1. “Goldface” – Tussilago. This indie-pop tune just feels effortless: Tussilago slides along with a bass groove, a low-key dance vibe, and a great melody. It’s the sort of song that you forget when you heard it the first time: it seems timeless, like it’s always been there.
2. “Break the Chain” – Ultimate Painting. Classic popcraft here, hearkening back to songsmiths like McCartney, Lennon, and Nilsson.
3. “No More Hits” – The ZZips. Do you miss slacker acoustic/funk/groove Beck? Hit up the ZZips, who clearly do as well: the clattering beats and gentle acoustic guitar come together via the funky bass and chiming electric guitar.
4. “Firefly” – Jeremy Bass. The press for this says bossa nova, but all I hear is smooth, gentle acoustic pop with a genuine, earnest vocal performance. It sounds like the sun was shining when he wrote this one.
5. “A Weaker One” – The Henrys. Sometimes I just like a song, and don’t want to kill it with definition. Chill out to this calm, excellent acoustic tune.
6. “Mountain” – Crooked House Road. I know Mumford & Sons kinda killed the market on indie-rock/folk fusions, but I’m surprised that more people haven’t taken Nickel Creek’s bluegrass/indie-rock fusion route. Crooked House Road goes that direction, adding in some klezmer flair and dramatic female lead vocals as well.
7. “Austin” – Tyler Boone. There’s some sweet pedal steel action on this modern country tune, featuring (who else?) a down-and-out narrator.
8. “Eastern Time” – Runner of the Woods. Here’s a tune that appeals to all the old-school country vibes that it can: weeping pedal steel, plain vocals, and bouncy piano (with some John Denver twinkles thrown in). It comes together into a swaying, smile-inducing whole.
9. “Our Garden” by Fox Street. If Ray LaMontagne got a little more Needtobreathe Southern rock in his blood, he could have written this tune. Passionate, raspy vocals meet wailing organ in a mid-tempo ballad.
10. “Too Little Too Late” – Mi’das. I’ve been getting a ton of soulful songs thrown my way recently. Mi’das stands above the pack by delivering not just his vocals but his expressive guitar playing.
11. “Money in the Evenings” – Hermit’s Victory. This white-boy slow jam has a Iron & Wine rustic feel (just the vibe, not the arrangement), while maintaining its own flavor through the accents and Tyler Bertges’ unusual, carefree vocals.
12. “Tz, Ka” – Inner Tongue. More soulful slow jams, but with some major synth contributions that give this also a bit of a dance vibe. It’s, at least, super re-mix ready. The head-bobbing vibe is hard to beat on this one.
13. “Sadie” – Gold Star. Slurry, emotional, and passionate, this vocals-led tune dances around the genres of country, slow-core, and singer/songwriter. Whatever you call it, it grabbed my attention immediately.
Magic Giant‘s Free 3-Song EP is the catchiest, funniest, and most fun pop-folk EP I’ve heard in a long time. Not since Twin Forks’ debut has a band had such a laser-guided sense of how melodies catch an ear. But Magic Giant is much more than your average folk-pop outfit. This quartet combines influences from Jason Mraz, Mumford & Sons, Muse, and dubstep to create an irresistible brew.
Muse has long known that the strength of pop music is that the various genres can be infinitely combined, if you spend enough time making the sounds mesh together; Magic Giant is all in on that game. “Let’s Start Again” opens with a trad-style fiddle run, then segues into a Jason Mraz-style alt-pop verse and pre-chorus. The lyrics are both modern and timeless, talking about cell phones and the desire to start over with a lover. Then the chorus explodes in a stuttering sampled horn line, a blaring marching band line, a soaring fiddle, and wub-style synth bass. It seems like it shouldn’t work, but it works perfectly. It’s like Imagine Dragons, but folkier. It’s rave-folk, but it’s not even the best example of rave-folk on the EP. (The fact that there are so many disparate influences coming together is what makes this the “funniest” EP I’ve heard in a while.)
“The Dawn” starts off with Lumineers-style fingerpicking and group harmony vocals before bursting into a full folk-pop arrangement, pulling the arrangement back to pick up the tempo, then turning into full-on Mumford & Sons: banjo, roar vocals, thrashing drums. There are also some synths for atmosphere. It’s tough to explain how effective this song is, because it sounds fully derivative on paper and yet completely exciting in the ear. The last chorus has some more stomping, four-on-the-floor dance beats, but it’s still not the best rave-folk song on this EP.
Finally we get to “Glass Heart,” which is my early candidate (basically, my bar) for song of the year. It starts off with a slow-moving banjo line, doo-wop background vocals, and tape noise for effect. It suddenly transforms by adding a saxophone section (alto/tenor/bari, by the sounds of it) stabbing its way through the verse. The chorus drops a great vocal line, but it’s the next section that makes the song: a jubilant, exultant horn line combined with the techno beat, wub bass, and enthusiastic background vocals (you can guess what they are) that have me waving my hands in the air. Then they layer the chorus over the bridge and seriously I’m in a one-man headphones club.
Rave-folk isn’t a thing yet, but Magic Giant is seriously trying to make it happen. They’re a shoo-in to go on tour with Imagine Dragons, but I daresay they’re more exciting to me than Imagine Dragons. They’re not going to be winning any traditional Americana awards, but I kinda doubt that’s the audience they’re shooting for. If you’re into huge, shoot-for-the-charts pop songs, then Magic Giant should be in your ears. You can get the free EP by signing up for their e-mail list.
Most of the things I choose to review at Independent Clauses are good, even if I don’t explicitly say the words “good” or “excellent” in the review. I try to reserve the words of high praise for works that truly go above and beyond the bounds that a genre has set for an artist. Come On Pilgrim‘s self-titled record clears the folk/indie bar by a long way.
Come On Pilgrim! is the sort of album that I and many others have cultivated a taste for over the past ten years. The folk-inspired acoustic songwriting, interesting arrangements, passionate performances, thoughtful lyrics and memorable melodies all come together to make something more than the sum of its parts. The album is also more than the sum of its predecessors. While the loudest moments are a continuation of the anthemic bent that lead songwriter Josh Caress struck on his last solo release Perestroika, Come On Pilgrim! is the work of a whole cast of musicians who push the best aspects of Caress’ previous LPs to new heights.
“Regenerator” elegantly displays Caress’ progression as a songwriter. The song starts off with a droning organ, reminiscent of the drone that marks the beautiful Letting Go of a Dream. It grows through a long, flowing, emotive section (The Rockford Files) before exploding into a howling finale that excellently incorporates some of the darker indie rock that characterized the back half of Perestroika. The result is a distinctive sound that Josh Caress has been working towards for years: beautiful, relatable, passionate, haunting.
But it’s not all Caress; as previously noted, there’s a whole band here that makes the sound. The keyboards, pedal steel and violin permeate every tune as fundamental elements. An acoustic version of “The Ashes and the Springtime (That Wild Feeling)” could be an outtake from the sparse, finger-picked Goes on an Adventure, but it is enhanced from the get-go with atmospheric pedal steel contributions. Piano carries the chorus; the violin brings in the motif that I can’t escape from this album. Caress later doubles the motif with his voice, but not before female vocals introduce the haunting lyrics: “Don’t you want that wild feeling?”
“The True New Fire” knows the wild feeling. The song takes its time to build into a soaring, wordless vocal line over rumbling toms, unfolding during five minutes. The unhurried songwriting allows each of the instrumental contributions to breathe. The results are breathtaking, like a city dweller seeing the stars in Kansas at midnight for the first time.
While those songs are impressive, the “best” tag goes to the 7 minutes and 40 seconds of “The Secret Songs,” which shows off Caress’s lyrical and vocal abilities in an absolutely gorgeous song. It’s about “That night you came over with your dress torn/and I held you while you cried”; Caress has been telling stories of emotional distress since (at least) Letting Go, but in this one everything comes together perfectly. Caress’s voice creaks in places, but it does so with confidence; the lyrics and tone of his voice sync up to deliver a powerful performance. If finding your voice in writing means coming to grips with your talents and embracing them, Caress has found his lyrical and melodic voices here.
The eight songs of Come On Pilgrim! sprawl over 40+ minutes, making this a listening experience as opposed to a quick hit. The songs are carefully, lovingly arranged, and it shows in the final product. Come On Pilgrim! is easily a highlight of the year, even in a year when Mumford & Sons, The Avett Brothers and Grizzly Bear released albums. I keep coming back to it over and over because it exceeds my expectations for folk/indie in almost every way.
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.