Stephen Babcock‘s “Someday” is a smooth acoustic pop track that alerts you his “thing for Southern girls / wrapped in sundresses and pearls.” There’s rarely been a more confident statement of intended audience since John Mayer threw down “Your Body is a Wonderland.”
Babcock has more than a little of Mayer’s early-career suave to his pop songwriting, as he easily lays down a syncopated vocal line over lightly funky guitar and screamin’ organ. But it’s not played off as nerdy cool, like a Mraz tune: this is all eyebrow-raised flirtation and suggestion. (Just listen to those lyrics for more proof.) The results are both familiar and fresh, like a suit that you wear for the first time and automatically feel right in.
“Someday” kicks off Said and Done, where Babcock continues to develop his acoustic-pop milieu. He follows the opening salvo with “Lines of a Love Song,” which is actually a looking-back tune; there’s major wistfulness in the lyrics and a strong dose of melancholy in the verses, but Babcock can’t resist a major-key chorus with a catchy vocal line. Pop songs like those form the majority of Said and Done, with subtle variety throughout: while “Tightrope” and “Kings” continue the full-band alt-pop funkiness, “Worth” punches up the drive a bit by infusing a bit of rock push into the pop tune; “Amy” has some introspective singer/songwriter touches in the guitar line and the lyrics. “Cape Cod” amps up the funky and puts it in a minor key. Without losing his core style, Babcock is able to put distinctive spins on the tracks.
But Babcock’s not just a southern-lovin’, acoustic-toting good ‘ol boy. Babcock’s multi-faceted tenor is a selling point of the record, as the subtle touches in his delivery set the songs apart from other alt-pop tunes. He can easily shift his delivery between evocative and dry, creating tension between verses and chorus–sometimes even between lines. It’s clear that he’s got strong control of what his voice can do, from soaring melodies to wry speak-singing bits. That’s a rare, stand-out skill.
The eight songs of Said and Done show Babcock as an alt-pop singer-songwriter with a strong control of his voice and craft. If you’re looking for some bright, tight, well-penned acoustic pop to slot next to Matt Nathanson, Griffin House, and (yup) John Mayer, you’ll find much to enjoy in Stephen Babcock’s work.
1. “Glass Heart” – Magic Giant. The rhythmic knowledge of a dance floor anthem powers this folk-pop jam. The inevitable whoa-ohs and jubilant trumpet line send this over the edge into “world-conquering pop song” mode. Seriously, this is like the best parts of the Lumineers and Mumford without the negatives.
2. “One More Song” – Tyler Hilton. Hilton imbues a lot of romantic intensity into his voice, layered neatly over an adult alternative tune that splits the difference between Taylor Swift and Matt Nathanson.
3. “Local News” – Heath McNeese. A simple acoustic fingerpicking pattern, a gentle voice, an endearing story, and a memorable melody: what else do you need? Beautiful singer/songwriter work here.
4. “All Along” – Joe Mansman and the Midnight Revival Band. Snare-shuffle country with evocative vocals, a soaring chorus, and a great vibe. Do I have to throw “alt” in front of country, or can I trust you to listen anyway?
5. “Alegria” – DBG. British folk singer/songwriter DBG went to Spain and interviewed people, then wrote a bunch of songs about those interviews–in Spanish. This one showcases his gentle fingerpicking along with the Spanish-language lyrics.
December is a tough month to release music: you’ve got orgs like Paste that have already released their year-end lists by the beginning of the month, blogs that are trying to clear out the files from November (or October, or September) to get all their 2014 commitments done, and listeners who are re-living the year instead of hearing new tunes. You should probably just wait till January. But if you don’t, and your release is really good, you might sneak one in under the radar. Morgan Mecaskey is 100% radar sneaking, because anyone who sounds like Sharon Van Etten fronting The National in an eclectic record store is going to get some good words from this camp.
Lover Less Wild is an adventurous, sultry, enigmatic EP that captured me on first listen. Mecaskey’s husky alto/tenor voice leads the charge on music that skirts boundary labels and ends up firmly in that catch-all camp of “indie rock.” Opener “White Horse” has soaring horns, female back-up vocals, churning guitars, push-tempo drums, and some royal fury in the vocals of Mecaskey herself. It sounds like she mentions the name “Jolene” in the chorus, which would hook her up to a long tradition of artists to find an admirable muse in that name. By the coda of the tune, Mecaskey is hollering “Sometimes I don’t feel like who I really am,” which is amazing, because she sounds completely like herself on that tune.
It’s followed up by three tunes that are a few notches down on the tour-de-force scale (but only a few; they all register). “Fighting Extinction” starts out as a distant, questioning mix between The Walkmen and Radiohead before erupting into some funky bass (?!), calling out some Motown horns, and bringing in a male vocalist for a contentious, exciting duet. It also includes the best saxophone solo this side of M83. Because it’s hard for Morgan Mecaskey to do anything twice, the title track opens with Wurlitzer and distant vocals before unfolding into a jazzy, hip-hop/R&B groove. Right about the time that I start to feel we should call up the Antlers and get them on the same tour, the song explodes into towering guitar walls and distorted bass. “Crushed” starts with nylon-string guitar in Spanish rhythms and ends with a full choir (a real one, not just a gang-vocal offering). In short, there is about as much happening in four songs as you can possibly imagine.
Mecaskey holds this whirlwind tour of music genres and styles together with her voice, which is a versatile, powerful, emotive engine. No matter what arrangement she’s leading, she’s in firm control of what’s happening. Her voice is at home wherever she lands it, which is as much a testament to her attitude and confidence as it is her immense songwriting chops. I don’t care if you’re listening to your favorite album of the year again (I know I am, no hate), you’ve got to check out Morgan Mecaskey’s Lover Less Wild. It will keep you spinning.
James Robinson‘s Start a Fire EP is a charming four-song release. Robinson’s acoustic-centric style fits somewhere between singer/songwriter confessionals and adult-alternative pop sheen, like a more mystical Matt Nathanson or a more polished Damien Rice. This mash-up results in the best of both worlds (instead of the dreaded inverse), with Robinson’s smooth vocals getting all silky around arrangements that have some indie mystery and ambiguity in them. Think less Ed Sheeran crooning and more of that feeling you felt the first time you heard Coldplay’s Parachutes.
The quartet of tunes works nicely together, moving along a high-quality clip without drawing attention to any song in particular. “Demons” has some great bass work and a nice, memorable vocal line; “Holes in the Sky” opens with some nice guitar and vocals that evoke Jason Mraz; “Smoke & Ashes” is the most tender of the collection. But it’s the title track that takes high marks here: its polished arrangement frames Robinson’s voice perfectly, making this an impeccably done song that you’ll be humming for a while. If you’re looking for some gentle singer/songwriter fare with some mystery in it, go for James Robinson.
Any discussion of Angelo De Augustine‘s Spirals of Silence must be prefaced by this information: de Augustine sounds, musically, vocally, and even lyrically, like Elliott Smith mashed up with Nick Drake. For many people, this is enough to send them running in its direction. I forwarded this to the resident Smith fan in my life and was promptly given compliments on my character after his first listen. It’s a hit.
But it’s not just that it sounds like Smith: the songs are incredibly well-done. de Augustine has the fingerpicking/breathy vocals/tape hiss thing down, but the things he chooses to fingerpick are beautiful, contemplative, melodic works that move sprightly along. Lead single “Old Hope” is a perfect example of this, as de Augustine whispers his way across a traveling, bouncy-yet-not-cheesy guitar line. (Side note: because this song sounds like Josh Radin, I realized that I’d never noticed how much Elliott Smith influenced Josh Radin.) Other highlights include the oddly heartbreaking “Married Mother,” the tender “I Spend Days,” and the intriguing “You Open to the Idea.”
I could say more about Spirals of Silence, but I think I’ve said all I need to in order to get you to listen to this or not. Viva Angelo de Augustine, please and thank you.
The two extremes of specialization and increasing generalization are always at work. Muse is all-inclusive of sounds; hypnagogic pop is exclusive of all but a particular subset of sounds. These elements will always exist in the pop music world. Stolen Silver‘s We Have Everything, We Have Nothing trends toward the all-inclusive side of things: although an acoustic guitar anchors almost all their songs, they span the range from modern folk (“A River Only Borrows”) to adult alternative pop (“Prefontaine”) to NeedToBreathe-style Southern-pop-rock (“Blue”) to upbeat indie-folk-pop (“Carbon Copy”). Stolen Silver can do a lot of different things, and it can do many of them well.
If you’re going to go chameleon on your listeners, you need to have a strong vocalist and a versatile band. Stolen Silver has both, as the evocative tenor is comfortable with all sorts of rhythms and melodies. There’s an available falsetto, as well as a strong range before the head voice. The vocals fit neatly into the diverse song structures, because the band gives excellent songs to put vocals on top of. The band is strong in creating moods, which helps when there’s a variety of styles conveyed. I believe the airtight, pop-friendly arrangement of “Prefontaine” as much as the quieter alt-country arrangement of “Come Back to Chicago,” and that’s a testament to the band’s strength of songwriting.
If you’re interested in a diverse set of acoustic-based sounds that trend toward Matt Nathanson/David Gray acoustic pop, you’ll really enjoy Stolen Silver’s We Have Everything, We Have Nothing.
I’ve been listening to Roy Dahan‘s The Man in My Head for several weeks, and I’m still struggling to pin it down to words. It’s a solo project that feels like a full-band effort, as the overall mood of the tracks is more important than any single musician. David Gray would enjoy the seriousness and gravity of these tunes, but the album still has upbeat, inviting moments like “Crush.” It’s chill and relaxing, but with a sense of tension running throughout each tune.
I guess the best descriptor is adult alternative singer/songwriter, but that sells it short in so many ways. “Nothing But Miracles” starts out with a gentle, burbling fingerpicking guitar line before expanding into a wide-open chorus: “You’ll see / there’s a beautiful place to be / and I wonder if you’ll see at all.” The subtly urgent “Farewell” pulses with restrained energy, while “Maze” has a cascading, U2 sort of vibe. The album hangs together beautifully, but doesn’t obscure the high points within it. You can play this one as a full album or pick songs out of it for your playlists. That’s rare.
Dahan’s beautiful music is tough to explain but easy to love. If you’re into things as diverse as Counting Crows, Bright Eyes, Matt Nathanson, Ray LaMontagne, or The Decemberists, you’ll love Roy Dahan’s The Man in My Head.
The state of the acoustic guitar: It has become helpful, perhaps even necessary, to say the word “folk” in reference to yourself if you play songs that include an acoustic prominently. This is sad, because it muddies the real definition of folk and devalues other genres that also use the six-string prominently. Pageant plays songs based in old-school country, ’50s girl-pop, and perky piano indie-pop. It is a fascinating and engaging amalgam, and Lost Ourselves deserves its own praise (not just the overused label of “folk!”). But linguistically we must say what we must to get people to listen. Oh well.
This intriguing genre soup is most easily evident in single “Trustfunders,” which combines tambourine, pedal steel, plunking bass and saloon piano as a foundation. On this very country structure, Erika Porter and her back-up males sing verses that sound straight out of 1958. The chorus makes me wonder why they aren’t on tour with Mates of State right now. It all flows seamlessly, which is no small feat. Bravo, Pageant. Bravo.
This fluid merging of genres is assisted by Derek Porter’s presence in the band: Porter has experience with experimental pop that comes through on “I Live in My Father’s House.” The song starts off in an a capella format before morphing into a bass-driven indie-pop tune. It takes yet another turn into a madcap, sort-of rock tune before slamming the door. That all happens in under two minutes. It’s followed up by the title track, a straight-ahead vintage pop nugget with a sweet sax-led horn section. “Thinking Makes It So” sees Derek take the lead vocals on a song that leans all the way over to Western swing. It’s excellently pulled off. Then there’s the gorgeous “Shut the Door,” which pulls all of their affectations together into something beautifully, distinctly Pageant.
Pageant has a lot going on, but it never feels like they do. They’ve managed to situate all of their songwriting flights of fancy so that none of them feel out of place. That’s a rare feat. Lost Ourselves is an inventive, creative record that packs a ton of ideas into seven tunes. I eagerly look forward to what else Pageant comes up with, and encourage you to jump on the Pageant train before it takes off from the station.
The line between Peter Bradley Adams’ nuanced singer/songwriter fare and Matt Nathanson’s bright, obvious pop is sometimes a matter of magnitude and emphasis: the most cerebral of tunesmiths can fall in love with a big melody, while populists can get complex too. Russell Howard lives in the space between these poles, drifting toward one side or the other as the song demands on his City Heart + double EP.
“Home Sweet Home” is his most Adams-esque tune, as Howard pairs a gentle, fingerpicked guitar line with shakers and a pristine vocal performance. His confident but not overbearing voice carries the sense of loss that runs through the tune beautifully. Add in some light arrangement and an octave-jumping vocal finale, and Howard’s mined gold. On the other side of the spectrum, “Under the Weight” and “You, Me & Someday” mine Room for Squares-era John Mayer in the guitar and drum styles. The quiet closer “Morning” leans toward more pensive work, giving his voice a showcase again.
The acoustic side of the double EP isn’t markedly different from the full-band version of the release, as his arrangements are tasteful and uncluttered in their fleshed-out form. City Heart + shows Howard as a songwriter who has the skills to write compellingly for different audiences. It’s a fine introduction to a new voice, if you’re not acquainted with any of his back catalog.
I love a good pop song. I know it makes me uncool that I’m a big fan of Train’s “Hey Soul Sister,” BUT WHATEVER Y’ALL. UKULELE POWER. JD Eicher and the Goodnights know the value of pop songs. Eicher and his crew fit squarely in the adult alternative pop genre (which I shorthand as the Matt Nathanson/John Mayer sound). And they’re awesome at it on Into Place. Tunes like “You’ve Got a Lot of Growing Up To Do” and “I’d Like To Get To Know You” are perky, poppy tunes with excellent melodies, memorable lyrics, and fun choruses that you can’t help but sing along with. It’s perfect summer music.
There are some heavier moments: “People” pulls the heartstrings in a Goo Goo Dolls sort of way, “Oh My God” is a pensive piano rumination, and “Edgar Greene’s Time Machines” tells a long story to make a point about the way history and us intersect. The best tune on the album, though, combines the excellent pop songwriting chops with the heavier musings. “Aaron” brings in some banjo and clapping, moving the melodic center a little more toward Mumford/Lumineers territory. The tune is basically an audio version of Nick Hornsby’s High Fidelity: it looks at our relationship to sad songs through the lens of one musician. “I don’t like sad songs, they just seem to write me,” the narrator shrugs before blasting off into a monster that should be all over radio right now. It’s far and away the best display of songwriting on the album, and I’ve had “Aaron” on repeat for several weeks. It’s just excellent.
If you’re into a good pop song, Into Place by JD Eicher and the Goodnights should be on your iPod. That’s all there is to it.
1. “Into the River” – The Quick and the Dead. This exclusive download toes the line between power-pop and Old ’97s alt-country and includes a killer harmonica solo. Back to the Future Part Three was rad.*
2. “Primitive Style” – Johnny Delaware. I am in a roadtrip movie. I am in an ’80s convertible. Johnny Delaware is riding on the back of the car and playing guitar, somehow standing upright at 60 mph. My feathered hair is flying in the wind. I feel like yelling “FREEDOM” into the air in a Breakfast Club sort of way, not a William Wallace sort of way. Did Molly Ringwald listen to Bruce Springsteen? She would have loved Johnny Delaware.
3. “Dybbuk” – Remedies. I am transported to a kids’ movie in the ’80s, where I am wandering through an enchanted cave. Something awesome or maybe terrible is about to happen. My hair is still feathered. My jean jacket is on. The viewers are holding their breath. Let’s do this.
4. “Lost Track of Time” – MTNS. The Antlers, How to Dress Well, Vondelpark, and MTNS would be an absolutely incredible soundtrack to a 16 Candles-type movie. You know it’s true.
5. “Electricity” -FMLYBND. It’s like M83, The Rapture, and The Temper Trap collaborated on an ’80s club jam. SET PHASERS TO STUN.
6. “The Day We Both Died” – Vial of Sound. I’m always afraid to namecheck Daft Punk and LCD Soundsystem at the same time but screw it SET PHASERS TO KILL
7. “Told You Twice” – Milo’s Planes. Because sometimes you just need a thrashy, scream-it-out tune to blast in your car.
*I’m aware that BTTF3 came out in 1990, but let’s be real. 1990 was still the ’80s.
Bells and Hunters wastes no time announcing that they are something different. By 1:25 into the opener (which is also the title track) of Weddings and Funerals, the band has given listeners a spacey intro; a garagey, overdriven guitar riff; rapid-fire ’90s-style female speak-sing; a trumpet line; some accentuated guitar arpeggiation; and a pop-punk- inflected breakdown. This is not what you normally listen to, unless there are some No Doubt B-sides that sound like this in your catalog. This weird-but-cool garage-rock takes an even weirder turn in the next track: “73” is a slow-paced alt-country tune whose only connection to the previous tune is the particular style of guitar picking. (They even bring in a male vocalist halfway through, mixing it up more.) Bells and Hunters are not afraid to experiment.
Those two tunes show good extremes of Bells and Hunters’ sound, as the rest of the album sees the band combining those two sounds liberally. (They do hit the distortion pedal at the end of “73,” but it still sounds like Old 97s-style alt-country instead of garage-rock.) “Bird” starts off with dainty sounds and jaunty rhythms–like an Andrew Bird piece–but incorporates some majorly Weezer-esque guitar stomp by the end of the tune. Highlight track “Mercury” starts off with some ominous guitar picking and tom beating before bringing in a spaghetti western trumpet line, fusing the intensity that they bring with their garage-rock to a quieter arrangement. (Never fear, though: they let the drums go nuts on the cymbals, dirtying up the sound almost as much as the fuzzbox would.) “Planes” is basically a finger-picked folk song blown out by a garage-rock band. It sounds awesome, if a bit foreign to ears unaccustomed to it.
Bells and Hunters’ sound is an exciting and interesting one, exploring spaces between genres. I’ve mentioned Steven Hyden’s dictum about the future of music before (“a future where all music sounds like everything at once“), and it seems that Bells and Hunters are ready for that bold future. This is a creative, inventive, interesting take on two different genres. If you’re up for something unusual, check out Weddings and Funerals.
The Old 97s are a touchstone for Time Travels‘ sound as well. Where Bells and Hunters reminded me of Rhett Miller and Co.’s louder bits, Time Travels reminds me of the band’s softer side. Secret EP puts the emotive side of alt-country on display, with opener “It is.” leaning heavily on a remorseful, emotive vocal performance. Frank McGinnis has the soaring tenor pipes for the adult alternative genre, and the sweeping crescendoes of “It is.” do swing toward the Matt Nathanson/Goo Goo Dolls/Ben Rector style. But instead of getting mushy and cloying in their more upbeat stuff (like Matt Nathanson has a tendency to do), Time Travels takes after Ben Rector by sticking to a more upbeat, staccato, rock-influenced style in the title track.
The rest of the five-song EP leans closer to the emotive power-pop of the opener, with admirable vocal turns in “The Eye” and “Wraith” (check that falsetto!). “Wraith” also has some nice bass work, which I particularly like. Time Travels have two very different directions they can head from the Secret EP, so it will be interesting to see if they veer off on a path or keeping splitting the distance. Until further information is available, I’ll enjoy the upbeat “Secret” and lullaby-esque “Orange you glad I didn’t say banana?”
After a writing break, I hustled on over to The Blind Pig to catch The Jim Ivins Band at the Ernie Ball stage. I’ve covered Jim Ivins for a while, and I’m a fan of their catchy pop-rock tunes. I was really impressed, however, by how much they rocked them out live: “Sight of Fire” and “Everything We Wanted,” two of my faves, were way heavier than I remembered them being, with pounding drums, heavy bass and ripping guitar. But I still could sing along to the choruses, which are stellar. It’s always fun to see a band that I’ve covered for a long time in the flesh, and Jim Ivins Band was no exception. If you’re into Matt Nathanson-style pop-rock with a wicked rock’n’roll bent tossed in, Jim Ivins Band should be on your radar.
I stuck around after Jim Ivins to see The Horde and the Harem based on the strength of their name and their hometown of Seattle, WA. I was not disappointed, as the quartet mixed gypsy-indie folk (a la Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros) with the perkiness of a “Lust for Life” dance-rock band. The band routinely called upon four vocalists, often with several of them singing not just harmonies but true counterpoint melodies and rhythms. The resulting unique textures to their songs kept me engaged through each tune. Their overall enthusiasm was endearing as well: the pianist bobbed, hopped, shook her head and grinned through the entire set, while the rest of the band did similarly. THaTH got the crowd involved, teaching them to sing a melody and asking them to clap along. It was a blast to hear them play, and the long set ended too soon for my taste. If you like music that resembles a party among friends, then THaTH will tickle your musical funnybone. It was another thrilling SXSW find.
Since I was doing well at The Blind Pig, I stuck around for the Beautiful Bodies. I didn’t know what to expect from them, but I was enlightened about 10 seconds into their set. The modern rock band bounced around the stage, ran through the audience, climbed on gear, banged into each other and interacted with the audience before the first song was up. They had moved more in three minutes than The Horde and The Harem had in their entire set, and I just mentioned how bouncy THaTH was. In short, this set was an athletic event for both band and audience, as the listeners got into it with dancing. One male audience member in particular danced like mad, making the most of the fact that the female lead singer pretty much only sang from the audience and not the stage. He and her danced around for several songs, which was awesome. The band’s modern-rock was air-tight and incredibly well-done: the band knew how their sound worked and exploited it for all it could produce. I don’t really like modern rock, but The Beautiful Bodies know how to throw a show, for sure.
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.