Singer-songwriter-producer M. Ward was, for years, a little-known gem of the indie-folk underground. That is no more the case. Over the last handful of years, Ward has established himself as a staple of the somewhat-underground pop scene.
His She & Him collaborations with Zooey Deschanel, his Monsters Of Folk project with Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes and Jim James of My Morning Jacket, and his steady stream of introspective, gritty solo albums have pulled him from the fringes into the mainstream. Then there’s his production work with standout artists, including Mavis Staples and Jolie Holland.
On his new album, More Rain, Ward does what he does best: create lovely, loner jams that are handcrafted down to each guitar lick and quietly desperate lyric. As NPR reports:
More Rain‘s minute-long opening track is nothing but the howl of wind and the patter of precipitation, and it kicks off a string of songs that elaborate on that contemplative motif. As cohesive as it is, though, More Rain isn’t a concept album. It’s more of a mood piece, an overcast state of mind translated into easygoing melody and an underpinning of dusty Americana and late-’60s/early-’70s AM radio. From the atmospheric pedal steel of “Pirate Dial” to the keening Moog solo in “Girl From Conejo Valley,” the album paints in a pensive portrait in tans, browns and grays — an old corduroy jacket soaked by a sudden spring cloudburst.
First the Lumineers were an indie-folk underground band that few people had heard of, touring around and slowly growing their fanbase. Then, they were the band that had that catchy song, “Ho Hey,” with the lyrics, “I belong with you, you belong with me, you’re my sweetheart.”
Then, something slightly unfortunate happened…for fans anyway. Mainstream media picked up on the catchiness of “Ho Hey” and you couldn’t get away from it. It found its way into movies, television shows, commercials, radio, sidewalk musician repertoires…anyplace there was music, there was that song. It became unbearable.
Apparently, even the band grew tired of playing it. As Lumineers frontman Wesley Schultz told Billboard, “You can only play something for so long before it naturally just gets stale. I think we’re really excited to turn the page.”
Turn the page they have, with a new album titled Cleopatra. To fans, the record comes as a welcome relief as it is heartfelt and soulful, without a trite pop hit around. For those concerned about the band “going mainstream” with this one, or tossing together some half-baked offering, worry not. The band has created something that furthers their journey as slightly rough-around-the-edges, thoughtful indie-folk explorers rather than something swerving into mainstream mediocrity.
The band is happy with the effort, as well, and pleased to have some new material to perform. As Schultz puts it, “[Cleopatra] breathes new life into a band that spent, maybe, I’m exaggerating, but four or five years playing those songs [from the first album].”
As leader of heartland rock outfit the Gaslight Anthem, Brian Fallon perfected the art of balancing alt-country edginess and swagger with sensitive and insightful tunes that provide a glimpse into slice-of-life America in the spirit of one of their key influences, Bruce Springsteen.
The band is now on indefinite hiatus and Fallon has stepped out on his own. His new album, Painkillers, sees the New Jersey-born singer-songwriter showcasing his songwriting chops on his first post-Gaslight Anthem solo album.
True to Fallon’s form, Painkillers is has some grit and edginess, but that is balanced out by soft acoustic numbers, lyrical vulnerability, and a maturing sense of timeless music making. As NME writes:
“Instead of the butch riffing that Fallon made his name with, Painkillers plugs directly into the roots of country and laid-back acoustic songwriting. Yet it still retains a sense of toughness. This is the closest Fallon has come to Springsteen’s Nebraska so far, teaming up with Nashville-based producer Butch Walker, who also worked with Frank Turner on his 2015 album Positive Songs For Negative People…Like Turner, Fallon doesn’t shy away from injecting a little ferocity into folk music.”
Sam Beam, the mastermind behind Iron and Wine, has teamed up with singer-songwriter Jesca Hoop for a lovely little album titled Love Letter for Fire.
Recorded, produced and mixed by Tucker Martine, the duet album features appearances by Wilco’s Glenn Kotche on drums and percussion, Robert Burger on keys, Eyvind Kang on violin and viola, Sebastian Steinberg on bass, and Edward Rankin-Parker on cello.
At times haunting, with strings cutting out sharp melodies, and at times as pretty as a clear day, Love Letter for Fire coaxes new aspects of each artist to the surface and, in the end, stands on its own.
Here’s the first single, “Every Songbird Says.”
If you follow roots music, you already know that Patty Griffin is one of the quiet favorites of the genre—a brilliant songwriter and artist who pours her soul into her writing, playing, and singing.
Outside of the genre, however, Griffin is a lesser-known entity as she veers away from pop music formulas to dig deep into her subjects and their stories.
Her latest album, Servant of Love, sees Griffin pushing the envelope further as she blends trance-inducing guitar work and singing with her characteristically human stories that spotlight the artist’s strengths. As Rolling Stone writes:
“As a singer, she doesn’t have huge range or operatic power. But with tone and phrasing that can occasionally recalls Billie Holiday, Griffin makes magic with what she’s got. Per usual, she’s got beautifully-crafted songs. What’s different is how they communicate, through incantatory vibe and groove as much as storytelling and poetry. “Good and Gone” and “Everything’s Changed” build on hypnotic looped guitar phrases set against kalimba patterns and drones, charting deep folk blues with North African inflections. The same spirit informs “250,000 Miles,” with Griffin’s remarkable guitar work and haunting backing vocals by Shawn Colvin. It’s a sketch about the loss of a daughter, set against a desert, with images of tea and forced servitude echoing the fiction of Paul Bowles.”
Have a listen:
Post-rock mastermind band, Explosions in the Sky, is back with a new album, the Wilderness. It’s the seventh studio album of the band’s long career and its first since 2o11.
Where the band has been known for long, sprawling compositions that lend themselves to long and deep listening sessions, the Wilderness sees Explosions in the Sky tightening things up and shortening the length of the tracks. But, despite the changes, the brilliant and beautiful EitS sound remains.
As Consequence of Sound writes,
“[T]he Austin-based quartet have established a formula that’ll be recognizable to any post-rock fan — and even many who’ve just seen a few recent movies. Perhaps it was that sort of creative clarity that led them to this year’s The Wilderness, the group’s most profound deviation yet from the EiTS ‘norm.’ Though the idea of a norm might carry a certain amount of critical side-eye, with Explosions in the Sky, that norm has, for nearly 20 years, been an undeniable and, more importantly, unduplicated point of distinction.
“The record is immediately recognizable as an EiTS record, but also a new translation of their sound, almost as if the group has learned to communicate their core through an entirely new language. That’s a risk by any standard, and as such, The Wilderness is not only a resounding success for EiTS, it’s a demonstration of just how musically agile these guys are.”
Singer-songwriter Andrew Bird is back with a new album—the first since getting married and having a baby.
Are You Serious looks at life, love, struggle and growing older through the lens of Bird’s trademark intricacy, depth, and contemplation. The album sees an artist further honing his already-impressive craft while deepening his understanding of himself and those around him.
As NPR writes,
“Given Bird’s classical training and devotion to precision, his work has always had at least the potential to become bloodless and pale — the work of a perfectionist who agonizes over every note, only to let his busy brain mute his own beating heart. Instead, though, his writing keeps sounding warmer, sweeter, more thoughtful and approachable, while continuing to land lines that stick with you for days.”
Here’s Bird performing “Left Handed Kisses” with Fiona Apple.