1. “Mirrors” – Mos Isley. Triumphant folk-pop that’s exciting without going over the top into cliche.
2. “Glow” – The National Parks. Big instrumental melodies, lots of instruments, charming vocal melodies, subtle-enough-to-not-be-gimmicky underlying electronic beats; this folky indie song is just a blast.
3. “Vintage” – High Dive Heart. Throw technicolor girl pop, white rap, a banjo, and folk-pop harmonies in a blender and you get out this enigmatically engaging song. This song doesn’t make any sense to me in so many ways and yet I love it. It just works. Amazing. (Video direct link: )
4. “Ancient Burial Ground” – Kye Alfred Hillig. Hillig gives us the demos of his new album before it’s released, and you can color me excited: this tune and the handful of others that come with it are chipper musically and intricate lyrically, just like his best work. Watch for Great Falls Memorial Interchange in 2016.
5. “Canada” – Nikki Gregoroff. “The people are nice cross the border,” sings Gregoroff, which is just a really nice thing to write into a Simon and Garfunkel-esque tune.
6. “Chantilly Grace” – Granville Automatic. Bell-clear female vocals lead this tune that looks back to vintage Americana (that fiddle!) and forward to modern alt-country melodies.
7. “Bliss Mill” – Matthew Carter. The laid-back chill vibe and unhurried vocals of Alexi Murdoch meets the shuffle-snare of traditional country/folk for a memorable tune.
8. “Set Sail” – Matt Monoogian. Monoogian’s calm voice leads this acoustic track with an intricate arrangement that pulls the Gregory Alan Isakov trick of feeling both comfortingly small and confidently big.
9. “Bentonville Blues” – Adam Hill. A protest song for the modern day working poor, Hill captures the everyman ethos with great delivery of relatable lyrics, simpple arrangement of singalong melodies, and a the burned-but-not-killed mentality similar to old-time protest work songs.
10. “Itasca County” – Rosa del Duca. The frontman of folk outfit hunters. releases her own album of singer/songwriter tunes that focus on her voice and lyrics, both of which are in fine form on this rolling, harmonica-splashed tune.
11. “Tongue Tied” – Oktoba. That space between soul, folk, and singer/songwriter keeps getting more populated: let in Oktoba, whose offering isn’t as overtly sensuous as some but is just as romantic (and hummable)!
12. “The Blue” – David Porteous. Canadian Porteous beautifully splits the difference between two UK singer/songwriters here by invoking Damien Rice’s sense of intense romantic intimacy and David Gray’s widescreen pop arrangements.
13. “Whirlpool Hymnal” – Matthew Squires and the Learning Disorders. Squires expands his yearning, searching alt-folk to include found sounds–the lyrics are just as thought-provoking and honest as ever.
14. “Playground” – Myopic. The fragile swoon of a violin bounces off the stately plunk of melodic percussion in this thoughtful instrumental piece.
15. “Siphoning Gas” – Luke Redfield. This gentle, ambient soundscape is the sound of looking out the window when rain is coming down and you don’t have to go anywhere or do anything but cuddle up with a blanket and a book in a big bay window and enjoy it.
A breathy saxophone is one of the first and last sounds you hear on Unreal, James Irwin‘s ’80s-inspired chill-out album. Irwin is a laid-back cat: rubbery bass, feathery woodwinds and flutes, reverb-heavy guitars, Irwin’s relaxed vocals and easygoing tempos form the predominant framework for tunes that unfold at their own pace. The resulting amalgam sounds like if Matthew Squires and the Learning Disorders somehow time traveled into 1986 Miami.
Tunes like the title track, “Face Value,” and “Sahra” aren’t tropical or Caribbean in any large sense; instead, they capture the languid haze that was layered over seemingly all ’80s cop dramas. Tension here isn’t ominous; it’s simply a push and pull of instruments. Snappy high hat pushes the tempo while pad synths hold it back in “Face Value.” The warm synths that open “Sahra” give an almost chillwave vibe before gentle sleigh bells and plodding guitar flip the script entirely: “Sahra” is actually a slow ballad.
The title track reminds me of M83’s “Midnight City” in its use of saxophone and its deep commitment to a particular style of sound, but the tunes couldn’t be more different and still be evoking the same era. (“Michigan Miami” is the one that actually appropriates a driving ’80s electro pop sound.) The synths that Irwin uses aren’t the sharp, whiny synths common to modern EDM or the twinkly ones common to stereotypical ’80s pop. The pad synths are diffused whispers that call up memories without being the lead element (most of the time). Given those synths as a base, the title track relies on an almost doo-wop bass line to bring a bit of motion to the straight-up-and-down drumming and gauzy backdrop. This causes the final product to come off seeming like a recently-unearthed mid-’80s predecessor of The Antlers’ work.
But Irwin isn’t doing a nostalgia reconstruction here: “Blood Going Back in Time” and “Siberia China” draw on modern indie-pop elements. The delicate fingerpicking, separated drumming and distant synths of “Siberia China” call Clem Snide to mind (as well as the aforementioned Squires). Standout “Blood Going Back in Time” fuses the ’80s sentiments to distinctly modern, quirky guitar production to really come into his own sound. The vocals, arrangement, and cryptic lyrics (including several prominent references to George Henry Wallace) make it a tune worth listening to multiple times.
Nostalgia is a dangerous game sometimes, because it can seem like there’s no creativity there. James Irwin’s Unreal is more than just a time-travelogue to a particular sound. It’s a re-envisioning of a certain mood and sonic space with modern developments included. If you’re into the ’80s, well and good–you’ll be all over this. However, if you’re into adventurous, thoughtful chill electro or indie-pop, you’ll be just an enamored with the album.
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.
The vision of indie rock that Neutral Milk Hotel put forward is alive and well in Matthew Squires. Where the Music Goes to Die is a mindbending mix of melodic sophistication, off-kilter arrangements, highly literate and oft-enigmatic lyrics, idiosyncratic vocals, and an uncompromising attitude toward the creation of the work. Heidegger, Plato, and copious Biblical references weave their way through the album, as Squires spins indirect (“When Moses Sighed”) and direct eulogies (“American Trash”) of American society.
The songs that bear the lyrics are at turns jaunty indie-rock tunes [the excellent “Echo,” “Some Corny Love Song (Devotional #1)”], major-key alt-folk (the title track, “Plato’s Cave”), and doomy folk (“When Moses Sighed,” “A Strange Piece”). Squires’ high-pitched voice keeps the whole ship sailing, as he brings the listener through the collection with ease. The ultimate result of the collection is similar to that of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea: Where the Music Goes to Die delivers an almost-overwhelming amount of ideas to take in, but all those pieces unfold through repeated enjoyment of the impressively refined melodic surface level. If nothing else, you’ll love singing along to “Echo”–maybe the Heidegger reference will hit later.
The Maravines – Distelfink. It’s always a joy to hear a band build and grow from one release to another. The Maravines’ Distelfink follows their self-titled 2013 release by almost exactly 12 months. Their previous offering was a jangly, reverb-heavy indie-pop work; their new one takes those elements and crafts them into a pitch-perfect rainy-day indie-rock album.
From the album art, it’s clear that The Maravines know what they’ve got here: the gray skies and rain over a lush field and a colorful, nostalgic local business sign are a neat analog of the sound. The duo craft elegant, lush tunes that never turn into spectacles: the songwriting, arrangement, and recording are all purposefully tailored to create a consistent sound throughout the record. You can listen to the individual tunes like “Third Floor Statue,” “Maryland,” and “Flowers on Tonnelle” for their standalone beauty, or you can just let the whole album accompany you through (or transport you to) a dreary, relaxing day. That’s the secret weapon of the album: the green fields of the album art. This album ultimately plays not off the stark, forlorn beauty of Bon Iver or Michigan, but the lush beauty of Nightlands, Holy Fiction, and Sleeping at Last. Distelfink is a beautiful, evocative, wonderful album.
Lord Buffalo — Castle Tapes EP. Lord Buffalo is given to long, gritty, Southwestern, wide-open folk-esque landscapes that burn acoustic guitars into ashes and scatter them to the violent Santa Ana Wind. On the other end of the spectrum, they play terrifying post-rock with spoken/chanted/shouted vocals that sounds like the soundtrack to the apocalypse.
On this short EP, they focus more on their expansive, slow-burn sound than their fully-ramped-up version. A cover of Roky Erickson’s “Two-Headed Dog” sets the pace for the EP: it’s a pensive sort of jam with surreal lyrical imagery and a long wind-up that quits before the seemingly-inevitable explosion. The manipulated violins and ominous spoken word of “Valle De Luna” turn into a more abstract tune that’s a little harder to get into, but it still never gets near Armageddon. The final two tracks are essentially parts one and two of the same long song: the pounding, grumbling, low-grade roar of “Mineral Wells” leads directly into the instrumental “Form of the Sword,” which is a long tension release; it’s the sound of the metaphorical tide going out.
Even though Castle Tapes shows off the “lighter” side of Lord Buffalo, this is still a heavy, serious, thought-provoking release. Lord Buffalo says they’re building up to a full-length in 2015, which I can only expect will have more sweeping, booming, indignant folk/post-rock dispatches for us.
Here’s November’s singles, over the next few days.
Sing Yr Song
1. “Echo” – Matthew Squires and the Learning Disorders. Some people have the greatness inside them, and it’s present in flashes that don’t reveal the whole thing. That was Squires’ previous work, and “Echo” is the revelation: the yelpy vocals, the singer/songwriter lyrics, and propulsive indie-rock arrangements all come together to give me shivers. Color me thrilled for the new album.
2. “Strange the Way” – James Hearne. Here’s a tight country arrangement paired with a great chorus. There is some great country in the world, y’all. I’m not even throwing “alt” on this. It’s country. And it’s good. You won’t be aurally injured by listening, I promise. You’ll like the chorus, for sure. You like Jason Isbell, you know? It’s okay. Admit it. Country.
3. “Pretend With Me” – Great Spirit. Remember a couple of years ago when back porch-style folk was in? Great Spirit is on that porch, still doin’ its loose, warm, optimistic string band thing. Break out your mason jars. (I love mason jars. This is not ironic.)
4. “Breathe Your Last” – Jameson. Banjo, bright production, swamp shuffle percussion, and some grit on the edges of the vocals make this track a keeper. Oh, also the giant chorus.
Before we get to the surreal video clips, here’s an absolutely surreal performance. I will never tire of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” and Jenny & Tyler (and guests!) do an incredible rendition right here. Jenny & Tyler is one of the most on-fire acts I know of right now.
A lot of artists want to make surreal music videos, but Elliphant’s latest clip is one of the few that succeeds. The visuals are unsettling without being graphic, perfectly fitting the tense electro-pop of “Revolusion.”
Grant Valdes’ “Lord, Don’t Take the Sun” clip gives a herky-jerky, also-surreal take on building a fire. I know it sounds pedestrian, but it’s compelling.
& Yet gives a strong studio performance of a forlorn chamber-pop tune as part of the Fastback Sessions. It’s not surreal, really, but I wanted to include it anyway. It’s my blog, I do what I want.
If you’ve got 11 minutes for three freak-folk songs from Matthew Squires and The Learning Disorders, then you should check out this video. Squires and a cellist perform amidst a half-finished boutique, complete with mannequins. Suitable space for Squires’ fractured, surreal visions.