1. “Hypachoi” – The Project. A thrumming distorted bass riff underlines this song, which moves from a spartan tune punctuated by clanking chains into a crunchy, towering, dramatic piece. The lyrics are a passionate re-telling of Christ’s death and resurrection. Happy Easter!
2. “Trucksea (feat. Dean McGrath)” – Nonsemble. This indie-pop chamber orchestra packs “Trucksea” full of fluttering strings, dramatic cello, grounding keys, perky drums. The vocals are the most modern thing about the tune, other than perhaps the confidence with which the difficult fusion is pulled off. This is an impressive tune that demands attention.
3. “Wildflower” – Shiloh Hill. Chipper full-band folk that starts with perky trumpet and brings in banjo like rays of sunshine coming out from behind a cloud. The chorus has an anthemic cast similar to The Decemberists, which is always welcome. This album looks like it’s going to be a lot of fun. Check out their Kickstarter.
4. “Dust” – Ryan Martin John, Todd Sibbin, and Tom West. Kind of like an Australian Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, this ominous track has a ’70s folk vibe, solid group vocals, and a dense, immediate atmosphere.
5. “I Know I” – The Tin Man. A pensive minor-key first verse leads into an ultimately hopeful, thumping folk-pop/alt-pop tune augmented by some distorted guitar providing some background grumble. Goes for a lot of drama and yet stops one inch from going over the top–an admirable skill.
6. “Same Boat” – Vanessa Forero. This is a swift, upbeat, smile-inducing folk-pop tune that doesn’t jump the shark in its arrangement (however, there are mermaids in the stead of Left Shark as part of the video).
7. “Million Miles” – Jesse Konrad. A calm strum, gentle guitar counterpoint, and a friendly organ push this track along in a very chill way.
8. “You Need to Hear It From Someone Else” – Protestant Work Ethic. Lazy horns play against a large choir, an autoharp, melodica, and assorted random percussion–the outcome is like a European version of Typhoon, all the way down to the passionate vocals.
9. “Already Gone” – Travis Smith. A surging, major-key chord progression reminiscent of Dan Mangan, a fun organ performance, and a smooth vocal performance come together over a shuffle snare for a tune seems already comfortable and worn in, like a comfy sweater, when you first hear it.
10. “Marigold” – Neil Holyoak. Holyoak’s hazy yet gravitas-laden voice presides over this very carefully constructed folk tune, complete with pedal steel, mandolin, and reverb-washed electric guitar. It’s kind of like Dana Sipos’ work, but in a major key and more instrument-laden. Float away with this track.
11. “Love Is Like a Market Crash” – Thurdy. It takes a lot of work to sound casual. Thurdy’s laid-back, back-porch vibe permeates his baritone vocals, rolling guitar playing, and honest lyrics. It’s a tune that gives you back more than it asks of you.
12. “This Will Be Our Year – Zombies Cover” – Novi Split. David J’s magnetic, utterly gorgeous voice is in full flower here, matching his oh-so-lovely pipes with a “doo-wop meets old-school country in a subtle, spare modern bar” arrangement. It’s just great.
13. “Bed of Nails” – Logan Magness. “Tender” and “romantic” maybe aren’t the phrases most associated with alt-country, but this stripped-down, Isbell-esque acoustic ballad is both. Magness’s smooth tenor is a joy to listen to.
Without further adieu, numbers 1-10 in the best albums of the year.
Album of the Year: The Collection – Ars Moriendi. (Review) This album epitomizes the type of music I look for: intricate, complex arrangements of acoustic-led, folk-inspired indie-pop tunes with deeply thoughtful lyrics about life, death, and religion. The fact that you can shout along to half of the tunes only makes this more impressive. This was a no-contest winner for album of the year.
2. Kye Alfred Hillig – Real Snow. (Review) Temporarily shedding the acoustic singer/songwriter mantle, Hillig struck gold with a set of electro anthems cut through with his well-developed indie-pop songwriting techniques and evocative, thought-provoking lyrics. “None of Them Know Me Now” is the jaaaaaaam.
3. St. Even – Self-titled. (Review) I love concrete poetry that relies on images to portray meaning instead of adjectives. St. Even knocks that type of work out of the ballpark here, pairing it with playful, unexpected, herky-jerky, innovative arrangements of horns, piano, and strings. “Home Is Where You Hang Your Head” is a stand-out among stand-outs.
4. Brittany Jean and Will Copps – Places. (Review) Giant washes of sound meet indie-rock emotion over acoustic instruments to create something that’s not exactly electronica, indie-rock, or singer/songwriter. It hit me in unexpected ways, and always from unexpected angles.
5. The Fox and the Bird – Darkest Hours. (Review) The folk-pop boom is largely over, meaning that we can get back to people doing folk-pop because it’s their thing, not because it’s a trend. The Fox and the Bird produced the best straight folk-pop this year, both lyrically and musically. Challenging lyrics and breezy, easy-to-love music is a great combo for folk-pop, and Darkest Hours has both.
6. Cancellieri – Closet Songs. (Review) Welcome to Mount Pleasant was a gorgeous album, but this collection of demos, b-sides, and covers was the Cancellieri release that stole the most of my listening time this year. Ryan Hutchens’ delicate voice is beautifully juxtaposed against a single acoustic guitar, putting his songwriting, song re-envisionments, and impeccable taste in covers on display. A perfect chill-out album.
7. Little Chief – Lion’s Den. (Review) Arkansas folk-pop outfit Little Chief took the path trod by The Head and the Heart in creating chamber-pop arrangements to fit on their pastoral, rolling songwriting ways. The subtlety and maturity in the songwriting is astonishing from such a young outfit. If you need an album to drive around to in fall or winter, here’s your disc.
8. Novi Split – If Not This, Then What / Keep Moving Disc 2 / Spare Songs / Split. (Reviews) My favorite hyper-personal, intimate songwriting project got a massive bump in exposure this year. David J took the recordings of a decade that were spread about the internet and finally compiled them in one place. I’ve heard almost all of them before, but the fact that they’re official and can be easily accessed caused me to listen through them again. They’re all still amazing examples of painfully poignant bedroom singer/songwriter work. Do yourself a favor and get acquainted with Novi Split.
9. M. Lockwood Porter – 27. (Review) Porter’s second full-length expanded his alt-country sound in dynamic ways while developing his lyrical bent. The results are memorable rock tracks (“I Know You’re Gonna Leave Me”) and memorable ballads (“Mountains”), a rare thing indeed.
10. Jacob Furr – Trails and Traces. (Review) The subject matter of Trails and Traces is even heavier than Ars Moriendi, but Furr takes a nimble, light approach to his alt-country. Instead of wallowing in despair, Furr’s heartbreaking lyrics are backed up with hopeful, searching melodies. I’d usually say “not for the faint of heart” on matters like these, but Furr has truly put together one that speaks hope for the hurting and hopeless. Search on, friends.
Novi Split is going through the great reconsideration right now. Between Spare Songs, Keep Moving, Disk 2 and If Not This, Then What, David J has spent the last three months publicizing, re-publicizing, and in some cases unearthing everything that his singer/songwriter project has done. In case you the missed the incredible work of David J over the last decade, he’s making himself easy to find now.
And that’s good, because these three releases show an impressive songwriter with a golden voice and a crisp, earnest singer/songwriter style. Let’s start with Keep Moving, Disk 2, which puts the focus on his 2003 debut, Keep Moving. Even though it invokes the title of the original album, it could more accurately be titled Pretty Much Everything I Did Between My First and Second Album, which was almost exactly four years from Jan 2003-Jan 2007.
Disk 2 collects great tracks off obscure EPs (“Get Me to Bed”), devastatingly beautiful covers (Material Issue’s “Very First Lie,” Robyn Hitchcock’s “Madonna of the Wasps”), surprisingly pretty demos (“California Skies”), and an aptly titled instrumental (“Instrumental”). It also includes no less than 21 live tracks, which are mostly of Keep Moving tracks. It is a deep dive into the catalog of Novi Split, and it will leave you charmed, pleased, and puzzled that Novi Split isn’t more well known. “The New Split (Live)” deeply moves me. “Me and Andy” has been one of my favorite songs for years. This reconsideration couldn’t come soon enough.
Once you’ve been blown away by his early work, let’s pick up with some mid-period stuff in Spare Songs. Pink in the Sink was a decidedly more hi-fi affair, and the songs on Spare Songs show that. “I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now” seems to have mixing and mastering, a luxury that was not expended on some of the early tracks. This by no means diminishes the charm of the early ones or raises the stature of the new ones. It merely makes them sound different.
David J’s voice gets featured a little less here, as his pristine songwriting gets played up. “Don’t Go Home” is an absolutely gorgeous piano tune, while “Pear” (a song I’ve never heard before) is a gentle, thoughtful instrumental that links up to previous tracks in the distant horn line. (Similar horn melodies will resurface in other songs–it’s a bonus, not a detractor. Trust me.) Spare Songs is capped by a delightfully weird and wonderful version of “Dancing in the Dark.” I like this version better than the Springsteen original, for real.
And finally, we make it to If Not This, Then What, which includes brand new versions of songs off Pink in the Sink (“You Got Served,” “Young Girls”), songs that got released between PITS and now (“Hollow Notes”), and a brand new cover (Blaze Foley’s “Clay Pigeons”). Through it all, David J displays the intimacy that characterized his early works with the pristine songwriting and hi-fi production of his later work. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: David J’s voice and songwriting sound effortless, as if he just opens his mouth and the music comes out. He’s significantly more alt-country than he used to be, but it’s not a twangy-voiced alt-country but a pedal-steel affection. It’s downright beautiful stuff.
Now that Novi Split has cleared out every corner of the vault, I hope that we’ll be seeing some brand new work in the upcoming years. With all his work available and easily accessible for the first time ever (you have no idea how hard I worked to track down all the tracks that are now available on a single Bandcamp page), hopefully people will start to pick up on an unheralded, underappreciated master of the craft.
It’s always a bit unusual for me when songs that I’ve known only in performance make their way to tape. The Fox and The Bird‘s Darkest Hours is composed of songs that I’ve heard the Dallas-based band perform over the past three years since their impressive 2011 debut Floating Feather. “Saints,” “Valley,” and “No Man’s Land” are tunes that have lived in my memory long before they ever found a home on this album, so it’s a bit like welcoming old friends back into my home than meeting new people. Keep that in mind as I praise the album.
The Fox and the Bird is a real chipper folk-pop outfit musically, but their lyrics have a complicated, melancholy tinge. Darkest Hours makes obvious with the title a strand of thought started in their debut. “The Wreck of the Fallible,” “Valley,” and “Habit” all weave together human frailty, the petty ugliness of our actions, redemption, and hope into complex lyrics that keep me pondering as I hum along. “Valley” is especially contradictory in this regard, as I find myself humming the dramatic line “And it was every bit as bad / as our father said” without feeling particularly bad. “Habit” is about a history of violence, sung in an perky, old-school Decemberists vein.
Amid the tension and feeling, there is at least one track that is just happy. “No Man’s Land” is a song of hope, passion, and western expansion that includes jubilant trumpet and a sweeping set of “oh-whoa-oh”s in the chorus. But other than that, it’s charming melodies and back-porch banjo of “Ashes” supporting a conflicted lyric set about loneliness, and the beautiful vintage country harmonies of “Dallas” elucidating how Dallas is a pretty terrible place. (“Dallas is a rich man with a death wish in his eyes / A steel and concrete soul with a warm hearted love disguise.”)
So The Fox and the Bird are not The Lumineers: while both can write folk-pop and country tunes that are melodic, memorable, even masterful, the goals of Darkest Hours are quite different than those of “Ho Hey” or “Classy Girls.” This isn’t to knock either band–it’s to point out that fans of Lumineers’ musical qualities might very well enjoy The Fox and the Bird’s music, but might find the lyrics frustrating or even difficult. Others who are fans of challenging lyrics will find an impressive amount of care and thought put into the lyrics, and they might just dig the extremely strong folk-pop stylings. It’s clear that Darkest Hours was crafted over years instead of months: these tunes shine musically and lyrically. The result is one of my favorite albums of the year so far.
I have often sung the praises of Novi Split, so I’m thrilled that David J is moving into an active phase of his production. His most recent release is a split 7″ with fellow Los Angelenos Brown and Blue. Amazingly, the two bands secured Split7Inch.Bandcamp.com to host the thing–although the availability of their seems-like-it-would-already-be-taken website is only one of the impressive things about the split.
Both bands incorporate country influences and focus on gentle vocals; B&B adds a country sway to a quiet indie-rock ballad of sorts in “Honeymoon Suite,” while Novi Split adds pedal steel to the hushed singer/songwriter vibe of “Stupid.” Both bands have a deeply romantic streak running through the lyrics and overall feel, making them great split partners. My only quibble with this is 7 minutes is awfully short for such a great match. Thankfully, both bands are releasing EPs in March–I’ll just play them back to back and call it good. Definitely check out this release.
It is extremely hard for me to resist romantic music. I don’t just mean love songs, although I’m hard-pressed to ignore those; I mean romantic in the literary sense, romanticism that idealizes love and loss and feeling as near to the highest manifestations of the human soul. Damien Rice and early 2000s emo have a lot in common, you know?
Arctic Tern‘s Leaves EP is a passionately romantic album that combines the emotive vocals of David Gray or Josh Garrels with pristine, gentle arrangements of Sleeping at Last and Gregory Alan Isakov. A lilting Irish air to the vocals only makes the sound more appealing. “Light a Fire” is the most polished of the tunes, a full arrangement with good motion, even a quiet urgency, throughout the track. Other tracks show off Arctic Tern’s (one person, naturally: the solitary genius is a beloved romantic-era invention) prowess with just an acoustic guitar: “Love is Not a Game” and “Ties” have stark sections and yet are still smooth. “Love is Not a Game” expands into a tune with swooping cello, melancholy piano, and glockenspiel–it’s an absolutely beautiful piece.
Arctic Tern’s sound falls somewhere between searching and content: the lyrics speak of the anxious space between love and not, but the arrangements are strong and confident. This is music to chill out to, to make out to, to be thoughtful to. It’s music that gets into the spaces of your mind and smooths those jagged edges, even if only for a little while. It’s an EP that caused me to repeat it 8 times in one day. That’s a mighty accomplishment.
This was the year of the EP. I received way more EPs than albums this year, which made choosing this list harder than choosing the albums of the year. While there’s a whole post waiting to be written about why EPs are the present and future of music, for now it’s enough to say that the music in these EPs stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the work in albums. The EP should not be considered an inferior format; it can pack quite a lot into its shorter run times. Here’s to the EP.
10. Where I Belong EP – Quiet Stories. An eclectic EP of diverse songwriting styles; some hushed and intimate, some boisterous and brash. Constant: melodies galore.
9. House on the Mountain – Teen Daze. My favorite electronic artist gets a little more analog, but doesn’t lose any chillwave-y charm. Quirky, beautiful, peppy.
8. Sweet Virginia – Sunny Jim Brown. Pensive, thoughtful, raw folky songwriting that just sounds gorgeous.
7. Twin Forks – Twin Forks. “THAT’S A LOVE THAT! CAN’T BE BROKEN! THAT’S THE STING OF! A HEART CUT OPEN!” Yes.
6. Where Eyes Don’t Go – The Gray Havens. It was the year of the guy/girl folk-pop duo, and The Gray Havens were one of my favorites. Leaning toward the pop side, Dave and Licia play jaunty, fun tunes that will get you to sing along. Neatly balancing whimsy and seriousness, they stole my heart.
5. The Rooster – David Ramirez. If Ramirez’s deep, resonant baritone doesn’t touch you, the deeply romantic lyrics will. Absolutely gorgeous.
4. The Long Ride Home – Wolfcryer. A man and a guitar is an old recipe, but you don’t have to use a different recipe if the ingredients are high quality. Matt Baumann’s songs rely heavily on his emotive voice and passionate guitarwork, resulting in spacious, wide-open tunes that are perfect for long solo drives. A very strong opening salvo.
3. Somewhere Near the River – Little Chief. In a Mumford world, it’s good to play full-band folk. But it’s hard to stand out while doing so, which is why Little Chief caught my attention. Their nuanced songwriting and great cello work set them apart from the ever-growing pack of folky bands.
2. Creeping Around Your Face – Novi Split. One of my favorite songwriters from the earliest days of IC releases a four-song wonder that shows off all his talents. Precise arrangements, effortless melodies, heartrending poignancy, and covers that he takes complete control over. His is a truly singular vision, carving out space in a crowded field to demand attention.
1. For Tomorrow Will Worry About Itself EP – Fiery Crash. The culmination of a massive year that saw Fiery Crash put out five releases, this 7-song EP is the best of Josh Jackson’s work yet. Rolling folk tunes meet songs adorned with fuzzy reverb. New songs, reworkings, and hymns share space. Throughout it all, Jackson delivers earnest musings with real gravitas. This could be the start of something incredible.
Independent Clauses is a wide-ranging blog, but it still comes home at night to folk and indie-pop. So those genres are very well-represented in the Top 10.
10. “Song for Zula” – Phosphorescent. Yup, I’m thoroughly on board with all the love this is getting. Just beautiful.
9. “Home Sweet Home” – Russell Howard. The sound of loss and longing rarely sounds so sweet as in this singer/songwriter tune.
8. “The Mantis and the Moon” – Son of Laughter. Clever lyrics, sprightly arrangement, poignant performance: I hummed this a lot in 2013.
7. “Aaron” – JD Eicher and the Goodnights. Sweeping, widescreen folk-pop that leveled me with a great melody and this line: “I don’t write sad songs/they just seem to write me.”
6. “Judah’s Gone” – M. Lockwood Porter. It’s a tough thing to pack nostalgia, disillusion, and rage into one folky tune without any yelling, but Porter navigates the wildly varying emotions deftly.
5. “American Summer” – Jared Foldy. Gentle fingerpicking and reverb create a strong atmosphere, as Foldy offers the sound of beloved summers that sadly have to end.
4. “The Riddle Song” – The Parmesans. Poignant yet flirtatious, this bluegrassy love song is wonderful.
3. “For the Sky” – Wolfcryer. The opening riff of this folk tune, optimistic and yearning, sets the stage for an inescapable tune.
2. “Creeping Around Your Face” – Novi Split. The most tender, gentle love song I heard all year, steeped in the reality of hard times but the hope of good to come.
1. “Everything Is Yours” – Jonny Rodgers. Wine glasses cascade and swoop through the quiet indie-pop arrangement, giving Rodgers a fascinating canvas on which to paint lovely vocal melodies and descriptive lyrics. I couldn’t stop listening to this for weeks.
The delicate, personal work of Novi Split is deeply underappreciated. I understand why: the songwriting project of David J specializes in erratically-timed releases that seem purposefully calculated to fly under the radar. His 2004 release Keep Moving blew my mind, so I have powered through these roadblocks ever since then to track down his music. However, not everyone enjoys scouring the corners of the Internet for tunes (2005 forever!), so Novi Split has stayed a mostly personal joy.
But now David J has collected four songs into the Creeping Around Your Face EP, his first proper release since 2011. The two originals and two covers are delicate, gorgeous tunes that showcase everything that is good and right with this band. David J’s gentle voice sounds completely effortless, as his tenor is clear, warm, and precise. He pairs his easygoing vocals with tidy, even fragile fingerpicked acoustic work. If Iron & Wine’s early work had been recorded hi-fi, it may have sounded like this.
The title track opens the set: “hold me in the dark/until the morning light come creeping around your face.” It’s a deeply romantic tune that looks not just at the highs of love, but the trials and travails of commitment to another person: “It’s so hard to be back home/and it’s so brutal to be on your own/and it’s been two weeks now, and I haven’t changed/says we are who we are, and we essentially stay the same.” The strings swell, the banjo plucks, and the drums create a nice backdrop to the optimistic, moving conclusion: “Baby, let’s have another baby,” repeated until David J’s voice fades away.
Iris Dement’s “Our Town” comes next, with David J adding his own arrangement style to it nicely. (You may know it as the song that played throughout the whole last scene of the last episode of Northern Exposure.) David J has an ear for finding songs that have sweetness and sadness in them; among the obscure tracks spread about the Internet are covers of Robyn Hitchcock’s “Madonna of the Wasps” and Material Issue’s “Very First Lie,” which both show off the talent. “Our Town” and the other cover, Daniel Ahearn’s “Light of God,” both have that tension of sweet and sad, which I’m a total sucker for. I don’t think I’ll able to hear the originals without thinking of Novi’s versions. That’s the mark of a great cover.
“Stupid” is a little more upbeat than the other three tunes, but it still retains a gentle, nylon-strings guitar feel. A country vibe rings in this one, with an electric guitar doing its best pedal steel impression. Distant horns give the track a majestic, stately feel, and the overall impact is impressive. It’s clear that a great amount of work went into making these songs sound like they happened effortlessly.
I don’t usually throw down 500 words about four songs, but Novi Split is completely worth the treatment. The Creeping Around Your Face EP is a masterful quartet of tunes by an artist who has been doing this for a very long time. If you’re a fan of intimate, personal, romantic singer/songwriters like Ray LaMontagne and David Ramirez, then you need to know about Novi Split. David J is one of the best songwriters we have writing today, and there needs to be more people on that train.
One of my favorite albums is Before Braille‘s 2004 EP Cattle Punching on a Jackrabbit, which features masterful rock tunes like “New Vein/Proventil” and “Well as Well.” It was one of the first albums I covered for Independent Clauses that I truly loved, with the other being Novi Split’s Keep Moving. I still listen to both frequently.
Before Braille met its demise in 2006, but frontman David Jensen moved on to other projects. I missed two albums under the name Art for Starters, but I’m back on board for his project Loyal Wife. Faux Light is the debut album for that project, and it doesn’t disappoint. The main elements of Before Braille’s sound are present, as well as growth.
Before Braille was an emo/rock band comparable to a thinking man’s Jimmy Eat World. The guitars were riff-heavy, and Jensen howled with a righteous fury against the ills and travails of the world. But lyrical, rhythmic and textural complexity set them apart from the pack. And so it is with Loyal Wife; there are riffing guitars, and there are some howling vocals—but there’s a lot more going on than just that.
A lot happens to mellow a man in eight years, and so tunes such as “Hold Up,” “GodSlight,” and “In Trouble” show a pensive side to Jensen that wasn’t on display in the frenzied Cattle Punching. “Hold Up” is one of the high points of the record, a stark acoustic tune that nails that rare space where honesty and tunefulness mix. It’s raw, but it’s not weepy or overdramatic; there’s a dignity that remains as Jensen sings “If I hold up,” and that’s powerful.
“GodSlight” includes bells into the acoustic mix, resulting in a nice mix between indie sensibility and plaintive emotion. “In Trouble” is the best moment for Ashley Taylor, the female vocalist who provides another critical difference from Before Braille and Loyal Wife. Her vocals mesh perfectly with the arrangement, a sparse rock tune that relies on the space between instruments and interactions between the male and female vocals. Jensen and Taylor harmonize excellently together, and “In Trouble” is the overall highlight of the record due to its spotlighting of the duo.
The rock tunes here are solid as well. The doggedly rhythmic closer “Light Off” recalling the most brittle, brutal moments of Before Braille in the best way, while “Ivory” sets Taylor as the frontwoman against a pounding rock track (Jensen handles the vocals in the great breakdown riff). It’s passionate rock with a dark timbre but not a dark tone; it’s a rare middle-ground that Loyal Wife strikes, and I like that a great deal.
Loyal Wife’s Faux Light is an album of slowly-unfolding charms. After the immediate hit of “Hold Up” and “In Trouble,” the rest of the tunes here grew on me. It’s a definite progression, and one worth checking out. If you want passion in your rock and quiet tunes, Loyal Wife should be on your radar.
Songs:Ohia plays a critical role in my musical history, somewhat akin to the lack of respect Bob Welch gets for keeping Fleetwood Mac together until they could get around to recording awesome things.
In my transition from “Super Good Feeling” to “Get Lonely,” Songs:Ohia was one of two artists who would entice me to jump from the poppy precipice of Transatlanticism to the downtempo jeremiads of Damien Jurado and The Mountain Goats. Without the influence of those latter two bands, this blog would probably not still exist. So, indirectly, you and I both owe a debt to Jason Molina (and David J of Novi Split, who was the second guide).
The emotions that Elephant Micah‘s Louder Than Thou conjures up in me match almost exactly the ones I felt while listening to Songs:Ohia’s “The Lioness” as a teenager. This is an incredible statement: I had chalked up this intense connection with S:A’s slow, weighty songs up to “my first time.” For a band to repeat in me that sort of emotion amid my now-steady diet of folk and singer/songwriter is stunning.
Pre-Magnolia ELectric Co. Jason Molina originally intrigued me for several reasons. I am intrigued by Joseph O’Connell (the songwriter behind EM) for the same reasons:
1. He is very talented, although the simple musicianship bears no ostentatious markers of technical skill.
2. He imbues songs with honest, weighty emotion.
3. He is unafraid to play a slow, quiet song for a very long time.
I started to feel the old longing during the second track, “Won These Wings.” A slowly thumped tom and sparse yet terse notes on an acoustic guitar create the backdrop for O’Connell’s plaintive voice; far-off background vocals and some sort of woodwind form intermittent ghostly asides. The whole thing just feels heavy; but more than that, it feels compelling. Instead of being wallpaper music, this is gripping. You know those movies where the soundtrack is so integral and vital that it should be credited as a supporting actor? The 7:25 “Won These Wings” is that sort of tune.
The length here is notable in the context of everyone else’s work, but not so much in comparison to the rest of the album. The six songs on Louder Than Thou run just over 36 minutes, meaning that one EM song averages the span of two pop songs. The shambling, uplifting “My Cousin’s King,” the shortest song, clocks in at 4:29. It could have gone longer and been totally fine: these songs sprawl, and they’re all the better for it.
That’s the lesson to be learned from “If I Were a Surfer,” which is the song that caused me to think of Songs:Ohia for the first time in years. The strum pattern isn’t complicated, the drum part isn’t difficult, and the vocal line isn’t virtuosic. But the parts come together in such a heart-rending way that none of that matters. “Let it lie where it lands / I’ll start all over again,” O’Connell sings with female harmony over a graceful, whirring organ. It’s no lyric shooting for the heart of reality, nor is it a hugely orchestrated epic moment. It is, instead, a testament to patience, dignity and craft. It is beautiful.
The skill and hard work it takes to write songs of such seemingly effortless elegance is hard to overstate. Elephant Micah‘s Louder Than Thou is not louder than much, really. But it is far more resonant than most, and that’s why I can’t stop listening to it.
The End of America‘s Steep Bay is nine songs and twenty-one minutes long. It is a very intimate affair, as it features live performances and found sound among its tracks. It’s the latest in a string of folk albums to come out of self-imposed banishments to rural areas to write (as popularized by Bon Iver). But For Emma, Forever Ago worked because of Justin Vernon’s slavish attention to mood and detail. Even though the guys in The End of America have the details down, they don’t have the mood hammered out on Steep Bay.
It’s a bummer, because the best moments of Steep Bay show that The End of America has something great to offer. The effortless calm of Novi Split’s intimate bedroom pop applied to the folk revival’s rustic songwriting ideals is a beautiful thing. Imagine if Mumford and Sons could be every bit as powerful without having to go for the jugular in every coda, and you’ve got a good approximation of “Fiona Grace” and “Oh Mousey.” But “These Things Are Mine” is an upbeat bluegrass meditation of sorts, and “Running” is a step removed from an old-school Dashboard Confessional acoustic emo song in strum pattern, melody and lyric. “Are You Lonely” is a meandering, morose tune. It all just doesn’t mesh at all.
The best moments here are the found sounds of “Diving Rock” and “Steep Bay.” “Diving Rock” is a recording of the members jumping off a rock into the bay, which leads directly into “Fiona Grace.” “Steep Bay” is a banjo rumination with the sound of pouring rain providing percussion, which is the single most beautiful moment on the album.
The End of America can write a great album if they spent more time at it, I think. They’re just not the “collective goes to cottage, produces masterpiece” type of band. There are flashes of brilliance on Steep Bay, but the overall product is a bit muddled by the lack of a coherent mood.
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.