Strangers by Accident‘s five-song EP establishes the male/female duo as somewhere between the wistful, major key acoustic pop of the Weepies and the spartan acoustic delicacy of Joshua Radin’s early work. They can get a little bit noisier than either outfit (“Straight to Space,” “Borderline”), but their sweet spot is a bright, clear, open sound garnished with a twist of sadness (or two).
“Steal” is the opener and the tone-setter, with a single acoustic guitar, a tambourine, two vocalists, and ambient guitar marking out the sonic space that the duo explore for the rest of the EP. Standout “Borderline” opens as the quietest track: the lyrics are poignant and unafraid to take on the darkness in the world, like a Rocky Volotato song. It grows to one of their noisiest, with a raucous electric guitar line crashing in intermittently. “Busted Heart” and “Hold Me Down” are both just great acoustic pop songs; sometimes you don’t have to reinvent the wheel to make a really great car. If you’re into the Civil Wars, The Local Strangers, or other classy male/female duos I’m not familiar with, you’ll love Strangers by Accident.
O by Holy ’57 owes an incredible debt to the carefree first two albums of Vampire Weekend. The four tracks here are all sun-drenched and wrapped in the swaying-yet-choppy rhythms that Ezra Koenig and co. virtually trademarked. Holy ’57 trades out the helter-skelter guitar runs for tropical synths, making a sound even more upbeat and sunshiny than VW did. The songs bounce, leap, skip, and twirl their way through my speakers, making it impossible not to smile.
The topics fit with the vibe: “Venice, CA” is about having youthful adventures in the titular city, “188.8.131.52” deals with a breakup and/or social failures by a nostalgic longing for the ’90s, and “Jep Shuffle” builds its chorus around a dance (although it doesn’t tell you how to do the Jep Shuffle, just that it exists). That last track is the unavoidable track: it’s a nigh-on-perfect summer pop song, with verses that build, a chorus that pays off in spades, and rhythms that make me want to move. It’s a sin that this song isn’t everywhere, because it is awesome. Those looking for a song to close out their summer with need to look no farther than O, where there’s at least one (if not three!) tunes that can do that for you. Awesome.
Deer Scout‘s customsis a slight, intimate object: Dena Miller’s four-song EP barely breaks 10 minutes. But in those 10 minutes, her unadorned songwriting makes a statement. She opens with “holy ghost,” which is nothing more than delicate guitar picking, earnest alto vocals, and beautifully complex lyrics. Fans of the dense stylings of Lady Lamb will see similar sparks here. The song is beautifully balanced: there’s not much to it, but it all sounds vital and immediate. It grabbed my attention and didn’t let go.
“little state” and “up high” feature strumming more and have more of a distinct song structure, recalling Waxahatchee’s early stylings. Although there are referents, Miller’s vocal melodies are put together in her own way (the interval jumps on the chorus of “little state,” the confident delivery of everything in “up high”); she is establishing herself as a songwriting voice here. The short set closes with “train song,” which splits the difference between the dense lyrics and fingerpicking of the opener and the concrete song structures of the center two pieces. Her voice is excellent here as well. Fans of women singer/songwriters, intimate sketches, and minimalism will find much to love in customs.
1. “Wolf Wife” – Jenny Ritter. I can’t be the first person to mention this, but I’m doing it anyway: we need to get Jenny Ritter and Josh Ritter on tour together. Her evocative modern singer/songwriter tunes push past folk stereotypes into timeless, need-no-terms realms–just like that other Ritter.
2. “Always” – Jake McMullen. McMullen sets the scene with low, slow, poignant guitar; once he’s let you know where we’re going, he reaches out of the speakers and grabs my ears by the lobes with his evocative voice and downhearted vocals. It’s a remarkable tune that has that slowcore X factor which commands my attention.
3. “Wolves” – Guilford. Breaking a ten-year pause, Guilford returns with a beautiful, rolling slowcore track. Some synths mark a slight change in sonic palette, but the apple doesn’t fall too far from the historical tree: you’ll still get pensive, thoughtful tunes with some unusual chords woven in.
4. “In the Garden” – Cicada Rhythm. Lilting, creaky, rootsy, Latin, classic, classical, and altogether immersive, this you-gotta-hear-it track charts its own course. Here’s to more of this.
5. “Summer Night” – Tree Machines. It’s not easy making complexity sound organic and effortless, and Tree Machines pull off that feat via a remarkable indie-pop track with a variety of tricks up its sleeves.
6. “Your Story (feat. Jessie Payo)” – Distant Cousins. There’s still plenty of room in folk-pop for a great melody, earnest vocals, harmonica wails, and woodsy vibes.
7. “Helping” – Nathan Fox. A bluesy, grit-infused voice meets a chipper, whistle-led pop tune about helping each other. I can’t help but smile while hearing this song.
8. “How It Fades” – Daniel Martin Moore. The gentleness of Joshua Radin’s early work and the concreteness of a piano/drums connection buoy this breathtaking update on the early-morning musings of James Taylor.
9. “The Fall” – The Native Sibling. It’s a pillow in audio form, until the female vocals come in and kick the song up several more notches. A dreamier Civil Wars? Please stay together, though.
10. “Calon Lan” – ChessBoxer. There’s something bright and pure about a rustic-minded bluegrass outfit playing a gorgeous traditional air; it gets deep in my bones and pulls the smile (and the nostalgia) out.
1. “The Last Generation of Love” – The Holy Gasp. Hugely theatrical vocals, driving conga drums, stabbing horns, and an overall feel of wild desperation permeate this wild track. It feels like a lost ’60s bossa nova played at triple the speed with an apocalyptic poet dropping remix bars over it. In short, this one’s different.
2. “Hot Coffee” – Greg Chiapello. Somewhere between Brill Building formal pop songcraft and Beatles-esque arrangement affectations sits this perky, smile-inducing, timeless tune.
3. “Wake Up and Fight” – Gaston Light. If you’re looking for a widescreen folk creed, this tune builds from a single bass note to a fist-raised anthem. Gaston Light attempts to channel Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Conor Oberst, and more.
4. “Evil Dreams” – Elstow. ’50s girl-pop mixed with some 9 p.m. vibes and reverb = solid track.
6. “All This Wandering Around” – Ivan and Alyosha. Ivan and Alyosha are back with a chipper indie-rock song that will get you tapping your toes.
7. “Less Traveled” – Johanna Warren. A lilting soprano supported by low flutes and burbling fingerpicking developed into technical guitarwork that lifted my eyebrows. There’s a lot of talent going on here. I love what Team Love is up to this year.
8. “Folding” – Martin Callingham. Callingham has crafted the sort of tune that’s almost inarguable: it floats lightly on your consciousness, gently working its way through to the end of the tune. If Joshua Radin had gotten a few more instruments involved without going rock…
9. “Wild at Heart” – Trans Van Santos. Does Calexico have a patent of the sound of the high desert? Mark Matos hopes not, as the baritone-voiced songwriter of Trans Van Santos has a way with the guitar delays and reverbs of that venerable sound. Perfect for your jaunts to or from Flagstaff.
10. “Don’t You Honey Me” – Timothy Jaromir. Here’s a bluesy country duet with excellent come-hither female vocals, muted horns, and romance on the mind.
1. “Old Hope” – Angelo de Augustine. It’s like Elliott Smith is alive. Maybe there’s some Joshua Radin and Nick Drake in there, but mostly the whispered vocals and style of acoustic guitar remind me of Smith.
2. “Amarillo” – Anna Vogelzang. Combine the charm of Ingrid Michaelson with the full arrangements of Laura Stevenson, and you’ve got a little bit of an idea of Vogelzang’s talent. She’s one to watch.
3. “Red River” – Tyler Sjöström. Fans of Mumford and Sons will love this theatrical, finger-picked folk-pop tune.
4. “Forever Gone” – Andrew Marica. The morose romanticism of Damien Rice + the distant reverb-heavy atmospherics of Bon Iver create this downtempo ballad.
5. “Delilah” – Tony Lucca. This one’s pretty boss: Wide-open, sneering, engaging full-band country-rock with an eye toward Coldplay-style, radio-friendly vocal melodies. Also, there’s some awesome saloon-style piano playing.
6. “Angel Tonight” – Peter Galperin. Musical adventurer Galperin moves from his bossa nova experiments towards ’80s country-flavored classic rock. There’s some Springsteen, some Paul Simon, and more all combined here.
7. “Time” – Night Windows. Acoustic-based indie-pop a la David Bazan that teeters on the edge between twee and melancholy.
8. “I Got Creepy When Lou Reed Died” – Red Sammy. The husky, gravel-throated country of Red Sammy gets an electric makeover for this tribute tune. The title a weird thing to chant, but you’ll probably want to sing along repeatedly to the mantra-esque chorus.
Folk music can sound like any season: spring (The Tallest Man on Earth), summer (Josh Ritter), fall (The Head and the Heart), and winter (Bon Iver). Matthew Oomen is from Norway, and his acoustic-led singer/songwriter tunes definitely take inspiration from the arctic surroundings and lean into the wintry side of things. In contrast to Bon Iver’s impressionistic emoting, the strengths of Oomen’s Where the Valley Is Long lie in spacious arrangements, distinct rhythms, meticulous performances, and crisp production.
“Master’s Row” opens the album with precise, separated acoustic guitar and banjo fingerpicking, stating very quickly what sort of album this will be. Oomen comes in with gentle whispered/sung tenor vocals, then brings in a swooping cello. The overall effect is a romantic, wintry vibe: the space in the arrangements gives room for listeners to breathe, and the gentle mood has wistful, amorous overtones. The song would fit perfectly in a day where you cuddled up with your lover next to a warm fire as snow falls.
The rest of the songs doen’t stray far from that mood, creating a warm, open, resonant album. “Called to Straw” is one of the slowest on the record, leisurely creating a beautiful atmosphere with the banjo, guitar, and dual-gender vocals. “Camp Hill” is an instrumental track that excellently displays the melodic gift that Oomen has. Some may find that the dominant fingerpicking style can result in some difficulty of differentiation between the tunes, but the specific mood of the album is so consistent that it’s just as good to me as a whole unit as in individual bits. Where the Valley is Long is a beautiful, enchanting, comforting album of pristine singer/songwriter folk. Fans of Young Readers, The Tallest Man on Earth, and Joshua Radin’s early work will find much to love here.
Jesse Marchant‘s self-titled record is far more masterful than a debut would usually be, because Marchant has released several albums under the JBM moniker. (I’m particularly fond of Not Even In July.) Marchant’s first offering under his real name brings his powerful brand of serious music to great results at two different poles. When I first reviewed Marchant’s live show earlier this year, I compared him to a mix of Gregory Alan Isakov and Jason Molina. Here he largely separates those influences, splitting his wistful/romantic and churning/tension-laden elements into different tunes.
I was originally attracted to Marchant’s music for his quiet tunes, but his noisier offerings are just as compelling here. The muscly “In the Sand/Amelia” relies on a seriously fuzzed-out guitar riff and heavy bass tones to create an emotional, powerful tune. He caps the song with a brief yet impressive bit of squalling guitar solo. “All Your Promise” has a bit of Keane-style dramatic flair to its intro, leaning on cinematic, back-alley tenion before settling into a quieter, synth-laden verse. “Adrift” starts off with a big pad synth and a serious drumkit groove; it doesn’t exactly resolve into a rock tune, but it’s pretty close.
But even “In the Sand/Amelia” has an abrupt return to quietness in its middle section. Marchant knows how to wring emotion out of a repetitive guitar riff, a mournful vocal line, and time, and that hasn’t changed here. Opener “Words Underlined” shows him in full form, building a six-minute experience out of a uncomplicated, gently strummed electric guitar. He’s still in Jason Molina territory there. He does turn his attention to less brooding tunes, like the upbeat “The Whip”–not nearing power-pop by any means, but Isakov fans will know the vibe intuitively. “Stay on Your Knees” has a bit more of a rock feel, but the swift fingerpicking pulls it from his Songs:Ohia pole closer to the Isakov one. But even within the song there are dalliances: synths appear, a piano section pops up, etc.
Marchant is building his own style here, and it’s working really well: he’s identifiable with other musicians but not copying them. Jesse Marchant is a satisfying album that should make fans of those not in the know and please those who have followed him as JBM. If you’re into musicians like Leif Vollebekk, Isakov, Molina or Bowerbirds, you’ll find a kindred spirit here.
Justin Klump‘s three-song release The Night Is Young delivers fresh-faced folk-pop with a strong ear for gentle arrangement. Instead of taking the Mumford-esque “shout it out” method, Klump finds kindred spirits in early work by both The New Amsterdams and Joshua Radin: strong melodies that work their way into your heart by charm, not by force.
The title track does eventually get a bass drum thumping as a pulse, but it’s not invasive; it feels like a heartbeat that the accordion, cello and guitar play over. I was reminded also of a less frantic Twin Forks in the interplay between the woah-ohs and the instrumental arrangement. “Slow Life Down” and “Pictures and Stains” both lean on tender, romantic emotions; they’re lovely as a result. Klump knows how to use his voice to best effect, and he frames his vocal melodies beautifully with the trappings you’d expect: banjo, glockenspiel, reverb-heavy piano. It doesn’t have to be groundbreaking to be excellent; Klump is working within a framework and doing a great job of it.
I love it when I find calm, beautiful, well-arranged work. If you’re into the sound of earnest, tender folk-pop or the moods and lyrics of adult alternative pop, you’ll find much to love in Justin Klump’s The Night Is Young.
1. “Whodunit?” – Gentle Robot. GR’s new album of indie-friendly alt-rock a la Silversun Pickups or Anberlin is a whodunit murder mystery. Gentle Robot deftly balances tenderness and aggression via strong lyrical and musical songwriting. Clever, memorable, and novel.
2. “Say Yes” – Afternoons. If you can resist belting out that chorus at the top of your lungs, this blog cannot help you. I’m serious.
3. “Gloria” – Backwords. Item Two: If you can stop yourself from belting out “I NEED GLOOOOOOORIA,” this is probably not the blog for you. Excellent song development from this crew.
4. “Love the Sea” – The Vigilance Committee. Grows from dreamy beginnings all the way to a rhythmically technical post-hardcore section, with some punk-inspired motion in the middle. I love ambitious songwriters.
5. “Midnight:Sixteen” – Tree Dwellers. TD has some weird post-rock/alt-rock/found-sound thing going on here. It’s the soundtrack to a really ominous “getting ready” sequence in a artsy futuristic dystopian action film.
6. “You Come to Kill Me?” – Happyness. Two minutes of pure slacker rock with impressive attention to lyrical detail. It doesn’t get repetitive, it doesn’t ask for much, it just wants to know if you’re there to kill him. Solid, bro.
7. “Monuments” – Haverford. My current favorite emo band mixes vocal desperation, dreamy guitars, and punk intensity for a swirling, whirling track. This release should get Haverford noticed by emo revivalists and more.
8. “Escape” – Dream Boat. The intensity of the forward motion that pushes through this psychedelic track makes it more than just a woozy psych jam or a four-on-the-floor stomper. Heavy vibes here, but good ones.
9. “Love Again” – JOA. Yearning, churning, moody indie-pop from the artist formerly known as Like Clockwork; much more atmospheric than the brash pop music he was previously producing. It’s got some down-tempo groove to it, too.
11. “January” – Silva. The breeziness of chillwave meets the celebratory vibes of Brazilian music in a fun, charming, beautiful track.
12. “Lovekill” – Anie. Opens with an asymmetric vocal line reminiscent of tUnE-yArDs before exploding into a pop-rock tune with high male vocals; it shifts back and forth from artsy to poppy throughout the track. Really interesting take here.
13. “Oh the Evil!!!” – Michael Leonard Witham. A Dylanesque yawp, pedal steel, brazen harmonica, and a perky overall mood? Yes. Let’s have some more of that.
14. “Shapeshifting” – Sam Joole. This warm, gentle, pristine arrangement that recalls William Fitzsimmons or early Joshua Radin feels lush and full, even though it’s rather stark. Wonderful track.
I deeply admire intricate arrangements, but I fall in love with simplicity. Singer/songwriter Jared Foldy‘s American Summer is a graceful, simple, beautiful seven-song release that is an easy candidate for my end of year lists.
It’s not just that the songs are simple, because anyone can do that. Foldy has taken great care in choosing and maintaining a specific mood throughout American Summer. The album art does an excellent job of interpreting the feel of this record: gauzy, but not opaque; relaxed, but not lazy; calm, but not uninterested. This is beautiful, beautiful music.
The sparse arrangements are light, airy, and smooth without turning maudlin or sappy; the early work of Joshua Radin and Rehearsals for Departure-era Damien Jurado come to mind. All three artists espouse a wide-eyed wonder about the world without getting maudlin or sappy. The effortless grace of Mojave 3’s Ask Me Tomorrow also is a strong touchstone, as Foldy and M3 share an elegant gravitas.
Foldy’s opener “See It All” has the gravitas and passion that only a patient, experienced singer/songwriter can draw out. The chorus-less song builds to a strong conclusion through clever use of instruments (and smart refusal to use others, like snare drum). The songwriting is strong, the performances are inspired, and the production is simply incredible to pull it all together.
The rest of the songs are more verse/chorus/verse oriented, but they are no less beautiful. Title track “American Summer” is an absolutely stunning song that leverages all the best things about the album into one piece: Foldy’s light, gentle tenor floats over warm fingerpicking in a calming, uplifting mood. It’s a lyrically beautiful song as well, gently appealing to a woman playing hard to get. It’s everything I want in a song.
“Wide Eyes” is also firing on all cylinders. Foldy’s voice and guitar playing are augmented by piano, strings and brushed percussion, merging the excellent arrangement of “See It All” with the memorable vocal melody of “American Summer.” Even though “American Summer” is my favorite tune to hear on the record, “Wide Eyes” is the one I hum to myself.
Jared Foldy has grown leaps and bounds since 2011’s Everyone’s Singing. Foldy had the songwriting skill then, but now he’s put his own stamp on the sound. American Summer is an outstanding collection of tunes that I would recommend to anyone who like beautiful music, but especially those who like folk/singer-songwriter/acoustic. I hope this release pushes Foldy into the brighter spotlight that he deserves.
Sam Buckingham‘s I’m a Bird is also a bright singer/songwriter affair. She emanates an assured, confident vibe, similar to KT Tunstall. Her guitar and often sassy voice are the main players here, with only light accompaniment throughout. But she doesn’t need a full band to pack tunes like “Follow You,” “Hit Me With Your Heart” and “Tomorrow I’ll Wear Black” with a ton of attitude.
The third of the trio is most fascinating: “Tomorrow I’ll Wear Black” tune composed entirely of Buckingham’s vocals, group vocals on the chorus, and clapping. For a song about changing yourself so that someone will love you, it’s surprisingly chipper and flirty. It is the penultimate tune on the album, and it made me sit up and take notice. It’s a great pair with the charming, cutesy “Rabbit Hole” to end the album.
In between that closing and the opening salvo “Follow You”/”Hit Me With Your Heart” is a lot of music to explore: “Mountain Sun” features a tuba and clarinet; “So Much Loving Left to Do” slows things down for a piano ballad. The tunes in the middle are less immediately arresting than the beginning and end, but when you have such high-quality tunes at the front and back, it’s tough to keep that level of excellence going on. Overall, there are very few clunkers on the album, with Buckingham bringing her A-game consistently.
Buckingham has a clear vision of what her sound and style are: she executes that vision very well on I’m a Bird. If you like strong, sassy female singer/songwriters, then you should definitely check out Buckingham’s music.
I don’t often sit back and chill, as I usually relax by reading or writing poetry. But the dreamy simplicity of Acres by Rat Wakes Red makes just being a very pleasant experience indeed.
RWR creates intimate, melodic tunes reminiscent of old-school Iron and Wine. Songwriter James Raftery plays more piano than Sam Beam did, and his sketches tend more toward ghostly melancholy than the bearded wonder’s. Raftery’s voice has soothing reverb on it, giving the tunes an even more ethereal air. Gentle synths and strings make appearances, capping off the tunes.
Raftery’s tightly-defined production leads to the make-or-break point of Acres: the eighteen songs tend to run together when listened to in one sitting. Barely a song steps outside the guitar/piano/vocals/auxiliary instrument oeuvre he sets up.
As a result, the overall effect is not song-driven; the album is best experienced as an un-dissected document. In an ADHD era, this is a liability in attempts to gain casual listeners; there is no single here. But for those who love the experience of setting an album on and blissing out to the mood it creates, this is a treasure trove. Fans of Other Lives, Elliott Smith, Sigur Ros and Joshua Radin will find much to love in Rat Wakes Red’s Acres.
I expected Feldiken to be some sort of techno project from Europe, based on the name. I could not have been more wrong. Feldiken is a Brooklyn-based innocent, buoyant pop band that sounds like an even more optimistic Backyard Tire Fire (yes, I know, that is somewhat difficult to fathom). With bouncy bass lines, organ and accordion accompaniment, lyrics bordering on naivete (in mostly a good way) and harmonies so comfortable that I feel like I already know them, it’s pretty hard to make a case for Feldiken to be anything but a straight-up pop band.
Small Songs About Us is acoustic-based pop, similar to Joshua Radin’s wide-eyed optimism. But where Joshua Radin takes turns for the depressive, Feldiken never goes there. The only remotely sad moment on the album is “Too Good,” where he recites a list of awesome things that are happening in his life and how he’s worried because they’re all too good to be happening. Bro, I’ll take that problem any day of the week. “Not Like Clockwork” is almost depressing, but the chorus comes around to realizing “Oh! I have friends, sunshine, laughter and a woman! And that makes my life better!” I am not exaggerating.
And although it does sound oppressively happy, it rarely reaches that point because the acoustic songwriting is well-grounded, unendingly melodic, and incredibly comfortable. The only point where it gets unbearable is “Rockin’ All the Way,” which feels like a kid’s song because it calls out the instruments as they enter the song. I just can’t bear it.
Thankfully, the sunshine is tempered in points throughout; “Like a Flower” has pensive moments, “This Bridge Won’t Burn” has a bit of a distorted edge to it, and “Like a Flower” has some doubt in the lyrics. “Like a Flower” is the winner here, as it evokes Josh Radin in all the right ways but remains true to the Feldiken aesthetic.
Take this away from this review: the acoustic pop here is so upbeat and charming that it makes zydeco (“Never Really Knew”) seem like a totally legitimate move within the sound the band has established. I like it a lot in small doses, especially “Too Good” and “Like a Flower,” but after a full album it’s hard to stomach. If you like happy music, you need this.
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.