At one time, it was almost possible to know what you were getting from singer-songwriter Denny Smith from the get-go. If he’d written a bunch of songs with alternative rock leanings, then chances are they’d be released by his rock band fORMER; if the music took a more retro/acoustic groove, it would go onto the pile designated for The Great Affairs. Obviously, things weren’t quite as simple as that, but there was always a clear divide between projects and styles. After The Great Affairs released their ‘Happy Ender’ EP and Smith considered resting that band, things got more complicated: fORMER released a selection of unheard material (‘The Kids Deserve Cable’) and The Great Affairs were reborn. On the ‘4’ EP, The Great Affairs mixed up styles more than ever – alongside the Tom Petty/Black Crowes styled tunes, new drummer Kenny Wright (formerly of Bonepony and various other acts) penned ‘Fists and Guitars’, a thunderous rock ‘n’ roller fairly far removed from the quieter shades of most Great Affairs material. With fORMER dead and the revitalised Great Affairs tackling whatever came naturally, it seemed the gloves were off.
The Naked Sun are a four piece Americana/roots rock band based in Philadelphia. Their debut studio EP ‘Space, Place & Time’ offers four very high quality songs – the standard of which you’d swear came from a band far more established within the music world; the sound heavily influenced by many old style country rock themes.
Considering this self-titled offering is only his second release, Animal Parts’ frontman Joshua Cockerill demonstrates an excellent gift for song-craft, certainly one beyond his relative inexperience. Plenty of rootsy moods, a little pop and a few strong narratives each come together to make a record that has plenty of emotional pull.
The quirky ‘Poets’ is an instant standout, it’s mix of acoustic guitar, new wave keyboards and handclaps come together in a way which manages to be reminiscent of an early 80s power pop band reimagined by Wilco. Vocally, the underplayed harmonies are great, while with his lead vocal delivery, Cockerill knows he has a natural sense of style – he doesn’t have to use any quirks or unnecessary affectations to catch the ear. Another great jangler, ‘I Won’t Ever Let You Down’ breezes along with a sunny optimism, its tune recalling the best indie-pop of the 1990s. While the bouncy air and simple chorus are the things which are likely to be considered the most striking about this particular number, its bass part should not be overlooked – the production values here really bring out the best in the performance. It may not be completely original, but it is so well performed, it’s near impossible to dislike.
Although never flashy, ‘King of Kings’ is another instantly likeable offering, again hinting at a love of 90s jangle-pop/indie. Throughout the bulk of this tune, Cockerill and his Animal Parts sound positive, bringing a real spark to their performance. Despite this, it is not the song’s main part which ends up being its most memorable (even with a drum part that tips the hat to Phil Spector…) The real stroke of genius here comes during the songs coda, where Cockerill throws out huge ugly slabs of guitar drenched in levels of reverb which would befit Neil Young & Crazy Horse. The influence here is as subtle as a brick – particularly reminiscent of ‘Don’t Cry’ from Young’s 1989 album ‘Freedom’. Still, given this band’s Canadian heritage and their love of roots-rock, gaining influence from the mighty sideburned one was inevitable.
While those upbeat tunes sound great from first listen, it doesn’t take too long before some of the rootsier material proves to be just as enjoyable…and perhaps even more so. With just a finger-picked guitar leading the way ‘Running’ starts out very wistfully, with Cockerill’s voice taking the weight of the melody, its natural tone pulling in the listener once more. His delivery wobbles a little, like a man who could crack at any given moment, but that’s half the charm – it’s an absolute pleasure to hear a voice that’s not been shined to perfection with various studio filters. The slow and lumbering ‘Dream Where I Break Horses’ offers a particularly memorable lyric, blending thoughts of hours spent equine training in potentially lonely surroundings with a tune that would befit many of Animal Parts’ country-rock influenced predecessors. The aching, country tinged lead voice works especially well with a slightly reverbed drum, electric piano and soft cello drones, creating an absolutely unmissable tune, which in the hands of Son Volt – for example – would quickly be heralded a genre classic.
Also from the top drawer, ‘The Bird Song’ places Cockerill upfront with just an acoustic guitar and quiet voice. The finger picked acoustic notes are quiet and almost disjointed; with an incredibly sparse backdrop, the tune is wholly at the mercy of the vocal to carry any emotional weight, but the performance is more than up to the task in hand. Fragile, beautiful, almost painful – this is Animal Parts laid bare. A warm bass and droning crescendo fills any gaps at the inevitable climax. If alt-country is your bag, you’ll totally dig this…and then some. It’s a close contender for this album’s finest offering, but it’s just pipped by the masterful ‘…Break Horses’.
While you may be able to spot a few obvious influences on this release, that doesn’t weaken its impact. With a perfect balance between chirpy pop/rock and darker alt-country suffering, ‘Animal Parts’ is a great record which comes highly recommended.
Imagine what would happen if the fantastic harmony vocals of Crosby, Stills & Nash, America and their seventies ilk met with Dave Matthews Band and other like-minded jam-band revivalists of the 1990s… Surely the end result would be something special? That’s kind of what King Washington sound like on their debut full-length release ‘The Gears’. And while listeners will undoubtedly pick up on a myriad of influences while listening to this record, what’s perhaps most important is the level of musicianship and songcraft; on this twelve song DIY release, King Washington prove themselves as good as any rootsy outfit lucky enough to have major label backing and a huge recording budget at their disposal. Simply put, ‘The Gears’ IS something special.
The journey starts gently, with the title cut opening with a simple guitar riff coupled with tight wordless harmony vocals. Before long, this then breaks into a strong arrangement where those harmony vocals really get a chance to take centre stage. Aside from those harmonies, the clean-toned guitars offer some quite lovely, choppy rhythms, while the rhythm section is suitably tight. ‘Fourth of July’ brings another strong sense of harmonies, once again; in addition, on this second number, King Washington indulges in a few tougher sounding traits. A quasi-aggressive intro allows more room for guitar work, offering a classic echo-driven sound. The main bulk of the tune is dominated by strong melodies and a full arrangement offering some retro solos and tinkling harpsichord sounds. These opening numbers certainly work well as a pair, since they show an almost complete range of King Washington’s abilities.
The slow ‘Rosewood Angel’ is the album’s finest tune, full of softly played lead guitar, which occasionally recalls 1970s southern rock. Combined with another wall of harmonies, this track really shines; a great achievement indeed, especially considering it’s up against some pretty stiff competition. The guitar work that sounded so appealing during the intro provides recurring musical enjoyment throughout, and while it’s not a tune with an obvious hook, repeated spins allow various musical layers to present something enjoyable with every subsequent listen. The semi acoustic ‘Fancy’ comes with a slight Dave Matthewsy vibe, where the warmth of the bass pulls in the listener. The soft music is accompanied by an equally restrained vocal, and while it doesn’t offer much that’s radically different from KW’s other tunes, it’s nicely arranged – a little simpler, perhaps – with the rhythm section taking the bulk of the work: it’s the sound of summer, captured in a three minute capsule. For superb examples of the King Washington sound, both this track and ‘Rosewood Angel’ are highly recommended listens.
‘Cotton’ is much punchier than your average King Washington tune (not that any of them are average), with upfront drums and a marching beat. At the heart of the piece, though, are KW’s tried and tested world of meticulous harmonies, ensuring most of harder edges don’t feel at all out of place. It could be said that the discordant guitar solo pushes the musical envelope just a little too far, but the unsettling mood is brief. While musically this track may not be as intricate as some others on offer, those harmonies win out.
Finishing off an already pretty cool collection of songs, the acoustic ‘Selling Out’ leaves the listener on a chilled, but not completely downbeat note. The finger-picked guitar lines are soft and familiar, while the vocal has a fair amount of heart. There’s a lesser focus on harmonies at first, allowing frontman Tyson Kelly a chance to stretch his voice out a little, his slightly weary delivery sounding like it comes from someone far beyond his years. The second half of the track reverts to more familiar sounding harmony singing and a bigger arrangement, both of which bring the track – and the album – to a satisfying end.
If you’re looking for a mellow, summery listen, it’s hard to find fault with King Washington’s ‘The Gears’. Each of the songs are very well crafted, and a gloriously full-sounding production (courtesy of the band themselves, with Joe Puerta of Bruce Hornsby’s Range/Ambrosia fame) is the cherry on the cake. Retro, sure, but retaining an almost timeless appeal, this is a fine, fine record indeed.
M Ward began releasing albums in 1999 and slowly gained a devoted core of fans, but he only started to receive regular media attention approximately ten years in to his career. This was helped no end by his collaboration with Zooey Deschanel, resulting in the gorgeous (and timeless) ‘She & Him, Volume One’. ‘Hold Time’ is Ward’s sixth solo album and its collection of folk-pop nuggets – sometimes a little rough around the edges with their home-recorded feel – gives fans a record which sounds exactly like they’d expect from the outset.
The opening track ‘For Beginners’ offers sparse acoustic work and doesn’t really get things moving too quickly, though it is very traditional Ward with its 60s influenced shuffle. Vocally, Ward adopts a trusty, softly delivered tone and its arrival sounds like an old friend even from the very first listen. From soft beginnings, ‘Never Had Nobody Like You’ offers something a little more upbeat. With a great deal of homeliness, the tune would be one of the album’s most memorable based on melodies alone, but the addition of Zooey Deschanel on harmony vocals just makes it unmissable. As you may expect, the combination of retro pop/folk, Zooey and a generally sunny vibe makes this track sound like it belongs with the other She & Him sessions. Zooey makes a second appearance on a mid-paced cover of Buddy Holly’s ‘Rave On’, which is fun, yet inessential. While Matt & Zooey’s covers are always meticulously performed, it’s much preferable to hear them tackling their self-written material, whether separately or together.
‘One Hundred Years’ features some pleasant finger-picked guitar and a musical sparseness which almost makes the main tune non-existent; even Ward’s vocal is delivered with a fragility which is more obvious than usual. The end result is an album highlight, a track that’s so twee it’s almost impossible to listen to it without smiling. ‘Jailbird’ is home to an unassuming, yet somehow truly memorable tune – the acoustic elements topped by layers of mellotron for a slighty dirgy retro-cool. Long term fans will recognise this pair of numbers as Ward at his finest – and while breaking no obvious new ground, he still manages to provide maximum listening enjoyment.
The title track focuses on droning sounds and a troubled vocal. Whilst the end result sounds very like Mercury Rev on a downer, it also recalls a darkness present in the mid-late 60s work of Brian Wilson. It’s so musically heavy (in tone as opposed to any actual noisiness) that it’s almost left entirely to Ward to carry the piece vocally. An oddity among a collection of softer material, it certainly sticks out – but not necessarily always in a good way. Wilson also provides an influence clearly present in the very upbeat ‘To Save Me’. Stabbing pianos recall old time rock ‘n’ roll, while mandolins bring in Ward’s strong folk influences. These musical flourishes wouldn’t normally make anyone thing of The Beach Boys, but a wordless “do do do” backing vocal (delivered by Grandaddy’s Jason Lytle) is a dead ringer for ‘Do It Again’. Also providing respite from the album’s introspective nature, ‘Stars of Leo’ features a lovely optimistic tone, another charming vocal and an almost timeless pop appeal. Its staccato guitar parts and simple drumming provide a great base for Ward to build upon. With some great elements including electric piano, tubualar bells and kettle drums, the piece eventually reaches an epic climax. Near perfection, the only thing which would have improved it would have been a vocal part from Deschanel, but by that climax, there’s barely any room for any more additions…
The chick-a-boom of ‘Fisher of Men’ and a duet with Lucinda Williams on a cover of Don Gibson’s ‘Oh Lonesome Me’ explore a love for old country; while the former is unobtrusive but fairly breezy and the latter full of self-pity (in a way that only old-school country can provide without sounding like parody), both tracks suit the overall mood of the record perfectly. While it could be said ‘Outro (aka I’m a Fool To Want You)’ attempts to bring the album something markedly different with its instrumental moodiness, it’s best described as filler material. Yes, Ward’s easily distinguiahable, echoed and retro guitar is impeccably played, but it ambles for almost four minutes before bringing the disc to a downbeat close. It’s a track which, after one or two spins, you’ll likely skip in favour of hearing the likes of ‘Nobody Like You’, ‘For Beginners’ or ‘Fisher of Men’ an extra couple of times.
‘Hold Time’ may not feel as well-rounded as its immediate predecessor (2006’s ‘Post War’), due to the inclusion of a couple of covers, but that’s not to say it’s inferior. It just could possibly be more slow-burning and introspective, if that’s possible. If you’ve followed M Ward’s career from early on, you’ll almost certainly own ‘Hold Time’ by now and have picked out a few cast-iron favourites of your own. As for everyone else, if you like Giant Sand and other alt-country/folk stuff with lo-fi qualities, you may want to give this a listen. It’s hard to imagine Ward is ever going to break through to mainstream superstardom (even with the help of She & Him), but this album makes his place as one of the alt-folk scene’s heroes ever more unshakable.
January 2010/March 2012