1. “The Tallest Woman on Earth” – Prints Jackson. Jackson’s on a never-ending song-a-month project (this one is month 33), and it seems like it’s only honing his skills: this fingerpicked folk tune is near-perfect. The vocals are engaging, the arrangement keeps morphing and changing, and the whole thing is a “can’t take my ears off it” success. Turn off the video you’re watching and just give this one your full attention: it will reward you.
2. “Still Believe in Love” – Darrin James Band. A spiritual successor to the swift, self-confident protest songs of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, this fingerpicked travelin’ song is a protest anthem and a call for love all at once.
3. “Snake in the Grass” – Autumn Chorus. This a thoughtfully arranged chamber-folk piece with soft, arresting vocals. If you want a jolt, look up the story behind the song. Even if you’re not the researchy type, you can feel the gravitas here.
4. “Penny for Your Thoughts” – Einar Stray Orchestra. It takes chutzpah to put together an indie orchestra in 2016–the economics and logistics of it are just nightmarish. But the music that you can produce: whoa. This piano-led piece is punchy and yet organic, keeping a drumkit, thrumming bass, and pizzicato strings all balanced perfectly. It’s a complex whirligig that doesn’t draw attention to its moving parts and instead shows off the whole, awesome result.
5. “Astrovan” – Mt. Joy. Comes straight out of the SUSTO school of laidback irreverence: chilled-out alt-country that imagines Jesus driving an Astro van (among other things). I’m not on team Astro Van lyrically (“maybe there is no heaven”), but man, the melodic appeal and gentle groove of this song are hard to reject.
6. “Until I Fall Asleep” – Paul Cook & The Chronicles. Who doesn’t love a sub-two-minute acoustic pop lullaby? This one is sweet, kind, and lovely.
7. “Chasing Heights” – Bamik. No genre is ever dead–it just gets harder and harder to do something that’s genuinely riveting without just calling back to old cliches. But it is totally doable, and Bamik demonstrates it by making incredibly engaging folk-pop–that still sounds like Mumford and Sons crossed with Fleet Foxes. But in that juxtaposition is magic, and Bamik finds that magic. Fantastic.
8. “4th of July” – STILLS. The close vocal harmonies and harmonium make this a warm, immersive, intimate folk tune. I love what the harmonium can do for a song, and STILLS put it to great use here.
9. “Rising Men Down” – Kate O’Callaghan. O’Callaghan’s lovely Irish lilt leads this track, as she uses it softly and powerfully throughout the tune. The arrangement is sophisticated and impressive.
10. “Goodbye” – Lucas Laufen. The sound of sheep bleating and wind rustling in the background give this gentle ballad even more pastoral bonafides. Laufen’s voice meshes with the pristine guitar playing beautifully.
11. “Lover After” – Luke De-Sciscio. Fans of Jeff Buckley will appreciate the yearning, ethereal vocals over delicate washes of acoustic notes that compose this emotive tune.
12. “Let Me Down Easy” – Andrea von Kampen. von Kampen has impressive control over her voice, swooping from a dignified near-whisper to a keening wail to an even-handed plea with tremendous ease. This amount of diversity is a mark of songwriting maturity, and this break-up tune has a rare thoughtful quality to it that drives home the idea even more.
13. “Hewing Crowns” – Her Harbour. A solitary, lonesome rumination over a solo piano–the room echo gives the vocal performance even more gravitas than the commanding-yet-vulnerable vocal performance itself brings to the table. Good news for people who like sad news.
Darling Valley is the new name of Accents, a band that reveled in combining all sorts of genres into gleeful, occasionally rocket-powered folk-rock. Darling Valley changed some members along with their name, and as a result Crooked Orchardsis less folk-rock and more Lumineers-style folk-pop. But the quality of the work is still elite: the album is stuffed full of tunes with vocal melodies that I can’t say no to, elite instrumental performances, and enough lyrical poignancy to knock the socks off a skeptic or two. It’s the sort of album that makes you remember why folk-pop was fun in the first place, while showing that the genre can support more than skin-deep sentiments.
Darling Valley now sports three vocalists who trade off lead: two women and one man. Their vocal tones and melodic lines are each different; a traditional country female croon (“Moonshine”), a warm indie female coo (“‘Til Morning”), and a brash folk-rock male tenor (“Make It Right”) each get their own moment to shine. But this isn’t three soloists hogging the spotlight from each other, as they routinely back each other up with elegantly constructed harmonies. Songs like “Who You Hold On To” and “You’ll Go Far, Kid” see them sharing the microphone, trading off lines and harmonies at whim. It kept me on my toes in the best of ways, wondering who was going to come in next.
The melodies that they deliver are diverse: from the weary tone and formal structure of “Moonshine” to the yearning power-pop melodies of “Graces” to the giddy folk-pop choruses of “Widows and Revolutionaries,” there’s an array of sounds in their upbeat work. Their quieter tunes also show pleasant variation. The love song “Written on My Bones” is as earnest and winsome as you would hope, while “Monsters” is a ’50s soul/Motown ballad filtered through a three-part folk harmony. By the time “Half Your Life”‘s anthemic vocal line “You won’t / always love me / like you do now” comes around to close out the album, it’s easy to be accustomed to how cool it is, until they up the ante in a way that’s so engaging that I’m not going to spoil it for you. Suffice it to say, they know their voices and melodies are awesome, and they use them to their best ends on this song (and on the whole album).
This is not to malign the instrumental work, though! Their standard folk-pop set up (acoustic guitar, electric guitar, bass, drums) is augmented by regular appearances of a brass section. Mumford and Sons could have ruined the horn line for them, but Darling Valley’s arrangements are so impeccably done that the horns feel triumphant instead of trite on “Who You Hold On To” and “You’ll Go Far, Kid.” The genre thefts that they so expertly pulled off in their previous incarnation are more subtle this time: “Who You Hold On To” has its giant closing section amped up by a 1-and-3-4 reggaeton drumbeat (for real), “Moonshine” nods more than a little to classic country, and “Monsters” has those Motown vibes. But even when they’re just playing their major-key brand of folk-pop/folk-rock, they show off guitar chops and careful arranging skills. A great example of this is the complex “Graces,” which has a lot more going on than meets the ear at first.
The lyrics also have a lot more happening than you’d expect: Darling Valley is composed of two married couples, so the lyrics skew toward married-people concerns. Oh, there’s still some dating songs on here (“Moonshine,” “‘Til Morning”), but even the dating songs have the weariness of having been around the block a few times. Then you get to the two different apology songs (“Graces,” “Make it Right”), a song favorably comparing a lover to a song on repeat (“Written on My Bones”), and a song about how getting married is sort of terrifying because it involves potentially giving up your dreams (“Monsters,” which has my vote for realest/rawest lyrical confession of 2016 so far), and you’re not in lyrical Kansas anymore.
These are not songs about infatuation; these are serious, grown-up lyrics about serious, grown-up love. You can still read dating into these words: the coda of the album, the repeated line “You won’t / always love me / like you do now,” can mean “You’re going to leave me someday.” However, in the context of the song, it could also mean “your love for me will change and not be the same as it is right now, because we are married and we’re going to be doing this for a long time and I have no idea what this will look like when we’re still doing this in 50 years and that is scary.” Again, real real. If you’d rather have enthusiastic folk-pop about how life is awesome, there’s always “You’ll Go Far, Kid”; but if you’re looking for something else, that’s here too. (“You’ll Go Far, Kid” is fantastic in its own right: vocally and instrumentally, it’s probably my favorite on the record. Its lyrics are hopeful and uplifting, too. But nothing in it is as emotionally lancing as the delivery of “‘Cus all my endings, they came from good intents” on “Make it Right,” or all of “Monsters.”)
I always hesitate to bring too much of myself to reviewing; I’m not a critic looking into music to write something about myself. But sometimes the connection jumps out: the Crooked Orchards of the title might be marriage itself, a joyous thing full of lovely fruit that doesn’t look exactly like I thought it would. In some ways it’s even more amazing than I thought it would be! And in some ways it’s just weird, sort of askew to what I imagined. I wouldn’t ever change it. But I could go back and tell my pre-married self that there’s just some things you can’t know until you’re there. (Also, the album title could just be really pretty words, like “cellar door,” or something else entirely.) Crooked Orchards is a beautiful album: it delves into matters of depth, taking relationships much farther than the standard album. To do so, they deliver incredible melodies and instrumental arrangements. It’s just excellent. Highly recommended.
Jon Solo‘s Ornithology is the chill EP everyone wants to make but not everyone has the skill to pull off. Solo’s comforting voice, gentle arrangements, and careful album construction take the listener on a relaxing journey that is interesting in every track. “Audubon” is the centerpiece of the work, giving a tender retelling of the famed naturalist’s life. Surrounding it are four full tunes plus an intro and an outro that excellently frame the album. “I Don’t Know Why” and “She’s My Rome” are standouts in addition to “Audubon,” the sort of tunes that stick with you afterwards.
Solo uses all the standard tools of delicate folk-pop-indie music (guitar, piano, subtle accompanying instruments), but employs them all with a clarity and confidence that make the tunes pop instead of turn to heard-it-all-before mush. Ornithology is a “walking around Los Angeles with my hands in my pockets” record: one that invites you to wander around and see an extra shine that the music gives to things. It’s a beautiful collection that is very worth your time.
Ark Royal‘s self-titled EP takes a different folk tack: where Jon Solo plays gentle, urban, modern folk, Ark Royal draws from energetic, pastoral, traditional roots.
These Londoners are full of thumping percussion, multipart harmonies, and the sounds of the British Isles: “Delivered” has some early ’00s Brit-pop baked into its soaring arrangement, while “Fork End Road” sounds like Proto-Mumford (I say this approvingly) in its picking pattern, brash vocal style, and vocal melodies. “Penny” is for all the world an Irish ballad (although it appears they wrote this one themselves), while “Humble River” includes rhythmic clapping evocative of Irish and Scottish tunes in the midst of a modern, mid-tempo, piano-led ballad. Whether slow or fast, the tunes are full of life. If you’re into folk music from the UK and parts thereabout, you’ll have a great time listening to Ark Royal.
1. “Days With Wings” – Black Balsam. In a post-Mumford world, folk-pop is seen with some suspicion. Tunes as genuinely engaging and fun as this one should help with the fears of those who are over-banjoed.
2. “Sugar Moon” – Jonas Friddle. Folk-pop can also regain its footing by not taking itself too seriously, and Friddle’s artwork of a man playing a banjo that turns into a pelican by the end of the fretboard is a good start. The tune itself sounds like Illinois-era Sufjan mashed up with a Lumineers track at a Beirut concert. In other words, it pulls from everywhere and ultimately becomes a Friddle tune. Totally stoked for this album.
3. “Star of Hope” – Mairearad Green (feat. King Creosote). Green is what Frightened Rabbit would sound like if they weren’t constantly thinking about death: chipper, major-key, acoustic-led indie-rock led by a vocalist with an unapologetically Scottish accent. It’s just fantastic.
4. “We’ll Live” – Stephen Douglas Wolfe. Wolfe’s tenor voice carries this alt-country tune with great aplomb. The pedal steel also provides a great amount of character here.
5. “Only Time” – Ryan Downey. I know you’re not going to believe this, but this is a multitracked-vocals-and-clapping version of the Enya staple. It seems remarkably honest in its intentions, and it’s remarkably engaging as a result. You think you’ve seen it all, and then…
6. “If I Could Fly Away” – Alan Engelmann. The warm brightness of this acoustic pop song makes me think of the spring with a great longing.
7. “Where Am I?” – Amy Virginia. A clear, bright voice cutting across a stark folk frame makes for engaging listening.
8. “Either Way” – Sorority Noise. We’ve come a long, long way from “Good Riddance” on the punk-bands-with-acoustic-guitars front: Cam Boucher’s musing on suicide and loss is a heartrendingly beautiful, spare tune that can fit right next to any early Damien Jurado track (who, of course, was once a punk with an acoustic guitar).
9. “The Curse (Acoustic)” – The Eastern Sea. An intimate performance of rapid fingerpicking and emotional vocals. Not much more I could ask for.
10. “Prologue” – Letters to You. A gentle, pensive acoustic ditty expands into a beauty-minded post-rock bit.
11. “what if i fall in love (with you)” – Isaac Magalhães. A soothing, nylon-stringed guitar performance matches a bedroom-pop, lo-fi vocal performance to create something deeply personal-sounding. Impressionistic RIYLs: Iron and Wine and Elliott Smith.
12. “Most of the Time I Can’t Even Pay Attention” – Crocodile. An off-the-cuff sort of air floats through this one, as if you showed up at your friend’s house and he was already playing a song, so you let him finish and then you both go off to hang out. The lyrics are a bit heavy, but the soft, kind vocal performance calms me anyway. It won’t ask too much of you, but it gives you a lot if you’re into it. You could end up writing a lot about it, you know?
13. “Pickup Truck” – Avi Jacob. It’s hard to quantify maturity, but it’s sort of a mix between knowing your skills, knowing how to maximize them, and not trying to push beyond that. It’s the “sweet spot.” Avi Jacobs hits it here, putting accordion, piano, fingerpicked guitar, and female background vocals into an arrangement that perfectly suits his just-a-bit-creaky-around-the-edges voice. From the first second to the last, it hits hard. Keep a close watch on Jacob.
1. “Every Fight” – Lost Feeling. This complex, attention-grabbing track provides the electronic drama of a Baths track with more acoustic guitar and strings. Here’s a voice to watch.
2. “Hello Miss Lonesome” – Marlon Williams. Williams’ voice just fits so perfectly over this familiar-yet-strange rockabilly-meets-alt-country sprinter.
3. “Give It Up” – Animal Years. Any band sharing a name with a Josh Ritter album should make folk-rock as gleeful, catchy, and all-around fun as this. I can see myself jumping up and down to this song live.
4. “Oh, K” – Alma. Do you need a ray of acoustic pop-soul sunshine to cut through a gray day? Have this one.
5. “Holy Water” – Ed Prosek. Bear with me on this one, but I imagine this is what Mumford and Sons’ last album would have sounded like if they had not fully rejected their acoustic roots: it’s got high drama, but it’s contextualized in a mellow, lush, developed arrangement (check that choir).
6. “Winter Beat” – Michael Nau. Nau is half of Cotton Jones and–more importantly to me–the man behind Page France, one of Independent Clauses’s earliest loves. This walking-speed, bleary-eyed, Lou Reed-esque jam is a cool turn.
7. “No Stone” – Jenny Gillespie. Gillespie’s voice is wide and expansive, providing a nice tension against the close-cropped, keys-driven indie-pop below it. As a result, the tune has a unique vibe that makes its reference points tough to place.
8. “Darkness in Me” – Eight Belles. There’s a theatrical quality lurking just under the surface of this easygoing acoustic tune: you can find it in the piano, the surging strings, and the little swells at the middle of the song. It pairs nicely with Jessi Phillips’ confident alto voice to create a surprising, compelling track.
9. “The Broken Spoon” – Backyard Folk Club. Mad props for the name actually describing the sound. In addition to sounding like the most fun you can have on the back porch, this band has spoons, too!
10. “Chosen Peace” – Steamboats. We could all use a lot more peace in our lives, and if it’s delivered in a warm folk style, so much the better.
11. “Riot” – Supersmall. “Hello, is this Quiet is the New Loud HQ? Are y’all still open for business? Can we join? Here’s our credentials.”
12. “I Am Trying to Disappear” – Matt Bauer. Fresh, bright, and tentative, like if the lo-fi had been scrubbed out of all those early Iron and Wine records to hear how fragile things get when everyone can hear every bit of your plan. It picks up by the end very nicely, but that first half is delightful.
13. “Hollow Body” – Many Rooms. There’s something raw and powerful about the delicate acoustic exploration of this track.
1. “Old Hope” – Angelo de Augustine. It’s like Elliott Smith is alive. Maybe there’s some Joshua Radin and Nick Drake in there, but mostly the whispered vocals and style of acoustic guitar remind me of Smith.
2. “Amarillo” – Anna Vogelzang. Combine the charm of Ingrid Michaelson with the full arrangements of Laura Stevenson, and you’ve got a little bit of an idea of Vogelzang’s talent. She’s one to watch.
3. “Red River” – Tyler Sjöström. Fans of Mumford and Sons will love this theatrical, finger-picked folk-pop tune.
4. “Forever Gone” – Andrew Marica. The morose romanticism of Damien Rice + the distant reverb-heavy atmospherics of Bon Iver create this downtempo ballad.
5. “Delilah” – Tony Lucca. This one’s pretty boss: Wide-open, sneering, engaging full-band country-rock with an eye toward Coldplay-style, radio-friendly vocal melodies. Also, there’s some awesome saloon-style piano playing.
6. “Angel Tonight” – Peter Galperin. Musical adventurer Galperin moves from his bossa nova experiments towards ’80s country-flavored classic rock. There’s some Springsteen, some Paul Simon, and more all combined here.
7. “Time” – Night Windows. Acoustic-based indie-pop a la David Bazan that teeters on the edge between twee and melancholy.
8. “I Got Creepy When Lou Reed Died” – Red Sammy. The husky, gravel-throated country of Red Sammy gets an electric makeover for this tribute tune. The title a weird thing to chant, but you’ll probably want to sing along repeatedly to the mantra-esque chorus.
Trebuchet’s “The End” is a magnificent song: a synthesis of everything we’ve learned from The Lumineers, Mumford and Sons, and The Head and the Heart. Instead of being derivative, it feels like they’ve finally unlocked the pattern. The video is fun too.
The Wild Reeds’ “Blind and Brave” is a love letter to Los Angeles in song and video. Their female-fronted folk sound starts in pristine First Aid Kit mode, but swells to a lovely, full conclusion.
Brian Lopez’s “Persephone” video is the sort where I started watching and forgot that the song was playing. It’s a visually interesting piece that tells a good story, and also is accompanied by some great folky music.
Matthew Fowler walks down a city street, strumming and singing. He happens to come across his trumpet player. Great things ensue. His calm, composed songwriting makes me think of Damien Rice’s quietest moments or Rocky Votolato.
Justin Klump‘s three-song release The Night Is Young delivers fresh-faced folk-pop with a strong ear for gentle arrangement. Instead of taking the Mumford-esque “shout it out” method, Klump finds kindred spirits in early work by both The New Amsterdams and Joshua Radin: strong melodies that work their way into your heart by charm, not by force.
The title track does eventually get a bass drum thumping as a pulse, but it’s not invasive; it feels like a heartbeat that the accordion, cello and guitar play over. I was reminded also of a less frantic Twin Forks in the interplay between the woah-ohs and the instrumental arrangement. “Slow Life Down” and “Pictures and Stains” both lean on tender, romantic emotions; they’re lovely as a result. Klump knows how to use his voice to best effect, and he frames his vocal melodies beautifully with the trappings you’d expect: banjo, glockenspiel, reverb-heavy piano. It doesn’t have to be groundbreaking to be excellent; Klump is working within a framework and doing a great job of it.
I love it when I find calm, beautiful, well-arranged work. If you’re into the sound of earnest, tender folk-pop or the moods and lyrics of adult alternative pop, you’ll find much to love in Justin Klump’s The Night Is Young.
Arkansas folk-pop outfit Little Chief is shiver-inducingly good. Lion’s Den is a strikingly cohesive, mature, and assured work for a debut album from a young group of musicians.
Little Chief skews toward Mumford and Sons’ style of straightforward songcraft, but they do in a vastly less percussive style. The band softens the edges of everything, from gentle guitar strum to cello inclusions to melodic group vocals instead of shouted ones. The result is a collection of songs that work their way into your long-term memory in a very unassuming manner. I’ve been humming Little Chief tunes long after I heard them, and it drives me back to the album.
Their gentle touch makes every high higher than it would be, because it feels non-obvious and genuinely celebratory. These aren’t party songs, they’re songs of jubilation. “Brighton Shore” and “Shiloh” are both tunes that take feelings of loss and hardship and transform them. This album is deeply concerned with carrying on through trouble, and their humble approach to songcraft displays that earnest emotion.
“Mountain Song” and “Lion’s Den” show the arranging prowess of the band. “Mountain Song” has a long, gorgeous instrumental intro, while the full-song crescendo of “Lion’s Den” is punctuated by an excellent cello part, well-timed drums, and tasteful brass. This band has chops–it knows when to use them and when to let simplicity be.
If you’re into folk-pop, Lion’s Den is a must-listen. It has the emotive heft of The Head and the Heart, the arrangements of early Fleet Foxes, and melodies galore. It’s astonishingly confident for a debut album, but I’m not questioning it: if it’s good, it’s good. Highly recommended.
It’s a common problem that bands will find a sound they’re good at and hit it until their audience is just sick of it. Grover Anderson handles that problem by playing songs in vastly different genres, somehow managing to avoid sounding like a tourist or faker in any of them. Frantic murder ballads, love ballads, jilted lover electric blues, back-porch pickathon shout-it-outs, brilliant country tunes, and downtempo minimalist all hang out on The Optimist. It’s a credit to Anderson’s skills that each of them sounds natural. It makes for an odd listening experience as a collection of tunes (multiple people die, multiple people get married–sometimes in close quarters), but each individual song is worthwhile.
Given my personal predilections, I’m more interested in the bluegrassy “Pick Up Your Horn” and the Bon Iver-esque “Grindstone” than in the Mraz-style love songs “When You Come Near” and “Enough.” But the gentle fingerpicking of breakup tune “Dancing Slow” calls to mind the weighty work of Ray LaMontagne, which seems to be the antithesis of Jason Mraz in my mind.
All of this love in stark contrast to “The Lampolier” and “Philip Marshall Cates,” both of which are intense murder ballads, the likes of which I haven’t heard in a very long time. To start with, “The Lampolier” is an incredible piece of lyricism, as Anderson puts together an intriguing, eerie story through a very structured rhyme scheme. Amid this complexity, Lampolier delivers a masterful vocal performance that sees him ratchet from a gentle speak/sing to outright desperate hollering. I still get shivers when Anderson roars wordless distress three minutes in. The band is a runaway coal train behind him, pressing the song forward to its inevitable end. It’s the single and the opener, and it doesn’t take many brain cells to decide that both were excellent decisions. “Philip Marshall Cates” isn’t as electric in its convictions, but it’s another death ballad that sits in stark contrast to the love songs.
Also, “Little Spoon” is my favorite love song released this year. Some love songs are huge, sweeping announcements of love–others focus on the little, pedestrian parts of love that make it so wonderful, like drinking Blue Moons together, spooning, and spending time together. Anderson’s tune is the latter.
So Anderson’s got a ton going on in this album, being a lot of things to a lot of people. But no matter who you are, it’s hard to ignore that Anderson’s songwriting skill is great. I look forward to seeing how he adapts and focuses his skills in upcoming work (or not). If you’re into people who play acoustic guitars, Grover Anderson has something for you.
Is folk a mindset or a sound or both? The answer Accents’ Tall Tales provides is a giant yes to all. The album is built out of fingerpicked guitar and emotive vocals, expanding from that foundation into genres like folk orchestra (jubilant opener “Hold Me Close”), indie rock (the pensive “Artist in Denial”), and even pop-punk (the impressive “I Wasn’t Looking for You”). Some tracks forsake the folk backdrop and just start out in other genres: the excellent, hopeful ’90s pop of “Reminders”; the anthemic Mumfordy folk of “England Awaits”; the noisy indie-rock-with-horns of “Heart in My Room.”
But even through all these genres, the album holds together excellently; it’s that folk mindset coming through. Accents decided that if you want everything, they can give it to you: guitar rock, orchestration, female vocals, male vocals, hushed songs, brash songs, catchy songs, thoughtful songs, big riffs, the whole nine yards. There’s a pipeline between pop-punk and folk-pop; Accents is the house band for that pipeline. This is a brilliant accomplishment that in lesser hands would be a disjointed mess. Tall Tales is very worth your time.
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.