By Lee Zimmerman
When folks ask me how I’m doing these days, I usually tell them I can’t complain. To which they reply, “Oh, that’s great!” To which I respond, “Not so much. It’s really more to do with the fact that no one wants to listen.”
Okay, that sounds a bit morose. The fact is, there’s so much to rant about in this world that it’s impossible to know where to get started. So I’ll leave this month’s rant to something completely unobtrusive.
That is, there are so many great indie releases to choose from, it’s all but impossible to cover nearly as many as we’d like in this column.
We did make one move in the right direction, however. This edition includes eight picks as opposed to the usual six. A small concession, but hopefully it helps.
The Winterlings’ pensive musings and sedate soundscapes take on an extra edge on American Son, an album that finds the duo — Amanda Birdsall and Wolff Bowden — making a concerted comment about the darker side of the American landscape in an era dominated by Trump, ugliness and uncertainty. While there are still tranquil tones present amidst the forlorn ambiance that shrouds the album overall, it takes some effort to find any light peering in between the low hanging clouds. Like others of their ilk — Shovels & Rope, the Innocence Mission and Over the Rhine in particular — The Winterlings make few concessions to commercial credence, but their beautiful folk-tinged songs are so uniformly affecting, no extra additives are necessary, even in the midst of more somber sentiments. The bare-boned arrangements evoke a kind of sepia tinged, gothic/gospel divide, a sound that imagines an evening lit by the fading embers in a fireplace as snow covers the surrounding terrain and a gray stillness fills the winter air. Remarkably evocative and emotionally inspired, title song “American Son” is an anthem for the ages.
Given their otherwise unassuming handle, The Stanleys offer those unaware little in the way of undue expectation. Nevertheless, their brash and bold take on an otherwise unassuming power pop motif finds they’re far more accomplished than their relative obscurity might otherwise suggest. Of course, it helps to have veterans like the Posies’ Ken Stringfellow and veteran Aussie rocker Mike Carpenter lending solid support in the backfield, and the sound similarity to those particular artists won’t be lost on ardent admirers. With this new eponymous effort, the trio let loose on all cylinders, delivering flawless hooks and the kind of catchy refrains that resonate even on initial listens. This is indeed the stuff that classic rock ‘n’ roll is made of — extravagant, exuberant and flush with stirring sentiment. Hints of the Raspberries, Blondie and Cheap Trick emanate from these sturdy grooves, proof positive that energy and attitude are all the essentials needed when it comes to a dutiful delivery.
Having taken on the role of a full band, Fallon Cush are another Aussie outfit that holds a special reverence for rock of a more melodic variety. Steve Smith, the band’s major mainstay, has a solid handle when it comes to Beatlesque pop, complete with the kind of oohs and awes that can spice up a chorus and make them sound instantly memorable. Smith’s McCartney-like vocals affirm the Beatles/Badfinger/Crowded House familiarity factor, and as a result, Morning, the fourth Fallon Cush album, hints there’s a little more melancholia present in these grooves. The arrangements add a rich tapestry and an extra cushion to bolster the bottom line, ensuring that serenity and serendipity remain in tandem. For every track that finds them at full throttle, there’s a wistful ballad that brings them back down to earth. Smith and company are truly masters of melody, and Morning ought to be a wake up call for anyone who’s unaware.
As long as we’re on the subject of Australia — and by now we certainly seem to be — another pair of Aussie artists worth mentioning is the brother/sister twosome Angus & Julia Stone. The two are certainly no strangers to realms Down Under, but with their new album Snow they make a convincing case that their time has come as far as the rest of the planet is concerned. It’s recognition that’s long overdue. While these siblings meld their skills quite well — taking an equal divide as far as vocals are concerned and doling out the guitar and keyboard chores between them — they never fall prey to the predictability of cloying, cooing melodies and sickly sweet boy/girl harmonies. Indeed there’s a ragged edge to the duo’s dynamic, one that finds an unsettling underbelly in several of the songs. It’s a kind of fragile finesse that gives them common purpose and an obvious bond. That sense of uncertainty often permeates the proceedings, a darker demeanour that makes these songs all the more compelling. And if the music sometimes gives the impression that things are slightly askew, the Stonesuch for taking the time to keep it all on track regardless, often building to soaring plateaus. What a deep, yet divine, work.
Multi-platinum-sellers back home in their native Ireland, The Coronas have a lengthy trajectory that stretches back over the course of for previous albums and a career that’s occupied much of their lives. They can also claim several significant honors, having recently performed for sell-out audiences as well as President and Mrs. Obama during their State Visit to Ireland in 2011. Trust the Wire, makes good on that promise, becoming the first album on their own label imprint, an, perhaps more significantly, their first album to hit the top of the Irish music charts. As far as the latter achievement is concerned, it’s not hard to figure out why. Like their fellow countrymen U2, the band are well attuned to modern pop precepts while conveying a heady, thoughtful sound that puts them in heady terrain. Confident and well considered, the foursome are, in equal measure, intent and intensive, creating cascading melodies that soar to a higher plateau. Trust The Wire is a riveting work, think man’s rock, with a solid sound to sustain it.
Jesse Terry has an effervescent quality to his music that all but ensures instant appeal. His music is bright, effusive and so effortlessly addicting it’s a wonder Terry isn’t more widely known. On his new album Stargazer he comes across as a true pop auteur, with a ringing voice and upbeat attitude that would likely find Paul McCartney himself offering a major thumbs up. Winsome and resilient, these melodies take an upward glance, a sure anecdote for the troubles and turmoil that plague the world so relentlessly these days. It’s easy to imagine Terry purveying this music in public and inspiring a horde of dancing, fist-pumping fans all joining in on the celebratory stance. Indeed, these songs would find an equally appropriate fit on both the radio and in the arena. Whether crafting beautiful ballads or more upbeat entires, Terry proves himself a master at conveying pure poignancy and serendipity.
Penny and Sparrow rely on little more than their burnished vocals, a soft strum and meditative harmonies to make an indelible impression, and on their new album Wendigo they make the most of their minimal additives. The duo, which consists of Andy Baxter and Kyle Jahnke, could be compared to an Americana version of Simon & Garfunkel, with a hint of goth and reverence tossed in besides. Its effective and affecting, a decidedly mellow milieu that demands the listener lean in to get the full effect. And if it sounds more than melancholy at times, well, chalk that up to the pair’s shadowy gaze. This is mood music of the highest order, cloaked in a kind of dreamy circumspect that often seems surreal, if not downright foreboding. And yet, it makes a formidable impression. Consider this a solitary sound and a reliable respite.
The Canadian combo known as The Deep Dark Woods have been putting out superb albums for several years, all of consistent quality and well worth the notice. Their latest, Yarrow, is no exception. Cloaked in an even deeper and darker ambiance, this multi-talented sextet creates a furtive folk noir that evokes the sound of wind blown prairies, far-flung environs and a craggy wilderness milieu. It’s all atmosphere to an extent, and indeed preoccupied with circumspect, but the occasional moments of upbeat energy suggest the Band in all their archival glory. Mostly, the music moves at a deliberate pace, a stoic sound that keeps a deliberate focus and cohesive embrace. These reverential tones can be both hypnotic and harrowing, all the better to seize on the senses and make an indelible impression. Take time to listen... Yarrow demands full attention.