Playlist: 60 Highlight Tracks of 2019

Admittedly, I a large fan of albums – especially large, cohesive ones. But the modern music landscape is in a constant flux. The rise of streaming has resulted in a rising popularity in singles; other artists have opted for EPs as a way to release music more regularly and offset some of the recording cost. Ultimately, it’s a semi-hedonistic influence centered around instant gratification to some extent. In other respects, it’s a competitive pressure that pushes artists to be more strategic about their work from multiple angles rather than allow them to feel entitled to a listener base.

In the true spirit of this trend, I’ve created a playlist of 60 songs I feel encapsulate the best of 2019. You can listen to it right here. The songs are in no particular order and span a variety of genres – as such, putting it on shuffle is advised.

Even so, it’s worth taking a look at what makes each of the tracks so special. So, again in no particular order, here’s a breakdown of the best songs of 2019.

  1. Anhedonia – Overslept

Overslept first sold me with their debut, I’ve Been Keeping to Myself. They’re certainly no victims to sophomore slump, releasing one of the highlight albums of the last few years. “Anhedonia” is perfect blend of technical indie rock and pop appeal, full of moments that are bound to get caught in your head.

2. Mother & Father Dearest – Former Wrestlers

Former Wrestlers is, in essence, a solo project – but you’d never tell just by listening. “Mother & Father Dearest” is a full, pop-punkish track with a strong groove, massive chorus, and plenty of other nuances. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, making it one incredibly fun song to sing along to.

3. Black Moon – Instant Empire

Instant Empire is the kind of band that revels in nostalgia. “Black Moon” is a hazy, new wave-driven electropop track that is comfortably vulnerable and longingly-retrospective.

4. Loser Baby – La Bouquet

It’s a sure mystery how an acoustic guitar line full of harmonics would serve as the backbone to a synthpop track, but such is the case for “Loser Baby”. It’s a catchy track with an unconventional level of technicality that makes it truly stand out.

5. Companion – Tie Goes to the Runner

I’m a sucker for cinematic songs with dense layers, and Tie Goes to the Runner hits all the right notes with “Companion”. It’s sort of what you’d expect if Jimmy Eat World had continued with the sound of their earlier albums – somewhat emo indie rock that packs a punch.

6. Price – password:password

“Price” caught my attention with its lyrics about the cost of living, but it’s also a solid work as a whole. It’s a synth-laden track with ethereal vocals and plenty of dynamics. password:password should definitely be on your radar if you enjoy energetic electronic indie with female vocals.

7. Make Us Famous – Ernest

“Show me that check, let’s get rich.” Mark Daly of Madaila has emerged with the payday anthem of the year. Enough said.

8. Space by Your Side – Stolen Jars

I wasn’t a huge fan of Stolen Jars’ latest album as a whole, but “Space by Your Side” definitely shows the best of what the band has to offer. It’s a percussive track with tight drumming and layered vocals. It has a lot of the energy the band is known for, paired with some powerful lyrics as well.

9. Spark, Set Fire – The Western Den

I discovered The Western Den via Audiotree and this was the first track that caught my attention. It’s a relaxed, folk/singer-songwriter track but it’s still enchanting in its own right. It’s proof that sometimes less truly is more.

10. The Comedown – Bravely

Bravely is a side-project of Matthew Smith of Hodera, and his songwriting follows a similar vein on “The Comedown”. It may be a bit subdued in some respects compared to Hodera, but the emotional core, lyrical focus, and tight instrumentation is remains intact.

11. Demons – MOIRA

MOIRA has returned from several quiet years with a pair of new tracks. “Demons” is cinematic and haunting. Even though the drums are fairly sparse, layered synth and guitar manage to provide a huge wave of aggression on their own. Ultimately, it’s an experimental track that reminds me a bit of something you might find from Polyenso.

12. Just Sign the Papers – Aaron West and the Roaring Twenties

It turns out that songs about divorce can be upbeat and catchy. The brass section on the chorus is impeccable, the tempo is fast, the energy is high. It’s one of the more mainstream releases that managed to leave a lasting impact with me.

13. Rewire – Holden Laurence

Holden Laurence is an enigmatic figure that I’ve admittedly never followed all-too-closely. Nonetheless, his songs always seem to come my way eventually. “Rewire” is a natural evolution from his first album – Laurence’s baritone voice paired with retro-styled instrumentation is a formula that continues to just work.

14. Stann Creek – Street Names

The local Wisconsin emo scene has grown over the past few years, and Street Names is a welcome addition to the expanding roster. With their latest EP, they find themselves alongside bands like Stalgic and Bottom of the Lake with a strong mix of alt-rock catchiness and some of the edge of post-hardcore.

15. Reap What You Sow – Better Off

Better Off is a recent discovery, but “Reap What You Sow” is the kind of track that leaves an immediate impact. It’s undeniably modern, but it seems to borrow from early 00s mainstream rock. It’s packed with energy and strong vocal hooks.

16. Moon – The Y Axes

The Y Axes is certainly an interesting band, tending to dabble with sci-fi-themed songs and Doctor Who references. “Moon” is a synth-immersed rock track with immaculate production that serves as a perfect entry point to the band’s discography.

17. No Age – Rich People

Rich People has always been a band known for explosive songs. They’ve taken things up a notch with “No Age”, a noticeably poppier track than their previous track. That’s definitely not to a fault as it quickly made its way to one of my most-played tracks of the year.

18. Ruby – Origami Angel

There are only so many songs based off Pokémon games. This one just happens to be pretty mathy. “Ruby” is under 90 seconds, but it manages to cover a ton of ground all the same.

19. Resistance – Old Sea Brigade

Old Sea Brigade released one of the earliest albums of the year that stuck with me. While it’s a mixed bag, “Resistance” stood out as an immediate favorite. There’s a bit of Caribbean flavor in some of the synths and even the reverb on the drums is compelling. It’s not an easy track to label, but it’s definitely worth a listen.

20. Safety – Birthday Wish

Birthday Wish has a unique blend of post-punk nostalgia paired with plenty of modern influence. “Safety” is a standout track from their latest EP, but this is certainly a band that deserves a bit of a deeper dive.

21. Quiet Light – The National

While The National is probably an outlier to most bands on this list compared to popularity, I Am Easy to Find is a stand-out album with its immense orchestration and guest appearances. “Quiet Light” thrives off its tight drumming paired with somewhat-minimalist vibe. It’s an interesting juxtaposition that never feels too abrasive.

22. It Hurts – Graveyard Club

Graveyard Club really nailed this track – it’s fast, hazy, and catchy. It’s one of the best songs the group has penned to date.

23. Black Light – My Epic

My Epic have changed course a bit on Violence, but it’s a direction many fans have been longing for. “Black Light” sees the group return to the sound of their earlier releases, and it roars with post-hardcore tenacity.

24. Try Hard – Kevin Schlereth

Kevin Schlereth and Jay Costlow have arguably topped their previous work on this single track. “Try Hard” starts strong and never loses steam, adding more layers as it goes on. Tight drumming, vocal layers, and some other production nuances give this song a lot to love.

25. Mattress on the Floor – Have Mercy

Have Mercy is another signed band that made my list. “Mattress on the Floor” has a strong instrumental hook that carries the song. Pair that with some subtle lyrical motifs and strong drumming and you’ll find a sentimental, groovy track.

26. Thirteen O’Clock – Pleasures of the Flesh

Pleasures of the Flesh is a band that is very hard to place. They borrow elements from hardcore and post-punk and mesh them together for songs that sound somewhat like what you might expect from Fugazi if they decided to use a copious amount of chorus. No matter what you call it, it’s a unique sound that doesn’t seem to have a lot of company.

27. John Hughes Movie Soundtrack -EXNATIONS

Picking a single EXNATIONS song to feature isn’t easy, but “John Hughes Movie Soundtrack” is a stand-out song with excellent drumming, catchy guitar hooks, glossy synths, and powerful narrative lyrics.

28. Whatever Makes You Mine – John Van Duesen

Sometimes, a track is needlessly-catchy and that’s all that matters. “Whatever Makes You Mine” has an incredible chorus and that alone cements it as a great song.

29. Time Well Spent – Silver & Gold

Silver & Gold have kept a decent pace for releasing new music, and each release has plenty to love. “Time Well Spent” showcases the band’s growth as they continue to perfect their songwriting.

30. Congratulations Honey – Matthew Milia

Frontier Ruckus cemented themselves as my most-listened band this past year. Frontman Matthew Milia is a master wordsmith, and his solo work carries this same linguistic reverence.

31. The Pushover – Idiot Pilot

I wasn’t too familiar with Idiot Pilot in their first run, but their unexpected return wasn’t a shabby time to acquaint myself. “The Pushover” is an alt-rock track that is obfuscated by synths and vocal effects. The result is a track that feels largely like a studio collaboration rather than a band – but it’s certainly no stereotypical blend of electronic rock.

32. Queen of the Rodeo – Orville Peck

Orville Peck’s unique costume ended up being a powerful marketing tool. I was curious to find out who this masked figure was, and I was greeted with Elvis-esque vocals paired with a unique remix on the country genre.

33. Shadow Matter – Will Johnson

Will Johnson is no rookie, and his songwriting is proof. There’s a humble maturity to his music, the kind that seems to say, “I know what I’m doing but I don’t need to prove it to anyone.” “Shadow Matter” is a timeless song that feels expansive and rural – the sort of song that would be perfect for a road trip.

34. The Body – Fallow Land

On “The Body”, Fallow Land provides listeners with a TTNG-esque romp through mathy indie rock. If there were a sleeper hit album for 2019, it’d be their debut, Slow Down, Rockstar.

35. Baby Teeth – Glass Age

Abandon Kansas’ rebrand to Glass Age is accompanied by three captivating tracks. “Baby Teeth” is my favorite of the three, pairing a certain ambient luster with introspective lyrics. Ultimately, in my opinion, the rebrand is a huge success.

36. Potassitorium – Ghost Soul Trio

Ghost Soul Trio is, well, a trio act but unlike their name suggests, their music and members are both full of life. “Potassitorium” is a cocktail of funk, indie, jazz, and experimental electronic – or, party music for intellectuals. Add in the band’s quirky music videos and it’s obvious Ghost Soul Trio is one act that isn’t afraid to take risks.

37. Soft Spot – Tiny Moving Parts

While Tiny Moving Parts’ latest album seems like a seamless continuation of 2018’s Swell, there’s nothing wrong with that. “Soft Spot” may not be the band’s most technical track, but there’s something about the opening guitar line rhythm that’s infectious.

38. Better – Caracara

There’s a lot to say about Caracara. I knew “Better” was a hit when I first heard it, but it took me a bit to give the rest of the band’s discography proper attention. Needless to say, it’s all good but you’d be hard-pressed to find a better track in their catalog. The lyrics are poetic, the instrumentation somewhat minimalist in nature. Of course, Caracara understands dynamically intimately and the end is explosive in all the best ways.

39. Windsor Knots and Ruffles – Say Hi

Say Hi has been making music for a very long time, and each album has a distinct flavor. The upcoming album, due February, has a bigger focused on synthesizers. This track does rely on a bed of synths, but they largely sound organic – like a piano or strings. Add in retrospective lyrics and the result is a track that feels kind of like a ballad.

40. Better – Vinnie Caruana

Yes, there are two great songs this year named “Better”. Vinnie Caruana’s take on the title is stripped-down punk. What the track lacks in complexity, it makes up for in pure passion. It’s a heartfelt track that gets by with little more than a four-chord guitar part and some drums. However, the vocals and lyrics are the true heroes here and make this track one of the best of the year.

41. Test Everything, Hold Onto What’s Good – Broken Field Runner

This track is a bit of a slow burn, but it’s an album closer so it’s fitting. At over eight minutes long, it’s interesting to see how well Broken Field Runner is able to maintain momentum as a single lyrical segment is repeated for much of the track.

42. The Distance – Fever Dolls

“The Distance” isn’t exactly a new track – it had previously been released under the Iron Eyes Cody moniker – but this rendition is all grown up and there are lots of extra layers this time around that give it plenty of extra energy. This should definitely be considered the canon version of the track.

43. Gemini – Nova Charisma

Nova Charisma sounds and looks like the culmination of At The Drive In and Coheed and Cambria. “Gemini” is your standard progressive post-hardcore juggernaut track with a careful blend of soaring choruses and technical song structures.

44. Geneva – Lakes

There’s not enough glockenspiel-based rock in the world, but Lakes is doing their part to fix this.

45. Collecting Teeth (Acoustic) – Wolves & Machines

It has been far too long since Wolves & Machines put out new music, and this acoustic track is certainly a welcome teaser for their new album. Even in its barest form, it still holds its own and it’ll be interesting to hear the full version down the road.

46. A Social Renaissance – Cloud Caverns

Brandon Peterson is one very busy guy, having released two albums in 2016 and one in 2018. Now, he has begun to release a string of singles and “A Social Renaissance” is certainly Cloud Caverns at its best. This is partially the doing of AJ Estrada of Hotel of the Laughing Tree lending some additional talents on the track. Now we just need a proper Hotel album and we can call it a day.

47. On the Left – Beket

I’m convinced there’s one, and only one, good post-hardcore album a year. That award happens to go to Beket this time around.

48. Fall (Despite What You Do) – The Wilderness

“Fall” is a radio-friendly track that still manages to have a bit of grit to it. The track’s somewhat-standard indiepop veneer starts to collapse toward the end, as lyrics are belted and saxophones blare. Don’t get me wrong – this is still a single and it’s marketed as such, but there’s more here than meets the eye.

49. Luxton – Nonfiction

“Luxton” thrives off the interplay between its straight-forward verses and gang-chant chorus. It’s not a revolutionary track, but it manages to pull off the emo formula pretty well for an enjoyable listening experience.

50. How Did We End Up Here? – StateBirds

StateBirds is a band I’ve been following for several years now, and it’s exciting to see some new music from them. On this song, there’s a bit of a lounge vibe – chill, jazzy type chords and a beautiful clean guitar tone. This bluesy version of StateBirds should be a welcome addition to many playlists.

51. Being Human is Weird – OWEL

OWEL describes bar romance over a mix atmospheric indie rock instrumentals on “Being Human is Weird”. It’s a track that acknowledges the emptiness in modern hedonism and pairs these themes with cinematic guitar and string parts to really solidify the emotion footprint of the song.

52. Star-Faced – Wildermiss

“Star-Faced” is a fun track that blends groovy guitar, “hey, hey” vocal chants, and major-key melodies for a track that’s danceable and fun.

53. Clandestine Magic – Madaila

Madaila called it quits a while back, but they’re temporarily resurfaced with two tracks. As usual, their indomitable retro-styled funky indie sound is at play, complete with plenty of falsetto.

54. Broken Magic – Wildlife

“Broken Magic” is a booming arena-rock style track that thrives off negative space. The verses are somewhat sparse, but the whole band is at their best during the chorus – this ultimately makes it a very dynamic track that serves as proof of Wildlife’s strategic compositions.

55. Maybe – Andrés

It’s a shame this track is so far down this list. Andrés has become somewhat of a household name in the post-hardcore scene over the past few years, even though his exact genre is hard to define. On “Maybe”, there’s a strong Latin piano groove, but there are some technical guitar parts and even a bit of a breakdown at the end. Whatever you call it, it’s very, very good.

56. Job Interview – Trash Boy

Spoiler alert: lyrics explain the real reason people want jobs.

57. Vanitas Waltz – Yes We Mystic

I wrote about Ten Seated Figures earlier in the year, but if I had to pick one track to feature, it would be “Vanitas Waltz”. It’s hard to say exact why. Maybe it’s the triumphant sound that thrives off melodic motifs. Maybe it’s the string arrangements. Maybe it’s the chorus where the lines are echoed back. Whatever the case, it’s a song that has that special something that makes it stand out.

58. Fame – The Early November

Many bands seem to worsen as their careers exceed three or four albums. Thankfully, The Early November is still putting out solid songs and “Fame” is a great example of a catchy, melodic indie track. Add in some trumpet, a little falsetto, and some layered background vocals and you’ve got a well-produced, fun track.

59. Louise – Del Barber

“Louise” may be the closest thing to traditional country on this list, but don’t let that deter you. Del Barber’s style is far more classic than what you’d find on modern country radio, and it’s a nice return to storytelling elements country was once known for.

60. In Finem – Sherwood Forest

“In Finem” is an ethereal, synthy track that feels straight out of a Tron scene. The first half of the track feels a bit gothic with its arpeggios and deep vocals, but the latter half is more guitar-driven, conjuring images of power metal bands. Ultimately, the band’s imagery isn’t anything out of the ordinary but their music definitely feels otherworldly.

Review: Death of the Neon by String Machine

FFO Radiohead, Sufjan Stevens, TWIABP

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

Review: Electric Lunch by Rick Moon

FFO T. Rex, Grizzly Bear, Electric Light Orchestra

Rick Moon is in a world all his own. The talented Miami power-popper has been quietly putting together his own unique brand of fantastical indie rock since 2012, blending and modernizing sounds inspired by the likes of Harry Nilsson, The Beatles, XTC, and Grizzly Bear to name a few. Over the course of three EPs he’s slowly and steadily made a name for himself in Miami as both a songwriter and a producer, living out a passion for music that led him mainland from his birth home in Ponce, Puerto Rico as a college student. His newest effort, Electric Lunch, is his strongest to date, a surreal seven track EP with a near cinematic scope.

Anyone can make a paltry attempt at atmosphere with a guitar and reverb pedal, but Rick Moon doesn’t take shortcuts. Instead he painstakingly crafts each song to fill space in various inventive ways, using layers of synth, piano, electric and acoustic guitar, understated samples, and most importantly: walls of harmonies. The result is a rich sonic palette that rushes out to immerse the listener like a wave to the shore. It’s almost the musical equivalent to Willie Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, the entire EP exists in it’s own lush, imaginative world of sound. This dreamlike quality is only reinforced by Rick Moon’s voice, which even without bolstering from multiple layers of harmonies has a sort of otherworldly quality to it.

Once you get beyond the atmosphere, a lot of the songs on Electric Lunch are also catchy and fun. Perhaps the best example is the mid-album standout Public Joke, a somewhat self-deprecating song about the spectacle of social media with garage rock riffs that call to mind Beck’s 90s material. Immediately following it is the whimsical Deadline with it’s flowing chorus and vibrant string arrangements; a song that somehow manages to remain a pop song even with loads of tempo, groove, and key changes. Even the much more low-key Goodbye has a recognizable Beatles pop charm to its almost barbershop hook. 

The make or break part of the album for most listeners, however, will probably be the lyrics. Keeping true to the dream-world feel of the album, there is a certain whimsy to Moon’s vocal style that turns even his most direct lines into something that feels imaginary. He also has plenty of lines, especially in Magic Pity and Goodbye, that actually are just in the fantastical realm. While this definitely fits the vibe of his art, there is a certain hokeyness about it that makes it feel a little divorced from reality. For some this will be no issue at all. It certainly doesn’t take away from Moon’s greater artistic vision, but it does require some level of intentional suspension of belief, which unfortunately will make it less palatable to a large group of listeners.

If you are willing to suspend your belief, however, your reward is entry into Rick Moon’s world of imagination, and that is absolutely a reward worth seeking. Electric Lunch is a beautiful escape into something grander, something expansive, something undeniably other. Let your childhood curiosity free and experience it today, you won’t regret it.

7.0 (Stand-Out)

Released: July 23, 2019
Label: Public Works

Review: Pale Cicada by Makeunder

“I want to drift away from this brutal town/ let it sink into the ground with no story to tell/ a dying thunder in the darkness/ rattling in its mouth”

“I want to drift away from this brutal town/ let it sink into the ground with no story to tell/ a dying thunder in the darkness/ rattling in its mouth”

Hamilton Ulmer has felt like a stranger for almost as long as he can remember. The son of two “unorthodox” parents from rural northern California, Ulmer spent most of his childhood in San Antonio, Texas after his family relocated there for work when he was just two years old. Though he lived there for the majority of his formative years, he and his eccentric family struggled to find their place, leaving Ulmer with a nagging sense of alienation that followed him even after he moved back to California in his adulthood. When his father died of lung cancer in 2011, these complex emotions and unanswered questions compounded into something that needed an outlet. The result, for Ulmer, was the 2015 Makeunder EP Great Headless Blank which wrestled not only with the death of his father, but all of the things that went with him: memories, a cohesive narrative of Ulmer’s youth, and the homes their family had inhabited. Great Headless Blank was a series of grief vignettes; potent, melancholy songs that earned the critical praise of NPR’s Bob Boilen among others. Immediate and powerful, those songs were an exercise in grieving and left many questions to be answered later.

Four years after the fact, Ulmer and Makeunder have returned with a true master work, their first proper LP, the three act concept piece Pale Cicada. Thematically, Pale Cicada picks up where Great Headless Blank left off, piecing together what life is for a poor man who has always felt out of step even as he deals with the residual grief of his father’s passing. “I know that I can’t help myself/ how do I live with this sadness?/ Give me something real/ before I sink into the ground/ with no story to tell” goes the hook of the opener and title track Pale Cicada, the closest thing to a mission statement on the album. As he writes he delves succinctly and capably into just about every angle he can find of his situation, dealing with poverty on the psych-funk In Between My Dead End Jobs, taking an esoteric side glance at marriage on Ringing Chord, reclaiming childhood on Ain’t That a Trip, and exploring his father’s death with added perspective on Begin in the Middle. For most of the album Ulmer’s lyrics are sharp and frank in their heaviness, but if you were listening casually you would never know. Each line is delivered in Ulmer’s smooth Soul/RnB voice, through acrobatic runs, complex harmony chords, and often staggered staccato melodies.

Sonically, Pale Cicada also diverts some attention from the weight of the words: it is largely up-tempo from track one and at points even danceable. The second track and first single In Between My Dead End Jobs might even be considered poppy, leaving aside a sudden dark turn into Tom Waits territory for a portion of the bridge. Describing the complex, often dense arrangements as a whole however, feels impossible. One could call it RnB or Funk, but neither term does any justice to the highly creative, genre-bending sounds that Makeunder accomplish on this record. Opening track Pale Cicada veers into art-rock territory with heavy distorted guitars and blaring trumpet sounds before swinging into a soulful, almost anthemic chorus. Begin in the Middle sounds like Prince succumbing to the dark side with its haunting harmonies, vocal slap-back, and heavy drum groove. Ringing Chord seems to reference Justin Vernon with subtle vocoder layering on the lead vocal and an ambient arrangement, while I’m Still Living Wrongly goes from RnB, to folk, to a swelling string crescendo, to a sinister noise rock break, before landing a triumphant guitar solo and going back to folk. Pulling off genre fusion at this level is extremely difficult, but Makeunder make it look easy each and every song, creating one of the most instrumentally interesting albums of the year to date with little real competition in sight.

Inevitably though, not every experiment on such an experiment heavy album can land. Though second single Promothean Heat succeeds in its off-kilter verses and it’s unexpected, Kendrick Lamar-esque harmony walls, it’s ascending refrain feels done just to prove it can be done. It’s nonetheless still incredibly impressive, but doesn’t seem to line up with the line that sits on it, one of the less chaotic lines on the album. In that regard the album’s biggest strength is in one way also its biggest weakness, it’s experimentation at once makes it one of, if not THE most interesting album of the year, but for more casual listeners the sheer amount of things happening at any given time could be easily overwhelming, even despite the clear pop sensibility Ulmer shows throughout with his melodies. 

If you are willing to dive into Pale Cicada though, it is an incredibly rewarding listen; a truly master class album both lyrically and instrumentally. It is definitely dense, however. Even after several repeat listens you will still be picking out things you hadn’t heard before in the mix: overlapping guitar lines, backing vocals, metaphors, and lyrical tie-ins between tracks. For Ulmer it is the culmination of a life of personal struggle, and here he makes his statement emphatically and in the grandest possible fashion. His work of self-processing is complete, but for us listeners the processing has only just begun: it could take a lifetime to milk from this all that it has to offer.

8.5 (Best New Music)

Released: June 28, 2019
Label: Good Eye Records

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. 

Sampler: 4 Downtempo Indie Singles for Your Rainy Weekend

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.

Review: It’s All Joy by Chris Bernstorf

“Everything, even the heavy and uncomfortable parts of life, hinges on joy and the love that underpins it.”

FFO Levi the Poet

Reviewing spoken word on a music blog is a strange sensation. The touchstones I usually seek out in albums; the pacing, dynamic movement, melodic content, and genre experimentation inevitably end up de-emphasized, re-purposed, or altogether absent, leaving me to spend most of my time, ironically, in the written word like a literary critic. To this, Chris Bernstorf proclaims in his opening track Swing, “Go ahead, market me/ Count my meter/ Evaluate my rhythm/ Underline every simile”, but to do so to Chris’s poetry, even more so than most spoken word artists, would be a radical disservice to what is really going on.

To understand the enigma that is Chris Bernstorf, you need to encounter him in a dirty, dimly lit basement surrounded by the passionate DIY community he calls home. Here, fenced in by tightly packed human bodies, a single light-bulb mounted on a pole roughly the size of a microphone stand suddenly flashes on and the whole room bursts into a rendition of a recognizable pop song that is always at least five years out of date. Once the first chorus ends, Bernstorf, somehow able to shout over the cacophony with a voice that is already blown out, bulldozes into his first poem with a crazed expression. It is the most joyful chaos you can experience on Earth. 

Once Bernstorf has had his fill of crawling under legs, climbing rafters, and waving his light pole like a captain’s saber, he re-gathers the now scattered crowd into a tight circle, dims the lights and transitions into two love poems, delivered much more calmly, but still far too impassioned to be called subdued. Finally he reaches his nearly 6 minute closer, One, that ends with one of the most impactful paragraphs he’s ever written:

Before I can even try to pull all the ravaged ends back together again, He is there like Spiderman on that ferry but better and the web holds flawlessly, and the water begins to feel like solid ground again, and there is nothing and everything, and I am encompassed, consumed, and one, yes and amen and hallelujah the deafening and silent and final and honest and grateful murmur of my prostrate spirit, and then I, the uncertain, thankful, confused, certain, speechless, humbled, rejoicing, scale-less pot, finally say to the Potter:“Keep going.”

It is a deeply spiritual finale to a deeply spiritual encounter, and also, appropriately, the finale to It’s All Joy, the newly released album that Bernstorf’s set pulls from. Though recording such a bombastic performance piece inevitably fails to capture the true spirit of the live experience, Bernstorf manages to succeed in creating a recorded album that is still rewarding despite its missing context. This is because, unlike most similar performers, Bernstorf backs up his whirlwind stage antics with material that is genuinely well written and thought provoking. 

In a line that only he could write, Bernstorf asks in Swing: “what if we all took online classes for plastic surgery and secretly replaced everyone’s middle finger with a chocolate cake—crazy, I know, but no more so than holding a knife to the throat of a man holding a knife to your throat and calling it peace.” The statement of Swing is the same as that of the whole album: It’s All Joy. Everything, even the heavy and uncomfortable parts of life, hinges on joy and the love that underpins it. He backs this up with references to everything from Hemingway, to Gadafi, to Spiderman, to Flight of the Concords’ grandmother, and his own mother’s sewing machine. On It’s All Joy the separations between elite and common, the Ivory Tower and the blue-collar world, church and state, logic and disorder, pain and joy all seem to dissolve into an eclectic, but unified voice proclaiming a narrative unburdened by the conventions or expectations of modern man. It takes a truly talented writer to be able to synthesize such seemingly disparate things without losing either his writing voice or his coherence.

Especially today, in a world that often feels to be steadily falling apart, Bernstorf’s proclamation is a bold one, resting on a faith that goes beyond understanding and a trust in something tangible yet not conventionally undefinable. This is both the great strength that makes Bernstorf’s writing so vivid and unique and also simultaneously his greatest weakness, because his alternative brand of Christian expression has the potential to alienate those outside of his religion and also alienate more conservative kinds of Christians. Whether you agree with his stances or not, however, his talent as a spoken word poet is undeniable and It’s All Joy is only the latest of several releases that more than prove he deserves to be recognized within his genre.   

Score: 7.2 (Stand-Out)

Released: May 17, 2019
Label: Unsigned