1. “Works for You” – Σtella. Sleek, slinky pop that bridges the gap between electro and Fleetwood Mac with ease.
2. “Throw the Game” – Sky vs. Heath. Electro-indie bands are a dime a dozen, but Sky vs. Heath manages to rise above the pack with pristine production, a breathy vocal performance, and solid vocal melodies.
3. “Future Ex” – Plastic Knives. Somehow things still sound futuristic, even though we’re definitely living in the future. This electro-meets-rock-meets-post-rock-meets-soundtrack tune achieves an unusual amount of clarity, consistency and vision for a tune of its type.
4. “Come to Your Senses” – MNNQNS. Ping-pongs between post-punk verses, party-friendly indie-rock pre-chorus, and an almost alt-rock chorus. The results are a lot of fun.
5. “Stay” – Sabbatical Year. Performing the balancing act between hipster-friendly indie-pop and radio-friendly OneRepublic-style pop takes a deft hand, and Sabbatical Year shows off that they’re up to the task.
6. “3 A.M.” – New Dog. A surprisingly perky arpeggiator anchors this late night indie-pop; it’s perhaps a gentler version of Digital Ash-era Bright Eyes. The sort of song that you feel like you’ve known and loved forever, starting right now.
7. “Dodged a Bullet” – Greg Laswell. Laswell is in full-on mope-out mode, making breakups sound just as weird and uncomfortable and all too familiar as we know they are.
8. “All In Time” – Hospital Ships. If you pull out elements of The Postal Service, Songs: Ohia, and LCD Soundsystem and mash them together, you might end up with something along the lines of this intriguing, low-key indie-pop jam.
9. “Cut Love” – Hayden Calnin. A brilliant, icy, arch, James Blake-ian electro-mope (with piano).
10. “The lamp kept us warm, but now we walk (Feat. Olivia Dixon)” – Trevor Ransom. A thoughtful, atmospheric piano-heavy piece (post-rock? modern classical? I don’t know anymore) that includes lots of found sound; it’s the sort of thing that turns an ordinary place into an extraordinary one with a simple pair of headphones.
11. “Back Home” – Lyfe Indoors. It’s tagged “coldwave,” which I’m sure is a specific term, but I like it because this tune is like a spartan chillwave tune in a minor key. It’s got subtle groove and evocative atmospherics.
12. “Dissolve” – TIHMTGB. A fractured, tumbling, almost architectural sonic piece; it relies heavily on impressions and interpretations of the mood, rather than melody. [Editor’s note: This track is no longer available.]
Lee Reit‘s self-titled record is largely played on a nylon-stringed guitar. In addition to adding a gentle sonic quality to the tunes, those strings import Spanish and Latin American connotations to the nine songs included here. When Reit’s evocative vocal tone and narrative vocal delivery are added in, the result is an engrossing, calming album full of intriguing tunes.
Opener “Dream Another Night” gives a good look at Reit’s guitar playing and his suave, subtly dramatic baritone vocal tone. The rolling fingerpicking is underscored by an insistent, shuffling, brushed drumbeat that would fit in a country tune; the constant press forward creates a tension against the guitar line and Reit’s easygoing vocal delivery. That tension holds even when Caitlin Marie Bell takes the mic for a verse; it’s a pleasant sort of push and pull that engages me in the tune.
There are Spanish vibes in “Dream Another Night,” both sonic and visual. The sonic ones aren’t as pronounced as they are in later songs, but the choice of all-white clothes for the band in the video gives the clip a light, airy feel that makes me think of relaxing languidly in a Spanish vineyard. (We’re honored to premiere the video above today!) “The Pleasure of the Fall” has a dusky Spanish nightclub vibe–not Ibiza, but 1920s literary expat Spanish nightclub. (The distant trumpet and sighing strings reinforce the initial thought.) “Visions of Eternity” amps up this style by incorporating Dylan-esque, cryptic, religious/political/social commentary and ratcheting up the minor-key drama. “Thanks for the Lessons” calls back to that Spanish vineyard, while also pointing toward Parachutes-era Coldplay work.
Most of the tunes on the record benefit from the control Reit has of his voice. “The Pleasure of the Fall” allows him to accentuate different points of the narrative by modifying the register and tone of his voice, from light and high to low and serious. It sounds like a simple transaction, but it’s not: there’s a significant, mysterious gravitas that he’s able to conjure up with the vocal shifts. He’s also great at delivering phrases and words, filling particular ones with meaning just by inflecting them in a certain way (“Thanks for the Lessons” and “Grace Alone” in particular, although it’s evident everywhere).
It’s not all Latin American vibes–“Grace Alone” is folky, even with hints of blues and gospel vibes. The fast-paced, keys-laden “Here, As in Heaven” has a speak/sing, Lou Reed/CAKE thing going on, which presents a very different angle on Reit’s songwriting. But in general, this is a walking-speed, unhurried album. “Wheel Within a Wheel” and “Shangri La,” the chronological center of the record, are flowing, relaxed tunes that make me want to go on a low-stress beach vacation–they’re indicative of the overall response I have to the record.
Lee Reit’s self-titled record is one that can be appreciated for its beauty immediately and for its subtlety over multiple listens. Like John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats (although in a very different milieu), Reit has developed his voice to be a fine-tuned instrument for delivering melodies and lyrics that stick in my head and keep me coming back. You could cover a Lee Reit song, but you wouldn’t sing it the way that he does. That’s a distinctive mark. If you’re into slowcore acoustic (Mark Kozelek, Songs: Ohia, Mojave 3) or thoughtful acoustic work (Josh Ritter, Joe Pug, Jason Isbell), you’ll enjoy Lee Reit’s work.
Young Legs‘ Promise of Winter starts off in summer with the uber-perky “Resolution” but travels through the seasons to the depth of winter by the close of the album. During the journey, Steven Donahue shows off deft control of mood and impeccable melodic skill. These tunes circle the central node of Donahue’s confident, breathy voice: whether it’s employed in a frantic, minor-key indie-rock tune [“Ring of Salt (Youth Culture Dummy Version)”], a major-key jangle-rock tune (“The Apple Stem”), a banjo-led folk tune (“Book of the Lethe”) or a complex a capella venture (“Northfield”), Donahue’s voice shines. (Wiry, quirky, zooming synthesizers appear in several well-chosen spots, giving this a friendly, unusual texture.)
Even though there are a wide variety of styles here, the core of the album is composed of Donahue’s voice and a guitar. “Goodbye, John Ryle,” “Round the Root,” and “Seasons of Giving” fall firmly within the folk camps, ranging from Nick Drake-ian lightness (“Round the Root”) to Songs: Ohia gloominess (particularly as you go farther into the album). The melodies throughout each style are compelling, showing that Donahue isn’t a one-trick pony. From whispery folk to brash indie-rock, the songwriting here never falters. It’s a charming release, through and through. Anyone who’s into acoustic-led indie music will have a field day with Promise of Winter.
Battle Ave.‘s Year of Nod is the opposite of Young Legs’ wide-ranging genre fiesta: instead, it’s a laser-focused exploration of a particular sonic space. Jesse Alexander and co. have made an album that explores the whispery, sleepy, eerie spaces in-between dusk and dark, or between dark and dawn. This is the sort of thing that the phrase indie rock was built for: it’s got the underlying assumptions of rock, but it’s not taking them in a stereotypically riff-bound, v/c/v structure. Alexander’s weary, wailing voice fits perfectly with these tunes, from the perky “Summer Spear” to the intimate, quiet “Helen (This Isn’t Meant to Offend).”
Everything in between those sonic poles (“Zoa,” “In Evil Hour,” “Say Say Oh Enemy”) plays with the tension between hissing found sound, misty ambient noises, and traditional indie-rock vibes–the 7-minute “Zoa” includes both an upbeat clapping section and an arhythmic melancholy interlude that is best characterized by Alexander’s wordless sighs and vocal noises. Battle Ave. has both of these things inside themselves, and the resulting tunes are the tension between them. Year of Nod is a frequently elegant, occasionally dissonant, always interesting indie-rock album–those interested in thoughtful, careful sonic art would do well to check this out.
1. “Great White Shark” – Hollands. Maximalist indie-rock/pop music with groove, noise, melodic clarity, effusive enthusiasm, strings, harp, and just about everything else you can ask for. If the Flaming Lips hadn’t got so paranoid after At War with the Mystics…
2. “Coyote Choir” – Pepa Knight. Still batting 1.000, Pepa Knight brings his exuberant, India-inspired indie-pop to more mellow environs. It’s still amazing. I’m totally on that Pepa Knight train, y’all. (Hopefully it’s The Darjeeling Limited.)
3. “Peaks of Yew” – Mattson 2. I love adventurous instrumental music, and Mattson 2 cover a wide range of sonic territory in this 10-minute track. We’ve got some surf-rock sounds, some post-rock meandering, some poppy melodies, some ambient synths, and a whole lot of ideas. I’m big on this.
4. “Firing Squad” – Jordan Klassen. Sometimes a pop-rock song comes along that just works perfectly. Vaguely dancy, chipper, fun, and not too aggressive (while still allowing listeners to sing it loudly), “Firing Squad” is just excellent.
5. “Droplet” – Tessera Skies. There’s a tough juggling act going on in this breathtaking indie-pop tune: flowing instruments, flailing percussion, cooing vocals, and an urgent sense of energy. It’s like if Jonsi’s work got cluttered up with parts and then organized neatly.
6. “Available Light” – David Corley. If Alexi Murdoch, Tom Waits, and Joseph Arthur all got together and jammed, it might sound something like this gruff yet accessible, vaguely alt-country track.
7. “Blue Eyed Girl” – Sam Joole. I’d like to make a joke about blue-eyed soul here, but it’s actually closer to Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl” than that. Lots of laidback guitars, good vibes, but not Jack Johnson twee, if you know what I mean.
8. “By the Canal” – Elephant Micah. I’m a big fan of people who aren’t afraid to let an acoustic guitar and voice splay out wherever they want and however long they want. Here, EM acts as an upbeat Jason Molina, putting the focus on his voice instead of the spartan-yet-interesting arrangements. Totally stoked for this new album.
9. “If It Does” – Robin Bacior. In this loose, smooth, walking-speed singer-songwriter tune with maximum atmosphere, shades of early ’00s Coldplay appear. That’s a compliment, people.
10. “Storm” – Dear Criminals. Not that often do I hear trip-hop, even in an updated melodic form. Way to go, DC–you pick up that torch that Portishead put down.
11. “You Open to the Idea” – Angelo De Augustine. Beautiful, delicate, wispy, earnest whisper-folk. They don’t make ’em like this very often anymore.
12. “Billowing Clouds” – Electrician. The mournful, affected spoken word over melancholy, trumpet-like synths makes me think of an electro version of the isolated, desolate Get Lonely by The Mountain Goats.
13. “Blue Chicago Moon (demo)” – Songs: Ohia. Until Jason Molina, I’ve never had a personal connection to the art of a troubled artist who died too early–Elliott Smith was gone before I knew of his work. Now with unreleased demos coming out consistently after Mr. Molina’s death, I feel the sadness of his passing over and over. Each new track is a reminder that there was work still to be made; it also feels like a new song from him, even though it’s objectively not.
Is this how a legacy gets made in the digital era? How long will we keep releasing new Molina songs, to remind us that he was there, and now he is not? (Please keep releasing them.) Will the new songs push people back to “The Lioness”? Will we keep these candles burning to light our own rooms, or will we bring them to other people? “Endless, endless, endless / endless depression,” Molina sings here. Is it truly endless? Are you still depressed? Does your permanent recording of the phrase make it truly “unchanging darkness”? “Try to beat it,” he intones, finally. Try to beat it, indeed. Keep trying until you can’t anymore. And then let your work stand forever. I guess this is how I mourn.
Classic-rock new kids Greylag, who have a single that you should listen to, put together a Spotify playlist of songs that influence them. The concept in itself is pretty cool, but their list is even cooler: aside from obvious influences Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd, they’ve got Sonic Youth, Cocteau Twins and Kurt Vile. Get hip, y’all.
Singer/songwriter Stephen Kellogg is doing a PledgeMusic campaign to fund a four-album cycle based on the four cardinal directions. I’m all for ambitious projects and crowdfunding, so go jump on it.
The diverse Mint 400 Records, home of the band I manage, just released a free tribute to Lou Reed. You can download the short EP by clicking on this link.
A deluxe edition of Songs: Ohia’s Didn’t It Rain is getting a Nov. 11 release from Secretly Canadian. As a fan of Jason Molina’s work, this is exciting to me. Even more exciting is the new song released in celebration of the event, “Ring the Bell – Working Title: Depression No. 42.”
I have several friends and relatives who are seriously into Ke$ha. Like, not just “bought the album” into it, but “this album is the soundtrack to my life” and/or “Seriously, listen to all of the songwriting moves on this track” into it. I have listened to Warrior in its entirety, and I like some of it, but it just doesn’t connect with me. I never thought I would find anything that bridged the gap between earnest, up-front electro-pop and singer/songwriter. Then Xoë Wise‘s Breakfast EP happened to me.
I say “happened to me” because it’s not very often that a release broadsides my expectations. I first heard Wise as a pensive acoustic singer/songwriter in 2012. Her new EP Breakfast still has a strong acoustic element, but it’s mashed up with some very svelte electro elements. And that’s real cool. Opener “Too Young” features rapper Nikki Lynette for a few bars amid a clicking beat, grumbling bass synths, and Wise’s calm alto speak/sing. It’s highly unexpected and really fun to listen to. Follow-up “Brunch” is an R&B jam that keeps with the intriguing minimalist production and introduces a clean electric guitar, bringing back a rooted sound I’m familiar with from Wise.
The title track brings Breakfast even closer to the singer/songwriter sound I know, but places it in the context of the clever production that underlines this EP. It’s a brilliant move, turning what could be an average female-fronted acoustic tune into a fascinating part of a continued melodic statement. People only try this sort of prolonged consistency on an album, when they have the time to expound on themes and sounds; Xoë Wise knocks the artistic statement out of the park on a five-track EP. The songwriting and Ethan Stoller‘s production work together seamlessly to really create something unique. By the time that album highlight “Toyota” rolls around, the no-frills acoustic tune fits perfectly into the mood, even without electronic elements. It’s the heart of the EP, showing that Wise and Stoller know how to craft consistency with or without a dominant musical palette. That’s a surprising versatility.
The EP concludes with a sad little jam called “Cigarette Break” that gives closure to the EP in the same way that a rough morning is a fitting end to the crazy night before. The whole EP shines, pointing out different facets of Wise’s sound in exciting and interesting ways. It took me a little bit to adjust my expectations for Breakfast, but after I did, what I found was delicious and highly recommended. (Couldn’t get out without a food pun.)
I’m new to Scout Niblett‘s work, so I don’t have anything to say about how this work fits into her decade-plus of previous releases. I can note, however, that the ghost of Jason Molina hovers lightly over It’s Up to Emma. The solitary, forlorn guitar crunch that so endeared me to Songs: Ohia is the main weapon in Niblett’s arsenal, from opener “Gun” to the is-that-Molina-in-the-strings heaviness of “My Man” to the eerie, haunting cover of “No Scrubs.” Niblett’s voice is wrenching and occasionally howling, drawing out every ounce of emotion from the pipes that she’s working with. This is intense stuff, pulled from quiet, sparse elements that hardly seem able to create such an atmosphere. It’s not a surprise to me that a split 7″ with Songs:Ohia from 2001 is the first thing in her discography.
The same disclaimer I gave to all those trying out Molina’s work applies here: the songs are long, melancholy, and unaccommodating. (Although, some quick research shows that this may be her most approachable work in a while, which is kind of impressive and makes me wonder what the other stuff was like). New listeners are about to submerge in a fully realized world where gut-wrenching minimalism is not something come by accidentally. These songs are supposed to sound like that, and if you’re not down with that, then there are other things to listen to. As it stands, Niblett’s highly specialized brand of sadness is honed to a fine point on It’s Up to Emma. Some will rejoice (while being sad, in keeping with the album’s theme); some will be sad, because they’d rather rejoice. Both are acceptable responses to an uncompromising, fully-realized record.
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.