Mike Llerena‘s five-song EP Absence & the Heart is a blast of punk-folk adrenaline that fans of The Menzingers will latch onto immediately. I put “punk” in front of “folk” instead of the more common reverse (folk-punk) because Llerena can play folk, but it takes less than thirty seconds into the first song for Llerena to roar “my life’s a wreck” in a throat-shredding yell over punk-rock guitar distortion and tone. “End of the Line” kicks off with a wiry punk-rock guitar melody before dropping into the standard punk-rock guitar chug that has served so well for so many years. “Lady Rock & Roll” is a bit more old-school rock at the beginning, but again, Llerena lurches into full-on punk rock blitz before thirty seconds are up.
These punk rock blasts (complete with the occasional “whoa-oh”) are anchored by Llerena’s insistent tenor, which is in the same vein as The Menzingers’ vocal tone. The melodies share similarities as well. But Llerena is no knock-off; where The Menzingers can ratchet up to snarling tunes, Llerena ratchets down to ballads. Lead single “Rosanna” has an old-school country/rock’n’roll fusion vibe, while “Dear Lonely” is an acoustic ballad that draws equally on the melodic aesthetics of “acoustic songs by punk rockers” and lonesome country tunes.
If you’re looking for some punk rock to get your summer going, Mike Llerena can help you out. But he can also get you a sad song or two, if that’s what you need. Overall, this is a strong demonstration of varied songwriting from Llerena.
1. “Ich Cetera” – Austin Stahl. There’s not as much instrumental indie-rock in the world as I would like. This entry in the genre is a road-tripping song, a friendly and adventurous little tune underpinned by a stable drumline and guitar strum pattern. The Nick Drake-esque piano line is lovely as well.
2. “Retro Kid” – Retro Kid. “It comes into my head / the need to dance” is the refrain on this sleek, low-slung electro-pop gem. If all electro-dance were as slinky and winding, I might be out at the club more often. (And by the club, I mean “me in my living room, playing electro-pop at full blast”.)
3. “Stuck Between” – Klara Zubonja. An almost overwhelmingly twee introduction opens into an exuberant indie-pop track that’s a cross between the sass of Lily Allen, the coy subtlety of Regina Spektor, and the punchy arrangements of Ingrid Michaelson.
4. “Be Here Now” – Annabelle’s Curse. Genre-busting indie outfit Annabelle’s Curse returns with a song that, well, busts genres. There’s some alt-country, some indie-pop, some grungy indie-rock, and more crammed into this flowing, atypical song structure. Viva la invention.
5. “Pocketknife” – The Anchor Collective. The vocal melodies are front and center in this indie rock track, as not even a crunchy guitar section can take my ear away from the comforting, comfortable melodies that play out over the mostly-dreamy arrangement.
6. “Beth” – Paul Whitacre. Every now and then a song comes along that jumps out of the pack and says, “Listen to me!” This folk-pop tune with country guitar leads is a breath of fresh air in a crowded field, from the lovely melodies to the deft arrangement to the carefully organized lyrics to the immaculate production job. This is top-shelf work, people. Jump on it.
7. “Memorial Day” – Palm Ghosts. Dawes-esque Americana meets REM-style ’90s guitar-rock jangle in the sonic equivalent of a well-worn, trusty jacket. You may not have heard this song before, but it will feel familiar and great as soon as you do.
8. “Rosanna” – Mike Llerena. This song has punk rock vocal tone and melodies, doo-wop rhythms, and alt-country guitar tone. All three of those genres have heart-on-sleeve tendencies, and they’re on full display here in this “sad, spurned lover” lyric set. If you’re into 500 Miles to Memphis, you’ll be all up on this.
9. “Savior’s Hand” – Colin Onderdonk. Powerful vocals and a spartan arrangement consisting almost entirely of rumbling toms and wiry string bass creates a sonic environment that mirrors the lyrics that describe a weary traveler in an ominous, dangerous land.
10. “The Conversation of the Street Lights Will Pass as Quickly as Our Words” – The Bowling Alley Sound. This stuttering, wide-eyed, major-key post rock tune includes burbling guitars, soaring bass work, evocative (and high quality) found sound / spoken word clips, and a delightful sense of motion through the whole piece. Fans of The Album Leaf, Delicate Steve, Adebisi Shank, and other major-key post-rock will find much to love in this.
11. “The Naked Mind” – Ryan Svendsen. I’ve never heard a piece composed entirely of looped, layered trumpet lines and percussion. The trumpet is naturally an instrument prone to brash melodies, long melodic runs, and alternation between mellow and sharp tones, and all of that is on display here. There’s a hypnotic groove to the piece through the repetition of the theme that is only increased by the eruption of the percussion partway through. Adventurous listeners: rejoice!
12. “Himalaya” – Klangriket. By including lots of atmospheric, foley-type sounds, this song becomes both a minimalist soundtrack and the movie it is scoring. It’s a distinct, unique, very adventurous sonic experience that blends classical, post-rock, found sound, and soundtracks together.
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.