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.
The three songs of Nevernames by Silences hold intimacy and expansiveness in close quarters due to impressive songwriting and an incredible production job. Silences’ sound fits neatly at the intersection of Grizzly Bear’s arrangements, Fleet Foxes’ casual vibes, and Death Cab for Cutie’s vocal styles; this makes for songs that are incredibly easy to listen to but also challenging enough to like with your hipster hat on. If you sometimes turn on music and want it to hug you, Silences might be your band. “Santa Cruz” culminates in soaring beauty that will make you want to hit repeat; “Emma” is inspired more by hushed Iron & Wine folk. It’s a very impressive outing from a band I hope to hear much more about.
The humble, earnest simplicity of Pop and Obachan‘s female-fronted singer/songwriter work reminds me of Waxahatchie. I get that comparison in early, because these raw, quiet tracks have that hard-to-qualify x factor that makes this really worth hearing and not just another person with a guitar. Is it the endearing vocal delivery? Is the vocal melodies? Is it the use of strummed banjo? I don’t know what it is, but I heard Unfurl and immediately said, “yes. that.” If you love the feel of punk bands that slowly turn into alt-country bands and then into straight-up folk-singers (you know who they are), then you’ll love the vibe of Pop and Obachan.
The Debonzo Brothers‘ Carolina Stars does pop-rock that reminds of early 2000s bands like Grandaddy, Vertical Horizon, and the non-“Stacy’s Mom” things Fountains of Wayne did (and yes, they did plenty of those). There’s guitar crunch with some dreamy arrangement layered on it, plenty of emotional angst, but also a warm vibe that keeps this aimed at pop. The five tracks of Carolina Stars are catchy but also invested with sonic depth that keeps things interesting after multiple listens. The title track and “More than This” capture their vibe really well.
Cereus Bright combines acoustic pop and folk in a way that doesn’t diminish either tendency. The band plays really bright, cheerful songs that feature mandolin in a way that sounds like a mandolin (not just like a mandolin playing a guitar part). Oddly, the one sad track is the title track of Happier Than Me. If you’re a fan of Nickel Creek, Cereus Bright will have you tapping your toes, singing along, and recommending them to friends. Not everyone can balance pop and folk without skewing toward one or the other, but Cereus Bright does an impressive job of it. “Stella” in particular will perk your ears.
Reina Del Cid has a rare melodic gift. Her 10-song release with The Cidizens is titled blueprints, plans, and each song features one absolutely stunning vocal melody after another. She could have made any song on the whole album the single, and they all would have been just as effective at showing off that Reina Del Cid can write unforgettable tunes. Her pop-folk/bluegrass-lite makes great use of traditional sounds, rhythms and instruments to float her brilliant vocal melodies, from the condescending “Pretty Lie” to the forlorn “Expiration Date” to the striking “Brutal Love.” All of these tunes are mixtape-worthy, which is incredibly unusual. If you’re into anything from Jason Mraz to Nickel Creek to Ani Difranco, you’ll find something to love in Reina Del Cid and the Cidizens. And if you like all of them, then you’re in for a treat.
David Ullman lets you know exactly what you’re going to get immediately. Ullman opens Light the Dark with a single sharp acoustic guitar strum and a howl of, “This is my cry in the dark!” As the rest of “Who You Say” unfolds, it becomes very clear that Ullman comes from the Damien Rice school of singer/songwriters, where hearing the tension and struggle in the vocals is a large part of the charm. Light also features instrumentation similar to Rice’s, with acoustic guitar, piano, strings and vocals taking up the lion’s share of the work. Ullman’s voice is grittier than Rice’s, making some of the tunes here positively punishing on his vocal chords. The lyrics deal with struggle and tension in religious themes, so there’s fertile ground for crescendo and catharsis. If you’re into gritty, powerful singer/songwriter fare, Light the Dark will be right up your alley.
The strength of hunters.’white lies is the interplay between easygoing alt-country vibes and the impressively descriptive lyrics. From describing a picturesque summer evening in standout “Ft. Lee, VA” to chronicling the life and times of the titular character in “Ambulance Chaser,” vocalist Rosa Del Duca nails the lyrics. She has strong control over her voice as well, lending these tunes a knowing, confident air. White Lies is fun to listen to on all levels, as hummable melodies, interesting arrangements, and memorable lyrics abound. This seven-song release is very worth your time.
I associate Damien Jurado with fragile, delicate folk, so it’s no surprise that my favorite tunes on Maraqopa are the quietest. “Working Titles” pairs a gentle ukulele strum with swooning backup vocals and very high steel drum notes (no foolin’) to create a swaying, beautiful tune. “Museum of Flight” depends on Jurado’s falsetto to sell the dreamy tune, and it works out perfectly. The rest of the album is a bit noisier, moving almost over into the dream-pop/indie-pop realm instead of the singer/songwriter genre that he established himself in. It’s definitely a unique sound that new fans may enjoy and embrace. It’s a tough sell for this old-school fan, though.
One of my best friends and I are huge folk fans. We share some of the same loves (Josh Ritter, Simon and Garfunkel, Iron and Wine), but we diverge pretty hard at one point: he’s a big fan of the British folk sound, and I’m a big fan of the American folk sound. The British folk sound has a very open sound: capturing the sound of rolling hills on the English countryside, the music often abounds with flutes, mandolin, and other optimistic sounds. American folk has a much less optimistic air about it; Dylan’s strum-heavy protest songs and Simon and Garfunkel’s world-weary pop/folk tunes set the stage for the depressing world that American folk resides in.
The Points North take a distinctly British approach to folk, although they hail from Boston. Accordion, flute, delicately fingerpicked guitar, piano, mandolin and more permeate the sound, creating a rollicking sound. But even though these songs are charming, melodic, and sunny, they never become less weighty. Page France was one of the only other bands I know of that was able to capture the balance between giddy music and serious content. And The Points North don’t geek out on a Michael Nau-esque level; they’re much more tempered than that. Stately, as the Brits might say.
If Sufjan Stevens were a little more obsessed with flute, he could have written “Cape Tryon”; the background vocals and general feel of the song would have fit perfectly on Illinoise! If the Low Anthem cracked a smile every now and then, they would be happy to claim the elegaic accordion intro of “I Awoke a Child.” If Nick Drake had found friends to play with him, he could have written half these songs, from the peculiar picking rhythm of “Ever Bright White” to the carefree feel of “Tires & the Pavement.” There are elements of Nickel Creek’s joyful pop (minus the bluegrass), and Novi Split’s goofy swooping musical instruments.
Although I’ve spent most of this album saying who the Points North sound like, that’s not to their discredit. This isn’t an album that causes me to wince every time I hear a musical familiarity. On the other hand, these references (intentional or otherwise) cause excitement and increase enjoyment. The sound isn’t as intimate as my favorite folk bands, due to the myriad of sounds going on, but that’s not what The Points North were shooting for.
The Points North’s I Saw Across the Sound is a unique release, written and recorded with clarity of idea. It’s a very distinctive brand of folk that draws off all the aforementioned bands, but copies none of them. Quite enjoyable and talented.
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.