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Tag: singer-songwriter

Album Review: Marissa Nadler – Marissa Nadler [Box of Cedar]

There are thousands of female singer-songwriters out there, every single one of them hoping to find a big break. Most never make it beyond their own bedrooms, and it’s really the cream of the crop that tend to get enough notice to earn a record deal. Even then your future is by no means set in stone, as underperforming to label expectations can result in the plug being pulled from your deal. This unfortunate reality is one that Marissa Nadler knows all too well. Kemado released her 2009 album “Little Hells”, and while it was met with solid praise by those that heard it, apparently not enough people did hear it to satisfy her financial backers. So upon being dropped by her label, Nadler went on the offensive and did something that was relatively unheard of at the time: she asked fans to donate money via Kickstarter to help fund her next record. After reaching her goal, the rest of the pieces slid into place and became her fifth full length album.

As with any artist, not just female singer-songwriters, consistent innovation is the key to survival. Turn in the same record 3 or 4 times and people will write you off. Marissa Nadler has done exactly what she’s needed to across four albums, and now her self-titled new one continues that evolution. While gentle acoustic guitar and that gorgeous voice of hers are still the two main attractions in her songs, “Little Hells” saw her moving towards more lush and varied instrumentation. That trend continues here, with doses of everything from vibraphones to orchestration and a light dose of synthesizers. She’s not so much using more of these extra elements, but rather better at implementing them than before. A song like “Puppet Master” is a solid example of that, moving from a light acoustic guitar shuffle into something a little more retro and sprightly with some added playfulness via vibraphone. The fluid tempo changes along with a mood shift are just a couple of the ways this is a continued innovation from what’s come before. The way that opening track “In Your Lair, Bear” steadily builds in intricacy over the song’s duration without ever rushing or sounding out of place is a great testament as well to her maturity as an artist. Most others would not have pulled that off with such grace and poise.

There’s not much to be said about the development of Nadler’s voice, primarily because her beautifully calm yet disaffected presence has not changed much, if at all. In her higher octave ranges she still sounds very precious a la Joanna Newsom, but the way she juxtaposes that with darker and colder imagery is what helps to set her apart. The biggest way Nadler has grown from her last album is via her lyrics. The very impersonal and story-filled songs of her past now remove character names and fanciful elements to actually use the word “I” a whole bunch. Descriptions too are far more down to earth and realistic. Rather than going off on some obtuse and illogical sweep of romanticism, here she sees the forest for the trees and no longer reaches to those heights. That’s less to say she sounds defeated but more to say these songs become more easily relatable because they seem like she’s actually experienced them. When you’ve never truly loved before, there’s a wide-eyed innocence that permeates your world view and tends to make you believe that you’ll wind up in some sweeping epic of a relationship that’s just like the stars on the movie screen. The older and wiser you become in the ways of love, or alternately speaking the more you’ve had your heart broken, the more you come to realize what the real lessons to be learned are. So with songs like “Alabaster Queen” and “Baby I Will Leave You in the Morning”, Nadler is dealing with some of the tougher aspects of dealings between men and women. Despite its title, “Wedding” is not all magic, flowers and endless love, even if the downer of an implication is that sometimes people get married for the wrong reasons. It’s unfortunate that Nadler isn’t a more upbeat person in her songs, though if she were many of these songs might not be as effective.

With “Marissa Nadler” comes something of a plea. In spite of all the kind words that have been said about her in the past, present and presumably future, the fact remains that she’s one of those artists that is beloved by those that have heard her. The issue seems to be that not enough people have heard her. Sure, she raised enough cash to make this new record, but it wasn’t enough to keep her contract the last time around. Now pretty much entirely independent, there’s a distinct lack of promotion that tends to go along with that. In all likelihood this won’t be the last album we hear from her, but she may have to go around with her hand out asking for money again to help raise money for it. The hope is she won’t need to do that. Maybe you buy two copies of the record and give one to a friend. Maybe you just tell some friends about her. Whatever you can do individually to help her out so we don’t lose a talent like hers. Strong female singer-songwriters are not a dime a dozen, and the more you listen to their individual records the more you realize that it takes a certain special something to really connect with you in a meaningful way. Cat Power has it. So does Feist and Sharon Van Etten. And Marissa Nadler has it as well. Open yourself up to that power by giving her album a try.

Marissa Nadler – Baby I Will Leave You in the Morning

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Album Review: Cass McCombs – Wit’s End [Domino]

By all accounts, Cass McCombs is not a very happy person. If the music you make directly relates to your own mental state, then depression appears to be a prominent part of McCombs’s life. Not everybody is happy all the time, nor does it make logical sense for them to be, but some people find it tough to even force a smile even on the nicest of days. It’s probably a big reason why the use of anti-depression meds are sharply on the rise, particularly in recent years. Despite this, living in a state of consistent melancholy can prove to be beneficial for many creative types, spurning them to make emotionally significant pieces of art that strike a nerve with the masses. Elliott Smith is one of the most prominent purveyors of sad sack music, and his acoustic ballads continue to draw in new fans every year despite his unfortunate death in 2003. McCombs bears a lot of similarities to Smith from a thematic perspective, along with your Nick Drakes and your Leonard Cohens, exploring the darker recesses of the mind with melodies that are simple but lyrics that are not. He scored big with 2009’s “Catacombs”, a record that stripped away most of the arrangements of his past records in favor of a much more direct approach. At that time though, his lyrics suggested at least some modicum of happiness and romanticism. Songs like “Dreams Come True Girl” and the waltzy “You Saved My Life” were heartfelt and warm, finding a comfort zone for him after three decent but not overwhelmingly great records. Now he’s back with his fifth album “Wit’s End”, and while the instrumental template remains the same, emotionally it’s as the title itself describes.

The opening track and first single on “Wit’s End” is “County Line”, a song that essentially flips the love-stricken vibe of “Catacombs” on its head. Instead of being about falling in love or being in love, it’s about the frustration of loving someone and not receiving love in return. Another, more literal way of interpreting the lyrics is to say it’s a tragic song about a town that has succumbed to the wrong kind of element, be it drug addiction (as shown in the song’s video) or urbanization or crime in general. Whatever the intention, the song isn’t lighthearted or positive in any way, even if there’s just a touch of warmth that might as well be left over from the last album. It’s almost enough to say that “The Lonely Doll”‘s title speaks for itself, but what you can’t grasp is just how deceptively innocent the melody sounds. There’s a delicately struck xylophone that adds an almost child-like wonder to the song, almost as if to soundtrack a little girl playing in her sun-soaked room with her Barbie. Precious, yes, but there’s also sadness and tears among the lyrics about being alone and not having anyone in your life to genuinely count on. The pain of loneliness appears to be the overarching theme of the album itself, to the point where McCombs has openly stated as much in interviews. Though there is a prevailing darkness and depression across the record, one of the better and more fascinating things “Wit’s End” does is examine the concept rather than wallow in it. Doing so doesn’t exactly make this a cheerier affair, but it does separate it from the plethora of other, more similarly-minded releases.

One of the most engaging moments on the album comes courtesy of album centerpiece “Memory Stain”. Starting as a rather minimal piano ballad, as it plods with an almost classical flair over the course of 7+ minutes there’s a wealth of other instruments that slowly weave themselves into the song’s fabric. The clarinet is particularly effective, but a light dose of harpsichord and some castanets do a lot towards truly evoking the sadness of those memories you wish you could erase but like a bad clothing stain just can’t. The oddball percussion on “Hermit’s Cave”, with the snare drum striking loudly at unexpected times helps to keep the listener on their toes as it otherwise simply waltzes along with piano and acoustic guitar as professional dance partners. Album closer “A Knock Upon the Door” is similarly paced, like watching a white-sheeted ghost bob and weave across the moonlit dancefloor of an abandoned mansion. Across more than 9 minutes a litany of instruments come together like some sort of ramshackle symphony that includes a couple of woodwinds (a baroque recorder known as a chalumeau being one of them), an acoustic guitar and a banjo, along with some unconventional percussion in the form of metal lightly tapping upon metal. The eerie feeling it nails down is one that had only crept through the rest of the record until that point. After so many songs about loneliness, this haunting closer is the final push, appearing to imply that the hope of company or companionship may remain unfulfilled and the only things left willing to spend time with us are the spirits of those we have lost. It is the end of the classic film “Citizen Kane”, where the immensely wealthy Charles Foster Kane wanders through his empty mansion alone – a man with more money than he knew what to do with, but no friends or family left to share it with. What good is anything in life if you’re just going to keep it to yourself? In that regard, “Wit’s End” also teaches us a lesson about people, relationships and selfishness. But that meaning is only there if you want it to be, because in those moments of true desolation where you just wish there was somebody to talk to, this album can be your companion during your dark period. As with many things in life however, it’s no replacement for a real life human being.

Cass McCombs – The Lonely Doll

Cass McCombs – County Line

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Album Review: Kurt Vile – Smoke Ring for My Halo [Matador]

My oh my has Kurt Vile come a long way in a short time. Upon leaving The War on Drugs, he embarked on a solo career that began officially in 2008 when his album “Constant Hitmaker” was released via the very tiny Gulcher Records. The following year, Woodsist gave that record a higher profile re-release, Mexican Summer put out his sophmore album “God Is Saying This to You” and Matador placed his third album “Childish Prodigy” on shelves. In other words, it was a flood of Kurt Vile music in 2009 when it’s often tough enough to keep track of just one record by an artist. The first two albums were extremely lo-fi bedroom folk recordings, like a Bob Dylan or a Tom Petty but with serious audio fidelity issues. That didn’t make them any less compelling though, and in fact the lack of quality was part of its charm. “Childish Prodigy” held that same aesthetic for about half the record, but the other half featured Vile’s touring band The Violators and therefore could be called a legitimate step forwards. The production got cleaner and the melodies more dense, but along with that some of the more unique qualities vanished. Still, there was inherent potential shining through the shakier moments, as if to say that if Vile focused just a little harder he might just rise to the level of indie superstar. Taking a little time off and also touring for the last year seems to have pushed him in the direction needed to get his act fully together, because his new record “Smoke Ring for My Halo” is filled with the dynamic and prolific moments that unveil an entirely new side that had only been hinted at up til now.

Kurt Vile has ditched the bedroom for a recording studio fully on “Smoke Ring for My Halo”, and as a result there’s a very crisp sheen over the entire album that really adds an unexpected beauty to it. While Vile has always been a superstar when it comes to finding wonderful little melodies that are compelling and adventurous, lush and gorgeous are words that don’t typically apply to them. The Violators are still backing him up, but their contributions are minimal compared to the guitar and vocals which takes precedence over everything else. The biggest adjustment though is with Vile’s vocals, because not much of his older material had the clarity with which to fully discern what he was singing about. It wasn’t so bad that every song was a mangled vocal mess, but when you’re pulling a D.I.Y job corners need to be cut somewhere. So what this new record reveals is that Vile is one hell of a lyricist. A standard love song like “Baby’s Arms”, which starts off the album, gets extra creative thanks to lines like, “shrink myself just like a Tom Thumb/and I hide in my baby’s hand/cause except for her there just ain’t nothing to latch onto”. For “Puppet to the Man”, expectations are defied as Vile says, “I get by now you probably think I’m a puppet to the man”, and it seems safe to assume that most everyone would deny that sort of accusation. Instead, he embraces it, concluding, “I’m shouting out loud because I know that I am” while also requesting help to get him unstuck from said puppetry. One of the most vivid and amazing songs on the entire record is “On Tour”, where the miseries and problems of touring are hinted at between gigs. “Watch out for this one, he’ll stab you in the back for fun”, Vile says, most likely talking about untrustworthy people in the music industry. But his passion for music also comes through in lines like, “I wanna sing at the top of my lungs/scream annoyingly/cause that’s just me being me/being free”. The stage is always the one place you can let your frustrations out without a care in the world, and if you like you can “beat on a drum so hard ’til it bleeds blood”. Darkness hovers all over “Runner Ups”, but Vile isn’t afraid to throw a little bit of black humor in for good measure. “If it ain’t workin’/take a whiz on the world/an entire nation drinking from a dirty cup”, he sings just before explaining that he may have lost his best friend but there are runner ups in waiting. And there’s something inherently brilliant about the way the words are arranged on closer “Ghost Town” that totally grabs you despite what appears to be pure simplicity. “When I’m out/I’m away in my mind/Christ Was born/I was there/You know me/I’m around/I’ve got friends/Hey wait, where was I?/Well, I am trying” doesn’t even make that much sense reading it, but hearing the words coming out of Vile’s mouth they become more like windows into his own personal daydream. The series of thoughts that we all have from time to time, where we drift between subjects effortlessly and without acknowledgement of the oddity of it all can be a powerful thing when harnessed properly. In this case, Kurt Vile makes it exactly that.

“Smoke Ring for My Halo” may thrive in new and unexpected ways thanks in large part to some great lyrics, but the tuneful and intimate melodies serve to enhance what’s already there. With the distortion and other effects almost entirely absent from this record, it leaves much more room for these arrangements to breathe comfortably and with increased virility. One guitar, whether it’s acoustic or electric, carefully picked or briskly strummed, matched with Vile’s voice is all that’s really needed, but the little extras give them an unexpected oomph in the right direction. The shakers and tambourines on “Baby’s Arms” aren’t designed to stand out, but it’s tough to think that the song would be better off without them. The way the guitar strings vibrate on “On Tour”, like they’re frayed or too loose and need a good tightening adds to the weariness of the words, while the soft plinks of the keyboard helps to break up the monotony of the same chords strummed over and over again. In the case of songs like “In My Time” and “Peeping Tomboy” though, the aggressive nature of the guitar work is more than enough to sustain interest in the song without having to really break out any extra elements for supplementary purposes. If the record does have a flaw though, it’s the lack of hooks and marketable singles. Vile’s not exactly known for his commercial prowess and earworms that stick in your head, but on occasion he has managed to pull a supremely memorable melody that you’ll find yourself humming as you go about your day. From “Freeway” to “Freak Train”, the rattle and hum of those tracks was a draw in the past, enough to make them highlights on records that fell anywhere from pretty good to just a little mediocre. Funny then that with the decrease in memorability comes an increase in respectability, the result of which is Kurt Vile’s strongest record to date. Weaker moments like “Jesus Fever” and “Society Is My Friend” are fewer and farther between than ever before, and are supported on all sides by bastions of strong songwriting and melodies that occasionally allow for streams of sunlight to filter through the darkness. It may not be perfect, but it’s definitely another huge step forwards for Vile in a very brief career already filled with them.

Kurt Vile – Jesus Fever
Kurt Vile – In My Time

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Album Review: Lia Ices – Grown Unknown [Jagjaguwar]

Lia Ices is a name that sticks. It’s so unconventional, yet familiar and fascinating that when it’s being bandied about or peppered into conversation that you’re almost driven to find out exactly who this person is. The first time I heard of Lia Ices was when she signed to Jagjaguwar some months ago in preparation for her second album, the freshly released “Grown Unknown”. Generally, Jagjaguwar has a strong stable of artists, which only provided more evidence as to why she is worthy of attention. But essentially it was the name that drew me in, as a good band name also does. I found myself repeating Lia Ices over and over again at random times until listening to her album was no longer an option but rather something I HAD to do. Seeing her live a couple weeks ago only added fuel to that fire, and during her set she played the majority of the new record, which she was also selling that night a couple weeks in advance of the official retail date. Two weeks and a bunch of listens later, here we are. Let’s talk some “Grown Unknown”.

The first thing you come to realize as the opening track “Love Is Won” drifts into your ears is that Lia Ices is most definitely more than a name – she is, above all else, a voice. And what a voice it is: soft but strong, equal parts thrilling and heartbreaking. It’s thanks to those pipes that Ices truly distinguishes herself from her peers, though on occasion she does bring to mind some of the greats – your Tori Amoses, your Leslie Feists, your Chan “Cat Power” Marshalls, and your Joanna Newsoms. Between her range and the ways her singing is utilized, moving from normal to echo-affected to multi-part harmonized with itself, she’s always exceptional even when there might be a little something off in the backing melody. The instruments are all standard fare for a female singer-songwriter sort, ranging from your normal piano/guitar/drums setup through bits of string sections, a bit of brass, and most remarkably – snaps and handclaps. These other instruments are less significant than the woman herself, but without their primarily sparse and careful backing the songs on “Grown Unknown” would certainly lose some emotional heft and eclecticism.

Certainly one of the benefits of being signed to Jagjaguwar has to be some of the resources made available to you. While the production values are probably a little higher than her debut, the biggest score Ices makes for “Grown Unknown” has to be a guest spot from Justin Vernon of Bon Iver fame. His backing vocal on the track “Daphne” is a big part of what helps push the lush strings-and-acoustic-guitar track to a higher, more exceptional level. “Little Marriage” is cute just like a small white chapel, mixing organ-keyboard textures with some toy piano/xylophone and the jingle of car keys/finger snaps for percussion. Similarly, the title track begins with only a collection of handclaps and Ices’s somber singing before a gorgeous acoustic guitar takes over for what might amount to a chorus. Some lighter and deftly paced violins combine with the guitar and handclaps for the last minute of the song, bringing it to a rather enticing and gorgeous conclusion. Autoharp and military-style percussion meet for “After Is Always Before”, a song best recognized for its intense vocal harmonies and deep but minimal piano melody. “Ice Wine” and “Lilac” seem to be indebted to Cat Power and Feist respectively, though the strong violin presence helps to distinguish the former and the quiet creeping in of instruments sets the latter apart. Closing track “New Myth” sends the record out on a seriously winning note, with Ices firing on all cylinders. It’s not only one of her best vocal performances, but the horns and woodwinds are the exact right kind of subtle so as to provide a stellar assist rather than running away with the melody. There’s not much of a better way to end an album such as this one.

While there’s a lot of positive things to say about “Grown Unknown” and more than enough logic to determine just what the people at Jagjaguwar saw in her to hand her a deal, the album is not without its faults. The pacing of the record is rather glacial, in that there’s barely anything that reaches the mid-tempo range, and that’s at best. Really it does a lot of slow drifting and sounding gorgeous but not a whole lot beyond that. Lia Ices isn’t exactly looking to become a pop star, but an energetic track or two might do her well to break up the monotony of slow song after slower song. The other small issue is with her voice, which as I’ve already mentioned is pretty much the best thing she has going. There are a couple small moments on the album where either by the way she sings something or just the general phrasing of it, she sounds disingenuous to herself. Either she’s mimicking another artist or her emotional goes from hot to cold. In these couple moments when there’s supposed to be warmth and breadth and honesty, we get disaffection or disconnection instead. Perhaps that’s why her last name is Ices. Interestingly enough as well, “Grown Unknown” is a record best experienced during the coldest months of the year, though its presence is more like a lone blossomed flower poking out from a snow-covered field. If you’re not yet paying attention to Lia Ices, this album is a great place to start. She’s much more than just a cool name.

Lia Ices – Grown Unknown
Lia Ices – Daphne (ft. Justin Vernon)

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Album Review: Sharon Van Etten – Epic [Ba Da Bing]

At Female Singer-Songwriters Incorporated, we’re aware that you have about a million choices when it comes to ladies with guitars or piano, which is why it’s our goal to only point you towards the best and brightest of the bunch.”

If only such a service existed, it’d make for a much easier time sifting through the massive stockpile of women that rock, from the hardest of the hard to the softest of the soft. So in this era where everybody wants a slice of the pie, how is one to choose the females that stand out from the crowd? A good record label helps, the thought being that if their discerning ears have given a certain artist a thumbs up, they’re at least worth a quick listen. Unless you’re a blogger, you probably aren’t getting the dozen emails each day from ladies that sat down in their bedrooms with an instrument and a microphone hoping their songs would get heard. That’s part of how an artist like tUnE-yArDs was discovered, but it is by no means a guaranteed model for success. The reality of today’s music scene, for any artist looking to make it really, is word of mouth. When considering the women specifically that achieve some form of success, be it Cat Power or Feist, there are key tracks or full records that just stand out from the competition thanks in large part to a publicity machine that moves to the next level with critical acclaim. All that being said, Sharon Van Etten caught a bit of luck on her debut album “Because I Was In Love” last year, earning strong reviews and healthy buzz thanks to a highly expressive singing voice and strong songwriting. She further boosted her cred by getting a coveted invite to this year’s Pitchfork Music Festival. Armed with just an electric guitar, she had the very first set on the very first day and pulled it off brilliantly, even when her guitar string broke and she didn’t have a spare. That set was also heavy on new material, much of which appears on her just released sophmore album “Epic”.

What’s somewhat amusing about the album title “Epic” is that the music contained within is anything but. Of course compared to Van Etten’s previous album, these new songs are huge. Weighing in at only 7 tracks and with a length of barely over 30 minutes, some EPs have those specs. Ultimately though, if you’re limiting yourself to such a short period of time, two things should come out of it. First, every second should have an explicit and strong purpose. Wasting time on the shortest of short albums is like filling up on bread at a restaurant before the main course arrives. Secondly, with such a concise record it needs to have a good repeat value to the point where you’re left wanting more and the only solution is to start the whole thing over again. Sharon Van Etten might not make the breeziest and most upbeat songs in the world, but her talent oozes all over “Epic” and makes those important factors a priority.

Opening with the acoustic break-up ballad “A Crime”, the immediate impression one might get is that “Epic” will be an effortless sequel to her debut “Because I Was In Love”. The track does have a lot of the elements that make Van Etten great, but what it ultimately lacks are the wonderful things she does with the following six tracks. Once “Peace Sign” arrives with a full band, live drums and a decent-sized hook, it’s almost like the dawning of a new era. It’s an uptempo rock song that’s one of the most compelling things Van Etten has written to date. One of the most remarkable things about the track is how close it comes to spinning off the rails into a full-on jam session but doesn’t quite make it there on purpose. The show of restraint is the lynchpin that strongly contributes to making this song so good. Slide guitar and piano enter the fray for the alt-country cut “Save Yourself”, which contains faint echoes of Neko Case in all the right ways. After the initial verse and chorus pass by, the song moves to the next level by incorporating multi-part harmonies and vocal overdubs that are nothing short of gorgeous. As a mid-album anchor, the 6-minute “Dsharpg” feels mostly like an extended pathway connecting the two halves of the record. It’s not a throwaway track by any means, but it’s primarily a showcase for Van Etten’s awesome vocal power. There are some wavy synths and electronic haze keeping a solid background melody throughout, and the percussion work is limited to a couple sparse tambourine and drum hits. “Don’t Do It” makes a couple minor mistakes mostly in how it’s written and executed. The song feels almost forcibly hook-baited, as the chorus gets repeated over and over and over again across the 5 minutes with wordplay simple enough to stick in your head after the second run-through. Lines like “and you want to do it/if you want to do it/you are going to do it/even if i don’t want you to” come off as kind of uninspired and lazy. Van Etten does her best with it vocally though, and despite the apparent faults it’s tough to be too hard on it. The bright shining moment on the second half of the record lands with the full force of “Love More”. It’s another singing showcase as the track starts off with up-front vocals and wavy synths a la “Dsharpg” earlier in the record. Things slowly build as double and triple harmonies penetrate into the mix, followed shortly thereafter by guitar, bass and drums. Some have said the song has a very Jeff Buckley vibe to it, and that’s by no means a stretch of the truth. There’s not a much better way to close out the album.

So amid the current chart of female singer-songwriters, where does somebody like Sharon Van Etten stand? With “Epic”, she takes a good few steps forward in the direction of future indie star. Her songwriting remains strong for the most part, and strong/emotionally resonant vocals really help to separate her from most of her peers. She’s not quite at a Neko Case or Cat Power-like level of love and respect just yet, but she’s definitely getting closer. The backing of a label like Ba Da Bing has allowed her to flesh out her sound a bit further, incorporating a few more instruments than on her debut. The exploration of these new sounds remains in a largely safe (read: not risky or experimental) area, but no matter how normal-sounding this record might be, it’s anything but thanks to Van Etten’s sharp talent. For those of you looking for a great female singer-songwriter record this year, “Epic” is one of the stronger entries into that ever-expansive canyon. There’s very little reason you shouldn’t pick this album up, in particular because if you’re going digital it’ll only cost you $5 when you factor in the two songs you can download right below for free. The savings, to put it bluntly, are nothing short of epic.

Sharon Van Etten – Love More
Sharon Van Etten – Don’t Do It

Buy “Epic” from Amazon

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