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. “Delightful” – Katie Garibaldi. A delightfully honest reflection on how to live life in this crazy world.This sweet-sounding song beautifully combines acoustic guitar strumming with Garibaldi’s unique voice.
2. “Alaska” – Tina Refsnes. This thoughtful folk tune starts off with minimalist guitar instrumentation and slowly expands to include a rather full orchestral accompaniment. “Alaska” is a lovely track that provides just the right amount of cheer for a rainy day.
3. “No Last Call”– Emily Rodgers. A contemplative, melancholic folk tune with alt-country influence coming out in her use of pedal steel. The long length of the track gives off a feeling like it may just be an endless beauty. When it comes to a close, you are left wanting to return to its peaceful arms.
4. “Little by Little”– Niamh Crowther. Crowther’s soaring sopranic voice pairs well with her playful instrumentation. Similar to the likes of Regina Spektor, Crowther hits, holds, and transitions through very high notes; it’s rather awe-inspiring.
5. “Miami”– Kara Ali. Soulful, jovial, and refreshing, the funky instrumentation of “Miami” makes me want to groove. Ali’s voice is this interesting combination of Mariah Carey and Joss Stone. This is a great ode to a fun American city.
6. “Cormorant”– Dana Falconberry and Medicine Bow. I love this song; it feels very Birdy meets Fleet Foxes with some Dirty Projectors thrown in. Heavy on the banjo and bass, this track combines unique instrumentation with quizzical lyrics and a powerful voice. Fun all around.
7. “Oliver”– Brooke Bentham. This simple, lovely singer-songwriter track will steal your heart with its raw vocals and compelling lyrics. I can truly feel the warmth emanating from this song.
8. “Tonight”– Ashley Shadow. This is a great example of how Ashley Shadow makes music that builds and climaxes magically, akin to The War on Drugs. And Shadow’s coy alto female voice correlates well with the male background vocals entering at the chorus.
9. “Next To You”– Dannika. Sit back, relax and chill out to this track. Dannika’s unassuming vocals paired with the guitar provide a perfect example of casual feminine rock.
10. “Late to the Party”– Heavy Heart. Another chill rock song, this female-fronted rock band makes great rock music. The crisp electric guitar steals the show from the start, but the layered strings certainly deserve an honorable mention.
11. “Midnight Blue”– Candace. Although the vocals are great, the instrumentation shines on this track. It makes me want to take a drive, roll down the windows, and let the wind mess up my hair as I listen to this song.
12. “Cementville”– Annabelle Chairlegs. This song radiates fun. The vocals are very reminiscent of the female from the B-52s, with raucous screaming to boot. I’m especially in love with the boldness of this song; feels very third wave feminism.
13. “Lies”– ¿Qué Pasa? With quaking electric guitar, sultry vocals and punchy lyrics, “Lies” oozes sex appeal. The multitude of false endings leaves you thinking it’s over and then the seduction starts up again. It somehow feels like something that Quentin Tarantino could have used in a Kill Bill Vol. 1 fight scene.–Krisann Janowitz
Chamber pop gets thrown around a bit as an impressionistic term that vaguely means (to the best of my understanding) dignified, serious songcraft, often with strings and piano. (I could be wrong.) The six tunes of Roan Yellowthorn‘s self-titled EP very much adheres to this particular understanding of songwriting, except that it actual sounds like she has a chamber quartet backing her up in places. Opener “Lie With Me” has distinctive melodic and rhythmic elements in the string arrangements that are much more common to classical than pop songwriting. This unexpected element gives her work a surprising quality. (The great “So Fast” reiterates this sort of mood.)
She contrasts this chamber understanding of songwriting with leading piano, thumping drums, pad synths, and a bright, immediately magnetic voice. The arrangement somehow meshes perfectly with the chamber elements, creating a unique sound that’s somewhat like Regina Spektor in an orchestra hall. But it’s Yellowthorn’s voice that makes this album a can’t-miss. Her confident alto has a unique personality and sonic profile that is the rarest of things to hear in a pop singer. Once you’ve heard her once, you’ll know her again–and that’s rare.
Each of the songs here are memorable, but “Thirty Years” is the standout: a piano and voice tune that tells a tragic story with a surprising ending. Yellowthorn relates the story of two characters with grace, poise, and careful attention to the nature of the story and the people in it. It’s a fitting ending to a EP that establishes a fresh new voice in indie-pop. Recommended.
Ryan Downey‘s Me and Heris an a capella mini-LP that doesn’t sound like a joke, a fad, or a bad idea. That alone should be enough to get you to check it out, but there are charms beyond the great execution of a concept: Downey’s baritone voice is smooth and lithe, and the songs he chooses are clever and interesting. Downey’s voice is necessarily the centerpiece of the record, and his voice has enough character and experience in it to keep things fresh throughout the seven songs. The only backdrop to his voice is often his multi-tracked voice, snapping, (“Tidings”), stomping and clapping (“Only Time”), and a female voice (“On a Good Day”). Yet he keeps the arrangements varied and fresh, never letting things stagnate.
The choice of songs helps with the variety: instead of writing seven songs, he re-interpreted two previous tunes and picked five covers. You’ve probably heard Enya’s “Only Time” and Joanna Newsom’s “On a Good Day,” but you may not be as familiar with Tiny Ruins’ “Chainmail Maker” and the McGarrigle Sisters’ “Cool River.” The variety encapsulated in those four tunes alone is incredible. If you’re an adventurous sort and want to hear something unusual, check out the vastly interesting Me and Her by Ryan Downey.
Reina del Cid‘s The Cooling sounds effortless. del Cid can meld her gentle alto voice seamlessly with a warm acoustic guitar and thrumming stand-up bass to create the sort of music that just sounds right. (She can also rock a full band arrangement, too–note the excellent “Mice and Men”).
From opener “Sweet Annie” to “The Fall” to “Morse Code” to closer “Death Cap,” she pulls elements of singer/songwriter, indie-pop, folk, country, and even blues together. The result is an infectious, engaging sound that gives her room to set up her mature, composed vocal and instrumental melodies. There’s a balance between joie de vivre and earthy certainty that results in tunes that feel close to her heart but also not weepy and introspective.
I want to sing along to the tunes, but I also want to sit back and let them hit me. It’s “Morse Code” where this hits hardest: it’s a break-up song with a sort of spurned-lover disaffection (famous of female country tunes) poured into a gentle guitar strum that falls somewhere between folk and indie-pop. Her voice has some gentle reverb on it that give it some depth, but the earnest melody could have carried it on its own. The lyrics shine as well, taking a different tack on the tried-and-true subject material.
The Cooling is one of the most enjoyable records I’ve heard all year: you can love it at multiple levels, and that makes for great listening. If you’re interested in Ingrid Michaelson, Regina Spektor, or other innovative singer/songwriters, you need Reina del Cid in your ear.
Saying that Winna by Tara Fuki is difficult to explain is a bit of an understatement. Each of the songs on the album are written for two cellos and two female voices, with influences ranging from classical minimalism to Eastern European folk songs to post-rock to Jonsi-style alt-pop. If that wasn’t enough, the lyrics are in Czech. All this comes together for this American listener to become something of an otherworldly missive: Winna sounds vaguely like things I understand, but mostly it sounds beautiful in a voice that no one had previously tried to speak to me.
There’s a lot of pizzicato plucking throughout the album, both on its own and as a contrast to flowing counterpoint. Sometimes the cellos are intertwined in a complex way; sometimes they compliment each other instead of playing off each other. At no point does the sound get cluttered; the duo have orchestrated their duets masterfully to make the sound consistent and pure. The band has previously used electronics to augment the sound, but with the exception of some wind chimes in “W twojej glowie,” they are totally acoustic on the album. The most complexity of the whole album comes in the finale of that tune, when both cellos, both vocalists and the chimes are going in opposite directions. It’s exciting, and it feels fresh.
“Lecimy” and “Dopis” are closest to traditional indie-pop song structures; it’s easy to imagine the perky-yet-restrained “Dopis” as a song that could fit in Regina Spektor wheelhouse. “Anna” starts off with a traditional-sounding folk vocal melody, then puts a yearning, keening vocal counterpoint over it. The song develops with some dramatic, scraping percussive work on the cellos, remaining a heavily vocal piece. It’s similar to things Julianna Barwick would create. The nine-minute “Zavrat” imposes the most post-rock influences, as the most production happens in this tune (reverb, found sound of rain, perhaps even some cello overdubs or incredibly complex individual performances). Its furious tone is internally consistent, and manages to fit in the context of the album.
Winna is an amazing album that confounds me with its beauty. It sounds like little I’ve ever heard before, which is a big compliment from a person who listens to music all the time. It’s a really powerful work that can be returned to over and over. If you’re into adventurous, experimental work that doesn’t delve into noise or abstract chord mashing, Tara Fuki should be on your shortlist.
Independent Clauses is but one man right now, and I can’t get to everything. Here are some really quick hits on stuff I like but haven’t had a chance to cover in detail.
Shine Your Light – Gap Dream. Burger Records loves garage-rock, but Gap Dream goes against the grain for some psych-influenced pop-rock. The tunes here are smooth, powered by shimmering, pulsing synths and trilling, chiming guitars. These are really fun tunes that take some of the irony out of indie-rock’s version of pop-rock. Perfect driving music, excellent chilling-out music.
Light on the Lake – Signals Midwest / Banquets – Banquets. I didn’t listen to a lot of punk rock this year for a bunch of silly reasons. These two bands, whom I dearly love, bore the brunt of my sabbatical. Both are really talented bands that deserve the attention of those who love muscly punk rock that doesn’t get too abrasive and keeps an artsy streak.
Spooky Action – The Fierce and the Dead. If a punk band and a post-rock band were in a head-on collision, the resulting fusion would sound as frantic and expansive as this album. If you’re into post-rock but think it can get way too navel-gazing sometimes, you should hear the pounding riffs and rhythms this English band throws down.
Unravel – Debbie Neigher. Neigher is an alto singer/songwriter with a mature approach to songwriting, along the lines of Regina Spektor, Imogen Heap, and Feist. She relies heavily on keys–but not necessarily piano–which creates a nice vibe to her work.
Save Your Heart – Lights & Motion. If you like your post-rock in major keys, with huge crescendoes, and with jubilant conclusions, Lights & Motion is far and away the best at that. This is beautiful stuff that intends to make you sigh with wonder. You know who you are.
Multiple Releases – Qualia. Dan Leader put out six releases in 2013 under his post-rock moniker. Similar to Lights & Motion, but with a pinch more nuance and minor key action, this is still incredibly beautiful work. If you’re into it, there’s a ton of it to be into, so jump on that.
Falling in Waves – Black Birds. These Australians marry guitar crunch and heavy reverb for a post-shoegaze throwdown. If you’re into rock riffs without a blatantly self-indulgent rock’n’roll attitude, check it out.
I’ve got files and notepads and contacts and contracts all over the place right now. I keep thinking, “I feel like my head is about to explode.” I’ve been mitigating this through musical means: My “Get Stuff Done” playlist powers me through work, while Elizaveta‘s debut Beatrix Runs calms me down when I’ve done all I can do for a day.
Elizaveta is uniquely suited to this endeavor. Her malleable soprano can pull off dainty charm (the Norah-esque “Snow in Venice”), quirky concern (the Regina-esque “Beatrix Runs”) arch operatics (“Odi Et Amo”) and even R&B (“Onion”). But her bright moment is “Dreamer,” where Elizaveta combines all her vocal affectations into something uniquely her own: her bright vocal lines mesh perfectly with gently burbling synths, breathy background vocals, and piano to make an infectious, catchy tune. “Armies of Your Heart” performs a similar feat, showing that Elizaveta is on her way to a distinctive style.
Elizaveta’s personality is still a bit in flux on this album; she’s tempering her operatic tendencies against her indie-pop aspirations, and the mix hasn’t stabilized quite yet. Even so, there are many moments of beauty, and the album is an interesting listen throughout. Fans of quirky singer/songwriters (all the aforementioned, Ingrid Michaelson) will love this one.
I love songs that buck trends. It’s refreshing to hear a song that operates in the way its author feels is right, instead of a predetermined “right” pattern. This sort of idiosyncratic songwriting has caused me to shower praise on Regina Spektor’s Soviet Kitsch (severaltimes), Mansions’ Best of the Bees and The Mountain Goats’ entire discography.
Superstar Runner‘s “Advice From People Who Shouldn’t Give It (Don’t Take It)” is my latest favorite wrong song. Songwriter Ben Johnson builds the tune from a slow, gently fingerpicked intro to a fast-paced group-sing accompanied by piano and beatboxing over the span of 3:43. There’s no real chorus; instead, Johnson sprinkles repeated melodies and phrases throughout the tune. (Also, yes, the percussion is a guy beatboxing.) No matter; “Advice” feels incredibly organic, passionate and relatable.
It made me think of Nitsuh Abebe’s recent rumination that “The motor behind [Fiona] Apple’s shows seemed to be inside her– some kind of emotion with no cultural reference point.” We want songwriters to tell us stuff about themselves and ourselves, so we rightly decry songwriters who try to cop someone else’s style or produce weirdness for the sake of weirdness. When idiosyncratic, weird songwriting meets an emotion that’s difficult to express, that’s where the magic happens. And “Advice From People Who Shouldn’t Give It (Don’t Take It)” is certainly magic.
The emotion that’s so difficult has much to do with the tensions and strains that come with leaving a birth family (physically and metaphorically) to start a new family. There’s plenty of bildungsroman novels and songs, but much less ink spilled over pinpointing how and when we change from one family to the other as our primary marker (especially when this generation puts it off so much). That sprawling tension is all over the title and content of Heritage/Lineage/Hand-Me Downs/Scars (Your Birthmarks Do Not Bother Me).
Johnson’s highlight track and emotive themes peg him in unique (and potentially difficult) territory, but he remains in the realm of the relatable by doing his homework. Instead of going all tUnE-yArDs with “Advice” as a jumping off point, Johnson reveals a solo songwriting project that calls to mind the passionate, low-complexity arrangements prominent in the early periods of both Bright Eyes and The Mountain Goats. Johnson has learned how to use song structures, lyrics, melodies and moods for differentiation; each song is unique and interesting.
“You must fall down / if you ever want to grow up / You must leave town / if you ever want to find home,” Johnson sings in “Growing Pain,” an I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning—style country tune complete with snare shuffle and up/down bass line. His unadorned, sincere tenor keeps the song from ever coming unhinged. That control of conviction allows for the tender “Just a Lullaby,” the adamant semi-title track “Your Birthmarks Do Not Bother Me” and the wistful “Cribs and Kids” to all peacefully exist on the same album. The only place his stridency becomes a liability is when he lets his strumming and singing roar on the overdramatic “Dylan Come Home,” which draws too hard on Dashboard Confessional influences.
With 11 songs with meaningful lyrics spread over nearly 40 minutes, there’s a lot to digest in Heritage/Lineage/Hand-Me Downs/Scars (Your Birthmarks Do Not Bother Me). But Johnson’s songwriting skill is such that this feels like a guided tour instead of an art spectacle, and that marks Superstar Runner as a rising talent.
“If there’s no grand cultural war left for you to wage, how are you supposed make friction? Indie rock responded by fanning out into a thousand sub-genre deltas, each with their own set of reference points. The best stuff, every year, is the stuff that somehow leaps across those gaps, like a firing synapse.” -Jayson Greene, Pitchfork, “Making Overtures: The Emergence of Indie Classical”
I’ve been quoting this paragraph copiously in conversation and text since it was published, because it perfectly frames the situation in which indie rock currently sits. Should you be really, really good at one genre? The answer as an extension of this paragraph is “Probably not”: the genre already has a hero (or heroes), and you’re just going to be appropriating heroes if you aspire to greatness in a genre. You should mix and match, because that’s the stuff that gets applause these days: Bon Iver abandoning pure folk for a confluence of acoustic and ’80s synthscapes, Arcade Fire adopting a wiry ’80s touch for “Sprawl II: Mountains Beyond Mountains.” If we’ve heard it all before, we must repackage it in new ways. (This is why we have “new” lawyer dramas every year.)
I disagree that there is no room for purists; folksters The Low Anthem immediately come to mind as a great example of forging forward in a historically-established sound, as well as singer/songwriters like Brianna Gaither. Still, it’s true that the hip and cool stuff right now is interdisciplinary. (The technically appropriate term would intergenrenary, but that’s a clunky, made-up word.) Everything in the world is becoming interconnected; why not music?
Gabriel and the Hounds‘ Kiss Full of Teeth is the sound of a band working hard on its interdisciplinary mix. The basic elements of the sound are stark folk in the For Emma vein, The National-style gloomy indie rock, and a composer’s sense of symphonic instrumentation (more Firebird Suite, less “Eleanor Rigby”). Like my late grandfather’s attempts to recreate Bailey’s Irish Cream from his own personal brewing and mixing, the results aren’t perfect—but they still taste great.
“Lovely Thief” is the most memorable track of the album, both for its successes and head-scratching excesses. The first minute consists of a grooving, lightly distorted guitar rhythm and comfortable tenor vocals. Trumpets, horns and oboes arrive without warning, colliding with the rhythmically solid guitar in erratic foxhunt calls. The guitar and foxhunt end simultaneously, giving way to an elegant symphonic break. Drums and guitar are then introduced on top of the continued symphonic elements. It’s a beautiful tune, especially in its final, fully-realized minute.
However, its abrupt switches show either a desire to rupture normative ideas of modern songwriting or an unfamiliarity with the delicate balance between all the song’s moving parts (or both!). The first is admirable, the second understandable; both show that they’re trying stuff. When the band sticks to one genre, they make very consistent songs that are less dynamic and interesting that their experiments: “The World Unfolds” uses strings as a support element to a straight-forward indie-rock tune; “What Good Would That Do” is Tom Waits for electric guitar.
So it’s pleasing that Gabriel and the Hounds try more ambitious tunes than standard ones: the very pretty “When We Die in South America” uses an unexpected entry point of strings to disrupt usual songwriting structure, while “Wire and Stone” sets an orchestra as the grounding point instead of traditional rock instruments. The swelling, building “An In-Between (Full Where You Are)” provides even more emphasis on symphonic composition—Colin Stetson listeners will nod and smile. “Who Will Fall on Knees” sets the symphonic arrangement against a pensive folk piece, using the strings as the forceful element in the piece.
Gabriel and the Hounds’ Kiss Full of Teeth is a wildly interesting piece of work packed with vitality and thought. The unique ideas shine, even if the pieces don’t come together in a completely unified way. It’s like listening to Regina Spektor’s Soviet Kitsch: It’s clear that she is either purposefully ignoring conventions of songwriting or isn’t yet skilled enough to write proper songs she hears in her head—regardless, Soviet Kitsch is wonderful. (Based on the markedly less erratic quality of her later output, I’d bank the latter idea.) Put another way: formal success does not ensure quality. Sometimes the half-baked mistakes are far more interesting and vital than the fully-formed, conventionally-sound work, and that’s the case for Gabriel and the Hounds. Hopefully more bands follow their lead and risk putting out this sort of genre-bending, might-be-a-mess-but-who-cares work.
Shenandoah Davis is not messing around. She and her two-man backing band started touring August 14, toured through September, will keep going through October, then will close out the run with 20+ shows in November. By the end, she will have played a self-booked show almost every day for four. solid. months.
The new music industry takes work ethic, but that’s far beyond anything I’ve ever seen. I would write about that insane tour schedule even if I didn’t like her music. That is worthy.
The Company We Keep, however, is also worthy. Her album features distinctive, precise piano-based songwriting. Davis has a high, affected, trilling voice that calls up Joanna Newsom comparisons, and it’s the centerpiece of the album. The songwriting is accompanied by stark arrangements that play up the wintry tones that she invokes. Tunes like “Sewn Up Tight” and “Oh Way Oh” use strings to condense the sound, making it even more claustrophobic than her songwriting would otherwise make it.
She strikes an odd and mesmerizing balance in The Company We Keep; she and Newsom have the weird songwriter vibe in common, but there’s also a distinct element of Bon Iver-esque beauty encompassed in the tunes (“White Wind”). Regina Spektor’s more brusque and brittle moments are called up as well (“Duet,” “Proof”). “Proof” is an especially interesting case, as it funnels all of her borrowed idiosyncrasies through a jaunty saloon-style piano. It’s easily the most distinctive and unique tune here. You’ll be humming it at the end, most likely.
The Company We Keep is a beautiful, unique collection of tunes. And since songs only get more broken in when you play them repeatedly, Davis is probably sporting even better renditions of these on the road (today: Providence, RI). Even so, picking up a Bandcamp copy of The Company We Keep is recommended.
You need to go to Shenandoah Davis’ show when she comes through your town. Because she probably is coming through your town. Heck, she might even come to my small town. I am not kidding. This is how dedicated she is.
Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of instrumental music. We write about those trying to make the next step in their careers and established artists.