Builder of the House‘s Ornaments is way more Christmas in July than actually a December record. The acoustic album is warm, sunny, mellow, and happy. The tunes unspool at an easy pace, unhurried and unworried. If you’re in a bad mood and want to slowly rise out of it, I can’t think of a better record for it. The standout title track has a bit of Lord Huron in the melodic structure, while “When No One Is Here” feels like a mood-inverted Rocky Votolato song. Smooth, elegant, and yet crisp in its arrangements, this album just hits the spot for lazy summer days and aspirational winter ones. Highly recommended.
As jittery and frenetic as that last one was calm and relaxing, Emperor X‘s Oversleepers International is a feast for fans of that spot where pop-punk, alt-folk, indie-pop, literary studies, political science, and psychology intersect. In other terms, it’s as if late ’90s John Darnielle joined the Weakerthans instead of being compared to them.
“Wasted on the Senate Floor” is a verbal blitzkrieg married to a frantic acoustic-punk band; “Schopenhauer in Berlin” slows down the pace enough for the lyrics to be understandable but still requires you to look up who Schopenhauer is. Elsewhere, Emperor X goes all wacky Ben Folds (“Riot for Descendant Command”), references Anonymous and North Korea in a song called “Low Orbit Ion Cannon” (!!), and creates one of the weirdest travel journals ever (that also doubles as a breakup tune of sorts; it’s the title track, because of course).
Also there’s a techno-dance song and an ambient tune. The English town of Dorset and Vilnius, Lithuania are involved. The songs are crazy and memorable, musically and lyrically–what else could you ask for? Highly recommended.
Zach Winters‘ latest folk records were delicate-yet-intense constructions of great seriousness and import. On To Have You Around, Winters sounds downright loose. “Sometimes I Wonder” starts off in his traditionally ghostly acoustic vein, but turns into a more-than-subtly funky pop song by chorus. It is rad. “If the Sun is Shining” doubles down and gets a funky bass line on a stand-up bass and snazzily jazzy horns involved.
“Do You Really” starts off with the line “taking a shower with a known carcinogen” and proceeds to be a “chill out, stop worrying” song. “Love My Woman” is exactly what you would expect from the title and previous descriptions. Even the instrumental “Buffalo” has a chipper vibe. It’s a new look for Winters, and it’s a great one. If you’re looking for some acoustic-fronted, low-key-funky pop songs, look no further for a great time. Highly recommended.
1. “Russian Roulette” – Sons of London. Well, damn. Right when I thought Deep Elm was out of the game for post-Blink-182 emo-punk-pop, they go and drop this on us. This is one of the most memorable, can’t-stop-listening pop-punk tunes I’ve heard in a long, long time.
2. “Solitude” – Alpenglow. The good people of Alpenglow seem like the sort of good-natured, thoughtful, interesting people who I’d like to get a beer with and talk about water rights politics. I think they’d most likely have an interesting stance, tell me an anecdote or two, and leave me feeling better off in my intellectual life. I think I mean that this song is smart and fun in equal parts, but that’s reductive and makes it look like I didn’t try (although I think Alpenglow would probably be cool with either description, because when you know yourself, you care less about what others are thinking about it.)
3. “Roll It” – Nap Eyes. Nap Eyes has my vote for breakout band of the year–their loping, engaging indie-rock tips its hat to all the coolest references without feeling derivative. “Roll It” just sounds so immediate and fresh that it’s hard to imagine people won’t jump on this train.
4. “Walking In My Sleep” – Kris Orlowski. Orlowski takes another step farther from his folk roots and closer to an indie-rock home with the debut single from his upcoming record Often in the Pause. Crunchy guitar noise, headbobbing rhythms, and his unchanged ability to write/deliver a compelling vocal melody power this tune that seems always ready to burst but never quite explodes, giving a nice tension.
5. “The Uninvited Guest” – Gladiola. If there’s a Weakerthans-sized hole in your heart, Gladiola is here to fill it with tight power-pop melodies, tight lyrics and an overall sense of weary-yet-determined urban knowledge.
6. “In This Lifetime” – Scary Little Friends. Big, punchy power-pop with a bit of glam creeping in around the edges of the vocals.
7. “Lava” – Pleasant Grove. The distillation of an expansive divorce record that took a decade to complete, “Lava” combines the tough guitar exterior and gentle melodic interior that comprise the tensions of The Heart Contortionists’ early -to-mid ’00s indie-rock. Death Cab for Cutie and Grandaddy fans will find much to love here.
8. “Butterflies” – Wyland. Do you miss The Joshua Tree? Fear no more: Wyland’s got your back with this arena-filling, stadium-rocking anthem.
9. “Come Down” – Water District. Remember that weird, brief moment where Silversun Pickups made grunge into a cool indie-rock thing? Water District remembers, creating their own pensive, emotive brand of grunge-inspired indie-alt-rock.
10. “From Far Away” – SayReal. This infectious, smile-inducing tune will thrill those who like good pop songs and those wished that Michael Franti and Spearhead sounded more like their one unusual pop hit all the time.
11. “Start Right Here” – Jennifer O’Connor. O’Connor takes the basic elements of modern indie-pop songwriting (jangly guitars, plain vocal style, catchy melodies, full-but-not-noisy drums) and turns out gold. I don’t know how that works, but it does.
12. “Guns” – Andy Metz. Punchy, rhythmic piano-pop verses open up into a smooth, memorable chorus, complete with timely political commentary on gun control.
Bel Argosy aptly labels itself as pop-rock-punk; the three words (and their various mashups: punk rock, pop-rock, pop-punk) are all mixed up in most “electric guitars and sung vocals” music these days. The six songs on Let’s Hear It For Bel Argosy incorporate mid-tempo guitar crunch, pretty straight rhythms, and varied vocals.
“Belle Below Dagger” has some laconic, ’90s-style, speak-sing vocals not all that different from Cake; “Late to Give Up” has more high-pitched, hectic, traditionally punk-rock-styled vocals. “The Lie,” which only takes 1:43 of your time, still doesn’t do it in a very speedy way; mid-tempo guitar music ratchets up to noisy punk-rock banging and then quits quickly. The overall feeling is one of easy enjoyment; the band is having fun, and you should be too. Yes, if you’re a fan of fun and friendly bits of pop-rock-punk like Superchunk, The Weakerthans, or other bands in that vein, you’ll find much to enjoy in Let’s Hear It for Bel Argosy.
After a morning of writing, I had no concrete plans. Thankfully, I have some standby venues that I hit when I’m at SXSW: Canada House and Ireland House. I’ve had good luck with both in my three years at SXSW, so I seek them out now. This particular morning, I headed to Friends Bar to catch some Canadian acts.
The great thing about Canada’s presence at SXSW is that they take great care to make their venue welcoming. I got a free well drink ticket and food just for walking in the door, and every member of Team Canada was enthusiastic about my presence in their venue. You can see good music in a lot of places at SXSW; you can’t get great hospitality much of anywhere. Viva la Canadians.
I walked in just as singer/songwriter Ben Caplan went on, and I was charmed by his energetic, quirky tunes. Caplan has a flair for sweeping, wordless melodies (which often sound vaguely Russian, oddly) to accent his insightful lyrics. His low voice can grow to a giant, booming call, which is always fun to hear. Also fun was his stage banter, which was genuinely hilarious. At one point Caplan noted, “I know you are all music industry professionals, but you were once people who liked to clap along and participate.” I subsequently clapped. If you’re a fan of dramatic, entertaining singer/songwriters, Caplan should be on your team.
One of my favorite Canadian songwriters is John K. Samson, whether he’s solo or with The Weakerthans. His power-pop hits the sweet spot between clever and winsome, both in music and lyric. I was pleased to hear that Dusted, although a bit darker in their moods, captured a similar vibe. After humorously noting that they would be shortening their set by cutting all the guitar solos from their songs to help out the venue on time constraints, the duo launched into a tight set of power-pop.
The tunes relied heavily on the interactions between the guitar, vocals and drums; the rhythms and melodies don’t stand alone in Dusted tunes. The whole thing works together to create the vibe. I totally didn’t know this until right now, but Brian Borcherdt of Holy Fuck is actually in the band. I can assure you, nothing even remotely gives an electronica vibe: this is a straight-up power-pop band. Dusted’s set was one of my favorite from the festival: instead of being ostentatious or dramatic, it simply got down to business and delivered the goods. Excellent stuff.
I left Friends to go join some friends over at Paste/HGTV’s stage, where Lissie was about to go on. Her pop-rock material was solid, with some interesting new songs. The highlight was her cover of Kid Cudi’s “The Pursuit of Happiness,” which was transformed from a drunken rumination on debauchery into a howling treatise on happiness and its often difficult pursuit. It’s always impressive to me when a band reveals a new side of a song simply by putting their own voice to it, so I loved hearing Lissie’s take on the tune.
I listen to so much pop music that I’m impervious to humming all but the catchiest of tunes. But even my melodically jaded self can’t stop from singing along with “When I Write My Master’s Thesis” by John K. Samson. The leader of the Weakerthans’ new solo album is called Provincial, and it includes the aforementioned power-pop gem. Samson’s excellent vocals carry a thoughtful, wry set of lyrics about the difficulty of monumental tasks which will appeal to an audience far larger than just graduate students. Add to that a perky Weezer/Fountains of Wayne guitar line, and you’ve got gold.
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.