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Tag: Sufjan Stevens

Fauntella Crow's Lost Here is a wonder

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Sunday Lane’s cover of Bon Iver’s “Skinny Love” is a good place to start talking about Fauntella Crow‘s debut EP Lost Here. Piano-playing singer/songwriter Lane, half of Fauntella Crow, plays predominantly upbeat pop in her solo work. I first discovered her pensive, emotive side on that 2012 cover of Justin Vernon’s keening, beautiful tune. Lane’s voice fit perfectly in the mood, and I longed for her to do more with that combination. It’s like she heard my thoughtwaves, because Lost Here explores her melancholy side.

The title track of the EP makes a conscious effort to pilfer some sonic touches from For Emma, Forever Ago, and it works like a charm: the song steals the show, as Lane’s voice and Jessy Greene’s violin form a perfect pair to convey a familiar form of tragic beauty. There’s a difference in mood on “Lost Here” from the rest of the EP, which falls more in the ’90s singer/songwriter, Lilith Fair vibe. That’s not a bad thing at all–“Delicate” shines in its own right. But “Lost Here” channels the skills of both members into a tune that can stand up with the best indie ballads of the past ten years. That’s a hugely bold statement (“Maps“! “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.“! “For Emma“!), but I’m prepared to make it. The song is wonderful.

The rest of the EP is strong, composed of the aforementioned singer/songwriter vibes. “Grow” meshes Lane and Greene perfectly, as the piano, both vocals, plucked violin, and bowed violin come together for a wonderful first stanza. Opener “Delicate” deftly balances bitterness and vulnerability, both lyrically and vocally; it’s the most well-developed and mature of the offerings that aren’t “Lost Here.” The rest of the tunes fall somewhere between the poised pop of track 1 and the fragility of track 5; all very pretty, but not as immediately arresting as the twin pillars they support.

Lane is a strong songwriter who has found a perfect foil in Greene; the latter brings out the melancholy melodic gifts that I knew Lane had lying dormant. Lost Here is hopefully an opening salvo in a long career for Fauntella Crow–this is too excellent to languish as a one-off side-project. Even if these five tunes are all we get, I’ll be thankful for them, and you should be too.

Quick Hits: More Than Skies / Nonagon / The Woodrow Wilsons

I can’t believe it’s been almost two weeks since I posted. Crazy times. Here’s a bunch of quick hits to clear my slate and get back to lengthy reviews I am such a fan of writing.

The fractured melodies and herky-jerky energy of Good News-era Modest Mouse meet the moody ponderousness of Tom Waits’ work in More Than SkiesI Am Only Above The Ground. The lyrics are far more positive than either party is accustomed to writing, making the album a unique experience of positive-to-wistful lyrics led by a raspy singer and backed by an enthusiastic band that often breaks out into group vocals. Instrumental chops abound (“Introduction,” “The One Who Wanders Is Not Lost”) and the melodies shine (“Life Declines at Twenty-five,” the title track), but it’s the exuberant “We’re Getting Older” that will stick in your mind and heart. Highly recommended for fans of a full-bodied folk sound that’s still raw and real.

Nonagon‘s People Live Everywhere EP offers up technical post-hardcore that’s big on dissonant melodies, tempo changes, odd time signatures, and shouted vocals. The unusual juxtaposition of guitar lines in opener “Vikings” should tip you off that this is loud music to appreciate with your brain as much as your body. You can definitely mosh to it (the dissonant “Fresnel Lens,” the manic “The Swifts”), but it’s the atypical rhythms and melodic ideas in “Fadeout” and the aforementioned “Vikings” that get me. Nonagon’s working at a high level here.

The Woodrow WilsonsDevil Jonah focuses more on mood and arrangement than hummable melodies, making their acoustic amalgam much less of a traditional “folk” album and more of a chamber-pop album. “I Love the Atlantic” is a beautiful tune that experiments with tempo and arrangement for effect, while “Anthropomorphics” is a jubilant tune with a horn chorale in it. Songs like “The Ocean is Rising to Meet You” and “Heat” play with the conventions of songwriting to great effect. Male and female vocals lead the band in turns, only lending more variety to the album. The highlight is the tense, emotive “The Size of My Fist,” which calls up what Andrew Bird might sound like if he had an interest in conveying emotions. On the whole, fans of The Decemberists and old-school Sufjan Stevens will find much to love in The Woodrow Wilsons.

Quick Hits Quartet

I love doing long reviews, but SXSW has thrown me off my game. To catch up, here’s a rare quartet of quick hits.


Dana Falconberry‘s four-song Though I Didn’t Call It Came is a beautiful, immersing release. The thirteen minutes pass rapidly, as Falconberry’s uniquely interesting voice plays over intricate yet intimate acoustic arrangements. Highlights include the complex and beautiful songwriting structure of “Petoskey Stone,” the Michigan-era Sufjan Stevens fragility of “Muskegon,” and the casual wonder of whistling-led closer “Maple Leaf Red (Acoustic).” It’s a rare songwriter that has tight control over both individual songwriting elements and overall feel, marking Falconberry as one to enjoy now and watch in the future.


England in 1819‘s Alma will quickly remind listeners of British piano-rock bands: Rush of Blood to the Head-era Coldplay is checked on “Air That We Once Breathed,” Muse gets its nod in the title track, and the melodic focus of Keane is familiar throughout. But 2/3rds of the band is conservatory-trained, and those influences show. “Littil Battur” is a chiming, gently swelling post-rock piece with reminiscent of The Album Leaf; “Emily Jane” is another beautiful, wordless, free-flowing piece. There’s enjoyment in their emotive piano-pop, but there’s magic in their instrumental aspirations. That tension shows promise past this sophomore release.


The bouncy garage-pop of Eux AutresSun is Sunk EP has been honed for almost a decade to a tight mix of modern sensibilities and historic glee. “Right Again” and “Home Tonight” call up ’60s girl-pop groups but don’t overdo it; “Ring Out” features male lead vocals in a perky, jumpy, infectious tune that includes bells and tambourine. The 1:23 of “Call It Off” is thoroughly modern songwriting, though—the band is no one trick pony. There’s just no resisting the charms of Sun is Sunk, and since its six songs only ask for 15 minutes of your time, why would you?

After seeing part of a breathtaking set by Sharon Van Etten at SXSW 2011, I jumped at the chance to give some press for her new album Tramp. Turns out all the big hitters (NPR, Pitchfork, Paste) are already on it. The tunes powered by Van Etten’s emotive croon are in full form, developed from her sparse beginnings into complete arrangements. At 46 minutes, this mature version of Van Etten is a complete vision; still, the haunting, delicate closer “Joke or a Lie” is what sticks with me.

What it means to be a band

I grew from my pop-punk roots into a deep admiration of Sufjan Stevens’ intricate arrangements and Death Cab for Cutie’s use of all band members on Transatlanticism. Sufjan is self-explanatory, but the latter album’s careful maximization of every band member’s skills is now something I seek out in music. If you can apply both of these elements to pop-punk, well, that’s nigh on heroic.

Signals Midwest is that band. Latitudes and Longitudes is easily the most carefully crafted album of punk rock I have ever heard. I don’t even want to call it punk rock, because the audience for this band is far greater than guys and girls who love three-chord stomping (and trust me, there’s great love for that in my heart). Signals Midwest has put together a statement, and that’s impressive.

It starts toward the end of opener “In Tensions,” which is a perfectly-chosen descriptive title to set the tone. The band drops out, and vocalist Maxwell Stern is left alone over an finger-picked acoustic guitar: “I was counting the miles/You were counting the days/And it’s strange that the numbers we wanted/were moving in opposite ways.” The lyric and melody appears twice more in the album: once in the next track “Monarchs” and once in closer “The Weight and The Waiting.” So there’s an intro, then a re-statement of theme, then the body, then a reaffirmation of theme as the closer? Yes, this is that organized.

The sound is incredible as well. Two guitarists, a bassist and a drummer give all they’ve got on these ten tracks: Rarely does the band drop into four-on-the-floor, pound-it-out mode. The songs all feature a rhythmically and melodically unique lead guitar line, backed up by rapidfire bass and heavily patterned drums. “Family Crest” is mind-boggling in its construction, as each member seems to be maxing out his capabilities. And it’s not even the best song, because technical proficiency is only one of the things that makes this band. Oh, and just to overawe you some more: they recorded most of this thing live.

But the melodic capability and corresponding vocal fury really set this apart from other bands. Single “The Quiet Persuader” opens up with a neat guitar line that recalls early 2000s pop-punk before snapping into martial rhythms and delivering the lead to Stern, who just rips the song apart with his passionate vocal performance. His voice is permanently halfway between singing and yelling, in that zone that seems exclusively the domain of punk rock. He may persuade quietly, but that’s the only thing he does without volume. “I Was Lost” has a wiry groove to it; “Memo” is crushing in its tension and release. “Limnology” is a how-to on mid-tempo rock.

But Latitudes and Longitudes isn’t all throwdowns: “January and Seven” is a poignant, acoustic ballad that doesn’t go maudlin or sterile, as is the sin of many punk acoustic tracks. It’s a clear-eyed acknowledgment of the toughness of being. Turns around every corner: closer “The Weight and The Waiting” casually throws in a horn section to cap off the album. It’s a perfect way to sum up the message of the album: it’s a tough life, especially when your friends are far away. But when those friends are all in one place, it’s a celebration of life. And with the hope of those future meetings in place, we press on.

Latitudes and Longitudes is what happens when four men at the top of their game get together and think hard about how to best use their skills. This is easily one of the best of ’11 in any genre, and I’ll be listening to this long into ’12. Do yourself a favor and check it out.

The Ridges' Daytrotter session shows a folk band on the move

In the brilliant Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground 1981-1991, author Michael Azerrad describes Beat Happening as flaunting “rudimentary musicianship and primitive recordings, a retro-pop style, and a fey naivete in a genre that became known as ‘twee-pop’ or ‘love rock.'” Twee would continue on through the ’90s, and its fey naivete would become a driving force in indie-pop (which was twee without the junky recordings). Indie-pop begat indie-folk of Iron + Wine and Sufjan Stevens, which crashed into the singer/songwriter genre just as the latter was trying to differentiate itself from Lilith Fair and alt.country. Thus, the two sides of indie-folk met in the middle to create a new aesthetic, and that (along with a little bit of bluegrass and some Great Depression imagery thrown in along the way) is how we ended up with Mumford and Sons.

All that to say, there’s a serious side and a playful side to indie-folk, and The Ridges most definitely fall on the serious side. The band’s Daytrotter session shows them building on the strings-heavy folk sound that they crafted on their debut EP. The three EP tunes don’t stray much from their previously-recorded incarnations: “Not a Ghost” is still a rambling, shambling, catchy song with atmosphere; “War Bonds” shows a bit of their playful side with a bell kit, while still commenting on “dead friends”; “Overboard” is a sea shanty of merit. The upsides: the strings sound even more vital in these recordings, while the vocalist Victor Rasgatis gets unhinged. If you haven’t heard the Ridges yet, this is as good a way as any.

The real treat is the two unreleased songs. (I expect that a great many more bands will start sending me Daytrotter sessions of new music, because if a band’s up to one-take recording, that’s a five-song EP with no recording costs, yo!) “Dawn of Night” would have fit in perfectly with their self-titled EP, as a raw energy pulses through the tune, punctuated by ragged “oh-oh”s. The underlying intensity that The Ridges bring to the table is something that’s rarely seen in folk; there seems to be something truly ominous about their work, and not in a “ha! look! this is creepy!” sort of way. “Jackson Pollock” tones down the eerie for a four-on-the-floor fast song. Despite the speed, the arrangement is remarkably complex for a live recording, which makes me all the more impressed by The Ridges. The string melodies are especially solid.

The Ridges’ “melodic strengths are honed to a fine point” here, as I hoped in my last review. If you’re into serious indie-folk (Fleet Foxes, Bon Iver, Little Teeth), you should be all over this. Look for the Ridges to make a splash in 2012.

Top Albums of the Year, pt. 1

I’m incredibly excited that I’ve finished my year-end lists actually correspond with the end of the year. Without further pontificating, here’s the first half of the year’s best.

Honorable Mention: LCD Soundsystem – Madison Square Garden Show. It’s not an official release, but it proves that the tightest live band in the world only got tighter with time. “Yeah” is an absolute powerhouse.

20: Beirut – The Rip Tide. The mellower, less brash Zac Condon won me over.

19: The Antlers – Burst Apart. Mostly because “Putting the Dog to Sleep” is my favorite song of the year, although the rest of the album stands up well.

18: Gray Young – Staysail. Post-rock with heart and technical abilities.

17: Bon Iver – Bon Iver. It took a while to grow on me, but now I think that Vernon out-James Blaked James Blake.

16: David Ramirez – Strangetown EP. Moving songwriting, evocative lyrics and a beautiful voice make this a brilliant collection of tunes.

15: Restorations – Restorations. The sound of punk rockers growing old without giving up.

14: Battle Ave. – “War Paint.” A more indie-fied Titus Andronicus? Sign me up twice.

13: Brianna Gaither – Love is Patient. Piano-led singer/songwriter fare rarely sounds this confident, powerful or memorable.

12: Pete Davis – The Pottsville Conglomerate. The instrumentation of Sufjan Stevens meets the acrobatic enthusiasm of a pop-punk band. Fireworks ensue.

11: Oh Look Out! – Alright Alright Alright Alright Alright. Electrifying, intricate indie-pop that loves video games just as much as music. “Kam” is brilliant.

Here it is: the most exciting album of the year.

Once in a blue moon I will come across a opening track so arresting that I start telling people about the album before I’ve even heard the whole first song. The Collection, the nom de plume of songwriter David Wimbish, has put out just such a song in “Dirt”: before the song ended, I was Facebooking my Jon Foreman-loving friend to say I’d found him a new favorite band. This ultimately turned out to be untrue: Foreman doesn’t ever end up yelling at the top of his lungs over his acoustic-led tunes, as Wimbish does in the electrifying “Lazarus” and powerful “Leper.” But it’s “Dirt” that glued me to this album.

“Dirt” is a perfect opener not because it’s flawless, but because it encapsulates everything I want to say about the Collection’s self-titled EP in a single unit. The first sound in the song is a poignant banjo melody, and the second is Wimbish’s gentle tenor vocals. The banjo underscores the fact that this is alt-folk of the Sufjan/Freelance Whales variety, but the sobriety of the melody evokes the gravitas of Damien Rice. The horns, strings and everything else that compose the EP’s extravagant arrangements show up later in the tune.

Wimbish’s pleasant, evocative vocals are a bit of a red herring, as he can use his voice in a number of different ways: quiet singing, falsetto, loud singing, full-bodied roaring, all-out screaming. This diversity of vocals is necessary due to the variety of emotions that Wimbish displays throughout the incredible 7-song EP: calm confidence, fear, desperation, enthusiasm, hope. Most of Wimbish’s songs form a lyrical arc, starting in one emotion and ending in another; this lets the music and lyrics unfold in a symbiotic relationship that creates incredibly satisfying tunes and enables the huge sweeps in emotion to be natural instead of forced.

But Wimbish isn’t just a brilliant lyricist: he also played literally every instrument (except a couple guest spots in “Jericho”) on this album, marking him an instrumental virtuoso that can play piano, horns, accordion, strings, flute, drums, auxiliary percussion and all manner of stringed strummers and pluckers. That’s absolutely incredible.

His melody and songwriting skills are top-shelf as well. “Stones” is a chipper tune that puts horns and glockenspiel to charming use, while the unusual strings of “Fever” create a brilliant foundation for a melody. “Jericho” lets a beautiful piano elegy lead the tune, while the aforementioned “Lazarus” has more adrenaline in its folky soul than I do most days. The raw emotional power of “Leper” is absolutely stunning. (Wimbish has ripped a page from the Page France book in naming all his tunes single words.)

As I alluded to earlier, it’s not perfect. It’s easily the most exciting display of raw songwriting talent that I’ve heard this year, but it still needs refining. Wimbish is prone to big, slab-like string-and-horn arrangements; think of the over-arching orchestra on Coldplay’s track “Viva La Vida” and you’ll get why “Dirt” isn’t my song of the year. He also has a tendency to over-arrange; “Dirt” could have stood with far less instruments, because the melody and lyrics are so incredibly powerful. Wimbish has a problem that I have rarely, if ever, encountered in ten years of reviewing: his lyrics and melodies are so good that they actually ask for less things happening than more. A stripped-down version of this EP would be just as good, if not better, than this full-out version. And you’ve just read how I’ve been gushing about the full-out version.

This is the most exciting album I’ve heard all year, and it’s almost December. If Wimbish keeps on this tack, his future music is going to be absolutely incredible. I’ve been listening to this for a month to make sure I’m not just blowing smoke, and I’m not. The Collection EP is a must-listen for everyone interested in folk, pop, singer/songwriter, and just good music. Sign me up on the “huge fan” list for The Collection.

Lovers of Christmas music, rejoice!

Standards are difficult to do well: with a well-established ethos behind the song, it’s a daunting task to appropriate that backstory creatively or entirely rework its history for a new era. When that standard is a song that everyone knows, it gets even harder—and that’s why lots of Christmas albums are stinkers. Thankfully, Repeat the Sounding Joy is not one of those albums.

The Good Shepherd Band has done two things very right: chose primarily little-known or under-appreciated Christmas songs, and played to its musical strengths. When the band sticks to these tactics, the songs are great successes. When the members stray, things do not go as well.

It’s harder to mess up “Who Is This So Weak and Helpless” and “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus” than “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” or “Joy to the World” because the former histories aren’t as storied as the latter’s. The band can let the obscure songs land in what (to the listener) feels most natural to The Good Shepherd Band: melodic, quiet treatments orchestrated in subtle Sufjan-esque touches.

This style creates the high highs of the album: standout “Who Is This” features a gorgeous oboe, the pristine rendition of “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” builds off gentle piano and guitar, and “Long Expected Jesus” strikes the right balance of traditional and modern rhythms within the tune. These tunes are reverent, expertly arranged, and relevant. I can already tell that they will be worth revisiting each year.

When the band goes for unusual arrangements and/or more common songs, the outcomes are less successful. “The Seven Joys of Mary” features traditional English folksong rhythmic patterns and a children’s choir; the juxtaposition against the modern indie of the first two tracks is jarring and unpleasant. “The Lord at First Did Adam Make” is a crooning, ’50s-style rockabilly tune, which is even more of a head-scratcher.

It feels that “Joy to the World” was turned into a 9:00-minute epic (complete with brash choir and triumphal horns) primarily because the band felt that it had to leave its mark on the song. The band has proven that it can make more riveting tunes in a shorter time and a different style, making this one stick out like a sore thumb. Furthermore, the choir is used differently and to much better effect in the slow-burning, powerful “I Wonder as I Wander.”

“Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” falls into the “we have make this our own” trap too, as the vocal syncopation is off-putting and clashes with the rest of the tasteful, restrained arrangement style that marks their best work. This makes the odd vocals all the more a bummer.

The Good Shepherd Band can certainly be commended for this: they go big or go home. Repeat The Sounding Joy has some brilliant highs and terrible lows, but no forgettable tunes. I can thoroughly recommend 2/3rds of this album (especially “Who Is This So Weak and Helpless,” “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus” and “I Wonder as I Wander”) to any lover of Christmas tunes; there are just a few renditions that you have to watch out for. Hopefully there will be a second version of this album, giving us even more goodness with a few tweaks in their methodology.

Icona Pop unleashes majestic singles upon the dance-pop world

If the next big thing exists, it’s Icona Pop. (With the fickleness of the Internet, the “next big thing” is a pretty fluid concept.) But for those who are chasing good tunes instead of hipness, I’ve got a prescription for you: “Nights Like This,” off the EP of the same name.

Yes, “Manners” took over everything when it was released – it even got appropriated by Chiddy Bang. But “Nights Like This” is even better. It’s more adrenalized, catchier, and more fun. There’s less cold, Age of Adz-esque pretension and more party-bangin’ beats and synths, followed by a euphoric rush of wild “whoa-oh”s. It’s the sort of thing that must have sounded absolutely monster when they were writing it, because it’s pulled off with an assertive confidence that sells that which was doing just fine on its own. You know when you know, you know?

“Manners” is awesome as well, what with its slithering rhythms and squelching bass synths. The chanting vocals that everyone’s been humming are still awesome. “Lovers to Friends” is a pretty standard synth-pop tune, absent of all the unusual rhythms that make Icona Pop so unique and interesting. Unsurprisingly, it’s the least effective tune here.

“Sun Goes Down” features The Knocks and is a return to the dark, spacious, clubby tunes. Low, modified male vocals contribute significantly to the creepiness of the track, and the whole thing comes off as proof that Icona Pop could have more staying power than two magnificent singles.

I sure hope they have staying power, because anything even resembling the thrill of “Nights Like This” would be enough to keep them on my high rotation. Hear all the audio here.

Archer Black’s video actually means something!

I’m already starting to spread the word on Pete Davis’ The Pottsville Conglomerate, because it’s 95 minutes of awesome. Because it’s the length of 3ish albums and 6ish EPs, it’s gonna take a little longer than usual to review. But fans of Sufjan’s most bombastic moments should start listening to it now.

In lieu of a review, here’s a stunner of a video from Archer Black, for “Onward and Down.” I love videos that tell a story, and this one’s simple but powerful. The song is also incredible, like Beirut channeling The National.

I thought Tin Can Radio’s “Hot Trash” proved that the whole continent of Australia has a Bloc Party thing, but then there’s a Vampire Weekend/Phoenix chorus that throws a really interesting wrench in my snarky aside.

Finally, SLTM the Podcast just posted edition #125, which is a pretty big milestone. Congrats to Brad Bugos and the rest of the SLTM!