Category Archives: Singer/Songwriter

White Sea: In Cold Blood

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White Sea: In Cold Blood – One of the more popular discourses in indie music that I’m most passionate about is the vocalist as a musician.  Think about some of the more virtuosic female singers in pop music – Mariah Carey, Christina Aguilera, and a a slew of other dynamic voices negatively characterized by “oversinging.” Even as a fan of melismatic voices, I’ll be the first to admit that too many riffs, runs, and unnecessary high notes can be toxic. However, I’ll also admit that I’m completely infatuated by the power of the human voice both technically and emotionally.

When I was first introduced to White Sea‘s Morgan Kibby from her background work with M83, I was moved by her ability to make Anthony Gonzalez’s already lush compositions soar into the stratosphere with her beautifully airy tone. Her latest solo record, In Cold Blood, is a completely different ballgame though. This album ambitiously bulldozes its way in and out of various genres, all the while being propelled by Kibby’s honestly impressive vocal range. She makes a solid case that you can have your cake and eat it too – really dynamic voices aren’t only restricted to pure pop music. Kibby has the talent to sit amongst some of the more famous vocal divas. But, the way that In Cold Blood bends genres keeps the music interesting enough that Kibby won’t be labeled just another great voice.

Kibby gets things started off right away with the album opener and lead-off single, “They Don’t Know” – an 80′s inspired, operatic synth track that doesn’t shy away from being dramatic.  It’s a great track whose theme pretty much defines the rest of the album’s sound.  However, one of the more noteworthy songs,  Prague, keeps the drama and adds a quite surprising element of angst. The fuzzed out guitar riff during the chorus takes White Sea from dreamy synth pop to glam rock stomp in a matter of seconds.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention how well Kibby has a handle on crafting melody too. On Prague especially, the chorus is so unbelievably catchy that you’ll without a doubt walk away with it lodged in your brain. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone considering that she had a hand in co-writing ‘Midnight City,’ M83′s dance rager that completely swept 2011.  As lovely and ambitious as her songwriting is, there are a few instances where it came but just a bit too much.

‘Warsaw’ fails to find that balance that the rest of the album lives in and ends up sounding a bit contrived. As Kibby belts out about “seducing your wives, fucking you blind, and gutting your fish” the intensity is lost somewhere with her sweet voice which leaves a little bit to be desired. Even at it’s weaker moments though, In Cold Blood, has plenty of great ones to make up for them. ‘Future Husbands Past Lives’ sounds like it was written by Prince and then put through the musical meat grinder, and I mean that in the best way possible. It’s a mini rock opera that has Kibby reaching the absolute limits of her vocal reach, and it’s quite impressive. Sure, this melismastic singing isn’t for everyone. But, there’s no denying that Kibby has great chops in both singing and songwriting…7.1/10

EDJ: EDJ

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EDJ- EDJ

Eric Johnson is best known as leader of the indie-folk band, Fruit Bats and for his work with The Shins but now, the singer-songwriter, composer, and multi-instrumentalist seems to be stripping himself bare. A year after Fruit Bats disbanded in 2013, Johnson announced he would release a solo album under his own moniker, EDJ. And although it features plenty of Johnson’s associates, the Yellowbirds, James Mercer, and Neal Casal, this self-titled album unveils his utmost naked humanity. Johnson told Atwood Magazine he loved writing short stories as a kid and here, he does the same thing, telling simple stories that not only capture the general human experience but which also come straight from his own brain and life.

Johnson’s aptness for conveying the human condition are Bard-like and his song ‘For Joy’ may further convince one that the singer should’ve been born during the Romantic era where those, like him and his lyrics, retell the enlightening moment where one is overwhelmed by the inherent beauty of their surroundings. While the song speaks of joy, its doleful vocals keep with the drowsy timbre introduced by the album’s opener ‘For The Boy Who Moved Away,’ where Casal’s lullaby guitar blankets Johnson’s plainly spoken tale of his move away from L.A. as a child, almost attempting to console his loss, and where Mercer’s backup vocals add to the melancholy mood that sets the tone for the rest of the album.

Although EDJ veers away from the upbeat sound of his prior projects, the folksy, down to earth energy of the Fruit Bats carries over. There are hopeful moments, like the Johnson-termed “existential love song” ‘Odd Love’ in which he accepts an unconventional relationship with devotion as he sings ”I love you with all my beating heart/it’s an odd love but it’s our love” over a dreamy melody of falling notes and dwindling harmonies. So sure the songs aren’t necessarily “happy” and Johnson was influenced both lyrically and musically by the suffering Joni Mitchell, but they are still pop.

In fact, it’s hard to say exactly what emotion this album portrays because of Johnson’s open chord technique, which the Fruit Bats used to an extent but which he expands on to pair chords and notes with ones that yield and enigmatic sound swerving in multiple musical directions. This was a smart move seeing that the album seeks to illustrate the human condition. EDJ is not a concept album, but rather one that springs from the mindset Johnson developed in the rainy Portland winter. The songs on the album constitute pieces of him, memories like the image of the San Gabriel Mountains engulfed in flames that Johnson viewed in the rear view when leaving L.A. as a boy and which he recalls in ‘The Mountain on Fire (In The Rearview)’. Likewise, ‘A West County Girl,’ with its calm, synth and clap-ridden melody, has Johnson singing anxiously about rebuilding a life in an unknown place, similar to the theme of loss in EDJ’s debut single ‘Lose it All, All the Time’ where psychedelic waves of instrumentals weigh down the thumping percussion in the track. Johnson’s description of the album’s songs as “melancholy grooves” proves accurate on another 70’s psychadelia infused track ‘Child in the Wild’ where distant vocals paired with gritty electric guitar and rickety percussion illustrate the grim and hesitant acceptance of one’s fleeting youth.

The suspended chords and instrumental atmosphere on EDJ hypnotize the listener in a trance where Johnson’s lyrics capture such accurate portrayals of humanity, un-concocted and from his own experiences, we are reminded of what we can do; We can get high, we can fall in love, and we can grow old. So while EDJ might seem a little more somber than previous works by the artist, the lyrics reveal a hidden message of optimism that will hopefully have us sitting around on a rainy day listening to Johnson tell us more stories.

7/10

Sea Wolf: Song Spells No.1: Cedarsmoke

Sea Wolf: Song Spells No. 1: Cedarsmoke- The first in a series, Sea Wolf‘s new album Song Spells No.1: Cedarsmoke proves a successful start for the sole singer/songwriter project. California native and singer Alex Church decided to forgo working with a record label with this last release and turned to his fans instead to fund a stripped-down album that recalls the close and familiar sounds of his earlier work. Free from the expectations of a label, Church moved in the opposite direction of previous album Old World Romance and its unexpected risks as he returns to his acoustic roots. Although the album may not be any thing experimental, Church sounds comfortable and confident in this truthful sounding stop on Sea Wolf’s musical journey.

The album leads us in with cello and keyboard notes settling over shaking maracas and samples of a thunderstorm in ‘Intro’ until we’re met by Church’s gravelly voice in ‘Rams Head.’ Sweet lyrics about love’s warmth crackling in front of a fire place float along the melody Church tailors with his emotive voice until the shakers come on again in this almost entirely acoustic track and a cuteness fumes off like smoke.

The fourth song on the album ‘Bavarian Porcelain’ achieves a Broken Bells quality with “ooh”s strung through gypsy-folk guitar and a building rhythm that crashes into a catchy chorus before settling on a stream of instrumentals. ‘Cedarsmoke’ begins with a sound like bouncing wood chips as eerie strings and storm sounds cloud into ‘Young Bodies’ where Church’s voice comes on so clearly you can almost see the furrow of his brow and quiver of his lip as he sings so plain and effectively.

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The album picks up in energy with ‘The Water’s Wide’ where Church echoes the album’s essence singing “I don’t wanna leave here now/Now that I’ve found my legs somehow,” channeling the comfort we hear in his effortless crone as it skips along the jumble of punk-inspired screeches, instrumentals, and quick percussion. The folk vibe of ‘White Woods’ recall Sea Wolf’s Leaves in the River while the baritone and soprano backing vocals plus the jambalaya of instruments make this track sound like a cleaner Arcade Fire song but the fun stops in the next ‘Whatever You Say, Say Nothing’ where Church’s vocals sound pungently sad, like those of an inexplicably more depressed Elliot Smith, with only rain sounds and soft guitar to enhance it. However, the last song “Visions” makes up for the loss of production value in the previous song. With a flow of string led instrumentals to lead us out as they led us in, a beat breaks out of melancholy and hopeful sounds that results in a thrash of finale-fitting grooves.

Sea Wolf’s regression towards a simpler acoustic sound should appeal to the crafted tastes of his longtime listeners while inviting new ones to discover him in folky glory. Song Spells No.1: Cedarsmoke is available on streaming sites like Spotify as well as the project’s site for a “pay-what-you-want” digital download. So get the first of this album series and follow Sea Wolf as the artist attempts to entrance you with more of his song spells…7.5/10

‘The Water’s Wide’

Rodrigo Amarante: Cavalo

Rodrigo Amarante: Cavalo  This is the sort of homelessness I’ve feared since I was small. I had nightmares of being entrapped under miles of pipe, of being stuck in coaches that moved of their own accord and took me too far away to ever return. Apparently, Rodrigo Amarante doesn’t have these childish fears; he takes them in his hands, whittles them and blows his notes through. On Cavalo, astride his own lyrical cavalo, he thrusts himself into the beds of dead seas and trawls deserts on the moon, an alternately peaceful and burdensome isolation, much as he described in his press release:

When I finally arrived back in Rio no longer a child and with an accent three times tampered, I realized that my home town was mine only because I had invented it, its memory a dream of smells and hope that didn’t exist in space, maybe in time. I discovered myself a stranger…

If you’d ever felt Devendra Banhart was a bit too disingenuous with his ironic freak folk, perhaps Amarante’s muted melodies and stunted notes are more your thing. Here is a map carved with the sincerity of one man’s wandering mind.

Cavalo is a gorgeous Latin-folk record, just as concise and sparse as Amarante intended and with just the right amount of accent, never taking focus away from his leathery drifter’s voice. The tracks are mostly sombre odes to blue moons, girls in villages untouched by time and other such G. G. Marquez melancholics, but throughout, even when it isn’t there, is the clop-clop of Amarante’s little cavalo topping the hills. The second half of the record settles into this traveler’s mindset, while the first half is a bit more playful with its timbres. On the whole, though, I could listen to his voice for hours. It’s got the kind of wrinkles that just seethe story and gravitas, like an old ambassador’s face.

The liveliness of Cavalo‘s first half is the initial elation at leaving home: he supplements his spidery acoustic plucks on ‘Mom Nom’ with tuba drones that paint the rising sun to the dawn created by his guitar and croonings, and ‘Hourglass’ is a surprise funk-pop number where he channels Julian Casablancas amidst the hornet twang of electric organ and a mischievous bass. ‘Mana’ follows with similar festivity, spry basslines and hoof-on-cobblestone percussion  you can just see him lowing to the maids tending fields of banana, though not to any one particular girl, but with the elation of simply being incensed.

Track six, ‘Fall Asleep’, inaugurates the deeply pensive second half in which he leaves the familiar haunts behind, and attempts to sustain himself on memories in increasingly strange and provoking mental spaces, like the wall of sea evoked by piano in this track. The title track, ‘Cavalo’, is a near-wordless trudge through landscapes bearing Dali’s sodden timepieces and made suffocatingly humid with the reverberating effects and production. If I haven’t communicated it already, this half gets emotionally harrowing, though always with a sense of freedom, and the ability to move on and out from these howling moors.

Cavalo is Amarante’s first solo record, and feels as such. It’s exactly what you’d expect to get by extracting his influence from Little Joy and Los Hermanos, and placing that essence in its own habitat to put down roots and shoots — and I’m glad he took the time to extricate himself, because this record is a half-hour odyssey, a success of sparse textures and intent…8.6/10

 

‘Mom Nom’

Conor Oberst: Upside Down Mountain

Conor Oberst: Upside Down Mountain- Maturing isn’t replacing the old with the new. It isn’t growing past something you once believed or giving up your idealism for the perceived black and white of the world around you.  No, maturing is about adapting, and more importantly, growing in who and what you are in order to be a better person; a stronger human being. And when it comes to artistic endeavors, especially songwriting, maturing is a double edged sword. While you may expand and improve upon your craft, there will be fans and admirers who wish to hold on to the old-you, what was comfortable and spoke to them when they were most vulnerable and found that ray of hope in the music you created in that moment. And when they realize that period is over, many will refuse to accept the next step in your endeavors, but when it comes down to it, the best will mature right along with you, brothers and sisters willing to realize Peter Pan was just a story and what is wonderful about life is that the world and its people are in a constant motion and erosion of change.

I have been a fan of Conor Oberst and and  his musical outlets for a little over a decade now. I can easily admit that his solo work, Bright Eyes, and various other projects have been the soundtrack to my life since I was a budding teen. Along the way I have found myself maturing along side him with each new album he has released. Upside Down Mountain, in a way, is a culmination point for Mr. Oberst. Anyone who is familiar with his previous work will immediately recognize these new songs as his.  They have his distinct color stroked and splashed in every crevice of this album. More than any other album, Upside Down Mountain is garnering Mr. Oberst more media attention than I can recall from previous years.  And I could not be happier for the man.

Upside Down Mountain is sonically appetizing. Mr. Oberst may be best known for his indie alternative-folk stylings, but he is also well versed in rock, electronics and beats, and the power of orchestral instruments. This new album combines the best of his musical prowess. In ‘Time Forgot’ and ‘Hundreds of Ways’, you can hear his more recent musical inclinations in the expanded vocals with lush harmonies, but also in the percussion of the songs. They both have their own beats, but rely on big percussion to help drive the songs. ‘Time Forgot’ has booming blasts of single downbeat hits that play off of the skittered guitars and keys. While, on the other hand, ‘Hundreds of Ways’ has busy drums and percussion that give the song a tribal-folk, or island-dance inspired rhythm. But these songs still meld seamlessly with songs like ‘Night at Lake Unknown’ and ‘You Are Your Mother’s Child’ which hearken to Mr. Oberst’s stripped-down acoustic wonders that hit at the heart of any listener. Then there are thrusts of his work with the electric guitar, that indie southern rock strut that comes out in songs like ‘Zigzagging Toward the Light’ and ‘Kick’.

Even with all this, what lifts Conor Oberst in another plane is his poetry, the lyrics that cut deep to what it means to be human.  While his earlier work may be seen as more idealistic and cynical about relationships and just trying to make it another day in the modern age, this album contains some of his strongest and most polished lyrics yet. In ‘Hundreds of Ways’ he sings, “It took centuries to build these twisted cities/ It took seconds to reduce them down to dust”. He is a master craftsman at creating imagery with only a few lines of verse. Or there’s the the lyrics, “…the trappings of a name you never could escape/these people wanna live in the past/ Some Golden Age that they never had”, in ‘Kick’. Although he is singing this song to a person named Kick, I can’t help but interpret these words as a reference to those expecting Mr. Oberst to be the bard of tortured young souls who found solace and a kindred spirit in his early work. “Everywhere I go/ the doors fly open/but I want out once I’m inside”, are just a sampling of the poetry sung in, ‘Night at Lake Unknown’.

I could go on for days about the lyrics of Mr. Oberst, being an aspiring writer myself, this album is packed to the brim and yearning to be unraveled. Upside Down Mountain is beautiful and a testament to what a truly great songwriter can accomplish. He keeps growing with each new album, proving art and the human experience are not stagnant, but a wonderful struggle to find meaning in the lowest of places…10/10

‘Kick’