Tag Archives: indie folk

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.



Karla Kane’s First Solo Album Is a Wonderful, Whimsical,Yet Thought-Provoking, Collection

2 Aug

Karla Kane is the lead singer-songwriter for The Corner Laughers, a sunshine indie pop band from the Bay Area’s mid-peninsula with connections to Stanford University. I’ve written about the past several albums the band has released, and also one the band released under its alter ego, Agony Aunts.

Now Kane has taken the big step of producing her first solo album, King’s Daughters Home for Incurables, and it’s another wonderful, whimsical collection of enchanting, sometimes melancholy acoustic folk for thinking music lovers.

The 11 songs on the album lead listeners into an otherworldly landscape that transports them to distant (and not-so-distant) places and times — from medieval England to California’s golden, tree-studded foothills. At the same time, Kane’s feet are firmly planted on the ground as she addresses many of the topics of the day including feminism and our thirst for hope and respect in a too-often dark world.

The disarmingly simple arrangements on King’s Daughters Home for Incurables are precisely produced, populated with an intriguing mix of instruments and sound effects — from Kane’s signature ukulele to Richard Youell’s nature recordings (birds, bees and rainstorms) and even announcements from a U.K. train station.

While this is ostensibly a solo album, Kane makes good use of her fellow members of The Corner Laughers, as well as guests such as Mark and Helen Luker (U.K.’s Fun of the Pier), Martin Newell, Anton Barbeau, and others.

Track highlights: The title track has a lilting, medieval feeling — offering a quick trip of imagination back to olde England. Kane’s rich vocals and strummed ukulele are at their best here.

Next comes “Wishing Tree,” a bouncy, skipping, happy tune on which Martin Newell (Cleaners from Venus), contributes additional vocals and his distinctive poetry. Track 3, “Skylarks of Britain,” is a stately tune that starts in cathedral-like reverie and builds into rich harmonies and a Beatles-like arrangement.

The first single on King’s Daughters Home for Incurables is “The Lilac Line.” This is an upbeat, strummy celebration inspired by travels through Nottingham on the Lilac bus line.

“All Aboard,” Track 10, presents a soulful commentary on the uncertain age we live in. A train-like vibe is created by Kane’s piano.

Really, all of the songs on King’s Daughters Home for Incurables are excellent — full of wry observations about daily life and the occasional literary reference — so it’s hard to choose which ones to include in a review. But this is definitely an album you’ll want to add to your collection.

I’m planning to see if Karla and friends can stop by KZSU for a chat and some live performances — hopefully on September 1st — so I’ll feature the album that day or the following Friday. The official release date is October 6th.

If you’re interested, the album can be preordered at: http://cornerlaughers.com/album/kings-daughters-home-for-incurables.


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.


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.


Exquisite Poetry Set to Spare Music from Conor Oberst

30 Nov

Conor Oberst has always been someone who has written and recorded songs that are perfect for when you’re in a sad or contemplative mood. Without having met him personally, you just know he’s highly sensitive, caring, and connected. Someone who’s closely attuned to feelings — both yours and his.

For a number of years, Oberst primarily recorded under the name Bright Eyes. Then came 2014’s Upside Down Mountain, a superb collection of polished, beautifully produced indie rock and folk-rock songs that he released as Conor Oberst. Surprisingly, it was not that well received, although in my review of it, I found it to be exceptional.

Then, his life turned south. Oberst found himself accused of rape — in an allegation that the accuser later recanted and apologized for, once the charge had been thoroughly discredited. Oberst also faced a number of serious health issues, including a cyst on his brain.

To recuperate from this turbulence and turmoil in his life, Oberst retreated to his native Omaha last winter, where he wrote ten songs that would become his latest album, Ruminations. He recorded the songs in two days, with just a piano, guitar, harmonica, and his singular vocals. Raw, real, and almost uncomfortably intimate — the songs were left as they were created — unadorned, with minimal added production value. The result is a sense that this is essentially his poetry set to music — Oberst’s most laid-back, Bright Eyes-like album in a number of years.

Standouts on the album include “Tachycardia,” which introduces us to the Dylan-style harmonica musings that accompany many of the songs; “Next of Kin,” a very Bright Eyes-sounding track; “A Little Uncanny,” with its biting, cynical lyrics about Jane Fonda and Ronald Reagan — and kind thoughts directed toward people he admires such as Robin Williams and Sylvia Plath; and “The Rain Follows the Plow,” an uplifting, piano-driven love song.

If you’re looking for something you can dance to, this is definitely not it. But if you’d like an album to play on Sunday morning when you’re feeling wistful or introspective, you need to add Ruminations to your collection.


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.


Springtime Carnivore’s”Midnight Room” an Exquisite Experience

26 Oct

The lineage is clear from the first notes.

Greta Morgan, a talented singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist — originally from the Chicago area, but currently residing in L.A. — must be a close relative of Washington state’s Neko Case. Or an even closer relative — geographically at least — of Southern California’s Jenny Lewis.

All three women create distinctive, accomplished, highly melodic indie pop-rock — each with her own individual stylings — that offers the listener honest, heartfelt glimpses into their lives.

In Morgan’s case, recording under the moniker, Springtime Carnivore, her winsome, 10-song set, Midnight Room, tries to make sense of an especially life-changing breakup.

If you’re into indie music, you may well have heard or seen Morgan before — as a backup singer for La Sera, as the lead for 2009’s Gold Motel, or in other less well-known bands. But in 2014, Morgan released her debut album as Springtime Carnivore. And in just two years, she’s matured tremendously, with Midnight Room a true revelation.

Produced by Chris Coady, who’s also worked with Future Islands, Beach House, and others, the album sometimes edges into folk-rock, dream-pop or even alt country. The compositions reflect the period of time Morgan was going through — waking up at odd hours alone in her L.A. home. But the music never gets maudlin or self-absorbed. Rather, the songs connect with the listener in reassuring ways.

The album opens with the title track, “Midnight Room.” Accompanied by a richly strummed guitar and steady drums, Morgan’s throaty vocals ebb and flow, soaring in the choruses as she tries to make sense of the recent breakup.

The fourth track on the album is “Double Infinity,” an intricate, shimmering 80s ballad — backed by a persistent tom-tom beat, cascading synths, and featuring Morgan’s plaintive vocals.

“Raised by Wolves” is the song on the album that veers closest to an alt country sound. But edgy synths, a busy bass line, and slapping drums keep the song from going too far astray of the rest of the set.

Song 7 is “Under the Spell.” I don’t know why — maybe it was the relentless bass line — but it reminded me of a classic rock anthem in the mold of Fleetwood Mac, with Morgan’s voice meeting the high standards of Stevie Nicks.

I always look at how an artist closes her or his work, and Midnight Room ends with the chilling “Rough Magic.” It’s soaringly, achingly sentimental — lonely and longing — but still hopeful. Morgan’s vocals sound like they were recorded in a cathedral, and the solitary repeated notes on her piano provide a stark contrast.

Midnight Room is one of the better albums of 2016 — a pleasure to listen to over and over again, from start to finish. By the way, if you’d like to see Morgan perform in person, your chance is coming up locally next Friday (November 4th) at the Swedish American Hall in San Francisco. I promise you won’t be disappointed.