The Decemberists, everyone's favorite Portlandian folk ensemble, released their new album The King is Dead last week.

2009's expansive "theme" album The Hazards of Love, with its pseudo-hard rock and repeated melodies, was a little too "different" for some listeners. Some people seemed to much prefer the band's woodsy folk rock employed on albums like The Crane Wife and Picaresque, a sound that (thankfully to them, perhaps) is revisited on The King is Dead.

The album was mostly created in a barn in Portland, and it really makes sense when you consider how much the songs sound like they were conceived in a barn, on a farm, or in some other such outdoorsy venue.

Album opener Don't Carry It All starts out the album with full-on Tom Petty harmonica flare and vocalist/guitarist Colin Meloy showing off his customarily unique singing style. The song's steady rhythm and slow burn is a pretty effective, laid-back intro to the record.

The woodsy stomp continues with Calamity Song, and really doesn't let up for the entirety of the album. Meloy sings about California succumbing to the fault lines and Native American tribes and frontier USA stuff like that, usually accompanied by backup singer Jenny Conlee, who adds even more melody to the tunes.

Listening to this record, it really feels like more of a "stripped down" affair than one could presume Hazards of Love was, as these songs have a much more simplistic sound, usually with a spontaneous, "this song came out of a jam session" feeling to them. Rise to Me uses some slick slide guitar, ramping up the "outdoor campfire jam" feel, and it works very well.

Rox in the Box is probably the album's standout track, with a haunting melody aided by some vibrant fiddle work in the middle that quickly turns into an all-out hootenanny, if I'm using the word correctly. It's energetic, catchy, and a lot of fun, and I bet it sounds even more like a campfire bash in concert.

January Hymn and June Hymn, ostensibly some sort of connected theme, are low key acoustic affairs that find Meloy testing out his vocal range, and both songs end up being pretty bare bones, stripped-down folk ballads.

Down By the Water, the first song released from this record, again uses harmonicas as its driving force, managing at times to sound like REM covering Neil Young (Meloy has actually stated that the album is "heavily influenced by REM", so this comparison is appropriate). In addition, this song actually features REM guitarist Peter Buck, so we can pretty much close the book on the "who influenced this song?" question.

This is Why We Fight is one of the more guitar-heavy songs on the album, an uptempo (compared to some of the other folky jams) number with waterfalls of harmonica and acoustic and electric guitars carrying Meloy's voice throughout. It's a long song, clocking in at more than 5 minutes, but it provides a nice moment of high energy (at least in Decemberists' standards) on the album.

In all, The King is Dead is a supremely satisfying Decemberists record. While Hazards of Love was maybe "too much", the new collection finds the band really stripping things down and re-capturing some of the energy and exuberance that influenced their earlier albums.

The album is a great collection of songs inspired by the likes of classic rock icons like Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, REM, and Neil Young, and such influences shine through easily. It's a great homage from the Decemberists to the bands they adore, and it's well worth your time (and money).

The whole long distance band notion is an easy one to romanticize, particularly in the age of myspace bands that end up making it huge (or for that matter, the Postal Service), so the massive surge in such projects should come as no surprise. The large amount of artists taking this avenue results in a few snags, however - particularly in that with how many others are doing it, standing out becomes incredibly difficult. Take a gifted songwriter like Paul Marsteller, who happened upon the talents of sultry vocalist Simone Stevens and multi-instrumentalist Gabe Rhodes, and you'll see such a union in action - yes, an unquestionably capable bunch, but sadly yet another group producing an all-too-familiar brand of music. Under the name Fiery Blue, the trio have put together a well done collection of songs that indeed shows off their prowess, but at the same time, does very little that could be regarded as anything new, or overly interesting.

The first, and most obvious, issue with Fiery Blue's debut is that, with eighteen tracks, there are simply too many songs thrown together. Because of this, the tracks blur together quite a bit, and it's damning enough to cancel out some pretty solid songwriting. Stevens' lovely vocal patterns along with the tasteful piling of instruments sound great on Hide Away - the bleak electric guitars over the silent acoustic ones, the stuttering drums, the subtle accordian, Stevens' mournful singing, it all comes together quite beautifully. In fact, it's also worthy of mention that the quality of the music never drops; everything stays the same. However, this is precisely the problem - everything stays the same. The differentiations only pop up when things don't click as well as they should; Where They Are comes across as too comparable to generic soft rock radio, while the more upbeat moments like Fire Show (or Magic, with its rather contrived notion of finding one's self by way of traveling west) hint to their influences a bit too well; in this particular case, a Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds intro followed by a Beautiful Stranger-reminiscent guitar (whose similarity is not deterred even by the twangy manner of playing).

What's frustrating is that nobody is at fault here; Rhodes' production earns top marks, as he captures the bleak feel nearly perfectly with his dynamic and diverse production. Stevens is also able to nail the role of the spurned songstress exceedingly well, with a voice as beautiful as it is clearly emotional and tired. Marsteller, too, shows great skill, armed with a clear mastery of positioning melodies alongside one another while expressing the lyrical subject matter convincingly. However, nothing feels unique, nothing lasts very long after the initial listen, and the stab Fiery Blue makes at alt-rock and americana is rendered as bland and ineffective in the light that it's not only been done so many times before in the same way, but done better.

CategoriesFolk Rock

When you think of Ray LaMontagne, you tend to hear only his voice. It’s easy to understand why. Deep, raspy, strong, delicate, wavering. All at once. Through much of his musical career, there’s hardly been reason to pair it with a full band rocking or rolling behind it. It’s an instrument in and of itself. Then God Willin’ & The Creek Don’t Rise was released.

There certainly was a lot of expectation being that LaMontagne was releasing an album giving credit to a backing band for the first time. Consisting of guitarist Eric Heywood, bassist Jennifer Condos, drummer Jay Bellerose, keyboardist Patrick Warren and pedal steel guitarist Greg Leisz, the Pariah Dogs boast extraordinary musicians who have backed for the likes of Alison Krauss, Fiona Apple, and Red Hot Chili Peppers.

With an immensely talented backing band and a longer artist name to deal with than usual, it seemed logical to expect a bigger sound from Ray LaMontagne and the Pariah Dogs. Also, maybe Ray would lighten up a little, start growling over some funky, rockin’ tracks. Maybe he might stray away from his usual sparing instrumentation and replace it with jukebox songs you could play at the bar without wanting to kill yourself after. Maybe he might just surprise us. And for approximately half the album, he kind of does.

Album opener, “Repot Man” sounds like it was made in the 70’s. Now of course, those who have listened to anything LaMontagne has released in the past won’t find this to be all that shocking. The production of his albums and the soulful croon of his distinct vocals has always given the listener the feel of a different time. A time when music was made from the heart in a small room, with other like-minded musicians, filling the recordings with a sound that you just can’t find in music nowadays. “Repot Man” offers a grooving bass line and riffing guitar that works supremely well when matched with LaMontagne’s famous voice. When Ray sings (as only he can), “I’m ’bout to do what your daddy shoulda done, I’m gonna lay you right across my knee,” the sensual mood of the first track hits a fevered pitch.

LaMontagne God Willin' and the Creek Don't Rise Album Cover

In order to cool off possible overheating, the second track slows down to a leisurely paced folk triumph, “New York City’s Killing Me.” Just as a grooving bass line works in the first track, the pedal steel of Leisz works in perfect harmony with LaMontagne in the second. The track is possibly the album’s most inviting, offering somewhat lighthearted folk beauty while Ray suggests that people in the city could care less if you die. Oh, the irony. Other highlights include the banjo-led “Old Before Your Time” and the majestically composed title track.

While LaMontagne is to credit for these brilliantly written songs, it’s somewhat peculiar that the other half of the album sounds so similar to previous works of his as a man with only a guitar and a voice.

The prospect of Ray LaMontagne with a full time backing band gave fans endless ideas of how God Willin’ might sound. However, I doubt that many thought that it might sound a lot like when the “Pariah Dogs” wasn’t a part of the band’s primary name. Whether LaMontagne had trouble breaking from his penchant as dreary singer-songwriter, or maybe a halfway fleshed out album was released due to only five days in the studio, one can only hope that next time around he fully commits to the excellency of the Pariah Dogs as band members, not just players. That is, if you’re looking for something different from Ray LaMontagne.

AuthorAndrew Lopez
CategoriesFolk Rock

The amount of groups trying their hand at the burgeoning 60s inspired indie folk genre continues to grow, and as with most genre growth spurts, it isn't exactly for the better. As evidenced by Midlake's latest from a few months back, the results are sadly dull and derivative albums, seemingly more interested to indulge in their own gloomy atmosphere rather than to produce original, interesting songs. While it's rather sad to see this happening to a musical style with such excellent potential, it just makes it all the more special to find a new artist who can do it well. Mountain Man, a group formed barely over a year ago, has released a rather impressive debut entitled Made the Harbor. While certainly not the most unique stab at folk music, the three ladies who make up Mountain Man (Amelia Meath, Molly Sarle, and Alex Sauser-Monnig) make excellent use of very spare arrangements (basically the trio harmonizing over Sauser-Monnig's guitar), and have some of the best folk vocal harmonies this side of Simon & Garfunkel.

These vocal harmonies are ultimately what makes Made the Harbor such a strong set of songs. Everything is centered around them here, which only makes sense, what with the three female voices compare and contrast so beautifully; they make up the atmosphere nearly all on their own. In fact, there are a number of a cappella here,, which further illustrate this point. On Mouthwings, their combined vocals are so lush that it's not difficult to forget that there's no guitar backing them, and How'm I Doin' shows a bit of diversity from the trio, almost resembling a 50s girl group bubblegum pop hit. And while they sound very, very pretty, the real strength is in how the melodies themselves are written; the note progressions produce hooks that could rival Joanna Newsom (Animal Tracks) or even Sarah Mclaughlin (Sewee Sewee).

HoneybeeBabylon, and River, the last three tracks on the album, are also entirely vocal, and serve as yet another testament of just how good they are with using their voices as instruments. The layering and intertwining of each woman's voice is done masterfully, giving each of the tracks a very large, looming atmosphere. Sauser-Monnig's guitar playing doesn't exactly boast any sort of technical prowess, but this actually works to the group's advantage, given that even that minimal accompaniment for the vocals is intended to be downplayed as well. The only thing about Made the Harbor is that with as nice as it sounds, the tracks have a tendency to bleed into one another. The fact that so many of the songs are so incredibly short doesn't help this either, as many tracks feel more like interludes than much else. A minor gripe though, really, as Mountain Man accomplishes a startling amount with very, very little.

Although Made the Harbor isn't really going to top any year-end lists, it has some undeniably great moments, and still stands head and shoulders above most of the indie folk coming out at the moment, signaling the arrival of a new talent. Hopefully the trio will be able to broaden their sound in the years to come; it's not inconceivable, particularly when you take into consideration that they've barely been making music together for a year.

In the press release for Loveland, the debut album by Robert Lusson & The Social Beat, Lusson is stated as wanting to “expand and contract upon his current musical desires with the concept of the songwriter as an objective reporter.” While this idea is refreshing and interesting, it’s hard to say where any of this objective reporting is contained within the album. As far as the music goes, the album draws on genres such as blues, rock and folk, sometimes even adding Latin style horns and percussion. Not surprisingly, these are some of the more interesting moments of the album. “Scorpion’s Bite,” the second track of the album, begins with what sounds like a Mexican sing-a-long. The howl of coyotes rest calmly in the background, and the scene that comes to mind is nighttime in a cold, unforgiving desert. Gears quickly shift as the drums break into a folk-punk beating, while a mandolin and makeshift Mariachi band lead the melody. Unlike many of the tracks on the album, Lusson refrains from exaggerating his soulful croon that lands somewhere between Robert Plant and Bob Dylan, which sounds much more natural and much more enjoyable.

A lively Latin swing that creates festive coloring to “The Egalitarian Café” highlights the albums high point. The swinging percussion that drives the third track forward is accompanied by Mona Seda’s superb horn playing, emphasizing the jaunty feel that encapsulates the tone.

Aside from these few bright spots, Loveland consists of songs that try too hard to catch the attention of the listener, sometimes leaving us with more questions after than before.

The first and title track of the album opens with the depressing story of a young girl who is sexually abused by her father, and the rage that she carries because of it. After exacting revenge by shooting her father, she is sent to an insane asylum after he denies her claims (yup, apparently he lives). If the point I’m making is getting tangled up with this confusing storyline, I guess that exactly is my point. Lusson sings about this bleak scene in a life, yes, but in what way is he really “addressing the issues of society” as intended? How is this story objective?

Similarly, the final track of the record, “Waitin’ For The End,” describes a rather gloomy scene, which I might explain if the lyrics didn’t seem to be purposely impossible to understand. Suffice to say, the chorus involves the lyrics, “Flies in the bottle, drunk from the dance/There’s a longshoreman dreaming of a Chinese romance/You’re in the bedroom with my ex-best friend/My head’s in the oven, and I’m waitin' for the end.” As much as I want to believe that there is some deeper meaning behind this, I can’t come up with anything.

There is a big difference between creating a narrative that simulates real life and addressing real issues in a “just facts” manner. After listening through the album several times, I’m still not convinced that Lusson understands what these differences are. The songs draw from many sources, but seem to strive for Bob Dylan-style brilliance, trying to tackle social issues with interesting sounds and unusual methods of storytelling. In this aspect, the album does not succeed. At best, Loveland is a perfectly adequate folk/rock album that neither pushes the listener too far away, nor does it instantly hook a listener in.

For this review, I am going to bypass the seemingly impossible-to-avoid mention of Bob Dylan when talking about Swede Kristian Matsson's artistic vehicle The Tallest Man on Earth, and his new album, The Wild Hunt. crap.

Kristian Matsson does not sound like Bob Dylan. And I know what you're thinking, "oh but his voice totally sounds like Bob Dylan's lol you must be a complete retard not to hear that!" No, I can hear the resemblance perfectly fine. But what past that makes him specifically Dylan-esque? The spare acoustic arrangements? The poetic, metaphor-ridden story telling? The everyman vocal with its strong focus on emotion? This could apply to a host of early folk singers. For example, if he had more of a dry baritone, would he suddenly be Cohen-esque? Frankly I'm surprised I haven't heard him being compared to Cat Stevens... anyway, sorry for rambling. Let's get down to business!

One of the impressive feats that Wild Hunt accomplishes is just how lush and full it sounds, when really all we're hearing is a guy singing while he plays guitar (or piano, on the closing Kids on the Run). Taking a bit more of a dynamic approach than that on his first album Shallow Graves, both his voice and his playing feel more powerful. It really makes certain moments stand out, like the urgency with which he sings You're Going Back's chorus, or when he shouts, "Here come the tears, but like always I let them go, just let them go" through the second half of Love Is All. This applies to Matsson's guitar as well; the fingerpicking is wonderful, especially alongside moments where he switches it up to robust strumming, as he does all throughout the bluesy gallop of King of Spain.

The Wild Hunt, contrary to what its title may suggest, is largely driven by gentle, gorgeous melodies which have a remarkable warmth to them. Kids on the Run should be a downer, given the ambiguous irresolution in the lyrics and the somber piano, but Matsson's voice carries an inexplicable element of hope in it, much in the same way Bruce Springsteen has done with songs like Atlantic City. On top of some of the very pretty sounds he gets from his guitar (the writing is excellent, but it should be noted that he plays with superb skill as well), this quality in his voice, from his whispers to his roars, keeps just about all of the album from slipping into any real sense of melancholy.

The Wild Hunt presents the dichotomy of sounding intimate and huge; threadbare the production may be, but even at his most subdued Matsson's voice and guitar sound big enough to fill an arena. This album is less direct than its predecessor and somehow feels more personal, an extraordinary feat considering that this is only his second full-length release. Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Cat Stevens, Nick Drake, whoever your favorite folk figure is, it doesn't matter; chances are you'll love The Tallest Man on Earth, as he seems poised to join them.

CategoriesFolk Rock

Sometimes listening to a songwriter as incredibly talented as Stephin Merritt toss off lines like "I always say I love you when I mean turn out the light, and I say let's run away when I just mean stay the night" makes you think, "...that is just unfair. Why can't I come up with shit like that!" Eleven years after singing this on 69 Love Songs' I Think I Need a New Heart, Merritt's witticisms are still well in tact on Realism, The Magnetic Fields' tenth full length album, and the conclusion of the band's so-called "no-synth trilogy." The first thing that will catch the listener's ear is just how folk this thing is. The string dominated production (we're talking guitars, banjos, ukeleles, violins, harps, zithers...) manages to sound staggering and yet intimate at the same time, with Merritt's bittersweet, and often times flatly detached, vocals leading the way.

Referred to by Merritt himself as his "folk album," Realism indeed serves as quite the opposite to 2008's aptly named slab of noise pop, Distortion. You Must Be Out of Your Mind kicks things off with an incredibly detailed arrangement topped off with Merritt's dry baritone and sardonic lyrics ("You want to kindle that old flame, I don't remember your real name" is particularly harsh). It sets the mood perfectly, which is picked up on immediately with the hilariously sarcastic We Are Having a Hootenanny. Little subtleties like the stressed s's so strongly express laughing at the absurdity all that you can't help but laugh. The same applies to The Dolls' Tea Party, which sounds exactly as the title suggests, surprisingly authentic and mockingly kitschy at the same time, and Everything Is One Big Christmas Tree, rife with the kind of cheer that only a truly bitter cynic could bring.

Despite the backhanded exuberance abound on Realism, there are a great deal of genuine moments as well. I Don't Know What to Say and Walk a Lonely Road both convey different brands of sincere sadness.The like-minded Always Already Gone is a bit more specific, going over being left behind in a relationship. This song in particular brings to mind how Bill Murray once described Wes Anderson's film Rushmore, as struggling to "retain civility and kindness in the face of extraordinary pain."

As Realism trudges on, more and more feelings of hopelessness are tossed onto the heap.  Better Things and Painted Flower, whether intended as over-the-top self parody or not, lack the mordant humor throughout Realism, particularly the snickers you can almost hear in earlier mentioned tracks Tea Party and Christmas Tree, or the impeccably titled The Dada Polka. The album closes on a similarly lonely note with From a Sinking Boat, complete with a trailing off piano and desolate cello. Through all thirteen tracks, the instrumentation remains tight and top notch, not only representing each song handsomely but feeling unified as well, coming across as textbook folk without sounding campish.

There is much beauty on Realism, and a lot of the sardonic wit that Merritt is known for, as well as his knack for expressing difficult, complex emotions with ridiculous ease. Overall, the album touches on a certain bittersweet type of sadness, one that embraces loneliness as well as the humor found therein. A great, great album for lonely losers.

Continuing the trend of downsizing their sound for a more intimate approach (yes, even more than The Trials of Van Occupanther), Midlake's third and latest opus, The Courage of Others, is a largely acoustic guitar and hushed vocal affair, save for the interwoven flute or percussion here and there. As low-key as the album is, it's about as notable that The Courage of Others sounds almost like a timepiece; it has a very early seventies folk air to it, yet with a modernized feel. The problem is that The Courage of Others is not particularly original or even memorable.

What The Courage of Others really lacks is compelling melodies. There are of course a few exceptions, like the opening Acts of Man, but immediately after it starts dragging on, bathing in its own gloom, and not going anywhere. The guitar picking and other instrumentation really is quite good, even clever in how the random flute or clean electric parts are placed, but none of it is exactly of virtuoso status either, and without good hooks or melodies, there isn't a whole lot to keep one's interest. Midlake has excelled with establishing a mood, but little more. There are moments that catch the ear, but just that - moments. In the Ground begins with promise, then crumbles within seconds. Then it begins building up and starting to sound good, until it fizzles out AGAIN and returns to sounding exactly like the rest of the record.

On the rare occasion that the melodies aren't run of the mill, they're bombastic and overdramatic. Bring Down sounds a lot like Radiohead's Exit Music (For a Film), except with such excess that the song sounds too overwrought to be very enjoyable, or even relatable. Then, after that comes The Horn, which climaxes so prematurely (eep) that it not only feels like an extension of the previous song, but could well be Bring Down's sequel! The intro also sounds much like Exit Music's outro, which explains why the two go together so well. And for all the music's melodrama, vocalist Tim Smith's monotonous drawl couldn't possibly sound more bored and detached. Many singers have used this type of understated vocal to spectacular effect; Nick Drake, Lou Barlow, Mark Kozelek, Elliott Smith... but here, it's just not happening.

Keep in mind that none of this is intended to put down the band. Their earlier work suffered from the same contrivances, but the music they wrote was good enough to make them negligible. The influences are incredibly obvious on their full length debut, Bamnan and Silvercork, as well as Trials, but the songs were very well put together, and more importantly, Tim Smith's downhearted vocals actually sounded good. After taking four years to follow up Trials, they release twelve run of the mill indie folk songs, that instrumentation withstanding, show a fraction of the heart that their previous albums did.

Midlake is not a bad band by any stretch of the imagination, but they just don't stand out. After showing minimal progression over a rather unprolific decade, it's difficult to see them as essentially anything but "not bad." The fact is that Midlake, particularly on The Courage of Others, aren't doing anything new. Their sound been done better, and it will be done better again. In an era where the indie folk genre is flourishing with the likes of Bon Iver, Great Lake Swimmers, Fleet Foxes, and so on and so forth, being average is just not enough.

The duo of The Swell Season (Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová) gained their fame partly from starring in the 2007 film Once, but even more for impressively snagging an Academy Award for best original song (Falling Slowly) in said film. The romance ultimately didn't last, but rather than ending their recording partnership as well, they wrote and recorded a new album. What's so amazing about the result, Strict Joy, is not that it's another breakup album; in fact, it's the opposite. Imagine the approach the they take: After their romantic relationship dissolves, they actually document the split musically, applying each perspective in conjunction. It certainly is a fresh angle on the already tried and true turning-heartbreak-into-art formula, and they really make it work wonderfully. Crap, we have letters in our hair

Kicking things off is Low Rising, a distinctly Van Morrison flavored number that sets the tone quite well; Hansard begins plainly with "I want to sit you down and talk, I want to pull back the veils and find out what it is I've done wrong" backed by a rich, soulful folk sound. Feeling the Pull has even more energy to it, but it quickly succumbs to the deeply melancholic In These Arms, which finds Hansard lost in bittersweet longing. The sad desperation in how he sings "Maybe I was born to hold you in these arms" is crushing, especially when you stop to consider that the very woman he is singing this for is there with him, singing along. Up next is The Rain, in which his desperation has grown even more, as evident with the chorus of "I know we're not where I promised you we'd be by now" and its variations throughout the song. The climbing and dropping strings grow in power as the track continues, adding an incredibly intensity to the already powerful content.

Irglová's lead vocal tracks provide her perspective, first with Fantasy Man, a piano and strings driven song that sadly addresses the state of affairs. "Go on now, just leave it," Irglová sings, "the timing wasn't right, and the force that swept us both away was too strong for us to fight." On her second, I Have Loved You Wrong, she is essentially asking forgiveness for letting go so much sooner than her lover, and expresses that she wants to help him do the same. Her tender vocal is piercing enough, but even more haunting is the song's conclusion, with the two harmonizing "on my mind" repeatedly. Especially coming after The Verb, in which Hansard sings brokenly (as he seems to do more and more as the album progresses)  about the sharp loneliness that immediately follows a split.

On Two Tongues Hansard lets slight bitterness through with his pleas for a direct response from an ambivalent partner, and Back Broke serves as the story's conclusion, with Hansard still his former lover's friend, but still sadly clinging to that last shred of hope that she may one day change her mind. His heartbreaking delivery is what makes this possibly the saddest song on the album; just the way he sings "back broke, and happy" is able to tell the whole story nearly on its own.

And now, let's do a song about Jesus!

Strict Joy is a breakup album, plain and simple. It's the idea of the two exes writing and performing it together that gives it most of its allure, not to mention the clever instrumentation throughout. Not every song works as well as it should, or contribute much to the story that the disc presents, but in the end the flaws are entirely forgivable, as the songs that do work are outstanding. Fifty minutes very well spent.

Mazzy Star fans have been waiting a long, long time for a new album.  The next best thing came along in 2001, when Hope Sandoval put out Bavarian Fruit Bread, her solo debut with the Warm Inventions (which is, for all intents and purposes, My Bloody Valentine drummer Colm Ó Cíosóig). It had some impressive moments, but for the most part it sounded like little more than her trademark dream pop sound with a few sparse ideas thrown in to try and mix things up. Eight years later, She and Ó Cíosóig resurface, and with a much more fully realized follow up. Amazingly, Sandoval's rich and sensual voice shows no signs of wear, and she sounds almost exactly as she did sixteen years ago on Mazzy Star's breakout single, Fade Into You. Ó Cíosóig's playing has grown significantly as well, and the instrumentation throughout this effort sounds far more thought out and lush than that on its predecessor. Mystery.

Blanchard, the album's single, sets the stage quite appropriately for Through the Devil Softly with its dreamy half blues, half folk demeanor and Hope Sandoval's sultry vocals; and for the most part, the album's dark, almost hazy air is carried on extremely well. For the Rest of Your Life is reminiscent of early Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds with its almost sinister instrumentation, and the strikingly Leonard Cohen-esque Lady Jessica and Sam and Thinking Like That are as deeply arresting as they are melancholic. Trouble is perhaps the most fleshed out track, and consequently the most mnemonic of Mazzy Star. Driven almost as much by the bluesy guitar as Sandoval's hypnotic vocals (not to mention the beautiful harmonizing), it plays very much like a somehow bleaker version of a highlight from 1996's Among My Swan, the gorgeously lugubrious Roseblood. The duo never sound more eerie, though, than on the album's dark closer, the Portishead suggesting Satellite.

Where the atmosphere succeeds, however, the songwriting falls slightly short. Sets the Blaze, for example, fails to sound like anything beyond an interlude trying to keep the mood going, and the album would have been better off without it. The gentle Wild Roses doesn't work as well as it should either, held back by a guitar that sounds a bit too plain, and harmonica that fails to enrich it. The stumbles are indeed few, however, and they aren't enough to detract from the rest of the album, least of all the spellbinding stand out tracks Trouble and Blue Bird.


Even with news becoming more and more hopeful that Mazzy Star's fourth full length is coming sooner than later, Through the Devil Softly is so elegant and sophisticated that it's not merely something to tide us fans over in the meantime; it's a record that can truly be enjoyed on its own merit alone. At some times haunting and at others seductive, Hope Sandoval & the Warm Inventions' latest will grow on you relentlessly.

The Ruminant Band, the Fruit Bats' first album in four years (as well as the first since songwriter Eric Johnson joined former Sub Pop labelmates the Shins a couple years back), is definitely a departure of sorts. Perhaps working with James Mercer has given Johnson more of an inclination toward sunny 60's and 70's pop, or maybe it was his work with the like-minded Vetiver. Or possibly his stepping out of the spotlight a bit to let his band take over the lion's share of the actual performance is responsible. Of course, there's the notion that the man himself opted for such a move - in an interview with Reverb Magazine, Johnson said,  "I shouldn’t say I had any strong ideas about how I wanted [The Ruminant Band] to differ from our other records, but I knew that I definitely wanted it to." Whatever the case, the band's trademark lo-fi  indie folk sound has definitely diminished in favor of a more Americana approach. Look, the Magical Traveling Ruminant Band in our town, oh boy!

The Ruminant Band, the Fruit Bats' fourth record, is unapologetically rife with 70's references; the introductory guitar, choral harmonization, and even semi-storytelling in the title track scream Allman Brothers; Being On Your Own suggests a John Lennon-esque take on alt-country (Johnson even sounds a little like Lennon on the closer Flamingos); Led Zeppelin's lighter side comes across quite strong in the opener Primitive Man, and so on.

This isn't to call the Fruit Bats' latest effort uninspired; while the style is somewhat trite, the execution is outstanding. Eric Johnson is a very sharp songwriter, and his talented band provides top-knotch support. Beautiful Morning Light is a delightful slice of alt-country, with sublimely minimal background layering and sweet, convincing lyrics. My Unusual Friend and Singing Joy to the World cover more familiar territory, with the former's upbeat juxtaposed guitar and piano along with the latter's sad story of a Three Dog Night concert (they didn't play Old Fashioned Love Song, the bastards) carried across a lonesome acoustic guitar and emotive vocals.

While well constructed and very ably performed, the songs here are missing a certain something; in the moment, they sound wonderful and engaging, but they don't stick, and after listening to them exact chord changes and vocal patterns fade from memory. The most damning quality is that there is simply nothing here as deeply affecting as Spelled In Bones' The Earthquake of '73, or Rainbow Sign and Slipping Through the Sensors from Mouthfuls. The Ruminant Band lacks any truly striking highlights, but that is not to say that it isn't a decidedly solid effort. Eric Johnson and co. are paying tribute to their favorite artists of the era, and ultimately experimenting rather than just cranking out more of the same. Artistically speaking, this might be the better move for a ten year old band, but it doesn't make for listening as satisfying as their earlier work has yielded.

When Peter Silberman self-released the Antlers' second long-player back in March, the last thing he expected was for the first print to sell out as quickly as it did. On top of that, before the second print was even finished, he found his band signed to Frenchkiss Records, and Hospice was promptly remastered and re-released in August. The album recieved rave reviews, particularly from Pitchfork (imagine that, Pitchfork raving about an indie act! How UNUSUAL) and NPR Music, who placed the effort at the top of their "Best of 2009" list. And frankly, the runaway success could not possibly be more deserved. Jesus, I'm already depressed..

Hospice is a concept album about, depending on how you look at it, a woman named Sylvia who is terminally ill with bone cancer and her spouse reeling in pain as he watches her die, or a generalized simile for collapsing relationships and the helplessness it spawns. Many different interpretations have been applied to this album, but what is clear is that it's addressing intense sorrow, despondency, and loss with an achingly beautiful flair.

Like the Arcade Fire's modern day classic Funeral, Hospice makes brilliant use of instrumentation to express every nuance of grief, with Silberman's heartbreaking voice wavering over it all. The gloomy yet undeniably rich atmosphere would be suitable for an ambitious post-rock effort, and the simple yet outrageously successful layering is prevalent as well, carrying slow burning tracks like the single Two, and raising comparisons to another iconic album, Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.

Prologue sets Hospice's mood with a brief instrumental, leading into the entrancingly bleak Kettering. When the listener first hears Silberman's voice as he sings, "I wish that I had known in that first minute we met, the unpayable debt that I owed you," his hurt comes across in such a big, genuine way, completely free of pretension.  Sylvia and Bear, perhaps the most accessible (apart from the aforementioned Two, of course) tracks here, sandwich Atrophy, which is possibly the most painfully poetic song of the lot. This is not because lines like "with the bite of the teeth of that ring on my finger, I'm bound to your bedside, your eulogy singer" are bad, of course; they just feel too authentic for comfort. The former boasts a simple, almost throbbing intro and verse before a shattering chorus with Silberman's suprisingly powerful vocal, shouting, "Sylvia, get your head out of the oven."

The latter paints a barely abstract picture of a couple fractured by an abortion, and features a strangely upbeat chorus which almost resembles the one in Peter Bjorn and John's Young Folks. Despite the scant lyrics in Thirteen, Sharon Van Etten's vocals make them devastatingly effective; her threadbare pleads of "pull me out" and "can't you stop this all from happening? Close the doors and keep them out" are astonishingly moving, complimented by the piano and the smartly applied echo.

The album closes masterfully, pairing the darkly melancholic Shiva with the sweepingly uplifting Wake, which offers us Hospice's first moments of hope and determination, ending with the soothing Epilogue, decorated with Silberman's excellent falsetto.

The Antlers have truly produced something special here. Seldom is such intense reflection delivered with this kind of simultaneous exuberance and vulnerability; Hospice isn't just one of the best records of the year, it may well join the ranks of the great albums that helped influence it.

old californio

Had I been alive in the 1930s, I'm pretty sure everything would have sounded like this album by Old Californio. Westering Again is the soundtrack to the outdoorsy adventurous life that I'm sure I would have led back then. The Pasadena-area band has crafted a groovy album whose songs repeatedly creep back into my head every now and then. I also like them because they love California as much as I do, apparently. Yay.

Mother Road, which kicks off the record, is a rollicking (I don't even like the word 'rollicking', but this song really is just that), bouncy tune with lazy vocals and a gritty little guitar lick.

Listening to the songs on this album takes me into almost a different realm of consciousness, one where I'm a rugged frontiersman sifting for gold in a river or strolling around some dusty trails with my trusty dog at my side.

Riparian High, which follows Mother Road, has a smooth horn section to complement the folk-ish vibe that carries out the rest of the song. That's something I really like about Old Californio - they're not just your typical folksy indie band; the songs have their own style, as the horns almost give the song somewhat of a Mariachi vibe, without being as frenetic as Mariachi songs tend to be.

City Lines has a country twang to it that the first two songs don't really have. Its overall feel is pretty country-ish, and it works for me, even though I despise country music. The verses almost remind me of a countrified version of a Sister Hazel song (and that's a compliment, as I'm a fan of Sister Hazel as well).

old californio live

Westering Again was recorded very well, as the guitars are crisp, the instrumentation tight, and the vocals as smooth as they could be for this type of music. I haven't seen Old Californio in concert, but I assume they throw some jamming into the set, as the songs on this record indicate to me the possiblity that they would be able to jam out on some slick country-folk-guitar licks for a while. I bet their shows are really fun.

Just Like Joseph Campbell is a highlight, with another upbeat rhythm propelled by a solid bass line. I've heard the phrase "let's take that bass for a walk" before, and while I'm not entirely sure what that means exactly, it sounds like it applies to this song, as the bass line in this tune is constant and driving.

One thing I really like about this album is how they don't really ever slow down too much. Old Californio is great at the up-tempo folk jams, and so when they slow it down a little bit (From the Mouth of Babes) it doesn't bring the album down, instead it provides a bit of a nice relaxing moment filled with more rich melodies.

Warmth of the Sun is another gem, with tambourines, layered guitar work, and a slow build that leads into a steady rhythm that will make even the most stubborn folk music-hater bob his or her head (hopefully).

California Goodness, the last track, is a gentle breeze of a tune that name drops Truckee (my favorite stop on the way to Lake Tahoe for vacation) and has a beautiful, light harmonica solo toward the end. It’s a great way to end the record.

Stone Foxes. Listen to them or else we aren't friends

At times, Old Californio reminds me of another great band called the Stone Foxes. From the Bay Area, the Stone Foxes play an irresistible hybrid of blues/rock/folk that they carry out incredibly well. I've seen them a couple times in LA, and they put on fantastic shows. If they ever played with Old Californio I would stop at nothing to get to the show, as I know it would be a lot of fun.

In closing, Old Californio's record Westering Again is a solid gem of an album. I hadn't been aware of the band before I was sent the album for review, but I'm glad I took on the task. I apparently just missed seeing them in LA this week, which is unfortunate, but I'll be sure to check them out next time they come around. If the album is any indication, their live show should be just as memorable.

AuthorCheese Sandwich
CategoriesFolk Rock

Gina Villalobos has been praised as a unique artist on the rise, acclaimed for her ability to give accessibility to roots rock and Americana with a raw, indie sound, and for the most part, the California girl doesn't disappoint. The bird couple whispered sweet nothings to each other, not knowing that the hat-wearing bird in the distance was plotting his revenge.

With her latest release, Days On Their Side, there are equal shares of inspired brilliance and inconsistency; namely, the middle slumps when compared to the 1-2-3-4 punch of the album's first half and the showstopping indie folk informed closing duo of Second Chance and Die Here Tonight, and just can't grab you as well. The bookends save Days On Their Side, as they unquestionably show Gina Villalobos at her best.

Take a Beating begins with an immediate alt-country twang, but it is Villalobos who comes to the forefront in no time - her ragged, almost weathered voice easily evokes a great deal of empathy with such a heartfelt and genuine delivery. When she pleas "fix all my heartache," you can really feel it, and the point is truly driven home by the sad but unbroken devotion in the chorus. Sun In My Eyes kicks into high gear right away, with a sudden burst of energy reminiscent of the Eagles' Already Gone. Following is String It Out, a wonderfully progressing song that grows in power with such masterful subtlety that it doesn't explode with a burst of emotion but rather sneaks up on you. That, and clever lines such as "like a puppet show, I'm gonna string it out" keep the song from sounding as bleak as the beginning hints it to be.

Next, and perhaps the best song on the record, is Ring Around My Room. All throughout, this track captures My Morning Jacket and early Wilco with a different approach, as if they reversed the values in their indie/country trade-off and threw in a dash of pop for good measure (sheesh, how many times have you read "a dash of (x) thrown in for good measure" in a review). Andrew Gerters' drumming is really what keeps it together here; he manages to keep it as upbeat as it needs to be, without injecting more vigor than is needed.

The first real stumble is Mortified; there are great hooks abound throughout the verses (notably in the vocal department) but it all falls apart in the bland, noisy, and directionless chorus, dropping the pop sensibility a bit too drastically. Falling Away suffers from the exact opposite problem; a soaring chorus without a strong song to back it.

Overall, Days On Their Side is ultimately a grower and not a shower (har har har), and while the first listen will definitely impress, it's in repeated spins that this album shows its musical intricacy and sophistication; in particular the exquisite banjo playing by Kevin Halland, understated to just the right degree without diluting its impact in each song, especially on Second Chance. As for Villalobos herself, in spite of  any missteps, she is developing quite rapidly as a songwriter, and alt-country fans unaquainted with this young talent would do well to keep an eye out for her.