Some artists are so idiosyncratic that they become required listening despite whether you like that style or not. Depending on their popular success, these people are the greats or the “songwriter’s songwriter.” I’m talking Kendrick Lamar, Beyonce, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Daniel Johnston, The Gorillaz: people who are doing their own thing with a very specific, easily identifiable creative vision. Matthew Squires has been developing a very distinct creative vision for a while now, and Tambaleo brings his fractured, angular, skeptically-but-knowledgably-religious indie-pop to new heights.
The main focus of these songs is Squires’ weary, slightly off-kilter tenor. It’s not your standard voice, even for that particular region of the indie-pop map which celebrates the atypical and imperfect. Squires’ voice rotates between being a spot-on melody maker (“Welcome”), a speak/sing drawl (“Sex & Tragedy”), a slurry dartboard (“Unwholesome Health”), and an onomatopoeic sound machine (“Grace’s Drum”). Sometimes it’s all of these in the space of a single song or even the space of a few lines. For some, the singing will be the reason for attendance; for others, it will be the price of admission. Whichever end of the spectrum you land on, it’s a distinct voice.
The arrangements here are also excellent. Packed full of instruments that seem to be taking their own path through the track at loping tempos, these individual performances come together to fill out Squires’ unique songwriting sensibility. Squires is endlessly inventive and not afraid to experiment with tones, textures, rhythms, and instrument pairings. This makes for songs that clang (“Dead or Dying”), skip along in a twee fashion [“Hosanna (Devotional #3)”], push along in a recognizably indie-pop manner (“Welcome”), and even get their pop-rock on … sort of (“Shape of Your Heart”). All of them have a left turn about every 20 seconds. Some albums keep you on your toes; this one will have you en pointe.
One of the most interesting things about Squires is his continued relationship with religion in his lyrics. Squires is well versed: like any honest religious person, there are moments of certitude, moments of doubt, and moments of skepticism in his relationship to religion. “Unwholesome Health” opens with “Judas was all alone / when he called me on the telephone / and told me about the pain he had caused / about Mary’s face when her Son was torn apart,” while “Welcome” closes with Squires speaking to himself: “You were named after a friend of the son of God / now bracket for a moment whether God exists or not / Have you been kind? / Have you been kind? / Have you been kind?” “Hosanna (Devotional #3)” wears the references on its titular sleeve, while other songs weave religious characters, terms and ideas through the lyrics more subtly. It treats religion as not something to be partitioned away from life, but woven all through it. I dig it.
Not every song on Tambaleo is independently majestic (“Debt Song” isn’t my favorite), but the whole collection is a deeply thoughtful, incredibly well-crafted album from a musician who is hitting his stride. This is the sort of album that not very many people could have made; a wild array of influences mesh into a idiosyncratic, deeply interesting album. Recommended.
Teeth Marks by New Dog is not a record that fits in with a lot of trends. The gorgeous, spartan, 10-song solo record from Anar Badalov is best consumed as a whole, doesn’t have a clear single, doesn’t traffic in huge melodies, unflinchingly documents modern ennui, and subsequently could not be considered “fun” in very many ways. However, it is the sort of record that enfolds me, transports me, and calms me. It has depths to be plumbed, sonically and lyrically. It rewards those who take time with it, as opposed to trying to digest it on the fly. It is a grower, and it requires you to wait. But it rewards those who delve into the record with a singular, intriguing, mesmerizing experience.
Badalov alternates between delicate guitar and careful piano to create the foundations of this record. (The exceptions are the gorgeously arpeggiated “3 a.m.” and the electric guitar of “Here All Days.”) Over those instruments he whispers, talks, wonders, ponders and even sometimes sings. He approaches vocals more like Tom Waits or Leonard Cohen–there are some melodies, but melodies are not required to create indelible vocal performances. This dismissal of the standard rules opens up a lot of space for Badalov to create tunes: untethered from the expectations of melody, the verse/chorus/verse structure that supports big melodies goes out the window too.
As a result, the tunes sometimes have repeated sections, and sometimes don’t–sometimes the repetition is only a fragment of a thing. Instruments drop in and out of songs; sections lead to other sections and then don’t return to the first thing. It creates an air of mystery and excitement, even in the supremely downtrodden lyrical environment. There’s an idea around every corner; not in a hectic, herky-jerky sort of way, but in a “whoa, come look at this” sort of way. Check out “Lover’s Palm” for an example, or “Sudden Amnesia,” or “3 a.m.” to hear it in action.
And although acoustic guitar and piano create the framework, there’s a lot of distorted synths that enforce a sort of sonic isolation and grinding intensity to the otherwise chill tunes. The use of the noise in contrast to the relaxing arrangements accentuates the lyrics that alternate between very meticulous descriptions of modern ennui (“Here All Days,” “Home by Five,” “Nothing Has Changed”) and the intensity of regrets (“Joe Brainard’s Idea”) and fear of aging (“3 a.m.,” “The Party”). It’s just another carefully planned element of the album.
Teeth Marks is so completely realized that the album artwork is essentially what I would have made up for it if I had to choose it on my own: rich dark blues ripped by a sudden energy (in this case, a flash of lightning). I would have thrown a cityscape in there in substitution for the trees, but otherwise the album art evokes its contents beautifully. If you’re up for a singer/songwriter album that breaks the mold in a variety of ways, New Dog’s Teeth Marks will pleasantly surprise you.
Gregory Alan Isakov was one of my favorite discoveries of 2013; his deeply romantic, gentle folk tunes moved me often. (This probably has to do with being in a relationship; sorry to all ye unrequited.) Leif Vollebekk has a similar vibe in North Americana, as his songs meld earnest and passionate emotions with relaxing arrangements.
Even though Vollebekk is a Canadian troubadour, you’d never know unless I told you: this is a Southern record through and through. He has a lilting Southern voice full of vibrato, grit, and regret. The opening track is called “Southern United States”; “Pallbearer Blues” has a New Orleans funeral feel (mmm, rag piano…) and a William Faulkner title. Standout “When the Subway Comes Above the Ground” namechecks Mississippi, Memphis, and Nashville. The storyteller pose that Vollebekk takes is a little bit southern bluesman, a little bit Leonard Cohen. The dude can even rock a harmonica. North Americana does not accomplish the insider’s perspective of Jason Isbell’s Southeastern; instead, it becomes a testament of appreciation for a place a little to the south of his Canadian digs.
That tender affection for the locations and people invoked and implied in these songs make it easy to transfer that affection. “When the Subway Comes Above the Ground” sounds like a gorgeous, expansive love song complete with organ–even though it’s mostly about travel and disappointment. If you don’t listen to the lyrics and just feel the emotion in his voice, it can be about anything or anyone lovely and rare.
While Vollebekk’s arrangements are beautiful, they never obscure his vocal lines. His trembling tenor is the centerpiece of things both expansive and minimalist. Quiet closer “From the Fourth” invokes the best moments of Josh Ritter in the crisp, light guitar playing; Vollebekk puts his own spin on it with a breathtaking, thoughtful vocal performance. It’s the sort of performance that emphasizes the subtle details of the vocal performance: the tone of voice, the length of notes, the timbre with which each word is sung. Someone else could sing it, but it wouldn’t be the same song. That is a sign of vocal and songwriting mastery.
Leif Vollebekk’s North Americana is an album that rewards both those who want the mood and who want to know the details. You can put this on and it will lighten the vibe of a room immediately; you can focus and hear all the little aspects that Vollebekk took care to give the listener. It’s top-shelf music either way you go, and that is very, very uncommon. It stands up to the glance and the scrutiny; I wish the same could be said of all music–and of me. Highly recommended.
APL‘s Ancient Tunes requires an operational definition of “ancient.” If “ancient” is first century hymns, we’re not exactly there. If it’s late ’70s/ early ’80s radio, then this album is titled perfectly. Ancient Sounds sounds as if Adam Lindquist (who is APL) ate a radio set to an “oldies” station and then spit out thirteen tunes in response to the indigestion.
Not to suggest that these are repulsive or heartburn-inducing, as they’re not. But there is a direct line between the iconic sounds of Queen/The Who/Beach Boys/Elton John/Leonard Cohen and APL. These songs would have no basis if not for those forebears. But this is no pastiche. Lindquist filters the sounds through a distinctly modern tonal idiom: the angular, manic snarkiness of Say Anything-style punk. It’s present predominantly in the vocals, but it sneaks into the music a bit as well.
Add up all those pieces in your head and try to imagine it. Difficult, right? Well, it’s a bit challenging for Lindquist to synthesize into a cohesive whole, too. He jerks back and forth between styles, almost as if he were changing the dial on a radio. “Blistered Fingers” features blistering organ playing reminescent of ’70s rock; the tune butts up against “An Ancient Tune (How to Rip Off Leonard Cohen With The Best of Them),” which is a glorious acoustic musing on the meaning of “Hallelujah” before it gets bored and goes Joe Walsh pop (it’s as weird as it sounds). Then it goes on for two and half more minutes. It’s a good song, but it’s baffling. It follows zero rules, conventions or considerations. It just is.
That’s the way many of the tunes here are. They’re packed full of good ideas that come up unexpectedly; so unexpectedly, in fact, that they jarred me. I’m all for stops and starts (I knew what math rock was before I knew pop radio existed), but this is just a headscratcher. And at 48 minutes, there is more than enough time for Lindquist to unspool his singular vision (and to keep you puzzled).
There are highlights, though. “Reunion Day” makes the most of Lindquist’s love of odd chord structures and unique instrumentation (accordion/shaker/bgvs, for one section) and pours it into a modern pop idiom. Closer “Tell Me, Are You Pulling Away?” appropriates a Jackson Browne/James Taylor acoustic vibe to ground the gutwrenching vocal/lyrical finale.
The other songs, as I have noted, are a veritable who’s who of musical styles from the late seventies and early eighties, as filtered through a modern lens. Queen’s exuberant, jam-packed pop features prominently at least by comparison, and probably as inspiration.
I would love to hear more from APL. Lindquist seems like the sort who has ambitions so massive that it’s going to take a while before he can wrangle those impulses into their best form. Ancient Tunes is a good release, but it’s not the best he can do. Get in on the ground floor and take the elevator up with his subsequent releases.
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.