erin durant – “islands”

– featured image courtesy of sarrah danziger –

remember erin durant come year’s end. the new york-based songwriter has been releasing a steady stream of impressive singles in anticipation of her forthcoming album, culminating in the recent unveiling of its title track, “islands.”

framed around durant’s clear-eyed piano progression, “islands” is vivid in its introspection; when a soft choral echo emerges halfway through its six-minute duration, the track blooms into something radiant, more than the sum of its various lilting components.

islands, produced by TV on the radio’s kyp malone, arrives june 21st via the austin, texas label keeled scales. listen in on its title track below.

laura marling – short movie

out march 24th via ribbon music
out march 24th via ribbon music

laura marling’s 2013 album, once i was an eagle, was perhaps the epitome of the english folk aesthetic she had developed over the past five years.  marling had perfected an intimate style of songwriting that also employed subtly intricate guitar work – reminiscent of, say, nick drake – and drew appropriate comparisons to sharon van etten and joni mitchell as well, but her voice was immediately recognizable: less mournful but just as frank.

still, acoustic timbres can run the risk of becoming severely limiting, especially after four albums in such a short amount of time.  it makes sense that marling felt burnt out, but we’re very fortunate that she’s returned to the game with short movie, an album that slowly eases into a vast and more inclusive soundscape.

there’s an immediacy felt on “warrior,” the static opener of short movie, that wasn’t as present in marling’s previous material.  the metaphor is thinly veiled to allow her exhaustion with her subject to easily cut through, and it’s delivered via a haze of white noise and plaintive guitar textures that all but foreshadow the album’s lyrical tone.  but rather than grinding out fifty minutes of sparse, sorrowful ballads, marling partially circumvents the heavy thematic material with a variety of tempo choices and more expansive arrangements.  “false hope” is the first taste of marling in a primarily electric setting, one that becomes increasingly familiar throughout the course of the album.  with a full band in tow one can almost get pulled away from the heartbreaking subject matter, but its unshakable presence is renewed with each cadence of the song’s title.

marling’s electric guitar doesn’t feel like a crutch or a gimmick; it doesn’t change how she approaches songwriting harmonically nor does it become the singular focus of short movie, but it does provide her with new, complementary timbres (“walk alone”) and the extra weight to handle dense compositions (“false hope,” “don’t let me bring you down’).  if anything, it’s a necessary tool needed to dole out the stark musical contrast absent from her previous albums.  marling is still at her best on acoustic-charged numbers like “strange” and “easy,” and this new foil ensures that they aren’t glossed over.

short movie reads like another break-up album, subject matter that marling handles with aplomb.  feelings of inadequacy and moments of self-doubt are so dutifully chronicled that although marling is speaking from personal experience, many issues and scenarios feel within the grasp of the audience.  still, marling never shows her full hand; short movie comes across as a non-linear storyline, with pledges of self-betterment (“divine”) and sly all-knowing sneers (“gurdjieff’s daughter”) breaking up the darker emotions with which she grapples.

the weight of marling’s subject matter was never unbearable on previous outings, but the absence of a clearly sequential narrative breathes a bit of new life into her album structure.  lyrical turns are sometimes unexpected and are augmented by the subtle timbral enhancements that inform each song’s composition.  short movie is a logical permutation of marling’s well-crafted sound, one that leaves a slim margin for error or inaccessibility.  whether or not this somewhat conservative approach appeals to all is another question, but marling is still one of the most enthralling songwriters at work today.  give short movie a spin.

8.2/10

listen to a new song from josé gonzález

jose gonzalezjosé gonzález is set to release his first solo album in nearly eight years, vestiges & claws, on february 17th via mute records.  gonzález has kept busy in the interim with junip, his collaborative project with fellow swedish musician tobias winterkorn, but a return to recording under his given name is long overdue.  vestiges & claws is prefaced by the excellent “leaf off / the cave,” the second single to emerge from the album after last year’s “every age.”  gonzález’ music needs little introduction, so take a listen to “leaf off / the cave” below.

listen to a new song from we are the willows

minneapolis sextet we are the willows crafts the kind of indie rock best described as chamber music propelled by hearty percussion and bucolic vocal harmonies, relying on various string timbres to weave countermelodies through gripping lyrical narratives.  the band released their sophomore effort picture (portrait) via the homestead records today, an excellent, sprawling album based around letters written by frontman peter miller’s grandfather throughout the second world war.  one of the more gripping songs on the album is “dear ms. branstner,” a rather plaintive outing that finds miller weighing out the concepts of love and mortality in his assured countertenor.  take a listen below.

j.e. sunde – shapes that kiss the lips of god

IMG_0059when the daredevil christopher wright released their excellent full-length the nature of things in 2012, it certainly didn’t feel like a hiatus was imminent.  when said hiatus occurred, however, founding member jonathan sunde was suddenly presented with an opportunity to flesh out songs he had accumulated over the years, songs that couldn’t quite find a place within daredevil’s repertoire.  after careful arranging and meticulous attention to detail, that collection of music has taken the form of shapes that kiss the lips of god, an admirable foray into the singer-songrwiter realm.

the singular, warbling timbre of sunde’s voice, so common and often definitive of his work in the daredevil christopher wright, is still present on shapes, its familiarity guiding listeners through his personal musical explorations.  on lead single “easy kid,” sunde traverses through layers of acoustic guitar and piano, each instrument’s melodic line partially informing his vocal contour.  as the drums kick in and a flute line prefaces the guitar solo that dominates the middle section of “easy kid,” it becomes clear that formula has been thrown out the door in favor of experimentation.

although his current geographical location is listed as minneapolis, sunde’s record still has a distinct wisconsin taste.  aside from sounding right at home in eau claire’s rich indie-folk tradition, shapes that kiss the lips of god was recorded at honeytone studios, across highway ten on the other side of the state in neenah, and features shane leonard (see: kalispell, field report) on drums and related percussion.  the lyrics on “dog days of summer” even drip of dairyland nostalgia, with the line “that sweet wisconsin night” repeated and strengthened with harmony until it becomes an early focal point of the song that leaves a lasting impression.

sunde is consistent in his lyrical quality throughout shapes, each song coming off as even stronger than its predecessor.  the album’s title is plucked from a lyric in “hickory point in the fall,” and although it’s described as an allegory for migrating birds, the line isn’t the sole biblical reference found on the record.  “a blinding flash of light” bluntly begins with a lamentation for jesus, and its chorus borrows the salient lines of “silent night.”  yet the song is decidedly introspective and sunde is lyrically on par with the likes of pedro the lion and little kid, examining personal shortcomings with religion as a reference point, rather than the cornerstone of the content.

ten tracks allows sunde ample time to flesh out his various ideas without becoming stagnant.  while operating on a rather small slice of the horizontal musical spectrum, sunde does wonders with the vertical headroom allotted on the theoretical axis, pulling from various palates and timbres to create an amalgamation of sound that is always inviting, never abrasive.  between the wandering bass lines of “dream baby,” the subtle but critical vocal harmonies and the warm, slow vibrato peppering organ and guitar tones throughout, shapes that kiss the lips of god is a wonderful soundtrack for hazy midwestern summer evenings.

8.1/10

listen to a new song from j.e. sunde

j.e. sundeas one third of the daredevil christopher wright, jonathan sunde helped craft memorable contributions to eau claire’s rich tradition of folk music.  now he’s striking out on his own under the stage name j.e. sunde, and is set to drop his debut album, shapes that kiss the lips of god, on july 15th via cartouche records.  although the album’s release is still a few weeks away, you can stream its lead single “easy kid” below, courtesy of cartouche’s soundcloud page.  this is another wisconsin record not to miss out on.

phox – phox

phox has been a staple of the indie music diet in wisconsin for the past two years, but it’s taken the rest of the world a bit longer to catch on.  armed with two eps and a full-length of varying production qualities, phox won over audiences with the combination of monica martin’s powerful voice and the fastidious arrangements that supported it.  by the time last year’s confetti ep dropped, it was clear that phox was a force that deserved to be reckoned with on a larger scale; sure enough, the baraboo sextet started receiving attention from npr for their well-crafted indie folk jaunts and eventually got picked up by partisan records, who have backed the band’s self-titled major-label debut.  if the twelve songs on phox sound familiar to steadfast listeners, that’s because many of them are re-recorded centerpieces of previous releases.

of course, there are two sides to this apparent problem.  the not-so-good side is that only five new tunes turn up on phox and that they pad the beginning and end of the album, perhaps suggesting that they were written out of necessity and not creativity.  the songs that have long defined phox are bookended by “slow motion” and “shrinking violets” – two of the best tracks in the band’s arsenal – while “noble heart” functions as an outlier.  the other side of the coin is that all songs, both new and old, benefit immensely from pristine studio treatment; while the overall structures of the established songs don’t change, they are enhanced greatly by subtle adjustments and changes to the arrangements, like the more insistent percussion on “slow motion” and the guitar lines that cut more clearly on “laura.”

in the long run, it’s better to focus on the latter of those two sides.  phox is an unquestionably talented young band finally getting the stage they deserve, so it only makes sense that they would choose to showcase a distillation of the best work they’ve already created.  besides, it turns out that the new tunes on phox are more than just padding; “raspberry seed” is the most sprawling cut on the album and effortlessly details nearly every timbral trope associated with the band, and “in due time” is a succinct closing number that finds martin singing completely unabashed and with earnest.  for first-time listeners, phox will prove to be a whirlwind experience of sounds and emotions, one that only occasionally drags or becomes too self-involved.  for long-time patrons, this is the collection of high fidelity phox recordings that you’ve probably been waiting for.

7.1/10

the antlers – familiars

when the antlers released burst apart three years ago, it was clear that the album constituted a make-it-or-break it scenario for the band; their 2009 album hospice, the brooklyn trio’s debut effort as a collaborative project, received immediate, almost unanimous universal acclaim and catapulted the antlers into the indie spotlight.  luckily, burst apart was a suitable follow-up and a substantial success in its own right, but frontman peter silberman still finds himself confronted with inquiries about hospice, more than five years after the album’s release.  although there are those who still can’t let go of the past, silberman certainly isn’t one of them.  the antlers’ newest effort, familiars, is a lush musical experience that all but abandons the outfit’s signature heartbreak.

while silberman is the face and the voice of the antlers (after all, it was his initial solo project and his emotive metaphor that began to turn heads), familiars is an environment that finds all three members contributing equally.  a large portion of musical direction seems to come from darby cicci, the multi-instrumentalist responsible for much of the texture on the album.  previously confined to a primary role of keyboardist and an explicit secondary exploration of trumpet, cicci has full reign on familiars; many songs have a foundation of acoustic piano, layered trumpet, and michael lerner’s drums, further augmented by extremely prominent bass lines (also courtesy of cicci) that slither throughout the chord progressions and give the antlers’ sonic palate a more organic low end.

instead of silberman’s guitar largely defining the album like it did on hospice and, to a lesser extent, on burst apart, the instrument has the chordal support of the piano and the occasional melodic support of the trumpet, making the moments where it truly separates from the texture that much more meaningful.  take “director,” the album’s centerpiece, for example: although the ostinato guitar riff is arguably a staple of the song, the instrument doesn’t really begin to take control until the descending riff and subsequent counter-melody kick in halfway through.  underneath is that warm palate, full of drums and resonant bass that, although devoid of the trumpet in this particular instance, help the antlers firmly place a foot in the realm of jazz that has so long been an influence.

though a musical liberation of sorts for the antlers is present, silberman’s lyrical and vocal progressions are less discernible, relying even more so on subtle nuances.  his falsetto lamentations are still there, but silberman showcases a desire to return to his natural range, even dipping into lower, haunting extremes on “doppelganger.”  lyrically, he’s more of a wildcard; “hotel” is extremely sparse yet somewhat confessional, as silberman admits “i rent a blank room to stop living in my past self,” while “parade” traces a more narrative style and lacks any type of hook.  one constant that remains throughout is a sense of ambiguity, as silberman seems to strive less to attach an explicit meaning to each song and instead explore more inclusive, multi-dimensional emotions.

familiars is nearly an hour of slow-burning which may inevitably put listeners into two broad camps: those that dismiss the album due to a perceived sense of stagnancy and those that appreciate it for its nuances and painstaking attention to detail.  the latter of these two camps is the best lens through which to view this album.  the antlers continue to expound and expand an incredibly complex and dense aesthetic, and provide another body of work that demands to be addressed before the reminiscing can begin.

8.9/10

rivers – of dusk

a musical trope that has become nearly synonymous with eau claire over the past ten years is the rustic, acoustic-driven tones of acts like the daredevil christopher wright, kalispell, and of course, bon iver.  at this point, a continuation down that already-beaten path may run the risk of seeming redundant, as if the artists might be trying to cash in on an established aesthetic rather than creating something genuine.  on the opposite end of the spectrum lies rivers, a three-piece currently splitting time between the midwest and the east coast; folk music is merely the vessel through which the band conveys their ideas, as opposed to their endgame.  on their debut effort, of dusk, rivers offers up a collection of songs that offer up a fresh new perspective on an established tradition.

dexter wolfe’s songwriting has always had a slightly enigmatic quality; even in the hard-hitting, comparatively aggressive setting of his previous band sky lion, it was evident that wolfe took various cues from introspective stalwarts like elliott smith and elvis costello.  the former’s influence resonates clearly throughout of dusk and particularly on “even if,” an early track that remains a standout through the album’s duration.  wolfe proves himself to be rather skilled in the department of imagery as well, bookending the album with lyrics like “beneath yellow leaves / with rolled up sleeves / eyes lost in the branches / of your family tree” (see “weeping willow”) and “it was the start of something beautiful / i heard her heart and tripped, well… i fell right down” (see “where though lies, death ripples”).  his capability to weave personal accounts with metaphor and personification plays off as effortless, and more importantly helps to establish rivers as a lyrically mature and formative ensemble.

the music that accompanies the poetry on of dusk is perhaps even more impressive.  alongside wolfe – who handles guitar and piano chores in addition to vocals – are pat kuehn and colin carey, who tackle upright bass and percussion duties, respectively.  kuehn’s bass playing is the timbral element that immediately stands out and seeks to separate rivers from the other bands who share a similar aesthetic; the long, mournful bowed tones augment the melancholy in the beginning of “even if,” but kuehn’s role also serves the purpose of driving the music forward in spots where carey’s percussion is rather sparse.  by itself, the resonance of the upright bass gives rivers a distinct, orchestral quality, one which is further explored multiple times through the string and horn arrangements found on “saudade” and “the locket.”  even carey’s drumming can feel symphonic at times, as he adds sparse percussive supplements to the more delicate moments on the album and aids the band in achieving their select few moments of absolute crescendo.

sharp songwriting and intuitive arrangements adorn of dusk, and its slightly haunting characteristics make the record a suitable companion for the chilly air that predominates these waning spring nights.  largely self-produced and entirely self-released, rivers and of dusk have proven to be adequate advocates for the continued support of independent, local music; sometimes all it takes is years of determination and perseverance.  you can stream the album here and find all of the dates for rivers’ upcoming tour, as well.

8.0/10

listen to a new song from phox

we’re less than three weeks away from the arrival of phox’s self-titled debut album for partisan records, and today the band has treated the internet to “1936,” a wonderful new song.  as is to be expected, “1936” highlights monica martin’s wandering, smoky voice while intertwining acoustic guitars and banjos deeper into the texture.  be on the lookout for phox come june 24th and take a listen or three to “1936” in the meantime, found below courtesy of the band’s soundcloud page.