Reddening West‘s debut EP Where We Startedreminds me of Austin’s Central Presbyterian Church, which is in my mind the far-and-away best venue at SXSW. The towering space allows music to gather majesty during its rise to the rafters and return to my ears, imbuing already gorgeous work with extra grandeur.
The warm, full folk tunes that Reddening West puts together would be perfect for that space, as they have gravitas to spare while still maintaining strong melodicism and soothing arrangements. Fans of the Barr Brothers will be particularly excited to hear the dense arrangements of tunes like “Golden Light,” while those more into country will be charmed by closer “Every Wind.” The thread that runs through each of the tunes is a clear-eyed focus on creating beautiful work; it’s a wonderful present to listen to. I look forward to what Reddening West will put forward in the future.
Jeremy Tuplin‘s Open LettersEP is a gorgeous, swooning, romantic EP that takes full advantage of his lush baritone. Tuplin surrounds his arresting voice with gentle acoustic folk arrangements, all fingerpicking, pump organ, and background strings. The songs are leisurely, unfolding slowly; they’re not dirges, but they certainly aren’t going anywhere quickly.
Standout “Time’s Essence” is a beautiful slice of modern folk that will resonate with those who love The Low Anthem and The Barr Brothers, while “The Morning Sun” has the distant notes and atmosphere of a Gregory Alan Isakov tune. Tuplin’s Open Letters EP creates a tight, careful, ornate beauty over five tracks. It sounds effortless, which is a grand achievement.
Sometimes there’s a singular moment that pulls together everything you need to know and delivers it on a crystal platter. That moment comes early on Worn Out Skinby Annabelle’s Curse. When Carly Booher picks up the second verse of opener “Lovedrunk Desperado,” her voice floats perfectly above the yearning banjo, the pressing drumbeat, and the thrumming bass. It’s a contrast of fragility and intensity. Her delivery is confident yet vulnerable, assured yet emotional and open to possibility. It seems like hyperbole to pack this much into a single performance, but the rest of the album backs up the shivers that track one gave me. As a result, Worn Out Skin is one of the best releases of the year in any genre.
Annabelle’s Curse is ostensibly some sort of alt-country band, but that’s only a starting place for reference points: Josh Ritter, Dawes, Lumineers, Civil Wars, you name it, they’ve got a toe in the sound. But they combine their influences so deftly that from song one they’ve got their own take on the genre. “Rich Valley” is a jubilant folk-pop song with a beautiful/powerful chorus; “Wolf in Sheep’s Clothes” is a soft, careful, ominous tune that calls up the masterful moods of The Barr Brothers before opening up into a shuffling country rumination of sorts. The enthusiastic “Brother In Arms” has serious indie-rock cred with a non-ironic saxophone leading the melody, while “Skinny Dipping” throws evocative synths and flutes under a flying banjo riff and a Needtobreathe vocal line. “Snake in the Rafters” is a vulnerable but sophisticated confessional that Josh Ritter or Paul Simon could have penned, paired with a nimble guitar line the equal of both those luminaries. I could go on, but you get the point: these songs are diverse.
But more than diverse, they’re deeply moving. “Snake in the Rafters,” as I noted, is the highlight on that front, as Tim Kilbourne opens up with a sober, spare look at what’s in the hearts of men: “hold me down/crush my sins/tell me I’m different from evil men/won’t you tell me I’m different from evil men.” I don’t know about you, but I felt those lyrics go pretty deep down. Elsewhere they reminisce about the innocence of youth (“Skinny Dipping”) and the goodness of finding a partner (“Cornerstone”) in ways that spin cliches on their head. “Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing” doesn’t spin the cliche: instead, the narrator inhabits and expands it to great effect. It’s rare for me to find a lyricist that just nails me to the wall on the first listen, but Kilbourne’s got a whale of a hammer in his pen.
So the songwriting is astonishing and the lyrics are brilliant, but what of the performances and recording? Worry not–they’re spot-on. The performances are each of the beautiful quality that I mentioned earlier, and the production job corrals all their disparate ideas and wide-ranging influences into warm, inviting wholes. From tip to tail, this album knocks it out of the park. I can’t recommend this highly enough. Worn Out Skin by Annabelle’s Curse is just a remarkable album that you really need to hear. I expect to be listening to it for years to come.
I rarely go out of my way to comment on the religiosity or lack thereof espoused in the lyrics of the bands I cover here on Independent Clauses. While I’m not quite as agnostic as Switchfoot’s Jon Foreman on whether “Christian music” can exist, I focus pretty heavily on the music at IC. (This decision in and of itself points toward my answer on the question; a deeper philosophical treatise on this issue will have to wait.)
However, it’s almost not possible to talk about Nathan Partain‘s Jaywalker without mentioning that these Southern-rock/folk-oriented tunes are meant to be sung in churches. Partain’s melodic and arranging chops accent but never hinder the ability of these songs to be easily sung by congregations (or people in cars, or walking down the street, etc.).
“I Have Found a Hidden Fountain” opens the record with squalling electric guitar feedback before launching into a full-band Southern-rock vibe, complete with screamin’ organ. After the intro, the band tones it down to feature the dual vocals: Partain’s yearning tenor up front and female vocals supporting with harmonies and tasteful wordless counterpoint. The band doesn’t totally drop out–they merely make way for the vocals to take center stage. This allows the tune to feel tight and real while still leaving the vocal melody easily heard, a trend that continues throughout the album. They get soulful in an instrumental solo section, drop down the volume for dramatic effect, then ramp back up to full weight to close out the tune.
Partain rolls out more Southern rock vibes in follow-up “It’s God Who Saves,” unveiling a nicely arpeggiated lead guitar line on top of more tight band interplay. He also lets his voice get a bit ragged in points, giving the performance a grit that wasn’t present in the more straightforward opener. Even though there’s not as much guitar action in this one, this is a bit more wide-open full-band performance. Partain and co. max out the rock grit with the innocuously-titled “Love is a Gift,” which contains a thunderous guitar riff and roaring vocals in the chorus. (As a result, this is the song that least feels like a congregational possibility.) If you love a bass-heavy Southern rock tune, you should skip straight to this one.
Moving toward the folkier end of the spectrum are tunes like “A Son of God” and “In Tenderness He Sought Me”; these dial back the electric firepower and lean heavily on the polished, evocative vocal melodies. The former includes swinging syncopation that makes it straight-up fun to sing; the latter gives Sarah Partain a verse, and her gentle, affectionate alto softens the already-sweet tone of the tune. “Hold Thou My Hand” is a stark, vulnerable piano ballad whose lyrics and melodies helped develop a catch in my throat by the end.
The most intriguing two songs on the record transcend tunes identifiable by genre labels: “Jesus Is Mine” and “He Was Wounded” invert generic stereotypes to create unique tunes. “Jesus Is Mine” opens with heavy-handed piano whacks and insistent bass thump, then splays out into a vaguely minor-key jam: the piano goes all saloon, Partain distorts his “oh-oh” vocals in the verse breaks, and the guitar wails in engaging ways. It’s not your average Southern-rock jam. Ominous isn’t the right word for a worship song, but whoa. “He Was Wounded” uses organ and delicate clean electric guitar to open in an almost ambient drone; there’s a spacious, elegant, cathedral-esque glamour to the tune that doesn’t draw its strength only from the gentle reverb. It’s quiet and tense without being a solo acoustic performance, something that isn’t so common in folk (with the strong exception of the Barr Brothers).
Jaywalker is a powerful album of Southern rock and acoustic-folk tunes that slots nicely next to bands like Hiss Golden Messenger, Megafaun, and Jason Isbell. Because of its roots, you can sing along every single tune (a highlight in my eyes!). On top of that, the arrangements are tight and finely calibrated to make the songs work right. I’ve been listening to it for weeks and haven’t gotten tired yet. Highly recommended.
I’m heading back to hipster Christmas SXSW this year, freelancing for the Oklahoma Gazette with talented chap Matt Carney. I’m scouring through the announced bands so that I’m ready when it comes time to suit up make my schedule. Here’s some A’s and B’s that I hope to check out in Austin:
The Black and White Years play indie-rock with electro influences, but it’s their insightful lyrics that really hooked me. Okay, and the melodies.
The Barr Brothers. Josh Ritter’s gravitas + The Low Anthem’s transcendent beauty + Avett Brothers’ brotheriness. This is solid folk gold, people.
Adam and the Amethysts. Gleeful folky/calypso/whatevery goodness. Givers and Lord Huron should be all up on them as tourmates.
The American Secrets. You know this band as the FreeCreditScore.com Band. But did you know that all five are long-time indie-rock vets? And one of the members is in Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.? And that they write pretty brilliant songs when not composing ditties for commercials?
There will be oh so many more to come. I hope to post these weekly until SXSW.
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.