Seth Nathan‘s Swimopens up with a fuzzed-out blast of ’90s indie-rock in “Four Corners,” building on the discography he’s created recently of fractured indie-rock fusions with various other genres. The rest of the album streamlines out some of the genre mash-ups, focusing on an updated Pavement/Guided by Voices sound. With the music streamlined, it leaves room for Nathan’s attention to turn toward lyrical concerns for most of Swim. “How did you still love me / when everything was wrong in my head?” opens up second track “Pieces of Jade.” The rest of the album could be subtitled Love in the Time of Mental Illness, as Nathan takes the listener on a tour of what love looks like in the midst of “everything was wrong in my head.”
Nathan is remarkably open and detailed about this period of his life, whether that’s the flute-laden psych-pop of “Diagonal” declaring a Mountain Goats-esque couple paralysis (“we’re stuck in a tangle / or a strangle / we can’t handle”), the loping “Sealed My Fate” trying to make sense of a relationship “crashing down,” or the country-esque “This Big Old House” unspooling a rebuilding narrative with an ominous ticking clock in the background. It’s a deeply personal album, but not in the claustrophobic way that many records can be when they try to go this route. The one exception is the title track, which closes the record with a brittle, intense solo acoustic performance that caps the story of the record in an inconclusive, loose-threads sort of way. If you’re into indie-rock albums that are genuinely trying to do things that you can’t do in a regular rock format (that was the goal once, no?), you’ll find a lot to love in Swim.
1. “The Devil Bird” – Albert af Ekenstam. An unhurried, expansive acoustic-led song reminiscent of Leif Vollebekk or Gregory Alan Isakov’s work.
2. “The Beast That Rolls Within” – Dietrich Strause. A troubadour’s confident vocals, abstract lyrics, and gently rolling guitar make Strause an artist to watch in the vein of Joe Pug and Josh Ritter. This song is excellent.
3. “I Love Immigration” – This Frontier Needs Heroes. Refocuses the talk of immigration by pointing out that unless you’re a Native American, literally everyone in this country is the relative of an immigrant. As Brad Lauretti and I are both descended from Italian immigrants, I felt a special resonance with this charming, shuffling, upbeat acoustic pop tune with a deeply important message.
4. “Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin” – The Chairman Dances. The finely detailed lyrics of the Mountain Goats paired with indie-pop that has a wider range, from dreamier at one end to more formal and Beatles-esque at the other. But there’s still a great “hey!” thrown in. Always a good yawp, you know. Highly recommended.
5. “A Lonely Road” – Jordan O’Jordan. It’s hard to make rattling banjo chords sound delicate, but O’Jordan’s oh-so-sweet voice tempers the rough edges and creates a warm, immersive song. (Toss-up on the “ahs” section: some people are going to think it’s lovely, and some are going to wonder what just happened. Just so you know.)
6. “Fingers Crossed” – The Marrieds. Bright, clear, female-led acoustic-pop with a little more Americana than the Weepies but not as much as the Civil Wars. It’s remarkably pretty, especially when the strings come in. You could dance to this at a wedding.
7. “Suite pour Justin” – Yves Lambert Trio. Traditional Quebecois folk music includes accordion, fiddle, guitar and percussion, in case you (like me) didn’t know. It sounds sort of like a mix of bluegrass and Zydeco, which is incredibly rad. The rest of the album includes vocals in French; this one’s instrumental. The musical quality is elite, so if you’re an adventurous listener I would highly recommend checking the whole album out.
8. “Generation, Love” – Jon Reynolds. Doo-wop, Beach Boys harmonies, and old-school rock’n’roll vibes come together to be pleasantly, nostalgically retro, while yearning for love instead of hate (a very modern concern).
9. “How Quickly Your Heart Mends” – Courtney Marie Andrews. This woman has the female version of Jason Isbell’s voice. I kid you not: the stress on certain syllables, the swoops in volume, the vocal strain on the fronts of lines…it’s all there. It’s awesome. The songwriting is a great trad-country vibe, but whoa. That voice. Check this out.
10. “Brink of Love (ft. Ladysmith Black Mambazo)” – Vian Izak. While we’re on the topic of love, why not indulge in a adult alternative acoustic tune that includes a hugely famous African choir? (You may know them from Graceland, only one the best albums of all time.)
11. “The Other Side” – VACAY. A romantic folk-pop song with some solid falsetto; a little less Lumineers and a little more adult alternative.
12. “the fall” – Andrea Silva. Somewhere between haunting and lilting, Silva’s vocal performance is an enigmatic, engaging figure over an acoustic guitar.
salt ‘n long distance is the sort of acoustic EP that just about everyone wants to write: effortlessly catchy songs with clear, relatable lyrics that are just specific enough to be unique. Each of Foxall‘s four songs is distinct in its own way, yet all of them hang together as a unit. There’s a clear DIY mood throughout, but the production values are such that it feels warm and friendly instead of clunky. In short, it’s pretty much an ideal acoustic release for someone who’s really into emotive acoustic work with verve and energy.
The EP title refers to the long distance relationship that is the topic of each of these songs: the lyrics of the title track refer the problems of long distance with openness and candor, set to a strummy pop song with a catchy chorus. “Squeeze” is a bit more expansive of a song, a fingerpicked bit that calls up comparisons to folk-punkers like The Front Bottoms. “Nowhere But Galesburg” makes me think of The Mountain Goats due to the lyrical imagery/geography (Full Force Galesburg, y’all) and in its raw, lo-fi glory. “5˚ Fahrenheit” marries the expansiveness of “Squeeze” to the catchiness of the title track for a highlight song.
This EP is raw, honest, pure, and excellently executed. If you’re into acoustic music, you need to check this one out ASAP.
(There were a ton of good songs these last two weeks, so I included a lot more than usual in this post. Here’s to a good problem to have: too many tunes!)
1. “Can You Hear It” – Josiah and the Bonnevilles. A piano-led cross between mid-’00s alt-country (The New Amsterdams, I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning) and contemporary indie-pop whose enthusiasm just jumps out of the speakers.
2. “Mammoth” – Brothers Among Wera. Astonishingly, this is the second song I’ve heard in the last few weeks sung from the perspective of a mammoth at the end of the Ice Age: where Rock, Paper, Cynic’s tune was played for laughs, this one’s a bit more serious in its lyrics. However, the music here is an invigorating blast of folk-pop that has arrangements similar to Of Monsters and Men but tempos more similar to Twin Forks. The horns are just excellent here.
3. “The Man That I’ve Become” – Night Drifting. A blast of sunshine in indie-pop form, this tune has a skittering guitar line, jubilant vocals, and a bass line that bounces all over the place. There’s just enough going to be really interesting without getting hectic.
4. “Time Goes On” – Brothers. Sometimes you don’t have to break ground, you just have to nail the best elements of the formula. Brothers’ tune here is a straightforward folk tune with round acoustic guitar tone in a fingerpicked style, shuffle-snare drumming, root-chord bass with some nice fills, and sing-along vocal melodies. It just does everything I’m looking for in a folk tune (there’s even an organ solo, which isn’t strictly necessary for a folk tune but is greatly appreciated). Keep on keepin’ on, Brothers.
5. “Rose Petals” – Kindatheart. Here’s a fun tune: “Rose Petals” has indie-pop sensibilities (delicate vocal and guitar melodies, feathery background vocals) played at power-pop tempos.
6. “Stray Cats” – Robbing Johnny. There’s more vocal attitude packed into this single infectious acoustic-pop song than into some entire albums; John Murrell has impressive charisma and presence.
7. “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning” – Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams. Swampy, immediate, forceful, neo-gothic gospel that raised my eyebrows. It’s recorded immaculately, arranged dramatically (whoa organ), and performed intensely. It’s a workout, and I was only listening to it.
8. “THOUGHTS” – Gabriele Miracle. This unique tune ties the theatricality of flamenco guitar and vocals to a minimalist percussion line and mesmerizing guitar lines. It’s a wild trip.
9. “One Good Night” – Candy Cigarettes. Somewhere in the corners of my mind is a picture of a forlorn individual standing outside a hotel while the camera pans backwards away to show off the bleak desolation of the parking lot, barely-lit swimming pool, and the run-down building. The shot is fuzzy around the edges, a sympathetic reading of the place that’s seen better days. I immediately thought of this image when I heard this slice-of-life, mid-tempo acoustic jam.
10. “I Do” – Meiko. I’m a sucker for an intimate singer/songwriter tune about marital bliss, and Meiko’s latest single pushes all those buttons. The strings are great as well.
11. “Single Mountain Fiddle” – Jared Hard. Hard has a country-style tone to his baritone and a bit of country structure to his vocal melodies, but the folk-style arrangement is clean, uncluttered, and engaging.
12. “Thirteen Years Astray” – Glider Pilots. Speaking of big, empty spaces, Glider Pilots plays the kind of slow-motion alt-country that Mojave 3 was so good at. This song is heartbreaking without going for any of the big moves–it simply is infused with the majestic sense of sadness that seems so fitting.
13. “Washed Away” – Katmaz. The album’s called Nautical Things, and this relaxing, easygoing acoustic tune certainly has a gentle tidal vibe to it: there’s a slow, rolling vibe evoked from the picking pattern and a hazy, fluid mood coming out of the vocals.
14. “Never Heard Nothin’” – Galapaghost. A confident vocal performance of a resigned, sad melody plays on top of an insistent ukulele strum. The tune doesn’t outstay its welcome, leaving me wanting more.
15. “passing” – Dead Skunk. Lo-fi singer/songwriter material that falls somewhere between the hazy mood of Iron & Wine’s early work and the angular guitar work of The Mountain Goats’ early phase. It’s warm and relatable.
16. “Anyhow Anyway Anyday” – Wholewheat. Lo-fi work with casio that evokes the old-school lo-fi masters: there’s a clear song structure, off-kilter pun-making, and a clear vision that includes the tape hiss as a vital part of the tune. Lo-fi fans should jump at this.
17. “We Fell Apart” – Abby Litman. Evocative singer/songwriter work that hangs on subtle, thoughtful lyrical shifts and pleasingly melancholy guitar fingerpicking.
18. “Kissing Faded (feat. Timid Soul)” – Bohkeh. If Amanaguchi tried to write a chillwave song, it might sound like this neon-colored, glitchy-yet-chill electro piece.
19. “twentythousand” – Exes. Slow-jam electro-indie with delicate vocals and a convincing emotional palette. The smart use of vocals throughout is a highlight.
Redvers Bailey‘s if you want to fly you’ve got to let go is a charming, evocative album that sounds like a cross between The Mountain Goats, Belle and Sebastian, and Wes Anderson. Whoa, you might be thinking, that’s a lot of hipstery junk. Well sure. But if you’re into that sort of thing, this is the sort of thing you’ll really like.
For instance, opener “Young Romance” contains 450 words, some of which are Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, microfibre cloth, and several puns about the word “arm.” Follow-on “Elephant Ballerina” contains 537 words and includes the fact that a group of angels is a murmuration, some characters doing Gangnam Style, and “a hundred Michael Jackson zombies filling the dance floor.” Both of these tunes include only acoustic guitar and Bailey’s quirky, endearing, affected tenor (except for a very brief intrusion by a pseudo-marching band to the latter tune). By this point you’re in or you’re out, but if you’re in, here’s some more information.
Past those two opening tunes, things level out a bit into a melodic singer/songwriter with a Mountain Goats bent. “You and Me and My VW” includes a glockenspiel over the fingerpicking to give the pop tune a eternally-sunny Avalanche City vibe, while “The Key to Happiness” has furious, chunky guitar chords straight out of John Darnielle’s early ’90s period. “Living Well is the Best Revenge” and “Sarah” are ballads that lean heavily on the descriptive lyrics instead of the quirky guitar-based songwriting; they fit with the earlier songs through a similar hyper-specific lyrical disposition and Bailey’s voice, but musically they’re a lot different.
Still, Bailey wraps up the collection with the title track, a tune just as verbose, humorous, and enthusiastic as the opening two tunes. The track is a mission statement of sorts, relating the poignant yet still smile-inducing story of how Bailey ended up trying (and failing) to disavow being a musician. (Spoiler alert: he comes back to music.) It’s the perfect mid-point between the earnest emotionalism of his quiet tracks and the passionate theatricality of his poppier tracks.
If you’re into self-aware singer-songwriters with a huge vocabulary and tons of cultural references, you’ll find a gem in Redvers Bailey. if you want to fly is a whirlwind trip through someone else’s mind, and it’s a thoroughly invigorating experience. Here’s to knowing what you do and doing it unabashedly.
The Bitter Poet’s “Guy’s Gotta Breathe” is a manic, almost unhinged anti-folk stream of consciousness anchored by literate, specific lyrics and Kevin Draine’s engaging vocal performance.
Over a charging electric guitar line, Draine laments in rapid-fire style relationships current and past, potential apartment hauntings, old laundry, Simon & Schuster, the way coffee tastes three hours after it’s made, never being able to go back to your favorite restaurant, and various other slights (great and small). It is a whirlwind 2:46. His voice moves from a grumble to a howl throughout the song, keeping the listener close with his tenor’s ratcheting tension. The tension finally explodes at the end of the tune, providing a fitting end to the wild ride.
If you’re into The Mountain Goats’ lyrics (or their unhinged moments, like “Psalm 40:2”), you may find The Bitter Poet to be incredibly appealing. In the way of all unique things, the song does takes a moment to adjust to–Draine does not mind dropping you in en media res to his take on things. After you settle in, it’s really impressive and calls for multiple listens.
“Guy’s Gotta Breathe” comes from the upcoming Trail of Glitter, which drops May 6. You can check out tour dates and more info on where to buy the record at The Bitter Poet’s website. If you’re in NYC, you can also check out NYSolo6, the monthly singer/songwriter showcase that he runs.
Jon Bennett‘s A Saint’s Book is a modest, unassuming folk EP that packs a way bigger punch than it would seem. None of the seven songs here break three minutes; none feature more instrumentation than Bennett’s fluid fingerpicking, slightly gritty vocals, and occasional whistling. Yet within these parameters, Bennett spins observant, literate tales that recall The Freewheeling Bob Dylan. The speedy guitar performance and talking-blues vocal style of “Ukiah” most call up the Dylan of old, but there are traces throughout of a similar unadorned, rough-around-the-edges glory.
“Scotty in the Trees” and “The Dressmaker” both create memorable character sketches in a remarkably short span, with the latter managing to work in the phrases “whale baleen” and “a glass of absinthe” in meaningful ways. Bennet’s lyrics have a much different bent than The Mountain Goats’, but both songwriters pack a lot of development into few phrases. The slight, sprightly instrumental “Flood” shows off Bennett’s guitar skills, too.
If you’re looking for a new singer-songwriter to charm your old-school folk-loving ears, you should definitely check out A Saint’s Book. It’s a remarkable release.
Wrestling is having its indie rock moment, what with The Mountain Goats’ Beat the Champ coming out this year and now this excellent video for Patrick Sweany’s “First of the Week” about what it’s actually like to be a small-time wrestler.
Gracie and Rachel’s “Tiptoe” is a gorgeous black-and-white clip that shows off remarkably beautiful tandem dancing.
Briana Marela’s clip for “Dani” is achingly beautiful, as a woman doing incredible aerial silk acrobatics matches the gentle-yet-intense vibe of the song.
Wonky Tonk’s “Denmark” floated by so pleasantly that I hardly knew it was over when we got there. Just a lovely clip.
I’m pretty sure Ben Maggs’ clip for “The Storm” is a metaphor for the artistic process. Either way, the location and set are great.
Adir L.C.’s clip for “Buyer’s Instinct” is an unusual performance video, as he situates himself in front of tons of different graffiti to sing his tune. It’s surprisingly compelling.
1. “Inside Your Heart” – Hectorina. This track manages to make the lovechild of Prince, James Brown, and a garage-rock band sound like a fine, upstanding individual. Also there’s a choir at the end. Need I say more?
2. “Other Kids” – Mighty. Yawping, hectic, mile-a-minute, ideas-everywhere garage rock that sounds as wild and wide-open as the youth that it so clearly evokes.
3. “The Runner” – Mountains Like Wax. As a fan of the Mountain Goats, I am a bit of a connoisseur of enthusiastic yelps. (John Darnielle actually remarks on the quality of his own yelps in the All Hail West Texas re-release liner notes.) I must say that the scream at 4:51 that turns this slow burner into a post-rock thrasher is an exquisite example of the enthusiastic yelp. I believe it when it happens. That’s rare. The rest of the band puts all they’ve got into it too, but man. That scream.
4. “Her” – The Oswalds. I love an ambitious tune. This one zigs and zags all over the place, moving from garage rock to strict-rhythm indie-rock to acoustic sections to a fractured, crazy guitar solo and then through it all again. The panning is all over the place, adding to the chaotic-yet-controlled feel. You feeling adventurous?
5. “Haunted House” – Ancient Cities. Gotta love an indie rock track that uses the piano as its driving force: check how they use it to escalate the intensity of the song instead of the guitar.
6. “Pressure” – Down Boy. Will a heavy, scuzzed-out guitar and thrashing drums duo ever get old? Not yet, at least: Down Boy makes my feet want to move and my head want to rock.
7. “Anime” – Debris of Titan. You know how Pogo makes these fluttery, wide-eyed electronic burbles? Debris of Titan makes that sort of music in a chill psych-rock vein. I don’t get a lot of psych-rock, but I know intuitively how to jam to this.
8. “Big Sky” – The Pressure Kids. Straight-up-and-down indie rock that draws off elements of Young the Giant, Spoon, and other people that manage to make mid-tempo sound intense.
9. “Denim” – Brave Town. This guitar-fronted pop-rock tune has arena aesthetics (if not aspirations) and hooks to match, reminding me of Colony House (similar) and Arctic Monkeys (less so, but it’s totally there).
10. “Not That Easy” – Lime Cordiale. Some songs just sound like they belong on the radio: this fusion of pop-rock and electronica fits right in the zeitgeist (or maybe we’re just past it?). Either way, this tune is great.
11. “Alright” – Lemmo. Sometimes a chorus just hooks me and I can’t turn away.
12. “Deerhunter” – Ghost of You. Tight groove, attractive arrangement, solid vocals: indie rock gold.
13. “The Road” – DB Cooper. Noisy-yet-slick pop-rock a la Fall Out Boy and the like, with vocals reminiscent of All American Rejects. It’s the sort of catchy chorus and fist-pumping drive that people who love nuanced indie pop secretly love.
14. “Goddess of the Sun” – Postcards from Jeff. Manages to work a flute into the rock part of an indie-pop to indie rock transitional track. Mad props. This one could fit great in any number of indie movie soundtracks.
David Wimbish‘s lyrics are incredible, but with so much going on in his 7-to-18-piece indie-rock orchestra The Collection, the lyrics sometimes take a backseat to the enormous amount of things going on around them. His solo EP On Separation strips away some (some) of the musicians to put the focus squarely on his voice and lyrics. The tender, gentle acoustic tunes that result will please fans of the Collection and gather new fans of quiet music under his wing.
In a nod to the solo nature of the work, Wimbish takes the time to write out some explanatory liner notes in the first person. In explaining the title, he writes, “Each song on On Separation deals with different aspects of disconnection, whether it be marital divorce experienced by my friends lately, or self-imposed loss of close friendships from the past.” To whit, standout “Circles and Lines” begins with, “Today she dropped the glass and shattered many things / and you had not yet thought of where you’d set your ring.” Yet not all of the lyrics are so literal, as Wimbish prefers to plumb the interior spaces of the involved parties and observers of the events (“A Ghost and A Scale,” “Back and Forth”). They’re complex, multi-layered lyrics, full of personal musings, places, and religious allusions: Cain and Abel make appearances in their eponymous tune, and the prodigal son makes a reappearance (from the Collection’s “Broken Tether”) in “Lost and Found.” Wimbish’s ability to turn a phrase that both sounds great and has meaning is in top form here.
These lyrics are paired with some of the most beautiful music Wimbish has yet written. “Circles and Lines” pairs the heavy lyrics against a beautiful, fingerpicked, cascading acoustic guitar line. The song builds to the loudest moment on the EP with the inclusion of strings and slapped cello for percussion, but it returns to its delicate roots for the conclusion of the tune. That underscores the approach here: while these are songs that deal with dramatic events, the overall tone and timbre of this EP is quiet and even understated at times (at least in comparison to the weightiness of the lyrics). The rhythms and string arrangement of “Back and Forth” seem a little like a Collection song with the bombast removed–the chiming autoharp of “A Ghost and a Scale” recalls his band as well. But other than those occasional flourishes, these songs do feel like a statement by Wimbish instead of stripped-out versions of full-band work. They’re elegant, not empty.
Part of the understatedness of the release is realized in the sharp focus that Wimbish puts on his voice delivering the lyrics, to the exclusion of complexity elsewhere. This is particularly true in “Cain and Abel,” which uses Wimbish’s voice as both lead and background vocals. Gentle marimba and cello occasionally show up, but this one’s about the voice. Wimbish’s tenor, so often used for roaring in The Collection’s work, is gorgeous in this quieter setting, as his range, tone, and nuances of delivery stand out. (All those are present in The Collection’s work, but as previously noted, there’s a lot more elements going on there.) His voice is soft, clear, and comforting–if you didn’t listen to the lyrics, these tunes would be the sort of thing to lull you peacefully to sleep.
David Wimbish’s On Separation is a beautiful EP that showcases a singer/songwriter with a clear sonic and lyrical vision. Fans of Damien Jurado, Josh Ritter, or Gregory Alan Isakov will find much to love in the music, while fans of the dense, thoughtful lyrics of The Mountain Goats or Sufjan Stevens’ Michigan/Illinois work will celebrate this one. Highly recommended.
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.