These five tracks showcase a band fully focused on crafting songs which resonate, and they’re doing it fully on their own terms. All this makes for a Daniel and the Lion half-album worthy of some serious goddamned exposure.
Daniel and the Lion – “Death Head (Side A)” (2012, Independent)
I wrote about these guys back in September when they were promoting their last album, Sweet Teeth, which featured “The Chase” and “Horses,” two of my favorite alt-country tracks of the last year. Now they’re back and the five songs on Side A of Death Head up the ante something fierce. This is Adam Duritz meeting up with a more sonically adventurous version of the Fray, with the radiating pop-rock hooks of early John Mayer. In other words, nothing to be messed with!
“Death Head” opens with two minutes of hand-clap infused folk-pop with touches of Ryan Adams as Daniel Pingrey sings: “Lately he sleeps with us at night with his scythe in my mind. She says it’s nothing, go to bed — but there’s no sleeping with death head.” But it’s with “Flash Flood” that Pingrey and Company lay it all on the line. The melody is a deliciously delicate acoustic and drums combo echoing Will Hoge at his best. “The good sinks to the bottom and the lies come floating back,” Pingrey sings. “Everything is nothing, and we’re somewhere in between.”
These five tracks showcase a band fully focused on crafting songs which resonate, and they’re doing it fully on their own terms. All this makes for a Daniel and the Lion half-album worthy of some serious goddamned exposure. September can’t come soon enough for this listener, who’s already dreaming of Side B. One can rest assured, however, that the wait will be worth it. I called them Artists to Watch in Sepember, and they’ve more than lived up to the billing. Death Head (Side A) is an indie alt-folk keeper!
Counting Crows – “Underwater Sunshine” (2012, Collective Sounds)
Counting Crows completed their deal with Geffen Records in 2010 with the release of Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings, which revitalized their career and featured the band sounding as good as ever. Two years later – which is an incredibly quick turnaround for the band, all things considered – they’re back with Underwater Sunshine, a live album which manges to sound as good as any album of original material the band has produced thus far as they enter a third decade of recording.
The secret? Adam Duritz has been unleashed to cover his favorite songs, but with only a few exceptions he’s chosen to focus on hidden gems. The songs on Underwater Sunshine are, for the most part, songs you probably haven’t heard a lot in recent years. Hearing them together in one extended listening session, however, reveals instantly just how brilliant Duritz is at taking any song and cutting right to the quick. Whether he’s doing a relatively by-the-numbers version of Pure Prairie League’s “Amie” (the most recognizable song on the album by a long shot) or rocking the hell out of “Untitled (Love Song”) by relatively unknown act Romany Rye, he’s immediately able to become part of the song through his unique vocals. And the band picks up the pace right behind him, developing this song cycle of covers into a cohesive Crows album on par with the best work the band has produced.
In today’s musical climate the important thing is the music. If the music is good, fans will spread the word and even a band like Counting Crows can survive as independents, free of the constraints a label places on what music eventually is released. In Duritz’s case, leaving Geffen and setting his own course could be the best thing to happen to the band since Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings brought their music full circle back to the rock of Recovering The Satellites and the roots-inspired sound of their debut August and Everything After. Here’s hoping the band’s next album of original material keeps going in this same direction, because for one happy moment it sounds like Duritz has put aside his fear of mainstream success and simply started having fun for a change.
Above: Counting Crows perform “Like Teenage Gravity” by Kasey Anderson, featured on Underwater Sunshine.
Serena Matthews – “2012″ (2012, Independent)
The rain, it talks to me
When no one else can tolerate
My words that don’t make sense
To anyone except for me and my old friend the rain
- Serena Matthews – “Rain Song”
This album should come with the subtitle Greatest Hits, because even if you’ve never heard a word sung by Serena Matthews prior to pressing play on these, you’ll be won over and a lifelong fan once you do. Full disclosure: I’ve been addicted to Serena’s beautifully elemental folk songs since I first found her music on mp3.com close to a decade ago. Because she does not seek the limelight, her music never made a wider splash than it did on that site and various others around the Internet where she’s posted her continued creative musings over the ensuing years. Rest assured, however, that these are among the best bare-bones acoustic folk songs you’re liable to find.
The 21 songs on 2012 are each delicate aural paintings of raw depth and beauty which stand up to repeated listening because of their elemental nature. Whether she’s singing about a man going to his death (“Crow Song”) or observing the rare transcendent grace of the world around us (“Blackbird Fly Away”), Serena doesn’t mince words. Hearing these compositions all in one place after all these years simply accentuates what makes them so memorable and indispensable. Serena doesn’t want fame, but she’ll continue to have a rapt audience as long as she continues to release such stunning music. 2012 is a stirring example of Americana at its finest, and it deserves to be savored.
Aaron Moore hopes that one day you’ll hum one of his songs in your car, that he’ll have the chance to be a part of your life for a few seconds or a minute. A musician living and writing independently in Joplin, Missouri, Moore has developed a sound akin to Elliott Smith with songs showing a similar flair for experimentation and musical exploration. His passion for folk music across the genre’s spectrum shines through in his songs in a way that suggests he will continue to write until his music finds a larger audience, no matter how long that takes.
I submit for your approval a song called “Ashiato,” from Every Silver Lining Has A Cloud. The song’s lyrics blend the English and Japanese languages over haunting strands of guitar and bass. Its subtle beauty reveals itself quietly; you’ll be hard-pressed to stop listening once the haunting chorus turns you inside out. I consider this song a true find, and I hope you find as much to enjoy in its depth as I have.
Here’s hoping Moore finds the audience his stunning music so richly deserves.
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If you enjoy this song, there’s much more available via Moore’s Bandcamp page.
Year of the Album — #047
Lonesome City Travelers – “Lonesome City Travelers” (2011, Independent)
Though the album opens on an unassuming note with the quiet retrospection of “Goodbye (San Francisco Bay),” there’s a great deal of promise hinted at on this self-titled debut from Orlando-based Lonesome City Travelers. “The River” kicks things up a notch with more than a hint of Son Volt-inspired 90s alternative country and lead singer Chris Metts has clearly spent the time to hone his songwriting chops. These songs have more than a hint of pop flavor, with hooks that you’ll find yourself singing unexpectedly.
The rest of the album shows that the band can be just as capable of playing it straight as well. There’s a great deal of variety here, and “Please Be There” is perhaps the strongest independent country track I’ve heard all year, and that’s saying a hell of a lot. These guys are working the road the hard way, and they don’t have a big promotional budget behind them. But be certain about one thing – they’re ready to be out there playing with the big boys. Lonesome City Travelers is one of the best alt-country albums of the year, and it deserves a great deal more attention than it’s been getting. If there’s one band you’ll want to be able to say you heard here first, this is the one.
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You can preview the album in its entirety on the official Lonesome City Travelers website. The band is also going to be appearing all over the state of Florida through September. If you’re lucky enough to be down there, check ‘em out!
Year of the Album — #028
L’Altra – “Telepathic” (2011, Acuarela Disco Records)
Chicago’s L’Altra have released their fourth studio album, Telepathic, and it’s the band’s strongest work to date. The album showcases a band fully at home within their musical element, and it’s well worth checking out. My review of the album ran at Stereo Subversion this weekend. You can read the entire review here. The bottom line, however, is that in the end, L’Altra manages to craft the perfect fourth album, music which does as much for new listeners as it does for the already converted, making it one of the more interesting indie releases of the year thus far.
Year of the Album — #023
Lawrence & Leigh – “Odyssey Vol. III – Hills and Masts” (2011, Independent)
If you like your music in short, easily inhalable chunks which don’t require much thought in the listening process, Lawrence & Leigh are not for you. On Odyssey Vol. III: Hills and Masts, the third part of their ambitious three-part EP series, the Brooklyn songwriting duo takes chamber folk to expansive new heights. If you’re willing to listen to something that provides its reward to those who are patient and willing to slowly peel these songs like an aural onion, there’s a great deal to savor.
With a sound which melds the pop smarts of Elliott Smith and Over The Rhine’s Karen Bergquist with melodies that twist and turn, taking you on an aural journey. The Smith comparison is heard most on the wonderful “Heeled Shoes,” with a hauntingly simple guitar line that brings immediate comparisons to the slow build of “2:45 a.m.”
Meanwhile, “Glow” builds its way expansively through layers of melodic chamber pop, each part shifting and merging until late in the proceeding we get to hear the real hooks dig in: “down here in the shadows I’m without my mask, and everything you’ve wanted could be in your grasp,” Andrew Kalleen sings, before the song morphs from funky pseudo disco into something Burt Bacharach would love, complete with hauntingly catchy vocals from Kristin Stokes that sound like Manhattan Transfer flew in for a studio sound-check. All this in six minutes of musical bliss.
It’s not an easy album to fall in love with, but give these six ambitious songs enough time to soak in and you’ll understand why this duo is making waves in the world of folk music. It’s a challenging recipe for meaningful music, and given the chance, I’ll take ambition and creativity over ease of consumption any day.
Year of the Album — #001
Todd Alsup – “Todd Alsup”
MajorWho (2011) – Independent
Similar Albums: Regie Hamm – “American Dreams” (Universal, 2003)
Jon McLaughlin – “Indiana” (Island, 2007)
Hanson – “Shout It Out” (3CG, 2010)
There’s something really infectious about Todd Alsup’s music. Infectious enough that, despite not having a major label deal or any real push behind his music, he was able to draw high praise from blogger Bob Lefsetz and from Sirius / XM’s Larry Flick (who called Todd “a true contender!”) I’ve been following his music since he first released his debut, Facts and Figures, so it’s great to see a deserving artist actually getting the industry respect he’s been worthy of for years.
But the fact remains, his new self-titled album will be released on May 24th with Alsup still bubbling under the radar, and it would be a shame if most people aren’t going to get the chance to hear it. Songwriter Regie Hamm, who became famous years later for writing one of the many American Idol “winner’s songs,” produced one of the better pop albums of 2003, following a concept of traversing as many genres as it had songs, tying the subjects to life in modern-day America. In that vein, Todd Alsup also loves genre-hopping, and the album’s all the better for it. There’s something for everyone here, yet the album manages to remain cohesive due to his willingness to stick with his tried and true signature sound (which hearkens back to the soul of Stevie Wonder while adding the modern touches of Michael Bublé, Harry Connick, Jr., and (surprisingly) Shout It Out-era Hanson (horns abound, thank God!)
The album’s full of winning tracks. “Getting Gone” may be the most single-ready, with its addictive chorus brimming with alliteration and introspection: “She’s got a talent that’s unparalleled. She’s mastered moving on; she’s gotten good at getting gone.” We’ve all been in the situation he’s describing, being the one who picks up the pieces from someone we’ve loved who seems to be oblivious to anyone outside the self. The upbeat piano, drums and bass combo blends perfectly with Alsup’s strong vocals and the lifting background voices which help tie it all together.
“How I’m Made” is anthemic, and it’s easy to tell how it’s become a finalist in a major songwriting competition recently. The song would be one Michael Bublé or Jamie Cullum would kill to perform, as Alsup outlines his many faults, arguing that he can’t change how he’s been made … though his biggest fault is his inability to prevent his heart from being broken. “But my biggest fault is that I always give my heart too soon; I fell in love with you and I began to plan the honeymoon. And now look at me! I’m broken-hearted, I let myself get played … and you’d think that by now that I’ve have learned to protect myself from getting burned. Maybe one of these days I’ll finally make the grade!” It’s a song of honest introspection, but he’s not dwelling on what he cannot change. He’s claiming it as a badge of honor. I can picture this one becoming something Chris Colfer’s character could pull off nicely on Glee if given the chance – and boy wouldn’t that raise Alsup’s profile?
As I’ve said, there’s something for everyone here: the disco-groove of “The Only Thing” manages to sound authentic without becoming cloying (and according to Alsup’s latest press release, is destined to be his first big official single release, complete with a video, if fans can help raise funds via a Kickstarter project). I could see the song playing in a disco mix with classics of the genre without sounding out of place. “The Way It Goes” pulls off straightforward soul with aplomb, managing to make a really downbeat message (“that’s just the way it goes”) without losing its groove. And “I Feel” sounds like it could have been a missing track from Maroon 5’s latest album, with Alsup truly sounding like he’s unstoppable and on top of the world.
Put it all together and you’ve got an infectious party album which manages to be both modern and a throwback to an era when album pop was more than just a collection of auto-tuned singles. It’s the first independent album of 2011 I can fully and wholeheartedly put my critical support behind, and for fans of great pop music you’re not going to go wrong buying this album. Trust me, it’s a keeper. And Todd Alsup’s bound to be a household name if he can just continue to build the momentum he’s taken into the new year.
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Review Updated: 02/24/2010 — now includes new release date
information as well as a link to the Kickstarter campaign to help produce a
music video for “The Only Thing”
Find out more at Todd’s website: http://www.toddalsup.com