Tag Archives: indie folk-rock

Wesley Stace or John Wesley Harding — Either Way, New Album Is Fine Folk-Rock

24 May

UK-born Wesley Stace has released approximately 20 albums and a handful of EPs since the late 1980s. For much of that time he recorded as John Wesley Harding, a stage name taken from Bob Dylan’s 1967 album of the same name.

Today, Stace has also become a successful novelist using his given name. As a result, he has released several albums under the Wesley Stace name as well.

Which brings us to his latest release, which he calls, Wesley Stace’s John Wesley Harding. That’s the actual title. While it’s certainly a mouthful, it sounds like Stace wants to make sure that both long-time and new fans know that it’s his album. As well they should, because it’s quite nice.

Wesley Stace’s John Wesley Harding varies from folk to gentle rock with a touch of Americana or alt-country. Stace is backed throughout by an alt-country band from Minneapolis — the Jayhawks. Together, Stace and the Jayhawks offer a lot of catchy melodies and comfortable arrangements with a 70s mellow-rock vibe — to support Stace’s sharp, well-turned lyrics.

Track highlights: The second tune on the album, “You’re a Song,” is gentle, Americana-flavored folk-rock. It features a strummed acoustic guitar, player piano, a toe-tapping beat, and jangly guitar — with a bit of pedal steel in the background.

“Track 3, “Better Tell No One Your Dreams,” is more of a rock number with fuzzy guitars, piano and a simple backbeat.

The fifth track had me thinking Stace must be a fan of Big Star, a somewhat obscure rock group from the 1970s that recorded on the Stax label. The crunchy guitars on the song were almost identical to the sound that Big Star favored.

The ninth song veers more toward alt-country, with warm lead and backing vocals, and again, a “crying” pedal steel guitar in the distance.

The album wraps with, “Let’s Evaporate.” One of the official audio tracks released to support the album, it’s up-tempo rock with a plinking piano and “oooh-oooh” harmonies accompanying Stace’s lead vocals.

If you enjoy folk-rock with bit of a throwback sound, you’ll like Wesley Stace’s John Wesley Harding.

 

Henry Jamison Debuts with Little-Known, but Highly Worthy EP

29 Mar

Think of it as an appetizer — a tasty treat designed to tickle your ear lobes, as you wait for the satisfying main course to come, most likely later in 2017.

Henry Jamison is a young singer-songwriter based in Burlington, Vermont. His father, a classical composer, introduced Henry to music when he bought him his first guitar. He was on his own to learn how to play it, but it soon became clear that Jamison had a true gift, and his talents are on full display on his debut EP, The Rains.

Jamison’s style is what I’d call alternative folk-pop. It’s not your classic folk of the 1960s and 1970s, and definitely not freak folk. The songs are warm and melodic, featuring Jamison’s rich tenor, guitar and/or banjo, but also synth soundscapes and even some noise on a few tracks. The arrangements are simple, yet precise, and the poetic lyrics are honest and authentic to the emotions being expressed.

Track highlights: “Dallas Love Field” is wistful and wonderful. Jamison’s easygoing vocals tell the story of love found and lost, backed by an energetic drum track, guitar and a hint of pedal steel whining sorrowfully in the distance.

The second song on the five-song EP is “Real Peach,” a slightly slower ballad with an airy synth bed, strummed guitar and a touch of banjo in places. I believe this is the first single.

“The Rains” features fingerpicked guitar in a lilting melody with ghost-like backing vocals supported by an intriguing, circular rhythm.

The fourth track, “Through the Glass,” is a swaying, introspective tune that describes a bad breakup. Unfortunately, it’s got a word in it that we can’t play on the air, so you’ll have to get the EP to listen to it.

The EP wraps with “No One Told Me,” which finds Jamison harmonizing with a female vocalist over a steady timekeeping rhythm and swirling synths.

In short — this is an EP that identifies Jamison as a highly talented artist with a lot for listeners to look forward to.

 

Conor Oberst’s “Salutations” Updates and Expands 2016’s “Ruminations”

22 Mar

Salutations is a revelation. Last year, Conor Oberst recorded a ten-song album called Ruminations that captured Oberst at his lowest and most lonely — full of doubt, despair and despondence over the challenges we all face in life. Oberst’s lyrics were raw and revealing, and he performed the songs using just a piano, acoustic guitar and harmonica to accompany his vocals. But the plan had always been to take those tracks and layer them with full arrangements.

Salutations is the result. It’s alternative rock that veers from My Morning Jacket’s edginess and Dylan-esque folk-rock to crystalline Bright Eyes ballads. The 17-song set includes the ten songs from Ruminations, plus seven new tracks found only on this album.

To create Salutations, Oberst had a lot of help from many accomplished musicians including The Felice Brothers, Jim James, M. Ward, Maria Taylor, and more.

Track highlights: The album opens with a rolling, swaying, world-weary ode in three-quarter time called “Too Late to Fixate.” Oberst’s warbling vocals are accompanied by accordion and a bit of fiddle.

Track 5, “Next of Kin,” is a very Bright Eyes-sounding tune that didn’t change very much from Ruminations. The following track, which is new to Salutations, turns the heat up a notch. “Napalm” has an almost Southern Rock quality. A lightly tripping organ serves as a welcome counterpoint to an edgy guitar and Oberst’s almost shouted vocals.

Track 10, “Tachycardia,” recalls Oberst’s headline-grabbing courtroom travails and health insecurities in general. Again, he relies on accordion, organ and Dylan-style harmonica to accompany the 1960s-sounding number.

My final favorite from the album is “A Little Uncanny.” A raspy electric guitar underlies the biting, cynical spoken lyrics about famous people such as Jane Fonda and Ronald Reagan, and a verse that mentions tortured souls such as Robin Williams and Sylvia Plath and how they dealt with fame over time.

Overall, this is one of Oberst’s most ambitious and interesting works to-date.

 

Shane Leonard’s Kalispell Offers Highly Accessible Folk and Americana

10 Mar

Kalispell is the folk project of Wisconsin-based singer-songwriter, Shane Leonard. His latest album, Printer’s Son, ranges from very pleasant folk to Americana, with a touch of bluegrass at times. Leonard is a gifted multi-instrumentalist who plays the banjo, fiddle, keyboards, and a wide range of percussion instruments — in addition to singing and, of course, handling the songwriting.

Also onboard with this project was Brian Joseph, who’s best known as the producer for another big name in music based in Wisconsin — Bon Iver, led by Justin Vernon.

As is often the case with indie artists, finding financing for the album wasn’t easy. Leonard conducted a Kickstarter campaign and raised the additional $15,000 he needed to make it happen. Which is great because Printer’s Son is really an enjoyable listen.

Track highlights: After an instrumental opening to the album, the “Windfall” single is excellent. It’s mellow, melodic folk-rock, with an intricate interplay between bass and drums.

“Beautiful Doll” is next and it showcases Leonard’s virtuosity as a banjo player with a long, almost clocklike bluegrass intro that leads into vocals featuring Heather McIntire with Leonard on backing vocals. Incidentally, the cello solo is by noted indie artist, Ben Sollee.

Track 6, “Gary, In,” builds into a beautiful, rolling epic that’s reminiscent of some of Gordon Lightfoot’s catalog. Finally, Track 7, “Parting Ground,” is wistful and rambling, with both strummed and picked banjo, piano, and woodwinds — plus the occasional cry of a pedal steel guitar far off in the distance. A heartfelt ending to a very nice journey.

 

John K. Samson’s “Winter Wheat” Is Nothing Short of a Masterpiece

15 Feb

“That hashtag wants me dead, but I don’t mind.”

So begins the first song, “Select All Delete,” in extraordinary fashion on John K. Samson’s fabulous Winter Wheat album. Samson is a highly accomplished singer-songwriter and guitarist who for many years was the frontman for Canada’s very popular punk band, The Weakerthans. As that group became more or less inactive in recent years and then officially disbanded, Samson launched his solo career. Winter Wheat is his second solo release, and it actually includes performances by a number of his former bandmates, as well as his wife, well- respected multi-instrumentalist and vocalist, Christine Fellows.

Throughout the 15-song set, Samson’s keen intelligence, wit and insight are constantly on display. Topics include a former doctoral candidate trying to recover from a bad presentation, an apology to a loved one who’s already dead, a stay in a drug treatment center, an ode to a British double agent, and a sentimental farewell to a cat named Virtute, who had appeared in multiple Samson compositions over the years,

His ability to turn a phrase is second to none — not Dylan, not Lennon, not modern-day poets such as Conor Oberst. Samson sees a world where “bankers warble algorithmically,” “the vampire Alberta wipes an oily mouth along a sleeve of forest in the foothills,” and the birds “carry off the tiny seeds of better ways to be alive.”

His observations tug at the heartstrings: “I want you to write my name under your name/With the year I was born and you began to disappear.” And in the title track, he sings, “We know this world is good enough/Because it has to be.”

Track highlights: Most of the arrangements are guitar-based rock or folk-rock — sometimes with an understated punky beat or energy. My favorites include: “Select All Delete,” “Postdoc Blues,” “Winter Wheat,” “Oldest Oak at Broadside,” “Vampire Alberta Blues” (which pays homage to Neil Young), “Fellow Traveller,” and “Virtute at Rest.”

This is one of my absolute favorite albums over the past year. If you haven’t heard it yet, give it a listen or tune in my show on KZSU this Friday at 9 a.m. Pacific Time.

Fruit Bats Delivers Tasty Treat of Indie Folk and Americana

17 Nov

Formed in 1997 in Chicago, Fruit Bats carved a niche in the resurgence of indie folk and Americana that marked that time in the U.S. music scene. Fruit Bats’ frontman Eric D. Johnson taught music at The Old Town School of Folk Music, led a space-rock band with the super-cool name of I Rowboat, and was a contributing guitarist to a number of other bands such as the Shins and Califone.

In 2001, Fruit Bats released its debut album, Echolocation. The band followed that with four additional albums, most recently Tripper in 2011. Some time later, Johnson and his wife faced personal tragedy when they lost a child she had been carrying in the first trimester. At age 40, there was little opportunity to try again.

Johnson was so affected by the pain that he announced that Fruit Bats was finished, and later released a solo album under his own name with songs that largely dealt with the grief.

In the process of working through the tragedy, Johnson realized how much Fruit Bats meant to him, and he began writing songs for a new album. The result is Absolute Loser, which sounds as if it could be depressing, but is actually a fresh and honest take on the indie folk and Americana that the band has always been known for.

The album opens with “From a Soon-to-Be-Ghost Town,” an upbeat, toe-tapping piece of Americana marked by strumming guitar, a busy bass line, rolling piano, and Johnson’s reassuring vocals. It’s also got a great electric guitar solo in the lead break like something right out of the Allman Brothers.

“Humbug Mountain Song” is a bouncy, fun, foot-stomping number with banjo running throughout. It shows off Johnson’s proficiency with the instrument and has great hooks, so you’ll find yourself humming (humbugging?) the melody long after the CD ends.

Skipping ahead to “Birthday Drunk,” you get a slower-tempo anthem that includes layers of strings supporting the guitars, piano and drums. In fact, for all their simplicity, the tunes on the album are often intricately layered, with “some tracks incorporating up to ten guitar tracks layered on top of each other,” according to the band’s website.

Another mellow tune is “It Must Be Easy.” The lyrics provide a window into Johnson’s soul, which makes Fruit Bats more than just another indie folk group. Johnson sings, “It must be easy when they pay you to sing/Even easier when you’re not allowed to think about the things/That other people think/Life is easy when you’ve learned how to be/Even easier when you’re not haunted or tempted by dreams/Of how you’re supposed to be/Or what you’re supposed to need.”

If you’ve been a fan of Fruit Bats for some time, you’ll love this album. (In fact, you probably already have it, because it was released in May. We’re a little late with this!) But if you’re new to Fruit Bats, Absolute Loser will serve as a great introduction.

 

For You to Discover: Prairie Empire’s Smooth, Jazzy Folk-Rock

9 Aug

Brooklyn duo Prairie Empire delivers smooth, sophisticated indie rock with a progressive jazz feeling throughout and occasional forays into folk on the new album, The Salt.

The duo’s sophomore effort remains relatively unknown several weeks after its official release, attracting few reviews from the leading online music sites. That’s unfortunate, because this is an excellent album that’s consistently good from beginning to end.

Led by extraordinary vocalist, Brittain Ashford, who also plays guitar and piano and handles the arrangements, Prairie Empire’s “The Salt” reminds me a little bit of Jenny Gillespie’s recent Cure for Dreaming. Drummer Nim Ben-Reuven is the other half of the duo. A number of outstanding session musicians add to The Salt’s arrangements with performances on cello, clarinet, organ, and additional guitar parts and vocals.

Prairie Empire’s songs are opulent, atmospheric and cinematic — with wonderful dynamic ranges. The title track is hesitant and tentative, with lightly picked guitar. Ashford sings the heartfelt line, “You are the salt in my blood,” in a series of tender pleas.

“Muir Woods” is an intimate and passionate love song, with a crystalline structure of piano and woodwinds and very simple drumming.

“Circles” is another standout. It’s slow and sad, but is enveloped by a lush soundscape with a rich, strummed guitar and Ashford’s smoky vocals.

Lastly, the album ends with two excellent tracks, “Daniel,” which segues directly into “We Were Reeds.” The sweeping strings and bigger drums of the former dissolve into a brief piano closer with lovely clarinet accompaniment (symbolic of the reeds). The song is uplifting and hopeful, and in this instance, is somewhat reminiscent of North Carolina’s folky, Bowerbirds.

If you’re in the mood for something that’s quiet and introspective, don’t miss The Salt.