I think it was a piano that drew us in. Or it could have been the raised voices, swelling together in harmony. We were wandering the narrow, winding lanes of Bergen when we stumbled across the choir. We stood motionless in the stairway of a nondescript Norwegian row house and just listened. The world melted way as we witnessed a truly beautiful, but intensely private moment. A stained-glass window above us was the only indication that this was a church. We cracked open the door a few inches so we could peer inside.
The music had a modern tempo, scales rising and falling with the harmonies. It reminded me of Arcade Fire mixed with Sigur Ros somehow. Of course, the lyrics were in indecipherable, but you got the gist easily enough as the group sang their graces. Through the six-inch vista in the doorway we could see clusters of people singing, guitars, drums and big piano. A few singers swayed, their heads raised, arms out in poses of blissful celebration.
We were clearly intruding, we knew that. But it was such a surprising, powerful moment that we were locked in its orbit, unable to turn away. Eventually, a nice young lady invited us in to watch their performance. A few quick smiles from the parishioners let us know we were welcome.
That’s a how a great song feels to me: like you’ve stumbled into a secret meeting. It’s just for them—the artist—but they’ve let you in.
Jim James has tried to capture that immediacy with mixed results. More than a few times you hear him stumble or laugh on Uniform Distortion, as that he was trying to record something raw, loose. It works marvelously on Throwback or the Crazyhorse inspired No Secrets, but other times the songwriting is muddy like you’re trudging through a swamp with heavy boots.
Sometimes an artist wears their influences on their sleeve. Rowland Baxter blends Paul Simon’s conversational tone with the Kinks to perfection because he has such a great voice. Wide Awake swings from anthemic (Hey Larocco, Casanova) to deeply personal (Amelia Baker) to John Lennon-esque protest songs (79 Shiny Revolvers) with grace and honesty.
A great EP leaves you wanting more, that’s exactly what Sam Valdez does on Mirage. Her music is sexy, it breathes warmth and tension like she’s whispering to you on your pillow before sleep takes you.
I’ve become pretty obsessed with Wilder Maker. There’s so much great composition crammed into Zion‘s seven tracks. It’s a dense listen. A times they remind me of Broken Social Scene (Woman Dancing Immortal), other times Fleetwood Mac (Multiplied), but Wilder Maker are distinctly their own band. Impossible Summer is a song that begs to be heard. Their music takes so many unexpected twists and turns, one moment euphoric and revelatory, then quiet, somber, then a sax solo explodes from nowhere. I can play this record all day.
Some of the best production I’ve heard all year can be found on Almost by The Ophelias. It’s dark and textured, with strings or harmonies vibrating just out of focus, all the while rooted by a strummed guitar or marching drum. Put your headphones on for songs like Night Signs, Lunar Rover and General Electric.
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