1. “Moonshine” – Winnie Brave. If you generally like the things I post on this blog, you will almost certainly like this song: shuffle drums, strong female vocals, pedal steel, even tasty organ. But there’s no alt about this: this is straight-up country. Get on the train, friends. Jump on it. There’s no shame.
2. “Go” – Glen Phillips. There are few people who have two full careers in music in their lives, but Glen Phillips is closing in on it: having been one of the staples of the ’90s in Toad the Wet Sprocket, he has remade himself into a troubadour par excellence since then. This latest tune shows off his mastery of the nuanced vocal performance, satisfying arrangements, and enveloping moods. Just stellar stuff.
3. “Kool Aid” – The Lords of Liechtenstein. This chipper post-Dixieland major-key folk tune evokes contemporaries like Jonas Friddle and vintage performers. (The banjo and piano work together beautifully here.) The satirical lyrics extend the horrifying-situation-turned-metaphor “drinking the kool-aid” (apropos for our current era in many ways). The video drives home its political point even more clearly.
4. “She Got Time” – The Morning Yells. If there’s a point where Laurel Canyon country meets Bruce Springsteen-esque road-rockers, The Morning Yells were born on that spot. Throw in some Dawes for modernization (although Dawes is always looking back too), and you’ve got a breezy-yet-grounded track that’s tailor-made for a late-night drive up Pacific Coast 1.
5. “Heavy Eyes” – Palm Ghosts. I try to avoid the word “dreamy” because it’s so over-used, but this chilled-out tune feels genuinely like a dream: it feels totally concrete but also gauzy around the edges, sort of like there’s something just over the next ridge that will pop the bubble, but until then it’s all floating and hazy. That tension is impressive, and gives this indie-folk/indie-rock track a unique feel (even among all the “dreamy” work out there).
6. “Paint the Road” – Sierra Blanca. Sierra Blanca’s stately, engrossing “Paint the Road” made me think of John Denver’s endearingly earnest delivery, James Taylor’s gentle guitar delivery, and Simon’s subtle rhythmic elements. That’s pretty rarefied air, even decades after the high points for that trio.
7. “Northern Lights” – This Pale Fire. The subdued, even reverent murmur that is this track draws on excellent arranging and a great engineering job to create its beautiful, nuanced vibe.
8. “Thursday Lights” – Frozen Houses. This tune has both delicacy and density, as synths burble and dance in the background of this friendly, almost tropical acoustic-led piece.
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. “The Road” – John John Brown. It’s an impressive skill to breathe fresh vitality into musical staples. John John Brown makes a beautiful concoction out of folk fingerpicking, sawing fiddle, and gentle tenor vocals.
2. “Does She” – Caroline Lazar. Someday I’ll get tired of a thumping kick drum under a fingerpicked acoustic guitar line, but not today: Lazar’s folk pop is bright, charming, and fun (handclaps!). [Editor’s note: This song is no longer available.]
3. “Offering” – Mischief Night. The recording style on this acoustic track makes it feel both cavernous and intimate; the vocals soar in the near distance, while the drums and casio tones are close at hand. The lyrics are intriguing, as well.
4. “I’m Not the Good One” – Ossayol. The delicate fingerpicking is perfectly counterpointed by a violin throughout. The chorus here just nailed me to the wall with its emotive power.
5. “Christine” – Orly Bendavid & the Mona Dahls. An ode to beautiful young women who grow old that balances rueful, pensive concern with an internal energy which pushes the track forward.
6. “Lucid Dreams” – Ego Death. A trembling, quiet performance that evokes solitude.
7. “We Both Know” – Andrew Butler. The pristine, precise arrangements of Andrew Bird, but now with significantly more emotions in the lyrics and vocal delivery.
7. “No God in Mexico” – Danny Whitecotton. Danny Whitecotton is continuing the long tradition of windswept, wide-screen folk troubadour storytelling with political undertones admirably. The sound itself is along the lines of Isbell’s quieter stuff instead of being a folk strumfest.
8. “Liars” – Gregory Alan Isakov. Isakov has expanded from his intimate, cryptic tunes of yore to being back by the Colorado Symphony on this tour-de-force. (The lyrics are still enigmatic in an evocative way.)
9. “Single” – Frith. The walking-speed tempo and distinctive melodic percussion sound of this comfortable, easygoing pop track give it a pleasant “Someone I Used to Know” feel.
10. “Zen Jam” – Joyriot. The title works: the tension between zen and joy is in full display on this mid-’00s indie-pop-rock track. There’s some Tokyo Police Club in there, maybe some Vampire Weekend, but all filtered through a chill, maybe even Death Cab-esque lens. Totally cool.
11. “Dance With Love” – Sam Joole. Joole forgoes his usual reggae vibes for Strokesian early ’00s indie-rock, complete with tambourine, distinctive strumming pattern, and slightly distorted vocals. It’s a blast.
12. “719 Desire Street” – Palm Ghosts. Jangle rock never dies, it just fits itself into the modern paradigm and moves on right along. This one’s a fun, sway-inducing, smile-creating song.
13. “Ten Lines (The Land Below Remix)” – MISSINCAT. I kept expecting this song to do stereotypical pop song things, and it always seemed to have a different corner for me to turn. Mad props for the unexpected in electro-pop.
It is hard to put together an album that holds a consistent instrumental palette, melodic thrust, and overall mood without getting repetitive. Palm Ghosts has accomplished this difficult task on their self-titled record. Palm Ghosts lives in a warm, relaxed space with just a touch of ominous haze on the horizon, carving out a space for itself next to artists like Damien Jurado.
Bandleader Joseph Lekkas takes great care in setting moods; the album opens with a tender track that uses the wordless voice as an instrument to convey a peaceful feeling. The follow-up “Seasons” begins with breathy “ahs” as well, carrying the mood over to a perkier version of his acoustic-led sound. Even though there are some drums pushing the tempo here, the dreamy piano line pulls back against the motion. The guitar and vocals sit right in the tension, not celebrating but resolving the dual issues. The result is a track that is both comforting and nimble; beautiful but sturdy. It’s a good analogy for the rest of the album.
The other five tracks on the record are varied without losing the poignant mood developed in the first two tracks. “Oh, Sleepytime!” manages to get squealing trumpets and booming electric guitar into the tune without breaking the mood of the album, which is an impressive feat. “All My Life (I’ve Been Waiting)” is an alt-country tune not unlike The Jayhawks or Mojave 3’s work. “Airplane Jane” combines indie cuteness with alt-country ominousness, which is a odd combination that Lekkas somehow pulls off seamlessly. Lekkas has very clearly written many songs before; even though this is a debut, the deft skill with which Lekkas combines disparate genres into an enjoyable fusion is impressive.
Palm Ghosts is the sort of record that you can enjoy without much thought or delve deeply into. The mood and melodies are surface joys; the intricacies of the arrangements and the subtle ways Lekkas makes various genres work together are pleasures that take a little more work to achieve. Either way you go, it’s a great album. I look forward to hearing more from Palm Ghosts.
Wherein I Remember That I Mostly Listen to Music With Acoustic Guitars In It
1. “So, what exactly does it say?” – The Weather Machine. I loved Joe Pug’s first record lyrically, and I love Passenger’s vocal stylings now. Mash them together, and my heart melts. Add in steel drums, and you end up as the lead track on an MP3 mix. Super excited to hear more of this album.
2. “Passing Ships” – The Travelling Band. If you wish the Decemberists would go back to being flamboyant and triumphant musically, The Travelling Band might be your solution. Cello, piano, speedy drums and group vocals swirl around in a wonderfully theatrical way.
3. “Walk Away” – The Bone Chimes. There’s a lot of musical theater going on in this interesting indie-pop track, from the vocal stylings to high-drama arrangements to even a carnival music section.
4. “Sour” – Tim Fitz. There’s downers psych, uppers psych, and giddy psych. This shimmery track fits that latter category. Its favorite color is probably neon green and neon pink, because it can’t pick just one.
5. “Doin’ It to You” – Luke Sweeney. Everybody needs a slice of happy-go-lucky, charming, perky SanFran indie-pop every now and then.
6. “Way Out Weather” – Steve Gunn. Gunn opens up a classic space with this rolling arrangement, as if Joe Walsh got a little folkier.
7. “Roll the Dice” – Charles Mansfield. If The Mountain Goats had a bit more ’50s-pop nostalgia, they might turn out charming, perky, intelligent songs like this one.
8. “Noma” – Dear Blanca. With outrage in the left hand, depression in the right, and a singing saw in the third hand, “Noma” manages to be brash and raucous without being fast or particularly noisy. Impressive tune!
9. “Get Your Fill of Feelin’ Hungry” – Jay Brown. James Taylor is underappreciated in indie circles for his pristine melodies, tight guitarwork, and general great songsmithing. Jay Brown appreciates those qualities; “Get Your Fill” is smooth, tight, and melodically memorable. Whatever you call it (pop, folk, singer/songwriter, etc.), this is great songwriting.
10. “Under the Weather” – The Good Graces. Alt-country and indie-pop haven’t had enough crossover, I think. The Good Graces are making that happen, with the swaying arrangements of the former and the quirky vocal melodies of the latter in this fun tune. Also, horns!!
11. “Seasons” – Palm Ghosts. Folk loves its sadness, but this beautiful song is warm nostalgia in song form.
12. “Childhood Home” – The Healing. This pensive alt-country tune has that rare, magical male/female duet connection. The chorus is haunting and yet comforting; it’s a powerful tune.
13. “Lion’s Lair” – Red Sammy. “I like Megadeth / I don’t like Slayer,” relates the narrator in this quiet, lovely, lonely alt-country track reminiscent of Mojave 3. Caught my attention for sure.
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.