After a long, slow climb, Jason Isbell has hit the burners: five years ago I saw him in a dive bar in Auburn, Ala., and just last month I declined to see him again in a 2700+ person venue in Durham. He has officially made it. If you’re looking for your next up-and-coming dive bar Americana champion, I volunteer Edward David Anderson. Anderson’s Lower Alabama: The Loxley Sessionsdoes everything you want an Americana record to do and then some.
Americana starts with the voice, and Anderson’s is great: a smooth, comfortable tenor delivered just right. His melodies fit in between Isbell’s gravitas and Nathaniel Rateliff’s infectious enthusiasm (see “Silverhill” for more on that idea). The tunes surrounding the vocals are spartan and carefully arranged to not clutter anything: there’s not much you can do to help a melody so pure as “Cried My Eyes Dry,” so the band backs off and lets Anderson sing it. This is their approach almost everywhere, except for the hustlin’ crime tale “Jimmy & Bob & Jack” that’s closer to a rock arrangement than anything else here. And it’s the right approach, because Anderson himself is the centerpiece, whether he’s singing over a gently rolling banjo in “Hidin’ at the Hollow” or leading the back porch picker “Sadness” (surprisingly cheery). The songwriting is just right there.
Lower Alabama: The Loxley Sessions offers up spot-on vocals-centric Americana songwriting. It does its thing and does it well. If you’re looking for more Southern songwriting pathos in your life, here’s to Edward David Anderson.
Archie’s EP by Aryl Barkley is an intimate release that combines the intense focus and breathy vocals of Elliott Smith with the fingerpicking of early Iron and Wine. “High on Inhibition” is a tune right out of Sam Beam’s wheelhouse, a tender major-key rumination on the past. The fingerpicking is just lovely, fitting beautifully with the whispered vocals. The minor key and gentle strumming of “Inside the Playhouse” speak Smith’s language, pondering something heavy without ever becoming heavy itself. “Two of the Ten Best” closes the three-song EP with a tune which includes ghostly background vocals over minor-key fingerpicking, something like a mash-up of the two previous tunes into something that starts to point toward his unique strengths. The ghost of Bon Iver holds out somewhere in the distance, but this last track is where Aryl Barkley really starts to put his name out there. I look forward to hearing more from this Aussie.
Haleiwa‘s Palm Trees of the Subarcticcombines acoustic guitar, Scandinavian dream-pop, and the occasional post-rock touch to create songs that feel bright, fresh, and cinematic.
The trick is that they’re cinematic in a low-key, indie-movie type way, not is a surging melodrama sort of way: “Wall of Blue Sky” feels like a pensive roadtrip scene, while the quiet expansiveness of standout “Seals and Sharks” points more in the direction of the “personal revelation” scene. The blend of acoustic instruments, electronic sounds, and live drumming is arranged and mixed perfectly, creating warm pieces that feel effortlessly pulled off. Just check out the title track or “The World Beyond” for a seamless melding. “All Sparked” focuses more on a flowing acoustic guitar line, which makes the song one of my personal favorites.
Haleiwa’s unique blend of sounds puts it in the same league as The Album Leaf, Teen Daze, and Grandaddy, but different from each of those. Palm Trees of the Subarctic is an exciting work that should be celebrated.
Chris Staples’ “Dark Side of the Moon” pairs old clips about the reaction to a space launch with a earnest, plaintively hooky acoustic pop tune. It’s a great tune and a great video.
Stein Sang’s “House of Sticks” video tells the story of a tumultuous (but not totally broken) relationship. The cinematography is great, and the song fits excellently.
Peach Kelli Pop’s clip for “Princess Castle 1987” sees the female quartet running around a city in full Princess Peach dresses. It is a hilarious and fitting clip for the bubblegum pop garage rock of PKP.
Iron & Wine’s “Everyone’s Summer of ’95” clip features semi-pro wrestling prominently–maybe Sam Beam and John Darnielle should hook and have a discussion about how the sport impacts their creative processes (The Mountain Goats’ recently-released Beat the Champ is about wrestling.) The video is tender, thoughtful, and poignant.
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.
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?
I don’t often sit back and chill, as I usually relax by reading or writing poetry. But the dreamy simplicity of Acres by Rat Wakes Red makes just being a very pleasant experience indeed.
RWR creates intimate, melodic tunes reminiscent of old-school Iron and Wine. Songwriter James Raftery plays more piano than Sam Beam did, and his sketches tend more toward ghostly melancholy than the bearded wonder’s. Raftery’s voice has soothing reverb on it, giving the tunes an even more ethereal air. Gentle synths and strings make appearances, capping off the tunes.
Raftery’s tightly-defined production leads to the make-or-break point of Acres: the eighteen songs tend to run together when listened to in one sitting. Barely a song steps outside the guitar/piano/vocals/auxiliary instrument oeuvre he sets up.
As a result, the overall effect is not song-driven; the album is best experienced as an un-dissected document. In an ADHD era, this is a liability in attempts to gain casual listeners; there is no single here. But for those who love the experience of setting an album on and blissing out to the mood it creates, this is a treasure trove. Fans of Other Lives, Elliott Smith, Sigur Ros and Joshua Radin will find much to love in Rat Wakes Red’s Acres.
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.