Best of 2017 – 2/4

Pitchfork tells me that my preferred genre is Contemporary Adult Indie. And Pitchfork should know. So, here are five albums from some of my favourite purveyors of Contemporary Adult Indie that were released this year.

The War On Drugs – A Deeper Understanding

TWOD

It was tough to follow Lost In The Dream. And A Deeper Understanding was always likely to be received as Lost In The Dream Pt. 2. Was it less thrilling? A little perhaps. Was it slightly mellower? The chances are. Was it a deeper understanding? Undoubtedly.

Grizzly Bear – Painted Ruins

GB

Five years between albums is a long time. And Grizzly Bear returned to a very different world. For that reason if no other, Painted Ruins didn’t have quite the same impact as Yellow House or even Veckatimest. But there were some great tunes and some great titles. ‘Systole’, that point in the heartbeat process when the heart is contracting.

Iron & Wine – Beast Epic

IW

From The Creek That Drank The Cradle through to Ghost On Ghost, Sam Beam’s trajectory seemed perfectly linear. From spare and plaintive songs through to rich, multi-tracked arrangements. But with Beast Epic there was a return to somewhat simpler musical times. The result was a real gem.

Fleet Foxes – Crack-Up

FF

The anticipation is always better than the event. And Crack-Up conformed to that general rule. But this was still a fine album. The figurative Crack-Up was perhaps taken a little too literally on some of the tracks, notably the opener, whose whole was not the sum of its parts. Yet, rejoice nonetheless. For Fleet Foxes are back.

Conor Oberst – Salutations

CO

In more ways than one, Salutations was Ruminations plus. With the welcome addition of Ian and James Felice among others, Conor Oberst transformed 2016’s stripped-down set into a full-on band experience and added some new tunes for good measure. Next year, expect the arrival of the version for orchestra and massed choir.

Advertisements

Best of 2017 – 1/4

2017. It felt like a lifetime. Roll on 2018. In the meantime, here are five of my favourite albums of the year.

The Weather Station

TWS

There are elements to Tamara Lindeman’s fourth album that bear comparison with her fellow Canadian Joni Mitchell. The music is folky, but the themes are complex. And so too are some of the song structures. It could have ended up a wilfully challenging listen. But a string of lovely melodies keeps everything nicely in balance.

Michael Nau – Some Twist

MN

Formerly of Cotton Jones, this is Michael Nau’s second solo album. It’s a collection of late-night wonders. So, if you’re feeling slightly woozy and liminality is fast approaching, then Some Twist is the perfect companion. Rest assured that it can be enjoyed at other times of the day too.

Kacey Johansing – The Hiding

KJ

The cover may suggest a concept album about the perils of getting up slightly too early in the morning. But the songs are confident, strong, and far from dishevelled. Made with the help of members of Real Estate and Vetiver, The Hiding is a collection of sublime pop songs. If they make you think of mid-1970s Christine McVie, you wouldn’t be far off.

Hand Habits – Wildly Idle (Humble Before the Void)

HH

Hand Habits is Meg Duffy, who is originally from upstate New York. Wildly Idle (Humble Before the Void) is a beautiful album, which is full of gentle songs with lovely melodies. But don’t be fooled, though. There’s a determination to this set. “I don’t need to be set free. I already know”.

Richard Edwards – Lemon Cotton Candy Sunset

RE

May Margot and [Her] Nuclear So and So’s Rest In Peace. But arise Richard Edwards.  Always the guiding force behind the greatest-band-that-never-quite-was, this is the first solo album from the Margot’s front man. Turns out, though, it’s a Margots album in all but name. O happy day. I am the Resurrection and I am the Light.

 

 

 

Neil Young + Promise of the Real – The Visitor

Neil Young + Promise of the Real – The Visitor

young_5-e735994d-3459-4f36-9138-1e6d8c7b01a4

In the latter part of the 21st century when students at the future University of South-West Tulsa are completing their sophomore year in Neil Young Studies, it’s possible that they’ll consider The Visitor to be a late-career highlight. In contrast to the throwaway Peace Trail and the bombastic Storytone, The Visitor captures a band that sounds like they’ve playing together for years and includes songs that make you want to listen to them for more than just old times’ sake. For sure, the context is clear. We’re in Trumpland, or anti-Trumpland from the Youngster’s perspective. “I’m living with a game show host, Who has to brag and has to boast, ‘Bout tearin’ down the things that I hold dear”. But unlike The Monsanto Years, this visitor isn’t a preachy one. That’s probably because we’re all pretty much on the same page Trumpwise. So, there’s no need to belabour the point. And this means more time for the music. The guitar break on ‘Stand Tall’ is as good as anything in recent times. ‘Almost Always’ would be perfectly at home on ‘Silver and Gold’. And the melody on ‘Already Great’ sounds like it’s been sitting in the archives for a couple of decades just waiting to find the right home. But there’s more than just a few nice sounds here and there. ‘Carnival’ could be one of the very best Neil Young tunes of all time. It’s based around a simple and potentially clichéd Mexican-style riff that continues for more than eight minutes. But there are some wonderful merry-go-round moments that harken back to songs like ‘Being For The Benefit of Mr Kite!’, or The Beach Boys pre-Pet Sounds highlight, ‘Amusement Parks USA’. More than that, it’s a lyrical blast. “I do resent, Too much time was spent, In the tent of the strange, Elephant of Enlightenment!” And better still, this is Neil Young back at his cinematic, story-telling best. Think ‘Crime In The City (Sixty To Zero Pt. 1)’, or ‘Ordinary People’ without the social commentary but with plenty of characterful cackling. The sophomore year of Neil Young Studies already has a rich and very varied curriculum. But students at the future University of South-West Tulsa may well find themselves spending some time with that late-career highlight, The Visitor.

Kramies – A new song and an exclusive interview

Kramies – I Wish I Missed You

Kram

Rejoice, because Kramies, our favourite ‘dream folklore’ artist (see below!), has released a new song. “I Wish I Missed You” is one of the tracks that he wrote during a stay in Ireland earlier this year. Recorded in a castle in Co. Kilkenny, the ambient crows provide an immediate sense of otherworldliness and there’s mention of kings, queens, and giants too. But it’s not all púca and síóga. This is a very human composition. It’s wistful and reflective. “Our time has come”. But it’s never bitter. It’s also a song that builds and builds to a lovely finish. A trademark Kramies finish. Irresistible. “I Wish I Missed You” is available now as a free download on Bandcamp. There’s also a fine video by Cam Merton that captures the mood of the song quite perfectly.

To celebrate the new arrival, we have an exclusive interview with Kramies himself. Thanks to the great man for his thoughts and his kindness.

What brought you to Ireland earlier this year?

I’ve been through Ireland a few times before on tour and every time I fall more and more in love with the landscape and the people. So much so that my EP “The Wooden Heart” came to me while walking the streets of Galway after a radio show in 2011. I always wanted the chance to be able to stay in one spot and write while in Ireland, and that chance finally came along.

This past April I was lucky enough to receive an artist residency in a castle while I finished writing my new album. It’s been a dream come true for a writer. So much has opened up for me here.

You featured a song called “Ireland” on your ‘forêts antiques’ EP, though you introduced it as not having a name then. What was the inspiration for that song and why did you choose that title in the end? 

Ha! I love that you noticed that. At the time when my concert in France was being filmed, I had just written the song. I was desperately trying to think of a name before the show, but nothing seemed to work. So, while performing it, I decided to just say that it was nameless. It’s funny because that same night I finally figured out that it would be the main story line for my next album and I called it “Ireland”.

The way I seem to write albums is by waiting for a story to appear in my imagination. I seem to write dark little folklore stories that come out of nowhere. Ireland, and its folklore, have been a big inspiration for me. I feel this might be my way of saying thank you. A good-bye story to the land that sparked so much creative imagination in me.

You label yourself as a ‘dream pop’ artist. What does the term ‘dream pop’ mean for you? 

That’s funny because I’m not even sure where the label ‘dream pop’ came from? At first when it was attached to me I was OK with it because it felt new and understandable, but now I’m not sure if it actually has any meaning. 🙂

I’ve never been very pop sounding, but I see where the dream element comes in. I would say maybe more ‘dream folklore’?

Honestly, I’m not sure what my music should be labeled as, but I’ll accept anything. I’m just glad to be able to make music.

In 2014, you worked with the great Jason Lytle on your Wooden Heart EP. What was he like to work with in the studio? What did he add to your sound?

Jason is wonderful and I’ve been so grateful for his help. In my opinion, Jason has a way of pulling a song apart and piecing it back together, so that the song shines and is way more interesting. He sees songs on a much more detailed level than most and has a knack of finding the central balancing point of a song. It takes a unique way of thinking to pull that off and he’s definitely the best.

Last year you put out a lovely new song, ‘Into The Sparks’, with Alma Forrer. How did that collaboration come about?

Alma is such a beautiful songwriter and person. I’m so glad we had the chance to record a song together. I remember right after I released my live EP I got a kind message from her. Then, once I heard her music I was blown away. I quickly wrote the song and sent it to her. She immediately recorded her vocals in France and I recorded the song and my vocals here in Colorado. It took maybe only a month. It was one of those unique times when all the pieces came together easily. I was very happy with the wonderful response too.

You also worked with Grant Wilson of Syfy’s Ghost Hunters fame on your EP, The Folklore Sessions. From the outside that was a really surprising collaboration, but a successful one. How did you two come across each other and decide to work together?

Now, this is one of my favorite stories. I had been a big fan of the show Ghost Hunters for many years and knew of Grant from that show. In 2010, I was in Colorado doing a radio show and they asked me why some of my songs speak of ghosts and castles. Then they asked if I ever watched Ghost Hunters and I said yes. After the show, I decided to drive to the famous Stanley Hotel to walk around. When I entered the hotel, Grant was actually sitting right there! It was all great and too weird. (Also, I must add that when I originally heard the music Grant was releasing, I absolutely loved it!) So, a few years later we started talking and I sent him a few songs which he added his beautiful piano parts to. And that’s how the ‘Folklore Sessions’ was born.

What’s your writing process? Do you write the music first, then the lyrics, or the other way around, or both together? How does a Kramies song come into being?

Well … it always seems to start with weird tuning and humming. I’m not sure why, but I’ve always made up a lot of my own tunings. It’s probably because I taught myself how to play instruments and I’ve never learned properly.

I would say that most of my songs start with a few odd chords that haunt me at night, then a melody line. From that point I can’t sleep until I piece it together. Somewhere in there a storyline will appear and I will play the song over and over until someone reminds me to eat and sleep.

I sense that the covers of your records are really important to you. They always figure beautiful, often stark images. How do you go about choosing your covers and arranging the design?

It’s so true! The images and covers are such an important part of the music and the entire journey. At least that’s what I hope others feel. I write mostly from mental imagery and at heart I’m truly just an artist who uses music as my outlet. So, it’s very important for me to find the right artwork. I’m very fortunate that I have a few artists and photographers as friends who help me get the crazy images out of my head and onto paper. 😉

The most important question of all. There’s a rumour that you’re back in the recording studio. How are things going? Will we get to hear any new music soon?

Those silly rumours. 😉

Yes, they are true. I have just released a new single/video that was all written and recorded at a castle in Ireland. It’s a song that won’t be on the album, but it was recorded in such a cool spot and has all the ghostly feelings of the past in it. The actual album will be released in 2018.

Tell us something that you haven’t told an interviewer before.

Hahahaha. OK, well, let’s see … That’s a tricky question … Well, I secretly talk to plants, trees and ghosts. 😉

Scenic Route to Alaska – Slow Down

Scenic Route to Alaska – Slow Down

Screen Shot 2017-10-30 at 20.01.12

“Everyone’s telling me to stop, take a breath and slow down”. Sounds like the guys at Scenic Route to Alaska have been doing some mindfulness. But these are wise words. And ‘Slow Down’ is a great single. Despite the implication in the title, this is a song that  jumps out of the speakers. There’s a great riff and good energy throughout. Looking forward to the album early in the New Year. In the meantime, keep on truckin’.

Brenda – Children

Brenda – Children

Brenda

Somewhere in one of David Lynch’s darkest dystopias, Brenda (the band) can be found writing songs. And by the sound of their soon-to-be-released EP, Creeper, they’re long-time dark dystopioids. The lead track from the EP, ‘Children‘, comes with a nightmarish clown-filled video. Coulrophobics will want to look away. But don’t. Always confront your deepest fears. Think of watching ‘Children’ as exposure therapy. I did and I’m cured. And I had a great time in the process. ‘Children’. By Brenda (the band). Highly recommended.

Lydia Loveless – Boy Crazy and Single(s)

Lydia Loveless – Boy Crazy and Single(s)

LL

In a different life, Lydia Loveless would be filed under post-punk. There’s the full-on urgency of late ‘70s music making, but with proper melodies, verses, and even choruses. Boy Crazy is repackaged version of a 2013 EP, plus a couple of covers and b-sides. One of those covers, Elvis Costello’s ‘Alison’, almost gives the post-punk game away. The original is, of course, perfect, but this version is pretty near perfect too. It’s difficult to escape the conclusion that in another universe, Lydia Loveless could have been up there with Nick Lowe, Robin Hitchcock, and Sir Declan of MacManus himself. But it’s this universe and with Lydia Loveless singing in a southern country drawl, despite her Ohio roots, it’s clear at least that she hails from nearer Nashville than Newham. Yet the mix of power-pop riffery and songs about men, and women, and men and women is just as intoxicating as similar songs from an earlier era. File under country-tinged-post-punk and enjoy.

 

Sarah Cripps – Leave Behind

Sarah Cripps – Leave Behind

Screen Shot 2017-10-15 at 21.11.40

Strongly recommend the new song by Sarah Cripps. From a forthcoming album, ‘Leave Behind’ references some dark places, but ultimately it’s an uplifting message. “Only thing I leave behind”, she says, “is the madness of the mind”. In an interview at Atwood Magazine, she reveals that she has a passion for cult horror and there’s certainly a gothic undercurrent to this song. But the melody is far too catchy to give you nightmares. This is a wonderful, expressive song that leaves you wanting more. Looking forward to the album.

Ian Felice – In The Kingdom Of Dreams

Ian Felice – In The Kingdom Of Dreams

IF

Ian Felice is the beating heart of The Felice Brothers. Formerly with Simone (but on production duties here) and latterly with James (“Real talent”), the siblings have made some of the most rollockingly mournful music that’s ever come out of The Catskills. Ian Felice has long been the voice of the band as well as the source of a lot of the humour. Who could forget ‘Frankie’s Gun’? “Frankie you’re a friend of mine, Got me off a bender after long-legged Brenda died”. This time he’s solo. And very personal. The death of his stepfather. The fears of becoming a father himself. And more than a little sense of the disconcerting nature of modern life, including Trump’s America. With titles such as ‘In Memoriam’, ‘Mt. Despair’, and ‘In The Final Reckoning’, the tone is set. But it’s never miserable. There’s a lyrical playfulness. “Well the aliens landed on election day, And they stole your mother’s lingerie”. Plenty of stories. “I was squeezed in the back of a yellow cab, Between ruin and fate, Both armed to the teeth and more beneath”. And some arresting images. “I was walking down by the tracks where the communist bees relax, In their hives of golden wax when I thought I should run”. With Simone on drums and James on piano this almost counts as a reunion album. But not quite. It’s unmistakably Ian Felice’s album. In all its wonderful, mournful glory.

Widowspeak – Expect The Best

Widowspeak – Expect The Best

a3234087548_16

Four years ago, Widowspeak released an EP called The Swamps. There was a wonderful onomatopoeic quality to the music. It was sweaty and sultry, and listening to it generated a certain sense of foreboding. There isn’t the same onomatopoeic element to Expect The Best, but Molly Hamilton, the singer and lead song-writer, certainly knows how to evoke a mood. Written in the Pacific Northwest, it’s sometimes disorientating, like being lost in an seemingly endless forest of trees. And perhaps there’s more to it than a simple simile. The music is built around Hamilton’s vocals, which have a certain slightly breathy, Hope Sandoval, 90s dream-pop aspect to them. It means that the dynamic range is deliberately diminished, as if the sound is being at least partly soaked up by an immense dark green mossy floor. The result is Widowspeak’s most rewarding album to date. Whereas the rocky peaks could have been elevated as high as Mount Rainier on Expect The Best, here they’re reduced to the level of Mount Formidable. Still magnificent, but not overwhelming. And well worth the trip.