Sampler: Earthy Tones in Folk, Blues, and Jazz

Four earthy tracks from multiple genres that are perfect for your Sunday afternoon.

This week we’re breaking from our genre oriented samplers to give you something new: four earthy tracks from multiple genres that are perfect for your Sunday afternoon.

Nothing Turns My Lock by Kate Vargas

Kate Vargas’ brand of earthy, muted jazz is beautifully classic, but her perspective is anything but old-fashioned. Nothing Turns My Lock is a manifesto on sexual liberation, pulling out every stop and holding back zero punches. As each verse unfolds, Vargas confidently pushes the envelope farther with lines like, “I like good loving, that don’t make me bad”, “I’m not a big believer in monogamy”, and the god of all stanzas: “I don’t discriminate between Johnny and Sue/ He, she, they, and you can come (wink, wink) too/ Yes it may take many, many, many men and women to satisfy my needs/ But nothing turns my lock like your key.” It’s an expansion on the jazz standard form, which to use Vargas’ words is “usually pretty hetero and monogamous”, but it never loses the timeless feel of it’s source material. Her energy is defiantly infectious. As soon as her smoky jazz voice hits your ears in all its raspy, irreverent glory you can’t help but get hooked. Nothing Turns My Lock is a must-listen even if you aren’t usually a jazz fan, it’s a witty pop statement from a supremely talented rising star. We can’t wait to see where Kate Vargas goes from here.

Eyes to the Sky by David Ellis

Folk as a genre has exploded in the past decade, but even in such a crowded and diverse genre David Ellis has found a niche that makes him stand out from the crowd. Where the scene is largely dominated by pop folk acts cashing in on the Mumford & Sons/The Lumineers explosion at the start of the decade, one guitar male/female duos with tight harmonies, and emotive Justin Vernon-inspired experimental projects, Ellis has turned instead to the 70s to capture and modernize an up-beat, rhythmic kind of hippie folk that is both catchy and creative. A self-described “Pagan Rock” artist from London, his aim is to make earthy and spiritual music for an increasingly spiritually deprived Western culture, encouraging the listener to connect with the beauty of the world and find happiness within themselves. On his latest single, Eyes to the Sky, he does exactly that, creating an optimistic and nuanced song about love in the grander sense that is imbued with an undeniable vitality. The album it was taken from, Misty Heights, recorded and produced by Ellis while living next to the Byrdcliffe Colony in Woodstock, is slated for release August 15.

Caught Between Our Troubles by The American Buffalo

The 1970s were the heyday of rock music, marked by watershed releases from bands as varied as Led Zepplin, Pink Floyd, Aerosmith, The Eagles, The Ramones, and Rush. One particular subculture of 70s rock, however, largely faded into obscurity in the following decades except for two of its figureheads, Neil Young and Lynyrd Skynyrd. Southern Rock was a thriving sub-community in the rock landscape of the 1970s, focussed on virtuosic, earthy guitar playing and storytelling lyricism more often than not about the everyday experience of the common man. On Caught Between Our Troubles, Dayton-by-way-of-Nashville artist The American Buffalo channel the 70s Southern Rock movement in sound and in spirit, resulting in a powerful mix of folk, country, and blues that paints a simple, but resonant scene: two brothers sitting in a park, deep in reflection over a pack of smokes. It’s part of singer-songwriter Josh Edwards’ modus operandi: dissecting the oft-ambiguous role of the white American male in a culture of white patriarchy. He does this with probing, storytelling songwriting in the tradition of American Popular Music (not to be confused with American Pop Music), a very historically aware movement including a wide variety of genres that is meant to be in direct conversation with the cultural meta-narrative. As a result, Caught Between Our Troubles feels timeless, a thoughtful track that is relevant today and would have been relevant even in the era it emulates.

FOMO by Great Aunt

Americana usually calls to mind the bayous of Louisiana, the pocket communities of the Appalachian mountains, or the great plains of the American heartland, but Melbourne, Australia’s Great Aunt prove that, despite its name, not all great Americana comes from the United States. Comprised of songwriters Megan Byrd and Chelsea Allen, Great Aunt have been steadily making a name for themselves in the Australian Country Music community since 2016 with their tight harmonies and instrumentals that are elegant in their simplicity. Lyrically they pull influence from old time, bluegrass, and gospel traditions, writing downtrodden music that masks its latent sorrowfulness in the joy of its expression. On their newest single, FOMO, Great Aunt drop back off their usually vocal-driven sound and instead highlight their guitar playing prowess, arranging the song around a set of slide guitar riffs that sound straight off a Georgia front porch. The sparse lyrics accent these riffs beautifully, creating an almost haunting vibe with their hushed, close harmonies. The sound feels like a captured live performance, creating a sensation of immediacy that draws the listener in to the deep valleys and dangerous peaks of the song as it undulates between dynamic extremes. 

Review: “Princess Diana” by The Mañana People

“Princess Diana, the debut full-length from German freak-folk/psyche-country duo The Mañana People is the kind of album that almost seems tailor-made for a quirky coming of age indie-movie.”

FFO: Space-Westerns, Olde-Timey, Freak Folk

In the early 2010s there was a string of movies where the protagonist somehow ends up involved with an eccentric indie band. Jim Carrey fell in love with the singer of an avant-garde noise pop band in Yes Man, Michael Fassbender wore a giant papier-mâché head and fronted a psychedelic rock band in Frank, and of course Ellen Page and Michael Cera formed their own quirky folk duo in the smash hit Juno, which briefly popularized bubbly, cutesy folk with its accompanying soundtrack. It was such a popular trend for those few years that it almost became its own subgenre and launched specifically Michael Cera and Zooey Deschanel into the spotlight. 

While these movies put a ton of underground artists in the spotlight for a brief moment, there was a certain sense that the viewer was supposed to see these kinds of music as weird, perhaps endearingly so, but still other to them. Where the obscure musician stereotype wasn’t fetishized (like in Scott Pilgrim V.S. the World) it was often played as a sort of joke. Fortunately for the actual artists in these obscure corners of music, these movies had an unintended side effect: a bunch of kids who never would have known these genres existed genuinely fell in love with the new musical world now in front of them. I was one such kid. 

Princess Diana, the debut full-length from German freak-folk/psyche-country duo The Mañana Peopleis the kind of album that almost seems tailor-made for a quirky coming of age indie-movie. Their blend of lo-fi country, harmonies that fall somewhere between The Beach Boysand The Eagles, and inventive sci-fi storytelling plant them firmly in a niche all their own. Top that off with the occasional whirligig synth line, a few timely handclaps, and the always-essential theremin solo, and you have the recipe for an immediate cult classic and/or the soundtrack to the next popular Sundance film. It’s infectious fun from the very first song, practically oozing with good-natured joy. 

The Mañana People draw from quite a variety of host material to create their unique brand of entertainment. What is particularly impressive is the way they contour their harmonies to further distinguish each song. On Matchstick Manthey resemble The Beach Boys, while on Anthrophagus they sound more like 70s Southern rockers The Outlaws, and on People Who Don’t Know They’re Deadthey once again reimagine themselves as a barbershop quartet. Musically The Mañana People are equally prone to experiment, usually leaning on old-timey country guitars, but occasionally dipping into Frankenstein organs, surf guitars, lo-fi electronic drums, and old-English balladry, doing each separate style justice and maintaining their indie-pop chops throughout. 

The lyrics more often than not tell tales of zombies, murder mysteries, and traveler’s woes, calling to mind the classic monster movies of the 1930s and 1940s. Though hoaky at points, both writers consistently display a talent for penning gripping lines that jump beyond their narrative context. Perhaps the best example of this comes on the chorus of the penultimate track It’s Harder to Try, a old-timey country tune akin to The Carter Family“May the road rise to greet you / May the songs fill your head / May your house be safe from tigers / May your youth be well-spent / It’s so hard to be kind / But it’s harder to try.” While their particular brand of lyricism certainly isn’t for everyone, it is unusually captivating for what it is. It takes a rare songwriter to get a listener invested in a song about zombie battles, but The Mañana Peoplepull it off more times than not.

While Princess Diana is a very unique album and generally quite engaging, it can feel a bit disjointed at times. The album’s composition is a little inconsistent, with the track order sometimes seeming very thought out and at other times haphazard. It sits in that awkward, uncanny valley between albums that were designed to be cohesive and albums that were really just a collection of songs, not really committing to either side. This makes listening to Princess Diana as a unit an uneven experience, despite each song for the most part standing on its own merits. Despite this, however, it is still quite a fun and enjoyable collection of tunes.

All in all the debut LP from The Mañana People makes for an intriguing listen, so unique as to peak your interest and yet with enough familiar ground to keep your attention focused. Fans of freak-folk and psyche-country will find plenty to enjoy here, but Princess Diana is such an endearing album that it also merits a listen from any outsider who might be curious. While it may be fairly obscure as an art-form it is also so laden with catchy hooks and infectious, quasi-space-western energy that most anybody can find something to enjoy.  

7.3/10 (Stand-Out)

For more information on how we score albums see Our Rating Scale.

Label: Unique Records
Release Date: January 18, 2019

Review: “The Mystic and the Master” by Laura Stevenson

Laura Stevenson has been quietly making a name for herself for the better part of the last decade. After a stint playing keyboards for the now legendary punk band Bomb the Music Industry!featuring none other than the eternal Jeff Rosenstock, Stevenson embarked on her own as a singer/songwriter, releasing her first solo offering A Recordin 2010. Since then she’s released three more full lengths and garnered a modest, but devoted following on the back of her artfully introspective lyrics and emotive singing voice. Despite her real-world success though, Stevenson has largely flown under the critical radar. This is confusing not only because of her clear talent as a lyricist, but also considering she runs in the same circle as recognizable artists like Jeff Rosenstock and Chris Farren. Her predicament calls to mind that of Kevin Devine, another artist who is almost as talented as he is criminally underrated and whose situation seems to defy all prevailing logic. 

The Mystic and the Masteris the first new release from the New York songwriter since her 2015 full-length Cocksure.It is a two-song double single released on her mother’s birthday as a nod of appreciation for “enduring” the raising of her and her sister. In contrast to some of her prior work, both tracks are performed with only acoustic, strings, and voice. This stripped back arrangement feels even more intimate than usual for Stevenson, who makes use of the opportunity to deliver some of the sharpest and most nostalgic lines she’s penned yet. 

On the title track she paints a stunning portrait of her mother: “Cause she loves you ’til she shrinks and she thins / Like a violet in a violin / And she’ll paint you a shiny porcelain tooth / Like the one that hangs in hunch / From her second man’s sucker punch.” With each subsequent line Stevenson blows the dust from the family photo album, providing vivid if melancholic snapshots of family tradition, forgiveness, and self-sacrifice. It’s storytelling through embodiment, unpacking the person of her mother into an engaging narrative. When she moves on to the second track, Maker of Things, she pivots into a more traditional storytelling method, but achieves the same effect. Here she juxtaposes a fight between her sister and her mother at a gas station during her childhood with witnessing the closing of the same gas station as an adult. Staring into the parking lot, surrounded by “for sale” signs, Stevenson trades her air of nostalgia for resolve: “I don’t feel small / I don’t wince, I’m not ashamed / I feel big, I push back, only time I did that.” 

Though brief, The Mystic and the Master double single is one of the most gripping releases from this December, a clinic on emotive storytelling and a reminder of the underappreciated songwriter’s superior skill with words. For those unfamiliar with Laura Stevenson’s back catalog it also provides an easy launch pad into her work; some of her most potent songs put into a succinct and accessible package. Hopefully this movement on her part foreshadows a full form return to new music, because with her writing the sharper than ever, 2019 could finally be the Stevenson breakout we’ve been waiting for.  

7.4/10 (Stand Out)

For more information on how our scoring system works see: https://notasound.org/2018/11/01/our-rating-scale/