1. “Where Are You Running Now” – Ivory Tusk. If you weren’t into The Tallest Man on Earth because of the vocals, check out Ivory Tusk instead: the same sort of complex melodic fingerpicking, similarly poetic lyrics, but a much less grating (I say this lovingly, Tallest Man, really) voice. All the upsides, and none of the down. It’s a beautiful, remarkable song.
2. “Sound It Out” – The Hasslers. Pickin’ and grinnin’ meets New Orleans horns and organ for a full-band acoustic tune that’s fun in lots of ways; even the down-on-my-luck lyrics have wry enjoyment running their delivery.
3. “Intention of Flying” – Jon Arckey. Everything meshes perfectly here: Arckey’s vibrato-laden tenor (reminiscent of a lower Brett Dennen), gentle fingerpicking, excellently arranged and recorded drums, ghostly background vocals, and even a guitar solo. This beautiful acoustic tune just nails everything.
4. “I Feel a Light” – Aaron Kaufman. Starts off like a solid acoustic tune, then bursts into an unexpected chorus that grabbed my attention. The inclusion of gong and various melodic percussion instruments develop the tune and stick in my mind.
5. “False Flag” – Vice-President. Starts out a weighty singer/songwriter tune, turns into an alt-country song, then ratchets up to a towering conclusion. The lyrics are socially and politically minded, which fits perfectly with the serious vibe of the whole work. Yet, the song remains engaging to listen to; don’t get scared off.
6. “Beautiful World” – David Trull. Jason Isbell fans, take note: Trull’s Southern-steeped acoustic troubadour work is in the same vein as the work that Isbell is currently making hay with.
7. “Blue Whales” – Ulli Matsson. The staccato guitar playing here is almost percussive, playing against Matsson’s legato vocal lines. A mysterious, haunting vibe ensues.
8. “Like a Funeral” – Erik Jonasson. Jonasson puts the focus squarely on his vocals with this minimalist, stark ballad, and they hold up to the scrutiny. The tenor tone is beautiful, and there’s a lot of nuance in his performance. By the end it’s grown and shifted to a Sigur Ros-esque vibe, which is always great.
9. “Loves Company” – The Hasslers. In stark contrast to their joyful tune above, this banjo-led ballad is a deeply sad tale (complete with weeping pedal steel). The hooks and the engaging vocal delivery are still there, but this definitely shows a different side of the Hasslers.
10. “Blind” – Raquelle Langlinais. If Regina Spektor, The Jayhawks, and Jenny and Tyler got together for a jam session, something like this perky alt-country tune anchored by charming female vocals might appear as a result. Everything about this is just infectiously fun, from the drums and bass to the guitars to the vocals.
11. “What If” – Big Little Lions. Here’s some soaring folk-pop with an epic bent and giant choruses, similar to Of Monsters and Men or Fleet Foxes.
There’s a wide diversity of sounds you can make with an acoustic guitar and voice; being able to sing Missippi blues doesn’t ensure that you can play Irish folk tunes. Some people work to become a master at one style, while others can absorb the core elements of a variety of sounds.
Joe Kaplow is the latter, as his sound is grounded in troubadour folk with influences from a variety of other acoustic genres. His self-titled debut EP showcases a singer/songwriter with a huge amount of promise, as his songwriting and distinctive voice offer great rewards to the listener.
“Bookshop Blues” opens the release with a fast, strummed folk tune accompanied by his own foot stomping. Kaplow’s insistent, urgent tenor dances over a tune that sounds perfect for busking: an earnest, upbeat tune that balances lyrical introspection and smile-inducing melodies and chords. He follows it up with the harmonica-and-swift-fingerpicking tune “How Old is My Soul,” which evokes the raw, pure sound of The Freewheeling Bob Dylan. It stays out of tribute range due to (again) the swooping vocals, which flip from tender to insistent on a dime. This ability to control his delivery calls to mind a less-abrasive Kristian Mattson of The Tallest Man on Earth, especially in the “oh-oh” conclusion of the tune.
Kaplow can unhinge his voice, too–both “It’s Me Girl” and “When I Open Up at Last” allow Kaplow to let it all air out. The banjo-led blues of “It’s Me Girl” sees him scrubbing grit and wail into his delivery to fit the mood of the tune, while “When I Open Up at Last” contains Damien Rice-style howls. “Give My Eyes” provides a respite between the two songs, a delicate pastoral tune that reminds me of a cross between Irish folk tunes and Justin Townes Earle’s American sounds. The addition of a female voice turns this duet into a highlight of the already-strong EP.
There’s a lot going on in this self-titled EP, but it all hangs together because of the bright, mid-fi production vibe. This is clearly a man and his guitar (on most tracks), as the occasional ambient room noise, gentle tape hiss and sound of foot taps show. But Kaplow’s not reveling in the tracks’ smallness–this feels like an earnest document of work, not a bid to participate in the bedroom-folk scene. (“When I Open Up at Last” is about as far from whisper-folk as it gets.) There’s no intentional obscuring, no reverb, no distance placed between the listener and the song. These songs are immediate–they grabbed me on first listen, and they still grab me ten listens on. That’s a credit both to the songs and the way they’re recorded.
Kaplow’s self-titled EP is an energizing listen. Whether it’s a slow or fast song I’m listening to, the music is exciting. Kaplow’s well-controlled voice is employed in a diversity of styles, making for a sprightly, fast-paced 20 minutes. It’s tough to pick out highlight tracks, because each has its own charms; I’m personally partial to “How Old is My Soul” and “Give My Eyes,” but someone who likes darker, dramatic music more than I could find “When I Open Up at Last” or “It’s Me Girl” to be their highlight. It’s a rare artist who can make memorable tunes in diverse idioms, and that bodes well for Joe Kaplow. I can’t wait to see how his next releases develop. Highly recommended.
I don’t know if the term “left-field pop” still or ever meant anything to anyone, but that’s the first thing I thought of to describe the self-titled release from Hermit’s Victory–essentially an indie-pop band that is maybe sitting in a forest while they compose and perform. All the elements of indie-pop are there, just with an extra layer of found sound and recording techniques that makes everything sound like you’re outdoors.
This is most obvious in “Mooch”– where the found sounds literally appropriate the bird calls and running water of the outdoors–but is more subterraneanly evident in the unusual synthesizers of “Night Owl,” the subtle reverb of “Novice” and the tape hiss of “Swerve.” By the time that lo-fi closer “Sleeping Evil” comes around, the context makes me imagine that the two performers are sitting out on the porch of a cabin somewhere (even though nothing necessarily conjures this idea up from this track in particular). All that to say, this album is a true album, not just a random collection of songs: you should listen to this as a whole, and you will hear wonderful things that you wouldn’t hear by just listening to tracks on their own.
That’s not to say that these tracks don’t hold up to individual scrutiny: “Money in the Evenings” is an intriguing, beguiling slow-jam that takes its time getting where it wants to go. “Islands” is some cross between Bossa Nova and the verdant landscapes of the rest of the album. The power of these songs is in their intricate, idiosyncratic, deeply enveloping arrangements. “Sleeping Evil” eschews even that lovely cloak and sits apart as a pure songwriting gem: it would take only a guitar and voice to cover satisfactorily (which is slighting the subtle sounds and second guitar surrounding those elements, but in comparison to the complexity of the previous tunes there’s a different focus). These tracks are solid through and through, from their roots to the leaves. Hermit’s Victory is an entrancing album that can be enjoyed at a surface level and at depth: it has intricacies galore to explore, but you can also just let it wash over you.
Chuck Burns and Ty Rone‘s Leave of Absence is a elegant mash-up of Mississippi blues, New Orleans jazz, and traditional Southern guitar/harmonica folk. Sometimes the duo works out a genre separate from its brethren (the folky “Ferguson/Plan B,” the bluesy “Someday When I’m Older”), sometimes they get married (the everything-at-once aspect of “New Orleans”), and sometimes they get blown out to epic proportions (the rockin’ “The Heights”).
Despite these various sounds and moods, the acoustic guitar and harmonica are a constant through-line. The major-key fingerpicking and the wailing harmonica fit together neatly, creating the sort of timelessly wonderful sound that you can get in this genre. Burns’ vocals don’t peg the tunes in any particular era either: smooth and sultry and occasionally roaring, he locks the parts together in a great collage.
I’ve mentioned it already, but the predominant feeling I get while listening to this record is one of “fit.” Burns and Rone are fitting themselves into a long-standing tradition, making their own way down a well-trodden path. The songs sound right, the vibe is strong, and the album just takes off on its own. Whether it’s the slightly funky vocals of “East Coast Sun,” the female background vocals and organ of “Private Devil,” or the rolling fingerpicking of “Hours on Hours,” the duo grabs parts that seem endlessly reusable and combine them into songs that seem like I’ve always had them in my life. Yet the spark of the new is in them too, as a fresh accent, vocal line, or harmonica bite sounds and strikes me off-guard a bit. In short, Leave of Absence is really good stuff.
I was attracted to The Tallest Man on Earth by his fantastic fingerpicking skills, not particularly his arranging skills, so it’s with great excitement that I’ve listened (repeatedly) to Moa Bones‘ Spun. In some ways, Dimitris Aronis’ creations are even more suited to my tastes than those of Kristian Matsson: Aronis’ voice isn’t as abrasive and his song structures are more grounded in the American South’s musical tradition. I note the American South there because Aronis is from Greece (although you can’t tell from the songwriting).
Tunes like “Old Days,” “Skopelitis,” and “Come On” feature Aronis’ endearing, enchanting fingerpicking skills on guitar and banjo. The tunes seem to float along on lazy waves of down-home friendliness. “Skopelitis” is the purest expression of that mode, an instrumental track that almost emits sun rays. But Moa Bones isn’t a one-trick pony, and tunes like “Hey” draw off the Mississippi walking blues tradition in strum pattern, harmonica inclusion, and overall rhythm. “The Journey” even includes some scratchin’ electric guitar and organ for bluesy cred. (“Take It All Away” amps up the organ usage, creating the noisiest song on the record.)
But it’s in gentle, quiet tunes like “Long for a Change” that Aronis steals my heart. The pensive, relaxed songwriting allows the nuances of his creaky voice and melodic sense to shine through. It’s similar to the type of song that The Tallest Man on Earth doesn’t write much anymore. If you miss the fingerpicking glee of Matsson’s work, Moa Bones will make you sigh and smile. Spun is not to be missed for fans of Southern-flavored acoustic songwriting.
Independent Clauses is a wide-ranging blog, but my home base is gentle, tender, fingerpicked folk. That’s why I’m so jumping-up-and-down excited about Austin Basham, an artist that synthesizes the best elements of David Ramirez and The Tallest Man on Earth (two acts I already love).
Basham’s five-song Linton // Oslo EP shows off a nimble, fragile fingerpicking skill similar to Kristian Matsson’s and an intimate baritone similar to Ramirez’s (“Running“). The production that captures these central elements is immediate–it sounds as if Basham is sitting next to me playing. These three elements together make this EP worth buying, but there’s a wealth of reasons beyond the initial listen.
Basham’s not just a brilliant fingerpicker–eloquent without being gaudy, endearing without being overly simplistic–he’s a solid arranger. These songs feature banjo, horns, strings, whistling and background vocals that float and flutter through the background, providing lift to Basham’s already light songs (“https://soundcloud.com/austin-basham/on-the-hunt”>On the Hunt,” “Running“). He even incorporates flutes into “Find a Way” without stereotyping them. He can’t avoid a good whoa-oh every now and then, but even these biggest of moments seem to fold seamlessly into the vibe. It’s not like a massive riff coming in to take over the song (as in a rock anthem); instead it flows directly out of the things around it. (As it well should be, I think.)
Basham’s vocal performances are another selling point; his voice has a rich quality to it, but he doesn’t just lean on the sound of his voice. He knows how to use it to best emotional effect. He jumps up to a slightly higher range to make a big point; he accents particular lyrics with clipped or drawn-out delivery. The lyrics here are kindhearted love songs, wishing well to a lover (“Lord knows I want you to be whole again,” from “On the Hunt“) and offering affection (“I put my heart in my love, my love for you,” from “Running“). The arrangements and clear-eyed recording style keep the songs from being saccharine, and instead come off as earnest.
I’m frankly blown away by Austin Basham’s Linton // Oslo EP. It’s beautifully written, thoughtfully composed, and excellently recorded. It’s the sort of release that I sort through the hundreds of releases I get yearly to find. If you like acoustic music of any variety (those of the Alexei Murdoch persuasion will be particularly thrilled), Austin Basham should be blasting onto your radar soon–if he hasn’t already. An absolutely gorgeous, knock-out release.
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.
Folk music can sound like any season: spring (The Tallest Man on Earth), summer (Josh Ritter), fall (The Head and the Heart), and winter (Bon Iver). Matthew Oomen is from Norway, and his acoustic-led singer/songwriter tunes definitely take inspiration from the arctic surroundings and lean into the wintry side of things. In contrast to Bon Iver’s impressionistic emoting, the strengths of Oomen’s Where the Valley Is Long lie in spacious arrangements, distinct rhythms, meticulous performances, and crisp production.
“Master’s Row” opens the album with precise, separated acoustic guitar and banjo fingerpicking, stating very quickly what sort of album this will be. Oomen comes in with gentle whispered/sung tenor vocals, then brings in a swooping cello. The overall effect is a romantic, wintry vibe: the space in the arrangements gives room for listeners to breathe, and the gentle mood has wistful, amorous overtones. The song would fit perfectly in a day where you cuddled up with your lover next to a warm fire as snow falls.
The rest of the songs doen’t stray far from that mood, creating a warm, open, resonant album. “Called to Straw” is one of the slowest on the record, leisurely creating a beautiful atmosphere with the banjo, guitar, and dual-gender vocals. “Camp Hill” is an instrumental track that excellently displays the melodic gift that Oomen has. Some may find that the dominant fingerpicking style can result in some difficulty of differentiation between the tunes, but the specific mood of the album is so consistent that it’s just as good to me as a whole unit as in individual bits. Where the Valley is Long is a beautiful, enchanting, comforting album of pristine singer/songwriter folk. Fans of Young Readers, The Tallest Man on Earth, and Joshua Radin’s early work will find much to love here.
Jesse Marchant‘s self-titled record is far more masterful than a debut would usually be, because Marchant has released several albums under the JBM moniker. (I’m particularly fond of Not Even In July.) Marchant’s first offering under his real name brings his powerful brand of serious music to great results at two different poles. When I first reviewed Marchant’s live show earlier this year, I compared him to a mix of Gregory Alan Isakov and Jason Molina. Here he largely separates those influences, splitting his wistful/romantic and churning/tension-laden elements into different tunes.
I was originally attracted to Marchant’s music for his quiet tunes, but his noisier offerings are just as compelling here. The muscly “In the Sand/Amelia” relies on a seriously fuzzed-out guitar riff and heavy bass tones to create an emotional, powerful tune. He caps the song with a brief yet impressive bit of squalling guitar solo. “All Your Promise” has a bit of Keane-style dramatic flair to its intro, leaning on cinematic, back-alley tenion before settling into a quieter, synth-laden verse. “Adrift” starts off with a big pad synth and a serious drumkit groove; it doesn’t exactly resolve into a rock tune, but it’s pretty close.
But even “In the Sand/Amelia” has an abrupt return to quietness in its middle section. Marchant knows how to wring emotion out of a repetitive guitar riff, a mournful vocal line, and time, and that hasn’t changed here. Opener “Words Underlined” shows him in full form, building a six-minute experience out of a uncomplicated, gently strummed electric guitar. He’s still in Jason Molina territory there. He does turn his attention to less brooding tunes, like the upbeat “The Whip”–not nearing power-pop by any means, but Isakov fans will know the vibe intuitively. “Stay on Your Knees” has a bit more of a rock feel, but the swift fingerpicking pulls it from his Songs:Ohia pole closer to the Isakov one. But even within the song there are dalliances: synths appear, a piano section pops up, etc.
Marchant is building his own style here, and it’s working really well: he’s identifiable with other musicians but not copying them. Jesse Marchant is a satisfying album that should make fans of those not in the know and please those who have followed him as JBM. If you’re into musicians like Leif Vollebekk, Isakov, Molina or Bowerbirds, you’ll find a kindred spirit here.
I love punk, artsy electronica, even some post-hardcore now and then. But I’m always going to come back to the pristine simplicity of a solo voice over fingerpicked acoustic guitar. Cancellieri, hot on the heels of his excellent LP Welcome to Mount Pleasant, has given the world a whole album’s worth of gorgeous voice-and-guitar tracks. Winning my heart even more, eight of these fourteen tracks are covers. Closet Songs is wholly wonderful.
Ryan Cancellieri has a lot of things going for him on Closet Songs: he chooses covers excellently, he performs covers memorably, and writes songs of his own that stand up to the company of their peers. Let’s take these things in turn.
Closet Songs is put together like a good mixtape: some songs you absolutely don’t know, some you might know, a few you definitely know, at least one curveball to keep ’em guessing. I hadn’t heard “I Love You But Goodbye” by Langhorne Slim or “Mama’s Eyes” by Justin Townes Earle, although I respect both of those guys as songwriters. The songs are great, and I thank Cancellieri for letting me know about them. You may have heard “Bella Donna” or “Famous Flower of Manhattan” if you’re more of a Avett Brothers fan than me. You’ve most likely heard “Green Eyes” by Coldplay and “Murder in the City” by the Avetts. Curveball? “Dreams Be Dreams” by Jack Johnson. (Whoa bro.) The best part about all of these is that they’re not just great songs, they’re great songs for Cancellieri.
One of the problems that people who choose covers run into is that they like songs that they can’t possibly perform, vocally or musically. That is not the case here, as Cancellieri adapts the songs to fit his range comfortably. These all sound very easy and fun for him; they’re pleasing to the ear and soul for that element. (Nothing worse to me than someone who sounds like they’re having no fun trying to cover something.) His version of “Mama’s Eyes” definitely retains elements of Earle’s delivery, but it feels real and true in Cancellieri’s voice. That’s the mark of a strong cover. He doesn’t try to copy the original; he tries to be faithful to it while making it his own. It’s a rare skill, and Cancellieri shows he has it.
Another problem of covers is that sometimes a cover is the best thing in a set. (Uh-oh.) This happens because, well, you’re covering an elite talent, and sometimes you aren’t that. However, Cancellieri is an elite talent, and his songs stack well against his covers. “Fortunate Peace” and “Zalo” had me checking to see who wrote them, because they’re just brilliant songs. Cancellieri carries his songwriting voice with the gravitas of someone who knows what they’re doing. This doesn’t mean that he’s brash and bold; these songs are humble, even sad in spots. But Cancellieri sounds fully in control of the guitar, his vocal range, and lyrics on these tunes, which is not something that can be said of many singer/songwriters. You want to test it? You can press play on the first track of the soundcloud and then go to a different tab. Try to guess which are his and which aren’t. You’ll be impressed.
Cancellieri’s Closet Songs is a beautiful, poised, mature offering. It plays like a good mixtape, and it sounds like a great album. This is one of my favorite singer/songwriter releases of the year so far. (With apologies to his own previous full-length!) You very much need to check out Closet Songs if you’re a fan of fingerpicking-heavy singer/songwriters like Justin Townes Earle and The Tallest Man on Earth. (Also Joe Pug, but not because of the fingerpicking.)
Airy, bright, anthemic indie-rock is having a heyday right now: with folk-inspired musicians leaning ever more on the “inspired” and less on the “folk,” tons of bands are embracing big, bright, organic-feeling indie-rock.
Leanids is one of them. The Swedish outfit’s debut album A Wildly mines complex fingerpicking folk territory that fellow countryman The Tallest Man on Earth has done some work in (“Candid & Frank,” “All I Wanted,” the title track), while also nodding toward more power-pop inclinations (“And Then”).
But it’s on tunes like “Trust” that Leanids shine best, mixing complex rhythms, varying tempos, pop melodies, and art-school sentiments into warm, shifting, bursting tracks. The vocalist’s high, occasionally nasal voice is a perfect foil for the sound, as it has a jubilant, celebratory aspect about it. It’s easy to imagine this band as a less-mopey version of Copeland, or a alternate future in which Bright Eyes had turned the treble way up on his guitar. But in this reality, this talented folk-inspired indie-rock act is writing beautiful and interesting tunes. Highly recommended.
I think that Dawes has some pretty outstanding songwriting, even though most of their songs are way depressing. Their country-rock sound is fresh-faced and tight, making it the perfect sort of alt-country to put forward into the indie-rock world. Robert Francis and the Night Tide‘s Heaven has a similar vibe, combining the tightly compacted sound of power-pop, the rhythms of alt-country, and vocal melodies of modern indie rock. Standout “Baby Was the Devil” also includes a passing resemblance to the synth-powered jams of M83, and that’s no coincidence either. Francis is making the most of the sounds he’s hearing and crafting them into his own tunes.
He’s a bit of a chameleon; lead single “Love is a Chemical” is a straightforward country-rocker, while the title track is a soul-inspired crooner. “Pain” is reminiscent of full-band folk like Fleet Foxes, while “Wasted on You” is an acoustic-and-voice track that is a solid-gold lonely troubadour tune reminiscent of I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning-era Bright Eyes. (Standout “I’ve Been Meaning to Call” is also voice-and-guitar; he’s damn good at that, and he should do more of it.) The Josh Ritter-esque rhythms of “Take You to the Water” explode into a synth-pop song (!). But if he circles alt-country, he always comes back to it–nothing ever sounds completely out of that sphere. In the same way that it’s hard to describe Dawes without saying, “It just sounds really good,” it’s hard to describe Francis without it. Heaven is a strong collection of alt-country/folk tunes that never repeat themselves. Sounds pretty great to me.
The emergence of Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago was an incredibly important event for folk. Although the water had been getting murky for years (decades?), that heavily stylized album broke the dam that separated indie-pop and folk. Now we have Mumford and Sons and The Lumineers and Phillip Phillips and we don’t even think twice about it. My thesis here is that we can’t have “Babel” hollered through your radio without Justin Vernon mournfully ruminating over Emma. What that means for indie-pop and folk as individual genres is complex and interesting. One tiny element is that trad-folk/Americana (which is what we now have to call the stuff that most people who aren’t ethnomusicologists used to call “folk”) has received a boost from the indie-folk scene. Sunny Jim Brown playing the traditional “Darling Corey” may not have been of any interest to people who liked Belle and Sebastian in the early 2000s. Now it seems like the two are near to kindred spirits.
Which is all to say that even if Sunny Jim Brown’s Sweet Virginia EP features primarily guitar and banjo in a very traditional idiom, it’s still a blast from the imagined past. Brown’s earthy baritone imbues passion equally over the aforementioned traditional, the gorgeous original “Black Gold,” and No Use For A Name cover “Pacific Standard Time.” It hardly matters that one was written in time immemorial, one in 2007/2008, and one probably in 2012/2013. This is a testament to Sunny Jim Brown’s vision: these tunes could be disparate and disjointed, but instead they’re coherent and wonderful. “Black Gold” is the sort of fingerpicked guitar line that I got into this business to hear more of, and the world-weary vocals give the song even more to love. “Lonesome” and “Sweet Virginia” are strummers that sway excellently. You want honest, raw, and beautiful? Here you go.
These tunes feel as real and raw as For Emma ever did, and maybe as real and raw as folk did before that. What does that mean for folk in general? Well, probably that what is good never dies, it just gets pushed to the top in different amounts at different times. Culture is weird like that. Maybe in 10 years the folk moment will be over and we’ll be on to something else. What does that mean for this particular EP? That you should go listen to it right now. Start with “Black Gold,” and impress your Tallest Man on Earth-loving self.
Some bands don’t acquire fanbases as much as they create converts. Bands like The Tallest Man on Earth, The Mountain Goats, or Animal Collective all have some feature (nasal voice, nasal voice, oddball tendencies) that make them unpalatable to the general population. But for those who do get it, the passion is intense: not only is there a new, distinct musical sound to be loved, the built-in community of people who get what most people don’t is a boon. I’m ready to meet the rest of my people in the Dolfish camp, because Max Sollisch’s I’d Rather Disappear Than Fade Away is definitely not for everyone.
However, Dolfish is for me, because Sollisch combines the fingerpicking mastery of The Tallest Man on Earth, the emotive yawp and highly literate lyrics of The Mountain Goats, and atypical song structures to create an absolutely gripping sound. I never can figure out if calling a person a songwriter’s songwriter is a compliment or not, but those who have written songs will be able to appreciate the complexity, quality and sheer risk that Sollisch takes with these songs. Opener “Grown Ups” rambles pointedly through five minutes of odd chords, sporadic fingerpicking, and deliberately affected vocals; it’s a beautiful, unusual, intriguing song that only Dolfish could have come up with. While his strumming pattern gets far more standard and his vocals are tamed a bit in follow-up “The One Who Burns the Coffee,” he creates a deeply detailed, esoteric narrative in two minutes, reminiscent of The Mountain Goats’ best work.
None of the twelve songs here are longer than 3:30, and none of them need to be: they shine like gems without having to beat repetition into your head. Occasionally drums and electric guitar appear (“Lucky Caller,” “Don’t Kick Me When I’m Down”), but mostly it’s an acoustic affair. Highlight “There Must Be Something Wrong With These Shoes” calls up old-school Bob Dylan, while “All That Keeps Us on the Ground” is pure Tallest Man on Earth-style fingerpicking bliss. I could keep going on about I’d Rather Disappear than Fade Away, but you should just check it out. It’s a treasure trove of lyrics, songwriting and unique vocal performances. It’s not for everyone, but for those who get it, this will be an incredible find.
Vondelpark’s Seabed draws liberally from R&B, downtempo indie-pop and chillwave to create “bedroom music” (whatever that means to you). What that means to me today is that I’m not getting out of bed after an incredibly long week, and Seabed is the perfect soundtrack to that laziness. From beginning to end, the trio of Londoners keep the sonic palette intentionally tight: dreamy keys, swirling synths, murky bass, gentle beats, and ghostly yet groovy vocals dominate the proceedings. This creates an extremely cohesive album that is more suited to whole listening than individual singles. Can you tell “Come On” apart from its predecessor “Dracula” or its follow-up “Always Forever”? Not really, not unless you’re trying. But that doesn’t diminish the power of Seabed; it enhances it. Few albums are written as experiences these days, but Seabed certainly feels like one.
One of the few tracks that doesn’t adhere to the strict instrumental palette is single “California Analog Dream,” which is literally an analog version of Vondelpark’s sound: real drums replace the beats, harmonica replaces synth, the keys are replaced by guitar, and the electric guitar that sometimes swoops in on the proceedings swoops on in. An arpeggiator and rhodes keyboard do come in later, but it’s still a striking change (and a great choice for a single, as it sticks out most). Seabed is a beautiful album that wrings majesty out of its hushed sonic qualities; it’s a remarkable achievement.
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.