Folk Rock

PREMIERE: Relatives - Give It A Try

6fpDyVRA.jpeg

Will Shenton

By way of announcing their new LP, Strange We Fall (out August 31 on Figure & Ground), Relatives have released a truly lush track. "Give It A Try" showcases the group's signature smoky duets and softly cascading instrumentals, while capturing their approach to the record as a whole: dive in and don't overthink it.

Building off the songwriting duo's diverse backgrounds—Ian McLellan Davis' as a composer and string arranger for acts like Feist and Grizzly Bear, and Katie Vogel's as a self-taught bluegrass singer—"Give It A Try" feels effortless in its composition. Sultry double bass snakes along to form the backbone as it gradually builds from near-minimalism to a wall of shimmering guitars. The vocals are gorgeous throughout, simple yet mesmerizing, floating along like they're singing at your bedside.

Last year marked the tenth anniversary of Relatives, and their experience shows at every turn. To hear them tell it, writing Strange We Fall was an exercise in spontaneity, characterized by quick turnarounds and attempts to pare down the band's grandiose ideas. But even in this somewhat less deliberate environment, the final recordings feel eminently complete.

"Give It A Try," and Strange We Fall as a whole, sees Relatives "paring down and turning inwards, exploring what can be done with less." Quite a bit, as it turns out.

Pre-order Strange We Fall on Figure & Ground Records

REVIEW: Isaac Vallentin - Amateur

a2336503035_10.jpg

Will Shenton

There's a timelessness to Isaac Vallentin's new LP, Amateur, that gives its melodies, narratives, and vignettes a sense of hard-to-place familiarity. At times this is because it draws from recognizable influences, but largely it's a result of Vallentin's own stylistic touches. From the psudeo-'70s aesthetic of "Loudest In The Universe" to the more modern folk-rock of a song like "Carol," each is replete with intricacies that give a new impression on every listen.

Vallentin's distinctive baritone and knack for folksy storytelling are occasionally reminiscent of fellow Canadian singer-songwriter Andy Shauf ("Flying Pigeon" would feel right at home on The Bearer of Bad News). But Vallentin's eclectic background seems to imply greater depth to his artistic goals. How does one go from the minimal, experimental synths of 2015's Hedera to the rich, cozy folk-pop of Amateur without some sort of intricate conceptual map?

Maybe it's because he lists "anti-folk" among his genre tags on Bandcamp, but it's hard not to hear a hint of parody in Vallentin's occasionally over-the-top sincerity. "They said you shouldn’t be a dancer / You’ll be eaten by the dog," he sings on the penultimate track. "I wish I’d gone to college / And forgotten dreams of dancing / As the dog is lacking appetite / For those holding accreditation." It's an invitation to laugh, and it's unclear whether this is just Vallentin letting his sense of humor shine through or whether it's meant to be a broader dig at the tropes of sad-sack narrative folk.

Regardless, Amateur's only obvious irony comes in the form of its title. Vallentin is clearly an accomplished songwriter, and each layer of instrumentation feels effortlessly refined. Lush but never overwrought (except perhaps where it wants to be), this album is truly a joy to listen to, as it must have been to create.

PREMIERE: Roman Jinn - Russian River

Russian River.jpg

Will Shenton

I often find myself using the word "transportive" to describe music—that which is evocative of a time or place beyond our own, whether in the past, future, or some other dimensional direction. But in listening to Roman Jinn's debut single, "Russian River," I'm inclined to use it in a different context. Like its namesake, this is a song that whisks the listener along from one movement to the next, never lingering too long on any sound but never losing its cohesion.

The track opens with wistful vocals over piano before exploding into what feels like a climactic, cloud-parting chorus, complete with high-pitched accents from an electric guitar. But then, just as soon as things start to feel familiar, we dive back beneath the surface into a meandering collection of free-jazz horns and ride-cymbal nonchalance, all before the first minute has elapsed. We return to the putative chorus once more before abruptly hitting the brakes, and the song melts into a sunny wash of throwback psychedelia to round things out.

There's structure to "Russian River," yes, but just enough to hold its wildly disparate elements together. If anything, it feels like artists Sahil Ansari and Eli Aleinikoff are showing off their control not just of instrumentation but of emotion—they're willing to dabble in longing and catharsis, but they refuse to be swept away by it. There's a stoic quality to the piece, which is a strange thing to say about a song that makes so much use of improvisation. I'm excited to see what other contradictions Roman Jinn manage to synthesize when their debut album, MNO, drops this spring on Massif Records.

TRACK REVIEW: Relatives - The Ambiguities

relative.jpg

Phillipe Roberts

Cozying up to an ambling beat that drags its feet like it just got out of bed, Brooklyn duo Relatives spin a drowsy tale of wayward souls on new track “The Ambiguities.” The first taste of their tenth-anniversary record, Weighed Down Fortune, its weary shuffle and sleepwalking harmonies make good on all the promises of the title—good-natured folk anchored to the floor with a heavy heart.

Dual vocalists Ian McClellan Davis and Katie Vogel trade verses on the track, each occupying their own intensely pensive sphere. “Dark sister, she came to me in a dream / Shadows hung from her brow,” he sings, and she follows, “She came to me / Promised her whole self to these city streets / Lack of heat." Davis sings as if he’s just emerged from a dream, focused on scattered, fuzzy recollections, while Vogel takes a more direct tack. Combined, the two unspool the narrative from both ends, pulling apart an all-too-familiar story of desperation and blind faith.

They have their individual strengths, but the melody truly flourishes when their voices blend together on the chorus. The beginnings of a silver lining peak out from behind the clouds: “Swift and sure the carpet was pulled out from under our toes / But all will be made whole,” they sing, sounding less like they’re singing to reassure the “dark sister” or “sweet Lucy” than to keep each other warm.

With a sparse but soothing rhythm propelling them along, Relatives keep the pacing tight, delivering a bleak yet charming piece in less than three minutes. "The Ambiguities" packs a compact, heart-thumping wallop, making it an easy winner for a rapidly approaching winter.

PREMIERE: The Washboard Abs - Recurring Chasms

Laura Kerry

The Washboard Abs are much softer than their name suggests. The songwriting project of Clarke Sondermann beginning in 2014, they have moved three cities (from Anchorage to Denver to Olympia, Washington); picked up three members (Angelo Vitello on guitars, Brendan Burton on bass, and Grant Chapman on drums); and perfected their breed of gentle indie folk-rock. After a few releases over the years, including 2015’s Whateverland on Slovakian cassette label Z Tapes, The Washboard Abs are back with Recurring Chasms, their fullest and most beautiful work yet.

Pared-down but meticulous, Recurring Chasms is an intimate album. The Washboard Abs resemble Kings of Convenience with clear, delicate vocals above rhythmic folk guitar-led compositions, but they are more off-kilter; underneath the dulcet melodies sung close to the mic are subtle punctuations of surprise and dissonance. “Erosion” sparkles with warmth as the bass and guitar slide over incongruous notes, “Icy Moon” threatens loss of control with moments of expansive jazz chords, and in “One,” bare lyrics hover over dense, unrestrained fuzz. While wildness threatens at the edges, though, Recurring Chasms remains intimate and largely muted. “I control the narrative,” Sondermann sings in the final song, “Veil,” between instrumental reveries, “I’m bleeding through this song.” Through detailed and sometimes unexpected tracks, the inner workings of the songwriter prevail.