Folk

(Sandy) Alex G – Rocket

Philadelphia’s (Sandy) Alex G, (formerly just known as Alex G) is a twenty-four year-old prolific bedroom recorder/producer whose plethora Bandcamp releases got him a deal with Domino.  Rocket is his second album for the label, following 2015’s Beach Music.  I’ve been following Alex since his 2014 release, DSU, which was affecting and emotional despite (or because of) its lo-fi production aesthetic.  Alex last popped up on Frank Ocean’s Blonde, of all places (he played guitar on “Self-Control”), and on Rocket, he shows that the two enigmatic musicians have more in common than one might think – they’re both in the business of completely throwing the idea of genre or traditional song or album structures out the window.

Rocket starts with one of my favorite songs of the year thus far, the droning, banjo picking, other-world folk of “Poison Root”, on which Alex, singing as though he’s drowning in a puddle of mud, describes taking psychedelic plants before repeating “Now I know everything,” a lyric that I’ve come back to again and again for its endless interpretations as the introduction to an album about learning how to be an adult.  The song rockets immediately into “Proud”, an upbeat, jaunty, head bobbing piano and acoustic number that, even at 4:57, doesn’t overstay its welcome.  Alex sings of his insecurities as a young adult – “If I sink / I don’t wanna be the one to leave my baby out without no bottle to drink”.  “Country” is a slinking, jazzy extended electric guitar solo over which Alex, in innumerable overdubbed falsettos, sings the harrowing tale of being in jail with a kid who had “a few bags of heroin deep in his stomach / He swallowed a razor / See I got some stories” before the fourth-wall breaking “Hey why don’t you write that into a song / Maybe your fans with dig that”.  And, naturally, the album courses directly into the melancholy fiddle and banjo duet “Bobby”.

By this point in the record, it’s apparent that Alex is plays by no rule book, linking his songs together only with his ever present easy acoustic strumming and unique but personal songwriting topics.  Then we hit “Horse”, which sounds like a bunch of cheap Logic bell loops all played a half step out of time with each other around an ominous synth bass, bringing us to the album’s centerpiece, “Brick”.  This experimental, raging, loud, distorted piece of raw, unadulterated free form experimentation sounds like Death Grips meets Mellow Gold -era Beck.  “Proud” might make its way onto the curated eight-hour Yankee Candle store corporate playlist.  “Brick” might make people on bad acid trips kill themselves.  Personally, I think the track is genius and perfectly sequenced right at the record’s half way point, as if Alex was concerned that the listener was growing too comfortable.

I think the record’s back half, however, features Rocket‘s weakest songs, not because they are too inaccessible or self-indulgent, but because the aesthetic concept they shoot for just isn’t that compelling.  The immediate follow-up to “Brick” is “Sportstar”, a piano loop track on which Alex utilizes unflattering chipmunk auto-tune and sings “Sport star / Let me wear your jersey / If you want to hurt me”.  The song appears to be about violence and masochism, but I don’t understand the auto-tune choice and I feel like the song lacks the emotional punch a more raw, stripped back version could have delivered.  The grungy “Judge” is classic Alex G but not particularly memorable, as is the careful, downcast “Big Fish”.  But I do like the unsettling, shifty looping, banjo, fiddle and sound-effect percussion of the instrumental title track.

“Powerful Man” is one of the record’s many ‘WTF’ moments- if I get what he’s going for, Alex is purposefully utilizing a simplistic lyrical style to tell a story that demonstrates a young male’s immaturity and sows the seeds for a violent future as a parent: “Mom’s in a mood this week/ Cause she thinks her family’s going crazy / Guess it started with the baby / She went for a hug but it bit her on the cheek / That was pretty funny to me / Guess I should have more sympathy / I ain’t never raised no kids / But I bet I’d do a good job if I did”.  The title may also be a reference to fellow Philadelphia artist’s song of the same name about domestic violence.  Either way, the song is catchy and the fiddle work is sublime.  The album ends with “Guilty”, another upbeat, jazzy track featuring electric guitar, drums and a saxophone solo.

Rocket is a wholly unique album, and although a couple of these tracks miss the high water mark set by the standouts, the record’s many twists and turns, lyrical, instrumental and production detours and cohesion through raw, intimate recording make it a success.  Not all the tracks are catchy or easy to sing along with, and at times its hard to see where Alex is going lyrically, but I’m willing to bet there are far more nuances and subtleties than I’ve been able to detect, resulting in an album that rewards listeners for closer, careful inspection and reinterpretation.

Score: 10 / 13

Feist – Pleasure

Hey what do you know, it’s the best indie rock album of the year thus far!  And it didn’t come from some hot new artist on their debut or sophomore release, but instead from a consistent veteran of the genre, Calgary’s Leslie Feist, who has put out five solo LPs, worked within the Canadian super-group Broken Social Scene, been nominated for Grammys and Canadian Juno awards, and won the Polaris Prize for Canada’s best album with her last LP, Metals.  So how is this record flying under the radar?  I guess the zeitgeist is to fawn over the younger acts in the indie rock renaissance.  Pleasure thus arrives as a good kick in the ass in the from of an emotional, catchy, lo-fi guitar record.

Pleasure was recorded quickly, with raw, gritty, lo-fi production aesthetic.  Tape hiss blankets every song, acoustic guitars twang and scrape, and the vocals are rough, like they’re coming from old dusty speakers in a old dusty cabin.  That said, these songs are still adorned with creative production flourishes that often come in the form of creepy choral harmonies and zig-zagging or crumbling, devastating electric guitar lines.  Some of these songs are quicker than others, featuring a more upbeat and ‘rocking’ melody or chorus, while more often they are slower and lack definite shape, picking up and falling at Feist’s will, but never are they straightforward, 4/4, four-chord verse/chorus rock songs.

The title track that kicks off the record is as dirty as anything here, featuring little more than Feist’s vocals and her guitar, with a little bass drum pounding out quarter notes on one channel and some very low synths in the other, hopping back and forth between chilly verses and a muted chorus before the song explodes with energy and singalong vocals for the final coda.  “I Wish I Didn’t Miss You” is a haunting acoustic ballad with some excellent tremolo vocal harmonies.  After the sort of red-herring title track, the lyrics solidify the album’s core theme – alternating feelings of love and hate, desire and disgust post-breakup.  After the cozy and meditative “Get Not High, Get Not Low”, “Lost Dreams” rounds out the album’s opening act with its sparsest, most ghostly track, complete with trickling chimes and a guitar solo that evokes the twisted metal of a car accident splitting the song down the center.

The record truly comes into its own (and, from a structural standpoint, reminds me of Panda’s Person Pitch) with the twin behemoth centerpieces, “Any Party” and “A Man Is Not His Song”.  The former is a gargantuan strummer of a ballad, the first track to make use of a full drum kit and one that embraces big, full harmonies courtesy of the record’s co-creators.  The track takes place sometime in the past, before the heartbreak of the rest of the record (“And I tried reaching you on your new flip phone,” Feist hollers at one point), and the titular sentiment is an interesting one.  Yes, this is a triumphant love song, but as Feist repeats over and over “You know I’d leave any party for you,” it becomes a love song contextualized by her own life, likely based in some real, true event, where leaving a party, any party for someone, is the truest display of affection at that point in their relationship.  The coolest moment on the record comes when we physically hear Feist leaving a party – she walks through the house, out the door, through a crowded yard, and down the sidewalk as a car flies by, blaring the album’s title track from its speakers as it passes.  The inventiveness and coolness of this moment is hard to overstate.

As the car passes and the chirping of crickets takes over, Feist moves into the album’s best song, the sad and beautiful “A Man is Not His Song”.  Back in the present, post-party, all the love and energy of “Any Party” has been transformed into painful nostalgia – “That filament that files by / And it brings yellow light from those yellow summers back / By coconut palm, snowy pine / I’ve heard years pass through my ears to hear otherwise”.  The lyricism is brutal and poetic and excellent.  There is a heartbreaking moment of call and response – “We’ve all heard those old melodies / (Like they’re singing right to me)” before the song becomes enveloped by multiple falsetto overdubs repeating “More than a melody’s needed”, a curious phrase that worms into your brain and requires repeated investigation.  That too is then eaten up by the chugging guitar of Mastodon’s “High Road“.

Nothing compares to this peak in melody, creativity, energy and emotion, but the record’s third act is far from a let down.  “The Wind” is a breezy comedown, but the record hits another climax in the form of “Century”, a building, driving track that features a guest passage from Jarvis Cocker as the group counts down “One of those endless dark nights of the soul / When a single second feels like a century”.  The track is a force, and the bitter sentiment at its core, the idea that relationships just pass time until death (“Someone who will lead you to someone who will lead you to someone at the end of the century”) is uncomfortably true.  “Baby Be Simple” continues the established pattern of relieving tense, brittle tracks with sweet, amorphous, folksier ones.  The penultimate “I’m Not Running Away” moves toward tired and bluesy, before the album closes with “Young Up”, an interesting but correct choice for the closer.  We’re treated to the album’s only prominent keyboard part (a 60s-style electric organ), and Feist artfully glides through a swooning, jazzy, 50s and 60s lounge-style arrangement before leaving the album’s audience with one last wizened but optimistic thought – “Fear not ya young punk / That everything that falls is falling / Even if you don’t have your own back / And everything that needs to fall is fallen”.

This album isn’t full of new, radical ideas, mind-boggling production, world-building thematic concepts or dense, nine-minute, multi-part epic tracks.  But the choice of a spectral, creepy, dusty production aesthetic, combined with Feist’s wonderful vocals and great use of falsetto harmony, scratchy and jagged guitar work, intriguing lyrical work and perfect sequencing all combine to make it a record that I can’t stop listening to and my favorite album to have come out this year.  “Any Party” into “A Man Is Not His Song” is the best 1-2 punch I’ve heard in a long time, and I hope that this record receives more attention as the year winds on – its certainly deserving of it.

Score: 11/13

 

Laura Marling – Semper Femina

Laura Marling is a British singer-songwriter, specializing in acoustic-guitar based folk music.  Her last two albums, 2013’s Once I Was an Eagle and 2015’s Short Movie, both received significant acclaim and showed two sides of Marling’s music – minimalist acoustic arrangements on the former, electric guitars on the later.  Semper Femina arrives somewhere in between, blending folk with elements of jazz and pop and oscillating between pure voice + guitar tracks and ones with fuller, albeit quite gentle, arrangements.  Linking all these songs together is the singular theme of women – women who are friends, lovers, mothers, inspirations and regrets.

The record opens with “Soothing”, a slinking, jazzier number, featuring two basses (one panned to each channel), with Marling’s delivery taking on a coy, intriguing tone.  “The Valley” follows up with steadily building finger picking and harmonies before the song is enveloped by a large string section.  “Many a morning I have woke / Longing to ask her what she’s mourning / Of course I know it can’t be spoke” Marling sings in reference to the song’s subject, a female friend mourning the death of her father.  Her tone changes again on the third track, “Wild Fire”, which makes use of a cool, casual, conversational tone to dig into a friend.  “You want to get high? / You overcome those desires, before you come to me” Marling scoffs before admitting “She’s gonna write a book someday / Of course the only part that I want to read / Is about her time spent with me”.  So goes Semper Femina – personal songs about personal friends.

The first real glimpse we get of Marling herself is on “Always This Way”, another bouncing, bass-led track with the occasional electric guitar strum and soft violin feature.  “25 years, nothing to show for it / 25 more, will I never learn from it / Never learn from my mistakes” Marling ponders somberly before an uplifting guitar riff breaths daylight back into the song.  Even here, though, we sense Marling is seeing herself within the context of another woman’s shadow, perhaps a maternal figure – “Now she’s gone and I’m all alone / And she will not be replaced”.  “Wild Once” is a reflection on youth and an offering of advice to younger women in her position, and “Next Time” is another rumination on regret and guilt for not appreciating those since past – “It feels like they taught us ignore diligently / I feel her, I hear her weakly scream”.

The penultimate “Nouel”, a line from which the album takes its title, is both the simplest track on the record (one guitar, one voice, no overdubs) and the most complete sketch Marling puts down.  “She lays herself across the bed / The origine du monde / Slight of shoulder, long and legged / Her hair a faded blonde” Marling sings of her muse, adding to the list of strong, individualistic qualities described.  But, like the rest of the record, the emotion both in her vocals and in her lyrics never wades past the breakers.  When Marling is positive or sympathetic, she only graces poetic and stays more in the realm of naturalistic imagery and physical beauty.  When her relationship with her subject is more complex, Marling’s tone and style is simplistic and matter-of-fact.

And here lies the fatal flaw of Semper Femina – almost every song is a portrait of a woman Marling is or was close to, but none of them make the listener care about those women.  None of them bear the kind of raw, resonant emotion that can evoke our own relationships as the subjects of these tracks.  Sonically, the album follows suit – always pretty, never really going for it.  There is no bare, hollow moment of clarity, no driving, aggressive moment of angst or sadness.  The album is about as exciting as floral wallpaper – pleasant to look at, not much of an artistic statement.  While I can appreciate the cohesive theme and delicate arrangements, there isn’t enough going on elsewhere that elevates this past any other folk album – Jesca Hoop has stronger lyrics and demonstrates intriguing genre hopping and Julie Byrne‘s voice and melodies are more engaging and beautiful.  Semper Femina is never bad but never stands out.

Score: 6 / 13

 

Hurray for the Riff Raff – The Navigator

Hurray for the Riff Raff is the folk/rock/Americana project of Alynda Lee Segarra, a New York native and member of the city’s Puerto Rican diaspora before leaving home at 17 and moving to New Orleans, from which her band is based.  Her newest album, the third for major indie label ATO, is a blend of folk rock, country and Latin American music, and acts thematically as a cohesive effort focusing on cultural identity, appropriation, and overcoming from within a minority community.

The record begins with an a cappella folk ballad, complete with barbershop harmonies, singing “One for the navigator, get on board!” Segarra thus acts as the navigator on a passage across her own identity and the America as she sees it.  The second sequenced “Living in the City” is the record’s catchiest song and one of its most satisfying, with its colorful harmonies and overlapping guitar riffs, while Segarra describes her vision to escape the city  – “Well I”ll lock my dreams away / I’ll watch the city quiver”.  It’s followed by “Hungry Ghost”, which takes a vocal and melodic page out of Mitski’s book as a dark, bass-led rocker, which at first seems to show Segarra dissing an ex-lover, but within the context of the album reveals itself to be one of many songs about her own identity – “I been nobody’s child / So my blood’s starting running wild”.  This record is a political one, but it is clearly from one singular point of view.

Many of these tracks borrow heavily from folk tradition, not just in their instrumentation and cadence, but in Segarra’s use of repeating phrases, timeless metaphors (“Oh it’s getting lonely / Oh, at the bottom of a bottle”) and traditional structures.  The unique and interesting spin Navigator puts on Americana, however, is the infusion of Latin American and Caribbean salsa and calypso music.  While the record’s first four tracks don’t show sings of deviation, the mid-album title track opens with a recording of Spanish dialogue before plunging into a modern tango ballad, featuring guitar licks reminiscent of Santana, as Segarra positions herself as a navigator of her people, leading them out of the darkness of today toward the optimism of tomorrow.  “Rican Beach”, another sultry, Caribbean track (complete with bongos and steel guitar) is the most pointedly political song here, but unfortunately offers some of the clunkiest lyrics (“And all the poets were dying of a silence disease / So it happened quickly and with much ease.”)  Of course there’s a Trump reference – “The politicians, they just flap their mouths / They say we’ll build a wall to keep them out” – because how can you make music in 2017 and not reference Trump?!  Segarra is perhaps better positioned than most to express disdain, but it still doesn’t score any points for originality.

Two of The Navigator‘s best tracks come in its final third.  “Fourteen Floors” is an anticipatory piano and drum affair where Segarra describes her father’s struggle to reach a country that has made life so difficult for those like him, singing “My father said it took a million years / Well he said that it felt like a million years just to get here” while numerous vocal overdubs whisper the same phrase around her.  The song builds tension but ultimately never collapses into a huge moment the way I want it to, which is one of my major gripes with the record.  The penultimate “Pa’lante” does better in this department, featuring a heart-filled and passionate coda as Seggara raises a toast to “All who lost their pride / To all who had to survive”, but again doesn’t ever break down into the mass of guitars, pianos, drums, etc. that the build teases.  The record does end with an interesting conceptual moment, as the group reprises the opening track but in markedly Latin American fashion, suggesting a transformation of traditional American folk into the style of the country’s fastest growing minorities.

The Navigator is focused, well-produced and well-written, but its melodies are often more folksy than catchy, and it seems to consistently content itself with easy-going arrangements and passages instead of reaching for epic climaxes, the highs and lows that the content seems capable of inspiring.  None of the songs are bad, and the lyrics are personal and relevant.  But while the record successfully fuses two traditional styles of music, it still doesn’t feel like a major breakthrough because it rarely shoots for the stars.  I also think Segarra is capable of more nuanced and detailed lyrics, and while it may be a stylistic choice to opt for simpler, folksier lyricism, I think her instrumentation and vocal twang do enough work on that front.  Still, I think the record is a success, and wouldn’t fault anyone from enjoying the hell out of it.  I can see it being an anthem for Latin American communities in the Trump era, I just wish it was more anthemic.

Score: 8/13

Peter Silberman – Impermanence

Peter Silberman is the front man for New York trio The Antlers, an indie-pop / dream-pop band that’s three for three on solid LPs, though may suffer from the dreaded “peaked on their first album” malady.  That album, 2009’s Hospice, is perhaps the best narrative-based concept album of the 2000s, telling the tragic and beautiful story of an abusive relationship between a hospice care employee and a terminally ill patient.  There are seriously chilling and wrenching moments on that record, and I would very highly recommend it to anyone who hasn’t heard.  What amazed me, in some recent cursory background research, was that Silberman wrote the album when he was only a twenty-one year-old student!  Shiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii

Anyway, his new record is the definition of atmospheric, low-stakes minimalism.  Forget the xx – it often takes these six tracks multiple minutes to add a single instrument to the omnipresent reverb-dripping, finger-picked guitar riffs.  The constant presence of tape hiss and Silberman’s bare, prominent vocals, with only sparing use of harmonies, make this album an incredibly intimate experience.  It really does sound like you’re sitting in Silberman’s New York apartment alongside him – you can even hear him get up from his chair at the end of tracks.  These songs are skeletal, to be certain, but they often add just the right instrumental touch to give them some understated grandeur.  My favorite, the second-sequenced “New York”, brings in an absolutely gorgeous flute section, one that still sounds charmingly fuzzy and analog, half-way through.  French horns follow suit through the song’s closing.  “Gone Beyond” adds light percussion and bass to its guitar arpeggios, as well as some additional vocals and the sound of rain, to close out the track with the album’s biggest ‘crescendo’.  The rain opens up the following track, “Maya”, which abandons all instrumentation aside from a single guitar.  Halfway into “Ahimsa”, Silberman brings in a gentle bass drum and light synthesizers that sound dawn’s first rays of sunlight, peeking over the horizon and casting the world in a glowing warmth, completing the touch with the sounds of birds chirping.

That being said, the production work is still sparse, the musical equivalent of Hemingway’s iceberg theory.  But the sound of the record perfectly accompanies the general theme – accepting impermanence, imperfection and the fleetingness of time as essential elements of the human condition.  On opener “Kuruna”, Silberman demonstrates incredible patience, allowing the song to meditate on his voice and guitar for close to six minutes before a finale featuring repetitions of the titular phrase, a Buddhist concept of compassion and awareness.  The slow and drawn-out build seems to suggest Silberman’s own desire to take things slowly despite his limited time on earth.  On “Maya”, he delivers the album’s thesis on a platter – “Our bodies are temporary, let it be known / From the start we start to lose them”, a somewhat depressing sentiment until it’s followed by “Try to see like you see at your very last light / Like you’re watching a flood from a comfortable height.”  Rather than succumb to existential dread, Silberman uses mankind’s temporality as an excuse to appreciate the little things in life, and live each day like it’s his last.

“New York” serves both as an homage to Silberman’s home and also a meditation, an exercise in appreciating the world carefully and with fresh ears and eyes – “When the room grew loud / I learned to stand in back / Behind the crowd / Dam canals with cork / Like I never heard New York”.  “Ahisma” (another Buddhist concept, this one of non-violence) opens by stating “Time is all we have / I hope I have enough / Enough to show you love” before a lullaby-like melody finds Silberman singing “No violence / No violence today”.  The album closes with an instrumental that takes a page out of William Basinski’s book, allowing analog organs and pianos to decay and submit to static and tape hiss, a sonic representation of the album’s theme of inevitable submission.

For a six song, 37 minute side project, this is about as good as it gets.  The album is conceptually focused, the arrangements are beautiful, the songs feature some great melodies, and the sparse instrumentation and production are done with tact and purpose.  The record is beyond gentle, so some might critique it as ‘boring’, but there’s a whole genre based around ‘boring’, and I think this record is a welcome addition to the canon of lyrical, melodic ambient music.  The album doesn’t shoot for the moon, it knows what it is, but like the Buddhist philosophy it so frequently quotes, it executes splendidly its modest intentions.  Impermanence delivers on all counts, and I anticipate enjoying it for years to come.

Score: 10/13

Jesca Hoop – Memories Are Now

Jesca Hoop is a 41-year-old California native who’s been releasing music for about a decade now.  Last year she collaborated with Iron and Wine’s Sam Beam  (with whom she shares a label, Sub Pop) on Love Letter for Fireand is now back with her 5th LP, the wonderful Memories Are Now.  I was unfamiliar with Hoop’s work prior to this record, and have yet to investigate her back catalog, but I think the praise and attention this album has received, especially relative to her previous work, is more than warranted.

Hoop sort of fits into the same off-kilter folksy music that Joanna Newsom, Fiona Apple and Julia Holter call home, but her music is more stripped back and less electronic than any of those artists.  Her time signatures, melodies, arrangements and instrumentation are all weirder and more interesting than your traditional acoustic strummer with a pretty voice (cough cough *Julie Byrne* cough), and on top of that her lyrical moments oscillate between on-point, profound and beautiful.  Add in the factor that Hoop moves between different vocal stylings depending on the mood and tone of the song, and you’ve got an enjoyable, well-rounded and cohesive project.

Memories Are Now kicks off with a hell of a title track, one that ambles along to a strange staccato baseline and sweeps through with big vocal arrangements.  Hoop even manages to explore a fresh take on memory and nostalgia, landing on profundity with “Memories Are Now / I was not there, I was not there, I’m only here”.  She melds this living-in-the-moment ethos into a ‘fuck-you’ sentiment, and absolutely kills it with a gorgeous melody as she sings “I’m going through no matter what you say / go find some other life to ruin”.  Amazingly, this track features exactly three instruments – a bass, a bass synth and a single tambourine keeping time.  The rest of the work is done by her carefully arranged harmonies.  The song is both subtle and triumphant, dipping into emotional subject matter but emerging with its head held high, never sounding sad.

Tracks 3 and 4 both concern themselves with modern technology, particularly the internet and social media, but they approach the subject with a slightly different tone.  “Animal Kingdom Chaotic” has a faerie-like tribal flare to it and Hoop somehow gets her voice to sound like a flute, comparing technology to a jungle – “Robots are the new exotic / Animal kingdom chaotic” – while whimsically describing the present Vonnegut-like state where “you know you want it but the computer says no”.  “Simon Says” is a standout, a rambling, bluesy western that nails folk without ever pandering to modern pop-country, and features the great lyric “WWW don’t forget life before the internet / as we pixellated generation children become application” before a slide guitar flies through, right on time.

“Cut Connection”, the first track to feature prominent percussion, stands tall as a towering, powerful centerpiece before the gorgeous and almost archaic sounding “Songs of Old” enters in its wake, emerging like a lullaby that features some great string arrangements and the baroque-like chorus “Momma singing the songs of old / Singing the rock of ages / Empires were made this way / Singing the rock of ages”.  Its subject matter couldn’t be further from what Jesca had covered thus far – relationships and the internet – but she nails it both tonally and lyrically.

The followup tracks (7 and 8) again deal in the same topic with different perspectives.  “Unsaid” is brimming with sexual tension and is guided by an electric guitar arpeggio that feels like it could break into something produced by soft/loud guru Steve Albini at any moment.  The lyrics mirror this tension, with Hoop singing “Let’s not stay mad / Get mean / Say things we wish could be unsaid”.  “Pegasi”, on the other-hand, is the most easy-going, straightforward song on the record, an affectionate love song.  A whole album of cuts like this would have doomed the project, but as a one-of, in the penultimate position, the song’s melody and slide guitar are pretty enough to make it a welcome addition.

Which brings us to the epic closer, “The Coming”, where Hoop recounts the loss of her faith and religion following her upbringing in a conservative Mormon family.  Standing atop a single echoing guitar, treated with reverb and tremolo, Jesca somehow makes Jesus and the Devil metaphors that don’t sound corny, using the image of “Jesus turning in his crown of thorns” to trace her own abandoning of Christianity.  As the song progresses, she gets extremely personal lines like “I don’t blame my parents for clinging to the good word in hopes that it makes sens of it all” and “I can’t turn a blind eye to centuries of conflict and wrongdoing in his name” before the closing lyric, “And the coming never came”, ends the album at the edge of a cliff.

This record is excellently sequenced, offers plenty of variety, features satisfying emotional climaxes and more than some great one-liners.  The production is minimal but tasteful, excelling at vocal harmonies, and the singing can be at times arresting.  The only things that I think holds it back from making a larger impact on this year’s musical landscape are its relatively small scope, shortish track listing and a few songs that are fine but not standouts.  Additionally, as strong as the standouts are, they are never mind-blowingly good or revolutionary.  Still, as of this writing, I’d say Memories Are Now is the strongest release of 2017 (though that title may soon by usurped by Xiu Xiu or Grandaddy), and I anticipate featuring it somewhere in my top 20 by the year’s end.

Score: 11/13

Julie Byrne – Not Even Happiness

The acoustic singer-songwriter album has been around as long as recorded music itself, tracing its roots from Woody Guthrie through the genre’s most iconic figure, Bob Dylan, and onward through contemporaries like Sufjan Stevens (at least on his 2015 masterpiece, Carrie & Lowell).  For reasons perhaps historical or perhaps owed to the nature and sound of the genre itself, acoustic folk songs are often melancholic, jaded, naturalistic and geographically-minded.  With this in mind, Julie Byrne’s Not Even Happinesfits so neatly and squarely into the canon that it’s practically archetypal.  Heartbreak-induced sadness?  Check.  Natural imagery?  Check.  Road-weariness in the American West?  Check.  Acoustic finger-picking, limited overdubs, dripping sepia-toned nostalgia?  Check check check.

The nice thing about an album like this is that, because there are few moving parts (the arrangements are never complex, the song structures and lyrics clear and succinct), it becomes easier to evaluate.  The record is made essentially of the following parts: lyrics, vocals, melodies, finger picking patterns and the occasional ghostly harmony or instrumental addition.  Thus we can pick apart the album logically and systematically, which may go against the spirit of music criticism and the entire idea of music as a subjective art that is more than the sum of its component parts, but hey, its my blog and my review.

Lyrics – Because folk records are often so stripped back and the progressions so simple and familiar, lyrics are the most crucial part of the experience.  Julie Byrne’s record is very much an album about sitting outside, setting the scene poetically through observation of natural imagery, and then being introspective about her relationships and her life on tour.  Nothing is straightforward, and although the songs sound like they are grounded in real experiences, the sentiments feel transient and nonspecific.

Take “Natural Blue”, which many of my contemporaries online have called the record’s best track.  Julie explained that the song was born from an unexpectedly sublime night in Boulder, Colorado between tiring bouts of touring, but little of that personality shines through in lines like “Stars over a back porch / They’re talking but I don’t say much anymore.”  Standalone, that lyric is actually great, but in the context of the album, where every other line consists of Julie sitting outside thinking about being lonely, it kind of loses its punch.  Other examples include: “I went out walking in the wood / I thought of you so presently”, “I’ve been sitting in the garden / Singing to the wind”, and “We’ve been lying on the shore for awhile / And our sun is still”.  If these are metaphors, they’re pretty fluffy.  If they represent reality, they feel like some default Julie turns to when she wants to be emotional.

Sure, Byrne can spin poetry out of every tree, sky and field she lays eyes on, and from time to time they are arresting (“Preserve my memory of the mystic west / as I lay no claim to the devotion I felt”), but the end result is a wash of feelings, a grey-scale wave of nostalgia that never feels tied to one specific incident, one idea or one emotion, and for that reason I think this album fails lyrically.  It’s never resonant because it never captures anything more personal than “I was made for the green / Made to be alone”.

Vocals – One of the record’s greatest strengths is Julie’s voice, which is vaguely bluesy but soothing, familiar, comfortable and warm, and experiencing the record is like being wrapped in a cozy blanket.  She occasionally hits falsetto notes, and she deftly glides between them smoothly and precisely, like running water.  Her voice also bears a strong resemblance to New Zealand singer-songwriter Tiny Ruins (who I like quite a bit).

Melodies – Julie can also write an excellent melody as easily as she can sing swiftly through one.  They are elusive, sad and nostalgic, with small contours tossed out like afterthoughts and reflections just out of one’s grasp.  No problems here.

Guitar – The best songs on Not Even Happiness are the ones with full, resonant finger-picking arrangements that perfectly compliment Julie’s melody lines.  Thus, my favorite tracks on the record are the first-half highlights “Sleepwalker” and “Melting Grid.”  Like the best Frank Ocean song, Julie succeeds here in crafting songs that fool you into thinking there are more than just one instrument on the track.  However, the unwavering guitar tone and general similarity of the picking arrangements, which are never sub par, still grow a bit repetitive and leave something to be desired on the back-half.  Julie is clearly an excellent guitarist and her work here holds up, but I would have liked to see a couple tracks use something like three patterns looping around each other, as she certainly seems capable.

Odds and Ends – Byrne rarely taps into anything bigger than a distant synth, shrouded in reverb, or a couple of mournful, distant ‘ooh’ harmonies during choruses.  One of the best additions is a flute melody line on “Melting Grid”, which expertly fits the color palette of the record.  That song even introduces a soft tambourine and harmonica at the end, making it by far the most fleshed-out and full song here.  “Natural Blue” features some nice watery synths and the guitar is electric and chorused (think Jeff Buckley’s Hallelujah) and “Interlude” is, well, a synth interlude.  One bright moment is in the final coda of “All the Land Glimmered Beneath”, where outdoors sounds of birds and wind encompass Julie and set her in the environment she’s singing about.  The only song that doesn’t feature the guitar as its main instrument is the closer, “I Live Now As A Singer”, which doesn’t talk about Julie’s artistic life as much as you’d like, and also progresses so slowly behind sappy, held-out synth chords that manages to end the record with its worst track – it’s not especially beautiful and I don’t really care for the synth tones, either.

Album Concept – A interlude splits the record evenly into two four-track halves, but there isn’t an obvious difference between sides A and B.  The first half concerns itself a bit more with places and traveling, while the second is more stationary and serene, but both records have ‘happy’ and ‘sad’ tracks regarding her lover, both talk about touring and both definitively take place outdoors.  The second side is a bit slower and more atmospheric on the whole, but there isn’t really a natural arc to the track-listing here aside from ending on the two gentlest songs.  Julie never wavers far from her main talking points – thinking about relationships, being outside, feeling lonely, getting tired of traveling – which both keep the record focused but also keep it confined.

Overall, despite the charm of Julie’s voice and her knack for strong melodies, there isn’t enough lyrical substance here for me to say this is a standout singer-songwriter or folk record.  Everything here’s been done before, by people that also have excellent voices and who also have more to say, both sonically and emotionally.  This album is very pretty, but pretty albums are not hard to find these days.  I enjoyed this quite a bit before taking a closer look into it, and so it’s great as background music, gorgeous even, but really good albums have to stand up to cursory investigation, and Not Even Happiness does not.

Score: 7/13