Tag Archives: indie folk-rock

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.


Fun of the Pier’s Debut “14:42” a Fun Listen — with Some Insights As Well

5 Sep

Fun of the Pier is a refreshingly different indie band from Nottingham in the U.K. The trio features Helen Luker on lead vocals, keyboards and guitar; Mark Luker on bass guitar, bass ukulele and wry observations; and Richard Snow Hattersley on guitar, vocal harmonies and all things technical.

Fun of the Pier’s debut album, 14:42, can best be described as jangle pop or Brit pop, with a leaning toward clean, crisp acoustic arrangements.

The songs’ subjects range from a musician’s lament (echoed by many music fans, myself included) about why people pay to go to a show — only to chit-chat and laugh with their friends through the entire set…..to esoteric observations about the time-space continuum, built around a comment that Mark once made, “In the past, it would have been the future, because it’s now.”

The point is: while your first impression of these tunes might be that they’re nice little musical ditties to nod your head to — there’s a depth of content for your brain to ponder as well. It’s jangle pop for thoughtful listeners — a lot like the music of local Bay Area band, The Corner Laughers, from which Karla Kane and Khoi Huynh provided guest vocals and ukulele accompaniment on one of 14:42’s tunes. In fact, Helen, Mark, Karla and Khoi are touring Northern California together for the next several weeks — catch them if you can! — and will play a number of shows in the UK and Germany next month.

Track highlights: 14:42 starts with “Inconsiderate,” a jangly Brit pop number with a 1960s British invasion vibe and a bouncy tempo. It’s such a happy tune that it’s easy to miss the biting commentary about certain elements of the club crowd. “Why do you do it?/What is the point?/Talk all through it/And roll your joint/Why don’t you go home?/Take your mates with you/And leave the rest of us/To enjoy a better view.”

“Lost and Lazy” is a gentle acoustic folk song with sweet lead vocals about the need for good friends in life. “Cavern Song” is bright and up-tempo with an energetic bass line, guitar and tambourine taps and shakes for rhythm. It’s short and fun with more wry observations about doing live shows.

“Stumble” is also happy and strummy, with a toe-tapping beat. “Summer Song” is one of my favorites — with a noisy start that leads into a dynamic arrangement that to me had a Moody Blues sensibility with rich harmonies, tambourine shakes and a keyboard part that sounds like a flute. There’s also a cool synthesizer lead break.

14:42 ends with a pensive closer, “I Love This Life (She Said).” It features a strummed guitar, shimmering synths and bells, plus delicate vocals about trying to find one’s way in life.

By the way, the 14:42 title Fun of the Pier chose for the album was due to the clock in the attic where they recorded always being stuck on 14:42.

Now you can impress your friends — not only with how you discovered this little-known, but excellent UK band, but also where the title of the album came from!


Mac DeMarco Delivers His Best Work Yet on “This Old Dog”

13 Jul

Mac DeMarco is a Canadian singer-songwriter who has lived in a number of different cities including Alberta, Vancouver and Montreal — the latter in which he began his career as a solo artist. He released his first album, 2, in 2012, and followed that with Salad Days before his current release, This Old Dog.

His music has been called “slacker rock,” a pretty decent description of his usual laid-back, breezy style with self-aware and frequently personal lyrics.

However, DeMarco is anything but a slacker. This Old Dog is a 13-song set on which DeMarco wrote and arranged the songs, played every instrument, sang the vocals, produced, and engineered every track. Musically, there’s a lot of strummed guitar and simple rhythms that are created with anything from a bongo or woodblock to an electronic drum kit.

Known for his outrageous sense of humor in his shows and interviews, in This Old Dog DeMarco has delivered a very professional, compelling album.

Track highlights: The album opens with “My Old Man,” a catchy, yet disarming, tune featuring a strummy guitar over a gentle drum machine track. The lyrics are intimate, commenting on how much DeMarco increasingly sees his father (whom he doesn’t have the greatest relationship with) in himself.

“Baby You’re Out,” is a bouncy and sunny folk number with a hint of Matt Nathanson.

The fifth track, “One Another,” is jangly with an easy skipping rhythm and a breezy chorus. On the lengthy “Moonlight on the River,” DeMarco transitions from a laid-back airy melody into jarring psychedelic effects after reflecting, “I’m home, with moonlight on the river/Saying my goodbyes/I’m home, there’s moonlight on the river/Everybody dies.”

On the final track, “Watching Him Fade Away,” DeMarco deftly sings a measured ballad a la Paul McCartney over a muted, processed keyboard of some sort.

Overall, This Old Dog is a very creative, intriguing album from a solid young talent.


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.