Zach Winters‘ Monarch is a gentle, calming, delicate album of pristine singer/songwriter work reminiscent of Sleeping at Last. Winters’ modus operandi is to develop a single quiet element into a whole array of sounds without ever crossing the threshold into noisy.
The lack of kit drums throughout much of the album helps greatly in building this lush, soothing sound: strings, voice, two guitars, and auxiliary instruments can still sound intimate if there’s no snares and cymbals marshaling them forward. Instead, the sounds and songs here unfold tenderly, one part after another. This is not a pop album; these songs are not built for instant gratification. Monarch sets the mood for an hour, or a day, or a week.
The high points, insofar as can be picked out from the gorgeous whole, are the swells where Winters exercises his arrangement skills: the title track soars as Winters puts everything he has into the six-minute tune; “Deep Deep” shows his “poppiest” vocal melody, which makes the song sound like a lost Josh Garrels tune. “Meant” is a beautiful love song that calls up the closest Sleeping at Last comparisons, while “Tonight” is one of the warmest tracks I’ve heard in a while. Monarch is a romantic wonder in the literary and literal senses of the world: the emphasis on beauty appeals to those eloquent novels and poetry of yore, while lovers of all types will find a sonic analogue to tender affection. Highly recommended.
Naïm Amor‘s Hear the Walls is also quiet, but in a different way. Hear the Walls is a stark, enticing album that relies on mystery and intrigue. The album’s allure starts with its lyrics: the songs are sung in both English and French, giving some of these songs the mystique of a foreign tongue. The ones that do appear in English draw on lightly reverbed guitar, distant arrangements, and whispered vocals to create their enticing moods.
Lead single “No Way Back” is one of the most full arrangements, incorporating prominent strings and a second guitar into the mix. The result is a tune something like Joseph Arthur or an acoustic Teitur might make: a mature, full-bodied song that just happen to be quiet. Follow-up track “Cherche Dans la Brume” features Andrew Bird-style whistling into a tune that’s far more tense than the small arrangement should be able to create. There are some lovely moments, such as the beautiful closing instrumental “Learning America”; the overall impression, however, is one of intrigue.
Amor’s offerings here are equally as mood-creating as Zach Winter’s, but in a very different way. The quiet tension throughout the release makes me look always just around the corner, waiting for the next element to emerge. If you’re into serious music a la Andrew Bird, Patrick Watson, or Joseph Arthur, Hear the Walls will provide a treat.
1. “Great White Shark” – Hollands. Maximalist indie-rock/pop music with groove, noise, melodic clarity, effusive enthusiasm, strings, harp, and just about everything else you can ask for. If the Flaming Lips hadn’t got so paranoid after At War with the Mystics…
2. “Coyote Choir” – Pepa Knight. Still batting 1.000, Pepa Knight brings his exuberant, India-inspired indie-pop to more mellow environs. It’s still amazing. I’m totally on that Pepa Knight train, y’all. (Hopefully it’s The Darjeeling Limited.)
3. “Peaks of Yew” – Mattson 2. I love adventurous instrumental music, and Mattson 2 cover a wide range of sonic territory in this 10-minute track. We’ve got some surf-rock sounds, some post-rock meandering, some poppy melodies, some ambient synths, and a whole lot of ideas. I’m big on this.
4. “Firing Squad” – Jordan Klassen. Sometimes a pop-rock song comes along that just works perfectly. Vaguely dancy, chipper, fun, and not too aggressive (while still allowing listeners to sing it loudly), “Firing Squad” is just excellent.
5. “Droplet” – Tessera Skies. There’s a tough juggling act going on in this breathtaking indie-pop tune: flowing instruments, flailing percussion, cooing vocals, and an urgent sense of energy. It’s like if Jonsi’s work got cluttered up with parts and then organized neatly.
6. “Available Light” – David Corley. If Alexi Murdoch, Tom Waits, and Joseph Arthur all got together and jammed, it might sound something like this gruff yet accessible, vaguely alt-country track.
7. “Blue Eyed Girl” – Sam Joole. I’d like to make a joke about blue-eyed soul here, but it’s actually closer to Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl” than that. Lots of laidback guitars, good vibes, but not Jack Johnson twee, if you know what I mean.
8. “By the Canal” – Elephant Micah. I’m a big fan of people who aren’t afraid to let an acoustic guitar and voice splay out wherever they want and however long they want. Here, EM acts as an upbeat Jason Molina, putting the focus on his voice instead of the spartan-yet-interesting arrangements. Totally stoked for this new album.
9. “If It Does” – Robin Bacior. In this loose, smooth, walking-speed singer-songwriter tune with maximum atmosphere, shades of early ’00s Coldplay appear. That’s a compliment, people.
10. “Storm” – Dear Criminals. Not that often do I hear trip-hop, even in an updated melodic form. Way to go, DC–you pick up that torch that Portishead put down.
11. “You Open to the Idea” – Angelo De Augustine. Beautiful, delicate, wispy, earnest whisper-folk. They don’t make ’em like this very often anymore.
12. “Billowing Clouds” – Electrician. The mournful, affected spoken word over melancholy, trumpet-like synths makes me think of an electro version of the isolated, desolate Get Lonely by The Mountain Goats.
13. “Blue Chicago Moon (demo)” – Songs: Ohia. Until Jason Molina, I’ve never had a personal connection to the art of a troubled artist who died too early–Elliott Smith was gone before I knew of his work. Now with unreleased demos coming out consistently after Mr. Molina’s death, I feel the sadness of his passing over and over. Each new track is a reminder that there was work still to be made; it also feels like a new song from him, even though it’s objectively not.
Is this how a legacy gets made in the digital era? How long will we keep releasing new Molina songs, to remind us that he was there, and now he is not? (Please keep releasing them.) Will the new songs push people back to “The Lioness”? Will we keep these candles burning to light our own rooms, or will we bring them to other people? “Endless, endless, endless / endless depression,” Molina sings here. Is it truly endless? Are you still depressed? Does your permanent recording of the phrase make it truly “unchanging darkness”? “Try to beat it,” he intones, finally. Try to beat it, indeed. Keep trying until you can’t anymore. And then let your work stand forever. I guess this is how I mourn.
A trio of interesting things arrived in my mailbox today. Tomorrow will see the return of CD reviews with an IC fave, but today is about the quick hitters.
Kris Orlowski, whose songwriting I praised as on the horizon earlier this year, has made good on his potential with “Way You Are” off his upcoming release Warsaw. Imagine the emotional, earthy qualities of Joseph Arthur mixed with the stark beauty of High Violet-era The National. Needless to say, your ears are in for a treat:
On the far opposite end of the spectrum, the perky indie-pop-rock of Cub Scouts’ “Evie” has more in common with the effervescent energy of Givers (check those steel drums!) and Phoenix than mopey indie-rockers. If you need a pick-me-up after that last tune, these Aussies will provide.
And because one set of Australians is never enough, here’s the clever and hilarious video for Teleprompter’s “Dinobot,” off the band’s self-titled EP that I loved. If you’re a fan of Bloc Party and Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, your day is about to be made. And it’s going to be uber-made if you like Godzilla-esque town-destroying and/or charmingly low-fi sets.
Portland seems to be the new Seattle (except for this downer), so I was surprised when I heard Kris Orlowski & the Passenger String Quartet out of Seattle. Seattle is the new Portland, which was the new Seattle?
Scenes aside, Kris Orlowski has established a foundation for himself in the five-song At the Fremont Abbey EP. His voice is a slurry delight, somewhere between the low-pitched snark of Craig Finn (The Hold Steady) and the high-pitched emotionality of Scott Hutchison (Frightened Rabbit). He applies that voice to a batch of solid acoustic guitar-based songs augmented with strings; this particular group was recorded live at the titular space.
I more often feel that songwriters need to loosen up than get more serious, but Orlowski flips the script. He bookends his set standouts “Your Move” and “Jessi,” both weight, impassioned tunes that a man could make a career out of purveying. But in between there are various levels of frivolity, from charming (the inspired “Waltz at Petunia”) to out-of-character (the Mraz-esque pseudo-scatting of “Steady and Slow”). Orlowski attempts to save the latter with a good chorus, but it’s perky and weird. Orlowski does best when he sounds like a non-roaring Damien Rice or Joseph Arthur.
The string quartet makes a surprisingly limited stamp on the lesser tracks (especially “Postcard Man,” which sounds like a Parachutes reject). But they absolutely make the chorus of the beautiful, mournful “Jessi.” “Your Move” is given life by the strings, but it’s the mixed chorus that takes the song home and onto mixes.
Orlowski has shown a lot of variation throughout this EP, but there’s no defining feature. The strings are an integral part of his sound, but they aren’t the x factor. Orlowski needs to work on what his thing is: whether that’s melodies, tight lyrics, songwriting style (sparse/full), unique rhythms (all straightforward here) or whatever else. There’s a lot of raw potential in Orlowski, but he’s got to capture the best parts of “Jessi” and “Your Move” and make them work for him – or, the other songs, if that’s the way he’s gonna roll.
Either way, I’ll be watching Kris Orlowski as an up-and-comer.
There are various schools of thought when it comes to folk music. Woody Guthrie leads the traditionalists. The Dylan school is all cryptic lyrics and chunky chords. There’s the Nick Drake school, which is quiet, pensive, and emotive. The Sufjanites pack their songs full of instruments. There’s the freak-folk Banhart followers, which are just out of their minds. And then there’s the Joseph Arthur school, which is plaintive lyrics and lots of pop influence. No folk artist can escape the influence of these artists.
Jacob Furr falls squarely in the Joseph Arthur school. His songs are definitely folk-laden, but have a lot of pop influences. The strumming is smooth, the recording is tight, and the songwriting is structured in concise pop structures more than the meandering, free-form folk odysseys of other artists. His voice is warm and inviting; no creaking, breaking or howling here. These seven tunes on The Only Road are very emotive, but not hysterical or pre-occupied with their own emotionality.
In short, these are honest songs that are enjoyable. They don’t belabor the point, and they don’t make it cryptic or inaccessible. “Many Times” is about being lonely on the road, and its musical echoes of Skynyrd’s “Free Bird” only accentuate the point that being free and on your own is not always all that it’s cracked up to be. Tom Waits would have been proud to write “Poor Wayfaring Stranger,” as the eerie sway and low-slung plod invoke an atmosphere of danger, dark alleys and more. Furr’s invocation of Jewish legend and religion (“going over river Jordan”) makes the song even more foreign and thus all the more interesting.
Furr’s command of melody on “Poor Wayfaring Stranger” is another element that helps the song succeed. His vocal melodies, carried by his calm and inviting voice, are some of the longest-sticking remnants after the album is done.
Other than “Stranger,” the highlight here is “Where Are You Going?” The song expertly combines all the elements that Furr is best at: solid songwriting conveying honest emotion, a memorable vocal line, and an inviting atmosphere. It’s the type of song that fits in the emotional climax of TV shows, and I mean that as high praise.
Also in “Where Are You Going,” he delivers his best lyrical line. The lyrics in The Only Road are clear, concise, and, in comparison to other folk artists, not something to write home about. But he delivers a crushing set in the middle of this song: “She said why are you flying?/Cause it’s faster than a bus/There’s no stops along the long way./What became of us?” In the midst of the mundane conversation he’s relating, he drops in the whole point of the song, then jumps off again, ready for the next lyric. The stark contrast and particular delivery made me take notice from the very first time I heard it, and that’s a good thing.
The Only Road is a good debut. Furr has established himself as a strong songwriter in the vein of Joseph Arthur and Josh Rouse. He can strengthen his lyrics (and, in folk, that’s a big consideration), but the musicianship is tight. If you’re interested in folk that will please your ears and tickle your emotions, Jacob Furr should be in your near future. And seeing as you can get his album in a “pay-what-you-want” scheme, you really should.
Charlie Brown once uttered, “There is no heavier burden than great potential.” I kept coming back to this thought as I repeatedly listened to John Calvin‘s debut EP The Walls of the City. Calvin delivers several instances of remarkable pop/folk songwriting throughout the EP, but it seems that there are just as many puzzling occurences and glaring missteps to follow the highlights.
John Calvin at Second Wind, April 3, 2009
John Calvin’s sound owes a heavy debt to Joseph Arthur. I have no idea if Calvin knows of Arthur, but Calvin’s ideas on songwriting are very similar to Arthur’s. Both have the acoustic guitar as their main instrument, but dabble in piano and electric. Both have a kitchen-sink mentality to songwriting. Both have a pseudo-hippie feel to their lyrics and sound. That being said, John Calvin’s writing never worships or emulates Arthur; it would just be a really, really great split EP or tour idea.
The differences are important: where Arthur’s voice is low, Calvin’s is high. It’s not new-school emo high, but he’s definitely a tenor. And, most importantly, Calvin’s songwriting is not as refined as Arthur’s. If you thought Arthur had a lot of things going on in his work, you will be slightly astounded by the number of ideas that go into a standard Calvin song.
Both these differences are a blessing and a curse; John Calvin’s high voice makes his sound distinctly his own. While there are influences from Dave Matthews, Ben Harper, OAR, and many other hippie/pop/folk outfits, Calvin’s voice sets him apart. It is good. Unfortunately, his voice does not sustain warble or cover miscues very well, and this creates some rather unfortunate moments (“Spit That Out” is particularly difficult to listen to).
One of John Calvin's many guitar faces.
His kitchen-sink mentality makes tracks such as “Sleep Well” and “Song to Make the Stars Fall” really, really interesting. “Sleep Well” is just under six minutes, and the amount of musical ideas packed into the track (played by guitar, piano, dual violin, electric guitar, and female vocals) creates a mesmerizing effect. “Song to Make the Stars Fall” has a similar mentality with a similar effect. At its worst, strange things make their way into his songs and throw off the groove (“Spit it Out” has strangely distorted vocals and electronic blips and glitches throughout).
It is easy to declare that John Calvin is at his best when he’s singing chilled-out tunes with a lot of instrumentation. If Sufjan Stevens had a little more hippie in him, he and John Calvin could be best friends. In fact, at Calvin’s CD release show, he covered two Sufjan tracks: the jubilant “Chicago” and the sorrowful “Casimir Pulaski Day.” Both were standout moments of the show, as nearly ten musicians covered the stage and created a veritable orchestra.
His show showed a different side of him than his album presents; his album is focused on his acoustic-based pop/folk, while his live show was much louder and much more electric. John Calvin certainly knows his way around an electric guitar, and he was very entertaining to watch. He made several guitar faces that I have never seen before during guitar solos – it was fun.
His mellower work was more musically interesting, but no one would be able to say that seeing John Calvin rock out wasn’t entertaining. He worked the audience pretty well, and made the show rock until he unveiled his stronger, mellower pieces.
John Calvin has a love of many types of music, and his live shows and album display that love. There are plenty of great things about that: his songwriting is varied, his melodies are catchy, his instrumentation is not cliche, and his overall product has a very comfortable feel to it. But there is much room for improvement: his songwriting vision needs to clarify some more and his vocal performances need to solidify. John Calvin has set a good pace for himself with this release, but now he needs settle in to a groove and figure out where he’s exactly going.
John Calvin getting into 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.