I’m all about alt-country, which is a deceptively hard genre to get right. You can’t lean too country, or too indie, or too singer/songwriter. Red Sammy walks the line between all of these with a tune that’s equal parts Tom Waits, Counting Crows, and Jayhawks.
Adam Trice’s rough vocals aren’t the only place that Waits comparisons fit: “Sometimes You Forget What’s Real” is a long, walking-speed tune that relies heavily on a world-weary mood to compel listeners’ ears. There’s a genial, earnest feel to the guitar that calls up August and Everything After-era Counting Crows, while the weeping electric guitar gives the tune a big ‘ol “alt-country” stamp not too far from the Jayhawks’ work. Extra bonus: Mountain Goats-quality yawps at the end of the vocals’ contributions. The whole tune comes together so beautifully that it’s hard to believe that it’s over 6 minutes long. If you’re into old-school, loose folk/country jams or any of the previous acts, this tune will perk your ears up.
“Sometimes You Forget What’s Real” is the lead single on an upcoming album, set to drop Fall 2015.
I was one of the millions stuck in airports over the weekend. I eventually made it to my destination, five days after my original boarding pass assured me I would. During the last of my three airport visits, I queued up The Yellow Dress‘ Faint Music / Ordinary Light. Opening track “Tummy in the Blood” (provided commentary: “what a gross thing to name a song”) has a chorus that I wanted to sing with all my soul: “We try, and climb, but we know that / mathematically speaking, it gets harder every day / the chances of finding ourselves home again / of finding ourselves in the same way.” It’s a beautiful, passionate call, made all the more wonderful by perfectly illustrating the seeming futility of my situation.
The music itself leans more toward non-traditionally passionate than traditionally beautiful, as The Yellow Dress sounds like an exuberant mix of latter-day Mountain Goats, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah!. These speedy indie-pop tunes ooze DIY personality from instruments you’d expect (glockenspiel, horns, off-kilter vocals) and don’t expect (clarinet and the unusually prominent bass, which immediately calls up references to Peter Hughes of the Mountain Goats).
The songs move sprightly along, scattering quirky melodies from vocals and instruments throughout songs without concern for obvious mile-markers: there are choruses in some places, and then sometimes there aren’t, but it all sounds wonderful. “A Complete List of Fears Age 5-28 (aprox)” starts with Neutral Milk Hotel-esque heavy strumming, then builds until it’s a roaring Funeral-style indie-rock tune, complete with frenzied vocal delivery. It’s the sort of song I listen to over and over.
My repeated listens are enhanced by the excellent lyrics. Existential angst, growing up, and seizing the day are all things that a person in their mid-20s can relate to at times–especially while trapped in a travel-induced limbo. “FatherSunFunRun/Walk Towardson/Daniel Pennypacker” is a standout in this department, while the previous two mentioned are also wonderful. There are lines throughout each of them that I could see ending up on my computer wallpaper (which, let’s be real, is the equivalent of a middle school trapper-keeper). It’s all incredibly earnest stuff, so I suppose if you’re not into that it might curl your ears a bit. But I’m all about sincerity, so I’m excited about it.
Beyond the intriguing arrangements and captivating lyrics, The Yellow Dress can just be a ton of fun. “Isaac Fitzgerald (bum bum bum)” sees a ragtag choir singing the titular “bum bum bum bum ba-da-da-da” repeatedly as a sort of chorus. If you’re not singing along by the end of the song, we’re probably not on the same page musically: this tune is pretty much all that I ask for in a song. It’s got a great arrangement (check that bass! and saxophone!), strong lyrics, a part where you can yell along exuberantly with the band, and melodies I want to sing out loudly with my windows down. It’s just wonderful.
If you’re into indie-pop, you need to know about The Yellow Dress. Faint Music / Ordinary Light is a wonderful album that takes all the idiosyncrasies that make DIY indie-pop great and rolls them together. It’s the first great album of 2014, and I can see myself listening to this one way into the 2014. Happy new year, y’all, and safe travels.
Fans of lo-fi slowcore like Songs:Ohia, Elephant Micah, and old-school Damien Jurado will have something new to cheer about in Tender Mercy. As Someone Else You Embrace the Moment in Us consists of five songs that never get louder than a single fingerpicked guitar, Mark Kramer’s forlorn voice, and tape hiss. The songs are slow, low, and heavy on atmosphere: discerning between the songs is possible (there are breaks in the tape hiss to mark song changes), but it’s not really the best way to enjoy this set of tunes. Instead, it’s best to let it wash over you; there’s enough gentle reverb on the tracks to imagine that you and Kramer are in a big room where he’s singing just to you. If you move too quickly, you’ll miss the tranquil beauty in it.
This is music to experience, not to sing along to or play in the background of your life; the nuances of the individual performances make the tunes what they are. Individual voice warbles, the pluck of one string harder than the last, and the subtle changes in timing that suggest emotions behind the work are all compelling. The songs seem very simple on the surface, but there is depth to be plumbed here. Some variation could be incorporated in future work to help differentiate between tracks, but this release is still great for fans who enjoy more difficult music (i.e. old-school Mountain Goats, Jandek, Silver Jews, et al.).
Australia is my favorite international music scene. The latest thing to fall in my lap from The Land Down Under is the buzzy, friendly power-pop of Major Leagues‘ Weird Season EP. The Aussie quartet plays chipper, female-fronted tunes that strike a nice balance between energetic and chill; you can listen to these tunes while driving, surfing, or while laying around in your backyard. Each activity would bring out a different nuance: the driving rhythm section, the sweet guitar tone, or the laconic vocal delivery. Weird Season is a fun way to remind yourself that it may be winter, but summer’s coming. Actually, it’s summer in Australia. Ponder that.
Aaron Lee Tasjan employs a songwriting style on the Crooked River Burning EP that mirrors with Joe Pug’s newer work: a folk troubadour working with a full band. Both singer/songwriters bring their own unique confidence and internal rhythm to the work, which makes resulting songs an interesting mix of personal and group efforts. The balance works best on “Everything I Have is Broken” and “Junk Food and Drugs,” which give enough space to Tasjan’s voice and guitar that his personality shines through. Both have intricate lyrics, quirky vocal rhythms, and an overall sense of energetic possibility. They would be a blast to sing along with live, certainly. “Number One” is a hushed ballad in Jackson Browne style that surprised me with its depth of emotion and tasteful inclusion of strings; it shows off the best of his solo work. Tasjan has strong songwriting chops, and I look forward to seeing what he puts out after the Crooked River Burning EP. Photo by BP Fallon.
Brook Pridemore’s second video is as much fun as his first one. Punchline: Brook takes his guitar everywhere–really, everywhere. The Mountain Goats-esque power-pop is also awesome.
Kodacrome’s elegant “Strike The Gold” has a perfect video: super-slo-mo of a horse getting ready for a run and then doing it. I can’t even explain how perfect this video is for this song.
In June, I got to see The Postal Service live. It was such an incredible experience that I couldn’t find words to adequately explain it. Instead, The Creators Project got together and made a 14-minute video about PS’s tour. It is beautiful. You should watch all 14 minutes.
When you know the rules, even the decisions you make to break them are made in relation to the rules. Sometimes this results in Jackson Pollock, but mostly it results in field homogenization that takes the mysterious x factor called “genius” to transcend. But if you never knew the rules to begin with, all bets are off–anything can happen.
Sfumato‘s These Things Between… is the folky embodiment of the latter phenomenon. Singer/songwriter Daithí Ó hÉignigh is “essentially a drummer” who decided to write and arrange a complex folk album. As a result, these 11 songs feature all sorts of sounds, rhythms and arrangements that I didn’t expect. I listened to this album for far longer than I usually do when writing a review, because it took a long time for me to figure out what was happening.
Because the homogenization of a field doesn’t just affect what musicians write, it affects how listeners hear. People are in love with Babel because it pulls off all the pop-folk moves perfectly; These Things Between… is a difficult listen for someone conditioned to hear music in that way. Even though the signifiers of folk are present (strummed acoustic guitar, pensive moods, emotive voice), what is a gospel choir doing in “Ostia”? “Mo ghrá” is in Gaelic? “Fly to Me” features a calliope-style organ; “Pound” accentuates unusual rhythms. This is a brain-expander, and goodness knows I need it after the musical candy that is Mumford and Sons, Avett Brothers and The Mountain Goats all releasing albums within weeks of each other.
After an eclectic start, the center of the album is a bit more standard. “The Past” incorporates bass guitar and organ drone in familiar patterns (Decemberists!), while “Song to Myself” shows off a wheezing saxophone in a style similar to Bon Iver’s Colin Stetson. By the end of the album, the unusual arrangements have returned: the title track is a heavily rhythmic tune that relies on conga drums, an unrecognizable instrument and Celtic-inspired strings. Still, the closer is solo acoustic track “I Was Hoping You Might…,” which reminded me of Damien Jurado in its starkness.
These Things Between… is perfectly titled, as its songs walk down the line between familiarity and otherness. There are detours to both sides, but overall it exists in a space that will challenge your conventional listening habits. If you’re into something a little outside your (and my) Mumfordy comfort zone, Sfumato should be one place to check out.
I wrote last June about the cult of greatness that mellow music often defies. Quiet dignity does not win Grammys or end up on year-end lists. (Or does it?)
Summer of Sam’s A-Okay is almost aggressively self-aware about its unassuming station. From the title to the tape hiss to the spare instrumentation, these 8 songs unfold in an uncomplicated way. It genuinely seems like a guy sat down with an acoustic guitar and set out to document his songs. The earnest, authentic feel calls to mind early Mountain Goats or early Iron & Wine: there’s nothing here but song, and song is all that is here.
Lest I become obsessed with form over function, the songs rule. The vocal melodies are memorable, and the songwriter shows a striking aptitude to convincingly elicit multiple moods out of the same guitar while still composing a coherent album. This is so rarely accomplished that even its best attempts are now maligned and under-appreciated. “Like a Rosie” is a pensive, walking-speed folky tune, while “Hoorayhooray” is a pleasant little pop tune. “Everything’s Been Said” foregrounds the vocals and lyrics in a stately and mature piece, while “Lost Highway” features an alt-country weariness. (The only bum moment is the blown-out album closer “Theme,” which leans a bit too heavily on the lo-fi.) None of these songs come off as appropriations or stiff attempts at form; they all feel like different moods of the same man.
Or, put otherwise: I love almost everything about this album.
It’s rare to find a singer/songwriter offering up this much quality songwriting in one release. Summer of Sam’s A-Okay is the sort of album that used to quietly make the rounds, passed from friend to friend. I don’t know if it works like that anymore (who was the last real groundswell singer/songwriter? Bon Iver? Iron & Wine?), but I hope it does for Summer of Sam’s sake. A-Okay is far too brilliant to languish unappreciated.
I have always been fascinated by the idea of artistic output. I want to leave behind a set of things that people look back on and say, “Ah, that’s what he did.” Authors get to put books on a shelf. Musicians take up significant space on people’s iPods or CD books (I still have a CD book. It is a monster). Visual artists leave their works all over the world, inadvertently creating a massive scavenger hunt for the mouth-breathing faithful.
Overall output is impressive to me, like the 20 Mountain Goats albums, dozens of books by John Piper, or prodigious output of some visual artists. But contained output has been an obsession of mine as well. That’s where Chris Hickey’s Razzmatazz comes in. These sixteen songs were “written and recorded (on a hand-held digital recorder) by Chris Hickey in March, 2009 as part of a song-a-day undertaking.” Which means there were probably more where these came from, but I’ll be glad with what I’ve got.
Each of these songs but one features nothing but Chris Hickey’s voice and an acoustic guitar. No overdubs, no cuts. This is pure, unadulterated songwriting. There is nowhere to hide, no room to polish, no time to make the lyrics perfect or craft a perfect bridge to finish out the song. This is a picture of how a songwriter writes. And it is absolutely fascinating.
These songs hover around a minute and a half, with the two longest at two and a half. They somewhat apply to pop structures, although Hickey has no problem destroying rhythm to get a point across. The most memorable instance of this is the hilarious moment on “Kerouac” where he repeats a chord for ten seconds so he can cram about twenty extra syllables into a single line. It’s understandable to me; since he doesn’t have a lot of time to polish his lyrics, the words and rhythms come out raw and unusual. His unedited thoughts and rhythms make this album the fascinating thing that it is.
The songs themselves are as simple as you imagine they would be if you had to write one every day. There are often no more than two parts to a song, and some of them only have one guitar part with different sung parts over it. They generally fall between Jack Johnson pop and Josh Radin folk; there’s lots of fingerpicking and gentle strumming, sometimes fast and sometimes slow. It’s a thoroughly mellow collection of tunes, and it’s great accompaniment for driving on a sunny day.
There are some high highs and low lows, due to the constraints of writing one a day. “Down” is a beautiful, memorable song with a great chorus. “Down a Long Haul” has a jaunty vibe to it that puts a grin on my face. “Shine” is the most complete of all the songs, with full chorus and verses. “Soft Sell” has a gentle groove and benefits from the aforementioned excellent lyrics. The speak-sung, charming “Places to Go” is the highlight of the album, as it is suitably unique, relatable, poppy, and interesting.
There are some entirely weird tracks, like a cappella closer “What You Are,” the out-of-character “A Man is Rich,” and the awkward rhythms of “Nothing is Real.” But those tracks are overshadowed by the excellent tracks.
Razzmatazz is a fascinating, entertaining, engrossing album that allows access to the unfiltered workings of a musician’s writing process. It’s almost like watching an artist paint or a sculptor sculpt. It’s that interesting. Get this if you’re a fan of fingerpicked folk or gentle acoustic pop.
I think every music scene has a local hero. Here in Norman, Okla., it’s Hosty. Hosty has a standing Sunday night gig at the coolest bar/venue in town until “the end of time,” according to the management. If you live in Norman and you haven’t been to a Hosty show, it’s because you’re underage or ignorant. And I have known young’uns to stand outside the venue just to hear it. So really, it’s only the ignorant that don’t love Hosty, because to see him is to love him. He (because he and his music are almost inseparable at this point) is that awesome.
“Spiduh Man”: I like the groove on this song. Weezer meets lo-fi rockers The Mountain Goats. “When I grow up/ I want to be like spider man” (Should I have spelled that ‘spiduh’?). Heavy distortion on the guitar – waves of grungy, garage-rock goodness. Very unfinished sound, which is fitting for them. Slight echo on the vocals.
“Vampiress”: Overall echoing sound, like it’s at the bottom of a well. Vocals here are slightly reminiscent of Creed or maybe Audioslave.
“Gloomy Together”: Slow, rolling bass and acoustic guitar. This one has a slight doom-rock tinge to it. Very heavy sound, almost overpowering in the chorus. Monork To Die doesn’t have very complicated lyrics or instrumental tracks, but it works, I think.
“France”: Kinda relaxed, laid-back sound. It’s present in the entire album, but especially obvious here. More crazy-distorted guitar. Slight dreamy sound. For chorus, something about “Tell momma I’m moving on to France.” There’s a bit of sixties vibe, maybe Beach Boys.
“Weaker”: Starts with drums and acoustic guitar; totally got a Smile Empty Soul sound going on. Raw, emotional, throbbing music. Vocalist has a bit of swagger in his voice, if that makes sense. Still got a Creed/Audioslave thing going. This song is one of the better applications of their sound and tendencies.
“Jenny Don’t Read No More”: Rhythmic guitar and bass, with vocals taking a stronger position than previously. A bit like ’90s punk – simplicity of sound, fun lyrics, etc. Unfortunately short.
“Dark One”: meh.
“Carpet Cleaner”: Borderline metal. Kinda caught me off my guard. “She’s cleaning up my stain,” cute. Much more energetic than the rest of the album.
“The One Thing Under The Sun”: Odd mix of “House Of The Rising Sun” (both the Eagles’ version and the Muse cover, if you were wondering) with southern rock.
Overall, Reason is a good album. Monork To Die has a good thing going with their music; it just needs a little more focus. I’m all for a band trying out different sounds, but not quite this much in a single album. More of the likes of “Spiduh Man,” “France,” and “Jenny Don’t Cry No More,” please.
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.