1. “Finally Happy” – Exzavier Whitley. A major key fingerpicking job that strongly evokes Nick Drake’s work is paired with some heavy lyrics. Delivered by Whitley’s breathy tenor and placed in the context of the guitar work, they aren’t quite as sad as just reading them on a page would be, but they’re still pretty heavy.
2. “Jumping Ship” – Theo Kandel. Lots of people can throw their voice around, but Kandel uses tonal and dynamic shifts carefully (and thus expertly) to take this singer/songwriter tune to the next level.
3. “The Reason for Living” – The Folk Today Project. A short, sweet, simple folk tune that employs a great stand-up bass and solid contributions from the rest of the band.
4. “6 Shots” – Kate Brown. The strum presses forward relentlessly, while the vaguely Celtic strings pull back on the reins. Brown’s alto splits the difference excellently, walking through the tension comfortably and confidently. By the end, Brown has turned in a pretty powerhouse performance vocally.
5. “Silver Mountain” – Adora Eye. The immediate vocal performance and insistent piano call up comparisons to serious folk singers like Josh Garrels and Chris Bathgate. The vibe here is serious, but not so much that there isn’t a bit of swaying that can be done by the listener.
6. “Already Gone” – Wild Rivers. A male/female duet powers this folk-pop tune that sounds like it can scratch the itch left behind by the demise of The Civil Wars.
7. “Teenage Crime” – Rod Ladgrove. Beachy acoustic jams are an intrinsic part of summer, and Ladgrove’s contribution on that front has the mystique of “crime” thrown in on top of a relaxed-yet-carefully-arranged atmosphere.
8. “Catching Elizabeth” – Carter Vail. Here’s another beach-friendly adult alternative pop tune that sounds like a mix between Jack Johnson and James Taylor. There’s a spark in here that sets it apart from the hundreds of other tunes that bear similar explanations; it’s got some groove that keeps me into it.
9. “Blue and Gray” – O.B. Howard. Pizzicato strings provide a contrast to the hazy, relaxed acoustic indie-pop and transform the track into a wonderful piece of lazy-day hammock music.
10. “Last Light” – Maurice Van Hoek. Traditional country is going through a moment right now, and Maurice Van Hoek’s offering continues that old-school vibe with earnest vocals, strong melodies, tender keys, and weeping pedal steel. If you’re on that Sturgill Simpson / Chris Stapleton train, hit this one up.
11. “Can You Tell” – Bird Concerns. The major key folk aesthetics of Blind Pilot meet a West Coast indie-pop sensibility to create a light, enjoyable tune that’s actually about a breakup. Who would have guessed, from the sound?
Ashley Riley‘s “This Town” is an ode to everyone who feels that magnetic pull of a small town, even when they’ve gone off to the big city. You can take the person out of the town, they say…
Riley’s hometown reminiscences are sung in a dusky alto and set over an arrangement that splits the difference between old-school country and modern singer/songwriter. (With Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton becoming cool, it might be the country that’s the “cool” half these days.)
The drums and bass hold down the frame of the song, while the electric guitar pushes on the bounds of both country and singer/songwriter. It’s ultimately a tune that’s just as accessible and understandable as the lyrical statement it makes. If you’re looking for a smooth, easy tune to help you relax in a hammock on a spring afternoon, here’s one for you.
Through the Thin comes out April 8. Pre-order it here. You can also check out Ashley’s music at some shows she’ll be playing around her hometown, fittingly enough.
This set of MP3 drops aren’t arranged by any particular mood or sonic space, as I usually do. Here’s a grab bag! Enjoy the surprises!
1. “Sisters” – ELY. There’s more suspense and payoff than in most novels packed into this four-minute instrumental wonder. The trumpet leads the way throught the deconstructed verses, teasing the listener with what could be, until the rousing full-band jaunt that appears twice. Hooky, interesting, and really worth your time.
2. “Sail” – Seckar. This song has a lot going on: post-rock instrumentation, danceable vibes, electronic grooves, acoustic solemnity, ghostly vocals, and overall a giant sense of fun.
3. “Lips” – Oyster Kids. The tension between the light, Foster the People-like melodies and the slow-moving guitars gives this pop song a neat vibe.
4. “Orange + Blue” – Colored In. Chaotic, hyperactive, multi-colored indie-pop held together through sheer force of will. It’s like some alternate-universe of the Flaming Lips where they didn’t get all paranoid but continued getting weird after Yoshimi.
5. “Plastic” – Howard. The grandeur of trip-hop, the instrumentals of maximalist post-dub, and a clicky percussive sensibility lead this indie-rock track. Sounds like a version of OK Computer, 20 years later.
6. “Tin” – Nearly Oratorio. Weary, dreary, bleary, and yet capable of woozing its way to memorable melodies and comforting moods.
7. “The Mahogany Tower” – Pyramid//Indigo. Dark, brooding, and evocative, this instrumental post-rock piece includes found-sound clips of sermons for extra atmosphere.
8. “Cove” – Kerosene (UK). Vocal gravitas and spartan electric guitar levity combine neatly here to make a serious, mature indie-rock tune that doesn’t feel overburdened or maudlin.
9. “Don’t Waste Another Day” – The Moves Collective. There’s a subtly funky groove, charming melodies, a friendly vibe, and rhythms that make me want to dance. This is acoustic jam done right.
10. “My Situation” – Joseph Tonelli. This gently fingerpicked tune is already enticing before it brings in subtle percussion and beautiful strings–after that it’s impressive.
11. “I Called to Cry” – Nate Henry Baker. For those who’ve gone the Sturgill Simpson / Chris Stapleton route and decided that full-on country music is alright by you, add Nate Henry Baker to your list. This one’s a traditional tears-in-your-beer ballad that wouldn’t feel out of place with The Louvin Brothers or Roy Orbison.
12. “Maybe I Won’t Come Home Tonight” – Meredith Baker. There are millions of troubled-relationship tunes, but this one sticks out above the rest with a gentle guitar, an engaging voice, and that x factor called charm.
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.