By Sean Titone
March 12, 2016
Pinegrove – Cardinal
The first notes of music I heard from Pinegrove were on a song called Aphasia off their extraordinary second LP, Cardinal. This song about learning how to be a better communicator demanded to be repeated several times after first listen. The eight songs on Cardinal have successfully gotten under my skin, and I guarantee you’ll be powerless against their charm. Hailing from Montclair, New Jersey, Pinegrove have officially been a band since 2010, and they are the main songwriting outlet for lead singer, guitarist and bandleader, Evan Stephens Hall. To understand their sound, imagine if The Avett Brothers had signed with emo-tinged indie label Saddle Creek instead of Rick Rubin’s American Recordings back in 2008 and were produced by Saddle Creek’s Conor Oberst instead of Rubin. Hall‘s vocals are laid raw and bare, full of a longing that is impossible to escape or ignore. Cardinal’s production is minimal, not flashy, and every song is a snapshot of life as a mid-twenty-something with all of the confusion that comes with it. This is quintessential, melodic indie rock with an alt-country slant. Banjo and pedal steel guitar dance tastefully with electric and acoustic guitars, and they’re woven throughout Cardinal’s brisk 30-minute runtime. Without a doubt, Pinegrove is my favorite discovery of the year, and I can’t wait to see what this young band has up their heart-worn sleeve in the months and years to come.
Favorite tracks: Aphasia, Old Friends, New Friends
Lake Street Dive – Side Pony
On their third album, Side Pony, Lake Street Dive have crafted a timeless group of soulful pop songs that enhance the band’s strengths while benefiting greatly from the masterful touch of Grammy-award winning producer Dave Cobb (Jason Isbell, Chris Stapleton, Houndmouth). Rachael Price’s voice continues to be the centerpiece of the band and she sounds as smooth, warm and inviting as ever. The song Mistakes has a great, whistle-friendly trumpet riff and is a classic-sounding ode to heartbreak that showcases how tight the band can be in the pocket. I Don’t Care About You infuses some new, exciting blood into the band with a Jimmy Page-sounding electric guitar phrase that propels the song along, servicing the empowerment anthem with vigor.
Favorite tracks: Call Off Your Dogs, I Don’t Care About You, Mistakes
Mavis Staples – Livin’ on a High Note
After two meditative, graceful albums under the guiding hand of producer Jeff Tweedy, Mavis Staples went a different route for her new album, Livin’ on a High Note. As Staples said in a recent interview, “I want something joyful. I want to stop making people cry. I’ve been making people cry all my life.” Produced by folk rock wizard, M. Ward, each track was written by a different collaborative guest and the results produced an uplifting and, indeed, joyful set of songs. Collaborators include a who’s who of today’s indie landscape: Bon Iver, Nick Cave, Neko Case, tUnE-yArDs, M. Ward, Ben Harper, The Head and the Heart and many more. Staples has been singing soul, gospel, R&B and folk music for over 60 years and is a national treasure. Hopefully, this album will introduce her to a whole new generation of fans. You can catch her on tour this summer with her good friend/ex-boyfriend, Bob Dylan.
Favorite tracks: Take Us Back, Love and Trust, High Notes
Mount Moriah – How to Dance
Durham, North Carolina-based Mount Moriah have sounded increasingly confident with each release, and their third studio album, How to Dance, is their most fully realized yet. The tempos have ticked up a notch since their last critically-acclaimed record, Miracle Temple, and the instrumentation has expanded with the welcome introduction of Mellotron and horns, and an even greater use of strings. Lead singer Heather McEntire’s haunting voice is reminiscent of Lucinda Williams but is informed by McEntire’s post-punk background, while the song Cardinal Cross recalls Sleater-Kinney if they imbued their sound with a healthy dose of twang. This is Southern music that aims to elevate the listener to a higher state of consciousness and thoughtfulness, and it goes down easy like a fine whiskey on the rocks.
Favorite tracks: Calvander, Precita, Cardinal Cross
Willie Nelson – Summertime: Willie Nelson Sings Gershwin
Like Mavis Staples, Willie Nelson is a national treasure, an icon of American music who is still going strong in his 82nd year. Nelson was the 2015 recipient of the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, and he’s followed it up with an album covering the songs of Ira and George Gershwin. These are American classics sung by one of popular music’s most recognizable voices. Albums consisting of old standards can often be a staid and stuffy affair, but in the talented, road-worn hands of Nelson, the songs of the Gershwin brothers take on a new life in a spiritual sequel of sorts to Nelson’s landmark album, Stardust.
Favorite tracks: Someone to Watch Over Me, Summertime, I Got Rhythm, Embraceable You
Sunflower Bean – Human Ceremony
At least once a year, a rock band comes along with a debut so strong, it causes music journalists to label them “the saviors of rock and roll” or “the last great rock and roll band” and craft a think piece about the death of rock and roll. The New York trio Sunflower Bean is currently riding a similar wave of praise for their worthy debut, Human Ceremony. None of the members are of legal age to drink yet, but their influences reach back to various rock bands of the ‘60s and ‘70s, namely The Velvet Underground, T. Rex and Black Sabbath. Julia Cumming plays bass and trades off vocals, often in call-and-response, with guitarist Nick Kivlen. Cumming’s voice floats above the driving and melodic psych-rock with a wistful melancholy that suggests a more upbeat shoegaze version of The Sundays. Whether they are rock music’s saviors is yet to be determined, but this is a damn fine debut album.
Favorite tracks: Come On, Easier Said, Wall Watcher
Matthew Logan Vasquez – Solicitor Returns
Matthew Logan Vasquez is the free-spirited, sometimes unhinged lead singer/songwriter of the group Delta Spirit. That band is currently on hiatus, so Vasquez has released a batch of songs under his birth name, the 10-track Solicitor Returns. The material doesn’t sway too far from the rowdy, expansive indie rock of Delta Spirit, but there’s a bit more of a dusty Western vibe here. It’s very much a solo affair; he plays every instrument on the album except for a couple drum parts and one guitar track. Power pop, folk, edgy rock and stately melodies are all on display, and the production has every song blending into the next, begging the listener to resist the urge to hit shuffle and enjoy the album as a piece, a novel idea in this day and age.
Favorite tracks: I Bet It All, Stand Up, Personal, Muerte Tranquila
Check out our January Album Releases