Alex Ross makes a compelling case at the beginning of his second book Listen to This that a large group of classical music’s proponents have been systematically enshrining older music as better, minimizing the praise of modern composers, and insisting that classical music is dying for over 200 years. He then performs a deconstruction of this mentality by discussing everyone from Mozart to Bjork, from Schubert to Sonic Youth, with the same critical lens in one so far deeply enjoyable tome. (I know a book is good when I can’t even get all the way through before I want to talk about it; I’m a little under halfway through its 345 pages.) That sort of “toss out the rules” mentality should be applied to Mutual Benefit‘s Skip a Sinking Stone, which draws just as much from “classical music” as it does the folk-pop of the outfit’s immediate history to create a beautiful release that transcends both labels.
The first thing to note about Skip a Sinking Stone is that strings are almost omnipresent. They are employed in a multitude of ways, from huge riffs to quiet melodies to subtle background work to mountainous crescendos reminiscent of John Luther Adams’ slowly unfolding work (which also gets loving treatment in Listen to This). Their use is not auxiliary, but essential: they largely lay down the sonic palette that Lee paints with throughout Stone. Look no further than the title track, which follows an instrumental intro, for evidence: the strings carry the weight here, building the base of the song and owning the highest points of excitement almost by themselves. It’s deeply unusual to hear strings so thoroughly integrated into a sound taking place in the popular realm: instead of an orchestra supporting a pop song (as has been done expertly by everyone from The Arcade Fire to The Decemberists to The Collection), the orchestra and the pop song are coterminous; they are part and parcel of the same thing. They are inseparable in listening and in criticism.
As a result, Stone has a unique mood and temperament throughout: it feels organic, bright, almost alive. The sense that it has grown up out of the earth and become a rose-filled garden strikes me in almost every song. “Lost Dreamers” has the warm, mid-tempo feel of a gentle walk with a good friend; “Not for Nothing,” the closest thing to a folk-pop song presented here, is a subtly magnificent piece of work that induces swaying and smiling. “Nocturne” gets literal and includes the recorded sounds of a forest in a delicate interlude. The incredible secret of Stone is not just that it feels deeply organic, but that it manages to fold in electronics to heighten the sense of earthiness instead of divorce from it. Fluttery synthesizers come in with the piano and strings on the opening instrumental “Madrugada,” helping to create the oversaturated-with-light vibe. (Synths/theramin-sounding-like-synth has another moment on the carefully constructed, dusky ballad “Many Returns.”) It’s a rare fusion that comes off as more than the sum of its parts, creating a beautiful sonic space.
The strings’ ubiquitous presence in that sonic space is matched in importance only by sonorous piano and Jordan Lee’s delicate voice. Lee does use his acoustic guitar in some of these songs (“Slow March” and “Many Returns,” most notably), but the piano is the most valuable player here. By taking his folk-pop songwriting sentiments and translating them to the piano, he has created the ability for his songwriting to be infused with strings to the great degree that it is. It’s not to say that a meshing of acoustic guitar and strings can’t happen–but here the delicate yet solid presence of the keys matches the fluttery yet concrete nature of the strings beautifully. It’d be easy to point to “City Sirens,” which contains only piano and strings, as proof, but the better example is the majestic “Skipping Stones,” which would be a considerably different song if it were played on acoustic guitar.
Lee’s voice is the last major element here: his delicate, innocent-sounding tenor conveys wide sweeps of emotion without resorting to dramatic lengths. Through strong development of melodies, careful use of background vocals, and a keen sense of how to arrange the band for maximum vocal effect, Lee gives his voice power without ever losing its wide-eyed sense of wonder. The performance of the vocals throughout echoes the damaged but insistent hope that plays throughout “Skipping Stones” and the rest of the album: Lee’s vocals can go from assured to lost to hopeful and back through all those emotions in a single section of song. His voice never strains or grasps for notes, fitting beautifully into the bright, light, lithe sonic environment he has created.
Skip a Sinking Stone has so much to admire that I can’t fit it all into one review; I didn’t even get a chance to touch the lovely lyrics or the smart percussion. It’s a beautiful, remarkable, even majestic album that bends the boundaries between folk, pop, and classical in the most pleasant way I’ve heard all year. If you’re into bands with orchestral aspirations (Lost in the Trees, Sufjan Stevens, The Collection, et al), you will absolutely love this record. It’s going to be high on my list of albums of the year, for sure. Highly recommended.
1. “Audubon” – Jon Solo. Here’s a gentle yet expansive sonic soundscape dedicated to the famous naturalist. The arrangement here is simple-sounding yet complex in its construction, which makes for great work.
2. “Taller” – Silas William Alexander. An intimate folk tune that has the gravitas of the best folk singers, an earnest vocal performance that reminds me of my long-lost Page France, and a wistful sweetness that’s irresistible. Alexander is one to watch.
3. “Young Romance” – Redvers Bailey. Makes me think of Juno, The Life Aquatic, Beirut, Belle and Sebastian, honest quirkiness (“I don’t try to do this, this is just how I sing”), and lots of good songs. Mile-a-minute lyrics, chunky chords, humble melodies–what more can you ask for in an indie-pop tune?
4. “Going Home” – Jesse Rowlands. We don’t write real folk tunes that much anymore, but here’s one about a Southern deserter (I’m guessing from the Civil War) who tries to get back to his home. The voice-and-guitar songwriting sounds way more full than just those two pieces. It’s an engaging, beautiful tune.
5. “Little Moment” – Luke Rathborne. Delicate guitar work always gets me; so does the confidence to create small, quiet pop songs. This tune just makes me smile.
6. “Someone to Love Me” – Jont and the Infinite Possibility. Do you miss early-eras Coldplay? Rush of Blood to the Head, Parachutes, etc.? You’ll love the full-band, wide-screen, acoustic-grounded pop-rock here.
7. “Strangers” – Brad Fillatre. The vocal performances in this alt-country tune are deeply affecting, all the more so because of the unexpected nature of the clear, yearning chorus melody in relation to Fillatre’s gritty, rough verse performances.
8. “Hymns” – Grado. A subtle but strong opening guitar line leads into a unique combination of rainy-day indie-pop, modern folk music, and upbeat indie-pop enthusiasm. There’s quite a lot going on here in what seems like a simple, confident tune.
9. “Gentle Giant” – Yankee & the Foreigners. Charming, woodsy, full-band folk for fans of Fleet Foxes, The Fox and the Bird, new-school Decemberists, and Beirut’s vocalist.
10. “Anchor Up” – Eric George. Walking-speed folk troubadour work with great vocals, a stellar production job, and a remarkably chill vibe.
11. “Anchor (Argentum Remix)” – Novo Amor. A For Emma-style Bon Iver vocal performance over fingerpicked guitar and piano chords gets an ’90s techno beat backdrop; to my surprise, it sounds totally rad.
12. “Believe in Me” – Jason P. Krug. A tender keys line (maybe kalimba?) and a swooning cello accompany Krug’s smooth voice and lyrics of Eastern mysticism; reminds me of the quieter Dan Mangan songs, in that there’s a lot of emotion but not a lot of melodrama.
13. “Fire Engine Red” – Robert Francis. Francis sounds completely assured and at home in this minimalist songwriting environment: with a few rim clicks, distant synths, and a rubbery bass line, Francis creates a distinct, careful mood. It gets even better when he layers his acoustic guitar over it.
14. “The Haunted Song” – Maiah Wynne. Wynne wrote a solo vocal piece, then performed it in a big empty space accompanied by claps, stomps, and creepy background vocals. At just over 1:19, it’s intriguing and unconventional.
15. “Fork End Road” – Ark Royal. Big harmonies, swift picking, and great strings–this song hits you with a lot right up front. Gotta love a track that captures you from the get-go. Things get better from there, too.
1. “Hypachoi” – The Project. A thrumming distorted bass riff underlines this song, which moves from a spartan tune punctuated by clanking chains into a crunchy, towering, dramatic piece. The lyrics are a passionate re-telling of Christ’s death and resurrection. Happy Easter!
2. “Trucksea (feat. Dean McGrath)” – Nonsemble. This indie-pop chamber orchestra packs “Trucksea” full of fluttering strings, dramatic cello, grounding keys, perky drums. The vocals are the most modern thing about the tune, other than perhaps the confidence with which the difficult fusion is pulled off. This is an impressive tune that demands attention.
3. “Wildflower” – Shiloh Hill. Chipper full-band folk that starts with perky trumpet and brings in banjo like rays of sunshine coming out from behind a cloud. The chorus has an anthemic cast similar to The Decemberists, which is always welcome. This album looks like it’s going to be a lot of fun. Check out their Kickstarter.
4. “Dust” – Ryan Martin John, Todd Sibbin, and Tom West. Kind of like an Australian Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, this ominous track has a ’70s folk vibe, solid group vocals, and a dense, immediate atmosphere.
5. “I Know I” – The Tin Man. A pensive minor-key first verse leads into an ultimately hopeful, thumping folk-pop/alt-pop tune augmented by some distorted guitar providing some background grumble. Goes for a lot of drama and yet stops one inch from going over the top–an admirable skill.
6. “Same Boat” – Vanessa Forero. This is a swift, upbeat, smile-inducing folk-pop tune that doesn’t jump the shark in its arrangement (however, there are mermaids in the stead of Left Shark as part of the video).
7. “Million Miles” – Jesse Konrad. A calm strum, gentle guitar counterpoint, and a friendly organ push this track along in a very chill way.
8. “You Need to Hear It From Someone Else” – Protestant Work Ethic. Lazy horns play against a large choir, an autoharp, melodica, and assorted random percussion–the outcome is like a European version of Typhoon, all the way down to the passionate vocals.
9. “Already Gone” – Travis Smith. A surging, major-key chord progression reminiscent of Dan Mangan, a fun organ performance, and a smooth vocal performance come together over a shuffle snare for a tune seems already comfortable and worn in, like a comfy sweater, when you first hear it.
10. “Marigold” – Neil Holyoak. Holyoak’s hazy yet gravitas-laden voice presides over this very carefully constructed folk tune, complete with pedal steel, mandolin, and reverb-washed electric guitar. It’s kind of like Dana Sipos’ work, but in a major key and more instrument-laden. Float away with this track.
11. “Love Is Like a Market Crash” – Thurdy. It takes a lot of work to sound casual. Thurdy’s laid-back, back-porch vibe permeates his baritone vocals, rolling guitar playing, and honest lyrics. It’s a tune that gives you back more than it asks of you.
12. “This Will Be Our Year – Zombies Cover” – Novi Split. David J’s magnetic, utterly gorgeous voice is in full flower here, matching his oh-so-lovely pipes with a “doo-wop meets old-school country in a subtle, spare modern bar” arrangement. It’s just great.
13. “Bed of Nails” – Logan Magness. “Tender” and “romantic” maybe aren’t the phrases most associated with alt-country, but this stripped-down, Isbell-esque acoustic ballad is both. Magness’s smooth tenor is a joy to listen to.
It’s always nice to hear from people again. Ira Lawrence was in a band called Even So in the mid-00s that I really loved–their EP Homecomings and Departures has some tunes that I still listen to, years later. So it’s great to hear his distinct vocal stylings in his solo project Ira Lawrences Haunted Mandolin. His six-song release Elegant Freefall showcases both his vocals and the titular mandolin to great effect.
This EP is composed entirely of mandolin sounds. But before you run for the bluegrassy hills, it’s important to note that distortion, reverb, heavy chord strumming, and pitch augmentation are the name of the game here. There are probably folk tunes buried somewhere in these songs, but with Lawrence’s voice and the remarkable arrangements considered, there’s little you can call these but indie-rock tunes. For examples of the gymnastics that the mandolin goes through, “Lucky Lucretia” sees the mandolin pitch-shifted down to sound like a distorted bass guitar. The title track layers multiple strumming lines on top of each other to create clouds of reverbed mandolin; “Babarbara” throws so many effects at it by the end of the tune that it sounds almost exactly like an electric guitar. I’m not sure how huge Lawrence’s pedal board is, but I would wager that it’s big or that he knows how to wring every last sound out of the few pieces he’s got.
“Warp Drive” is an example of a tune where the effects on the mandolin aren’t as central to the tune (well, at least at the beginning). He does put a pretty huge reverb on his own vocals, though, creating a unique vibe for the tune (similar to how Gregory Alan Isakov reverbs/gently distorts his voice). His vocals are part of the allure of this EP for me, as Lawrence’s tenor has a unique tone and timbre. There’s an edge to his voice that can’t be denied, but he uses it in a melodic way much of the time–he sounds both exasperated and under control. It’s the sort of voice that makes me think of the “dancing about architecture” quote: me trying to explain it cheapens it. Just know that his vocals are great and worth checking out for their own merits.
But it’s ultimately the songs that pull this together: they’re hooky, melodic, and unusual. With such a specific constraint (only sounds from a mandolin), the songs could start to sound similar–Lawrence avoids that pitfall. “Babarbara” is a mid-tempo pop song that could perhaps be a ’90s rock song in a different instrumental milieu. The title track is just as elegant as the title would claim, as the various mandolin lines combine with a careful vocal line to make a beautiful tune. “Jeremy Crackers” sounds like a lost Decemberists song, both in the vocal performance and the songwriting style; “Lucky Lucretia” is noisy and cool. They’re all tunes that make me want to come back to them.
Elegant Freefall by Ira Lawrences Haunted Mandolin is the rare “constraint project” that can be appreciated without knowing what the rules were. These songs stand up on their own as hummable, admirable, thoughtful pieces. I’d recommend this to anyone, but I think it would be particularly relevant for those who are interested in the type of indie-rock that pushes the rules for the sake of wondering what’s out there past them. Highly recommended.
1. “Winter is for Kierkegaard” – Tyler Lyle. There are few things that get me more than a earnest tenor singing way too many words over a folky arrangement. Lyle plays somewhere between Josh Ritter, The Tallest Man on Earth, and Gregory Alan Isakov.
2. “Resolution” – Young Legs. The world always needs more quirky, delightful indie-pop on a strummed banjo.
3. “The Fall” – Reina del Cid. Warm, fingerpicked acoustic guitar; brushed snare; stand-up bass; contented alto vocals–it sounds like all the bits and bobs of a country song, but del Cid turns it into a charming folky ballad.
4. “Forever for Sure” – Laura & Greg. The gentle, easy-going guitar and male/female vocals create an intimate vibe, while a mournful instrument in the distance creates a sense of spaciousness. The strings glue them together–the whole thing comes off beautifully. I’ve likened them to the Weepies before, but this one also has a Mates of State vibe.
5. “Touch the Ground” – The Chordaes. Dour Brit-pop verses, sky-high falsetto in the sunshiny, hooky chorus–the band’s covering all their bases on the pop spectrum. That chorus is one to hum.
6. “Inside Out” – Avalanche City. My favorite Kiwis return not with an Antlers-esque, downtempo, white-boy-soul song. It’s not exactly the chipper acoustic pop of previous, but it’s still infectiously catchy.
7. “Bad Timing” – The Phatapillars. If Jack Johnson’s muse was outdoor camping and music festivals instead of surfing, he could have ended up like this. For fans of Dispatch and old-school Guster.
8. “Tapes” – The Weather Station. Sometimes trying to describe beauty diminishes it. Let this song just drift you away.
9. “ Forest of Dreams” – Crystal Bright and the Silver Hands. The Decemberists have largely gone standard with their arrangements, but there are still people holding it down for klezmer arrangements of gypsy-influenced melodies mashed up with the occasional operatic vocal performance. It’s like a madcap Beirut or a female-fronted Gogol Bordello.
10. “Heavy Star Movin’ – The Silver Lake Chorus. Written by the Flaming Lips for the choir (which operates in a very Polyphonic Spree-like manner), it’s appropriately cosmic and trippy. Strings accompany, but nothing else–the vocals are the focus here.
11. “Emma Jean” – WolfCryer. Here’s Matt Baumann doing what he’s great at: playing the storytelling troubadour with an acoustic guitar and a world-weary baritone.
The toughest part of writing about Andrew Judah‘s Monster is trying to figure out how to explain the thing in genre terms. Is it OK Computer-era rock without the guitars? The Decemberists’ indie-pop having a nightmare? Lushly orchestrated trip-hop? Genre labels aside, it’s a whirlwind ride of unusually-juxtaposed instruments that knit together perfectly under Judah’s careful composer’s ear.
Judah is a highly sought-after commercial composer; you’ve probably heard his work without knowing it. His third album of artistic compositions sets wild, intricate foreground elements on top of cinematic backdrops for maximum immersion. Judah works mostly in minor keys here, building brooding, intense landscapes that build to bursting. “I Know You Know” turns a smooth, cascading guitar line into a stuttering, bewildering footrace; the song culminates in a furious maze of arpeggios surrounded by glitching keys, layered vocals, and complex drumming. It has a visceral, physical quality to it; I can almost feel the sounds happening to me.
“Better and Better” amps up the ominous qualities of the record, starting out with heavy pad synths (although he notes in the liner notes that this might be a banjo played with a violin bow), muted piano, and gurgling bass. This is an album where sounds take preeminence over the instruments that make them: it could be a banjo or steel drums, keys or guitar, bass or keys, electronic or live drums. The performer isn’t important: the fact that the sounds mesh perfectly takes precedence.
Back to “Better and Better”: Judah’s voice is digitally manipulated to sound alien and yet comforting, which is the same sort of tension that Radiohead perfectly captured in OK Computer. But Yorke and co. didn’t try to make that into the eerily joyful soundtrack for a dark carnival, as Judah does here. It’s a profoundly unexpected turn. The title track draws some musical composing tricks straight out of old horror films, with wavering theremin sounds floating uncomfortably above the acoustic guitar before unveiling some of the most delicate, tender work that Monster has to offer.
Judah revels in the abrupt shift; many of the tunes here move from this to that unexpectedly. Sometimes it’s quiet/loud/quiet; other times the tone or mood shifts. Sometimes the time signatures change. “What Now?” draws on a relatively disorienting use of syncopation to throw you off. Yes, he employs a variety of tricks to keep you interested, and it works really well. The biggest element that draws me, however, is how it all hangs together. You can listen to Monster beginning to end without necessarily marking the titles of songs. You’ll definitely look back to see what the names of “Morning Light” and “I Know You Know” are, but you may find yourself feeling that the ballad “Willis” just kinda runs along with “Twitch & Shake” and “Better & Better.” You can enjoy it that way if you’d like–more power to you.
Monster is a dark record, but it’s not a grim or hopeless one. It explores brooding territory without getting overwrought, which is a tough balance to strike. Some albums feel like the songwriter is talking to you; this one feels like watching a movie by a director friend of yours. It’s not impenetrable, and you can see flashes of your friend’s hand, but it’s more about the unique experience of that particular media than the person behind the curtain. Andrew Judah gets out of his own way here, letting the intricate, complex, fascinating songs tell their tales. It pays off in spades.
The mix of an album can tell you a lot about the priorities of its creators. Dylan Dickerson’s frantic, fractured voice is cranked about as high in the mix of Dear Blanca‘s Pobrecito as possible, which tells me that they care about the raw, ragged, real aspects of performance. Look no farther than the wordless, anguished roar that is the chorus of “Showplace” for proof. The intense alt-country songwriting behind the pipes matches Dickerson’s careening, manic vocal quality. In other words, Conor Oberst and Dickerson would have plenty to talk about.
But like Bright Eyes, Dickerson and co. aren’t all raging fury. The (relatively) pensive “Noma” includes a musical saw that gives the tune a Neutral Milk Hotel feel (Mangum, of course, being another vocalist who celebrated the rough edges of his non-traditional voice). Dickerson can write a pop song, too: “Huff” has a great guitar riff and a (relatively) restrained vocal performance. But it’s loud, noisy alt-country rock that is his natural home, which is why even the rhythmically tight, acoustic-led “Priscilla” turns into a torrent of guitar distortion and a repeated hollering of the titular character’s name in the chorus. Closer “Cadmus” starts off quiet with acoustic guitar, organ, and female vocals before introducing pounding toms into the tune. Hey, if you’re good at a thing, do that thing.
You like the stomping work of the Drive-By Truckers? Dear Blanca is like the Drive-In-And-Stay-In-Your-Front-Yard-Yelling-Until-You-Come-Out Truckers. Pobrecito is a sweat-drenched, passionate, powerful set of noisy alt-country tunes that will occasionally give you shivers.
The mid-’00s were a good time for indie-pop music, with bands like Annuals, Decemberists, Grandaddy, and the Shins purveying a very particular type of giddy, instrument-stuffed pop music that wasn’t being well-represented on the radio. Koria Kitten Riot picks up that torch of shiny, acoustic-led, maximalist indie-pop on Rich Men Poor Men Good Men. It’s the sort of album that includes coconuts imitating horse clip-clops in a way that sounds totally natural (“The Lovers That You’ve Never Had”). It’s twee without being overly cute in the vocals, or serious vocals with a whimsical touch to the arrangements.
“A Last Waltz” stands out as one of the highlight tracks not because it’s particularly more charming that the rest of the tunes here, but because it’s a touch darker. The rest of the album can flow together as one wonderful experience, but track three points itself out as a great track by showing the diversity the band is able to deliver (while still not damaging the flow of the record). “Today’s Been a Beautiful Day” nicks not only the sound but the joyful irony of the era, pairing one of the most chipper melodies and arrangements on the record with a song about a person who gets hit by a car and dies. (Oops, spoilers.) Follow-up “Carpathia” sounds a bit like a brit-pop tune, what with the wistful reverb, processed strings, and discrete acoustic strumming; it’s a nice change of mood that stands out as a highlight.
If you’re into cheerful, instrument-stuffed indie-pop, you’ll find a ton to love in Koria Kitten Riot. You can listen to the whole album and let it wash over your mood, or you can listen to individual tunes; it matters not. It will make you smile either way.
Bishop Allen was also doing quirky indie-pop in the mid ’00s, and they’ve since gotten a bit noisier than their indie-pop masterpiece The Broken String. I think they still count as indie-pop on Lights Out, but they’re certainly creeping closer to power-pop.
They make it clear with opener “Start Again,” which is all buzzy synths, classy dance-rock guitars, and propulsive percussion. “Bread Crumbs” makes the dance-rock vibes even more explicit, putting together a wicked bass groove, a protoypical piano hook, and a minimum of lyrics. (And, because this is Bishop Allen, there’s also a bass-heavy horn section.) “Crows” involves some of their traditional quirky rhythms (Latin/island, a la “Like Castanets”), chill melodies, and pristine arrangements, but with a funky bass line. It’s way fun. “Skeleton Key” is another funky tune that’s worth remembering.
The overall sound of Lights Out is more matured, even with the dance-rock tendencies: it’s a poised, refined musicality that runs through the record. The lyrics reflect that aging as well; there are more references to hard times, the existential crises of adulthood (“No Conditions”), and that most adult of rituals: leaving the party early (“Why I Had To Go”). But they never get heavy-handed, morose, or grumpy. It’s a band that grew up, but kept their pop song skills with them. Mazel tov! Here’s to Bishop Allen: long may you write.
I just finished reading The Night Circus, which is a tale of magic and circus set in Victorian England. The best part of the novel is the perfect mood it captures, with curiosity being the only guide in a world that fluctuates between joy, terror, and confusion. Curtis Eller’s American Circus‘s How to Make It In Hollywood draws off that same time period for musical, lyrical and visual inspiration, resulting in an album that is as mysterious, dirty, magical, scruffy, distinctive, oft foreboding, and occasionally whimsical as the circus itself.
Eller plays the banjo, and so the songs all have a plucky, jaunty feel that only a banjo can give. On top of that base, there’s everything from mournful ballads to proto-rock’n’roll jaunts to old-timey folk tunes to things that sound like they fell right off the back of a circus. The sense of theatricality that is so prevalent in the circus holds together songs as disparate as the New Orleans-esque “Butcherman” and the forlorn “Three More Minutes with Elvis”; the impressive arrangements make both of those tunes sound excellent. The ominous backwater stomp of “The Heart That Forgave Richard Nixon” is wholly different again; it’s just as impressive musically.
Eller isn’t a chameleon so much as he is an expert storyteller, matching moods and lyrics impeccably. If “Busby Berkeley Funeral” needs to sound like a jubilation after a slight into pondering death, the music can fit that. Eller’s strong voice is the guide through this wildly diverse album, the ringmaster in a circus of sounds that are here one minute and gone the next. Whether it’s 1950s pop or 1850s folk lament, Eller knows how to fit it into the amalgam. If you’re interested in upbeat folk like Jonas Friddle’s, or theatrical work like The Decemberists (but way more fun than they ever were), you’ll be thrilled to hear Curtis Eller’s How to Make It In Hollywood.
Wherein I Remember That I Mostly Listen to Music With Acoustic Guitars In It
1. “So, what exactly does it say?” – The Weather Machine. I loved Joe Pug’s first record lyrically, and I love Passenger’s vocal stylings now. Mash them together, and my heart melts. Add in steel drums, and you end up as the lead track on an MP3 mix. Super excited to hear more of this album.
2. “Passing Ships” – The Travelling Band. If you wish the Decemberists would go back to being flamboyant and triumphant musically, The Travelling Band might be your solution. Cello, piano, speedy drums and group vocals swirl around in a wonderfully theatrical way.
3. “Walk Away” – The Bone Chimes. There’s a lot of musical theater going on in this interesting indie-pop track, from the vocal stylings to high-drama arrangements to even a carnival music section.
4. “Sour” – Tim Fitz. There’s downers psych, uppers psych, and giddy psych. This shimmery track fits that latter category. Its favorite color is probably neon green and neon pink, because it can’t pick just one.
5. “Doin’ It to You” – Luke Sweeney. Everybody needs a slice of happy-go-lucky, charming, perky SanFran indie-pop every now and then.
6. “Way Out Weather” – Steve Gunn. Gunn opens up a classic space with this rolling arrangement, as if Joe Walsh got a little folkier.
7. “Roll the Dice” – Charles Mansfield. If The Mountain Goats had a bit more ’50s-pop nostalgia, they might turn out charming, perky, intelligent songs like this one.
8. “Noma” – Dear Blanca. With outrage in the left hand, depression in the right, and a singing saw in the third hand, “Noma” manages to be brash and raucous without being fast or particularly noisy. Impressive tune!
9. “Get Your Fill of Feelin’ Hungry” – Jay Brown. James Taylor is underappreciated in indie circles for his pristine melodies, tight guitarwork, and general great songsmithing. Jay Brown appreciates those qualities; “Get Your Fill” is smooth, tight, and melodically memorable. Whatever you call it (pop, folk, singer/songwriter, etc.), this is great songwriting.
10. “Under the Weather” – The Good Graces. Alt-country and indie-pop haven’t had enough crossover, I think. The Good Graces are making that happen, with the swaying arrangements of the former and the quirky vocal melodies of the latter in this fun tune. Also, horns!!
11. “Seasons” – Palm Ghosts. Folk loves its sadness, but this beautiful song is warm nostalgia in song form.
12. “Childhood Home” – The Healing. This pensive alt-country tune has that rare, magical male/female duet connection. The chorus is haunting and yet comforting; it’s a powerful tune.
13. “Lion’s Lair” – Red Sammy. “I like Megadeth / I don’t like Slayer,” relates the narrator in this quiet, lovely, lonely alt-country track reminiscent of Mojave 3. Caught my attention for sure.
I’ve been listening to Roy Dahan‘s The Man in My Head for several weeks, and I’m still struggling to pin it down to words. It’s a solo project that feels like a full-band effort, as the overall mood of the tracks is more important than any single musician. David Gray would enjoy the seriousness and gravity of these tunes, but the album still has upbeat, inviting moments like “Crush.” It’s chill and relaxing, but with a sense of tension running throughout each tune.
I guess the best descriptor is adult alternative singer/songwriter, but that sells it short in so many ways. “Nothing But Miracles” starts out with a gentle, burbling fingerpicking guitar line before expanding into a wide-open chorus: “You’ll see / there’s a beautiful place to be / and I wonder if you’ll see at all.” The subtly urgent “Farewell” pulses with restrained energy, while “Maze” has a cascading, U2 sort of vibe. The album hangs together beautifully, but doesn’t obscure the high points within it. You can play this one as a full album or pick songs out of it for your playlists. That’s rare.
Dahan’s beautiful music is tough to explain but easy to love. If you’re into things as diverse as Counting Crows, Bright Eyes, Matt Nathanson, Ray LaMontagne, or The Decemberists, you’ll love Roy Dahan’s The Man in My Head.
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.