By Spencer. It was a huge September for music, and it’s probably going to take most of October just to catch up. And while just about everyone is currently singing the praises of the new Bon Iver, we’re looking back to some less-heralded new releases from a batch of artists from all over the spectrum: art rock from Hamilton Leithauser, Local Natives, Okkervil River, and Warpaint; folk and country balladry from Billie Marten and Amanda Shires; and punchy guitar rock from Beach Slang and Cymbals Eat Guitars.
Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam – I Had A Dream That You Were Mine: “I use the same voice I always had,” former Walkmen frontman Hamilton Leithauser sings on “Sick As A Dog,” the second track from his new collaboration with Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij. That might be true of his trademark vocal delivery, so instantly recognizable here, and even the textures of the guitars will sound comfortingly familiar to Walkmen fans. But Leithauser has found a whole new voice here as a songwriter, thanks in no small part to the eclecticism of Rostam’s rhythmic influences, and together they have created a pastiche of sounds whose variety shatters anything the two have done with their earlier bands. Whereas Rostam’s Vampire Weekend was best known for bringing the sounds of world music to indie, here, the duo dabble in both geographic and historical diversity, painting with Spanish guitars on “In A Black Out” and steel drums on “You Ain’t That Young Kid” while also bringing in 50s doo-wop background vocals to tracks like “When The Truth Is…” and “Rough Going (I Don’t Let Up).” If I have a complaint, it’s that the mix still sounds thin, following the raw minimalism that characterized all of the Walkmen’s albums; it would’ve been nice to hear Leithauser embrace Vampire Weekend’s more polished finish. But sometimes, in order to keep from rehashing the past, you have to make a break with it, and with songs this inventive, it’s clear that this collaboration is a welcome break for both artists.
Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam – “A 1000 Times”
Billie Marten – Writing Of Blues And Yellows: North Yorkshire prodigy Billie Marten may be only seventeen years old, but you’d never know it listening to the stark folk beauty of her full-length debut, Writing Of Blues And Yellows. A nominee for the BBC’s Sound of 2016 award, which recognizes the best new talents in British music, she first earned attention in the UK for a series of YouTube videos she put out at the tender age of twelve. Making music every bit as adult as Laura Marling or Ben Howard, her songs are quietly haunting, usually constructed from fragile acoustic guitars or rickety pianos draped with soft drones of guitar feedback—making this an ideal soundtrack for cloudy fall days spent looking out the window.
Billie Marten – “Milk & Honey”
Local Natives – Sunlit Youth: L.A.’s Local Natives return with their third album, Sunlit Youth, and at this point, it feels like they’ve settled comfortably into their identity as one of the best indie guitar pop bands out there. It’s true that those with an artist’s bent may not appreciate it on the same level as 2013’s Hummingbird, which carried a more avant garde, experimental edge. Here, the band seems less determined to prove themselves—which could be read as a flagging commitment to artistic ambition, or just the quiet confidence of a veteran band that needn’t take itself so seriously all the time. Songs like “Dark Days,” “Fountain Of Youth,” and “Jellyfish” glisten with a pop sheen, but a closer listen to the guitar tones and effects reveals a craft-like attention to compositional detail that rewards multiple plays. Fun but sophisticated, it’s a satisfying slice of quintessential California indie that pleases all ears.
Local Natives – “Dark Days”
Amanda Shires – My Piece Of Land: Amanda Shires has been hiding in the shadows of others for far too long. I caught her earlier this year opening for Ryan Adams, and she was shy but spellbinding, alone out there with just an acoustic guitar. And as the wife of Americana’s current darling, Jason Isbell, it’s been all to easy to define her by the orbits she keeps. But My Piece Of Land is a statement. Coldly confident songwriting drives these country tunes, but whereas so many recent up-and-comers in the genre play the throwback card to the days of Waylon Jennings or George Strait, Shires isn’t interested in rehashing the past. Her sound is modern and without gimmick, focusing instead on deep sentiments and melodies that carve their way into you. The instrumentation is light but not thin, with the occasional violin or drum shuffle popping up at just the time to bring completion to her simplicity. Here’s hoping that Jason Isbell will soon be answering just as many questions about his songwriting spouse as Shires has.
Amanda Shires – “Harmless”
Beach Slang – A Loud Bash Of Teenage Feelings: I wasn’t too impressed with Beach Slang’s debut last year, so it comes as a pleasant surprise that on the follow-up, the appropriately named A Loud Bash Of Teenage Feelings, I finally get it. Comparisons to 90s punk pop group Jawbreaker or even more recent guitar bands like Japandroids abound; this is aggressive, energetic rock music for people who still have a little teenage rebellion left in them. So what makes this sophomore effort better than their first one? Experience, for starters, but I also enjoy how songs like “Art Damage” and “The Perfect High” explore a darker side, flirting with the sounds of early grunge.
Beach Slang – “Spin The Dial”
Cymbals Eat Guitars – Pretty Years: Cymbals Eat Guitars may have named themselves after a quote from Lou Reed describing the sound of The Velvet Underground, but anyone trying to describe their sound is more likely to look back to the early 90s underground scene of Pavement or Mudhoney than their 60s namesake. On this, the follow-up to their 2014 breakthrough, LOSE, you can still hear that rawness in their guitar sound and in Joseph D’Agostino’s throaty rasp. But they mix it with bigger riffs (moments on “Finally” veer dangerously close to arena rock), 80s keyboards and saxes, (“Dancing Days,” “Wish”), and percussive grooves (“Have A Heart”) to achieve a variety that goes well beyond the minimalism of their most obvious influences. Pretty Years is rough around the edges but also a strangely accessible entry point for a band that’s proving it can have many voices without losing its core character.
Cymbals Eat Guitars – “Finally”
Warpaint – Heads Up: L.A.’s all-female Warpaint are back with their characteristically un-California brand of dark trance rock, but on their third album, they’ve at least learned to lighten up a little. As pretty as the sounds on their 2014 eponymous breakthrough could be, it was also a drag after a couple of listens. But on Heads Up, they’ve learned to cut the somberness with lighter guitar licks and some shuffling beats that are almost danceable. It makes for a more enjoyable listen, but the trippy, bass-heavy compositions still stop far short of a pop conversion—so think of this less as an identity shift and more as a much-needed rebalancing.
Warpaint – “New Song”
Okkervil River – Away: The last time we heard from Austin’s Okkervil River felt like it might be their last. While their peak period—2005’s Black Sheep Boy, 2007’s The Stage Names, and 2008’s The Stand-Ins—established them as one of the essential acts of indie’s golden era, they had since put forth a couple of albums that felt uninspired. Naturally, then, they kick off their comeback declaration, Away, with a song called “Okkervil River R.I.P.” that so perfectly recaptures everything we loved about them: the poetic wordplay, the simple repeating melodies, and the sad dog vocal delivery of Will Sheff. Away feels like vintage Okkervil River, from the warm Spanish horns of “Comes Indiana Through The Smoke” to the twitchy energy of “Judey On A Street” to the hypnotic and aptly-named closer, “Days Spent Floating (In The Half Between).” “Eventually, I realized I was kind of writing a death story for a part of my life that had, buried inside of it, a path I could follow that might let me go somewhere new,” Sheff has said of the songwriting process for this album. Normally, that’s the kind of pretentious bullshit you hear from rock stars trying to lend more gravity to their work than it really deserves. But in this case, it’s a spot-on description of how this album sounds—and we can all be thankful that Sheff has indeed found that “somewhere new” he was looking for.
Okkervil River – “Okkervil River R.I.P.”
[Pictured above: Hamilton Leithauser, Billie Marten, Okkervil River’s Will Sheff, and Amanda Shires]