Austin alt-country outfit Salesman’s output up until this point has been eerie, avant-garde, and complex. With theLet’s Go Jump into the Fire 7″, they’ve gone in a different direction that they admit is “a new page” in their book. And boy, is it.
Instead of dark and foreboding tunes that take a while to make their way to your heart, the title track of the seven-inch is an immediately endearing tune. It opens with a jaunty, celebratory, major-key fingerpicking pattern on an electric guitar, which is a shock in itself.
The rest of the arrangement unfolds in a careful way that builds the song seemingly organically to a jubilant point two minutes in where Devin James Fry yells “Yeah!” not out of terror, but out of enthusiasm. Wavering pedal steel, tasteful drums, and thrumming bass create a warm atmosphere that’s hard to resist. It’s very much alt-country, and the rhythms and vocals still mark it as a Salesman track, but their powers are definitely engaged in a different direction.
“Let’s Go Jump into the Fire” is backed with “Riddle of the Source,” which is darker in tone and timbre. It’s still not as difficult as their previous work (or Fry’s previous work with apocalyptic post-rock band Lord Buffalo), but the vibes are darker, more forlorn, more at home in the minor key. Fry stretches out his vocals here, leading the song with his nuanced performance. There’s an awesome (and all too short) guitar solo as well. Salesman’s new look is less obtuse, more direct, and thoroughly enjoyable. “Let’s Go Jump into the Fire” is a brilliant track that speaks optimistically toward things to come.
Janet Devlin‘s Running With Scissors is a thoroughly modern acoustic pop album, putting all the things we’ve learned since Nevermind to good use. The Irish singer/songwriter channels The Lumineers, Lilith Fair, Ingrid Michaelson, and KT Tunstall throughout the album, creating tunes that fit the best adjectives of each turn. Opener “Creatures of the Night” is a perky mid-’00s acoustic-pop song with mandolin and stomping drums; the booming kick bass turns into the walloped, four-on-the-floor tom of “House of Cards,” which is a female-fronted Lumineers track if there ever was one. (It’s even got the obligatory “hey!”)
The tunes set the tone for the album: fun, smart, and melodically mature. The surprisingly maturity with which she traipses through genres is worth noting here: “Hide and Seek” is straight-ahead ’90s female pop (Jewel?), “Lifeboat” includes melodica and separated strumming a la Ingrid Michaelson, “Things We Lost in the Fire” is an introspective piano ballad (Fiona Apple!), and her cover of the The Cure’s “Friday I’m in Love” is all folk fingerpicking and whispered vocals. “Wonderful” has a regrettable lyrical concept, but if you just ignore the words, it’s another cheery ’90s pop tune. (On second thought, maybe the goofy lyrics are just part and parcel of her commitment to the style.)
Janet Devlin’s Running With Scissors is a carousel of delights: no matter which song you pick, it will take you for a warm, lovely trip. If you’re into acoustic pop, you should know about Devlin.
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.
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.