Swift Arrows – Shelby Earl

Shelby Earl - Swift Arrows

Swift Arrows is Shelby Earl’s coming-of-age album. While the singer-songwriter is past the tender age of adolescence, her career is not. She made waves with her 2011 debut album Burn the Boats, but on Swift Arrows, Earl grows up as an artist. With a mature, seasoned sound and steadfast determination, Earl is ready to take on the world.

On her latest effort, Earl’s indie folk has hints of countrified longing and a dash of retro-pop flair. Her songwriting is mostly somber but shows enough grit to get through the tough times and a healthy dose of self-deprecation. The album opens with its two catchiest tunes, “Swift Arrows” and “Sea of Glass,” though the tone soon shifts to a folksier, more forlorn place with songs such as “Grown Up Things,” “If It Isn’t You,” and “This Is Me Now.” She shows strength and fragility in the course of a single song. It’s not the time for frivolity; instead, as the refrain rings, “It’s time for grown-up things.” The one major reprieve from Swift Arrows’ soul searching is “The Artist,” a song based around a call-and-response chorus (“I love you / You love you too”) that has a distinctly ’60s pop vibe. The album ends with a blend of joy and sorrow as “We Will Die” celebrates being alive while facing the inevitability of what will come.

Attribute the lively spirit of the album, in part, to its producer, Seattle singer-songwriter don Damien Jurado. The vast majority of Swift Arrows was recorded live at Columbia City Theater, and this atypical approach is reflected in the richness of the sound. The process allows Earl to showcase the prowess of her pipes in a completely natural way. The balance is also spot-on throughout the record. Everything fits in place: keys can drive a song (“Swift Arrows”) or hang in the background (“Forget You Ever Wondered”); backing vocals can be subtle (“Mary”) or boisterous (the chorus gang vocals of “The Artist”). Each detail adds texture to the record without sacrificing the essence of Earl; each tune could stand on its own with just her lovely vocals and an acoustic guitar.

Unlike many coming-of-age tales, there’s no neatly wrapped conclusion. There’s no “The End.” It’s merely the beginning of a new chapter, with a protagonist who’s emboldened by fresh perspectives. Now we get to watch Shelby Earl’s story play out. Lucky us.

Review Score: 7.0

*Original version published on SeattleMet.com.*

Seattle Met Mixtape: Volume 1

Seattle Met MixtapeI made a mixtape featuring some of my favorite Seattle artist from the first half of 2013. And it’s free to download. It’s got new tunes for Shelby Earl, Pickwick, The Physics, Sean Nelson (formerly of Harvey Danger), Overseas (David Bazan’s new band), The Moondoggies, Vox Mod, Wimps, and more. It’s pretty sick. Go download it.

Fiendish Conversation with Kris Orlowski

Kris OrlowskiI chatted with the Seattle singer-songwriter about his plans for crowdfunding a new record, charity shows, and making friends in the music scene. Check it out.

Seattle Met’s ‘The New Sound of Seattle’ Feature

Met Music FeatureI wrote two of the three piece that comprised the music feature in the July issue of Seattle Met: Profiles on local singer-songwriter Shelby Earl and hip-hop group The Physics. Check them out.

Fool Moon – Widower

Fool Moon - WidowerIt’s been five years since folksy singer-songwriter Kevin Large put out a promising debut EP under the moniker Widower—an appropriately downbeat band name for Large’s music, tinged with sweetness and sorrow. His follow-up LP, Fool Moon, arrives this month with a more refined polish.

Large has a skill for writing sincerely devotional tunes—a poet’s eloquence and poise when pouring out his heart. His odes on Fool Moon avoid leaning on melodrama but still convey a sense that each love won (“Jumper Cables”) or lost (“Thoroughbred”) is as vital as the blood in his veins. The rest of the six-piece Widower band does a terrific job of finding the right tone to support Large’s lyrics. Jeff Fielder’s guitar, dobro, and banjo work pairs nicely with the vocals, offering a subtle undercurrent that stirs our insides. Kaylee Cole, a solo talent in her own right, provides pitch-perfect backing vocals, giving songs a richer tone without ever pulling focus from Large. And lest you worry this is all downbeat, the band can let loose and folk-rock out (“Two Tombstones”). This collection of songs is for the hopeless romantics among us. It’s a breathtakingly beautiful bummer.

Review Score: 6.7

*Original version published on SeattleMet.com.*

Americana Hotel – Ali Marcus

Ali Marcus - Americana HotelIt’s hard to reinvent the wheel. Heck, it’s hard to effectively retread the wheel. It’s a problem folk music has long struggled with—how does a genre that intentionally avoids modernity stay modern? That’s why Americana Hotel, the latest record from Seattle’s Ali Marcus, is so impressive. Seven albums into her career, Marcus still manages to make her brand of simple folk music sound fresh in a genre that often feels like a relic.

There’s a casual effortlessness to Americana Hotel’s sound. Marcus’s voice is soft, sweet, and clear, straddling the line between singing and sing-talking. The instrumental backing flows like a laid-back down-home jam session, with various instruments (banjo, harmonica, fiddle, etc.) popping up when needed but never overstaying their welcome. It’s an organic feeling that works whether Marcus is singing about her grandparents during the Great Depression (“The Ballad of Helen and Bernie”) or playing an old-fashioned folk protest song (remember those?) like “American Soil.”

But what makes Americana Hotel stand out is Marcus’s idiosyncrasy. While she can craft old folk narratives, her music stands out the most when she strays lyrically into the modern realm. Marcus’s rallying cry for the misunderstood dreamer musicians, “Of Homes and Loved Ones,” drops allusions in a style reminiscent of Kimya Dawson of Juno fame (it’s not often “Hoagy Carmichael” or “Puff the Inconsolable Dragon” are used as end rhymes). “The Windmill Song” focuses on wind turbines and has an entire verse dedicated to Al Gore. “Trash Day” literally uses the lack of a trash day in an apartment complex as a way to look fondly to carefree days of the past. The best part is that none of it seems forced; it’s Marcus’s natural character shining through.

Folky Americana music has long been stuck in a distant past, some idealistic time gone by. Through her own inherent quirks, Marcus modernizes the style without sacrificing its soul.

Review Score: 7.2

*Original version published on SeattleMet.com.*

Tools of the Trade: Tyler Carson’s Stroh Violin

I restarted the Tools of the Trade series I had going down in Charleston last year. First up I looked at the Stroh violin owned by Tyler Carson of Impossible Bird. Check it out.