1. “Home Away” – Valley Shine. This song excellently combines two things I love: enthusiastic folk-pop and Graceland-style African music influences. It’s the sort of jubilant yet suave work that transcends genre barriers and should be appreciated by people across the pop music spectrum. Just a fantastic song.
2. “Brother” – Jack the Fox. Doesn’t need more than an acoustic guitar, some warm pad synths and an arresting voice to totally take over a room. It’s quality on par with Josh Ritter and Fleet Foxes, but doesn’t sound like either artist.
3. “One Day I’ll Be Your Ears” – Mateo Katsu. Ramshackle, enthusiastic, chunky, herky-jerky acoustic indie-pop from the school of Daniel Johnston and Page France. It’s the sort of charmingly off-kilter work that lo-fi was meant to celebrate.
4. “Lil to Late” – Brother Paul. Here’s a fun, easygoing acoustic blues shuffle with hints of rockabilly, vintage country and self-deprecating humor sprinkled throughout. It’s topped off with just the right amount of Motown soul-style horns.
5. “The Time It Takes” – The Show Ponies. This Americana outfit sounds like a Joe Walsh moonlighting as the leader of a Nashville country outfit: saloon-style piano, radio-rock ramblin’ vibe, and male/female duet vocals straight off your local country radio. It’s not usually what I’m into, but it hooked me and kept me.
6. “Return to the Scene” – Aaron Atkins. Weary yet sturdy, this alt-country/folk tune ambles along on the strength of great rumbling bass lines and a convincingly-achy vocal performance.
7. “Phoenix Fire” – Simon Alexander. From the Josh Garrels/Hozier school of intense singers comes this thoughtful, mature pop song with a great chorus.
8. “Melody, I” – Pluto and Charon. A warm, intimate acoustic performance that retains the fret squeaks and string buzz. It’s more rough in its fidelity than Damien Jurado ever was, but it has a similar sort of vibe in the dignified vocals.
9. “Waterski to Texas” – Budo and Kris Orlowski. Now this one really does sound like Damien Jurado, but the latter-day Jurado. Budo and Orlowski walk a fine line between big, sweeping arrangements of singer/songwriter work and a very personal, even raw, emotive quality. The vocals here are particularly fine.
10. “Gold Ring” – Redvers Bailey. This one’s a lovely, romantic, gently layered song that floats somewhere between Josh Radin’s delicate work and the wide-eyed wonder of “Casimir Pulaski Day”-style Sufjan Stevens.
11. “High Rolling” – Jake Aaron. This acoustic instrumental manages to be complex and inviting at the same time, subverting expectations by not just jumping to the highest treble notes for the lead melody. By keeping the melody low and close to the fingerpicked foundation of the piece, the tune feels both comfortable and complicated. It’s very worth your time, even for those who aren’t generally into acoustic instrumentals.
1. “Galatians 2:20” – The Welcome Wagon. TWW is almost genetically engineered specifically to be a perfect fit with my musical tastes: acoustic-based indie-pop married duo inspired to start a band by Sufjan Stevens who sing humble yet joyfully melodic tunes (often with many voices) whose lyrics are sometimes entirely Bible verses (as in this one). I love it all. If you do too, hit up their Kickstarter.
2. “Be My Girl” – Anna Lee Warren. Warren’s strong, clear alto voice is the centerpiece of this vocal/ukulele/stand-up bass/shaker piece, and it shines bright.
3. “The Swells” – Second Husband. A joyful little ditty about (potentially metaphorically) being eaten by a shark that includes a very Juno-esque flute solo and overall attitude.
4. “When I Arrive” – Bryan Diver. Somewhere between Needtobreathe and Josh Garrels lies this high-drama folk tune with an arresting chorus.
5. “Cold Fact” – I Have a Tribe. Gentle trembling at the top of some vocal notes gives a sense of a particular type of intimacy; not theatrical but not entirely restrained either. Just honest, in a certain way. There’s a very European precision about the spacious indie-pop arrangement here.
6. “Uncomfortably Numb” – i.am.hologram. A hypnotic acoustic guitar line that sounds more like a sitar than a six-string anchors this song. Nihil’s barely contained, sneering voice provides an astute counterpoint to the instrumental base.*
7. “Over You” – Pony Hunt. A vintage walking-speed country loll, but fronted by a clear-eyed alto voice, doo-wop background vocals, and delicate–even sweet–pedal steel.
8. “Eggs and Toast” – Redvers Bailey. This charming, quirky, jubilant ode to breakfast food reminds me of the melody of the Boss’s “Dancing in the Dark.” Pretty much everything else possible is different.
9. “Stay a Little Longer” – Knaan Shabtay. Passenger’s vocal style meets a sped-up version of Josh Radin’s delicate intricacies in a charming, engaging tune.
10. “dirt” – Andrea Silva. It’s amazing how arresting a subtle voice, a guitar, and reverb can be.
11. “Used to Be” – Luca Fogale. A dreamy, lovely tune about running out of nostalgia that nonetheless has a deep sense of memory running through it.
12. “Settle Down” – Dark Mean. Jason Molina and Bonnie Prince Billy would approve of this moving, slowly-unfolding tune constructed of simple elements that are imbued with huge emotional importance.
13. “The Thrill of Loneliness” – Honey Stretton. Goes hard for the pastoral feel: a burbling brook, various animal/insect noises, and the hiss of the outdoors accompany a meandering guitar and a fluttering female vocal. You’ll probably want to walk outside after hearing this–it won’t be as pretty as the sonic picture (unless you’re very lucky locationally).
14. “UURKIDNI” – Emily & the Complexes. Most of E&tC’s work is distortion heavy indie-rock, a la Silversun Pickups and the like. But this is a gentle yet sturdy love song of just an acoustic guitar, even-handed vocals, and atypical lyrics that draw me in. Stunning.
*Full disclosure: i.am.hologram’s PR contact recently began writing for Independent Clauses. This happened after selection of this song for coverage and did not affect the selection of the song.
Singer/songwriter Kris Orlowski has been a shooting star for the fast few years, moving quickly from local roots to premiering his latest album Believer on Pandora to recording a three-song EP with the venerable Damien Jurado at the helm. Columbia City Theater Sessions is the outcome of that collaboration: three songs of stripped-down acoustic work with delicate touches that are indicative of Jurado’s ear.
The new version of “Believer” retains the heavy strum pattern of the original, but foregrounds the lead and backup vocals. It creates a more collective vibe to the tune, as opposed to the very individualistic vibe that runs through the lyrics and original full-band version. (You can check the full version of “Believer” as the bonus track on this EP.)
The revelation here is “Fighting the War,” which is transformed from an anthemic pop-rock song into a tender, delicate tune that incorporates distant piano, warm background vocals, and even flute. It feels very much like a Jurado tune, in its tension between spare vibes and lush aspirations. It’s a stand-out tune both ways Orlowksi has cut it so far, which is truly remarkable.
The new track, “Winter, Winter” is truly a solo effort, vocals and guitar only. I don’t know how much influence Jurado had on it, but the insistent strum pattern is similar to the work that Damien would put out. Jurado’s fingerprints are all over these three quiet re-interpretations, and it shows a side of Orlowski that he hasn’t flexed in a while. If you’re looking for a solid little EP to play on a snowy day (like today), this one would be a great choice.
The folk-grounded indie-pop of In Tall Buildings‘ Driver gets better as it gets weirder. Opener “Bawl Cry Wail” is a traditional modern folk tune that wouldn’t be out of place in a Elephant Micah record, and it’s by no means bad. But things start to sparkle on “All You Pine,” as Erik Hall introduces rubbery, staccato bass; complex drumming; and subtle synth undertones. Then a gritty, grungy guitar solo appears. It’s all very “other” to modern folk, and it’s intriguing. Lead single “Flare Gun” relies on arpeggiated synth and perky drumming to float his guitar picking and vocals; the overall effect is remarkable. “I’ll Be Up Soon” manages to create the separated, synthetic electronic vibe without any obvious electronics, which is an impressive feat.
Once you’ve heard the album once, go back and listen to it again; once you’ve listened through, the context of the whole thing becomes clear and even dramatically un-electronic songs like “Bawl Cry Wail” fit into the amalgam. Songs like “Aloft” could be electronic or organic–it doesn’t matter. They just sound right together. If you’re into adventurous, sonically experimental music (but not in an avant-garde sort of way), Driver is for you.
Usually when I get a music release from someone who’s already famous in another artistic medium, I ignore it. The space that I have is best used on people trying to work their way up from nothin’. However, Michael Malarkey is an exception because his music is really good. Feed the Flames EP shows Malarkey in optimistic fingerpicking troubadour mode, like some cross between Alexi Murdoch, Josh Ritter and Josh Radin.
The chorus vocal line of “Through the Night and Back Again” has been stuck in my head for days, as Malarkey’s gentle baritone lilts its way through a pastoral setting that includes lazy pedal steel. It’s an impressive, mature tune. “Lost and Sound” and “Bells Still Ring” keep that feel going, giving a sense of motion and lightness to the release that can’t be dragged down by two darker tunes. The title track is a minor key tune, still with strong melodicism and fingerpicking, that plays up a romantic feel. “Everything’s Burned” is a helter-skelter klezmer/gypsy tune that taxes Malarkey’s vocals in delivery speed. It’s a fun, quirky tune that never feels overly kitschy.
Acting (Vampire Diaries) first made Michael Malarkey famous, but his singer/songwriter chops are just as strong as any one-art artist could hope for. I really look forward to what Malarkey will do in the future, musically–his first offering is impressive.
December is a tough month to release music: you’ve got orgs like Paste that have already released their year-end lists by the beginning of the month, blogs that are trying to clear out the files from November (or October, or September) to get all their 2014 commitments done, and listeners who are re-living the year instead of hearing new tunes. You should probably just wait till January. But if you don’t, and your release is really good, you might sneak one in under the radar. Morgan Mecaskey is 100% radar sneaking, because anyone who sounds like Sharon Van Etten fronting The National in an eclectic record store is going to get some good words from this camp.
Lover Less Wild is an adventurous, sultry, enigmatic EP that captured me on first listen. Mecaskey’s husky alto/tenor voice leads the charge on music that skirts boundary labels and ends up firmly in that catch-all camp of “indie rock.” Opener “White Horse” has soaring horns, female back-up vocals, churning guitars, push-tempo drums, and some royal fury in the vocals of Mecaskey herself. It sounds like she mentions the name “Jolene” in the chorus, which would hook her up to a long tradition of artists to find an admirable muse in that name. By the coda of the tune, Mecaskey is hollering “Sometimes I don’t feel like who I really am,” which is amazing, because she sounds completely like herself on that tune.
It’s followed up by three tunes that are a few notches down on the tour-de-force scale (but only a few; they all register). “Fighting Extinction” starts out as a distant, questioning mix between The Walkmen and Radiohead before erupting into some funky bass (?!), calling out some Motown horns, and bringing in a male vocalist for a contentious, exciting duet. It also includes the best saxophone solo this side of M83. Because it’s hard for Morgan Mecaskey to do anything twice, the title track opens with Wurlitzer and distant vocals before unfolding into a jazzy, hip-hop/R&B groove. Right about the time that I start to feel we should call up the Antlers and get them on the same tour, the song explodes into towering guitar walls and distorted bass. “Crushed” starts with nylon-string guitar in Spanish rhythms and ends with a full choir (a real one, not just a gang-vocal offering). In short, there is about as much happening in four songs as you can possibly imagine.
Mecaskey holds this whirlwind tour of music genres and styles together with her voice, which is a versatile, powerful, emotive engine. No matter what arrangement she’s leading, she’s in firm control of what’s happening. Her voice is at home wherever she lands it, which is as much a testament to her attitude and confidence as it is her immense songwriting chops. I don’t care if you’re listening to your favorite album of the year again (I know I am, no hate), you’ve got to check out Morgan Mecaskey’s Lover Less Wild. It will keep you spinning.
James Robinson‘s Start a Fire EP is a charming four-song release. Robinson’s acoustic-centric style fits somewhere between singer/songwriter confessionals and adult-alternative pop sheen, like a more mystical Matt Nathanson or a more polished Damien Rice. This mash-up results in the best of both worlds (instead of the dreaded inverse), with Robinson’s smooth vocals getting all silky around arrangements that have some indie mystery and ambiguity in them. Think less Ed Sheeran crooning and more of that feeling you felt the first time you heard Coldplay’s Parachutes.
The quartet of tunes works nicely together, moving along a high-quality clip without drawing attention to any song in particular. “Demons” has some great bass work and a nice, memorable vocal line; “Holes in the Sky” opens with some nice guitar and vocals that evoke Jason Mraz; “Smoke & Ashes” is the most tender of the collection. But it’s the title track that takes high marks here: its polished arrangement frames Robinson’s voice perfectly, making this an impeccably done song that you’ll be humming for a while. If you’re looking for some gentle singer/songwriter fare with some mystery in it, go for James Robinson.
Any discussion of Angelo De Augustine‘s Spirals of Silence must be prefaced by this information: de Augustine sounds, musically, vocally, and even lyrically, like Elliott Smith mashed up with Nick Drake. For many people, this is enough to send them running in its direction. I forwarded this to the resident Smith fan in my life and was promptly given compliments on my character after his first listen. It’s a hit.
But it’s not just that it sounds like Smith: the songs are incredibly well-done. de Augustine has the fingerpicking/breathy vocals/tape hiss thing down, but the things he chooses to fingerpick are beautiful, contemplative, melodic works that move sprightly along. Lead single “Old Hope” is a perfect example of this, as de Augustine whispers his way across a traveling, bouncy-yet-not-cheesy guitar line. (Side note: because this song sounds like Josh Radin, I realized that I’d never noticed how much Elliott Smith influenced Josh Radin.) Other highlights include the oddly heartbreaking “Married Mother,” the tender “I Spend Days,” and the intriguing “You Open to the Idea.”
I could say more about Spirals of Silence, but I think I’ve said all I need to in order to get you to listen to this or not. Viva Angelo de Augustine, please and thank you.
I had two presentations and classes to teach this week, so I spent an unusual amount of time doing mental exercises to keep myself calm and focused. One of those was “pushing play on my iPod to hear St. Even‘s Spirit Animal.” It worked almost as well as deep breaths and [nerdy Wheel of Time joke redacted].
It’s easy to chill when listening to St. Even, who longtime readers may recognize from Steve Hefter and Friends (and Friends of Friends), as Spirit Animal‘s acoustic-based folk/indie-pop combines the preternatural chill of Breathe Owl Breathe with the downtrodden theatricality of Dan Mangan. Hefter’s baritone adds to the effect, as his few moments of urgency only serve to reinforce that Spirit Animal is predominantly a leisurely stroll.
Hefter’s low, calming tone spreads from his voice to the arrangements. They are meticulously crafted, but never invasive or heavy: the violins float along in “The Piano Inflates,” while the horns in “Cocksure” are poignant instead of flamboyant. This is due in part to the fact that Hefter hits it and quits it: Most songs hover around 2:40, with some falling near or under two minutes. Nothing has time to overstay its welcome.
The resulting tunes range from the chipper “Blinding Love” and very pleasant “Dreams/My Rope” to the self-effacing “Ariel” and the wrenching sadness of “Long Distance Calls.” The major exception is the Mangan-esque, self-aware closer “This Is Not a Song,” which ends in a ten-car folk pile-up of erratic guitar strum, flutes, choirs, vocal soloists, saloon piano and cello. It’s markedly different than the rest of the album, but it feels fine as an outro.
I listen to a great deal of music, but some albums stick with me past their week. St. Even’s latest seems quite promising to end up on the list with Beirut’s The Rip Tide as most recent entries. Fans of mature, thoughtful songwriting (Mangan, Breathe Owl Breathe, Josh Ritter, Josh Radin, Damien Jurado) should get their paws on a copy of Spirit Animal.
I have always been fascinated by the idea of artistic output. I want to leave behind a set of things that people look back on and say, “Ah, that’s what he did.” Authors get to put books on a shelf. Musicians take up significant space on people’s iPods or CD books (I still have a CD book. It is a monster). Visual artists leave their works all over the world, inadvertently creating a massive scavenger hunt for the mouth-breathing faithful.
Overall output is impressive to me, like the 20 Mountain Goats albums, dozens of books by John Piper, or prodigious output of some visual artists. But contained output has been an obsession of mine as well. That’s where Chris Hickey’s Razzmatazz comes in. These sixteen songs were “written and recorded (on a hand-held digital recorder) by Chris Hickey in March, 2009 as part of a song-a-day undertaking.” Which means there were probably more where these came from, but I’ll be glad with what I’ve got.
Each of these songs but one features nothing but Chris Hickey’s voice and an acoustic guitar. No overdubs, no cuts. This is pure, unadulterated songwriting. There is nowhere to hide, no room to polish, no time to make the lyrics perfect or craft a perfect bridge to finish out the song. This is a picture of how a songwriter writes. And it is absolutely fascinating.
These songs hover around a minute and a half, with the two longest at two and a half. They somewhat apply to pop structures, although Hickey has no problem destroying rhythm to get a point across. The most memorable instance of this is the hilarious moment on “Kerouac” where he repeats a chord for ten seconds so he can cram about twenty extra syllables into a single line. It’s understandable to me; since he doesn’t have a lot of time to polish his lyrics, the words and rhythms come out raw and unusual. His unedited thoughts and rhythms make this album the fascinating thing that it is.
The songs themselves are as simple as you imagine they would be if you had to write one every day. There are often no more than two parts to a song, and some of them only have one guitar part with different sung parts over it. They generally fall between Jack Johnson pop and Josh Radin folk; there’s lots of fingerpicking and gentle strumming, sometimes fast and sometimes slow. It’s a thoroughly mellow collection of tunes, and it’s great accompaniment for driving on a sunny day.
There are some high highs and low lows, due to the constraints of writing one a day. “Down” is a beautiful, memorable song with a great chorus. “Down a Long Haul” has a jaunty vibe to it that puts a grin on my face. “Shine” is the most complete of all the songs, with full chorus and verses. “Soft Sell” has a gentle groove and benefits from the aforementioned excellent lyrics. The speak-sung, charming “Places to Go” is the highlight of the album, as it is suitably unique, relatable, poppy, and interesting.
There are some entirely weird tracks, like a cappella closer “What You Are,” the out-of-character “A Man is Rich,” and the awkward rhythms of “Nothing is Real.” But those tracks are overshadowed by the excellent tracks.
Razzmatazz is a fascinating, entertaining, engrossing album that allows access to the unfiltered workings of a musician’s writing process. It’s almost like watching an artist paint or a sculptor sculpt. It’s that interesting. Get this if you’re a fan of fingerpicked folk or gentle acoustic pop.
I came from a punk background, but over the past three years I’ve spent a lot more time listening to singer/songwriters than I have punk. The more I listen, the more I’m interested in the barest of the bare: chords, melody and words. This, to me, is the essence of songwriting; with no distortion, no band, and no gimmicks to fall on, the songwriter’s qualities and demerits are all that is left. And it’s artists that are okay with displaying what they got that excite me.
Leonard Mynx fits perfectly into that desire. If singer/songwriters are placed on a continuum where Damien Jurado is the quietest of the quiet and old-school Dashboard Confessional is the loudest of the loud (I swear, even his quietest stuff ends in hollering – and it’s great because of it), Leonard Mynx would fall toward the Damien Jurado side, right up against Ray LaMontagne and near Jose Gonzalez. That is, there’s not much clutter in these songs; they’re pretty bare.
It is their stripped-down qualities that make Vesper such an incredibly tight piece of work. There is not a wasted second on the album. Mynx knows that his strengths lie in letting his low tenor voice meander over subtle, sparse guitar accompaniment. And he does plenty of it. But he also knows when to introduce other instruments; forlorn trumpets (a la Bon Iver) appear with enough frequency to merit notice, and a female singer accompanies Mynx in some of his best moments.
The fact that Mynx knows his strengths and exploits them is what makes this album like a warm winter coat on a cold day. Sometimes I wish that artists would do more of what they’re good at as opposed to “experimenting.” Mynx doesn’t fall prey to this at all. “Robert” is over nine minutes long (atypical for a folk song), and it sounds great. There just isn’t anything wrong with it.
Mynx plays with other atmospherics within the context of his songwriting; “Many Hours” has a full band, while “The Reins” has a distinctly Bon Iver-ish atmospheric build-up. Several tracks nod to folk tradition and have harmonica back-up. But it’s all done in a very forlorn way; none of the tracks here get caught up in their own pomp and circumstance. These songs are incredibly straightforward, down-to-earth, and enjoyable.
Mynx’s voice and lyrics add a whole other dimension to the songwriting. The lyrics are good, but his delivery makes them into what they are. Even when Mynx is delivering lines that would otherwise be cliches due to their amount of use (of which there are a handful), the way he delivers them and the context in which he delivers them make them seem like Mynx just really, really means those words. It fully doesn’t matter that other people have had those thoughts; Mynx had them too, and they were just as legit when he felt them as when those who went before him felt them.
This album is wonderful. The honest, sad, realistic clarity of the songs makes me want to put the entire album on repeat and have it running in the background of my life. I feel like people would understand me better if they heard this album. Seeing as someone else wrote this album, that’s a pretty weighty endorsement. If you like acoustic folk (Bon Iver, Jose Gonzalez, Iron and Wine, Josh Rouse, Josh Ritter, Josh Radin, Damien Rice, Damien Jurado, et al.) there is no reason you won’t adore this album. I adore Vesper.
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.