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On the Brighter Note

Sharing My Weird Music Taste

A Noble Pursuit

Album: Drift EP

Artist: Noble Sun

Skip To: If I Dwell in the Uttermost Parts of the Sea

To celebrate the end of winter quarter, I introduce you to an EP that kept me sane through finals. This review is a little different from others I have done as this EP is completely instrumental, but it’s so lovely and soothing I decided to write about it anyway.

Drift is an ambient EP that begins with “The Wings of Morning.” Like much of the EP, the track utilizes suspended, echoing chords in the background and piano to provide a little bit of melody. Noble Sun makes incredible use of percussion to bulk up the sound, particularly echoing drum and a variety of percussive shakers. Immediately, the artist shows great talent for sound mixing through the various intrusive tones that keep the listener surprised but always complement the sound rather than clash with it. The track flows seamlessly into “If I Dwell in the Uttermost Parts of the Sea” which maintains the same feel until about halfway through when the song undergoes a sudden crescendo and switches to a fuller, more established sound. The echoing, wandering feel remains but an electric guitar  carries the melody and the piano instead becomes a kind of harmony to it.

In “Rainbow in the Cloud,” Noble Sun removes everything except quiet piano chords to start. Suddenly, however, a quiet, muffled voice begins reciting the biblical creation story. The voice surprised me, but I found myself ever more intrigued and relaxed by the soft narration. Rather than dominating as song lyrics would, the narration feels like another facet of the brilliant, gradually crescendoing instrumentation. The subsequent track, “A Whirlwind Carried Him Off,” returns to the feel of the beginning two songs. The song has this “shimmery” feel to it that I don’t know quite how to put into words but is absolutely lovely. The final track, “A River Bright as Crystal,” builds through a muffled marching drum. One instrument at a time queues in to fill the sound, but as the anticipation at the end of the song grows, it doesn’t resolve and ends as a cliffhanger. This EP is so lovely. It keeps me focused while I study and helps me take a breath when I’m stressed, both of which I needed so desperately last week.

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Just Brilliant

Album: JUST KIDS

Artist: Mat Kearney

Skip To: Moving On

Forewarning: last week, I attended a Mat Kearney concert, and I’m still coming off my concert high. This is going to be a long post. If you want to skip my obsessive fangirling concert recap, the actual album review begins after the photos.

I have to credit/blame Jenna (justcurlythingss.wordpress.com) for introducing me to Mat Kearney’s music with Young Love in 2011. For four years, I not-so-patiently waited for moreAnd after JUST KIDS came out, his tour didn’t come to California. I thought I would have to live with that. But thanks to my new best friend Bandsintown, I found out Mat (we’re definitely on a first name basis) would be opening for a wine festival in Napa. Back row tickets were all that were available because most seats were reserved for rich boozefest attendees, but I still shut up any conscience telling me I’m an adult and should make smarter financial decisions.

After walking around Napa (PSA, NorCal is better than SoCal), Jenna and I went to an event we had no business attending. Everyone was dressed fancy, and I was wearing soaked jeans because I’d forgotten a raincoat. They gave us a free book of all the local wineries even after we told them we were just there for Mat, and there were a bunch of wine tasting tables. When the doors finally opened, we saw most of the front few rows were sparsely filled, so Jenna suggested we move and see if anyone stopped us. So while the mayor of Yountville gave some humanitarian presentation (at this point we’d realized we were in Emily Gilmore land) we sat down in the sixth row.

Finally, after they gave out some award to some wine connoisseur, they invited Mat up, who was clearly just as out of place as we were. He was even better than I expected. He had an amazing voice, and Jenna and I started jamming out and dying a little inside. Halfway through the first song, we noticed a few people walk towards the front of the stage, so we thought we would do that too, and we ended up right at the stage for the whole concert.

My time in theater taught me that performers can be… into themselves… But I didn’t get that sense from him. He seemed grateful we were there, and wasn’t put off that most people were there for the festival. He’s a solo artist, but I loved that he involved his band as opposed to making them backup. Also, there’s something so distinct about going to a smaller venue. Artists who aren’t as big get the chance to connect more with their audience, and just like JOSEPH and The Oh Hellos, Mat really engaged his audience, making it feel like all of us were just hanging out playing music. There are a million more things I could say, but I think I’ve bored you enough, and congratulations for reaching the end of this shpeel.

20160304_201414.jpg20160304_201158.jpgPhotos by Jenna and a rich wine connoisseur.

JUST KIDS is such a masterpiece that I’m not sure I can do it justice, but I will try. This powerfully honest album opens with “Heartbreak Dreamer,” an upbeat, layered song that captures the spirit of the album. It sets a spectacular beat behind the half singing, half rap/spoken word verses, and repeating piano riffs bolster the sound. The song is so lyrically deep, a trend that continues throughout the album. Mat’s lyrics focus on storytelling, not just his own story, but the stories of the heartbroken and overlooked.

“Moving On,” a beautiful call to leave the past behind, starts off quiet and builds throughout the verse and pre-chorus, and surprises the listener with terrific falsetto voicing in the chorus. The album backs off with “Just Kids,” a primarily piano and drum song that has an almost blues-y undertone. Echoing drums and tones intrude at unexpected moments, giving the song a darker feel, but also bulking up the sound. The subsequent tracks, “Heartbeat” and “Billion,” return to the starting energy and are two of the lighter songs on the album and center around the love of his life.

In “One Black Sheep,” Mat tells a sadder story of feeling out of place and contrasts it with joyful-sounding music. The beat and the melodic guitar give the song direction, mirroring the story, in which the speaker is constantly moving to new places. Mat similarly mirrors his lyrics in “Let It Rain,” in which a repeated descending line of octave notes gives the effect of rain. The album once again reverts to a darker feel with the hauntingly beautiful “Ghost.” Most of the instruments echo, and the story doesn’t resolve in hope.

After the rap-oriented and subtly soulful “Los Angeles” and the imagery-filled story of “Miss You,” Mat introduces the entirely acoustic “The Conversation,” a duet with a female artist. The lyrics present two opposing sides of an argument, each artist singing a particular side. Their voices unite in the chorus and bridge to create stunning harmonies. The penultimate track, “One Heart” imitates the style of “Heartbreak Dreamer” with its rap verses, crescendoing chorus, and powerful storytelling, and the album concludes with “Shasta.” The song is named for the street Mat Kearney grew up on, and presents a different style than the rest of the album, poignant and nostalgic. The song is the natural epilogue to the album. Mat pays homage to his roots throughout the album, but “Shasta” ties together all of his other stories of growing up and leaving.

This album is such a powerful tribute of nostalgia and storytelling and it showcases Mat’s incredible talents. However. I recognize I have not properly represented this album’s brilliance. Just go listen to it, okay?

The Lord of Great Music

Album: Lonesome Dreams

Artist: Lord Huron

Skip To: She Lit a Fire

Some albums just surprise you, and Lonesome Dreams was one of those. It’s an album that defies genres and is so unlike anything I’ve ever heard. The style is “tropical folk,” as the artist calls it, which somehow effectively blends a tropical, island feel with the Old West.

The album kicks off with “Ends of the Earth,” a story of love and adventure. Throughout his album, Lord Huron makes use of echoing vocals to create a sense of mystery, fitting for a series of adventure stories. The music is incredibly layered, playing instruments that logically shouldn’t go together. He combines standard drums with bongos, electric guitars with sitars (I think?! I can’t always tell what instruments he’s playing).

The excitement, energy, and adventure continue through the subsequent tracks, “Time to Run” and “Lonesome Dreams.” But at “Ghost on the Shore,” it gets quieter and more mysterious, using subtle harmonica as a backdrop for the song. The song doesn’t exactly “end,” but instead flows seamlessly into “She Lit a Fire,” which, along with the next track, “I Will Be Back One Day” restores a little bit of the energy from the beginning of the album. However, the album comes back stronger with “The Man Who Lives Forever,” a song that has perhaps the most “Western” lyrics to it as the protagonist tries to cheat death.

The album backs off once again with “Lullaby,” but crescendos through “Brother,” a story of loyalty in the face of danger. Lonesome Dreams draws to a close with “In the Wind,” one of the more foreboding songs on the album. More than any other song, it makes use of that electric guitar twang. It’s an interesting choice for the end of the album because of its ominous, wandering tone, but it acts like a cliffhanger at the end of a good book.

After listening to the album, I looked up a little bit about Lord Huron and my respect for his creativity grew. In preparation for Lonesome Dreams, which was his first full-length album, he created an entire story behind each song, equating each one to an old west story that he also created. He came up with a multi-faceted protagonist, and even a fictional author of all his stories. As a music fanatic, I love the story behind each song, and as a writer, I love his thorough creativity. Lonesome Dreams is one of the most out-of the-box albums I’ve heard, and, in the best way, it is not like anything else I listen to.

Worth Every Penny

Album: Struggle Pretty

Artist: Penny & Sparrow

Skip To: Rattle

How to describe this beautiful and intriguing work… I absolutely adore this duo and their unique style. After the brief instrumental prelude “Jeffrey Alan,” the album moves seamlessly into “Serial Doubter” and then “Bread and Bleeding,” songs which introduce the duo’s unique style.”Serial Doubter” crescendos throughout most of the song, only to taper off at the end. The energy picks back up with “Bread and Bleeding,” one of the more upbeat songs with a lovely echoing violin that tracks throughout. I don’t know exactly what to call Penny & Sparrow in terms of genre; they call themselves alternative/acoustic folk, but the duo melds so many genres together, it’s hard t0 label the album as such.

Next up is “Rattle,” a song that pulls back and is a lot more bare bones. It’s mostly voice, guitar, piano, and a deep thumping drum that mimics a heartbeat. The song is about being willing to accept love as it comes, and it’s one of the songs that can be interpreted many different ways. When I hear it, I draw a lot of parallels to my faith, as with much of the rest of the album. But each song is so personal, I imagine each listener hearing something a little different, depending on their experience.

The subsequent tracks, “To Haunt, To Startle” and “The Literal Heart” make great use of steady build, and multi-layered, harmonic voicing. “Undress” and “Reeth” encapsulate the album’s honesty. Like the prior tracks, they build steadily through the end of the songs as the lyrics grow more honest. “Undress” centers around the speaker fighting being vulnerable and honest with others, and “Reeth” follows the character’s inability to live up to the person they should be, and seems to speak heavily to addiction cycles.

The next two songs almost have to be listened to together, “Thunder” and “Honest Wage.” These seemingly unrelated tracks are actually the Parable of the Prodigal Son in the Bible from two perspectives, “Thunder” from the younger brother as he returns home to find grace, and “Honest Wage” from the older brother as he looks on the father’s forgiveness with contempt. “Thunder,” fitting of a celebration, is the most upbeat song on the album and feels like a band playing at the party for the younger brother. But “Honest Wage” is quiet and acoustic. In the second chorus, the song largely drops coherent chords in favor of distant sound effects of people talking and laughing and the band that you can hear loudly in “Thunder” playing, as though the older brother is standing outside of the celebration, angry as he is in the story.

The album wraps up with the entirely a cappella “Fantine,” a song from the perspective of the Les Miserables character, a trend they seem to maintain throughout their albums. The previous album contained a song called “Valjean,” and I can’t wait to hear “Eponine” on their upcoming album. I apologize for the long review, but this album was one of the more difficult ones to describe and is truly incredible.

And the Oscar Goes To…

Album: Audio:Cinema

Artist: Cody Fry

Skip To: Underground (as long as you’re okay with being a little unnerved)

In Audio:Cinema, Cody Fry introduces us to his gem of a singer/songwriter album. As a whole, the album is largely acoustic, and his sweet-sounding voice complements the music wonderfully. The album begins with “Open the Gates,” a song that starts off with an interesting, cacophonous mesh of instruments that vaguely resembles an orchestra tuning up. The rest of the song quietly builds the instrumentation to a triumphant conclusion.

“Underground” immediately follows, another song that implements great crescendo but to an unnerving effect. The lyrics begin a little confusingly, leaving the listener wondering exactly what is going on. But as the song continues, all accompanied by quiet, sweet-sounding music, the listener learns that the character is standing on train track, and the train is approaching. The closer the train gets, the louder and fuller the sound gets. As freaky as the story is, the music is superb, and the listener can feel everything that’s going on.

The album moves into “Stop Breathing,” an endearing song about two lovers trying to make it work. It’s a primarily piano and it features a female artist for a beautiful duet. The quiet “Give It Up” follows, and subsequently, the nostalgic “Silver Circle.” While both songs are largely acoustic, “Silver Circle” builds throughout and tracks a story of a lost relationship through the symbol of a lost ring. “Peace Like a River,” a cover of a Paul Simon song, is somewhat uncharacteristic of the rest of the album, as it’s minor, harsher, and fuller-sounding, but it’s one of my favorites.

“Daydreaming” sits just before the end, a fun and slightly ironic song about a fairytale story going wrong as a princess denies the prince that comes to rescue her. The song is largely representative of the album as a whole, as it’s quiet and acoustic, but also has it’s moments off fullness, and has such an overarching sweetness to it. The album finally draws to a close with “Leaving Home,” one of the most thematically pointed songs. It’s a song that makes me think of many of the people I’ve met in college who are so desperate to “get out there,” but find themselves missing home once it’s gone. This album is great easy listening. I love the sweetness of the music and lyrics the most.

Western Wonder

Album: Battle Hymns EP

Artist: The Western Den

Skip To: Desert Ground

I love EPs because I can go more in depth when reviewing each song. I also hate them, because good ones leave me wanting more, and they’re just too short! Battle Hymns, an ambient folk EP, carries a marching tone throughout, a slight feel of going into battle, hence the name. However, even with this thread, each song is incredibly distinct. Battle Hymns begins with “For the Sake of Seeking,” a track that sets off the EP with fullness and resolve. Vocal instrumentation – the “oo”s or any vocals that add to the sound but aren’t lyrical and a term I made up to sound like I know what the crap I’m talking about – is a vital part of the song, and The Western Den implements it especially well. Excellent use of piano as a base and violin as an accent also characterize the introductory track.

Lyrically, each song centers around a story or character. The next song, “Desert Ground,” feels like an old folk tale or even a campfire story, documenting a chilling tale of a hot air balloon crashing down in the desert. Repetition coupled with a mild crescendo in the chorus perpetuate the characters’ inevitable doom. The eerie, layered vocals and the echoing violin give the song an “archaic” feel. It is by far the most haunting of the four songs, which is what I love so much about it.

“The Minister” maintains that darkness. It starts out minor, following a minister who has come to the end of himself in his relentless efforts to save souls. Just like “For the Sake of Seeking,” the song has superb piano, violin, and vocal instrumentation, but to a completely different effect. It is much more forlorn, as the music reflects the great weariness that the lyrics depict. But as the EP draws to a close, hope comes back around in “First Light,” which ends with the message that night will always pass. While it relies heavily on acoustic guitar and a little ambient violin through the majority of the song, it picks up the energy in the chorus and adds in banjo and piano for backing, and the song contains a lovely violin solo between the chorus and the bridge. “First Light” wraps up a wonderful little gem of an EP.

Bound for Greatness

Album: Northbound EP

Artist: Window View

Skip To: What Would I Know

I mentioned my extensive internet digging in my About page, but Northbound is one of those wonderful veins of internet gold I happened across. The alternative rock duo kicks off their EP with “Last Chance For Love,” a joyful song about how there is always hope for love. Musically, it’s one of the most layered on the album, both in vocals and instrumentation.

The EP pulls the energy way back with the poignant “What Would I Know.” It cuts down to the musical barebones, relying on a bit of drum, guitar, and piano for the instrumentation and complementing the simplicity with stunning vocal harmonies. Throughout the song, but particularly in the chorus, Window View implements deep bass notes that give the song a backbone. “Continents,” a more melancholy song that tracks a couple’s emotional estrangement, starts to bring more instruments back in. It has a distinct marching feel to it that gives the song clear direction.

The next song, “One Beating Heart,” is perhaps the most thematically powerful. It centers around the idea that trying to hide our flaws is futile, because all people are the same inside. It maintains the marching feel of “Continents,” moving towards the full conclusion of “The Pacific.” The best thing I can say about this song is that, despite centering around the speaker searching in vain for a past love, it just makes me smile, particularly the chorus. It has so much musical energy, and it uses images of driving up and down the Pacific coast. It makes me want to take a road trip.

Overall, this EP has great instrumentation and energy, and it has hope, even in the songs about loss. But my favorite aspect throughout all the songs was the superb implementation of the piano. Often, songs that utilize piano either cut down the use of everything else and overload the piano, or they blast all of the other instruments and the song loses the value piano can add. However, Window View found a perfect balance of making the piano a part of the instrumentation without making it overpowering or underwhelming.

Through the Deep, Grand Music

Album: Through the Deep, Dark Valley

Artist: The Oh Hellos

Skip To: Wishing Well or Second Child, Restless Child

Before I actually dive into what makes this album stupendous, I have to give a little tribute to the Oh Hellos. Since I started listening to their music three years ago, they’ve opened a whole new world of music to me, are half the reason this blog exists, and their lyrics have profoundly touched my life at difficult moments. I say without hesitation that they are my favorite band of all time, and watching their live performance only solidified that. While I could write forever just about the concert, I’ll try to keep it to highlights: it didn’t feel like I was watching a band perform. It felt like the band and audience were hanging out together, having the time of our lives playing incredible music. While siblings Maggie and Tyler Heath write and record the music themselves, they tour with a rotating group of friends, and at the concert I attended, nine band members were jammed onto a tiny little stage in a nightclub. But they never let that diminish their energy and by the end, a few of them just jumped off the stage and played in the audience. They weren’t cocky, just folks having a grand old time and letting us be a part of it.

Right from the start, this album pulls in the listener with a shock of folk rock and very full music, many different instruments and voices layered over each other. “The Valley” builds throughout the first verse with layered instrumentation, but as it seems about to peak in the chorus, it backs off suddenly with Maggie’s lovely voice, and it continues to surprise the listener with unexpected builds and drops. The Oh Hellos, with the use of instrumental builds, create stunning suspense throughout their songs. Each track has direction, always moving toward an ultimate goal. Even quieter tracks such as “Wishing Well,” “In Memoriam,” and “The Lament of Eustace Scrubb” all have full conclusions.

Just like the songs themselves, the album as a whole has its own builds and drops, as the energy of “The Valley” drops immediately into the acoustic “Like the Dawn.” The energy builds back up again through the subsequent tracks, “Eat You Alive” and “Second Child, Restless Child,” only to once again back down into quieter tracks, then build back up to the epic finale, “Valley (Reprise).”

But perhaps what I value most about this album is its stunning lyrics. I just described the musical arc for the album, but that musical arc tracks with the story arc of the lyrics. While there is not per se a single cohesive story, each song seems to be a moment from a character’s past as they seek to find redemption and meaning in their more difficult experiences in life and the wrongs they have committed. And while not every song is necessarily happy, the album as a whole is uplifting and hopeful and leaves the listener with a kind of positivity that isn’t feigned or unrealistic. Overall, I can’t say enough about this fantastic work. I’m sorry for the longer review this week, but this is one of my favorite albums. It is truly wonderful, and I hope you enjoy it as well.

The Band of Many Colors

Album: Native Dreamer Kin

Artist: JOSEPH

Skip To: Cloudline or Come In Close

I can’t talk about this album without first talking about what it was like seeing this trio perform live. I actually had the great fortune of meeting these lovely ladies while they were opening for The Oh Hellos tour (yes, that band name is a preview of coming attractions). Before the concert, I had never heard of JOSEPH and had no idea what to expect of them. And it was my first time seeing a band so responsive to their audience. They played through their set, constantly thanking not only the audience but the band they were touring with, and they seemed so genuinely humbled by every round of applause we gave them. After the concert, they worked the merch table, and were more than happy to talk to everyone about anything, not just their own album. They were kind, loving, and so grateful. And freaking talented.

Native Dreamer Kin, which falls into the acoustic singer/songwriter genre, begins with the haunting “Cloudline,” immediately to be followed by a shock of folk/country in the form of “Wind.” Other songs on the album, such as “Tell Me There’s a Garden,” “Come in Close,” and “Gold” are quiet and ambient, relying on little more than guitar and vocals to produce the music. Others are filled with power and resolve, such as “Lifted Away” and “Eyes to the Sky.” Lyrically, the music can be interpreted many different ways, explicit meaning and stories largely abandoned in favor of abstract symbols and single moments. The lyrics are highly poetic, and they enhance the acoustic music and make it even more relaxing.

But these sisters have one thing that truly sets them apart: harmonies, “genetically perfected,” to put it their way. And they live up to that superbly. Not only are the harmonies they write simply beautiful, but their voices blend unlike anything I have ever heard. Frequently, when I saw them perform, it was difficult for me to tell which of them was singing which part because their voices were so well in tune. And for the times when two sing “oo”s in background, their voices become part of instrumentation to enrich the sound.

Beyond just how wonderful these three sisters are as people, their music is so lovely and is wonderful for just decompressing. See these ladies live if you ever get the chance, they really are the sweetest!

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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.

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