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.
1. “Finally Happy” – Exzavier Whitley. A major key fingerpicking job that strongly evokes Nick Drake’s work is paired with some heavy lyrics. Delivered by Whitley’s breathy tenor and placed in the context of the guitar work, they aren’t quite as sad as just reading them on a page would be, but they’re still pretty heavy.
2. “Jumping Ship” – Theo Kandel. Lots of people can throw their voice around, but Kandel uses tonal and dynamic shifts carefully (and thus expertly) to take this singer/songwriter tune to the next level.
3. “The Reason for Living” – The Folk Today Project. A short, sweet, simple folk tune that employs a great stand-up bass and solid contributions from the rest of the band.
4. “6 Shots” – Kate Brown. The strum presses forward relentlessly, while the vaguely Celtic strings pull back on the reins. Brown’s alto splits the difference excellently, walking through the tension comfortably and confidently. By the end, Brown has turned in a pretty powerhouse performance vocally.
5. “Silver Mountain” – Adora Eye. The immediate vocal performance and insistent piano call up comparisons to serious folk singers like Josh Garrels and Chris Bathgate. The vibe here is serious, but not so much that there isn’t a bit of swaying that can be done by the listener.
6. “Already Gone” – Wild Rivers. A male/female duet powers this folk-pop tune that sounds like it can scratch the itch left behind by the demise of The Civil Wars.
7. “Teenage Crime” – Rod Ladgrove. Beachy acoustic jams are an intrinsic part of summer, and Ladgrove’s contribution on that front has the mystique of “crime” thrown in on top of a relaxed-yet-carefully-arranged atmosphere.
8. “Catching Elizabeth” – Carter Vail. Here’s another beach-friendly adult alternative pop tune that sounds like a mix between Jack Johnson and James Taylor. There’s a spark in here that sets it apart from the hundreds of other tunes that bear similar explanations; it’s got some groove that keeps me into it.
9. “Blue and Gray” – O.B. Howard. Pizzicato strings provide a contrast to the hazy, relaxed acoustic indie-pop and transform the track into a wonderful piece of lazy-day hammock music.
10. “Last Light” – Maurice Van Hoek. Traditional country is going through a moment right now, and Maurice Van Hoek’s offering continues that old-school vibe with earnest vocals, strong melodies, tender keys, and weeping pedal steel. If you’re on that Sturgill Simpson / Chris Stapleton train, hit this one up.
11. “Can You Tell” – Bird Concerns. The major key folk aesthetics of Blind Pilot meet a West Coast indie-pop sensibility to create a light, enjoyable tune that’s actually about a breakup. Who would have guessed, from the sound?
Underlined Passages‘ The Fantastic Questis a grower: an album that doesn’t hit you with the same force the first time as it does the second, third or fourth time. In our attention-deficit culture, there’s not as much love for growers as there used to be, so I’m proud to be giving a shout-out to Underlined Passages’ second record on Mint 400 Records. (Full disclosure: I told Michael Nestor of Underlined Passages about Mint 400 Records.)
Instead of traversing the boundary between emo and dream pop as in their previous work, Quest falls firmly in the indie rock camp, anchored by ever-present guitars, firm drumming, and evocative vocal melodies. Tunes like “Everyone Was There” have an up-tempo approach that recall Jimmy Eat World more than American Football, with the guitars churning away (without getting too gritty). Other tunes like “Arabesque” set the guitars against the bass and drums in a tension–the production emphasizes the drumming without pushing it too far up in the mix. This choice gives the album a tight, cohesive feel.
The vocals are one of the main parts of the growing–at first Nestor’s vocal lines seem to blend in too well with the instruments, but subsequent listens adjusted my ear to the arrangement and started to draw me in to his unadorned, non-ostentatious vocal style. I found myself humming the vocal melodies after the second and third listen.
The Fantastic Quest is an unfussy, unpretentious album that reveals layers of careful thought over multiple listens. From the songwriting to the performances to the production, the work has charms for those who listen closely. Take some time with Underlined Passages; don’t be surprised if they win you over.
Supersmall‘s Silent Moon has a distinctly British feel, despite being a NYC-based duo. (Vocalist/songwriter Colin Dempsey is Irish, but that’s not the same.) It might be the formal pop angles on the songwriting, or perhaps the confident dignity with which the vocals are delivered. Maybe it’s the ability to convey emotion without getting maudlin.
Whatever it is, Supersmall know how to write walking-speed, acoustic-led tunes that wouldn’t feel out of place in a charming/quirky indie film. The duo leads off with “A Better Life,” which features perky strumming, joyous trumpets, peppy drumming, and a distant organ for color. If Beirut stripped out its world music aspirations, this sprightly work might be what resulted.
The tune is a fine primer for the release, which includes the Nick Drake-ian guitar vibe and beautiful vocal melodies of “Silent Moon” and “Siren,” the major-key folk of “Riot,” and the country-esque “Home.” There are some more serious tunes, but Supersmall is at their best when they’re creating major-key work with an eye toward thoughtful arrangements and careful pop elements. Silent Moon is where elegant meets excitable with an acoustic guitar in its hand–in other words, it’s worth the time of a wide swath of music listeners, from indie-pop lovers to hardcore acoustic fans.
100 Watt Horse’s It May Very Well Dois an experimental folk/indie-pop release: it’s one fifteen-minute track with interludes connecting various sections that are distinct enough to elsewhere be called songs. The duo incorporate tape hiss, nature sounds, acoustic guitars, distant synths, modulated vocals, static, and more into their inventive, attractive amalgam.
The opening salvo features precise, measured guitar work and a dreamy female vocal line before unfolding into the sounds of a swamp as a transition to a hazy indie-pop section. A woozy guitar line is matched by a leisurely male/female duet and balanced by a steadfast drumbeat and bass line. It all feels very open, raw, and natural–even when it transitions into a power-pop tune a la The Cars. I could go on explaining the release, but that should be enough to hook your interest and not spoil all the surprises (we’re about a third through the release at this point).
Suffice it to say, 100 Watt Horse has a lot of ideas, the talent to pull them off, and the skill to arrange it all into one impressive sitting. If you’re up for clever, intricate, thoughtful work from people pushing their own boundaries (and maybe yours), check this one out.–Stephen Carradini
Young Legs‘ Promise of Winter starts off in summer with the uber-perky “Resolution” but travels through the seasons to the depth of winter by the close of the album. During the journey, Steven Donahue shows off deft control of mood and impeccable melodic skill. These tunes circle the central node of Donahue’s confident, breathy voice: whether it’s employed in a frantic, minor-key indie-rock tune [“Ring of Salt (Youth Culture Dummy Version)”], a major-key jangle-rock tune (“The Apple Stem”), a banjo-led folk tune (“Book of the Lethe”) or a complex a capella venture (“Northfield”), Donahue’s voice shines. (Wiry, quirky, zooming synthesizers appear in several well-chosen spots, giving this a friendly, unusual texture.)
Even though there are a wide variety of styles here, the core of the album is composed of Donahue’s voice and a guitar. “Goodbye, John Ryle,” “Round the Root,” and “Seasons of Giving” fall firmly within the folk camps, ranging from Nick Drake-ian lightness (“Round the Root”) to Songs: Ohia gloominess (particularly as you go farther into the album). The melodies throughout each style are compelling, showing that Donahue isn’t a one-trick pony. From whispery folk to brash indie-rock, the songwriting here never falters. It’s a charming release, through and through. Anyone who’s into acoustic-led indie music will have a field day with Promise of Winter.
Battle Ave.‘s Year of Nod is the opposite of Young Legs’ wide-ranging genre fiesta: instead, it’s a laser-focused exploration of a particular sonic space. Jesse Alexander and co. have made an album that explores the whispery, sleepy, eerie spaces in-between dusk and dark, or between dark and dawn. This is the sort of thing that the phrase indie rock was built for: it’s got the underlying assumptions of rock, but it’s not taking them in a stereotypically riff-bound, v/c/v structure. Alexander’s weary, wailing voice fits perfectly with these tunes, from the perky “Summer Spear” to the intimate, quiet “Helen (This Isn’t Meant to Offend).”
Everything in between those sonic poles (“Zoa,” “In Evil Hour,” “Say Say Oh Enemy”) plays with the tension between hissing found sound, misty ambient noises, and traditional indie-rock vibes–the 7-minute “Zoa” includes both an upbeat clapping section and an arhythmic melancholy interlude that is best characterized by Alexander’s wordless sighs and vocal noises. Battle Ave. has both of these things inside themselves, and the resulting tunes are the tension between them. Year of Nod is a frequently elegant, occasionally dissonant, always interesting indie-rock album–those interested in thoughtful, careful sonic art would do well to check this out.
As I’ve been listening to Nettles‘ work (and relistening; Locust Avenue is a grower), one phrase keeps impressing itself upon me: “ominous flutes.” Sometimes the adjective varies, as “violent,” “dissonant,” and “eerie” have come to mind as well. Whichever modifier you choose, it’s an odd pairing with the word “flute.” But the stark contrast of the term could be a synecdoche of the album: this is a slow, rolling, pastoral album in the vein of Songs:Ohia, but it’s also a heavily-arranged album with complex textures that border on the chaotic.
You don’t hit the flutes right away: opener “Annuals” actually has more in common with Nick Drake than Jason Molina, as the fingerpicking guitar style is much more in line with the former than the latter. Guion Pratt’s straight-forward, earnest timbre calls up the Magnolia Electric Co. singer, however. “Brando” has some choppy strum that is reminiscent of Molina; paired with the vocals, there’s a strong connection to slow-core style (even though the song is fast). And, yes, the flutes come in. They’re not as ominous as they will be, but they show up. The album unfolds: it doesn’t throw everything at you at once.
It’s “Body Inside Out” where the flutes really start to work their magic. The tune is a darker one than the first two: still pastoral in its delicate piano and roving melodic lines, but with some darkness creeping in around the corners. By the middle, the flutes, generally used for airy support, are giving me the heeby-jeebies. That tension is real. It’s the sort of thing that draws you in.
The title track most clearly takes up the slowcore motifs, spinning out a patient, pause-filled song. Again, the tension between beauty and ominousness is present throughout, drawing me in. This time it’s not flutes (they are there!), but the back-and-forth between the guitar and the silence that punctuates. By the end of the seven-minute track, the guitar, vocals, percussion and flutes all come together to create the sort of quiet roar that comes of being fully involved in a quiet piece of music.
The rest of the album follows in suit: acoustic guitar, flute, and occasional other contributing instruments deliver tunes that range from well-developed, fully-arranged pieces (“The Quarry,” “Rogue Body”) to eerie minor-key pieces (“The Knot”) to slow-burners (“Pyramid of Skulls”). Pratt’s voice is a calming guide through the landscapes he builds, and the overall results are unique and interesting. Locust Avenue is an album that requires multiple listens, but if you give it the time it asks for, it will show you treasures.
December is a tough month to release music: you’ve got orgs like Paste that have already released their year-end lists by the beginning of the month, blogs that are trying to clear out the files from November (or October, or September) to get all their 2014 commitments done, and listeners who are re-living the year instead of hearing new tunes. You should probably just wait till January. But if you don’t, and your release is really good, you might sneak one in under the radar. Morgan Mecaskey is 100% radar sneaking, because anyone who sounds like Sharon Van Etten fronting The National in an eclectic record store is going to get some good words from this camp.
Lover Less Wild is an adventurous, sultry, enigmatic EP that captured me on first listen. Mecaskey’s husky alto/tenor voice leads the charge on music that skirts boundary labels and ends up firmly in that catch-all camp of “indie rock.” Opener “White Horse” has soaring horns, female back-up vocals, churning guitars, push-tempo drums, and some royal fury in the vocals of Mecaskey herself. It sounds like she mentions the name “Jolene” in the chorus, which would hook her up to a long tradition of artists to find an admirable muse in that name. By the coda of the tune, Mecaskey is hollering “Sometimes I don’t feel like who I really am,” which is amazing, because she sounds completely like herself on that tune.
It’s followed up by three tunes that are a few notches down on the tour-de-force scale (but only a few; they all register). “Fighting Extinction” starts out as a distant, questioning mix between The Walkmen and Radiohead before erupting into some funky bass (?!), calling out some Motown horns, and bringing in a male vocalist for a contentious, exciting duet. It also includes the best saxophone solo this side of M83. Because it’s hard for Morgan Mecaskey to do anything twice, the title track opens with Wurlitzer and distant vocals before unfolding into a jazzy, hip-hop/R&B groove. Right about the time that I start to feel we should call up the Antlers and get them on the same tour, the song explodes into towering guitar walls and distorted bass. “Crushed” starts with nylon-string guitar in Spanish rhythms and ends with a full choir (a real one, not just a gang-vocal offering). In short, there is about as much happening in four songs as you can possibly imagine.
Mecaskey holds this whirlwind tour of music genres and styles together with her voice, which is a versatile, powerful, emotive engine. No matter what arrangement she’s leading, she’s in firm control of what’s happening. Her voice is at home wherever she lands it, which is as much a testament to her attitude and confidence as it is her immense songwriting chops. I don’t care if you’re listening to your favorite album of the year again (I know I am, no hate), you’ve got to check out Morgan Mecaskey’s Lover Less Wild. It will keep you spinning.
James Robinson‘s Start a Fire EP is a charming four-song release. Robinson’s acoustic-centric style fits somewhere between singer/songwriter confessionals and adult-alternative pop sheen, like a more mystical Matt Nathanson or a more polished Damien Rice. This mash-up results in the best of both worlds (instead of the dreaded inverse), with Robinson’s smooth vocals getting all silky around arrangements that have some indie mystery and ambiguity in them. Think less Ed Sheeran crooning and more of that feeling you felt the first time you heard Coldplay’s Parachutes.
The quartet of tunes works nicely together, moving along a high-quality clip without drawing attention to any song in particular. “Demons” has some great bass work and a nice, memorable vocal line; “Holes in the Sky” opens with some nice guitar and vocals that evoke Jason Mraz; “Smoke & Ashes” is the most tender of the collection. But it’s the title track that takes high marks here: its polished arrangement frames Robinson’s voice perfectly, making this an impeccably done song that you’ll be humming for a while. If you’re looking for some gentle singer/songwriter fare with some mystery in it, go for James Robinson.
Any discussion of Angelo De Augustine‘s Spirals of Silence must be prefaced by this information: de Augustine sounds, musically, vocally, and even lyrically, like Elliott Smith mashed up with Nick Drake. For many people, this is enough to send them running in its direction. I forwarded this to the resident Smith fan in my life and was promptly given compliments on my character after his first listen. It’s a hit.
But it’s not just that it sounds like Smith: the songs are incredibly well-done. de Augustine has the fingerpicking/breathy vocals/tape hiss thing down, but the things he chooses to fingerpick are beautiful, contemplative, melodic works that move sprightly along. Lead single “Old Hope” is a perfect example of this, as de Augustine whispers his way across a traveling, bouncy-yet-not-cheesy guitar line. (Side note: because this song sounds like Josh Radin, I realized that I’d never noticed how much Elliott Smith influenced Josh Radin.) Other highlights include the oddly heartbreaking “Married Mother,” the tender “I Spend Days,” and the intriguing “You Open to the Idea.”
I could say more about Spirals of Silence, but I think I’ve said all I need to in order to get you to listen to this or not. Viva Angelo de Augustine, please and thank you.
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.
The best songs move me. The best music videos take the best songs and make them even more powerful. Andrew Judah, already one of the most inventive and creative songwriters I’ve discovered this year, just dropped an absolutely astonishing video for “I Know You Know” that ranks high among the best I’ve seen this year and this decade.
Exzavier Whitley’s “How Will You Be” channels Nick Drake, Alexi Murdoch and other chill fingerpickers of note. Don’t sleep on Exzavier Whitley–he’s got huge talent.
Kye Alfred Hillig performs his song “Ex” as part of an a capella trio, making the already excellent song even more haunting and unique. Hillig, people. HILLIG. GET ON HIS LEVEL.
Stellar power-pop band Bishop Allen with only 14,000 views? WHAT IS THIS?! Give them your view. You will not be disappointed.
Ty Maxon‘s music is beautiful. It was gorgeous in 2009’s Furthest From the Tree, and it’s still so in this year’s Calling of the Crows. Maxon plays intricate acoustic tunes that can be categorized as folk, but their appeal transcends those looking for rustic purity of sound. Furthest had a knowing, distanced, Nick Drake-esque whimsy to it; Calling has a much more intimate, Damien Jurado-esque vibe. The wink is gone, replaced with a wry smile.
This lends the album a mellow, gentle feel. No track here is particularly fast, nor is any one track given inordinate attention. These tracks are all on equal footing, each taking their place in the album and contributing. Some may say that the cascading notes and easy-going tempos don’t change enough from tune to tune, but I like the consistency here. The album comes together to be a unified musical statement, and that’s rare in this day and age. Harmonica, drums and more make occasional appearances, but generally this is the province of Maxon’s voice and guitar. Both don’t get too loud or intense, and instead unveil depth and beauty.
If you’re into stately, gently emotive folk, you’ll be all over this. A perfect lazy porch, gentle rain, hammocking Sunday in the fall would definitely include Calling of the Crows.
My perception of music is inextricably tied to seasons. I can’t hear Bon Iver’s self-titled without at least pining for a “good winter,” and MGMT’s Oracular Spectacular is quintessential summer listening. The fall listening is dominated by the heartbreakingly gorgeous Nick Drake album Pink Moon.
Annie Crane‘s Jump With a Child’s Heart is also fall listening, not in small part because the delicate acoustic constructions owe a structural debt to Drake. At her best, Crane produces gently rolling songs of peace and quiet wonder from her guitar. The tasteful strings (“You & Me & The Evergreen,” “Copenhagen Heart”) only draw more comparisons.
Her lilting, Celtic-inspired voice is prone to soaring. It’s quite beautiful, and she knows it: when she tosses off words quickly and casually during “Salinger Said,” the variation is so surprising and welcome that the tune becomes a highlight of the album. Crane also adds some force to her delivery in the exciting, vaguely sinister “Lookin’ Out.” There’s nothing wrong with having a gorgeous set of pipes, but using them the same way the whole album makes for a charming beginning and a tedious middle.
Crane does mix up her arrangements, however: Background vocals, steel guitar, stand-up bass, trumpet, sparse percussion and even some clapping on “Money Only Hates Me” spice up the tunes.
Jump With a Child’s Heart has a gentle walking pace to it, only enhancing my desire to stroll down a path shaded by trees with leaves turning while playing the album. This is a very good album: Annie Crane has clearly established a recognizable modus operandi. In the future she will need to introduce people to other sides of her (and her voice) while retaining that clarity of mood and construction which makes her best music so engaging. The album drops October 4.
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.