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Tag: Sufjan Stevens

Mid-February Singles, pt. 2: Acoustic

1. “Evergreen” – The Tomes. This moving track pits a clear-eyed vocal performance and swift fingerpicking against a swooning violin and delicate piano performance. The results are light and yet weighty; dramatic, yet intimate.

2. “Modesto” – Jon Bennett. This creaky speakin’ folk made my heart leap in recognition and desire, reminded me of Jeffrey Lewis and Bob Dylan. What else do I need to tell you to get you to listen to this?

3. “Unpuzzle Me” – Kate Copeland. There’s something ghostly and close about the mandolin and vocal pairing here that comforts me.

4. “No Mercy in the Night” – Natalie Lurie. Lurie’s harp is insistent, her voice is glorious, and the arrangement frames it all perfectly to sound like a female-fronted Barr Brothers.

5. “Heroin Strings” – Jack Conman. The perfectly-recorded drums here sound just north of empty cans in a big room, which gives this ominous tune a bit of an extra pop. Conman’s vocal performance is also particularly evocative and moody.

6. “The Big Surprise” – Trickster Guru. Elements of Carrie and Lowell run through this moody, death-pondering track.

7. “Long Way Back” – Terri Binion. From the jaunty old-school country vibes, you wouldn’t know that this is a track about a tragic death of a wife and the attempts to cope with that.

8. “Fear of Music” – Tobie Milford. Fans of Antony and the Johnsons will connect with Milford’s theatrical vocals, complex orchestral arrangements, and intensely dramatic moods.

9. “Up There Listening” – Jordan Prince. Back porch picking on a banjo and guitar with Prince’s sweet, charming voice making the tune even more endearing.

10. “Child of the ’70s” – Derek Clegg. Evocative of flower-power folk (Jackson Browne! James Taylor!) but subverts the script by being a song about growing older. It’s like Ben Folds’ “The Ascent of Stan,” but chiller and more accepting of the realities entailed therein.

11. “I Will Follow You” – RIVVRS. Ah, home sweet home: tom thump, “hey,” upbeat strum, romantic lyrics, catchy melodies. This one’s for everyone who just loves a good, honest, earnest folk-pop tune.

David Wimbish: Elegant voice and lyrics

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David Wimbish‘s lyrics are incredible, but with so much going on in his 7-to-18-piece indie-rock orchestra The Collection, the lyrics sometimes take a backseat to the enormous amount of things going on around them. His solo EP On Separation strips away some (some) of the musicians to put the focus squarely on his voice and lyrics. The tender, gentle acoustic tunes that result will please fans of the Collection and gather new fans of quiet music under his wing.

In a nod to the solo nature of the work, Wimbish takes the time to write out some explanatory liner notes in the first person. In explaining the title, he writes, “Each song on On Separation deals with different aspects of disconnection, whether it be marital divorce experienced by my friends lately, or self-imposed loss of close friendships from the past.” To whit, standout “Circles and Lines” begins with, “Today she dropped the glass and shattered many things / and you had not yet thought of where you’d set your ring.” Yet not all of the lyrics are so literal, as Wimbish prefers to plumb the interior spaces of the involved parties and observers of the events (“A Ghost and A Scale,” “Back and Forth”). They’re complex, multi-layered lyrics, full of personal musings, places, and religious allusions: Cain and Abel make appearances in their eponymous tune, and the prodigal son makes a reappearance (from the Collection’s “Broken Tether”) in “Lost and Found.” Wimbish’s ability to turn a phrase that both sounds great and has meaning is in top form here.

These lyrics are paired with some of the most beautiful music Wimbish has yet written. “Circles and Lines” pairs the heavy lyrics against a beautiful, fingerpicked, cascading acoustic guitar line. The song builds to the loudest moment on the EP with the inclusion of strings and slapped cello for percussion, but it returns to its delicate roots for the conclusion of the tune. That underscores the approach here: while these are songs that deal with dramatic events, the overall tone and timbre of this EP is quiet and even understated at times (at least in comparison to the weightiness of the lyrics). The rhythms and string arrangement of “Back and Forth” seem a little like a Collection song with the bombast removed–the chiming autoharp of “A Ghost and a Scale” recalls his band as well. But other than those occasional flourishes, these songs do feel like a statement by Wimbish instead of stripped-out versions of full-band work. They’re elegant, not empty.

Part of the understatedness of the release is realized in the sharp focus that Wimbish puts on his voice delivering the lyrics, to the exclusion of complexity elsewhere. This is particularly true in “Cain and Abel,” which uses Wimbish’s voice as both lead and background vocals. Gentle marimba and cello occasionally show up, but this one’s about the voice. Wimbish’s tenor, so often used for roaring in The Collection’s work, is gorgeous in this quieter setting, as his range, tone, and nuances of delivery stand out. (All those are present in The Collection’s work, but as previously noted, there’s a lot more elements going on there.) His voice is soft, clear, and comforting–if you didn’t listen to the lyrics, these tunes would be the sort of thing to lull you peacefully to sleep.

David Wimbish’s On Separation is a beautiful EP that showcases a singer/songwriter with a clear sonic and lyrical vision. Fans of Damien Jurado, Josh Ritter, or Gregory Alan Isakov will find much to love in the music, while fans of the dense, thoughtful lyrics of The Mountain Goats or Sufjan Stevens’ Michigan/Illinois work will celebrate this one. Highly recommended.

July MP3s: Acoustic

July MP3s: Acoustic

1. “I Touch My Face in Hyperspace Oh Yeah” – Devin James Fry. You shouldn’t need my encouragement to listen to a song with a title so enigmatic and intriguing, but if you do, the fiery, wild-eyed psych-folk-rock is just as immediately engaging and mind-expanding as the title.

2. “Cheap Shades” – Chris Staples. Staples tosses off lyrics in this gentle, walking-speed acoustic tune as if they were easy to come by, as if they weren’t complex and unique and deeply thoughtful. This doesn’t sound like the Mountain Goats at all, but fans of John Darnielle will hear the lyrical kinship (even if the music is closer to Sufjan’s Michigan than anything TMG has put out, except maybe Get Lonely). If you’re of the age and vintage that 238’s “Modern Day Prayer” is tattooed on your consciousness, get prepared to have your mind blown: this is that Chris Staples.

3. “Can’t Undo This” – Heather Bond. It’s tough to do a dramatic, introspective ballad without getting formalist or maudlin. Bond balances gravitas and vulnerability to come up with a searing, poignant, piano-driven tune.

4. “Take You Away” – The National Parks. Handclaps, pizzicato violin, punchy horns, and bright-eyed guy/girl vocals buoy this cross between orchestral-folk-pop, party-friendly indie-pop-rock, and even some disco vibes (!). Weighty genre labels aside, this is a cheery, thoughtful tune that does more than bash out chords on a well-trod road.

5. “Ida” – El Tryptophan. Was Pet Sounds an orchestral explosion of the Phil Spector sound? If so, “Ida” could fit in the chronological and sonic space right between ’60s girl-pop arrangements and Brian Wilson’s masterpiece (with some Velvet Underground thrown in for good measure). [Editor’s note: El Tryptophan is now known as Gryphon Rue.]

6. “Pink Lemonade” – Monogold. Sometimes the title is all you need to know.

7. “Cross My Broken Heart” – Sherman Ewing. Sometimes the chorus is all you need to hear.

8. “Kids” – Dara Sisterhen. Somehow manages to blend country, ’50s pop, and folk-pop into one breezy, carefree tune perfect for your next road trip.

9. “The Script” – The Treacherous French. Almost any accordion-laden acoustic tune is going to come off like a sea shanty; the washboard percussion, enthusiastic high-tenor vocal performance, and “whoa-ohs” solidify the notion.

10. “Willingham” – Echo Bloom. Somehow combines the murky sounds of a forest, high-drama noir vocals, indie-rock slinkiness, and ghostly aura. Wildly inventive.

11. “Little Dreamer” – Charlotte & Magon. Delicate electric guitar, gently dramatic vocals, and an overall sense of lazy Saturday mornings.

12. “Gotta Wanna” – Gun Outfit. I turn the key and the engine hums. I turn out of the gas station and back onto an empty Arizona highway, headed back toward California. The insistent drumming underscores my sense of motion, but the vocals and guitar lean back to make sure that everyone knows it’s not all that urgent. We’re gonna hang out and enjoy ourselves when we get there; we’ll enjoy it on the way, too.

13. “Hold Hands for Dry Land” – Oryx and Crake. The gleeful community feel of Funeral was part of what made it so engaging: Oryx and Crake develop that same sort of group vibe in this punchy-yet-thoughtful melodic indie-rock track. Anyone named after a Margaret Atwood novel is asking for your full attention–they reward, both musically and lyrically.

Mon Draggor’s double album is worth every minute

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Double albums are a massive endeavor in every sense of the word. They take a long time to write, record, listen to, and review. All of these things are relative: it does not take as long to write a double album as it does to listen to one, but it does take much longer than average to review a double album than it does a single one.

So Mon Draggor is probably wondering why I keep saying “soon! soon!” in relation to this review, especially since I love the album so much–it should be easy to write about something you’re really into, right? But these things take time, even (especially?) when I’m reviewing a dense, textured, complex, beautiful album such as Pushing Buttons / Pulling Strings.

Further complicating the work of this double album is that there are two different genres: Pushing Buttons is a nine-track electro-rock album reminiscent of The Naked and the Famous, Passion Pit, and Bloc Party. Pulling Strings‘s nine tracks are more organically oriented, although the electronic elements spill over into the indie-rock more than the indie rock spills over into the electro.

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Take “Painted Wings,” which is most electro cut of Pushing Buttons. There’s a bit of Muse’s high-drama vocals, sweeping soundscapes made by layers of distant synths, and massively reverbed percussion booms. There’s a “whoa-oh” section. It’s a slow-jam club banger of the cosmic variety, instead of the sensual variety–it feels like outer space.

“Armageddon Baby” has many of the same elements, but with more straight-ahead EDM/trance beats and energy. Opener “Everyone Runs” fits Passion Pit stabs of synths over a wubby, pulsing bass for a tune that would make fans of the aforementioned and Imagine Dragons happy.

I know it’s not cool to invoke Imagine Dragons, but they know how to write an infectious pop song. So does Mon Draggor. The vocal melodies throughout both albums are the sort that stick in your mind. Richard Jankovich’s vocals have the high-pitched tone that can firm up into perfect pop melodies or get yelpy into ecstatic/aggrieved howls (see Bright Eyes). The ease with which the songs go through your ears and into your mind is a credit: it’s hard to write 18 songs that are all distinct enough that the listener remembers them. Sure, I can hum individual tracks like “On Your Own” because of the soaring vocals, but keeping a whole double album going is a rare skill. I don’t want to skip tracks here, and that is a rare thing in the double album.

I want to keep touting Pushing Buttons, because I could (“Secret Science”! “We Found the Limit”!)–but I have to get to Pulling Strings before I start writing a tome. (That double album problem again.) Pulling Strings is a more relaxed affair, but it’s not quite folk. It has more affinity with The National, a band that’s quiet in their own idiosyncratic way and has the ability to get loud. The best example of this is “It’s Quiet Now,” which could be lazily called folk but has a lot more moving parts that create a unique atmosphere. The trilling, keening guitar is reminiscent of The Walkmen’s work, but the thrumming bass, gentle fingerpicking and delicate piano create a unique atmosphere. It’s a standout in regard to either album.

“Recon by Candlelight” starts with a similarly spacious arrangement of fingerpicked guitar and delicate piano before expanding into a beautiful tune that grows by adding more and more parts on top of each other. (That’s an electro song structure and arrangement style peeking through.) “Curtains” starts off with looped violin notes before layering vocoder on top; the giddy experimentation and unusual juxtapositions call to mind Sufjan Stevens’ The Age of Adz, but in a darker sonic realm. The song eventually cranks up with drums and screaming guitar; it’s a moving, beautifully arranged tune. “Love is All Around” blurs the lines between the two albums, as electronic beats and fuzzy synths live in harmony with melancholy electric guitar. The eerie “Magic Shilo” does the same. They’re all excellent.

Pushing Buttons / Pulling Strings is that rare double album that’s worth every minute. Richard Jankovich is at the top of his game, delivering an astonishing amount of thoughtful, well-arranged work in two different (but subtly related) genres. If you’re into electronic pop or indie-rock with an electronic bent, Mon Draggor will scratch both itches in grand fashion.

MP3 Catchup, pt 3: Night Moves

Night Moves

1. “Capernaum” – The Collection. The Collection always blows me away with the intricate complexity of their arrangements. It sounds as if David Wimbish has found an entire orchestra to pour his heart into here; whatever’s left over is spilled out in his deeply mournful and affected vocals. The tension between chipper music and deep sadness in the lyrics is beautiful, calling up sentiments similar to Page France and Sufjan Stevens (but way more orchestral–I know, what could be more arranged than Sufjan’s work? Just listen.)

2. “I Know You Know” – Andrew Judah. Judah is one of the most inventive arrangers I’ve come across in a long time. His songs genuinely defy notions of genre.

3. “The Dusty Air I Breathe” – Clockwork Kids. Confident performances and strong production kick this riff-driven indie-rock track up a notch. The powerful vocals here are particularly surprising.

4. “Two Ships” – Field Mouse. Every time I hear palm muting and pad synths, I think Fleetwood Mac. That comparison isn’t too far off in this mystic, dark indie-pop track.

5. “Kaleidocycle II” – Cloud Seeding. Powerful, beautiful instrumental indie-rock that doesn’t turn into post-rock or electro jams is a rare animal, so get out your safari cameras now.

6. “Banks” – Red Swingline. This complex acoustic picking and arrangement by a project that generally does progressive metal basically becomes a rolling, beautiful post-rock tune with some jazzy moments. Pretty cool.

7. “Room and Pillar” – Knife the Symphony. Cincinnati’s finest, most furious punk band is at it again, serving up brutal, dissonant punk that makes me marvel at how three people make this much noise.

8. “Song 32” – The Austerity Program. I don’t need a reader survey to know the readers here aren’t usually metalheads. BUT IF YOU ARE, The Austerity Program is pretty friggin’ impressive with the riffs here.

The Geminids is a fascinating and rewarding listen

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Space has been an intriguing concept for musicians for an incredibly long time. (Cue David Bowie!) But rarely has it been as literal a fascination as it is with The Lovely Few, who have named five consecutive releases after heavenly bodies. The Geminids, a third in a series of releases named after meteor showers, features only one song that isn’t obviously named after something in space: opener “Les Anciens,” which is probably something awesome I’ve never heard of.

The Geminids, however, falls in the category of “things I have heard that are awesome.” The Lovely Few’s previous work drew some easy comparison to the bleep-bloop electronic pop of The Postal Service, but Mike Mewbourne and co. have opened up the sonic palette on this one to incorporate a lot more moods. The basic sound is still electronic-based pop, but prog, ambient, acoustic pop, Sufjan Stevens (especially The Age of Adz), and “space-rock” are all equal contributors to the album.

“Les Anciens” shows off this diversity of influences well, opening with a proggy, spacey keyboard line before adding in the signature clicks and pops of twee electronic beats. But all that gets wiped off the board as some tribal-esque beats come in. From there, Mewbourne and his collaborators start to layer sounds and vocals. Mewbourne’s voice is a perfect fit for this environment; it’s evocative but not theatrical, calm but not placid. It holds mystery in it. There are spaces to be explored and pondered in both his vocal delivery and songwriting.

The lyrical elements have a very Bowie-esque feel to them: are they metaphors, stories, or both? Tunes like “Venus” and “Castor and Pollux” beg me to read the whole album as a concept piece about a relationship; “Tyndarids” and “Mars” seem to be just about things in space, with some religious overtones. I don’t think it’s an either/or thing–I think there are levels of content here.

The Geminids is an intriguing album that requires investment. You can just listen to it once to play “spot-the-references” and take in the nice mood, but its true treasures are unveiled after multiple listens. The sleigh bells in “Gemini,” the rhythmic tension in “Prelude,” the pacing of “Phaethon 2”–these are all joys that aren’t immediately apparent. This isn’t an album with singles, really; the thing comes together as a whole. If you’re going on a late-night road trip, or perhaps watching the stars, The Geminids would be a fascinating and rewarding companion.

Swan Songs by Lakefield: Canadian Shakers for Specific Ears

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Independent Clauses (IC): Who are your major influences (musicians to your music and movie or TV stars to your look and painters to the way your apartment looks)?

Steven Luscher of Lakefield (SL): We think we’re pretty transparent with respect to our influences. Kate and I are big fans of Mates of State, and we place our guy/girl harmonies front and centre accordingly. Another guy/girl duo we love is Stars’ Amy Milan and Torquil Campbell; we love the way they weave stories in their back-and-forth way, atop epic cinematic arrangements. Lakefield’s visual aesthetic is mostly my doing. I’m a fan of capital-M: modernism, minimalism, and high-concept design, which should be evident when looking at things like the brand system on all of our albums, posters, and press materials, or our “Awkward Turtle” and “Camping With Bears” photoshoots. It’s less punk rawk and more Dwell magazine.

IC: Does Vancouver have a lot to do with your lyrics?

SL: For most of us, having moved to Vancouver counts as a pretty significant life-event. This city means so much to me; I’m sure that no matter what I write a song about, something about this place, or an experience that I had here will sneak its way in.

IC: Do past relationships have a lot to do with your lyrics?

SL: It seems that way, doesn’t it? You know, I’ve heard people refer to our debut album Sounds From The Treeline as a breakup album. I would tend to agree, though even I can’t tell you who’s being broken up with; those secrets will die with Kate.

IC (aside): Well, Blood on the Tracks….

IC: Who’s your go to for fiction/or creative writing? Authors, TV writers, loudmouths, comedians?

SL: I’m about to read Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother, a book about living in a modern surveillance state (so, you know, real life). Have you seen the bit where Russell Brand roasts MSNBC’s anchors for being an embarrassment to journalism? It’s poetic. And of course, all of us go nuts for Louis CK.

I’ve never seen anything Russell Brand has ever done. Louis CK is the bread, butter, plate, and table… yes.

IC: Does having a major influence (I saw this on Facebook and they happen to be one of my favorite bands ever) like Mineral leave you feeling a bit pigeonholed as maybe a leftover emo-era-sounding (this is not a critique or a criticism. This was very much so MY big coming of age genre: the late 90’s emo-indie bands) and expound, please. Or, have you never felt this way at all or heard this before?

SL: Recently, in conversation with a well-respected Vancouver area producer, I had a small epiphany. He warned me that I’ve been writing music for a very narrow audience of people like me: musicians. Most people who listen to music are, generally speaking, not musicians. They don’t hear music the way a musician does – thankfully, some might say. Where I might perceive a reference, a mistake, or a cliché, most might hear a summer’s day, a first kiss, or nothing at all. Puzzled though I am at the fact that bands like Mineral, Battles, Cornelius, The Appleseed Cast, and American Football aren’t massive commercial success stories, maybe it’s because they just don’t resonate with the masses like they do with me. I accept that as a criticism of Lakefield; though we’re undoubtedly more pop than emo, in some small way I’ve been writing music that my 19-year-old musician-self would love. And let me tell you, there aren’t enough of my 19-year-old self left to turn Lakefield into an international success story today.

IC: Also, I think the vocals in Lakefield sound akin to and maybe are written to sound very much in the JeJune and Rainer Maria vein. Again… just what I’m hearing (not necessarily even going to make it into my review).

SL: I flew from Vancouver to New York City to see Rainer Maria’s farewell show at the Bowery Ballroom. When I was 17 years old, my band opened for Rainer Maria at The Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto – Caithlin said that she loved my band. I saw Rainer Maria’s very first show in Vancouver. If you hear Rainer Maria in Lakefield, it’s because they’re in my blood.

I have some funny stories about running into Rainer Maria a bunch in my past, too. I’ll save them for another time, though.

IC: Are you all married or single or happily involved? If not, do you meet a lot of hotties because you make music… or because you’re at bars more than an average person (performing)… or after performing (after a sweaty rave-up or after an awkward stage to front two rows too-long eye contact)?

SL: The band elected Bryan to be the official Lakefield hottie. Whenever there were Hott™ duties to perform, we could count on Bryan to come through.

IC: Who’s the most famous musician you’ve ever met? Is there a story there?

SL: I’ve been backstage / around back with Sufjan Stevens, Sarah Slean, Caithlin De Marrais (Rainer Maria), and Hayden. The entire Appleseed Cast stayed at my house once, on their way through Vancouver. I won’t name the musician, but once an industry friend of mine took me backstage to meet someone famous (well… Canada-famous anyway). The musician thought we had met before – I have this face that everyone thinks they’ve seen somewhere – and I replied, without hesitation: “not in real life.” My industry friend doesn’t talk to me anymore.

I bet it was Anne Murray. In fact, I KNOW it was.

IC: Why did you start writing songs? The catalyst?

SL: I remember watching Daniel Johns from Silverchair play on Saturday Night Live when I was a kid. My face was 3 centimeters from the screen, and I was soaking it up. Here was a young band, playing three-chord ditties to a massive audience, and I remember thinking: “I can do that.”

IC: I remember seeing Jawbox on 120 Minutes on MTV, and being like… what you just said, but more chords, and all jangly and shouty. I wanted to shout.

In my humble opinion, this conversation IS the review of Lakefield’s new album Swan Songs. Here are a few blurbable blurbs about it. The lead track, “Good Guy,” grabs the listener so tightly. You can’t touch Kate’s voice on this song. She’s “sorry for this heartache, but it’s all for you.” This reviewer’s favorite track is “Your Conviction Is So Sweet.”  “Don’t give up before the end of this song;” if one did, they’d miss a powerful denouement. The guitars light up, and the keys and drums kick like a corrected toddler…like the last few beats of a heart once in love. Lakefield is a really focused band with great songs and, most importantly, great vocals. They tug at one’s heartstrings a lot, so get ready for that. Hear their new album, Swan Songs, when it comes out. There’s a count-down clock on their website. Exciting!–Gary Lee Barrett

Quick Hits: Devin James Fry / Mutual Benefit / Scott Fant

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Devin James Fry (Lord Buffalo, Salesman) is a busy man, but he’s taken a break from those two wild pursuits to drop the pensive, ruminative Headwater Songs. The 9-song album is a pleasantly stark affair–most tracks are just his smooth tenor voice and a fingerpicked instrument (guitar or banjo). The dual tragedies that inspired this album (the fire and floods that have happened this year near Canon City, Colorado) give the album a hushed sense of calm, as if Fry is surveying the damage to his beloved hometown. Some songs deal directly with the disasters (“After the Royal Gorge Fire,” “Headwaters (Song for Gatherer)”), while others deal with the incidents more indirectly (“Real Fire”). The whole album flows seamlessly, as if the songs flowed out of Fry like the waters they chronicle. Keening falsetto, intricate picking guitarwork, and a deep sense of patience characterize these tunes. If you’re up for some gorgeous, spartan acoustic songs, Headwater Songs should be on your to-hear list.

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On the far opposite end of the spectrum in acoustic music is Mutual Benefit’s Love’s Crushing Diamond, which is a full-on chamber-pop experience. Sure, there are banjos and guitars, but there are violins, electronic sounds, and intricate arrangements that create gorgeous pile-ups of sound. This is an album that washes over a room, transforming the tone from normal to slightly more warm and comforting. Jordan Lee’s gentle voice is the perfect foil for these tender tunes, bringing out all the sweetness that can be extracted from them. If Bon Iver turned his attention to love instead of its loss, or Sufjan Stevens was less idiosyncratically percussive, or if the Low Anthem indie’d up a bit more, you’d have Mutual Benefit. This is just an absolutely gorgeous record that deserves your attention. A year-end gem.

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Scott Fant’s singer/songwriter tunes are rough-edged without getting gruff. Fant writes with just him and a guitar, giving the tunes on Goatweed Bouquet a raw, earnest feel. These tunes would feel at home at both a Tom Waits-ian bar (“Bottom of the Hole”) and a Budweiser-toting honky-tonk (“Don’t Touch That Dog,” “Walk in the Light”). There are also some ballads intermingled among the upbeat tunes, best exemplified by the pristine guitar work of “Adagio for the Lonely.” Shades of David Ramirez, Counting Crows, and old-school country come through in the short runtime, showing Fant a diverse and interesting songwriter. Very different than Headwater Songs in mood, these songs are meant to be heard live and maybe even sung along to–especially if you’ve got a cold beer in your hand.

Fiery Crash: Relaxin, Chillaxin, and Actin All Cool

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For Tomorrow Will Worry About Itself EP is the fifth release from the immensely productive Fiery Crash in 2013. Instead of being a glut of same-y material, each release has seen Josh Jackson (not the Paste editor) grow as a songwriter. Jackson splits his time between hazy dream pop (heavy on the guitar pedals) and no-frills singer/songwriter fare (early Iron & Wine-style), and he executes both quite well.

Due to my genre loyalties, I’m a bigger fan of the guitar-and-voice ruminations that populate the back half of the album: “Cada Ano (Version Two)” upgrades the standout from June’s Practice Shots by sweetening the vocal performance and tweaking the arrangement to a gentler end. Stealing the show on two different releases, it reminds me of bands like Mojave 3 and Peter Bradley Adams. “Headed Our Way” is the only brand-new song on the back half, and it pairs Jackson in a duet with himself: his baritone low range and his tenor high range. It’s a really effective move that I hope Jackson continues to explore. A relaxed, back-porch rendition of The Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset” adds a nice variety to the set.

The instrumental title track opens the album with intricate guitarwork that shows off Jackson’s composing chops. “Make Sure” and “Close to Big Star” are chill indie-pop tunes which scale back the garage-y vibes that Jackson has explored on previous releases but still keep the dreamy feel.

But it’s “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” that grabbed my attention most. His version of the traditional hymn splits the difference between singer/songwriter and dream-pop, building from humble beginnings to a fully-arranged wonder at the end of the tune. It’s a beautiful rendition of a song that I didn’t think had a lot of creative room left in it after Sufjan Stevens’ masterful version, but Fiery Crash wrings the potential out of it with ragged drums, pedal steel, guitar pedals, and voice. Just beautiful.

Fiery Crash has had quite a 2013, transforming from a untempered outfit awash in reverb to a fine-tuned singer/songwriter project with a clear vision. To say that I expect great things from Fiery Crash is to undersell the great things he’s already accomplishing; I expect that many, many more people will discover Fiery Crash’s greatness soon. For Tomorrow Will Worry About Itself EP is a release you need to hear.

Human Behavior: Quirky, perky, cryptic sadness

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There’s a long history of happy sounds that contain sad lyrics. My mom’s favorite one is the absurdly happy breakup tune “Smoke from a Distant Fire” by Sanford-Townsend Band. I’m fond of the entirety of Paul Simon’s Graceland (except “That Was Your Mother”). Human Behavior‘s Golgotha might be my favorite “actually kind of devastating when you really listen close” album for 2013.

If you just press play instead of thinking about how the band name, title and album art go together, you’re treated to perky indie-folk-punk. Bandleader Andres Parada has a voice that works perfectly for the genre: it’s warbly, a touch nasal, and completely earnest. If you’re intrigued by Aaron Weiss of MeWithoutYou, early John Darnielle (The Mountain Goats), Andrew Jackson Jihad, and the like, you’ll be immediately sucked in to Golgotha. The rest of the sound fits perfectly around Parada’s voice: a small choir of female voices (who sing in the same earnest manner), instrumental performances that retain an urgent “first takes only” feel, and arrangements that are large without feeling pretentious. It’s all grounded in Parada’s voice, and all flows back to his voice.

It’s “Crag” that opens the album, a jaunty tune that calls up vintage-y, Pinterest-y hipsters who attach deer antlers to their heads and such. It’s all fun and games, right? Right. “Yeshua at 12” is dark, but the enthusiastic “Odocoileus Virginianus” is 40 seconds of wonderful! (That’s the Latin name for the whitetail deer, incidentally.) But as I progressed through the album, a dark undercurrent started to suck me in. “Vintage Dad” ends with the band forlornly, repeatedly singing “I am raccoon, and your father thinks that I am beautiful,” which is intriguing/discomforting in a Neutral Milk Hotel sort of way. “Raphus Cucullatus” is the Latinate of the dodo, and it’s a despondent acoustic strum with spoken word that seems to draw a little too close of a metaphor. It’s not overtly depressing, like Brand New or anything, but it’s, you know, just kinda hanging out in background of my brain as maybe not what it seems.

But then I listen to “Crag” again, and the phrases of the chorus are “I’ll strap antlers to my head/and I’ll attract wild dog packs/and I’ll make the woods walkable,” which is either a threat to wild dogs or a commitment to sacrifice in a bizarre way. Also the lines “I don’t want to be attractive,” “I know that I don’t love you two too,” “I’ll probably die sad/and I’ll probably do it by my hand” appear, all of which make me deeply reconsider the wisdom of sending this to my girlfriend because it’s perky and fun. In short, the layers at which you can appreciate Golgotha are multiple, but the deeper ones may render your shallower ones a little bit impotent.

So, are you into folk-punk? Are you into depressed singer/songwriters? Are you into both? If you’re into either of the first two, Golgotha is a fascinating and engaging album. If you’re in the third camp, I suspect that Human Behavior will be quite a find. It’s like a dark mirror of Illinois-era Sufjan, or an alternate-reality Mountain Goats.