in Them Dirty Roads. These tracks are generally just a collection of sound effects, though “Prelude” includes a Bach arrangement played on trumpet over the sound of radio static. While normally I might write tracks like this off as superfluous to an album, when taken within the whole album, these tracks give Them Dirty Roads unity and cohesiveness.
Tracks of note are “Fueled Up,” which is very reminiscent of the later work of Johnny Cash, and the aforementioned “The River, Where She Sleeps,” as well as “State of Grace” and “Ribbons and Curls.”
Anyone who appreciates folk, bluegrass, or country should find something to love about Them Dirty Roads. And those who don’t should definitely give it a try as well.
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.