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David Martel – Versus Us EP review

While earnest indie folk bands like Mumford and Sons and Fleet Foxes have dominated the college radio airwaves over the past several years, some sensitive guitar-playing boys have chosen to stick to the solo singer/songwriter route. One of these artists, David Martel, has just released his second EP, the four-song, seventeen-minute “Versus Us.”

Martel, based in Montreal, burst onto the music scene in 2008 with his first album, “Hardly Knew Me.” After tours across North America and France, including a spot at SXSW and a gig opening for Adele, he has released two EPs and zero full-length albums. 2011’s “You’ve Heard The Best, Now Try The Rest…” is followed by 2013’s “Versus Us,” and Martel’s website promises another full-length album coming soon.

With acoustic instruments, layered vocals, and yearning lyrics, Martel sounds like more mainstream songwriters Matt Nathanson (“Come On Get Higher”) or Eric Hutchinson (“Rock’N’Roll”). Martel’s sound would be right at home on an adult contemporary radio station in Middle America, despite his Quebecois roots – half the reviews in his press kit are in French, praising his presence on “la scene musicale montrealaise angolophone” (English music Montreal music scene), though you’d never guess it to hear him.

The EP opens with a 5-minute ballad called “I’ve Got It All,” featuring Patrick Wilson. “Faith, love, and happiness is a starting point, I hope you can agree,” Martel begins. “It’s what I always wanted, it’s what you crave the most, and no one’s gonna tell you that it’s gotta be this way.” The song is part love song, part apology, part promise and completely sincere.

The next song, “In the Middle,” has a slightly harder edge, with Martel placing some blame on the song’s addressee. “In the middle of your mess / Wanna try to understand,” Martel sings. “Sick and tired of your mess.” The song is accusatory and longing, though still as sweet as maple syrup.

“Lovesong,” the third offering, is the most traditionally romantic folk song of the EP (and also the longest, clocking in at just over five minutes). “Hair’s made of gold, I’m tired of chasing these things / Too many pills to swallow, a life to rethink,” Martel sings. It’s sweet and sad and my favorite of the EP by a long shot.

“What’s a Truck?” featuring David’s older brother Marc Martel, also a staple of the Montreal music scene, is a fun, energetic tune asking and answering the title question (and a few others: “What’s a man? What’s his love? What’s his shame? What’s a life? What’s a dream?” etc.).

You can buy “Versus Us” on Martel’s bandcamp here. It’s also available to listen to on Spotify.

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reviews

Anna Scouten – Anna Scouten album review

If you know Anna Scouten, you probably know her from YouTube, where her covers of indie folk hits like Bon Iver’s “Skinny Love” and Bright Eyes’ “First Day Of My Life” have earned her millions of views over the past four years.

Now, Scouten has released her first EP made up of four self-penned songs and a cover of Feist’s “Intuition.” The self-titled EP, running just over 15 minutes, proves that Scouten is more than just a YouTube cover artist – she’s a talented singer/songwriter in her own right. Scouten’s four original songs are indie folk melodies that remind you of Ingrid Michaelson, Joanna Newsom, Jenny Lewis, Feist, or if go back further, Joni Mitchell. The stripped-down acoustic ballads put the focus on Scouten’s unique voice and her songwriting abilities, and she proves that she’s more than up to the task.

Taking inspiration from more than just her favorites’ sound, themes of longing permeate throughout the EP, though Scouten makes sure that things never get too heavy.

The opening song, “All Out,” is a perfect introduction to Scouten’s voice and songwriting style. Just 20 years old, Scouten sings of the frustrations of a can’t-live-with-it, can’t-live-without-it relationship with an unexpected maturity. “All the love lost over / all the lovely years I’ve known / crawl into your bed dear / it’s as if I think it’s home,” she sings.

Next comes the Feist cover, “Intuition.” A new cover for fans of Scouten’s YouTube hits, though she’s covered another Feist song(“The Park”).

Then, there’s “Just for Show,” one of the album’s standout tracks – a quirky, sweet story-song that could be twins with Ingrid Michaelson’s “Far Away.” “Monsters” is another standout and also the shortest track, clocking in at 2 minutes and 17 seconds. It’s a sweet lullaby with surprisingly dark lyrics.

“Monsters under my bed give me such a fright / Monsters in my head come out at night,” Scouten begins, before adding a tender reassurance: “I don’t mind falling as far as I can / If it’s into your arms, I’m sure that I will land.”

The EP closes with “Show Me,” a simple yet heartfelt entreaty to someone who’s hurt her. “Show me your words / Yeah, all of them hurt,” she sings.

A self-described “broke student,” Scouten is currently running an Indiegogo campaign to raise the funds to create physical CDs for this EP. You can donate to the campaign here or buy the digital EP here. After this five-song sample, I can’t wait to see what Anna Scouten comes up with next.

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reviews

Vacation – The Blank Tapes album review

The album cover for The Blank Tapes’ “Vacation” shows a cartoon of a man with long, blonde hair and a long, blonde beard, lying on a beach in nothing but a pair of lime green swim trunks and white-framed sunglasses. Next to him on the sand lie a keytar, a pair of maracas, and a bottle of unidentifiable liquid.

A cigarette – more likely, a joint — hangs from the side of his mouth, a long stream of smoke curling towards the pink-purple sky, peeking out from the frame of a mountain range, a tall wave, and a setting sun. Though the man is about to be submerged by the tsunami-height wave, he seems unconcerned, dipping a heel in the fast-approaching waters an taking another long drag from his cigarette/joint.

That picture is exactly how “Vacation” sounds: the summery, whimsical indie-grunge-folk-pop is easy, breezy, beautiful and perhaps best enjoyed with a mysterious bottle by your side and a mysterious cigarette in your mouth. There may be looming tsunami waves amidst the upbeat pop, but while listening, it’s hard to feel anything but happy.

“Vacation,” created by musician Matt Adams, is the first full Blank Tapes album recorded outside of Adams’ home studio. The veteran SoCal performer has been making his own music since 2003, earning notice from publications like Spin and Rolling Stone after he moved to San Francisco in 2005.

Besides writing and recording all his own music, Adams makes his own album covers – he’s also illustrated for Mad magazine – and books his own tours.

After two surprise hits and a tour in Brazil – which inspired the “bossa-delic” “Brazilia” – Adams recorded his latest album on Oakland’s Antenna Farm Records.

“Vacation” has a warm sound and three-part harmonies reminiscent of the Beach Boys or the early Beatles, but Blank Tapes also reminds me of another solo project – Jason Schwartzman’s Coconut Records, another California indie pop project that almost forces you to smile and relax.

Lyrics abound with references to summer weather, drugs, lovers, and friends, though there’s a slight undercurrent of angst – missing friends in “Vacation,” missing a lover in “Coast to Coast,” maybe a spot of bad weather or few too many of those drugs – that brings indie surf pop band Best Coast to mind.

Just take the catchy chorus of standout track “Coast to Coast”: “We’re changing with the weather / We’re waking up the ghosts / It couldn’t get much better / From coast to coast.” There’s summer and happiness and travel and vacation – but there’s ghosts, too.

Other standouts include the title track, “Vacation,” and the love song “Pearl,” which Adams wrote about his girlfriend and current Blank Tapes drummer Pearl Charles on the night he met her. The lyrics are simple (“Pearl, oh Pearl, what a girl, she’s a pearl, Pearl”), but you won’t be able to get the tune – or the album – out of your head.

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Unwed Mothers – Unwed Mothers album review

Unwed Mothers are a true genre-bending band. While listening to their debut, self-titled album, I tried to think of a sound to compare them to. My list includes Rilo Kiley, Bikini Kill, Carrie Underwood, Amy Winehouse, the Black Keys, Alanis Morrissette, Janis Joplin, Tom Waits, and the Eagles – bands and artists that sound absolutely nothing like each other.

Unwed Mothers are a little bit blues, a little bit country, a little bit indie, a little bit folk, and a little bit arena rock. They would sound at home on your mom’s favorite adult contemporary station – all the hits of the ‘80s, ‘90s and today – or on your local college radio. They’re deceptively polished, so that you don’t quite notice what they’re doing until you really stop and listen.

It’s all about singer Julie Adams’ voice: it’s captivating, a powerhouse. She’s an expert at conveying different emotions and genres: her voice can be raw and husky, sweet and crooning, innocent and whispery.

Adams is truly the backbone to the band, formed in Edmonton, Canada less than a year ago, in summer 2012.  The Unwed Mothers Bandcamp page informs us that Unwed Mothers – Adams on vocals/guitars/keyboards, Michael James on lead guitar, Kurtis Schultz on drums, and Josh Eygenraam on bass – informs us that the band “met in a series of university halls, jam spaces, and dimly lit bars,” but other than that, their origin is mostly a mystery.

The album opens with “Skeletons,” which is also the band’s first single. “I never lose, I never lose control,” Adams sings, her “Woahs” and “Ohs” getting increasingly raw to close with a guitar-heavy wail.

One standout is “White Knight,” a high-energy, bluesy song that showcases James’ lead guitar skills as well as Adams’ vocals.

“Boy, you left me in a daze,” Adams sings, to an answering guitar lick. “Had love in your pocket but you threw it away.” It’s part country, part ‘50s rock’n’roll, part childhood repeat-after-me song. Adams even incorporates part of a nursery rhyme and a handclapping game, infusing the line “Jack be nimble, Jack be quick, jump clean on over that candlestick” with a fervor only rivaled by the next line, from “Miss Mary Mack” – “He jumped so high he reached the sky / Came calling back on the fourth of July.”

There’s been little press on Unwed Mothers so far – they’ve been featured on a handful of indie music blogs but have had little mainstream coverage and lack even an iTunes bio. The lack of press is the only sign that this is a debut album and that the band formed less than a year ago – from the sound of it, most people might guess that this is a fifth, or eighth, or tenth album from fan favorites who started playing together a decade together. They’re polished and practiced, yes, but more than that, Unwed Mothers know exactly what they want to sound like and exactly where they want to go – and their debut album is the roadmap.

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press releases reviews

The Modest Revolution – Enter The Haggis (ETH) album review

“The Modest Revolution” is based on a newspaper. For their eighth studio album, the Canadian folk rock/world fusion band went high concept – they picked a random day in the future and promised to create an album around the contents of that day’s newspaper. Call it an ode to the dying medium of print or a seemingly random choice of a concept album – though the press release explains how Enter The Haggis made the concept album, it never quite gets to why – but you have to admit: Enter The Haggis commits.

The date was March 30, 2012, and the newspaper was The Globe and Mail, Canada’s largest circulation newspaper and second-largest daily newspaper, after the Toronto Star. The band preordered 1,500 copies of the issue, so they had to stick with the theme.

“Committing to a specific future day in history as the sole inspiration for an album’s worth of music was an initial source of anxiety – what if nothing interesting happens?’ reads the band’s press release.

Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened – the focus of the March 30 paper was an analysis of the Canadian federal budget – but they made the best of it.

“You start to see all of the little things that are so inspiring,” vocalist/guitarist/fiddler/songwriter Buchanan said of the writing experience. “Everything from the front page through to the personal stories that fill the obituaries, you realize there are so many stories going on every day. There’s so much more than the talking heads on television or the headlines themselves.”

Despite the Kickstarter backing (they achieved their fundraising goal in less than 12 hours) and the relevance of their topic matter, the band was formed in 1996, and it sounds like it. Think Dave Matthews Band or Crash Test Dummies. And, forgive me, but the Celtic instruments and abrupt changes in tone make me think of nothing more than the ‘90s Irish girl group B*Witched.

The financial news on March 30, 2012 led to surprisingly engaging music. The opening track, “Year of the Rat,” is an earnest anthem-type rock song. “Come all you liars, you saints and lost souls,” Enter the Haggis sing, urging you along.

Some of the songs take their newspaper article subject matter perhaps a little too literally – “Blackout,” for instance, inspired by an article about concussions in hockey that led the Toronto Maple Leafs to a poor record, contains the lyrics, “We follow along, we keep chasing the puck, ever whispering someday, we’ll drink from the cup.” At least they didn’t say “Stanley Cup.”

If nothing else, Enter the Haggis is sincere. Every song sounds like an earnest stadium anthem, and it’s easy to imagine Enter the Haggis opening for a band like U2.

The first single, “Can’t Trust the News,” contains a hopeful chorus that seems shorthand for the album and the band’s outlook, as well as the news story it was based on – a brief on a 65-year-old woman who climbed mountains to find distraction from trauma.

“Trust your eyes / They will follow the light / It’s a new tragic story / Trust your heart / It will swallow the dark / It’s a mecca of heartache and doom / You can’t trust the news,” Enter the Haggis sing.

It’s rousing call for hope amidst the bleakness of modernity and of news cycle – though one imagines Enter the Haggis must have wished they had something more tragic than the demise of the penny (“Copper Leaves”) to write about.

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reviews

Carmen Villain – Sleeper album review

Carmen Villain is as mysterious as her music. Born Carmen Hillestad, the half-Mexican, half-Norwegian chanteuse began her career as a cover model for magazines like Vogue, Marie Claire, and Nylon. She now lives in London, and has spent some time in the United States – different publications have mentioned Michigan and New York. And – despite a being covered by sites from SPIN and Pitchfork to VICE to Refinery 29 – that’s about all we know about Carmen Villain.

Carmen Villain’s debut album, “Sleeper,” does little to alleviate the mystery, though that might be just the point. The album – featuring a woman’s face (Hillestad’s?) on a jet black background, all but hidden by her white-blonde hair – contains twelve songs, several with portmanteau titles like “Lifeissin,” “Slowaway,” and “Kingwoman.” The lo-fi alt-rock album contains plenty of fuzzy guitars and drums that often overpower Carmen Villain’s sometimes mumbled, sometimes monotone, usually layered vocals. Which isn’t to say that the effect isn’t intentional – it is, contributing to a dark, witchy sound that’s trendy enough to be written about in the music pages of the magazines where Carmen Hillestad once modeled. There’s an anxiety underneath all the lovely layers: it’s a dreamy sound, but it’s a fever dream.

Carmen Villain’s official Facebook page lists her influences as Royal Trux, Cat Power, Sun City Girls, and Syd Barrett. The Cat Power influence is especially recognizable in the way Villain layers and buries her voice amid the guitars and keyboards. Sun City Girls, a 1980s experimental rock band, lends itself to the mystery and the occasional sheer strangeness of Carmen Villain’s sound.

Carmen Villain reminds me of another model-turned-singer, Charlotte Kemp-Muhl, who sings with boyfriend Sean Lennon in the project Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger. Kemp-Muhl and Carmen Villain share an almost bored-sounding inflection, as well as occasional nonsensical lyrics and a to-the-moment, on-trend sound. And, of course, they’re both gorgeous it girls.

In the opening song, “Two Towns,” Hillestad croons, “Just give me some money,” before the song transformers into a dreamy, sing-songy, layered melody. “Two Towns” is a strong opener, but the standout here has to be “Lifeissin,” Carmen Villain’s first single. Reverbed guitars, keyboards, murmurs, and wind-like noises are layered to create a haunting atmosphere, anchored by Hillestad’s haunting, murmured vocals.

“Seek out, breathe in. / Breathe frost, yeah / Life is sin,” she sings. It doesn’t make much sense, but it doesn’t have to – it’s the effect that counts.

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reviews

Stornoway – Tales From Terra Firma album review

Stornoway’s second album, Tales From Terra Firma, is a sweepingly ambitious follow-up to their 2010 debut, Beachcomber’s Windowsill. In their sophomore effort, the British indie folk band tackle big-picture themes like love, death, and the meaning of life – there’s even a song called, appropriately, “The Bigger Picture.”

Like indie folk standouts Fleet Foxes and Mumford and Sons, Stornoway’s music is filled with a yearning for earlier, simpler times (From album opener “You Take Me As I Am”: “You imagine yourself living with no phone or electricity”). Throughout the album, dulcimer, harpsichord, autoharp, mandolin, and “crunchy autumn leaves” are added to the guitars, keyboards, drums, and strings of Beachcomber’s Windowsill. And though the band is based out of landlocked Oxford, their lyrics depict a rural, windswept landscape, including a clifftop wedding, an open road, and countless mentions of oceans, stars, and seabirds – and sometimes all three together, as in the final verse of the album’s first single, “Knock Me On The Head”: “I saw a feathered silhouette on the crest of unforgiving waves / It hovered over salty air, and I couldn’t tear my eyes away / Somewhere in between the lines, I drifted into fantasy / But you’re the only open book, a portal to a star-crossed sea.”

Stornoway, who got the name from a Scottish town in the Outer Hebrides they’d never been to when they chose it, are to their credit aware that their evocation of the countryside and sea is a fantasy, if a lovely one. “Brian [Briggs, Stornoway’s singer/guitarist/songwriter] is Irish and fancies himself as a bit of a salt-crusted adventurer, which proves tricky when you live at the furthest point in the UK from the sea,” reads the band’s official biography. “As a consequence he writes songs that have a strong sense of escapism, set against a backdrop of nature and the changing seasons.”

Stornoway have done a lot of growing up since Beachcomber’s Windowsill, which they began writing while still students, and Tales From Terra Firma shows it.  The album covers heartbursting joy, heartbreaking melancholy, and everything in between. Album opener “You Take Me As I Am” recalls Briggs’ wedding in Pembrokeshire, while “The Ones We Hurt The Most” evokes fully adult guilt and sorrow. “The Bigger Picture,” which was inspired by the death of a young friend, and the fully relatable “The Great Procrastinator” are folk epics setting forth life philosophies.

Tales From Terra Firma is a standout in the indie folk genre and one of the strongest albums of 2013. I’ve been listening to the album on repeat and I can’t see myself stopping anytime soon. Have a listen to one of the album’s standout songs: “You Take Me As I Am,” “The Bigger Picture,” “The Great Procrastinator,” or “Knock Me On The Head,” and you’ll be sure to fall in love with Stornoway – sea, stars, seagulls and all.

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music videos reviews

Fear Of Men – Early Fragments album review

“Do you know what to do when you’re on your own? Do you know what to do when you’re on your own again?” Fear of Men singer/guitarist Jessica Weiss wonders in “Seer,” the opening track on Early Fragments. This nine-track album is a collection of the singles and cassette releases that made the indie pop quartet one of Britain’s most blogged about bands of 2012.

Combining lush, dreamy vocals with lyrics influenced by Anaïs Nin and Sigmund Freud, the London and Brighton-based band sounds like the Cranberries in the midst of an existential crisis. Their first-ever single, “Ritual Confession,” was inspired by letters between Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, while “Green Sea” references the Greek myth of Prometheus, or perhaps Percy Bysshe Shelley’s  Prometheus Unbound (Opening lyrics: “Fall asleep in the green / Under the waves  / Til the birds steal the liver I grew.”)

You won’t be surprised to learn that Fear of Men began as an art student project. The band formed in 2011 as an extension of the ambient soundtrack recordings Weiss made for her short films. She met guitarist and fellow art student Daniel Falvey when he came to one of her exhibitions, and they were soon joined by Alex Flynn-O’Neill on bass and Michael Miles on drums. (You read that right – despite the name and Weiss’ vocals, Fear of Men is 50% male.)

Even if their lyrics didn’t give them away, Fear of Men has made no attempt to disguise its intellectual background. In between links to their surrealistic music videos and latest gigs, Fear of Men’s Twitter and Tumblr pages contain ephemera like quotes from Edgar Allan Poe and Sylvia Plath, a photo of a Yoko Ono art piece, a YouTube video of a Philip Larkin poem, and shorter-than-short Tweets like “Visiting Basquiat’s grave.”

And let’s talk about those videos. There are three of them, each a three-minute work of art in its own right. The most recent music video, for “Seer,” shows Weiss as a beekeeper in a sunny wasteland, looking like a lonesome astronaut in her white coveralls and veiled beekeeper’s hat.

Their name, background, and videos all hint that there’s something special here, but above all, what sets Fear of Men apart is their haunting lyrics. Darkly poetic and unsettling, the lyrics dwell on birth, death, sex, and spirituality, even when the melody is a little more lighthearted. “I remember being born / I remember when I die,” Weiss chirps in the upbeat, almost-danceable “Born.”

Fear of Men recently crossed the pond for the first time to play nine sets at SXSW, as well as shows in Monterrey, Mexico and New York. There’s a proper debut album in the works, so make sure you pick up Early Fragments now.