1. “Swimming” – Marsicans. This song dropped April 22, and summer officially started the instant it did. It’s all the best parts of The Vaccines, Vampire Weekend, Tokyo Police Club, and The Drums thrown into one indie-pop-rock amalgam. As a result, Marsicans have created one of the most exciting singles of the year so far, if we judge by the amount of spontaneous dancing it has inspired in me. Totally looking forward to more from Marsicans.
2. “Going Going Gone” – Bows. One summer of my life is captured in the memory of Chairlift’s “Bruises,” which I spun a lot. “Going Going Gone” has that same sort of effortless charm, breezy songwriting, and hooky melodies, so I expect to find this one on my summer playlists a lot.
3. “Love Will Come Back to You” – Two Year Vacation. A sunny, electro-pop tune anchored by a whistling melody (or a whistling-esque synth) and a buoyant sense of summeriness.
4. “Martyrs” – Living Decent. The mixing work here keeps everything in this pop-punk-inspired indie-rock tune feeling open and airy. Vic Alvarez’s vocals mesh neatly with a chiming lead guitar to create a mature yet smile-inducing track.
5. “Last Forgiven” – Luke Rathborne. That snappy snare sound just makes me want to hit the road and roll down the windows. The yelpy vocal melodies and handclaps make me want to sing and clap and have fun right along with Luke. A great summer jam.
6. “Pasadena” – Young Mister. A song about California that sounds just about as bright and shiny as California. If you were a Phantom Planet / The OC person, this one’s for you.
7. “Vampires” – Spine of Man. Beachy, yacht-y, ’80s-inspired indie-pop that’s heavy on reverb, baritone vocals, and the best type of nostalgia.
8. “Squeeze” – Foxall. This is the friendly type of folk punk: the “everyone gather round the guitar” vibe spills out of the speakers. I can hear this being played around a fire on a summer evening at a campsite somewhere.
9. “Barcelona” – TRY. Ah, Spain, another of the iconic Summer destinations. The chorus of this indie-pop-rock jaunt includes a breezily sung “Bar-ce-loooooooo-na,” which is just perfect for the city and the carefree, jetsetting vibe of this song. [Editor’s note: This track is no longer available.]
10. “Things That Get Better” – Boy on Guitar. This female-fronted acoustic indie-pop tune is one for the pessimists: the lyrics marvel at the fact that things have gone well. Walking-speed accompaniment and floating background vocals round out this lovely track.
11. “Fountain of Youth” – Shapes on Tape. Will we see a resurgence of wah-guitar funk and pop now that Prince has left us? If so, Shapes on Tape are at the front edge of the curve with a funky electro jam, complete with guitar reminiscent of Prince’s work. (Or maybe we’re all just thinking more about Prince these days.)
12. “Circadian Rhythm (Edit)” – I.W.A. The tension between cosmic-sounding pad synths that open this and the thrumming synths that follow it set up this chillwave electronic tune excellently. It’s reminiscent of Teen Daze’s best work: melodic, evocative, and interesting without going maximalist. [Editor’s note: This track is no longer available.]
The acoustic indie-pop of Living Decent‘s Do What Makes You BraveEPshows a different side of the band, which released their self-titled pop-punk EP in July 2015. Brave relies on the singer/songwriter background of Vic Alvarez, featuring his voice against an acoustic guitar and minimal arrangement around that. The minimalism ranges from nothing but voice and guitar in “Minus 10” to the bass and tambourine of the perky (but still not pop-punk perky) “Crystal Palace” and the crescendoing drums and bass of “Moving the Sun.” The four songs here each maintain a balance between punchy and melancholy–it’s unsurprising that they list “emo” as one of their tags. They could tour with Football, Etc. as part of the emo revival, making music that draws off emo’s forefather influences but sounds modern and relateable.
The standout is closer “I Could Not Be Here,” the most realized of the tunes here: Alvarez’s breathy, earnest tenor is surrounded by warm keys and gentle percussion to create a tune that almost sounds like a Plans-era Death Cab for Cutie song. Living Decent has songwriting chops that they’ve now showed off in two different realms very quickly. They’re an exciting outfit to watch for in 2016.
Distant Cousins’ self-titled EP finds a way to triangulate contemplative folk, folk-pop, and Imagine Dragons-style radio pop in a fun, catchy product. Opener “Taste of Tomorrow” combines all three of their elements in an enthusiastic, sax-blasted tune that reminds me of Magic Giant’s work. “Your Story” is a straight-up-and-down folk pop tune that ropes in female vocalist Jessie Payo for the back-and-forth elements. Closer “For a Moment” is a pristine folk tune buoyed by multiple-part harmonies that sticks out for its beauty. The rest of the tracks on the six-song EP turn up the pop volume and get fun–if you’re into that style of music, Distant Cousins are right on that wavelength. Their debut EP shows off that they can write a snappy tune, and there are flashes of beauty in there too. I’m interested to see where they go next.
The four songs of Marc Maynon‘s Watch Pot have thoroughly ingested British Invasion songcraft but don’t just spit that back out. Instead, Maynon’s songwriting has a bit of a power-pop cast to it at times (“Something to Live For”) and a piano-pop flair at other times (“Sensation,” “Vintage Lens”). Maynon’s high-pitched tenor is deployed nicely throughout the EP; in “Sensation” and “Vintage Lens” his vocals pair especially well with the bright piano tone. Even though he has solid pop bonafides, this isn’t all upbeat major-key work; Maynon has a solid control of mid-tempo and minor-key work. Add in the thoughtful arrangement touches throughout, from strings to synths to trumpet, and you’ve got a solid EP of pop songwriting. Watch Pot is a good slice of sound for fans of formal pop songwriting.
Sundaug‘s Nocturnality is a full album of instrumental compositions that primarily revolve around a fingerpicked acoustic guitar. Each of the 14 tracks is remarkably relaxing, from the gently grooving opener “Pyramid” to the moody closer “Chasing Angels.” The album is strongly cohesive, and you can listen to the album as one long tune if you wish. (It’s particularly good for setting on in an afternoon where you don’t have much to do and just want to chill–I can vouch). Some highlights that stick out (but only ever so slightly–it’s all really good) are “When Solitude Becomes Isolation,” a cascading tune that sounds more contemplative and positive than the title suggests, and “The Submersion,” which pairs pad synths with interesting guitar runs. (Some might not be thrilled with the occasional overture toward new age music, but I don’t think it diminishes the overall impact of the release.) If you’re interested in relaxing guitar-centric music, you should check out Sundaug’s Nocturnality.
The Sound of Rescue‘s Aperture is a smart fusion of post-rock and drone that strips some of the traditional slow-fast, quiet-loud post-rock tropes and instead substitutes long, thick synths to create their own songwriting logic. It takes 1 minute and 33 seconds before a recognizable guitar comes in on opening cut “Slowly, Then All At Once,” relying on synths and loping yet insistent bass to push the album into existence. The instrumental outfit does retain the song length that many outfits are enamored with; no song runs shorter than 5:41, all but two top 7 minutes, and the closer is 11 and a half.
Yet the album never drags–it’s a testament to their refined palette (this is their sixth major outing in five years) and their clear focus. There is still variation: “Footfalls Echo” almost gets up to post-metal range, as does “Falls the Shadow” before it turns out a nearly-4-minute drone coda. The title track echoes Sigur Ros’ grainy Super 8/ethereal vibe, but never dismisses it in the 6:43 of the tune. It’s a rare band that can get the hammering “Footfalls Echo” and the light-washed “Aperture” next to each other, but The Sound of Rescue is that group. Post-rock fans, pay attention.
Beach Moon / Peach Moon‘s Kite Without a Stringis dreamy early ’00s emo that could have been on Deep Elm or Vagrant records, paired with an artsy sensibility that wants to tug some post-rock, atypical structure sensibility into it (“Firefly Stars”). My first thought was the work of another band with an unruly name (Empire! Empire! I Was A Lonely Estate), but instead of making me want to go listen to that, BM/PM kept me fully engaged in their tunes. The vocals are wide-eyed and child-like, pointing toward the sort of intimate/widescreen tension that is going on in these tunes. Opener “Philosophy at 23/at 24” plays with this particularly well, opening with spacious reverb and an intriguing drumbeat before stripping the tune down to its bare essentials for the coda. Elsewhere the drums play a significant role in directing the sound: the meticulous rhythm that opens the “The Fog” keeps it from being a Lullatone atmosphere piece, while follow-on “Firefly Stars” balances out the low-slung guitars with perky rim-clicks. It’s unusual for the percussion to be such a big part of the sound in a dreamy work, but the pieces all work together here beautifully to keep the tunes from floating off into the ether. Instead, it’s a well-rounded, beautiful release that sticks with me.
Living Decent‘s self-titled EP also could have been on Vagrant Records in the early ’00s, but from the more punk rock side. Vic Alvarez’s latest punk rock outfit offers a contemplative (but not navel-gazing) gaze in their tunes, drawing on some shoegaze/”wall of sound” vibes (“Close Enough to Keep You Close”), pop-punk energy (“Bad Collections,” “Borrowed Bike”), and acoustic-pop sweetness (“Antique Store”) to fill in. The results are songs that feel accomplished–Alvarez has a long history of songwriting, and it feels like all those songs and all those bands have resulted in a “know thyself” sort of maturity evident here. Jimmy Eat World’s stable-yet-productive run in the mid-’00s with Futures and Chase This Light is the best analogue I can think of: both band’s songs are well-crafted, memorable, not ostentatious, and thoroughly focusing on the best characteristics of the band. In Living Decent’s case, that’s Vic Alvarez’s voice, the specific moods the trio pulls out of guitar tone and drum style, and the lyrics. The spartan yet evocative words point toward a concern with “listening,” as three of the five songs mention it–the older we get, the more important it seems to become to just listen and appreciate. If you’re interested in thoughtful punk rock with a lot of maturity in it, please go listen to Living Decent.
The Black Watch has released somewhere between 13-17 albums and somehow hadn’t come to my attention until the last couple of years. Highs and Lowsis a rock’n’roll album the impressive likes of which they hardly make anymore, combining big guitars with psychedelic touches, baritone vocals that don’t veer into monotone post-punk territory (thank you, thank you, thank you), melodies that fit with the rock attack, and a backing band that just nails it. Extra bonus: the band has the ability to peel it all back for an acoustic ballad that doesn’t get maudlin (“Eleanor’s Not Hiding”). Tunes like “Pershing/Harvard Square,” “Love’s Fever Dreams” and “There’s No Fucking Way” get stuck in my head, with “Love’s Fever Dreams” in particular standing out for high praise. I could break down the tunes for you, but in an album like this that’s totally not the point. If you’re into rock’n’roll, you’ve probably already heard of The Black Watch and you’re wondering why I’m late to the show. If on the off chance you’re new here like me, you should jump on this one for real.
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.