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On the Brighter Note

Sharing My Weird Music Taste

Jumping for Joy-seph

Album: I’m Alone, No You’re Not

Artist: JOSEPH

Skip To: Planets

Not to be that annoying hipster-y fan, but I’m briefly going be that annoying hipster-y fan: I met these lovely ladies about a year ago when they performed on a little nightclub stage as the opener for my favorite band. Since then, they have released a stunning new record, toured with James Bay, and even appeared on The Tonight Show. I am so happy for them. No one deserves success more than these kind, down-to-earth, and downright talented sisters.

I’m Alone, No You’re Not kicks off with the eerie but upbeat “Canyon.” The song carries an exciting, wild-west feel and right from the get go, the sisters show off their harmonic talent. While the accompaniment contains a myriad of instruments, it is their lovely vocals which prove the greatest asset to the song, and this continues into “SOS (Overboard).” The song starts off with a quiet, deep guitar riff. As the song progresses, adding more layers of instrumentation and harmony, it peaks in the chorus. While it has a distinctly fun feel, there is also a desperation about it that compliments the lyrics. “Blood and Tears” follows a similar vocal structure to “SOS” but carries a tone of resolve as the speakers acknowledge both the hardships and victories of their journey.

“Hundred Ways” carries an ominous feel with its echoing instruments, dissonant chords, and darker lyrics. JOSEPH’s incredible vocal talent shines through  on this track as they sing an almost ghostly high-pitched riff. Abandoning distinct choruses and verses, each part becomes its own melody at the end of the song, simultaneously clashing and meshing to an absolutely stunning effect. While it is less eerie than the previous track, “Planets” again features the unique vocal harmonies, as minimal echoing accompaniment adds to the starry, wistful tone.

After the resolve of “I Don’t Mind,” a beautiful track about sticking with someone regardless of their demons, the exciting, wild-west feel returns in “Whirlwind.” Deep drums solidify the lyrical image of thunder. The subsequent track, “White Flag,” is the most unabashedly joyful on the album. Highly percussive and pleasantly cacophonous, this track is straight up fun as the lyrics call on the listener to keep trudging onward and “burn the white flag.”

Backing off immensely, however, “More Alive Than Dead” primarily contains just piano and implements the most interesting and surprising harmonies on the album. Dissonant and sometimes arpeggiated chords make this song so beautiful and relaxing. “Honest,” the lyrics from which the title of the album comes, maintains the acoustic feel with lovely plucked guitar. The instrumentation crescendoes steadily throughout the song, adding layer upon layer as the speaker continually tries to reassure herself that she is not alone. The album wraps up with the eerie lullaby of “Sweet Dreams.” Like the preceding track, intriguing, even slightly spooky harmonies tell the story throughout. However, part way through the song, the instrumentation picks up immensely and dominates as a kind of finale, only to back down once again to the lovely violin, guitar, and vocals that fade out to the end. Overall, this album is such a masterpiece, and I’m so happy to see this talented trio thrive and succeed.

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I posted this picture on my review of their first album, but it makes me so happy, I’m putting it up again. Keep burning that white flag, JOSEPH. Left to right: Me, Allie Closner, the Fabulous Gina Finn (justcurlythingss.wordpress.com), Natalie Closner, Mikayla (in front), Meegan Closner, Photo-bomber #1, Amanda (aka my twin), and Photo-bomber #2.

Sweet Dreams

Album: A Million Years EP

Artist: Awake or Sleeping

Skip To: Constellations

I can only describe this incredible EP one way: pure magic. Wistful, dreamy, and imaginative, the songs of A Million Years EP each create their own unique transcendent atmosphere around the listener. It’s music that one can get so pleasantly lost in.

The opening track, “Boy With a Kite,” establishes the overall feel of the EP as the lyrics tell a story of innocent love. A repeating electronic riff – layered over piano and guitar lines – echoes throughout, generating a sound that “floats.” Soft bells and lovely echoing harmonies also add to the feel. The song has a “Peter Pan” feel to me due to the sweet, innocent lyrics and the dreamy images it evokes.

The EP takes a sadder twist in “Old Man Jones.” More acoustic than “Boy With a Kite,” the song tracks old man’s reflections on his life, from war to love to loss. When the man passes away, he leaves a letter for the person listening to these stories. While the song is sad, it concludes in a certain hope. As a person who works with seniors, this song has a special place in my heart. It so respectfully pays tribute to the elderly, a group I so often see forgotten and ignored.

The innocence of the beginning, however, returns in “Sweeter.” The lyrics are as sweet and loving as the title would suggest and a flute line at the beginning establishes that within the instrumentation. The music builds gradually as each new instrument adds something new and distinct to the feel. “Constellations” maintains sweet yet artful lyrics and follows a similar dynamic progression to create an atmospheric feel. It follows an interesting chord progression, surprising the listener.  From the picked guitar notes to the flowing harmonies to the soft, syncopated drums, this song is just a masterpiece.

The EP closes out with “A Million Years,” a track that brings back more of the electronic sound to a lovely effect. More upbeat than the other songs, it acts as a finale as the lyrics express that the speaker won’t let go of love, echoing previous themes on the EP. A Million Years EP is truly a gem. Its dreamy feel makes it so unique and each song is so artfully designed.

Nightlife

Album: When The Night

Artist: St. Lucia

Skip To: The Way You Remember Me

I have a certain respect for artists that can successfully create electronic music, but it’s not typically my taste. However, the incredible ’80s pop sound of When The Night is so much fun and such a delight to listen to. This a difficult album for me to describe because I am so out of the loop in regards to the workings of electronic music, but I’ll do my best.

“The Night Comes Again” functions as a distinct introduction to the album. It goes through a gradual arc throughout, beginning softly, crescendoing, and then fading out to the end of the song. Echoing vocals, not unlike those found in the A-Ha song “Take On Me,” mark the song and the album at large. The song has a cacophonous feel with many synthesized sounds interacting at once. A distinct drum, however, holds the beat and the sound together, functioning like a skeleton for the song.

The two subsequent songs, “The Way You Remember Me” and “Elevate,” carry a “shimmery” feel that is so distinctly ’80s. A saxophone in “The Way You Remember Me” adds to that feel and artfully layered electronic riffs throughout both songs build the anticipation incredibly well. Despite the pop feel, the songs deal with darker, nostalgic themes of lost love. The next song however, “Wait For Love,” carries a more hopeful theme that is reflected in the instrumentation. Falsetto voicing and a deep but major electric guitar give it a happier feel.

The saxophone returns in “All Eyes on You” as it provides a sudden, mysterious break between the largely upbeat, electronically synthesized instrumentation. As the album moves into “Closer Than This,” feminine backup vocals strikingly similar to those of songs such as B-52’s “Love Shack” take on a more central role, adding to the already full instrumentation. The energy backs down in the more dreamy “Call Me Up.” The song undergoes a false ending before launching back into an instrumental section that fades out into nature white noise. It then transitions seamlessly into the much more upbeat “We Got it Wrong.” The feminine vocals return with more prominence and the song continually surprises the listener with beats and drops that “punch” the listener unexpectedly. In this particular track, vocals back up the instrumentation, rather than instrumentation accompanying a distinct vocal melody.

St. Lucia experiments with a more minor quality in “September,” utilizing similar repetitive riffs as those in “The Way You Remember Me” to create a feel of recklessness that mirrors the lyrics. The final tracks, “Too Close” and “When The Night,” are both longer than the other tracks and focus on steady builds to create suspense and excitement throughout. “When The Night” fades out slowly and eerily after an incredibly full musical climax. This is album is so unique. Its artfully synthesized instrumentation and wonderful ’80s influence are what truly make it incredible.

 

Before There Was Frozen…

Album: Let It Go

Artist: Tyler Heath

Skip To: It Will Not Always Be Raining

Before Elsa made us want to bang our heads against a wall after the billionth listen motivated us to express our true selves, Tyler Heath wrote and independently recorded his lovely album, Let It Go, back in 2010. This terrific alternative rock album begins with “Hours,” an eccentric, layered song that kicks off the album with energy and striking electric guitar. “Sooner” pulls back the energy quite a bit and perpetuates an eerier feel that mimics the lyrics. A repetitive guitar strum pattern gives a sense of inevitability and dread throughout the song.

The energy picks back up in “The Beast,” a song that begins with an upbeat guitar riff, builds, but then backs off suddenly to ominously crescendo towards the end.  The song centers around a theme of each of us being our own worst enemy, and Heath creates a lot of intricate vocal call-and-response throughout the song to add to the eerie feel. At “Young,” the album takes a more uplifting turn as the speaker reminisces about childhood. It is a song that is just so saturated with happiness, I can’t help but smile when I hear it. The subsequent track, “Memory,” takes a more melancholy look at the past, focusing on points of loss. The song begins minor with repeating riffs that darken the song, but it gradually works up to major in the choruses and bridge, ultimately concluding in hope of letting go of the past. “Cost of Living” takes on a much more acoustic feel throughout much of the song. However, it doesn’t sacrifice a full sound, as more instruments queue in gradually throughout the song, coming to a a peak in the end during the hopeful repeating bridge. Immediately following is “You Did This To Yourself,” perhaps the most cynical song on the album as the speaker calls out someone’s foolish decisions. Hard guitar and drum make it a very fun song despite its message.

“Fire Fight” returns the eerier tone of “Memory.” Halfway through, the song quiets, and builds back towards the conclusion with intriguing vocal and instrumental interaction, neither dominating, just creating a simultaneously cacophonous and orderly sound until it finally tapers out gradually. The uplifting nature of this album, however, comes back in “Coming Home.” The major key and distinct percussion throughout give the song such a joyful feel, working towards the finale, “It Will Not Always Be Raining.” Appropriately the concluding track, the song ties together the themes of letting the past go and having hope for the future. Heath repeats a simple, folk-song-type musical theme throughout, messing with it, setting it to different instruments, giving it different qualities. The guitar part in this song is simply superb.  After the concluding joyous bridge, most instruments drop out to make room for a lovely flute solo. Overall, this album has such a beautiful, positive message and superb instrumentation.

Island Paradise

Album: Islands

Artist: Bear’s Den

Skip To: Above the Clouds of Pompeii

There are albums that you listen to occasionally, and there are albums that you listen to often. And there are albums, like Islands, that you listen to all at once and on repeat (not that I’m obsessed or anything). With its poignant lyrics and superb folk-style instrumentation, Islands is a musical journey, like reading a great book.

The opening track, “Agape,” is perhaps the most upbeat song on the album, rich with guitar, banjo, and thumping drum. It establishes Bear’s Den’s talent for contrasting joyful music with emotional lyrics without causing a clash. While the song seems to address the fear of losing a lover at first listen, the word “agape” is also a Greek word for selfless love, and the song might be about a fear of losing love itself. This theme continues through the subsequent, more laid-back track, “The Love That We Stole.” Quieter and more acoustic, however, “Above the Clouds of Pompeii” tells a story of a family’s grief. It’s a song that, despite the loss, still provides hope throughout. It crescendos toward the conclusion, bringing in a victorious trumpet. “Isaac” maintains a more acoustic feel (relying on some truly superb banjo throughout), but has a slightly darker feel, alternating between major and minor frequently.

Echoing some of the feel of the beginning tracks, the percussive “Think of England” reflects on a failed relationship. The subsequent track, “Magdalene,” has an eerie folk (is that even a thing?) feel to it. The lyrics confused me at first so I did a little digging. The band has indicated that the characters are set against the backdrop of “Magdalene laundry” of the 20th century, institutions meant to help women out of prostitution that eventually just turned into sweatshops (there’s your sad history lesson of the day). The emotional intensity peaks in “When You Break,” the song with the darkest feel due to its minor key and echoing instrumentation. The bridge repeats several times, crescendoing gradually, giving a deep sense of anxiety and entrapment.The lyrics are interpretive. When I listen to them, I hear themes of addiction and the inability to open up about shame. “Stubborn Beast,” while set to quieter music, carries that same poetic quality. The song is the first to mention the term “island,” giving a sense of the protagonist’s loneliness. I’d love to hear what you think of these songs. 🙂

Just as in “Above the Clouds of Pompeii,” trumpet plays an important role throughout “Elysium” in establishing hope as a jaded character calls on an innocent character to maintain their wide-eyed perspective. Even in the broken relationships and angst of the more acoustic “Bad Blood,” the song feels like a natural conclusion to the album, as the speaker seems to try their best to reconcile all of the previously mentioned difficult situations. This album is such a masterpiece, filled with fabulous instrumentation, emotion, and hope.

All the Feels

Album: All the Birds EP

Artist: The Western Den

Skip To: Stay the Sun

Backing off from the resolve of Battle Hymns (see previous review), in All the Birds, The Western Den explores a more wistful, mysterious sound. These four golden tracks follow stories of love and loss and introduce beautiful, calculated dynamics throughout.

The lovely relationship between the male and female voices that characterized Battle Hymns also shines right from the beginning track of All the Birds. “Eden” is an eerie, instrumentally dynamic piece that centers around the story of Eve in the Garden of Eden. The song tracks through a slow build at the beginning, only to drop off into a quiet piano accompaniment. Violins kick in and pull the music through a crescendo again. It follows this pattern of crescendo and drop-off three separate times, each building to fuller peak before the ominous, a cappella conclusion.

In “Tumbling Down,” The Western Den contrasts a lighthearted sound with darker lyrics as two partners reflect on how they have become estranged from one another. The song utilizes a variety of plucked string instruments to generate a lighter feel. The guitar is picked rather than strummed and a lovely harp queues in frequently to complement the voices. Piano also echoes throughout and provides a backdrop throughout the song. However, the subsequent track, the largely acoustic “Carter Hall,” presents a contrast to characters of “Tumbling Down” as it tracks a couple that happily grows old together. The song has such an inherent sweetness to it, from the soft vocals to the quiet guitar to the violin that gives the song a subtle folk feel.

The EP wraps up with its fullest song, “Stay the Sun.” Longer than the other tracks, it has even more dynamic contrast than “Eden.” It also allows the instrumentation to tell the story more so than the other tracks and undergoes extended and stunning periods without vocals, playing with minor and major contrast. The harmonies on this piece are absolutely superb as well, and before the quiet, dark, string conclusion, the piece reaches a musical fullness unmatched on the rest of the EP. All the Birds presents a different side of The Western Den’s talents from Battle Hymns but is equally wonderful.

Lovely as the Coast

Album: Rambling Coast

Artist: Hello Atlantic

Skip To: Seasons

I take the internet so often for granted. However, it is quite a testament to its greatness that I can, with very little effort, enjoy the superb compositions of Hello Atlantic, an artist who lives and writes halfway across the planet. This acoustic gem is recorded and mixed so cleanly, especially considering it is independently produced. Its lovely, organic sound caught my attention immediately.

Rambling Coast begins with the soft “Mad Verses.” The guitar part echoes throughout and contrasts the clearly defined vocals. The pace and energy pick up in “Rambling Coast” and “Animals of Dusk,” tracks that introduce the striking, complex guitar strum patterns that mark the album. Also characteristic of the songs are unconventional chord progressions that make the potentially simple acoustic music far more complex and surprising. Classical-style guitar dominates the reflective “Windy City Blues” as high guitar notes simultaneously contrast and complement the vocals. Hello Atlantic does a stunning job getting the vocals and the instrumentation to interact, rather than treating the vocals as somewhat separated from the instruments as many songs do, and this theme continues throughout “Seasons.”

“Faster Than Rain” is quite contrary to the rest of the album in that lyrics very much take a backseat to the music. The voice echoes in the background of a lovely plucked string instrument, but jumps back to the foreground in “Skylash.” Though it begins by echoing eerily, it switches suddenly halfway through the song to a harder, more defined tone. “The Burrow” returns to a similar feel to “Windy City Blues,” but to a different effect due to its minor quality. It crescendos throughout however, and plays through a stunning, upbeat guitar solo before quietly giving way to “Travel Light.” The song has a distinct sojourning feel as harmonica and a marching drum provide direction toward’s the album’s conclusion. “Sweet Watchtower” is somewhat an anomaly on the album: its backbone is piano instead of guitar and it is by far the longest track. But it is nevertheless an incredible piece, with its echoing, flowing chords and a conclusion that feels like a “farewell.”

In every song, the lyrics are highly poetic and filled with some of the most creative imagery I have ever heard in song lyrics. While I don’t know the exact meaning behind each track, the lyrics seem to perpetuate two themes: feeling unable to establish roots and a desire to leave the past behind. Structurally, the lyrics are unique as well. Few songs have a set chorus but instead, they roll naturally through the verses, adding to the unique nature of the music. Rambling Coast is musically and lyrically intelligent and designs the acoustic sound complexly.

Wake Up

Album: Wide Awake

Artist: Paxson and Allison Jeancake

Skip To: Right Hand of the Father

Throughout my life in church, I have never hidden my thoughts on most Christian music. I find much of it repetitive and shallow and I feel it gets a pass to be poor quality because of the message. Paxson and Allison – whom I was blessed to know while they were the worship leaders at my church – provide a beautiful and stark contrast to mainstream worship music. With thoughtful lyrics and lovely instrumentation, I continuously go back to Wide Awake for spiritual rejuvenation.

The album begins with “Always and Forever (God You Are),” an upbeat song marked by exciting electric guitar solos, lovely harmonies, and complex instrumentation. “Lead Us To Heaven” perpetuates a similar feel and utilizes even more electric guitar. While it maintains the praising theme of the previous track, there is a distinct yearning sense to the lyrics. The subsequent track, “Wide Awake,” takes a step back in energy and has a more reverent feel. However, it doesn’t sacrifice the multi-layered instrumentation but instead redirects it to generate a very different tone.

“Right Hand of the Father,” quieter and minor, features harmonies between Paxson and Allison perhaps the most out of any track, and to a stunning effect. It also includes a guitar solo at the end that is simultaneously reverent and leads well into  “Heaven’s What We’re Made For.” The song returns to the energy of the beginning tracks, only to slip back into a more reserved tone in “Holy Things.” While it switches from minor in the verses to major in the chorus, it ends on a lovely minor chord that leaves the listener wanting more. The penultimate track, “Beauty From Ashes,” begins with a lovely piano solo before leading into heavier guitar as a backbone but continues to feature piano throughout. The album concludes with “God For Us,” a beautiful wrap-up that meshes many elements of the other songs together. Parts of it are praising and upbeat; other parts are more reverent. Striking harmonies characterize the chorus and personally, I find the lyrics to be the most hopeful on the album.

For all this album’s musical brilliance, I am most in love with its message of hope. Many modern worship songs praise God shallowly or become so reverent that hope seems to get lost. Wide Awake does neither: it tells the story of hope in every song in many different ways, rather than through repetition. Paxson and Allison are truly gifted musicians and wonderful people.

My Dearest

Album: Dear Wormwood

Artist: The Oh Hellos

Skip To: The beginning and listen to this whole album in order and bask in the incredibleness. But if you must, skip to Exeunt.

The moment has come to share my favorite album of all time. This is going to be long, so if you get bored, just listen to the music. It’s perfectly capable of speaking for itself.

For those of you who listened to Through the Deep Dark Valley, The Oh Hellos have noted this album as a “part two” to that album. While that album tells stories from a protagonist’s past, Dear Wormwood tells the story of that same character finally breaking free of the past. The title, a nod to C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, speaks to the antagonist of the narrative. Each song is a letter to the person or thing causing the protagonist harm.

The album begins with “Prelude,” an instrumental piece that builds, only to drop suddenly into soft, echoing “oo”s. Immediately following is “Bitter Water,” a joyous, hard folk song at first listen. It’s filled with banjo and choral vocals, like much of the album. But The Oh Hellos contrast the joyful music with darker lyrics, indicating that the protagonist cannot break free of an unhealthy relationship. The song fades seamlessly into the ambient, reflective “There Beneath.” After another quiet, instrumental piece, “In the Blue Hours of Morning,” the album picks up the pace with “Exeunt.” This song is so filled with resolve, both lyrically and musically. It doesn’t have a set chorus; instead, each verse progressively builds anticipation to the cacophonous, exciting finale. This is the point in the narrative at which the protagonist seems to break free of his or her bonds (and the point in The Oh Hellos’ concert at which I go crazy).

The story takes a darker turn with “Caesar.” It has an eerie, “battle” feel as soldiers look towards a king to lead them through their trials. Lyrics drop out halfway through and the song crescendos through choral “oo”s and adds layer after layer of instrumental riffs.The song stands for The Oh Hellos’ incredible ability to communicate emotion through not only lyrics, but the music itself. The quiet, largely acoustic “This Will End,” like “Bitter Water,” utilizes happier music to contrast darker lyrics as the protagonist seems to relapse, knowing that this unhealthy relationship will inevitably end poorly. The protagonist seems to dive even further back into the pain of the relationship in “Pale White Horse,” the most chilling song on the album. Using imagery from the book of Revelation in the Bible, the song depicts a foe that the protagonist knows they cannot defeat. Echoing “oo”s throughout the instrumentation give the song a haunting feel. As they grow louder towards the end, they drop off suddenly to give way to “Where is Your Rider.” Choral vocally and highly percussive, the song serves as a second act to the foreboding tale of “Pale White Horse” as the protagonist finds their foe is not as formidable as they once believed.

“Soldier Poet King” returns to the hope and resolve of “Exeunt,” indicating that, while the protagonist is not yet free, soon, a savior will defeat their antagonist once and for all. Thick with viola, banjo, and choral vocals, the song feels like an old, Irish folk song reinvented. In “Dear Wormwood,” the narrative seems to close as the protagonist reflects on how their demons have shaped them, and in the epic finale, the protagonist resolves to not allow the person or thing to hold them any longer. The song is a mesh of opposites, simultaneously eerie and glad, angry and hopeful. Naturally, the song feels like the end. However, artful as they are, The Oh Hellos show us this is not the end of the story completely. After the all instrumental “Danse Macabre,” a historic French term meaning “Dance of Death,” the album concludes with the unabashed joy of “Thus Always to Tyrants.” The hard folk song puts out the message that the protagonist has fully broken free of this relationship but ends with a question to the antagonist, asking if they too will seek forgiveness for the pain they have caused, if even the exploiter can one day find redemption.

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