1. “A Better Life” – Supersmall. A good-natured, walking-speed tune that gives more than it asks back from you: you don’t have to listen hard to enjoy, but there are charms for those who listen deeply to the early ’00s, Parachutes/Turin Brakes-style work.
2. “May the Stars Fall at Your Door” – Andrew Adkins. We all need an encouraging blessing every now and then–Adkins provides uplifting lyrics with an equally uplifting folk arrangement (complete with harmonica). Totally great work here.
3. “Nowhere” – Swaying Wires. Tina Karkinen’s confident vocals give a levity to this serious, acoustic-led indie-pop tune.
4. “Know It All” – Bitterheart. Brash, immediate, strum-heavy, full-throated folk-pop that marries the enthusiasm of folk-punk with the good-hearted charm of a folk-pop tune. If all their work is like this, their album’s going to be a blast.
5. “One Three Nine” – Jacob Metcalf. Fluttering, ethereal folk that stays grounded basically by force of will, a la Andrew Bird.
6. “Chandelier” – Russell Howard. This gender-flipped cover of Sia’s tune creates a stark atmosphere by modifying Howard’s vocals and putting them over a delicate guitar accompaniment and subtle percussive beat.
7. “White Light Doorway” – Florist. The band has mastered the skill of keeping a song together while lead singer Emily Sprague purposefully sounds like she’s falling apart. The tension there is beautiful and weighty.
8. “While You Stand” – Michael Nau. The wide-eyed naivete of Page France is long gone, but the absurd ease with which Nau pens a lyric and fits it to a simple guitar line persists. It hits me.
10. “Secrets” – Nick Zubeck. Laidback chill doesn’t get more laidback than this.
11. “Monde” – Stranded Horse. Fleet, powerful fingerpicking contrasts a laissez-faire vocal mood for a knotty, beautiful tune that feels like it fell out of a Wes Anderson movie somewhere.
12. “Black Gold” – Black Country. There are few substances so evocative as oil, with its viscous flow, vibrant sheen, wealth-making potential, and divisive opinion-making. Black Country spells out a narrative of the open spaces, where finding oil is the difference between emptiness of landscape and buzzing life–hanging the promise of oil over the head of a barren, windswept instrumental landscape.
13. “We’ll Get By” – The Singer and the Songwriter. One of the more un-Google-able bands working today drops a stately, moving tune that includes accordion and shuffling snare under a beautiful alto vocal melody.
14. “Wanderer’s Waltz” – Youth Policy. Here’s a wintry, stark tune composed of breathy, Elliott Smith-esque vocals, cascading fingerpicking, and a moody sense of melancholia.
15. “Ghost Blue” – Sparrows Gate. If I walked into a bar where Sparrows Gate was playing this moving, piano-driven ballad-esque tune, I hope it would be to work off a breakup instead of celebrate a success. “Gravitas” doesn’t sell it well enough.
16. “Goes Without Saying” – Melaena Cadiz. A relaxing, unspooling, wandering tune that just feels lovely.
17. “Kicking You Out” – Merival. Few things get me more than a raw, open-hearted acoustic tune with some room echo. Merival’s strong songwriting skills are on full display here, with nothing else added but some harmony vocals. As they say: all the feels.
Abandoned Delta‘s self-titled debut is a uniquely beautiful alt-country album that combines the delicate nature of Mojave 3’s work with thick arrangements that leave little space unfilled. However, the tightly constructed arrangements of tunes like “I Am Gold,” “Tulsa,” and “Cause and Effect” result in a tender–even sweet–whole instead of becoming impenetrable. Pedal steel, keys, gentle tenor vocals, wispy harmonies, pristine electric guitar strums, and loping acoustic guitar picking mesh into a dense web of sound that is always awash in warm, sunny vibes.
But this isn’t West Coast Laurel Canyon work; there’s a Midwestern lyrical and melodic groundedness permeating the whole work. It may make me want to float away, but the songs don’t sound like they’re going to get lost anywhere. “My Heart’s an Open Road” accelerates the tempo, amps up twang, and infuses a sense of humor to the proceedings–the Western Swing influences in the songwriting is a lot of fun. Elsewhere, contented horns hover above the slightly more ominous “Black Car,” and the acoustic guitar gets a feature in “I Never Lived in New Orleans.” It’s not folky, though–and that’s the most marvelous element of Abandoned Delta. The members have a consistent, distinctive sound that integrates elements of other genres seamlessly. If you like beautiful music, alt-country, or hearing musicians at the top of their game, you need to check out Abandoned Delta.
I find the self-aggrandizing crowd screaming that attends most live records tiresome, so I don’t cover many of them. However, Charles Ellsworth‘s Live from the State Room has such great songwriting contained in it that I must commend it to you. (It also doesn’t have that much audience howling, which I appreciate.) Ellsworth is a guitar-and-voice troubadour, gifted with a melodic sense in his hands and throat. The ten songs of State Room show him breaking out his solo material first, then transitioning to a full-band set-up later. It allows him to show off his poignant lyrics and weighty vocals in an intimate setting first, then gently augment that core sound. “The Past Ain’t Nothin” is the highlight of this section, a tune that unspools several emotional narratives linked by a vocal motif. It hits home to me, musically and lyrically.
Once the band joins in, the poignant elements of his sound get amped up, notably on “In My Thoughts” (which IC had the privilege of premiering). A swooping cello and tasteful drums underscore the gravity of the tune. “Fifty Cent Smile” is another standout, built on train-rhythm drums and one of the most memorable vocal melodies of the record. Even with a full band, Ellsworth never lets the sound get weighed down; many of the lovely tunes keep a fragility about them. (A notable exception is the noisy “Take a Walk,” which is “about having anger issues.”) Live from the State Room is that rare live record that feels like a real experience captured on tape; it’s a great introduction to Ellsworth’s charms for the uninitiated. You can get now as part of his “Not a Kickstarter” campaign.
We All Go Up the Mountain Alone Together by hunters. is a drama-filled folk album with strong female vocals. The 11-song album puts the spotlight on Rosa del Duca’s alto pipes, which have a mature quality not unlike those of Lilith Fair artists. Other ’90s singer/songwriting influences creep into the folk instrumentation too: a flourish here, a chord structure there, an unexpected vocal embellishment.
The band leans more toward chord-strummed folk than finger-picked folk, so tunes like “Firestarter” have lineage that can be drawn from many points. del Duca’s voice shines on “Firestarter,” as she ratchets up from an calm presence to an intense delivery and back several times. The band frames her performance with a tense arrangement of spacious, jazzy drums and nimble upright bass. “Painting the Roses Red” takes on a bit of a country vibe, while “Orion” recalls ballad-bluegrass guitar (but with their overarching mood of dramatic tension). Fans of female-fronted singer/songwriters and folk artists will find a mature, vocals-driven folk album in We All Go Up the Mountain Alone Together.
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.
In the brilliant Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground 1981-1991, author Michael Azerrad describes Beat Happening as flaunting “rudimentary musicianship and primitive recordings, a retro-pop style, and a fey naivete in a genre that became known as ‘twee-pop’ or ‘love rock.'” Twee would continue on through the ’90s, and its fey naivete would become a driving force in indie-pop (which was twee without the junky recordings). Indie-pop begat indie-folk of Iron + Wine and Sufjan Stevens, which crashed into the singer/songwriter genre just as the latter was trying to differentiate itself from Lilith Fair and alt.country. Thus, the two sides of indie-folk met in the middle to create a new aesthetic, and that (along with a little bit of bluegrass and some Great Depression imagery thrown in along the way) is how we ended up with Mumford and Sons.
All that to say, there’s a serious side and a playful side to indie-folk, and The Ridges most definitely fall on the serious side. The band’s Daytrotter session shows them building on the strings-heavy folk sound that they crafted on their debut EP. The three EP tunes don’t stray much from their previously-recorded incarnations: “Not a Ghost” is still a rambling, shambling, catchy song with atmosphere; “War Bonds” shows a bit of their playful side with a bell kit, while still commenting on “dead friends”; “Overboard” is a sea shanty of merit. The upsides: the strings sound even more vital in these recordings, while the vocalist Victor Rasgatis gets unhinged. If you haven’t heard the Ridges yet, this is as good a way as any.
The real treat is the two unreleased songs. (I expect that a great many more bands will start sending me Daytrotter sessions of new music, because if a band’s up to one-take recording, that’s a five-song EP with no recording costs, yo!) “Dawn of Night” would have fit in perfectly with their self-titled EP, as a raw energy pulses through the tune, punctuated by ragged “oh-oh”s. The underlying intensity that The Ridges bring to the table is something that’s rarely seen in folk; there seems to be something truly ominous about their work, and not in a “ha! look! this is creepy!” sort of way. “Jackson Pollock” tones down the eerie for a four-on-the-floor fast song. Despite the speed, the arrangement is remarkably complex for a live recording, which makes me all the more impressed by The Ridges. The string melodies are especially solid.
The Ridges’ “melodic strengths are honed to a fine point” here, as I hoped in my last review. If you’re into serious indie-folk (Fleet Foxes, Bon Iver, Little Teeth), you should be all over this. Look for the Ridges to make a splash in 2012.
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.