Folk

Review: Waxahatchee – Ivy Tripp

Every week, I grow more and more convinced that the 90’s will never die.  Even if the music of the era will never dominate the airwaves like it did in its heyday, personally I feel it’s a good thing that there will forever be an undercurrent that will think getting a couple of friends together to bang out something with a few simple guitar chords with a few clever lyrics over the top is a great idea.  Though this gives the listener a basic idea of the DIY aesthetic of the album, it is but an oversimplification of what makes Waxahatchee’s new album Ivy Tripp such an engaging listen.

Waxahatchee first captured the attention of critics and listeners with Cerulean Salt, a charming lo-fi take on folk with a bit of a punk attitude that functioned more or less as a Katie Crutchfield solo album.  With Ivy Tripp, Crutchfield keeps the lo-fi spirit alive, but for the first time Waxahatchee feels more like the effort of a full-fledged group.  The band maintains a loose, low-stakes feel with much of the music, with the slightly off-time bass and off-kilter drums on “<“ providing a perfect example, or the breezy, easygoing ballad “Summer of Love”, a simple acoustic ode to a companion whose identity is revealed with a barking cameo at the end.

There are other moments where the group snaps into focus, like the mid-90’s indie rock throwback “Under a Rock”, with its bass countermelodies and drum fills lining up perfectly with the song’s big hooks.  Waxahatchee also shines when it steps out of their comfort zone and explores unfamiliar territory, as in the slow groove of “Air” or the spare “Breathless”, with its simple, distorted synth melody accented by the occasional feedback-tinged guitar divebomb.  Ivy Tripp effectively switches between these styles, keeping the listener’s attention throughout without ever sounding the least bit disjointed.

 

Ivy Tripp is an excellent step forward for Waxahatchee, as it reminds listeners of the highlights of Cerulean Salt while pushing forward into new musical directions.  This time around, Waxahatchee maintains their DIY spirit, but wraps that feeling up in a package filled with big hooks that encourages repeated listens.  Ivy Tripp may evoke nostalgic sentiments from a couple of decades ago, but Waxahatchee puts their own unique stamp on it that the album never sounds like a 90’s jukebox of indie rock’s greatest hits.

Review: Father John Misty – I Love You, Honeybear

Father John Misty’s debut album Fear Fun was a delightful surprise–few expected that a solo album from the former drummer of Fleet Foxes would be such a musical revelation.  The best case scenario was that Fear Fun would be a pleasant diversion, but Joshua Tillman’s adopted persona of a modern-day hipster-shaman created folk rock tunes that have held up remarkably well over the years.  Fast-forward three years, and while we are still waiting to hear anything new from Fleet Foxes, Father John Misty has returned with a stellar new album that will force people to stop name-dropping his former outfit.

I Love You, Honeybear is a stunningly gorgeous album, one that expands the scope of its predecessor with lush strings and intricate arrangements, but also one that delights in intimate personal details.  Father John Misty has always had a deft touch with his lyrics, often evoking a wry smile or two, but lines like “She says, ‘Like, literally music is the air [she] breathe[s],’ and the malaprops make me wanna fucking scream…I wonder if she even knows what that word means; well it’s ‘literally’ not that” from “The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apt.” elicit an actual laugh every time its played.  Tillman’s recent marriage is a defining influence on the album, but Tillman is careful to balance any sweetness with just the right amount of cynicism; a great example comes from the closing lines of “Holy Shit”: “Maybe love is just an economy based on resource scarcity–but what I fail to see is what that’s got to do with you and me.”

At times, it seems that the music could veer dangerously close to the emptiness of late 70’s AM Radio/yacht-rock (or perhaps worse, playing up the conventions of the genre with too much irony), but Father John Misty employs a nimble hand throughout the album, and simply writes melodies that are too good to be associated with such vapidness.  Honeybear‘s laid-back ballads are enhanced by extravagant string arrangements that add both depth and ornamentation, and songs like the relaxed swing of “Nothing Good Ever Happens at the Goddamn Thirsty Crow” and the achingly beautiful “Chateau Lobby #4 (In C for Two Virgins)” are enhanced by the expert addition of wind and horn melodies.  It is difficult to select any standout songs from this consistently great album, but the euphoric triumph of “Chateau Lobby #4” is one that will be easily remembered.

The album is mainly made up of mid-tempo numbers, but the good news is that I Love You, Honeybear never really drags.   The one real rocker (and a soon-to-be favorite of the live set), “The Ideal Husband”, appears two-thirds of the way through and gives the musicians a chance to really thrash about on a fun blues stomp, but otherwise things are generally calm.  A trio of ballads follows, beginning with the sarcastic ode “Bored in the USA” that perfectly sums up the sentiment of a generation coping with the readjusted education/benefits equation, and ending with the sweet lullaby “I Went to the Store One Day” which recounts the circumstances that led to the romance that inspired the album.  If only all great outcomes could result from a simple line like “I’ve seen you around–what’s your name?”

Note: The CD version of the album comes with a booklet entitled Exercises for Listening.  I highly recommend that you read these directions; obey them at your peril.

Review: The Decemberists – What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World

The Decemberists have returned from the longest absence of their career with an album that is the perfect encapsulation of their evolution to this point.  What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World splits the difference of the sprawling, proggy The Hazards of Love and the return-to-our-roots folk-rock of The King Is Dead, but does not necessarily feel like a compromise between the two versions of the band.  The combination results in an album that is filled with wonderful, catchy moments that are meticulously crafted and brilliantly arranged, making full use of the band’s instrumental prowess in creating gorgeous, digestible songs.  In other words, no overlong multi-part epics, but no stripped-down basics either.

Many critics have emphasized the lyrics in their reviews, which is an understandable approach considering the band’s hyper-literate reputation were what brought fans on board in the first place.  On What a Terrible World, the focus is less on 18th century peasant life or swashbuckling sailors, trading in allegory and metaphor for more direct commentary on personal topics like love and growing up, a noticeable shift in the band’s lyrical technique.  This is why when Colin Meloy seemingly makes a song into meta-commentary as he does with the opener “The Singer Addresses His Audience”, the critics focus on lines about selling out for Axe commercials, instead of remarking on the fantastic build into the song’s climax, anchored by a thundering performance by John Moen.  However, it is the band’s less-recognized musical prowess that carries the album and deserves more attention, with each member making vital contributions on a multitude of instruments.

Though the band doesn’t indulge in individual songs that are the kind of multi-genre exercises that characterized albums like The Crane Wife, they do stretch out over the course of the album.  Sometimes the explorations misfire, as in the accordion swamp-stomp of “Anti-Summersong” that unfortunately brings back nightmares of that godawful Kongos song from last summer.*  Thankfully, those moments are rare, and the listener can enjoy instead when The Decemberists recall the gothic Americana of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club’s Howl era with songs like “Carolina Low”, or revel in the bright horns of the rousing “Cavalry Captain” that are reminiscent of Guster.  Though these deviations are welcome, it’s when the band goes back to their wheelhouse of rousing folk-rock that the band truly shines, as they do on their first single–“Make You Better” may not only be the album’s highlight, but once the song hits that climax after the guitar solo, it may possibly the best moment of their career.

What a Terrible World, What A Beautiful World is a bit too long at fifty-three minutes, sagging at around the three-quarters mark, though considering their previous absence it is understandable that the band felt that they had to leave in as much material as possible.  Despite the lull, the album still finishes with a flourish due to the touching “12/17/12” and the uplifting “A Beginning Song”, leaving the listener far from disappointed after that slight setback.  What a Terrible World represents some of the best of The Decemberist’s late-era work–they have combined the instrumental adventurousness of The Hazards of Love while learning to rein in its potential excesses by keeping a song-based focus as they did on The King Is Dead.  It may not seem like a risky move, but it was an incredibly tricky maneuver and The Decemberists pulled it off beautifully.

*It’s a damn shame that this is my first instinct to reference, considering I grew up in an area where zydeco was a significant part of the culture.