It only takes one listen of Little Chief‘s Somewhere Near the River to know that something special is going on here. The Arkansas folk quintet takes the sonic palette that has become stock-in-trade for the genre and softens the percussive edge that Mumford and Sons’ influence has imported. This means that the banjo doesn’t sound like it’s hammering on your brain, the drummer gets to use more tasteful and complex arrangements than “more kick drum,” and vocalist Matt Cooper doesn’t bellow. Instead, he turns his soft tenor voice toward Ray LaMontagne-style emoting, making his overall vocal performances somewhat akin to Kris Orlowski‘s.
Cooper’s voice is not the icing on the cake, but the element around which all things center. The arrangements point toward the lyrics and the vocal melodies without turning into wallpaper, which is a tough feat indeed. The cello goes a long way to strike this balance: it’s hard to not listen for the beautiful tones of that instrument, but it’s also pulled back enough in the mix that a clear signal is sent. That tension sounds like it would be a problem, but it’s really a benefit. The engineer that recorded this knew exactly what he was doing in maximizing this band’s skills and tastes.
The fact that the very young band knows its skills and tastes on their debut EP is equally impressive. It’s easy to want to go for bombast when you’ve just discovered your voice, but they restrain themselves beautifully. Instead of creating stadium-rockers, they’ve created headphone bobbers and car-trip wonderers: these are tunes of travel and geography, gently unfurling against the best possible backdrop. The title track incorporates a choir that actually sings, not just hollers. I love hollering, for real, but it’s still startling and pleasant to hear actual choral contributions. “Hiding and Seeking” is the high point, as it shows how they can be engaging, even electrifying, without being bombastic. The stuttering rhythms from the cello blend with guys hollering “hey” (can’t avoid it, y’all) and a dreamy guy/girl duet in the chorus to produce a shiver-inducing moment.
It’s astonishing that Somewhere Near the River is a debut, as the subtlety and refinement in the songwriting chops would indicate a group with much more recording experience. This band has a bright future that I will be tracking closely. If you’re sick of the overwrought theatricality that currently dominates folk, Little Chief is a pleasant, earnest antidote.
I usually like to get this post to a nice round number, but I didn’t get it there this year. Here’s what my year sounded like, y’all! This post isn’t ranked; instead, it’s a playlist of sorts. My ranked post will come tomorrow.
It’s that time of the year again: the end of it. So here’ are my last two 2012 singles mixes before the Best Of lists drop later this month.
1. “Still Analog” – The March Divide. Perky acoustic pop with a snide edge and snapping. Dare you to not smile.
2. “Alright OK” – Ocean Transfer. Reggae, pop-rock and even some funk come together for a fun tune.
3. “Swimsuit” – Cayucas. I’m pretty sure this was written on a surfboard.
4. “Rooftop” – Lady Lamb the Beekeeper. Peppy indie-pop with some folk sensibilities, capped off by a powerful alto vocalist.
5. “Time Keeps Dripping” – Emil Lager. Fans of The Tallest Man on Earth will appreciate the raspy vocals and fingerpicked styles of Lager.
6. “Retaliate” – City Reign. The yearning vocals here are what get me in this acoustic tune.
7. “Land” – Joyce the Librarian. The vocal harmonies, cello work and brass set this stately folk tune apart.
8. “This Love Won’t Break Your Heart” – Annalise Emerick. One of the most beautiful songs I’ve heard all year incorporates “Auld Lang Syne” into its gentle folk arrangement. The build-up to the end of the song is simply heart-pounding.
Moody Rock/Electronica Mix
1. “Each to a Grain” – Light Company. Dreamy post-rock, thumping modern rock, distorted bass and melodic vocals create a unique tune.
2. “The Hunter” – Their Planes Will Block Out the Sun. Tight, dark indie-rock with everything in its right place.
3. “All My People Go (Budo Remix)” – Kris Orlowski and Andrew Joslyn. This highlight track from their recent EP gets a bit of a remix, adding a bit (but not too much) of an electronic edge.
4. “Song for Zula” – Phosphorescent. The lead track off Phosphorescent’s upcoming album ties together strings, beats, and an incredibly emotive vocal performance.
I’ve been listening to Kris Orlowski tinker with his sound for a little over a year. His singer/songwriter tunes fluctuated between detailed, somber pieces and fluffy, Matt Nathanson-style pop songs in the At the Fremont Abbey and Warsaw EPs. Pieces We Are finds him coming into his own by finding a perfect collaborator in composer Andrew Joslyn.
Joslyn’s appearance in the five songs of Pieces We Are doesn’t abolish either side of Orlowski’s songwriting style. Instead, he writes intricate, involved arrangements that accentuate the best parts of Orlowski’s work and strengthen the lesser elements. This is not a “pop songwriter writes string parts” set-up; this is a composer’s work. The results are the best songs I’ve yet heard from Orlowski.
The easiest place to see Joslyn at work is in the plucky (literally) work he assigns the violins at the onset of “In Between Days.” Originally a gleefully upbeat tune by the Cure, it’s the sort of tune that could have come off as pleasant but uneventful in a folky arrangement. Joslyn keeps the instruments of the orchestra interacting with each other in a playful manner, counterpointing Orlowski’s more serious vocal delivery. The violin gets a beautiful solo in the bridge as the song floats to a halt.
“Cables” is another upbeat pop tune that benefits greatly from a perky, horn-heavy arrangement; however, this tune includes a pensive bridge. Orlowski is able to mesh the two parts of his sound more sincerely with the orchestra backing him up, which results in more fully realized songs throughout.
The attention to detail that Joslyn and Orlowski give even the fluffiest of pop tunes transfers to their darker material. “All My People Go” is a powerhouse of a tune, with Joslyn contributing tension and power to Orlowski’s skill at deploying a melodic hook within a melancholy mood. Many “with strings!” albums sound like the arrangement was pasted on afterwards, but Pieces We Are is a true collaboration of composer and songwriter: when the strings drop out for one chorus, it feels similar to when the bass or drums drop out in a punk song. When the players crash back in for a final go at the titular motif, it’s a triumphant, uplifting event.
Kris Orlowski and Andrew Joslyn have created a powerful, fully-realized set of tunes in Pieces We Are. Orlowski’s songwriting has grown to encompass multiple moods in a single song, and Joslyn adds depth to the work with his meticulously crafted orchestral arrangements. Pieces We Are shows off two musicians who are hitting their stride, which makes me excited and hopeful for their future individual and collaborative work. Download “All My People Go” below.
I celebrated the sober moments of Kris Orlowski‘s Fremont Abbey EP as “tunes that a man could make a career out of purveying,” while downplaying the more upbeat sections. I hate to write the same review twice, but I have the same response to Orlowski’s Warsaw. The gravitas imported into the darker tunes makes them memorable; the amorphous qualities of the happier tunes render them pallid.
“Way You Are,” the early release from this four-song offering, is a slow-building force. Instead of his previous acoustic guitar and strings, Orlowski employs a low-distortion, maximum-low-end electric with a bass/drums rhythm section to create an earthy, low-slung sound. The rumbling toms and treble-less guitars combine into a powerful beast, which is then given a direction by the haunting vocal performances of both Orlowski and his back-up singers. The arrangement is impeccable, and the overall effect is dramatic and immediate.
I would have titled the EP Way You Are, because “Warsaw” is a pleasant but undifferentiated tune that tells me nothing about Orlowski as a songwriter except that he has a fondness for pedal steel that extends beyond country music. “Soldier On” is a mite better, in that it employs a similar guitar tone as “Way You Are,” but there’s not really anything else to praise or insult about it when considering the force of “Way You Are” and “Oh No.”
The distant organ and spacious arrangement of “Oh No” evoke high points of the best dusty, wide-open-landscape tracks. The insistent drumming pushes the weary single-note picking ahead, while Orlowski holds dreary court with his vocals. The acoustic guitar is placed low in the mix, foregrounding the tension between the urgent and laconic. It’s like Bruce Springsteen on a Walkmen kick (but far too peppy for it to be the reverse, even if it is on the darker side of things), and it’s worth a second listen.
There’s something to be said for the fact that “Way You Are” and “Oh No” both break the 5:30 mark, while “Soldier On” and “Warsaw” both clock in exactly at 3:38. Orlowski is still playing both sides of the coin, but I have yet to be sold on his more perky stuff. His darker material shows a much closer attention to atmosphere, texture and arrangement; it engages me as a listener.
If Orlowski can bring that level of detail to his pop moments, they would be just as good as his heavier singer/songwriter material—it just hasn’t happened yet. Here’s to hoping that happens; “Way You Are” is really, really good. Grab that song here for free.
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.
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.