and conceal, appearance and disappearance, these words are key to the
thinking behind this work and link to my fascination with Roland
Barthes’ concept of the ‘seam’. Barthes describes the seam as
being the site of both loss and of desire. I am interested in playing
with the tension of the edge or seam by working with folding to
collage” – Rebecca Loweth,
of collage artists and seamstresses, not many people give much
thought to the meaning of seams. But such a seemingly simple thing is
pregnant with symbolic meaning. As
Loweth points out, as a piece folds it enters a cycle of appearance
and disappearance: part of the original disappears behind the crease
and what remains visible now appears different. Likewise as two
things are sowed together the seam marks both the edges of each
original part and also, literally and symbolically, the melding of
the two pieces into one new piece. Appearance and disappearance. Loss
and desire. The old and the new.
appropriate that Jay Sunaway
would take inspiration from Loweth’s approach, in many ways it
mirrors their own artistic journey. In 2018 the London space-folk
outfit released their debut EP Earth Hum,
a mesmerizing album centered on modern life and technology in a
present world that seems to thrust itself constantly
into the future. Now on their 2019 followup Sparrowfeather,
they focus instead on the past, invoking natural images to explore
the themes of place, history, and memories. Just like Loweth, Jay
Sunaway choose to live their
creative lives on the seam, using their music to explore the tensions
between a modern,
ever-evolving world, and the world of memories and places that gave
birth to it.
this all sounds a bit heady for you, don’t worry, despite it’s
wide-reaching and meandering lyrical themes Sparrowfeather
is a very accessible EP that any
folk fan will love. It’s also simply gorgeous. Behind Joe Woods’
elegant finger picked guitar lines and reflective lyrics is a fully
fleshed out world of reverby harmonies, lush string arrangements, and
strikingly dynamic bass lines. Jay Sunaway
shift effortlessly between hushed “one guitar, one voice” folk
and groovy full band alt-folk crescendos, sometimes throwing in key
and tempo changes along the way for good measure. In all it sounds
vaguely like The Decemberists,
but if Sufjan Stevens composed the EP for Colin Meloy and told him to
tone down the medieval peasant ramblings. It
has the same hyper-literate appeal, but with a more universal message
and a much more ethereal soundscape.
Check out this stunning new EP when it releases officially this Fall through Upcycled Sounds, and stream the first two singles Rocks and Kittiwake Cry below.
The future is not what it seems. Just down the road from where I am writing this is the Pittsburgh Waterfront, a booming shopping district built over the bones of Andrew Carnegie’s steel dynasty. It’s a scene familiar to those of us who grew up in Pittsburgh, the city that bounced back, one of the few rust-belt towns to find new life once the nation’s mills closed down: what is old is bought out by developers and turned into housing plans and sprawling strip malls, often separate from and inaccessible for those who lived through the changes. In the rural counties just outside the city limits this process is even more exaggerated. Not an hour north from downtown Pittsburgh sits Butler, once a district filled with family farms and the farthest corner of the city’s industrial hub. These days the old manufacturing districts have folded into a post-industrial wasteland and the few farmers remaining are increasingly forced to sell off parcels of their land to the same kinds of developers who gentrified much of the city to their south. For many this is the face of the future; an inescapable wave that leaves the old ways propped up in ruins and the new just out of reach. But some, like Butler’s own progressive folk outfit String Machine, are rejecting the life they’ve inherited; taking the lessons they learned from “the frozen ruins of Western Pennsylvania” and using them to press forward into a future all their own.
String Machine’s music is an ethereal and vulnerable blend of folk, punk, and indie that invites the listener into it’s own sonic world; a nostalgia-laced place that “provides joy while wondering if joy is even possible.” On their sophomore record, The Death of the Neon, the seven piece band have reached a near spiritual point in their creation, blending everyday experiences and esoteric imagery into something that feels potent and transcendent. Nowhere is this better exemplified than on early standout Old Mack, a song that takes the story of being bit by an old dog and spins it into a contemplation on life and death with lines like “not all hounds go to heaven/ but I don’t know where the bad ones go”, “I’ve got it tied tight around my face/ blanket soul keeps the sap in my head”, and “let’s put make-up on my scares today/ and go see Manson at Star Lake/ and hope we wake up the same.” Throughout the record, lead songwriter David Beck uses images like the above to give a sort of surreal feeling to the scene he’s describing. Perhaps the best of these surreal images comes on the second track and lead single Eight Legged Dog where Beck sings an uneasy and slightly disturbing chorus: “the eight legged dog/ is coming along/ to ruin your grain.”
Several of the more vivid images also recur throughout, making Death of the Neon strikingly cohesive. The dog image occurs first in Eight Legged Dog and then again in Old Mack, the first as a personification of some dreadful thing and the second as a literal old hound. Similarly the phrase “soft margins” and the sap image pop up any time vulnerability comes into frame, while the phrase “excite again” first appears in No Holiday/Excite Again to signify doubting the possibility of joy and then appears as an inversion in Comforts From the Cobweb to signify a joy so powerful nothing could excite you beyond it. In the middle of the album the breeze plays a spiritual role in multiple songs, first drawing a comparison to a god and then a sense of calm and belonging with “in the breeze it’s alright to be.”
It’s the attention to such small details that sets The Death of the Neon apart from similar albums, or from most albums in general. This trait carries over into the whole arrangement as well. Every song is painstakingly layered with beautiful harmonies from their second vocalist Laurel Wain, sublime synth and piano lines, acoustic and electric guitars, strings, and even the occasional trumpet. It’s maximalism without the attention-seeking, complexity for the sake of sheer beauty and nothing else, and it’s the prime reason that Death of the Neon remains just as rewarding with each repeat listen as it is on the first play-through.
As with most albums in this vein, the main downside, if you can call it that, is in accessibility. Beck sings his lyrics in a loose, impassioned way that is heavily inspired by midwest “twinkly” emo and other 90s-inspired indie rock. The strength of this approach is that it conveys strong emotions well and has a sort of everyman charm, while the downside is that to the uninitiated it sounds pitchy and unrefined. When juxtaposed with Laurel Wain’s more ethereal voice, however, it reinforces and mirrors the band’s dual imagery: one part earthy, jagged past and one part dreamy, transcendental hope in a possible future.
Overall, Death of the Neon is easily one of the most complete and cohesive records of the year so far, and a shining example of our artistic mission statement at Not a Sound: build a world, not a sound. It’s an album you can dissolve into and explore over and over, unpacking new layers piece by piece with every fresh listen. Whether you’re a fan of psyche folk or if you didn’t know it was a genre until today, there’s a lot to experience, a lot to discover, and a lot to enjoy about String Machine‘s masterfully crafted new full-length, due out this Friday, August 2nd. The future is now, choose today what you will do with it.
8.2 (Best New Music)
Released: August 2nd, 2019 Label: Earthwalk Collective
New music from Of Monsters & Men kicks off this week’s indie and alternative packed single sampler.
New music from Of Monsters and Men kicks off this week’s indie and alternative packed single sampler.
Alligator by Of Monsters and Men
It’s hard to believe that Of Monsters and Men has already been around for a decade. The Icelandic indie folk/rock/pop act has been making steady waves since 2011, when their first single Little Talks got picked up by then prominent Philadelphia Radio 104.5, a lucky break that propelled the band to international name recognition. Both Little Talks and the album it came from, My Head is an Animal, went number one in Iceland and the latter debuted at number 6 in the U.S. The album has since been certified platinum. Since that fateful debut, they’ve shown no real signs of slowing down. Their sophomore effort Beneath the Skin debuted at number three and earned them their first Grammy nomination, as well as TV appearances, a spot at Coachella, and the honor of being the first Icelandic artist to cross 1 billion streams on Spotify. Now four years later, Of Monsters and Men are back for round three with Fever Dream and its dynamic first single Alligator. Alligator has everything we’ve come to expect from the band: a lush enveloping soundscape, an immediately catchy stadium chorus and a bonus equally catchy bridge all wrapped together with the crisp indie-pop production that has been a staple of their sound since the onset. But this single also veers into some new territory for the band, namely a rhythmic, electric guitar driven “breakdown” in each post-chorus. It’s a choice almost reminiscent of Scottish arena rock icons Biffy Clyro and certainly the most “rock” thing Of Monsters and Men has gone for during their recent slide into more alternative sounds. It will be interesting to see if this new theme carries through the rest of Fever Dream when it officially releases July 26.
Find Me Out by Ronjo V
Austin’s Ronjo V are putting their own spin on a long tradition of meat n’ potatoes alternative in the line of Beck and early Wilco. Their newest single, Find Me Out, is a clinic on dynamic movement and layering; shifting between acoustic led rhythms, creamy leads, punchy electric chords, and tactful blues riffs that are both impressive and purposely understated. In fact “understated” is probably the best descriptor for Ronjo V’s whole operation. Nothing draws undue attention to itself, which often masks the fact that there’s actually a decent bit going on at all times, whether it be overlapping guitar leads in the latter parts of the verses or a subtle tambourine in the chorus. This creates a sensation of movement that is felt without always being heard and it also opens up exactly the amount of space needed to let the listener focus on what lead songwriter Ryan Joseph wants them to hear. And once he has your undivided attention Joseph doesn’t disappoint. A falsetto harmony marks a succinct, ear catching pre-chorus, before hitting an absolutely killer chorus that would have been guaranteed radio fodder ten years ago when alternative radio still played alt-rock. This is broken up by not one, but two guitar instrumentals, the first a plodding riff with vaguely Spanish undertones in the bridge, and the second a bluesy accent solo in the outro that calls to mind The Eagles. All in all, Find Me Out is a must hear for alternative fans as well as indie-rock aficionados looking for a little more rock in their indie; a stand out new single from a promising young project.
Anthem For the Weak by The Harmaleighs
Haley Grant is battling depression her own way. She is the lead songwriter for the emotive Nashville folk duo The Harmaleighs, alongside her compatriot and bassist Kaylee Jasperson, and like many other artists who struggle with depression, she is using her creativity as both a platform of expression and a weapon in the chemical war inside her head. Though many other artists have used creation as an outlet for processing their mental health, the way Grant goes about it is uniquely her own. The Harmaleighs’ new album She Won’t Make Sense, due out on August 2nd, is a conversation between Grant and her personified depression, which she names Susan. As the album goes on, Grant and Susan engage in a struggle for control, culminating in the final song I Don’t Know Myself which begs the question: “do the darkest parts of ourselves make us who we are?” On the opposite end of the album sits the most recent single, opener Anthem For the Weak, a dusty, melancholy folk song with cutting lyricism reminiscent of rising indie star Phoebe Bridgers. The song is a sonic departure for the duo, delving further into full-band soundscapes than their prior brand of sparse pop folk, and it pays off dramatically. The airy synth sounds, subtle organ, delay-heavy drums, and selectively used slide guitar create an atmosphere that captures the emotional unease and distance of depression to a tee, without delving too far into the soul-crushing existentialism typical of the subject matter. Instead Grant’s lyrics dance through light, catchy pop melodies that stick on the first listen, and they do so without compromising any of the desired impact. For these reasons The Harmaleighs’ impending album is one of our most anticipated releases of August.
I Don’t Wanna Take Too Much by The Brazen Youth
I’ve often heard it said, especially of music, that there is nothing new under the sun. The Brazen Youth are simultaneously the biggest proof and the biggest challenge to this notion. Formed in a 300-year-old farmhouse in rural Connecticut by middle school friends Nicholas Lussier and Charlie Dahlke, The Brazen Youth’s earthy, folksy, roots rock is filled with familiar tones, feels, and motifs. There’s the old raggedy piano, the sharp honk of the blues guitar, the shriek of the organ, and the storytelling lyricism, one part personal narrative and one part esoteric wanderings like many of the great songwriters that came before them. But somehow the music that they create is wholly their own, defying any apt comparison and masking any direct influences the songwriting duo may have had. The result is something incredibly rare: a sound that pulls you in with familiarity, but keeps you interested with unpredictable mystique. It’s as if The Brazen Youth have tapped into something beyond themselves, a living history much like their beloved farmhouse, something timeless and packed with nondescript emotional power. This distinct feeling is only hammered home by mystical lyrics like “I’d like to harness the most divine state” and “one collective human body/ 15 billion eyes just belonging to somebody.” It’s the kind of song that puts you in its own state of being, and when it’s over you can’t help but want to experience more. Unfortunately, you’ll have to wait until September 19 to hear the rest of their new EP 15 Billion Eyes, but in the meantime you can continue to cultivate your longing by playing I Don’t Wanna Take Too Much on repeat.
Just You by Steven Bowers feat. Meaghan Smith
Steven Bowers’ brand of folk music combines the storytelling tradition of writers like Jason Isbell, Ryan Adams, and John K. Samson with a larger than life, cinematic kind of spirit. His latest, Just You, takes on a almost post-apocalyptic type of character, not the violent and future-western apocalypse of Mad Max, but a reflective and emotionally present take on what is lost and the almost spiritual journey to reclaim it. “I wanted you when we were strangers/ then one you were coming over/ suddenly twenty, thirty years are going by.” But as time dissolves and takes with it its victims, Bowers pushes back in a triumphant flourish: “so build a fire from whatever kindling you can find/ when all the world is ending/ and it’s beginning all the time/ no goodbyes, no goodbyes/ polar bear looking for the ice/ Frankenstein waiting for the lightning/ one day your heart will reanimate/ just you wait.” Supporting his vivid images are swelling guitar, lush piano, stadium toms, and layers of harmonies whisping ethereally in the background. The result is a song bursting at the seems with emotion, dramatized enough to draw out a powerful reaction but realistic enough to still be real-world relatable, equally perfect for the climactic ending to an indie film or for listening while staring at the rain out your bedroom window.
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.
It’s a Friday night in Pittsburgh and I’m sitting at our dining room table as the thunder booms outside. I should be used to the rain by now, we in Pittsburgh get less sunny days each year than even Seattle, but even after living here for almost 25 years I still slip into a general malaise every time it storms. If you too are stuck inside on this rainy weekend and feeling a bit gloomy, this week’s sampler series could be the perfect soundtrack to your day. Here are four new, downtempo indie singles that we thought deserved to be heard:
Not My Body by Sam Lynch
“This is not my body, no, they made a mistake” singer/songwriter Sam Lynch croons softly over subdued synth pads. Her delivery is at once stunning and haunting, occupying that perfect space between the hollowness of disembodiment and the rawness of yearning for something more. That yearning through uncertainty informs the central theme of Not My Body, the loss of one’s self and the probing question: “is it all a mistake?” As the track works its way into a powerful crescendo led by piano, distant harmonies and strings, her voice grows more convicted and she hits one final, emotive and relatable line: “maybe all that’s left are fragments of myself/ never feels like enough to be set so I drown it out instead.” If you have ever experienced the distinct sensation of looking yourself in the mirror and wondering what really makes you, well, you, then this song should resonate strongly.
In Between by Junaco
California indie rock bands are usually known for beachy sounds, but Junaco break the stereotype in grand fashion to create an immersive and emotive soundscape reminiscent of Wilco’s The Whole Love. Overtop the dreamy atmospheric guitars and laid back groove, vocalist Shahana Jaffer sings calmly and effortlessly as she weaves a story about letting go, leaving because you know you have to, but not knowing how leaving will change who you are. However, where most songwriters would convey this through a sense of restlessness, she delivers her story with what seems a lot more like acceptance. Her voice melds into the surrounding instrumental, creating a general feeling of interconnectedness in the track that mirrors the complex interconnected emotions of Jaffer’s lyrics. In Between is sad without being hopeless, happy without being exuberant, and resolute without being harsh, the kind of song that gains power with each repeat listen.
Between Worlds by I Am Oak
Continuing with the theme of transitions, Utrecht, The Netherlands’ ambient folk project I Am Oak ask a unique question on their newest single Between Worlds: “What do I do in the mean time when it’s mean time all of the time?” It’s a question with existential weight, but songwriter Thijs Kuijken asks it almost as if it were a passing idea, as if he were sitting on his porch deep in thought and just taking in the world around him. Nowhere to go. Nothing really to do. But Kuijken doesn’t seem upset, instead he takes a step back and watches, allowing everything to unfold. The instrumental captures this mood perfectly. Though I Am Oak is known for being a folk band, here they take on a sonic palette more akin to a downtempo Snow Patrol, building on a subdued beat and a hushed acoustic guitar, but flourishing in each chorus with distorted guitar and melodic piano. All of this comes together to create a lush, dynamic song that stops the listener in their tracks.
Everyday by Joel Ansett
To end off our list is a track that’s a little bit more uplifting, but don’t worry, it’s still very downtempo and won’t break the mood. Joel Ansett is a Denver, CO songwriter whose music combines ambient, folk textures and writing with subtle nods to RnB. On his newest, Everyday, Ansett sings of love in hushed tones: “wisdom when I lose my way/ you’re the magic in all of this mundane.” It’s a beautiful line and also a perfect description of Ansett’s art as a whole. With very little melody from the instrumental and tons of open space he is able to create a song that feels more than a little magical; a track that is engaging and emotive even in its minimalism. To top it off it also has an immediately catchy hook: “I know more than ever now, I need you, oh I need you… I need you everyday.” It is a wonderfully peaceful song and the perfect way to finish off this rainy day sampler.
“Better Oblivion Community Center is easily one of the best albums we have heard this year. Not only is it an example of phenomenal folk-rock songwriting, but also a truly fun project for as serious as the subject matter is.”
FFO: Phoebe Bridgers, Bright Eyes, Folk-Rock
Apparently, Phoebe Bridgers really likes
working with other people. After
releasing last year’s excellent boygenius
EP in October with fellow indie stars Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus, she has
returned with another collaborative
album, with virtually no prior warning. This
past Thursday, our ears were blessed by the self-titled debut from Better
Oblivion Community Center, a collaboration between Bridgers and emo-folk
veteran Conor Oberst (most famous for his work with Bright Eyes).
Although the album was a surprise to everyone, it is not the first time that the two have collaborated. Bridgers’ excellent debut Stranger In The Alps (2017) features a duet with Oberst on the back half of the record called “Would You Rather.” The collaboration made sense on the album; Bridgers’ blend of haunting lyrics and folk-rock melodies bears obvious influence from Oberst’s work, which she likely would’ve listened to while growing up. It was a point of connection on the record to a previous generation of songwriters, showing the progression of the genre over time.
While “Would You Rather” is a duet and sounds like one, none of the songs on Better Oblivion Community Center play off as duets. It definitively sounds like a band effort. Although some songs have a more hushed, acoustic environment, most have some sort of full-band arrangement. And, while Bridgers and Oberst do take turns on lead-vocal duties, they are more often singing at the same time. Although side-by-side their voices can sound like an odd pairing (to me, Oberst’s nasally, cracked voice always sounded kind of funny next to Bridgers on “Would You Rather”), when they sing together the contrast works quite well. Sometimes Bridgers is mixed louder and sometimes Oberst is, but it is done in a way that spreads the tonal emphasis perfectly, helping their two distinct voices to blend and compliment one another.
The album also showcases both singers’ abilities as lyricists. The haunting opener “Didn’t Know What I Was In For,” is a Phoebe lead track where she, in her detailed style, takes the listener down the road of an existential crisis in the form of cosmic helplessness, “I didn’t know what I was in for / when I signed up for that run / there’s no way I’m curing cancer, but I’ll sweat it out / I feel so proud for all the good I’ve done.” Conor joins her on the chorus, and although you can surmise that this is a Phoebe song, he sounds perfectly natural singing along with her.
does not disappoint at all as a lyricist, his writing voice is so unique that
Bridgers occasionally has a hard time keeping up in the same way that he does
on her songs. The Oberst songs are the
ones that, while strong, sound less like a band, and more like a Conor Oberst
project. Again, this is not necessarily
bad, but it makes the record slightly uneven at points. This is perhaps the strength and weakness of the
album. Having more than one fantastic
songwriter on the project is a dream, but as a result, it lacks the cohesion
and emotional tension of both artists’ previous work at some points.
Better Oblivion Community Center is easily one of the best albums we have heard this year. Not only is it an example of phenomenal folk-rock songwriting, but also a truly fun project for as serious as the subject matter is. This record sounds like it was a joy to make and collaborate on; it comes through in every performance. While it may not be as emotionally gripping as their solo work, it doesn’t have to be in order to be a great record. Also, I’ve got to say, I really, really hope they tour together.
“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.