Tag Archives: indie folk-rock

The Naked Sun Is Another Great Indie Band from Rockin’ Philadelphia

17 May

Philadelphia has become a hotbed of indie rock. From big names such as The War on Drugs, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Kurt Vile, Dr. Dog, and Bardo Pond — to more recent additions or lesser-known (but still great!) acts such as The Chairman Dances, Hop Along and Beach Slang, the City of Brotherly Love has become the City of Bodacious Rock.

Now another band needs to be added to the list: The Naked Sun.

Debut album, War With Shadows, offers a 10-song set of power folk-rock and Americana. The band is led by Andrew (Drew) Wesley Harris, who handles the songwriting, lead vocals and rhythm guitar. He’s surrounded by five other superb musicians: Tim Campbell (lead electric and pedal steel guitar, plus backing vocals), Alan Sheltzer (piano, organ and synths), Ken Letherer (bass), Dave Gladney (drums), and Nerissa Jaucian (backing and sometimes lead vocals).

The album was produced by Brian McTear, who also works his magic with The War on Drugs and Kurt Vile — giving War With Shadows a professional polish.

Early reviews have labeled the album as guitar-driven rock that’s “restrained and subtle.” It’s certainly that, and more — a wonderful debut from a group proving that they belong as part of this city’s vibrant indie rock scene.

Track highlights: The album opens with “Do You Wanna Dance?” a song that immediately illustrates the band’s versatility. It’s a rock song driven by a pulsing beat laid down by Pat Kerkery (The War on Drugs) — but it also includes strummed guitar and some sort of airy flute-like music that floats throughout. There’s a bit of a jangle at times and a really nice guitar solo in the lead break.

The first single is a more traditional rocker, “Holdin’ Back The Heart.” The song has been around for years and apparently has closed many of the band’s live performances. The tune shows off the incredible harmonies the band is capable of producing.

“Rose Gold” definitely crosses over into Americana territory with a piano-based tune that has a nice alt-country sway. The lead vocals are almost a duet between Harris and Jaucian.

“Purple Sunset” features a fingerpicked, chimey guitar — together with some jangle and piano — and shifts between softer, more introspective moments and harder, driving sections.

War With Shadows wraps with “Clouds,” an uplifting closer that includes an opening cello part along with piano, guitars (including pedal steel), and drums. It’s a very nice finish to a highly satisfying album.



“Sloan 12” Is Solid Indie Rock from a Canadian Band with a 27-Year History

2 May

Sloan 12 is the twelfth album from the Canadian power-pop band, Sloan.

Coincidentally, this is a 12-song set of indie rock that showcases the distinct songwriting talents of all four band members. Guitarists Patrick Pentland and Jay Ferguson, bassist Chris Murphy, and drummer Andrew Scott each contributed three songs to the new release.

The musical mix on Sloan 12 ranges from big, guitar-driven anthems to 1970s-style progressive pop and even some folky pop-rock that’s reminiscent of the Byrds or Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (CSN&Y).

After 27 years, the four original band members are still part of the band. The only change is that Sloan has added Gregory Macdonald to play keyboards when they record or tour. Murphy and Pentland sing most of the lead vocals, but when the band is performing one of drummer Scott’s songs, he not only sings the lead vocals, but also steps out front on guitar — with Ferguson and Murphy switching to the bass and drums, respectively.

With that kind of songwriting and multi-instrumental talent, you might assume that you’re in for a treat. And Sloan 12 does not disappoint.

Track highlights: The album opens with “Spin our Wheels.” With its searing guitars, driving drums, and big ‘classic rock’ backing vocals, this is a great anthemic power-pop single.

“Right to Roam” is reminiscent of one of those catchy progressive pop songs that became a hit with the rise of FM radio in the 1970s.

“The Day Will Be Mine” is another catchy song that offers potential as a single — with its crunchy guitar and soaring lead vocals.

“Essential Services” is really nice piano-based pop with sweet harmonies and a lightly skipping melody, enhanced by Beatles-like harmonies.

Finally, my review wouldn’t be complete without writing about “44 Teenagers,” the closing song in the set. It’s a more pensive rock tune that starts like the rich folk-rock of the 1960s, but shifts to a heavier sound in the middle. Lyrics reference the death of Tragically Hip’s Gord Downie from brain cancer.

Sloan 12 reflects the maturity of more than a quarter of a century writing, performing and playing together. It’s a solid indie rock album from this veteran Canadian foursome.

Belle and Sebastian Serve a Sumptuous Feast of Indie Pop-Rock on “How to Solve our Human Problems”

22 Mar

For an indie band, Belle and Sebastian has enjoyed tremendous popularity with critics and a loyal legion of fans. The group formed in Glasgow, Scotland in the mid-1990s and ahs long been known for its catchy, melodic indie pop, leaning toward folk-rock and chamber pop.

In 2015, Belle and Sebastian surprised its fans with Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance, a collection that ranged from jittery European techno-pop to its more traditional folk-rock sound. The album and corresponding tour were very successful and took the band across Europe and the U.S. including a stop right up the road at Berkeley’s Greek Theatre. It was one of the best shows I’ve seen.

Now, Belle and Sebastian are back with their follow-up, How to Solve our Human Problems, a truly eclectic collection of tunes even more diverse than what was served up on Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance.

The tracks were released over a period of three months (Dec. 2017 – Feb. 2018) on three separate five-song EPs. These songs have now been brought together into a massive 70-minute set of “witty, tuneful indie pop” as Rolling Stone describes it — with tracks ranging from disco-inspired dance-y synth-pop to baroque-pop and everything in between.

Some critics have quietly wondered whether it might have been better to whittle away a few of the less desirable tracks and release a tighter 10 – 12 track album. But true to their indie tradition, Belle and Sebastian treat us to a sumptuous feast of new music to enjoy in 2018.

Track highlights: There are so many outstanding songs on this album that it’s impossible to narrow them down to the usual three or four.

“Sweet Dew Lee” is a breezy, dance-y synth-pop number with jangly guitar that opens the 15-song set. “We Were Beautiful” is next, and it’s one of the album’s standouts. The song features urgent, slightly edgy synth-pop with a skittering trip-hop beat, a touch of pedal steel guitar and anthemic choruses.

Track 4, “The Girl Doesn’t Get It,” is also synth-pop in a Brian Eno style or something that closely resembles the music on the New Pornographers’ most recent album.

By track 8, the oboe that opens “I’ll Be your Pilot” signals a turn toward chamber pop. This is a heartfelt, sentimental ballad dedicated to lead singer-songwriter, Stuart Murdoch’s young son.

Track 10, the last on the second of the originally issued five-song EPs is “A Plague on All Other Boys,” a stately baroque-pop ode to Belle and Sebastian’s early years. Murdoch’s always highly literate lyrics parse the topic of first love.

There are three highlights among the final five tracks. “Everything Is Now (Part Two)” is a fuller, more complete and highly intriguing version of the fifth track, “Everything Is Now.” The title of both versions is eerily similar to Arcade Fire’s “Everything Now” — interesting that the two indie bands are on such a similar wavelength.

“There Is an Everlasting Love” is a strummy, uplifting folk-rock number with optimistic lyrics about the harsh realities life sometimes brings. The closing number, “Best Friend,” is the only song not sung by Murdoch or his bandmate, Sarah Martin. This is a catchy, soulful 1960s-style tune featuring Glasgow’s Carla J. Easton as guest vocalist.

As I said, How to Solve our Human Problems, is a fun, highly enjoyable collection of music that new and old fans alike will want to have. I’ll dip into the album on the next two Fridays on my Friday morning show on KZSU.


The Wooden Sky’s “Swimming in Strange Waters” Captures 2017’s Angst

31 Jan

The Wooden Sky is a Canadian indie rock band from Toronto. The group’s music is a mix of alt-rock and folk-rock, with a psychedelic edge to their music and just a hint of Americana at times. Don’t be expecting banjo and pedal steel guitar, however — the sound is truly guitar-driven rock.

The title of the latest release, Wooden Sky’s fifth full-length album, is Swimming in Strange Waters. It’s adapted from a line from Frank Herbert’s 1965 sci-fi classic novel, Dune. “Survival is the ability to swim in strange waters.”

For many people, 2017 was that kind of year. It saw us thrown into the deep end without a rope or life preserver. U.S. politics turned upside down. In Canada, the citizenry has dealt with a number of crises from oil pipelines to an influx of refugees. Frontman and lead vocalist, Gavin Gardiner, also was facing a number of personal issues in his own life.

This resulted in an album that’s full of energy and angst. There are a lot of big guitars, organ, other keyboards, distortion, and noise. Gardiner has a distinctive vocal style with a notable Southern drawl and a rawness that works well with the band’s almost live, big stadium sound.

Track highlights: “Swimming in Strange Waters” is shimmering and atmospheric with growling and ringing guitars and alternating keyboard layers including a distinctive high-pitched organ. Gardiner’s vocals are similarly growled, reminiscent of Jim James of My Morning Jacket or Adam Granduciel of The War on Drugs.

The third track starts off with a drum riff and bass line that’s almost identical to Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams.” The song evolves into an easy-going stroll with a warm folk-rock feeling and some noise layered in.

Next up is “Deadhorse Creek.” This tune is the closest thing to Americana in the set, with Gardiner’s vocals straining until they distort. Harmonized vocals in the chorus take some of the edge off.

On the fifth song, we get to hear Wooden Sky at its most naked, honest and vulnerable in “Born to Die.” Gardiner sings, “Life is just these questions/And we’re never certain why/We were born to die.”

The second-to-last song on Swimming in Strange Waters is “Matter of Time.” This track veers almost to alt-country, with a swingy, relaxed feeling until building to a bigger rock sound toward the end.

If you like bands and artists such as Phosphorescent, Kurt Vile, My Morning Jacket, and The War on Drugs, you definitely need to check out Wooden Sky’s Swimming in Strange Waters.


Marika Hackman’s “I’m Not Your Man” an Unexpected Departure and Delight

20 Dec

Marika Hackman is a promising young multi-instrumentalist and vocalist from the U.K. Just 25, she released a couple of EPs in 2013 and 2014, before completing her first full-length album in 2015, We Slept at Last. That album received generally favorable reviews — with The Guardian calling it “…superbly understated and atmospheric electro folk.” The publication went on to say, “her music’s unsettling quality and old-as-the-hills delivery makes her different. Full of shadows and animalistic imagery, her songs are like journeys through haunted forests or darker crevices of her mind.”

Well, The Guardian clearly hit on something because Hackman’s sophomore release — I’m Not your Man — is breathtakingly unexpected. Moving away from the crystalline and introspective style of her first album, Hackman offers bold and bracing Britpop with just a tinge of grunge. The lyrics explore life lived large — impulsively, erotically and with a wicked sense of humor.

Hackman is backed on the album by Big Moon, a popular four-piece all-female band out of London that can really rock.

Track highlights: The lead single and first track from I’m Not your Man is a perfect example of the offerings that await. It’s a story about easily luring a man’s girlfriend away because “No one takes us seriously just because I wear a dress.” With a wink, she sings “A woman really needs a man to make her scream.”

Track 5 “Violet” is another sensuous song. The sultry guitar-based melody moves at a luxurious pace as Hackman sings, “With violet eyes, I’ll make you succumb to my mind/And through it all/I’ll keep you blind and close my mouth.” The music builds to a louder, grungier conclusion.

“Apple Tree” is pensive and hesitant, with a subtle rhythm. It veers more toward the haunted folk sound Hackman captured on her first album — perhaps with a hint of a chamber sound.

“Eastbound Train” is a mover that makes good use of Big Moon’s rich instrumentation. The melody is memorable and Hackman’s voice is light and lovely — which is always the case, even in the grungiest parts of her songs. It makes for an interesting interplay between a feeling of aggression and innocence.

There are a number of other standouts on I’m Not your Man,” but unfortunately, they can’t be played on the radio without an edit or two. I like “My Lover Cindy,” “Time’s Been Reckless” and “Cigarette” as outstanding songs that you can’t get out of your head. So, if you’re okay with explicit language, this is an exceptional album, top to bottom.

After the widely divergent styles of Hackman’s first two releases, it will be interesting to see what she does for her third in a few years.



The Best Indie Rock Album of 2017 by a Band You Haven’t Heard Of — Yet

23 Nov

I can almost guarantee that you haven’t heard of a band named Circus of the West. An indie rock group from Minneapolis, Minnesota, Circus of the West is a four-piece led by Edwin Caldie (vocals, keys), Joel Leviton (guitars), Ben Court (lead guitar), Jason Kapel (bass, keys), and Alan Einisman (drums).

The band describes itself as song-driven, and that’s quite an apt description. The songs on their debut full-length album, We’ll See Ourselves Out, are built around strong, hook-y melodies with lyrics about life, love and making your way in the world.

For me, the sound spans several generations. There’s a clear 90s influence — with an alt-rock edge that’s something like the Barenaked Ladies. But in addition, the roots of the sound actually go back to the mid-1970s, when pop began to be infused with progressive rock tendencies — moving it away from the traditional cookie-cutter formulaic approach. Examples of some of these 70s crossover artists range from Todd Rundgren or Leon Russell to Harry Chapin.

Track highlights: “Birdhand” is a rousing rock opener on We’ll See Ourselves Out. There’s a definite similarity to an up-tempo Barenaked Ladies song with searing guitar, driving drums and nice use of organ from time to time.

“Nothing Special” slows the tempo. The piano ballad showcases Caldie’s range and ability to bring drama to the vocals, like Jonathan Meiburg of Shearwater.

“Valentine Eyes” is another mellow ballad, mixing acoustic guitar and synth with Caldie’s bittersweet vocals and some jangly guitar in the lead breaks.

One of my favorite tracks on the 11-song collection is “Asma.” This is a bouncy indie rock number that has the most similarity to some of the classic rock arrangements from the 1970s. Great guitar licks and terrific backing vocals. If this isn’t one of the singles from We’ll See Ourselves Out, it should be.

The last song before an epilogue, “More,” is a mid-tempo, melodic piano-based number. There’s a nice swing to it and again, solid vocals — with a bit of pedal steel guitar in the lead break.

So…if you haven’t heard We’ll See Ourselves Out — and I know you haven’t — do yourself a favor and give it a listen. You’re going to love it!

Yusuf/Cat Stevens Returns With a New Album That Stands the Test of Time

7 Nov

English folk-rock singer, Cat Stevens, has been writing and recording music for more than a half century. His debut, Matthew and Son, was released in 1967 — although the first single, “I Love My Dog,” was actually distributed the previous year. The album rose to #7 on the UK charts and established Stevens as an artist of note.

By the early 1970s, Stevens had become a force on both sides of the Atlantic. 1970’s Tea for the Tillerman was certified gold with more than 500,000 copies sold and “Wild World” was a major hit. That was followed by Teaser and the Firecat, which earned gold status within three weeks and contained the hits “Moonshadow,” “Peace Train” and “Morning Has Broken.”

In 1976, Stevens reportedly nearly drowned while swimming off the coast of Southern California. This proved to be a decisive moment in a journey he’d been on for some time to find meaning in his life. After learning about a number of the world’s religions, he converted to the Muslim faith and took the name Yusuf Islam.

For nearly three decades, he left his musical career behind. But over the past ten years or so, he has returned to making music. And this fall, he released his latest album, The Laughing Apple, under the name Yusuf/Cat Stevens.

The Laughing Apple represents a completion of the circle for Yusuf/Stevens. The album is a collection of both earlier compositions — some of which made it no further than the demo stage — with a few newer compositions. The album is particularly satisfying because Yusuf’s introspective vocals and sensitive lyrics now also convey a wisdom based on a lifetime of experience that simply wasn’t possible in his teens and twenties. The result is a contemporary folk-rock record that would be a great addition to any collection — whether you’re discovering Yusuf/Stevens for the first time or rediscovering an old friend from your distant past.

Track highlights: The album opens with “Blackness of the Night,” an uplifting song that tells a story about the journey we’re all on. Yusuf’s vocals are minstrel-like, with strumming guitar, simple percussion and a bit of organ or synth.

“See What Love Did to Me” is more up-tempo and bouncy. There’s a Middle Eastern influence in the lead break.

“Mary and the Little Lamb” starts with a few lines from the familiar nursery rhyme and then evolves into a simple lesson about persistence and learning how to love in a world that seems to try harder to discourage it every day.

The second-to-last track on the album, “Don’t Blame Them,” is a peaceful melody that’s sweet and lovely — with its electric piano or synth and Yusuf’s world-weary vocals — while warning us to not blame our misfortune on others — because we’ll just be blamed in return.

The Laughing Apple is accompanied by Yusuf/Cat Stevens’ original art — again similar to the illustrations he created for his earliest albums in the 1960s and 1970s.