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: “Heard It In A Past Life” by Maggie Rogers

The record is teaming with life and joy in terms of the richness of its lyricism and musicianship.

FFO: HAIM, boygenius, Stevie Nicks, “After Laughter-Era” Paramore.

Singer-songwriter Maggie Rogers has a modern version of a classic success story.  She did not grow up in a particularly musical family, but at age seven began taking harp lessons, and as her love of music grew, she expanded her instrumental pallet to include guitar and piano.  During high school, she attended a Berklee College of Music summer program and won their songwriting contest, spurring her to continue to focus in that area. 

Eventually she found her way into New York University’s prestigious Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music, where she recorded and self-released a folk album in the vein of early Bon Iver and Sufjan Stevens.  During this time, she studied abroad in France where she started listening to house and dance music, and after experiencing an extended spell of writer’s block, began creating new music that combined her folk melodies and lyricism with the backbone of the dance genres she fell in love with in France. 

Her real success came in the form of a viral video.  The legendary Pharrell Williams, an in-house musician at N.Y.U. at the time, visited a music production class that Rogers was enrolled in to critique the students’ work.  In the video, a visibly moved Pharrell tells Rogers that her song “Alaska” is basically perfect, saying “I’ve never heard anyone like you before.”  Coming from one of the most influential pop/hip-hop producers of the past two decades, this was about the best endorsement she could get, which launched a massive major label bidding war.  Now, nearly two years later, her debut full-length has arrived via Capitol Records. 

This context is necessary because it takes up a fair amount of the subject matter of the album.  In many ways, Heard It In A Past Life is the story of an introvert suddenly thrust into the spotlight.  One of the album’s lead singles, the folk-pop “Light On,” deals with this head-on in the first verse, “Oh I couldn’t stop it, tried to slow it all down / crying in the bathroom, had to figure it out / with everyone around me saying, ‘you must be so happy now.’”  It’s not angry or whiny, but a genuine expression of confusing emotions; her story is one that many dream of and strive for, but is terrifying when actually experienced. 

But the record does not wallow too long in this specific space; It is teaming with life and joy in terms of the richness of its lyricism and musicianship.  The Pharrell-approved “Alaska,” exemplifies the instrumental Rogers’ instrumental depth.  The beat is intricate and layered, with subtle syncopated synths adding a bass-layer of melody as Rogers’ voice floats overtop, “I was walking through icy streams that took my breath away / moving slowly through westward water / over glacial plains.”  The imagery shows her deep-connection with the natural world, which makes her stand out in the context of most pop musicians.  Elsewhere, she uses samples from nature that she collected on hikes; “Overnight,” sounds like it samples a bird call as a percussion instrument.  It’s fresh and creative while still being accessible to pretty much everyone. 

Despite the danceable beats and sugary hooks, Rogers remains first and foremost a songwriter throughout the album, with her lyrics as a central focus on the record.  Back-half highlight “Retrograde” features one of the album’s most passionate vocal performances, in which she belts the chorus, “Oh here I am, settled in on your floor / quieting all the world outside your door / and I am reckoning.”  It is authentic, passionate lyricism rarely found in much of today’s pop music. 

Ever since Lorde’s debut Pure Heroine in 2014, much of the pop landscape has been defined by cool detachment and cynicism, or simply over sexualization of the star.  Maggie Rogers requires neither of those things to be successful.  The way in which she throws herself into her music with such genuine love and passion is refreshing because it relies not on cultivating a pop image, but just in being her and sharing music that she is passionate about creating.  Rogers is clearly making music that she loves, and it is a joy to be able to breath it in with her. 

What holds the album back from being great is the major label-ness of it.  This is not to say that top-tear production is bad; I myself am a big fan of pop music, and high-end production is not a strike in my book.  But, there are moments when the album lacks a certain edge, when the crispness of the drums and guitars are a bit too crisp, and it feels a bit wrong.  It’s not inauthentic, but it holds some moments back from being as cutting as they could be. 

That said, the record remains a breath of fresh air for fans of pop and folk alike.  It is one of the only folk-pop records that I have genuinely enjoyed, because it’s not soft and dumbed down, but is a creative testament to what can happen when an artist takes genuine inspiration from the two seemingly opposed genres.  More than anything, it establishes Maggie Rogers as an artist to follow in the coming decade. 

Rating: 7.8 (Stand Out)

For info on how we score albums see our rating scale.

Release Date: Jan 18, 2019

Label: Capitol Records

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/

Review: Central States EP by Mr. Golden Sun

There’s a certain kind of calm that can only be experienced on the open highways of the American Mid-West. Long before the journey takes its toll and the stir-crazy sets in there is a fleeting period of serenity that envelops travelers in this region. For only a moment the passenger chatter dies down, the traffic all but vanishes, and the landscape dissolves into green and brown pastels. The only sound is the rumble of the road. The world ahead looks open and endless. In the same car once filled with hectic energy there is, if only for this moment, peace.

Mr. Golden Sunhails from Kansas City, Missouri, well within the range that this pleasant phenomenon regularly occurs. Perhaps that is why the newest offering from the Matt-Hamer-led folk-rock project, Central States EP, seems to capture and personify that specific mood so perfectly. It’s an EP content to breath easy, immersing you in soft acoustic guitars, soothing melodies, and dreamy, atmospheric production. Make no mistake though; this is not a chilled out, stripped-down mood piece. Rather it stays in steady motion from opener Place & Timeall the way through closer The Comedian, never really gaining or loosing too much momentum, just maintaining a comfortable, sleepy pace; gliding like a car down an empty highway. 

It’s fitting then that Central States EP begins with the narrator breaking down on the interstate. Here on the standout track Place and Time, Hamer displays a knack for turning everyday inconvenience into something distinctly romantic. “I was sure when the chorus dropped/ That Kansas City was the will of God” he croons in a song that begins stranded on the shoulder of the highway and ends in a fulfilling marriage. Hamer’s storytelling is one of his strongest points, writing characters that feel real and personal. While rarely overt, there is also a certain spiritual undertone that helps connect each song on the EP, using religious images like “living water” and “pillar of cloud/…pillar of flame” while playing with themes such as rebirth. This helps Hamer frame his songs about everyday life in a loose, but powerful grand narrative. Nowhere is this more evident than in the penultimate track Goldfinches, another clear standout, where Hamer forsakes the slow drive of much of the album for a 6/8 waltz that sees him searching for the spiritual connection between the migration of birds and the language written in his own chest. It’s a track brimming with real yearning, easily relatable whether applied to the concept of God, some vague transcendence, or even just the search for meaning and connectedness.

Central States is not without its weaknesses, however. The consistency of the mood is both one the EP’s greatest strengths and also what keeps it from breaking much in the way of new ground in its genre. In six tracks, only Flyover Country really breaks the sleepy spell cast over the work as a whole, and though the song in isolation is a great track, its vaguely chip-tune synths make it feel just a hair out of place on an album that doesn’t give much context for that particular experiment. That leaves the song in an unfortunate catch twenty-two where it does provide a needed pace-change, but in doing so it also ruptures the immersive atmosphere set up by the tracks both preceding and following it.

All that aside, Central States does what it’s trying to do well. The mood is relaxing and pleasant, the writing is both engaging and thought-provoking, and the instrumentals shine when given their proper spotlight. While it may not be radically ground-breaking, it is still quite good within its folk-rock context and certainly merits a listen the next time you hit that moment of sacred peace on a cross-country road trip. One of the benefits of its mood and genre is that it is widely listenable and enjoyable across demographics, so most anyone can readily find a situation for it. For Mr. Golden Sun it serves as a nice foundation on which to build for the future; a solid first offering from a clearly talented songwriter.  

6.6/10 (Solid)

For information on what our album scores mean see:
https://notasound.org/2018/11/01/our-rating-scale/