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.
I review a lot of really good folk music here at Independent Clauses, but every now and then someone comes along who sits head and shoulders above the rest of the pack. B. Snipes is that rare breed, and the 5-song Away, Away is his calling card. From compelling lyrics to evocative melodies to clear-eyed production, there’s nothing on Away, Away that is out of place.
Some people try to establish a sound in an EP; others try to showcase their breadth. Snipes manages to do both here: while establishing himself as a storytelling troubadour through his lyrics and nuanced vocal delivery, he sets a surprising array of sounds around him in the arrangements. It’s a remarkable balancing act that establishes him as a high-talent artist to watch.
The cleverest trick Snipes pulls to accomplish this balance is to vary what you might expect in a track listing. Instead of starting with his loudest track and getting quieter, Snipes starts out with the intimate, stark, beautiful “Death Came Knocking.” The first half of the track features just a Snipes’ gravitas-laden voice, a bright acoustic guitar, and an upright piano to lend some bass to the proceedings; even when he adds in a banjo to fill out the sound, it still feels like you’re hanging out in Snipes’ living room. The tune itself tells of Death showing the narrator around town, talking about both the narrator and death’s lives. The chorus yearns for a beloved maternal memory–it’s uncertain whether the narrator or death sings the chorus. It’s this sort of subtle touch that gives Snipes’ work the depth that endears it to me.
Elsewhere Snipes shows off his arranging skills, including an open snare on the kit and wailing organ in the dramatic folk tune “Michael.” “Clark Gable Blues” has a 3/4 meter, giving the tune a plaintive, mournful, country waltz/blues feel. The lyrics of lost love and a swooning violin only help the country vibe. The title track and “My Home Town” have a more alt-pop feel, leaning toward Josh Garrels’ brand of twilit, sweeping adult-alternative. At its apex, “My Home Town” gathers steam into the sort of jubilant/morose chorus that Iron & Wine has perfected on his full-band records–the vocal melody seals the deal on it.
All of this is recorded and engineered excellently: the sounds pop out of speakers with astonishing clarity and ease. It’s not easy to engineer a record this bright, clean and clear without it getting a false-feeling sheen on it. B. Snipes and crew have really nailed the balance between clarity and emotive grit. It’s like a Ray LaMontagne album in that regard: it feels raw and passionate without actually sounding lo-fi. It’s a rare thing, and worth noting. Everything sounds gorgeous on Away, Away.
B. Snipes’ debut EP Away, Away is a remarkable release that shows off the beginnings of what could be something really amazing. With thoughtful lyrics, memorable melodies, and striking arrangements, B. Snipes establishes himself here. If you’re into Josh Ritter, The Avett Brothers, or any of the aforementioned bands, you’ll find much to love in Away, Away.
Bunches of MP3s have come my way recently, and I’m happy to share some with you. Come back on Friday for the Spring/Summer mix!
1. “Reno” – Shareef Ali. Anti-folk, acoustic-punk, and country converge on this memorable, attitude-filled breakup tune. (Ali’s CD release show is tonight, if you happen to find yourself in San Francisco.)
2. “Blankets” – Matthew Fowler. Fowler has a smooth, soothing voice that sounds far more mature than his 19 years. Fans of Josh Garrels and Ray LaMontagne should take notice.
3. “The Lampolier” – Grover Anderson. As fall moves toward winter, let’s move from pretty singer/songwriters to the haunting, backwoods Appalachian murder ballad tradition. The production here is particularly notable.
4. “Down to My Soul (The Music)” – Kate Vargas. When a woman says she’s influenced by Tom Waits, that gets my attention. Vargas delivers on that promise with raspy, soulful, inspired folk full of banjo and danger.
5. “Strugglin’” – I Am the Albatross. This one also starts out as a Tom Waits-ian folk ramble, but it transforms into a Gogol Bordello folk/punk/polka blaster complete with vengeful religious imagery. All aboard!
6. “All Walks of Life” – Mike Dillon. I’m used to Mike Dillon’s unclassifiable madness played at 3 zillion BPMs. This unclassifiable madness includes a significantly chiller body before a naturally madcap coda but is no less weird: it still includes vibraphone, trombone, drums, and Dillon’s crazy vocals.
7. “Alta / Waterfall” – Fear of Men. Jangly indie-rock urgency married to the rich, dusky landscapes of Bowerbirds and the like.
8. “Blight ft. FatRat Da Czar” – We Roll Like Madmen. Very smooth, dark, crisp electro here. FatRat Da Czar raps some really nice flow over it, really making this track.
9. “Ruin” – Vedas. The PR for this one calls it a “hollow depletion of hope,” which makes me want to try and cheer them up. Their James Blake-ian electro-pop/R&B/indie/whatever stuff is definitely attractive, though. All is not lost, yo!
10. “Reset” – Maggie McClure. Here’s a cathartic, female-fronted, piano-based pop tune for those who never stopped secretly loving The Fray and The Goo Goo Dolls.
11. “RaVe (feat. Kris English)” – Cloud Seeding. Is it folk? Is it electro? The lines keep getting fuzzier. Either way, this one is a lithe, easy-moving track.
12. “There Was a Time” – Corea Blue. Lo-fi can always get grittier, y’all. Props to this track for creating a zen-like mood and tone while using tape hiss as an instrument.
I’ve been listening to Roy Dahan‘s The Man in My Head for several weeks, and I’m still struggling to pin it down to words. It’s a solo project that feels like a full-band effort, as the overall mood of the tracks is more important than any single musician. David Gray would enjoy the seriousness and gravity of these tunes, but the album still has upbeat, inviting moments like “Crush.” It’s chill and relaxing, but with a sense of tension running throughout each tune.
I guess the best descriptor is adult alternative singer/songwriter, but that sells it short in so many ways. “Nothing But Miracles” starts out with a gentle, burbling fingerpicking guitar line before expanding into a wide-open chorus: “You’ll see / there’s a beautiful place to be / and I wonder if you’ll see at all.” The subtly urgent “Farewell” pulses with restrained energy, while “Maze” has a cascading, U2 sort of vibe. The album hangs together beautifully, but doesn’t obscure the high points within it. You can play this one as a full album or pick songs out of it for your playlists. That’s rare.
Dahan’s beautiful music is tough to explain but easy to love. If you’re into things as diverse as Counting Crows, Bright Eyes, Matt Nathanson, Ray LaMontagne, or The Decemberists, you’ll love Roy Dahan’s The Man in My Head.
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.
I gushed over Filbert’s Chronographic earlier this year because of its humble attitude toward music and lyrics. Cold Country‘s Missing the Muse EP reminds me of Filbert, because band leader Sean McConnell’s high tenor sounds like Daniel Gutierrez’s and the folky arrangements have an earnest, plaintive feel. The chamber-folk on Missing the Muse has a ragged, woodsy edge that sets it apart from pristine soundscapes like Bon Iver and well-produced hoedowns like Babel, although the album doesn’t stray far enough to alienate fans of those works.
The climactic finish of opener “What It Takes” features a fuzzed-out electric guitar dueling with a smooth harmonica, rumbling drums, glockenspiel, and distorted bass. The cavernous rumbling of the percussion keeps it from turning into a garage-rock tune and instead places it as an expansive, dramatic folk track. Even with the tune played out on a large screen, the tune feels intimate. That’s the primary tension in each of Missing the Muse‘s five tracks: the titular tune features an excellent guitar solo but carries a very personal sense of sadness; “My Bird of Paradise” is built on Fleet Foxes’ gentle guitar and harmonized vocals and also features a bass riff. The big arrangements never give way to an impersonal front and protect against being too hopelessly introspective. It’s a pretty impressive feat.
If you’re a fan of chamber-folk arrangements, then Cold Country’s Missing the Muse is required listening. These aren’t Mumford and Sons stomp-alongs, and they aren’t trying to be. The tensions that McConnell plays with are perfectly enough for fascinating listening, thank you very much.
The great thing about EPs is that there’s no reason that all of the songs can’t be excellent. When working with 10-15 songs, there’s bound to be something that doesn’t appeal to someone, but three songs can be crafted to near-perfection. And so it goes with Matt Carter‘s Daylight EP: the tunes are expertly written, arranged, performed and recorded. Carter applies to the Ray LaMontagne school of singer/songwriters: the more romance can be piled into one tune, the better. “For You” introduces Carter’s lithe voice, with just a touch of LaMontagne grit, over gentle acoustic guitar, delicate piano, upright bass, and swooning violins. It is as gorgeous as you might imagine.
Carter doesn’t let up with “From a Payphone Stall” or the title track: both frame Carter’s vocal melodies in arrangements that have as little to do with dissonance as possible. These are beautiful, carefully constructed tunes: instead of coming off smarmy or James Blunt-ish, they are delivered with assurance and confidence. Carter knows what his strengths are, and he plays to them perfectly here, creating memorably gorgeous songs. I’m looking forward to much more from Matt Carter, as he has put a lot of skill on display here in just over 10 minutes.
The ever-prolific Fiery Crash has ditched the fuzzed-out dream pop for a much more straightforward acoustic guitar album on Practice Shots. The results sound something like an early M. Ward album on downers: Josh Jackson’s acoustic guitar sound is warm and gentle even while being played in precise rhythms, and his rambling/mumbling/singing vocal style calls up great memories of “Chinese Translation“–although Jackson’s voice is lower than Ward’s. Working with not much more than that throughout the album, Jackson constructs tunes that float the entire way through.
Jackson’s baritone voice could be a dominant feature, a la the National, but he balances it perfectly against the other elements. The result are tunes that flow smoothly on their own and as a cohesive whole. “Equinox” layers three guitar parts, a vocal line, and simple percussion without ever feeling cluttered; opener “Cada Ano” pulls a similar feat while featuring an arresting vocal melody. “For the Canopy” is a little duskier in its mood, allowing for a pleasant variety. Even the louder tracks fit with the lazy, slowly rolling mood: “Volleybeachball!” uses an electric guitar and a speedy drum machine but is dragged back into the mood with a lackadaisical vocal line.
Fiery Crash has kept the quality level incredibly high over this latest dispatch of prolific production. This is the second full album and fourth release in this calendar year, and Practice Shots is the best of the bunch so far. I don’t know when Jackson will let up, but at this point he’s clicking on all cylinders. Fans of cheery, breezy acoustic songwriting like (early) Shins, She & Him, and more will love this. I look forward to his next move.
The title track for Together Through It All must have been an incredibly easy choice for Kye Alfred Hillig: in a 14-song album with few clunkers, “Together Through It All” stands head and shoulders above everything else on the record. Hillig’s forte is creating almost uncomfortably intense tunes, as if Ray LaMontagne’s vocal chords, Josh Garrels’ lyrical depth, latter-day Sam Beam’s arrangements, and David Bazan’s general passion were all crammed into one artist. “Together Through The Years” tracks the downward progression of a troubled son through the eyes of his loving, committed father: by the last verse, Hillig is roaring out over pounding drums and blasting horns that “the tombstone don’t make the man/And that’s not how I choose to remember him.” Hillig then returns to the devastating chorus: “I’m still his father/he’s still my son.” If you don’t get shivers or goosebumps or something during this tune, I don’t think this blog can help you much.
Hillig doesn’t just focus on heavy topics; there are some excellent love tunes here as well. “An Unedited Presentation of Souls,” “You and Me and Time,” and “Trampled/Triumphant” all take the average love ballad and crank up the intensity a few notches. The lyrics themselves are far more intimate and emotionally raw than I expect to hear, and the passionate vocal delivery is jaw-dropping at times. Hillig is a focused, powerful vocalist, but he can also deliver songs sweetly. It’s a rare thing to find.
It’s also rare to hear so much diversity fit so neatly on a record. The dense arrangement of opener “Breaking Lungs” makes it feel like a lost track from Iron and Wine’s Kiss Each Other Clean, while “War in Spring” is a perky piano-pop tune anchored by a Postal Service-esque beat. Closer “Does My Soul Still Sing?” is a majestic, reverential, synth-laden elegy, while “Free the Birds” is a garage-rock track anchored by campy organ. (Okay, “Free the Birds” does stick out a bit.) But other than that one, Hillig makes all of the tracks work by investing each of them with an equal amount of passion and care. No track here feels cast off on a whim: Together Through It All is completely and carefully organized.
If listening through the whole 45+ minutes is a bit of an exhausting experience, it’s a thrillingly exhausting one. There’s more charm and care crammed into this album than most bands can get into three albums. If you love singer/songwriters who aren’t necessarily out to make you happy, but are definitely out to make you feel, you need to know Kye Alfred Hillig. Trust me on this one. Kye Alfred Hillig will make you smile, laugh, and cry.
It only takes one listen of Little Chief‘s Somewhere Near the River to know that something special is going on here. The Arkansas folk quintet takes the sonic palette that has become stock-in-trade for the genre and softens the percussive edge that Mumford and Sons’ influence has imported. This means that the banjo doesn’t sound like it’s hammering on your brain, the drummer gets to use more tasteful and complex arrangements than “more kick drum,” and vocalist Matt Cooper doesn’t bellow. Instead, he turns his soft tenor voice toward Ray LaMontagne-style emoting, making his overall vocal performances somewhat akin to Kris Orlowski‘s.
Cooper’s voice is not the icing on the cake, but the element around which all things center. The arrangements point toward the lyrics and the vocal melodies without turning into wallpaper, which is a tough feat indeed. The cello goes a long way to strike this balance: it’s hard to not listen for the beautiful tones of that instrument, but it’s also pulled back enough in the mix that a clear signal is sent. That tension sounds like it would be a problem, but it’s really a benefit. The engineer that recorded this knew exactly what he was doing in maximizing this band’s skills and tastes.
The fact that the very young band knows its skills and tastes on their debut EP is equally impressive. It’s easy to want to go for bombast when you’ve just discovered your voice, but they restrain themselves beautifully. Instead of creating stadium-rockers, they’ve created headphone bobbers and car-trip wonderers: these are tunes of travel and geography, gently unfurling against the best possible backdrop. The title track incorporates a choir that actually sings, not just hollers. I love hollering, for real, but it’s still startling and pleasant to hear actual choral contributions. “Hiding and Seeking” is the high point, as it shows how they can be engaging, even electrifying, without being bombastic. The stuttering rhythms from the cello blend with guys hollering “hey” (can’t avoid it, y’all) and a dreamy guy/girl duet in the chorus to produce a shiver-inducing moment.
It’s astonishing that Somewhere Near the River is a debut, as the subtlety and refinement in the songwriting chops would indicate a group with much more recording experience. This band has a bright future that I will be tracking closely. If you’re sick of the overwrought theatricality that currently dominates folk, Little Chief is a pleasant, earnest antidote.
I lost a computer cable, so I’m computerless at the moment. I have a bunch of things I want to write, but stuff keeps getting in the way. It will be here soon, I hope; God willin’ and the creek don’t rise.
I’ve gone to three weddings in May, so I’ve been thinking often about wedding music. Even though pop music has been infatuated with infatuation for as long as it’s been alive, odes to the type of committed love that marriage is intended to foster are hard to find. Even songs that are ostensibly about everlasting love do not necessarily merit wedding performance. It takes an incredibly rare sort of song to convey the intimacy and vulnerability of married love, unless you’re Ray LaMontagne–and then every song can pretty much fit.
Early Iron and Wine tracks had the intimacy down as well; and it’s somewhere between those two artists that Young Readers’ Family Trees falls. Yes, those are huge shoes to fill, but the near-reverent beauty and fragility of “All I Have” and “Naked” leave me in the same state of mind as the work of those songwriting giants. Both songs are gentle, expansive tunes that create a distinct mood without a great deal of musical elements. “All I Have” uses a steady acoustic guitar strum to imbue an elegant string section and Jordan Herrera’s quiet voice with a gravitas enviable by LaMontagne. When a choir comes in for the climax of the tune, it sounds positively revelatory. The lyrics are perfect for the sound, as Herrera nearly whispers, “If all I have is you, then the rest is okay.” It’s going on my “song of the year” list for sure.
The sparse, slow fingerpicking of “Naked” recalls Iron and Wine immediately; since Sam Beam doesn’t make ’em like that anymore, this is a wonderful thing to be bestowing upon the world. And it does feel like this song is a gift. The songs are so intimate that it feels like Herrera is cracking open the door for me to see into a corner of his life that he doesn’t show to just anyone. The fact that there’s almost no build to “Naked” over its nearly-six-minute duration just impresses me more: there are few people who can write six minutes of sparse fingerpicking as engaging as this.
The rest of the tunes are solid as well. “Wooden Frame” retains the wistful romanticism of the aforementioned tunes despite being more upbeat, while “Blame” is another bedside confessional. “Boxcar” is a swaying tune that evokes the feel of traveling in the lyrics and music.
Jordan Herrera has created more immediately lovable music in 25 minutes than many bands make in a lifetime. Family Trees is a gorgeous, heartfelt EP that will command your ears and heart. I haven’t heard a better release all year, and I eagerly anticipate more material from Young Readers. If you’re a fan of romantic, honest music, you need to download this. And it’s free. What more can you ask for?