Eric and Happie‘s It’s Yours is a pristine example of a male/female duo folk-pop album in 2016. The eight songs of the album rarely feature more than guitar/bass/drums, which is just the way I like it. The subtle inclusions of ukulele, strings, and accordion provide great accent to the tracks. Eric and Happie are credited with vocals on every track. It’s an uncomplicated collection of tunes that works excellently.
The songs are not as high-drama as those of The Civil Wars, nor as perky as The Weepies’; it’s not as radio-curated as The Lumineers’ work (with the exception of “Falling For You,” which is a romp complete with “hey!”s). Instead, these are folk songs with pop melodies that you can sing along to with ease. There are romantic songs (the title track, “Falling for You,” “A Dream”), travel songs (“Louisiana,” “Oklahoma,” “Stranger”), and more poetic offerings (“They’ll Never Take Us Alive”).
The tunes often land in the realm of Jenny and Tyler’s early work, which was warm, friendly, and pop-oriented. It’s a pure, unadulterated sound that often doesn’t last past a few albums, as the lure of larger arrangements draws so many. (And those larger arrangements can be awesome too.) But there’s a special glow that shines off an intimate, simply-wrought album like this; that lightning in a bottle is rarely caught.
The Soldier Story‘s Flowers for Anonymous inhabits a dusky, complex space triangulated between the suave nighttime antics of Bloc Party, the howling reveries of The Walkmen, and the manic fever of MuteMath’s first record. The songs of this record absorb the best bits of each of those bands and synthesize them into something new and fresh. The trick here is that Colin Meyer has the chops to pull off frantic, mathy indie-rock, but he distills those melodic and rhythmic tendencies into tension-laden mid-tempo pieces that are just as ghostly as they are grounded.
Tunes like “Drifting Apart” have patterned guitar leads, syncopated drumbeats, whirling vocals, and more, but in the service of a subdued, push-and-pull mood. Follow-up “Talk With Our Eyes” barely contains the underlying power and passion, as it spikes up through the tension in the form of synths, drums, glitchy beats, and more. It’s a tune that carries the OK Computer torch, updating the “contemporary technological fears in sonic form” palette. (It’s not surprising that various eras of Radiohead are a touchstone for these pieces as well.)
But Meyer isn’t all chaotic rock filtered through massive restraint filters. Elsewhere Meyer turns his penchant for complex, burbling guitar lines into an indie-pop mold, creating beautiful, subtle tunes like “Life is Short” and “An Overdue Farewell.” These tunes balance Meyer’s complicated arrangements with his smooth, airy, at-times-feathery vocal melodies. He can soar with the best of them, but he can also disappear off into the distance. This tension between the chaotic and the delicate is a powerful element in making Flowers for Anonymous a big success. There aren’t many people making music like this; adventurous listeners will greatly enjoy hearing Meyer’s carefully constructed sonic landscapes.
I’m pretty far behind the bandwagon on reviewing M. Lockwood Porter‘s How to Dream Again, even though I have it on vinyl. It’s been getting a ton of accolades from people like Paste and No Depression, so it’s been doing pretty well without me chiming in. But as a person who’s reviewed both Judah’s Gone and 27, I did have a few thoughts that maybe haven’t been said before. (Probably not.)
The new lyrical direction of How to Dream Again has been getting a lot of play: it’s a protest record, save for three love songs at the beginning of the record, and it’s an incisive, thoughtful turn. It pushes on both on internal problems (“Sad/Satisfied”) and external issues (every other song) in a style that’s more Woody Guthrie than Bob Dylan; there aren’t a whole lot of stacked metaphors, but there is a whole lot of direct analysis. Porter also continues to grapple with religion, this time taking God to task over the question of God’s lack of direct intervention on issues of injustice. It’s a question that has resonated through the ages, and one that fits in a protest album. Even if Porter and I come to different conclusions on the matter, the question is real and remains.
The musical direction is also different, albeit more slightly. The songs here are a synthesis of the folk of Porter’s first record and the American rock’n’roll of his second; the troubadour folk style that comes along with protest lyrics is present throughout as well. The three sounds come together to make a mature sound for Porter, one that may not be his last stop (who among us can claim to be in our final form?), but certainly indicates his direction. There are dashes of Dawes (“Sad/Satisfied”) in the rhythmic vocal delivery, rattling ’50s rock’n’roll throughout, and more things thrown in the pot. The title track, which closes the album, brings it all together into a very American amalgam. It’s Porter’s distinct voice that leads the way, adding the final element to make the sound unique. If you’re into protest music or American folk/rock/other, How to Dream Again should be on your to-hear list. It probably already is.
The Gray Havens‘ Ghost of a King is a strikingly diverse record; the duo’s work previously has fallen into piano pop or folk-pop realms, but Ghost sees them expanding their core sound to include cinematic pop-rock, ambient art tunes, and even electro-pop. Their expansion of borders doesn’t diminish at all their continuing maturity in the folk-pop realm, as the album contains some of the best folk-pop tunes they’ve ever written. In short, Ghost of a King shows growth in every area, and that results in an incredible album.
The two points of entry are pretty obvious on this record: “Shadows of the Dawn” and “Diamonds and Gold” both gave me shivers. I don’t get goosebumps very often, and I can’t think of the last time that I got goosebumps twice in one album. “Shadows of the Dawn” is a folk-pop tune that is imbued with a well-tuned sense of the dramatic–the verses are delicate yet taut with tension, while the memorable chorus opens up the song to release the tension. But it’s the triumphant, jubilant counterpoint choral vocals in the third chorus that dropped my jaw. While Dave Radford holds down the lead vocals, a choir led by Licia Radford exultantly sings wordless arias that point toward the transcendence the lyrics call for. I’m doing an injustice even trying to describe it. You have to hear it to understand how affecting and effective it is.
“Diamonds and Gold” is, surprisingly, their full-on electro-pop jaunt, but it’s thoroughly a highlight of the record. Folkies who try to go electro often result in embarrassing facsimiles of the genre, but “Diamonds” hits all the beats of a electro-pop song flawlessly. It’s hands-down the best electro-pop song I’ve heard all year. Dave Radford nails the attitude that you need to have in electro-pop, confidently swaggering his way through a giddy synth atmosphere. “They say we’re crazy / that’s fine / they say we’re out of our mind / well tell’em, tell’em alright / alright / if the world is all we got / then alright, alright / but it’s not,” Radford states, pointing again to the transcendence that is a deep theme of the record. I would be remiss if I didn’t point out the excellent background vocals, again–The Gray Havens really know how to maximize a vocal performance.
Other tunes point in different sonic directions. “Band of Gold” is a romantic, married-person folk-pop tune along the lines of the Lumineers and the Oh Hellos; you’ll be singing along shortly. The title track, “This My Soul,” and “At Last, the King” have a sort of minor-key cinematic cast that reminds me of Imagine Dragons’ great pop tune “Demons”; “Take This Slowly” employs wide-open, organ-seared, major-key folk reminiscent of Josh Ritter’s “Kathleen” (and oh, is it fun). “A Living Hope” is a two-minute tune built on a base of cascading piano notes that crescendos to a haunting climax full of synths, pounding drums, and distant autotuned vocals. It’s a remarkably ambitious track to put on a folk-pop record, recalling some of Gungor’s more adventurous compositions in scope.
Ghost of a King is a remarkable achievement. It’s the rare album with clear heights supported by a large number of high-quality tunes. There’s not a lot of chaff on this record, which is doubly impressive for the wide range of sounds included on the record. The Gray Havens are hitting a stride here, and I am excited to see where they go from here. Right now, though, I’m picking my jaw up off the floor and enjoying Ghost of a King thoroughly. Highly recommended.
1. “Red Road” – Trevor Green. It’s hard for me to resist an uplifting, hopeful, fingerpicked folk tune sung in an earnest, clear voice.
2. “Shade in the Shadow” – Dan Lipton. Evocative and cinematic without piling on the instruments, Lipton’s story-song here reaches into the folk tradition for its lyrical and musical genesis (but never feels derivative).
3. “Love Sweet Love” – Taylor Grey. Fun folk pop a la The Lumineers, Twin Forks, and the like, with a female vocalist: prepare for “whoa-oh”s, romantic lyrics, and lots of strumming.
4. “Untethered” – Halcyon Drive. Quirky, affected electro-pop with some crunch amid the smile-inducing pop.
5. “Everyone Wants to Love You” – Japanese Breakfast. This is just an amazing pop song. It sounds like it should already be on classic rock radio and permanently in our subconscious memories.
6. “Warpaint On” – Risley. It’s a tough thing to achieve gravitas, but this indie-rock tune has an emotive gravity to it that makes it hard to stop listening to. The sounds are modern, but it’s got the sort of weight that early ’00s indie-rock (Shins, Death Cab, Modest Mouse) had.
1. “Run With Me” – Heather LaRose. A great pop song that has that Imagine Dragons / Magic Giant / Lumineers type of enthusiasm tinged with minor-key drama. You’ll be humming this one.
2. “New Minuits” – Tri-State. This low-slung rock tune escaped from some preternaturally chill realm: it’s smart, cool, moody, lyrically clever and vocally impressive without breaking a sweat.
3. “Nothing to Say” – WOOF. THAT BASS LINE. (Also, this a burbling, frenetic, arpeggiator-decorated mid-’00s indie-pop-rock tune. Tokyo Police Club would be proud.) SERIOUSLY THOUGH. THAT BASS.
4. “Take Me To a Party” – Sweet Spirit. “I’ve got a broken heart / so take me to a party” hollers the lead female vocalist over energetic, fractured rock music that sounds suitably unhinged.
5. “Corduroy” – Redcast. Gosh, there’s just something irresistible about a fresh-faced, clean-scrubbed pop-rock group with equal parts Beatles, twee indie-pop, and The Cars references.
6. “Soldiers” – Swim Season. Everything about this track makes way more success when you realize that it’s about to be summer in the band’s native Australia. This summery electro-rock jam slinks, sways and swaggers its way into your ears.
7. “Movies” – Captain Kudzu. Meticulous slacker pop seems like a paradox, but Captain Kudzu’s carefully crafted tune here sounds excellently like it’s not trying too hard. Foresty, moody vibes track with the easiness, making it an intriguing song.
8. “Captive” – WYLDR. Temper Trap + Passion Pit + a dash of Colony House = radio gold.
9. “Every Day” – Dream Culture. Here’s a funky psych-rock nugget with one foot firmly in the ’70s and one in outer space. The tension between grounded riffing and free-floating atmosphere pulls at each other in all the right ways.
10. “Hey Little League” – Michael Daughtry. John Mayer’s suave alt-pop touch collides with some tight ’90s pop-rock vibes to turn out this tune.
11. “Time to Share” – Model Village. Grows from a delicate pop tune to a surprising, swirling post-disco tune without ever losing a gentle touch.
12. “You Have Saved Our Lives, We Are Eternally Grateful” – Wovoka Gentle. Chiming voices float over shape-shifting synths, bouncy guitars, and an overall joyous mood. It’s kind of like a female-fronted Freelance Whales, only weirder in the best possible way.
Austin alt-country outfit Salesman‘s output up until this point has been eerie, avant-garde, and complex. With the Let’s Go Jump into the Fire 7″, they’ve gone in a different direction that they admit is “a new page” in their book. And boy, is it.
Instead of dark and foreboding tunes that take a while to make their way to your heart, the title track of the seven-inch is an immediately endearing tune. It opens with a jaunty, celebratory, major-key fingerpicking pattern on an electric guitar, which is a shock in itself.
The rest of the arrangement unfolds in a careful way that builds the song seemingly organically to a jubilant point two minutes in where Devin James Fry yells “Yeah!” not out of terror, but out of enthusiasm. Wavering pedal steel, tasteful drums, and thrumming bass create a warm atmosphere that’s hard to resist. It’s very much alt-country, and the rhythms and vocals still mark it as a Salesman track, but their powers are definitely engaged in a different direction.
“Let’s Go Jump into the Fire” is backed with “Riddle of the Source,” which is darker in tone and timbre. It’s still not as difficult as their previous work (or Fry’s previous work with apocalyptic post-rock band Lord Buffalo), but the vibes are darker, more forlorn, more at home in the minor key. Fry stretches out his vocals here, leading the song with his nuanced performance. There’s an awesome (and all too short) guitar solo as well. Salesman’s new look is less obtuse, more direct, and thoroughly enjoyable. “Let’s Go Jump into the Fire” is a brilliant track that speaks optimistically toward things to come.
Janet Devlin‘s Running With Scissors is a thoroughly modern acoustic pop album, putting all the things we’ve learned since Nevermind to good use. The Irish singer/songwriter channels The Lumineers, Lilith Fair, Ingrid Michaelson, and KT Tunstall throughout the album, creating tunes that fit the best adjectives of each turn. Opener “Creatures of the Night” is a perky mid-’00s acoustic-pop song with mandolin and stomping drums; the booming kick bass turns into the walloped, four-on-the-floor tom of “House of Cards,” which is a female-fronted Lumineers track if there ever was one. (It’s even got the obligatory “hey!”)
The tunes set the tone for the album: fun, smart, and melodically mature. The surprisingly maturity with which she traipses through genres is worth noting here: “Hide and Seek” is straight-ahead ’90s female pop (Jewel?), “Lifeboat” includes melodica and separated strumming a la Ingrid Michaelson, “Things We Lost in the Fire” is an introspective piano ballad (Fiona Apple!), and her cover of the The Cure’s “Friday I’m in Love” is all folk fingerpicking and whispered vocals. “Wonderful” has a regrettable lyrical concept, but if you just ignore the words, it’s another cheery ’90s pop tune. (On second thought, maybe the goofy lyrics are just part and parcel of her commitment to the style.)
Janet Devlin’s Running With Scissors is a carousel of delights: no matter which song you pick, it will take you for a warm, lovely trip. If you’re into acoustic pop, you should know about Devlin.
Magic Giant‘s Free 3-Song EP is the catchiest, funniest, and most fun pop-folk EP I’ve heard in a long time. Not since Twin Forks’ debut has a band had such a laser-guided sense of how melodies catch an ear. But Magic Giant is much more than your average folk-pop outfit. This quartet combines influences from Jason Mraz, Mumford & Sons, Muse, and dubstep to create an irresistible brew.
Muse has long known that the strength of pop music is that the various genres can be infinitely combined, if you spend enough time making the sounds mesh together; Magic Giant is all in on that game. “Let’s Start Again” opens with a trad-style fiddle run, then segues into a Jason Mraz-style alt-pop verse and pre-chorus. The lyrics are both modern and timeless, talking about cell phones and the desire to start over with a lover. Then the chorus explodes in a stuttering sampled horn line, a blaring marching band line, a soaring fiddle, and wub-style synth bass. It seems like it shouldn’t work, but it works perfectly. It’s like Imagine Dragons, but folkier. It’s rave-folk, but it’s not even the best example of rave-folk on the EP. (The fact that there are so many disparate influences coming together is what makes this the “funniest” EP I’ve heard in a while.)
“The Dawn” starts off with Lumineers-style fingerpicking and group harmony vocals before bursting into a full folk-pop arrangement, pulling the arrangement back to pick up the tempo, then turning into full-on Mumford & Sons: banjo, roar vocals, thrashing drums. There are also some synths for atmosphere. It’s tough to explain how effective this song is, because it sounds fully derivative on paper and yet completely exciting in the ear. The last chorus has some more stomping, four-on-the-floor dance beats, but it’s still not the best rave-folk song on this EP.
Finally we get to “Glass Heart,” which is my early candidate (basically, my bar) for song of the year. It starts off with a slow-moving banjo line, doo-wop background vocals, and tape noise for effect. It suddenly transforms by adding a saxophone section (alto/tenor/bari, by the sounds of it) stabbing its way through the verse. The chorus drops a great vocal line, but it’s the next section that makes the song: a jubilant, exultant horn line combined with the techno beat, wub bass, and enthusiastic background vocals (you can guess what they are) that have me waving my hands in the air. Then they layer the chorus over the bridge and seriously I’m in a one-man headphones club.
Rave-folk isn’t a thing yet, but Magic Giant is seriously trying to make it happen. They’re a shoo-in to go on tour with Imagine Dragons, but I daresay they’re more exciting to me than Imagine Dragons. They’re not going to be winning any traditional Americana awards, but I kinda doubt that’s the audience they’re shooting for. If you’re into huge, shoot-for-the-charts pop songs, then Magic Giant should be in your ears. You can get the free EP by signing up for their e-mail list.
1. “Glass Heart” – Magic Giant. The rhythmic knowledge of a dance floor anthem powers this folk-pop jam. The inevitable whoa-ohs and jubilant trumpet line send this over the edge into “world-conquering pop song” mode. Seriously, this is like the best parts of the Lumineers and Mumford without the negatives.
2. “One More Song” – Tyler Hilton. Hilton imbues a lot of romantic intensity into his voice, layered neatly over an adult alternative tune that splits the difference between Taylor Swift and Matt Nathanson.
3. “Local News” – Heath McNeese. A simple acoustic fingerpicking pattern, a gentle voice, an endearing story, and a memorable melody: what else do you need? Beautiful singer/songwriter work here.
4. “All Along” – Joe Mansman and the Midnight Revival Band. Snare-shuffle country with evocative vocals, a soaring chorus, and a great vibe. Do I have to throw “alt” in front of country, or can I trust you to listen anyway?
5. “Alegria” – DBG. British folk singer/songwriter DBG went to Spain and interviewed people, then wrote a bunch of songs about those interviews–in Spanish. This one showcases his gentle fingerpicking along with the Spanish-language lyrics.
Trebuchet’s “The End” is a magnificent song: a synthesis of everything we’ve learned from The Lumineers, Mumford and Sons, and The Head and the Heart. Instead of being derivative, it feels like they’ve finally unlocked the pattern. The video is fun too.
The Wild Reeds’ “Blind and Brave” is a love letter to Los Angeles in song and video. Their female-fronted folk sound starts in pristine First Aid Kit mode, but swells to a lovely, full conclusion.
Brian Lopez’s “Persephone” video is the sort where I started watching and forgot that the song was playing. It’s a visually interesting piece that tells a good story, and also is accompanied by some great folky music.
Matthew Fowler walks down a city street, strumming and singing. He happens to come across his trumpet player. Great things ensue. His calm, composed songwriting makes me think of Damien Rice’s quietest moments or Rocky Votolato.
It’s always a bit unusual for me when songs that I’ve known only in performance make their way to tape. The Fox and The Bird‘s Darkest Hours is composed of songs that I’ve heard the Dallas-based band perform over the past three years since their impressive 2011 debut Floating Feather. “Saints,” “Valley,” and “No Man’s Land” are tunes that have lived in my memory long before they ever found a home on this album, so it’s a bit like welcoming old friends back into my home than meeting new people. Keep that in mind as I praise the album.
The Fox and the Bird is a real chipper folk-pop outfit musically, but their lyrics have a complicated, melancholy tinge. Darkest Hours makes obvious with the title a strand of thought started in their debut. “The Wreck of the Fallible,” “Valley,” and “Habit” all weave together human frailty, the petty ugliness of our actions, redemption, and hope into complex lyrics that keep me pondering as I hum along. “Valley” is especially contradictory in this regard, as I find myself humming the dramatic line “And it was every bit as bad / as our father said” without feeling particularly bad. “Habit” is about a history of violence, sung in an perky, old-school Decemberists vein.
Amid the tension and feeling, there is at least one track that is just happy. “No Man’s Land” is a song of hope, passion, and western expansion that includes jubilant trumpet and a sweeping set of “oh-whoa-oh”s in the chorus. But other than that, it’s charming melodies and back-porch banjo of “Ashes” supporting a conflicted lyric set about loneliness, and the beautiful vintage country harmonies of “Dallas” elucidating how Dallas is a pretty terrible place. (“Dallas is a rich man with a death wish in his eyes / A steel and concrete soul with a warm hearted love disguise.”)
So The Fox and the Bird are not The Lumineers: while both can write folk-pop and country tunes that are melodic, memorable, even masterful, the goals of Darkest Hours are quite different than those of “Ho Hey” or “Classy Girls.” This isn’t to knock either band–it’s to point out that fans of Lumineers’ musical qualities might very well enjoy The Fox and the Bird’s music, but might find the lyrics frustrating or even difficult. Others who are fans of challenging lyrics will find an impressive amount of care and thought put into the lyrics, and they might just dig the extremely strong folk-pop stylings. It’s clear that Darkest Hours was crafted over years instead of months: these tunes shine musically and lyrically. The result is one of my favorite albums of the year so far.
I have often sung the praises of Novi Split, so I’m thrilled that David J is moving into an active phase of his production. His most recent release is a split 7″ with fellow Los Angelenos Brown and Blue. Amazingly, the two bands secured Split7Inch.Bandcamp.com to host the thing–although the availability of their seems-like-it-would-already-be-taken website is only one of the impressive things about the split.
Both bands incorporate country influences and focus on gentle vocals; B&B adds a country sway to a quiet indie-rock ballad of sorts in “Honeymoon Suite,” while Novi Split adds pedal steel to the hushed singer/songwriter vibe of “Stupid.” Both bands have a deeply romantic streak running through the lyrics and overall feel, making them great split partners. My only quibble with this is 7 minutes is awfully short for such a great match. Thankfully, both bands are releasing EPs in March–I’ll just play them back to back and call it good. Definitely check out this release.
It is extremely hard for me to resist romantic music. I don’t just mean love songs, although I’m hard-pressed to ignore those; I mean romantic in the literary sense, romanticism that idealizes love and loss and feeling as near to the highest manifestations of the human soul. Damien Rice and early 2000s emo have a lot in common, you know?
Arctic Tern‘s Leaves EP is a passionately romantic album that combines the emotive vocals of David Gray or Josh Garrels with pristine, gentle arrangements of Sleeping at Last and Gregory Alan Isakov. A lilting Irish air to the vocals only makes the sound more appealing. “Light a Fire” is the most polished of the tunes, a full arrangement with good motion, even a quiet urgency, throughout the track. Other tracks show off Arctic Tern’s (one person, naturally: the solitary genius is a beloved romantic-era invention) prowess with just an acoustic guitar: “Love is Not a Game” and “Ties” have stark sections and yet are still smooth. “Love is Not a Game” expands into a tune with swooping cello, melancholy piano, and glockenspiel–it’s an absolutely beautiful piece.
Arctic Tern’s sound falls somewhere between searching and content: the lyrics speak of the anxious space between love and not, but the arrangements are strong and confident. This is music to chill out to, to make out to, to be thoughtful to. It’s music that gets into the spaces of your mind and smooths those jagged edges, even if only for a little while. It’s an EP that caused me to repeat it 8 times in one day. That’s a mighty accomplishment.
Are you tired of married duos singing folk-pop? ME NEITHER. The latest guy/girl duo in my inbox is Davy and Amelia, to go along with Jenny & Tyler, The Gray Havens, Destroy Nate Allen!, Venna, The Weepies, the Civil Wars, et al. Davy and Amelia’s Norah June EP leans more toward the stomping, clapping, upbeat party-folk of The Lumineers and especially Twin Forks instead of the quiet, introspective tunes of The Weepies. They also celebrate giddy romance and young married life, which sets them apart from sadder couples.
“The Summer,” “Mountain Movers” and “Norah June” (the name of their baby!) all have rousing, celebratory arrangements; “The Summer” and “Norah June” are upbeat right from the word go, while “Mountain Movers” builds to its shouted-group-vocals conclusion. “Cause Daddy’s only 22, Momma’s 21/some people say we got married young/you are the treasure of our unbreakable love/hey!” goes the chorus of “Norah June,” which means not only are they giddily in love with each other, they’re singing songs to their baby. I think that’s absolutely adorable, but I think that might send the more cynical among us running for the exits.
The songs themselves are great, full of strong instrumental and vocal melodies. The songs are predominantly based in acoustic guitar, although “Mountain Movers” shows off their elegant, cinematic piano skills nicely. If you’re not into the genre, then these four tunes won’t be exciting to you. But if you’re a fan of pop skills applied to romantic lyrics and folky arrangements, you’ll love Davy and Amelia. I look forward to hearing more about this duo in the upcoming year. Just in case you needed proof of how cute this duo is, here’s their band photo:
Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.