Instead of writing new blurbs for each of these albums, I’m going to let the reviews stand as my comments about each of them except the album of the year. Since I had so many EPs on my EPs of the year list, there are less than my standard 20 albums of the year this year.
Album of the Year: Worn Out Skin – Annabelle’s Curse. (Review) This album came out of nowhere and established itself as a standard component of my listening life. It fits on the shelf right next to Josh Ritter and The Barr Brothers in terms of maturity of songwriting, lyrical depth, beauty, and overall engagement. Each of the songs here have their own charms, which is rare for an album: this one will keep you interested the whole way through. It’s a complete album in every sense of the word, and so it was the easy choice for album of the year.
I promise that it’s not Double Album Week at Independent Clauses: it just happened that More than Skies and The Local Strangers‘ Take What You Can Carry saw coverage on back-to-back days. The latter, a Seattle folk/alt-country outfit, put a slight twist on the concept by releasing a full-band studio record and an live album of their core acoustic duo performing the same songs in a different order. The results are diverse, engaging tunes that highlight both their arrangement skills and raw live electricity.
In both sets, the impeccable alt-country songwriting stands out. Some alt-country gets too invested in sounding gritty, while some rushes too far into the open arms of pop. The Local Strangers walk the line between the two perfectly, incorporating both melodies that you can’t say no to and arrangements that feel fresh, tight, and sufficiently country. In the full-band set, “Red Dress” and “Up in Smoke” are adrenaline-fueled Spaghetti Westerns, complete with sordid narratives; both amp up to roaring, wild conclusions with powerful female vocals, tasteful arrangements and a delicious sense of drama. “Crown” and “Goodbye/Goodnight” take a more mid-tempo approach to alt-country, leaning hard on the Jayhawks model of acoustic guitars, drums, and general grit.
But it’s not just an alt-country outing here: “Gasoline,” “Pilot Light” and “Touchstone” take the set down a notch. All three are love songs, much in contrast to the alternately defiant and down-and-out country work that’s so attractive. “Touchstone” starts out as a gentle, soul-inspired torch song before crescendoing to a towering pop conclusion–it’s impressive in its difference from the rest of the album. “Gasoline” opens the album on a complex note: the song’s vibe is low-slung, driving, and thick in the rhythm and bass, but it opens up into a gentle, thoughtful chorus. It’s closer to Bloc Party than Drive-by Truckers, which is pretty cool.
“Pilot Light,” though, is my personal favorite. It’s a calm, optimistic tune that starts with a jauntly staccato strum, reminiscent of Josh Ritter. The tune is led by the male vocalist, and his delivery contributes to the modern/urban folk vibe. It’s a beautiful love song, perfectly arranged so as to unfold just as I wanted and expected it to. You don’t want to be able to totally predict a song, but when they let on where they’re going, you want to it to deliver as promised. The Local Strangers know how to set up that sort of anticipation without being derivative, which is a rare skill.
The live album strips out the arrangements and focuses tightly on the dual vocals. Songs like “Always Me” and “W.W.,” good tunes which aren’t among my favorites on the full album, take on new life in the acoustic setting. The power of Aubrey Zoli’s voice was present in the first setting, but it’s even more on display here. She doesn’t just know how to belt, she knows how to take control of a room. That’s something you can’t hear on a studio record.
Take What You Can Carry is a passionate, powerful record that shows off songwriting chops, vocal prowess, and arrangement skill. The tunes here are crisp, tight, intriguing and inviting. Like some cross between Adele, the Jayhawks, and Josh Ritter, the Local Strangers are doing great things.