I’ve been a big fan of Magic Giant over the past few years as they’ve been releasing singles and online EPs. They’ve finally released a full-length collecting that work and adding in new tunes. In the Windis a fun, bouncy, catchy album of pop-rock, showing how Magic Giant has expanded from a folk-pop outfit heavily reliant on banjo to being a diverse group that can wear many hats.
Magic Giant was always had a bit of dance-rock in them, as the giddy dance-ability of the folk-dance-pop tune “Glass Heart” was what drew me to them. “Glass Heart” is reproduced in a shorter version (no drum circle outro, sadly), but it’s still a blast. Other tunes like “Hideaway” and “Celebrate the Reckless” show off their enthusiastic folk-dance-pop skills that put them in league with Judah and the Lion. But other tunes show off their straight-ahead pop skills, like the thrilling trumpet playing and “na-nas” of “Eyes Wide” and the new-school-Coldplay-esque opener “Jade.” These songs have more in common with Bastille than Mumford and Sons. To round out their abilities, “Nothin’ Left” is a breakup tune that’s straight down the folk-pop pike: it’s all fingerpicked guitar, plucked banjo, three-part harmonies, group vocals, tom percussion, and harmonica (!).
In the Wind is a fun album that would be great on the stereo on a summer road trip. It shows off a wide array of the trio’s skills and sets up a wide-open trajectory for them in the future. At the moment, though, it’s certainly a big collection of summer jams.
EPs are becoming more popular than ever, and I love the trend: there’s no room for filler on an EP. As a result, a lot of artists brought their A game to the smaller format this year. Here’s to them:
1. Thanks for All Your Patience – Brother Moses. (Review) I spun this one the most often because the easygoing, almost effortless indie-rock vibe gave rise to some seamless, indelible melodies. Clean, tight, clever, and earnest, I gravitated to this one early and often in 2015.
2. On Separation – David Wimbish. (Review) Wimbish, frontman of The Collection, stripped out some of the intricate arrangements of his day job for a more intimate set of portraits that focused in on the lyrics. Elegant, haunting, and beautiful.
3. Loca EP – Valley Shine. (Review) Folk-pop can be a formula these days, but Valley Shine is all about exploding the formula with raw enthusiasm, brash melodies, and surprising pathos.
6. Regards – We are the West. (Review) A wisp of an EP that barely has time to meet you before it’s gone, but oh does it deliver: this Low Anthem-style Americana sounds like a warm blanket around my ears.
7. Joe Kaplow EP – Joe Kaplow. (Review) One of my favorite debuts of the year, as Kaplow showed off his versatility in several different acoustic-based styles. Looking forward to more from Kaplow.
8. Away, Away – B. Snipes. (Review) Another excellent debut that introduces Snipes’ low-slung troubadour singer/songwriter voice to the world, taking the lyrics of Rocky Votolato in a more Americana direction.
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.
1. “Running Away” – The Royal Foundry. It’s actually kind of astonishing that we’ve had less acoustic-pop/electro mashups than we’ve had (I see you, Magic Giant!). TRF manage to pull the best elements of both chipper-yet-thoughtful acoustic pop and fist-raising MGMT electro-pop into this really rad tune.
2. “One Less Thing” – Curtsy. I should be used to the type of distortion that makes things sound dreamy instead of grungy, but every now and then you hear something that restores your faith in an effect. This tune walks the line between hazy and energetic beautifully.
3. “Mixer” – Nap Eyes. You know that dude who shows up at your parties and he’s the friend of a guy you know, and you’ve met once, and he turns out to be awesome, and your friend never shows up, but the friend-of-a-friend is coming over next Tuesday? Nap Eyes isn’t a garage rock band on this track, but their chilled-out Cali rock is rad.
4. “Is He Gone” – The Echo Field. Giddy indie-pop that could easily pass for a first-British Invasion “rock” track.
5. “Monday Morning” – Paradise Animals. The arpeggiator synths create a post-chillwave framework for the baritone vocals to leap about in. It’s like Teen Daze paired with an alternate universe version of Matt Berninger from The National.
6. “Believer” – Paper Lions. Think of the most pleasant possible mash-up of Tokyo Police Club and Passion Pit, and you’d get this grin-inducing track. We need a better work for this specific indie-pop-rock-dance type work, ’cause it’s totally a thing.
7. “Technicolor Souls” – Flight of Ryan. Manages to combine wubby bass, chopped vocals, vocoder and high-tenor wails in an exciting way that doesn’t sound overdone. (Okay, maybe the vocoder is a bit much.) If you can’t wait for The Naked and Famous to finish up that third record…
8. LA Takedown– LA Takedown. This 44-minute album streams as one track on the linked website. It works perfectly because the electro-heavy post-rock/digital soundscape is the sort of abstract wonder that can make me stare at an empty screen quiet contently while the sounds swirl about my ears.
9. “Headlights” – Grandsister ft. Sarah Belkner. The vocals, arpeggiated bass, and percussion just all come together great on this one.
10. “TMI” – Daphne Willis. Sick of Meghan Trainor dominating all public spaces but actually love her style of music and really wish you had an alternative? Daphne Willis’s latest EP is exactly the sort of too-fun-to-be-real pop that you’ve been secretly hoping for. Seriously sasstastic.
11. “No Way” – Naives. This off-kilter electro jam sounds like M.I.A. rejected a beat made for her and to salvage it the beatmaker tried to repurpose it into an indie-electro jam, coming up with something altogether different along the way.
12. “Tokyo Megaplex” – Art Contest. I wonder if Coleman Monroe showed up at their practice space and said, “Yo, Garrett, I wrote this insane, fast guitar line that doesn’t really believe in time signatures. Think you can keep up?” If you need your mind bent by a good-natured math-rock tune today, here’s a good candidate.
13. “Flame” – Controller. So you’ve got a good fuzzed-out guitar riff, a great vocal line, and a big chorus: you, my friend, are in business.
1. “Sometimes It’s a Song” – Rob Williams. The fresh, round, earnest qualities of Williams’ voice match the subtle sweetness of the surrounding arrangement, resulting in the sort of song that feels real and weighty without being heavy or loud. It makes quite an impact.
2.”Heart of Stone” – The American West. This one captures the easygoing, lilting West Coast country sound in full flower, with the pedal steel more floating than weeping and the guitar more calming than cutting. The vocals and lyrics, however, supply all the heartbreak you could ask for from a country tune.
3. “Lovedrunk Desperados” – Annabelle’s Curse. That opening thumping kickdrum creates a sense of urgency that cuts through the banjo and acoustic guitar songwriting and lends it the hint of grandeur that compels me to keep listening. The rest of the song does not disappoint.
4. “Set on Fire” – Magic Giant. They’re not referencing their meteoric rise, but this rave-folk outfit (seriously, right there with Avicii, in only a slightly different way) is making a big noise in a lot of places. This particularly tune will keep their star right on rising.
5. “Mountains” – Andy Hackbarth. Even though its title says otherwise, this one invokes the beach: chill, Mraz-style acoustic-pop meets reggae in a sunshiny brew.
6. “Molly Put the Kettle On” – Ben Hunter and Joe Seamons. It doesn’t get much more authentic-sounding than this rootsy, bluegrassy croon/holler tune featuring harmonica, banjo, and fiddle.
7. “Mother” – Adam Busch. Touches of psychedelia flavor this otherwise unassuming, easygoing, fingerpicked acoustic tune.
8. “Lighthouse” – Phillip LaRue. The subtle alt-pop of Peter Bradley Adams meets the flitting, romantic strings of Sleeping at Last for a romantic, lovely tune.
9. “Cool and Refreshing” – Florist. Sporting another not-quite-yet-self-aware title, this tune delivers fragile, melancholic, beautiful indie-pop that really seems like it should be acoustic. Shades of Lady Lamb, Laura Stevenson, and Kimya Dawson appear, but Florist uses the references as touchstones instead of crutches. Just beautiful.
10. “Ein Berliner” – Jacob Metcalf. This tune has the gravitas to convey history in all its glory and terror–a tune so infused with lyrical weight that a single sigh can speak volumes. Distant trumpets, careful strings, twinkling glockenspiel and gentle baritone make this some sort of cross between Beirut and Kris Orlowski, which is only positive. Metcalf previously was in IC faves The Fox and The Bird, and it seems he hasn’t missed a step since stepping out.
1. “Run With Me” – Heather LaRose. A great pop song that has that Imagine Dragons / Magic Giant / Lumineers type of enthusiasm tinged with minor-key drama. You’ll be humming this one.
2. “New Minuits” – Tri-State. This low-slung rock tune escaped from some preternaturally chill realm: it’s smart, cool, moody, lyrically clever and vocally impressive without breaking a sweat.
3. “Nothing to Say” – WOOF. THAT BASS LINE. (Also, this a burbling, frenetic, arpeggiator-decorated mid-’00s indie-pop-rock tune. Tokyo Police Club would be proud.) SERIOUSLY THOUGH. THAT BASS.
4. “Take Me To a Party” – Sweet Spirit. “I’ve got a broken heart / so take me to a party” hollers the lead female vocalist over energetic, fractured rock music that sounds suitably unhinged.
5. “Corduroy” – Redcast. Gosh, there’s just something irresistible about a fresh-faced, clean-scrubbed pop-rock group with equal parts Beatles, twee indie-pop, and The Cars references.
6. “Soldiers” – Swim Season. Everything about this track makes way more success when you realize that it’s about to be summer in the band’s native Australia. This summery electro-rock jam slinks, sways and swaggers its way into your ears.
7. “Movies” – Captain Kudzu. Meticulous slacker pop seems like a paradox, but Captain Kudzu’s carefully crafted tune here sounds excellently like it’s not trying too hard. Foresty, moody vibes track with the easiness, making it an intriguing song.
8. “Captive” – WYLDR. Temper Trap + Passion Pit + a dash of Colony House = radio gold.
9. “Every Day” – Dream Culture. Here’s a funky psych-rock nugget with one foot firmly in the ’70s and one in outer space. The tension between grounded riffing and free-floating atmosphere pulls at each other in all the right ways.
10. “Hey Little League” – Michael Daughtry. John Mayer’s suave alt-pop touch collides with some tight ’90s pop-rock vibes to turn out this tune.
11. “Time to Share” – Model Village. Grows from a delicate pop tune to a surprising, swirling post-disco tune without ever losing a gentle touch.
12. “You Have Saved Our Lives, We Are Eternally Grateful” – Wovoka Gentle. Chiming voices float over shape-shifting synths, bouncy guitars, and an overall joyous mood. It’s kind of like a female-fronted Freelance Whales, only weirder in the best possible way.
1. “The Giving” – Matthew Squires and the Learning Disorders. Squires plays the traveling troubadour here, finding “poverty and magic all around me” in a New Orleans full of found sound, delicate guitar, his signature vocal style, and fitting trumpet.
2. “Red” – Mt. Wolf. Here’s a slow-burning, tension-releasing amalgam of acoustic guitar, beats, and falsetto that sounds like Bon Iver 2.0. Mmm, mmm, mmm.
3. “Heart” – Pistol Shrimp. The falsetto-filled acoustic version of this dance-rock banger sounds somewhere between Ben Gibbard and Ben Folds, which is pretty impressive. Maybe they should do this more often.
4. “Odell” – Lowland Hum. Afflicted, pastoral, theatrical indie-folk has previously belonged in my mind only to Bowerbirds. Move on over, Bowerbirds–Lowland Hum are here with a beautiful tune in that very specific mood.
5. “Cops Don’t Care pt. II” – Fred Thomas. Thomas follows up his epic debut single with this one, which is a lot simpler musically but just as powerful lyrically.
6. “Other Suns” – Magic Giant. With mandolin, cello, and harmonica, Magic Giant is doing their best to act the folk part of their folk rave name in this mid-tempo ballad.
7. “Love or Die” – Magic Giant. I know I just put them in this list, but this Lumineers/Twin Forks stomp-along is just too much fun to pass up.
8. “If It Don’t Kill You” – Family Folk Revival. Get that outlaw alt-country feel on and enjoy this low-slung, rootsy jam.
1. “Muscle Memory” – Laura and Greg. Do you miss the Weepies? Laura and Greg’s precise, delicate picking and close harmonies are augmented by just the right amount of indie affectation to end up with a totally charming outcome. This is sort of song that sticks in your brain and doesn’t let go. I can’t wait to hear where they go from here.
2. “Promised Myself” – Kylie Odetta. There’s an “towering pop vocals” button in my soul, and it doesn’t get pushed by Adele that often (come on, 25!). Kylie Odetta writes those torchy, piano-led dramatic tunes and backs them up with soulful, belting vocals. (The video is an unusual mashup of the “’80s pop star in empty building” trope and Odetta hanging out in a coffeeshop; welcome to 2015.)
3. “The Secret” – Sam Joole. Joole’s got the old-school piano ballad down, and his tender, gentle vocals sell the tune beautifully.
4. “Memoria No. 1” – The Greatest Hoax. TGH offers up more downtempo ambient, but this time with a more electronic bent. More Album Leaf, less Ólöf Arnalds, all chill and wonderful.
5. “Stormy Grey Eyes” – Knitted Cap Club. Meagan Zahora of KCC pushes the “dusky, cabaret dramatic vocals” button, which is right next to the “towering pop vocals” button. This could have been written in the 1920s, which I feel is a major compliment if you’re going to be in this genre.
6. “Four Sisters Part One” – Lowland Hum. This one’s a duet, but the female vocals are no less arresting for being lead by a tenor vocalist. The intimate harmonies on the phrase “use your voice” couldn’t be more perfect in this acoustic tune.
7. “In the During of a Moment” – The Lowest Pair. This duet is lead by the female alto vocalist, with the man chiming in on harmonies. It’s a stark, hushed recording that seems like it could be happening just behind you; the room reverb warms up the whole performance and fits perfectly with the tune.
8. “Hands and Feet” – Lowlands. Vintage rock’n’roll music has been getting a lot of love recently: the ’50s rock vibes here are cut by modern indie-pop melodies in the chorus. It’s an appealing mix. (And yes, I put Lowland Hum, Lowlands and The Lowest Pair in the same mix because seriously how often does that happen?)
9. “Let It Burn” – Magic Giant. MG’s new single is just as hooky, infectious, and enthusiastic as their previous rave-folk tunes. It doesn’t seem like dance music and folk-pop could come together so perfectly, but that’s why you listen to music, right? It always surprises.
Magic Giant‘s Free 3-Song EP is the catchiest, funniest, and most fun pop-folk EP I’ve heard in a long time. Not since Twin Forks’ debut has a band had such a laser-guided sense of how melodies catch an ear. But Magic Giant is much more than your average folk-pop outfit. This quartet combines influences from Jason Mraz, Mumford & Sons, Muse, and dubstep to create an irresistible brew.
Muse has long known that the strength of pop music is that the various genres can be infinitely combined, if you spend enough time making the sounds mesh together; Magic Giant is all in on that game. “Let’s Start Again” opens with a trad-style fiddle run, then segues into a Jason Mraz-style alt-pop verse and pre-chorus. The lyrics are both modern and timeless, talking about cell phones and the desire to start over with a lover. Then the chorus explodes in a stuttering sampled horn line, a blaring marching band line, a soaring fiddle, and wub-style synth bass. It seems like it shouldn’t work, but it works perfectly. It’s like Imagine Dragons, but folkier. It’s rave-folk, but it’s not even the best example of rave-folk on the EP. (The fact that there are so many disparate influences coming together is what makes this the “funniest” EP I’ve heard in a while.)
“The Dawn” starts off with Lumineers-style fingerpicking and group harmony vocals before bursting into a full folk-pop arrangement, pulling the arrangement back to pick up the tempo, then turning into full-on Mumford & Sons: banjo, roar vocals, thrashing drums. There are also some synths for atmosphere. It’s tough to explain how effective this song is, because it sounds fully derivative on paper and yet completely exciting in the ear. The last chorus has some more stomping, four-on-the-floor dance beats, but it’s still not the best rave-folk song on this EP.
Finally we get to “Glass Heart,” which is my early candidate (basically, my bar) for song of the year. It starts off with a slow-moving banjo line, doo-wop background vocals, and tape noise for effect. It suddenly transforms by adding a saxophone section (alto/tenor/bari, by the sounds of it) stabbing its way through the verse. The chorus drops a great vocal line, but it’s the next section that makes the song: a jubilant, exultant horn line combined with the techno beat, wub bass, and enthusiastic background vocals (you can guess what they are) that have me waving my hands in the air. Then they layer the chorus over the bridge and seriously I’m in a one-man headphones club.
Rave-folk isn’t a thing yet, but Magic Giant is seriously trying to make it happen. They’re a shoo-in to go on tour with Imagine Dragons, but I daresay they’re more exciting to me than Imagine Dragons. They’re not going to be winning any traditional Americana awards, but I kinda doubt that’s the audience they’re shooting for. If you’re into huge, shoot-for-the-charts pop songs, then Magic Giant should be in your ears. You can get the free EP by signing up for their e-mail list.
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.