Dietrich Strause‘s How Cruel That Hunger Binds is a sneaky breakup album: it starts off with a folk-pop ode to the narrator’s own human depravity and takes all the way till the eighth track (“Spring Has Sprung”) to get explicit about the fact that getting over someone is hard. Along the way, Strause ponders religion (“Boy Born to Die”), homecoming (“Pennsylvania”), the limits of nostalgia in the face of reality (“Home From the Heartland”), and other introspective topics.
The music is similarly thoughtful: starting from a mature folk standpoint (opener “The Beast That Rolls Within” calls up Josh Ritter, Justin Townes Earle, etc.), Strause adds in all sorts of subtle flourishes to make the tracks pop: horns feature throughout the album, whether blaring (“Lying in Your Arms,” “The World Once Turning”) or warbling sentimentally (“Pennsylvania”), a harmonium provides the backdrop for the mysterious “Around the World,” and Strause incorporates doowop elements throughout (but never in a kitschy way). The end result is a majestic, carefully-wrought album folk-pop album that stands up against multiple listens. Highly recommended.
1. “Holy Ghost” – deer scout. Some songs have to grow on me, but “Holy Ghost” is instant: Dena Miller’s friendly, comfortable alto invites you in, and the intimate, burbling guitar asks you to sit down. This is a magnificent song that has me very excited for future deer scout work.
2. “Annie” – Patric Johnston. The acoustic guitar has a mellifluous, perfectly-delivered melody to lead this piece, and Johnston’s voice is buttery and smooth in the way of the Barr Brothers, Josh Ritter, and the like: mature, solid, and full of gentle charisma.
3. “The Weather Girl” – Prints Jackson. This one’s a vocals-forward troubadour folk tune a la old-school Joe Pug or occasional Justin Townes Earle. Jackson knows how to use his voice and guitar to best effect, and the resulting tune shines with an easygoing assuredness. This song has legs, and I hope it gets to use them–more people should know about Prints Jackson.
4. “Rain Thoughts” – Frith. You walk into a new club that’s supposed to classy. You find yourself greeted with the gentle sounds of a musician trained in Tom Waits drama but purveying that work via strings, stand-up bass, gentle piano, and a relaxed tenor. You’re going to like it here, and you’re going to visit more often. (Alternatively: the gravitas of trip-hop worked its way into a singer/songwriter tune.)
5. “All Day All Night” – River Whyless. River Whyless has always wanted to be more than just a folk band, and here they expand their sound with some rhythmic group vocals and satisfying thrumming bass that drops this tune somewhere between Fleet Foxes and Fleetwood Mac.
6. “Firetrain” – Todd Sibbin. The raw, youthful vocal presentation of Bright Eyes’ mid-era work meets the polished horns and wailing organ of early-era Counting Crows alt-pop. (I just mentioned two of my favorite bands.) In short, this is a fantastic pop tune.
7. “Absolute Contingency” – The Ravenna Colt. The lead guitar work and background vocals point toward an alt-country tune out of the slowcore, Mojave 3 school, but the rest of the tune is a shuffle-snare folk tune that’s just lovely.
8. “4th July” – Daniel Pearson. This chipper folk-pop tune has a great harmonica part, a friendly vibe, and really depressing lyrics. At least it sounds happy!
9. “Revolver” – Vian Izak. It’s got that Parachutes-esque Brit-pop mystery to it, paired with the sort of chords and mood that evoke sticky, slow-moving days in the city. The results are unique and interesting.
10. “Out Loud” – Jason P. Krug. Brash but not aggressive, Krug pairs confident melodic delivery and chunky indie-pop/folk with a swooping cello to create an intriguing tension.
11. “Pack of Dogs” – Jesse Lacy. Here’s a full-band folk reminiscence on the joy of youthful friendships that brings banjo, acoustic, wurlitzer, and smooth tenor vocals together excellently.
12. “I Won’t Be Found” – Simon Alexander. The smoothness of traditional singer/songwriter mixed with the raw angst and passion of The Tallest Man on Earth’s vocals creates a distinct push and pull between punchy and silky.
13. “What It Is” – Alex Hedley. The purity and honesty of a fingerpicked guitar line and an emotional vocal melody are never going to get old to me. This particular tune is earnest without being cloying; moody without being morose. Well-balanced. Deeply enjoyable.
14. “Someday feat. Devendra Banhart” – Akira Kosemura. A fragile piano melody is joined by hushed vocals and romantic strings. It’s the sort of song that lovers have their first dance to.
15. “Dear, be safe” – Rasmus Söderberg. What a tender, delicate acoustic plea this is.
There’s a wide diversity of sounds you can make with an acoustic guitar and voice; being able to sing Missippi blues doesn’t ensure that you can play Irish folk tunes. Some people work to become a master at one style, while others can absorb the core elements of a variety of sounds.
Joe Kaplow is the latter, as his sound is grounded in troubadour folk with influences from a variety of other acoustic genres. His self-titled debut EP showcases a singer/songwriter with a huge amount of promise, as his songwriting and distinctive voice offer great rewards to the listener.
“Bookshop Blues” opens the release with a fast, strummed folk tune accompanied by his own foot stomping. Kaplow’s insistent, urgent tenor dances over a tune that sounds perfect for busking: an earnest, upbeat tune that balances lyrical introspection and smile-inducing melodies and chords. He follows it up with the harmonica-and-swift-fingerpicking tune “How Old is My Soul,” which evokes the raw, pure sound of The Freewheeling Bob Dylan. It stays out of tribute range due to (again) the swooping vocals, which flip from tender to insistent on a dime. This ability to control his delivery calls to mind a less-abrasive Kristian Mattson of The Tallest Man on Earth, especially in the “oh-oh” conclusion of the tune.
Kaplow can unhinge his voice, too–both “It’s Me Girl” and “When I Open Up at Last” allow Kaplow to let it all air out. The banjo-led blues of “It’s Me Girl” sees him scrubbing grit and wail into his delivery to fit the mood of the tune, while “When I Open Up at Last” contains Damien Rice-style howls. “Give My Eyes” provides a respite between the two songs, a delicate pastoral tune that reminds me of a cross between Irish folk tunes and Justin Townes Earle’s American sounds. The addition of a female voice turns this duet into a highlight of the already-strong EP.
There’s a lot going on in this self-titled EP, but it all hangs together because of the bright, mid-fi production vibe. This is clearly a man and his guitar (on most tracks), as the occasional ambient room noise, gentle tape hiss and sound of foot taps show. But Kaplow’s not reveling in the tracks’ smallness–this feels like an earnest document of work, not a bid to participate in the bedroom-folk scene. (“When I Open Up at Last” is about as far from whisper-folk as it gets.) There’s no intentional obscuring, no reverb, no distance placed between the listener and the song. These songs are immediate–they grabbed me on first listen, and they still grab me ten listens on. That’s a credit both to the songs and the way they’re recorded.
Kaplow’s self-titled EP is an energizing listen. Whether it’s a slow or fast song I’m listening to, the music is exciting. Kaplow’s well-controlled voice is employed in a diversity of styles, making for a sprightly, fast-paced 20 minutes. It’s tough to pick out highlight tracks, because each has its own charms; I’m personally partial to “How Old is My Soul” and “Give My Eyes,” but someone who likes darker, dramatic music more than I could find “When I Open Up at Last” or “It’s Me Girl” to be their highlight. It’s a rare artist who can make memorable tunes in diverse idioms, and that bodes well for Joe Kaplow. I can’t wait to see how his next releases develop. Highly recommended.
The next four MP3 posts are going to have impressionistic names, because I’m out of descriptive words after writing this many song reviews.
1. “Comin’ for Ya North Georgia Blues” – Eliot Bronson. Upbeat in a way that isn’t cloying, folky in that old-school Bob Dylan way, hooky as if it were folk pop (but it’s not). “Comin’ for Ya” is one of my favorite singles in a while. Bronson, it should go without saying, should be on your watch list.
2. “White Circles” – Stephen Ward. Got that traveling itch? The insistent acoustic strumming and yearning vocals here will make you want to hit the open road.
3. “Scaffolding” – Emilyn Brodsky. I can’t resist ukulele-led indie-pop, especially when sung with such disarmingly mature and comforting lyrics as these. Even though the ukulele leads, this never devolves into cuteness for cute’s sake.
4. “Said and Done” – Joe Con. Joe Con has a quiet assuredness in his vocal tone that gives his back-porch acoustic-pop/hip-hop (a la Mat Kearney, G. Love, and early Mraz) an immediately undeniable quality. This is a slick, slick tune.
5. “Ride It Out” – Elijah Ocean. There’s just something about an acoustic guitar, a piano, and a brush-hit snare that snags my heartstrings. Ocean’s world-weary yet hopeful voice just seals the deal.
6. “Lecimy” – Tara Fuki. Two women’s voices and two cellos comprise the base of this track. It’s a fresh, light, and unique track.
7. “Tapes” – Andrew St. James. The ragged passion of Joe Pug, the vocal swagger of Justin Townes Earle, and an x factor all his own.
8. “In Our Galaxy” – Andrew Foster. Like a Lovely Few song, Foster builds this song from a delicate guitar melody to a fully-realized tune that sings of the mystic, beautiful qualities of outer space.
9. “Balloon” – ErelPilo. Remember the twee, romantic charms of Chairlift? ErelPilo have that sort of doe-eyed, guy/girl romantic pop going on, but with an acoustic guitar instead of a synthesizer. The quirk is still there, though!
The deaths of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse and more have inspired the myth that 27 is the age past which no musical youth icon can live. M. Lockwood Porter, also aged 27 but definitely alive, thoughtfully grabbed the number for the title of his sophomore alt-country/country-rock/just plain rock album. His debut Judah’s Gone focused on the past (just look at that title); 27 is a coming-of-age rumination that turns his gaze from youthful aches to the troubles of living in the adult world.
27 does not contain fluffy or stereotypical lyrics: while there are a couple jilted-lover tunes, they fit into a larger paradigm of the difficult questions Porter is asking about life. Thoughts about mortality (“Chris Bell,” about another lost 27-year-old musician), the possibility of not achieving dreams (“Restless”), religion (“Couer D’Alene”), and leaving behind a legacy (“Mountains”) paint a picture of a person standing at the edge of adulthood and grappling with what he’s found so far. I may not agree with every conclusion, but I’m deeply glad that the sentiments are expressed with enough depth and clarity that I can actually agree or disagree with them. That’s a pretty rare accomplishment in the rock world.
The album’s centerpiece is the ballad “Mountains,” which pulls all of these thoughts about life together. It starts with tom hits that sound like a heartbeat before Porter wearily sings, “When I was young my father said / that faith could move a mountain / now there’s mountains as far as I can see.” Striking piano, tasteful percussion, and an earnest guitar line fill out the raw, earnest tune. I wish I could write out all the lyrics for you, but Porter distills it all into one sweeping statement to close the tune: “And as I stare across the vast expanse / I can hear my father shouting / but mountains are all that I can see.”
Porter serves up these musings in expertly crafted alt-country/country-rock tunes. Porter’s been in a bunch of bands of various genres over the past dozen years, and he’s learned things from all of them. Opener “I Know You’re Going to Leave Me” crescendoes to a pounding, ragged, desperate, shiver-inducing rock ending; he follows it up with “Chris Bell,” which is about as perfect an alt-country song as Gram Parsons could hope to hear. “You Only Talk About Your Band” is a rollicking, impassioned ’50s rock’n’roll tune that sounds like it fell out of a time machine somewhere, while Bruce Springsteen would approve of the insistent piano and urgent vocals in “Restless.” “Secrets” sounds like a San Francisco indie-pop mosey, an influence holdover from his time in The 21st Century. “Couer D’Alene” is a delicate acoustic-and-voice tune to close out the record. All of these songs are impressive in their own right, and yet none feel out of place on the record.
Porter keeps these disparate sounds and ideas held together through a consistent vocal presence on the record. No matter what genre Porter writes, he works to make his voice inhabit the song. There are no bad vehicles here: Porter sounds completely at home in each of these tunes. Instead of sounding pristine, the opposite is true: by feeling comfortable throughout, he’s able to allow his voice some fluctuations and character without needing to edit it out. It gives the whole album a careworn, comfortable feel, similar to a Justin Townes Earle song or Josh Ritter’s The Beast In Its Tracks.
27 has the sort of musical and lyrical depth that causes me to come up with more things to say than I have space for. (Two things that got cut: 1. comparing the lyrics of “Mountains” with my favorite Ryan Adams track “Rock and Roll,” which you should do on your own time; 2. The production job is excellent.) Personally Porter is in transition, but lyrically Porter is hitting his stride to be able to describe the struggles so compellingly. Musically he’s creating work that shines as a whole and as individual tracks, which shows a rare maturity. You need to hear this one.
Fri, 10/10 – San Francisco, CA @ Brick and Mortar w/ Victor Krummenacher
Fri, 10/17 – Oklahoma City, OK @ The Blue Note
Sat, 10/18 – Tulsa, OK @ Mercury Lounge
Sun, 10/19 – Lawrence, KS @ Jackpot Music Hall
Mon, 10/20 – Iowa City, IA @ Gabe’s
Tues, 10/21 – Chicago, IL @ Reggie’s
Wed, 10/22 – Eaton, OH @ Taffy’s
Thurs, 10/23 – Philadelphia @ The Grape Room
Sat, 10/25 – NYC @ Wicked Willy’s at 6:30 pm (Official CMJ Showcase)
Sun, 10/26 – NYC @ Rockwood Music Hall Stage 1
Mon, 10/27 – Charlotte @ Thomas Street Tavern
Tues, 10/28 – Chapel Hill @ The Cave (I’ll be at this one)
Wed, 10/29 – Nashville, TN @ The 5 Spot
Thurs, 10/30 – Huntsville, AL @ Maggie Meyer’s Irish Pub
Fri, 10/31 – Clarksdale, MS @ Shack Up Inn
Sat, 11/1 – Lafayette, LA @ Artmosphere
Sun, 11/2 – Austin, TX @ Sahara Lounge
Mon, 11/3 – Dallas @ Opening Bell
I love punk, artsy electronica, even some post-hardcore now and then. But I’m always going to come back to the pristine simplicity of a solo voice over fingerpicked acoustic guitar. Cancellieri, hot on the heels of his excellent LP Welcome to Mount Pleasant, has given the world a whole album’s worth of gorgeous voice-and-guitar tracks. Winning my heart even more, eight of these fourteen tracks are covers. Closet Songs is wholly wonderful.
Ryan Cancellieri has a lot of things going for him on Closet Songs: he chooses covers excellently, he performs covers memorably, and writes songs of his own that stand up to the company of their peers. Let’s take these things in turn.
Closet Songs is put together like a good mixtape: some songs you absolutely don’t know, some you might know, a few you definitely know, at least one curveball to keep ’em guessing. I hadn’t heard “I Love You But Goodbye” by Langhorne Slim or “Mama’s Eyes” by Justin Townes Earle, although I respect both of those guys as songwriters. The songs are great, and I thank Cancellieri for letting me know about them. You may have heard “Bella Donna” or “Famous Flower of Manhattan” if you’re more of a Avett Brothers fan than me. You’ve most likely heard “Green Eyes” by Coldplay and “Murder in the City” by the Avetts. Curveball? “Dreams Be Dreams” by Jack Johnson. (Whoa bro.) The best part about all of these is that they’re not just great songs, they’re great songs for Cancellieri.
One of the problems that people who choose covers run into is that they like songs that they can’t possibly perform, vocally or musically. That is not the case here, as Cancellieri adapts the songs to fit his range comfortably. These all sound very easy and fun for him; they’re pleasing to the ear and soul for that element. (Nothing worse to me than someone who sounds like they’re having no fun trying to cover something.) His version of “Mama’s Eyes” definitely retains elements of Earle’s delivery, but it feels real and true in Cancellieri’s voice. That’s the mark of a strong cover. He doesn’t try to copy the original; he tries to be faithful to it while making it his own. It’s a rare skill, and Cancellieri shows he has it.
Another problem of covers is that sometimes a cover is the best thing in a set. (Uh-oh.) This happens because, well, you’re covering an elite talent, and sometimes you aren’t that. However, Cancellieri is an elite talent, and his songs stack well against his covers. “Fortunate Peace” and “Zalo” had me checking to see who wrote them, because they’re just brilliant songs. Cancellieri carries his songwriting voice with the gravitas of someone who knows what they’re doing. This doesn’t mean that he’s brash and bold; these songs are humble, even sad in spots. But Cancellieri sounds fully in control of the guitar, his vocal range, and lyrics on these tunes, which is not something that can be said of many singer/songwriters. You want to test it? You can press play on the first track of the soundcloud and then go to a different tab. Try to guess which are his and which aren’t. You’ll be impressed.
Cancellieri’s Closet Songs is a beautiful, poised, mature offering. It plays like a good mixtape, and it sounds like a great album. This is one of my favorite singer/songwriter releases of the year so far. (With apologies to his own previous full-length!) You very much need to check out Closet Songs if you’re a fan of fingerpicking-heavy singer/songwriters like Justin Townes Earle and The Tallest Man on Earth. (Also Joe Pug, but not because of the fingerpicking.)
Dan Hubbard‘s fingerpicked folk/country resonates with me melodically and lyrically. The sound of Livin’ in the Heartland is earthy, comfortable, and intimate without acquiring the hushed tone that dominates much of the personal music I cover here. The lyrics are a bit more brash than I’m used to as well, celebrating domestic life in a tone that’s much more Zac Brown Band than Bon Iver.
The vocals and guitar are so perfectly meshed on tunes like “The List” and “I Will Not Forget This Place” that it called up thoughts of Justin Townes Earle and Johnny Flynn. Those songwriters have a much more modern-folk flair to their sound, but their clarity and tightness of songwriting is echoed in Hubbard’s tunes. Hubbard’s tunes are beautiful, powerful and often seemingly effortless: the sparse “I Will Not Forget This Place” moves with a sprightly ease while still carrying dramatic heft. It’s a rare songwriter that can pull off that trick. If you’re a fan of strong, emotional songwriting that doesn’t call attention to itself, you should check out Hubbard’s Living in the Heartland.
Adam Hill‘s Two Hands, Tulips is the fourth folk release of Hill’s that has crossed my desk. Nate Williams raved about the firsttwo (which Hill released under his own name), I put in a good word for the collaborative Magrane Hill release, and now I’m about to say great things about this one. That consistency should be as strong a selling point as the following words.
Even without that context, I would heartily recommend this album. Since Hill played every instrument and collected every bit of found sound, the album is an incredibly coherent statement. Hill weaves in radio clips, found performances and other noise throughout the album; some sounds are given their own interludes (“Sarabande I,” “For Me and My Gal,” “Sarabande II”) while others add context and emotive power to the bigger songs (“Dust Disease,” “Raleigh and Spencer,” “He Calls That Religion”). Josh Caress’ Letting Go of a Dream, my favorite album that I’ve ever discovered through Independent Clauses, uses this idea skillfully as well–so I’m totally excited about this idea. While Hill aims less for the romantic side of things with the tactic than Caress, the emotional impact of the interludes is similar between the two albums.
Hill stays lyrically in folk-singer mode for much of Two Hands, Tulips, protesting fake pastors (“He Calls That Religion”), poor working conditions for miners (“Dust Disease), and other doomed characters (“These Vignettes”). When he takes a break from that, it’s for a couple well-placed lovelorn songs (“French Films,” “The Train That Carried My Girl From Town”).
Musically, Hill primarily gives us folk and country; since he’s gotten good at it, why change it up? His confident, reedy tenor meshes naturally with his acoustic guitar. Tunes like “With Wistful Glances” and “Dust Disease” just work; everything comes together for a satisfying tune. It’s the sound of experience meeting hard work, and I love it.
When he does take risks, the results are mixed. The dramatic mood and arrangement of “These Vignettes” doesn’t make it the highlight of the album, but it’s still a good song. “CLQK” is a quiet fingerpicker cluttered by extraneous zooming found sound, while “She Heard a Sound” is a gypsy folk tune that doesn’t fit on the album at all (and since it’s second-to-last, it’s easy to ignore). Still, it’s nice to hear an artist clearly exercise the skills that have become a comfort zone (to the listener’s benefit!) as well as experiment a bit.
Adam Hill knows his way around a folk tune, and he knows it. Hearing him press his boundaries while exerting his strengths makes for a very enjoyable album of folk. Fans of troubadour strummers like Johnny Flynn and Justin Townes Earle should take note.
Jonas Friddle mentions a momentous day of “when I hit my stride” in two songs on Belle de Louisville as somewhere far off. I’m happy to report to Mr. Friddle that the day is here: Belle de Louisville and its companion Synco Pony show him in full form. Folk artists appear all the time, but a truly new voice in folk is a much rarer event. That’s why readers everywhere (and Friddle!) should rejoice: these two albums can and should put Friddle in the conversation with established leaders like Josh Ritter, Joe Pug and Justin Townes Earle.
Yes, I did mention two albums above: Friddle effectively released a double album as a debut. You can’t say audacious any louder than that (except, I guess, with a triple album). And instead of being bloated and selfish, both are wonderfully refreshing listens. You can even listen to them back to back for just over an hour of harmonious, melodic, banjo-led, instrument-stuffed, clever folk tunes. I’ve done it several times in my travels this summer.
They do have slightly different personalities, but they add up to a whole for Friddle. Belle de Louisville is a bit more personal and emotional, showcasing a wry sentimentality. Opener “A String to a Bell” has a major key banjo base, but legato strings and vocals are layered over it for a pensive feel. “It’s a handful of give me/a mouthful of much obliged/it greets me in the evenin’ and the mornin, when I rise,” Friddle’s lithe, warm tenor relates. This push and pull of sadness (the hunger is always there) and contentment (the hunger is always fed) goes all through Belle.
The title track has a beautiful vocal melody, while “Jordan Am a Hard Road to Travel” showcases his hoedown folk abilities that will be revisited with the hilarious “Women, They’re So Small and Fancy.” “Rockingham Cindy” is the killer cut here, with Friddle forlornly expressing his love for a wild woman that won’t stop drinking whiskey; it’s played on guitar with a slide instead of his more common banjo, and it’s evocative as anything I’ve heard this year. Every tune is worth hearing, for its clear and strong melodies, satisfying arrangements and incredibly solid yet varied song structures.
Synco Pony dials back his emotive side and plays up his observational/critical/protest side. Belle did have “Montcoal, West Virginia” as a protest tune against big coal, but it was an emotive appeal instead of a critical one. Similarly, Synco Pony has the touching “The Ballad of Babyface and Too Tall Sue,” which is a love song by way of third party storytelling (instead of introspective emoting). This critical lens enables tunes like “Wall Street Rag” (self-explanatory), “George Walker” (a clever tune addressed empathetically to Dubya), and “Tom Brokaw Blues” (a lament for the state of our world via a critique of the news we want to hear).
In addition to the critical lens, the music on Synco Pony features less stereotypical folky strum and focuses more on ragtime, blues and fingerpicked melodies. Album highlight “Boredom” is the best example of the dichotomy: Friddle lays on the irony thick, but not in a sarcastic or mean way. “We may all die of boredom when we stand before the Lord/singing, ‘Hallelujah, I got the highest score,” he sings in the chorus. Friddle’s from Chicago, and “Boredom” tells a story about the Cubs–since Friddle tells us that he likes the Bears in his live preface to “The Hipster,” I’m guessing that he’s poking fun at himself as much as other Chicago sports fans fictional and real. It’s that sort of reflexive charm that gets me about Friddle’s music: it tones down the seriousness with playfulness and vice versa. No matter what he’s doing musically, he keeps the ship at an even keel (without turning boring). It’s a delicate dance, but Friddle nails it.
The overall winner on the two albums is “When I Hit My Stride,” the final track on Belle de Louisville. Friddle strums his guitar chords, accompanied by a thumping tom and call-and-response vocals. The melody is infectious, and the lyrics are about something we can all relate to: we’re gonna get “there” someday, when it all goes right. When it breaks out into a round with Friddle singing his tune and the rest of the group clapping and singing “This Little Light of Mine,” it becomes downright exuberant–and then the New Orleans jazz band breaks out. It’s the perfect encapsulation of Friddle’s magic: a bunch of people together, acknowledging the difficulties of life and exuberantly celebrating the possibilities past that. I listen to music for that reminder, and Friddle provides it in spades. I said it yesterday, but it applies again today: if that’s not an album you want to hear, this blog can’t help you very much. You need to hear these albums. They’re incredible, and easily contenders for best of the year.
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.