Category Archives: folk

Johnny Flynn

Courtesy of MySpace

Johnny Flynn MySpace

Actor, poet, heart-throb, songwriter — Renaissance Man. Johnny Flynn is a Jack of many trades.

The folk singer, whose most recent album Been Listening saw release in the States last week, began his life in the theater. Citing Shakespeare and Yeats as major influences, the versatile Flynn is a member of the “Propeller Theater Troupe” in London, England. As a member, he has acted in several productions, including William Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night.”

In 2006, he moved from proscenium to concert hall and costumed garb to steel guitar, forming the band Sussex Wit.

Been Listening, the Londoner’s follow-up to his break through debut A Larum, makes better use of his band: generous strings, bombastic horns and multi-track harmonies are prominent throughout the record. On “Kentucky Pill,” the album’s opening track, Flynn enjoys a “cow-tipping expedition” with his childhood friends. The very Americana folk song centers around a trumpet hook — uplifting and proud — before the album trudges into darker, love-lorn territories.

Indeed, there is a strange aura about Flynn, whose English upbringing clearly did not involve “living in boxes by the rails” and “cow tipping” with pals from the Deep South. Like Laura Marling, Noah and the Whale or the more popular Mumford & Sons, Flynn represents a piece of the nu-folk scene in Sussex. The scene wears their Bob Dylan and chamber artists (think British Fleet Foxes) influences on their sleeves with pride.

Flynn, like Dylan or The Band, is a storyteller first, lifting ideas from personal history, newspaper clippings and the oral tradition. In “Barnacled Warship,” he narrates the life of a troubled soldier going off to war; in “Churlish May,” he describes a year-long love story, culminating in spring.

Johnny Flynn performed last night at Atlanta’s Masquerade venue, playing an acoustic set without his five-man backing band. And yet that’s all Flynn needs to shine: his guitar, his stories and his endlessly appealing wit.

— By Editor-at-Large Geoffrey Schorkopf

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Vandaveer

band

Vandaveer – Fistful of Swoon from Grandcrew on Vimeo.

There are plenty of good things to say about those buzzy bands out of Brooklyn. You know, the ones that get the synth just right, make some dance-your-ass-off music and are usually led by some skinny lad in even skinnier jeans. But there is something about a timeless, classy sound that just can’t be beat — and Vandaveer has this sound nearly perfected.

Vandaveer, which consists of Mark Charles Heidinger and backing vocalist Rose Guerin, makes the kind of music that sounds like it should be enjoyed with a snifter of brandy in a room with dark wood paneling. Everything about Vandaveer is steeped in tradition; the name has been passed down for generations — both on birth certificates and an engraved pocket watch — in Heidinger’s family and songs are more likely to reference classic books than pop-culture icons.

Vandaveer’s sophomore album, Divide & Conquer, has 10 songs featuring simple instrumentation — mainly guitar, piano and drums — that provides an elegant backdrop to the voices of Heidinger and Guerin. Heidinger has the rare kind of voice that is smooth and soothing, but still crackling with energy. Guerin’s voice provides a haunting complement to his — at some times sweet and at other times, seductive.

“Fistful of Swoon” highlights Vandaveer at its best. In the opening lines, Heidinger and Guerin are nearly whispering, sharing secrets with lines such as, “You’ve got lust in your veins.” Their voices swell during the chorus, then drop back again to hint at some kind of trepidation, some caution that will be thrown to the wind a few lines later. A simple snare and the occasional piano chord add to the anxious feeling of the track, as it always seems as if the song could explode at any second.

Most other songs are less fiery and more charming. “Beverly Cleary’s 115th Dream,” for example, pays homage to the kid-lit author, especially her Ramona-Quimby series. The music, which sounds as if it could have been taken out of a music box, is fitting without being juvenile.

Vandaveer should appeal to anyone who has a soft spot for the likes of Audrey Hepburn and Frank Sinatra. There is something sophisticated, yet fresh, about its sound that makes it apparent that it’s not going anywhere any time soon.

— By Executive Editor
Ani Vrabel

The Submarines

submarines
Courtesy of Jon Bergman/Nettwerk Publicity

Generally speaking, I’m not a particularly sensitive person. I laughed my way through “P.S. I Love You,” only a handful of people has ever seen me cry and, in my opinion, the only redeeming quality of Valentine’s Day is the extraordinary amount of chocolate consumption. And as a rule, I prefer that the music I listen to reflects this side of me. It doesn’t need to be an extreme representation of this — screamo and death metal don’t really float my boat — but something a little on the dark side usually catches my attention. Some minor chords and lyrics that reflect disdain of any kind — for love, capitalism or whatever the complaint du jour seems to be — fit the bill.

And this is why I find it so bizarre that I have such a soft spot for the Submarines. The majority of the songs by married couple John Dragonetti and Blake Hazard are as sweet as the title of their sophomore album, Honeysuckle Weeks, would indicate.

Musically, the songs are sometimes bouncy (“Submarine Symphonika” and “Swimming Pool,” for example) and sometimes dream-like (“Xavia”), but they are always bright, with basic, steady beats that could easily sound at home on a children’s record if they were paired with lyrics about fairy tale characters.

And admittedly, many of the Submarines’ lyrics, mostly delivered by Hazard’s pure, clear voice, are simple and innocent. But the duo also boasts clever songwriting that gives its songs a distinctly adult feel. “You, Me and the Bourgeoisie,” with its juxtaposition of manufactured and pure love, would impress any Marx scholar.

Even on “Swimming Pool,” one of the duo’s sweetest and most playful tunes, Hazard and Dragonetti show off their writing chops with creative imagery (“When I asked you to throw me a line / That’s when you pulled me out by the heart strings”) and personification (“Never mind what logic says / I say logic’s a guy who oughta empty his pockets”).

By making music that is both smart and a peppy guilty pleasure, the Submarines can brighten up pretty much anyone’s day. Who knows — I might even give “P.S. I Love You” another chance one of these days.

–By Entertainment Editor Ani Vrabel

Angus and Julia Stone

angus
Courtesy of Angus and Julia Stone

Sometimes a whisper is far more effective than a shout. Angus and Julia Stone, a brother-sister troubadour duo from Sydney, Australia, embrace this idea as they address themes of disillusionment and disappointment in their debut album, A Book Like This. The album plays like a lullaby, soft and soothing but swelling with emotion.

The title track opens with partially muted guitar plucking that soon contends with deep, growling strings. Julia saunters into the first verse, singing with sad determination. She has a voice that’s high and thin, but very gravelly, like a young child smoker. Guitar and strings crescendo in the chorus and, joined by steady piano glissandos, they build to forceful volume. Throughout the track Angus and Julia toy with volume, reeling the listener in with soft sonorous melody and then infusing the song with loud and vigorous emotion.

On the opening track, “The Beast,” Angus languidly describes the monotony of working life with cool resignation. “Pack up your bags / your work here is done / a slave to the beast / no mercy with time,” he sings, his soft and smoky voice sliding over steady strumming guitar chords. Piano accompaniment brightens the catchy chorus, giving the song a bittersweet feel.

The Stone siblings attack themes of dissatisfaction and disillusionment with this same attitude, pairing dour lyrics with richly pleasant tunes. On “Hollywood,” Julia cleverly addresses the false expectations instilled in her by the movies she watched as a child. In the real world, “Cinderella would have scrubbed those floors till her hands grew old and tired / And nobody would have looked her way,” she speculates jocularly to an ironically peppy melody.

The duo weaves pitch-perfect vocal harmonies, guitar chords, piano melodies and even harmonica and trumpet accompaniment into a story that is warm and vivid despite its simplicity. The bright quality of their music is comforting even though their lyrics speak of disappointment and dissatisfaction. Like a great novel, A Book Like This is vibrant, imaginative, complex and full of unassuming candor.

—By Entertainment Blog Editor Alex Blum

Jaymay

hammy
Courtesy of Jaymay

Jaymay – “Gray Or Blue”

Singer-songwriter Jamie Seerman — who performs under the name Jaymay — cites Bob Dylan as her primary musical influence. After listening to her music rather carefully, this begins to make sense: Songs from her debut full-length, Autumn Fallin’, and EP, Sea Green, Sea Blue, have a contemplative, sprawling folk sound that pays homage to the 1960s icon.

But it’s clear that Jaymay simply sees Dylan as an important influence rather than as a person to try to emulate. Her guitar is warmer, her voice is sweeter and clearer and her lyrics almost always make perfect sense.

Jaymay moves away from classic vintage folk by forgoing political statements and focusing more on personal issues. Her lyrics often include realistic tidbits of conversation, even some that include her name, such as on “You Are the Only One I Love.” These touches invite listeners to experience, even if fleetingly, her life firsthand. Yet remarkably, even the most confessional lyrics paired with melancholy music are never whiney or trite; in fact, songs like “Ill Willed Person,” about trying not to feel animosity toward an ex, are refreshingly honest.

Although Jaymay’s simple guitar-based ditties have many of the characteristics commonly associated with folk, she certainly isn’t the most traditional representation of the genre.

But as Dylan himself said: “The times, they are a-changin’.”

–By Entertainment Editor Ani Vrabel

Nana Grizol

nana
Courtesy of Nana Grizol

Indie-rock singers that try too hard to be unique usually end up sounding like distorted camels. Often, these “creative” indie-rock lyricists don’t have much to talk about, and these scenester instrumentalists reprocess their percussion until the drums sound like miscellaneous car parts. And typically, these indie-rock bands just aren’t very good.

But Nana Grizol isn’t one of these indie-rock bands: It’s a clarinet-toting, harmonica-wielding, punk-pop-garage-rock-folk-fun-times band with 12 members, even more instruments and endless energy.
On their debut album, Love It, Love It, the band explores many diametric tones, sounds and themes. The album opens with “Circles ‘Round The Moon,” an up-tempo, chorus-heavy, lightning bolt of a song that clocks in at under a minute and a half. The song is whimsical and carefree, combining joyous keyboards and bold horns with lyrics that decry living in the city because “you can’t see the stars.”

Yet hidden behind all the youthful innocence, lead singer Theo Hilton’s songwriting also contains grace and depth atypical of most punk bands. Like Okkervil River and Neutral Milk Hotel -— two members of Nana Grizol were actually in Neutral Milk Hotel — the group’s loud and folksy brand of music lends itself to a mix of both the uplifting and the somber.

In later songs like “Everything You Ever Hoped or Work For” and “Voices Echo Down the Halls (for Jarod),” Hilton half-sings, half-screams lyrics about friendship, loss and heartache in ways that make the listener want to cry and laugh at once. The bands’ firm grasp on tone and loose method of playing sounds like a party with a mission.

Truly, the Athens-based group defies any one genre. By combining random elements of rock, anti-folk and punk, as well as bringing many diverse instruments to the party, Nana Grizol sounds vibrant, exciting and urgent in ways that no camel impersonators ever can.

by Asst. Entertainment Editor Geoff Schorkopf

Bon Iver

boniver
Courtesy of Bon Iver

Bon Iver – “Skinny Love”

After the breaking up of his band and of his girlfriend and during a period of prolonged sickness, Jason Vernon went into hibernation for four months. He delved deep into the frostbitten woods of Northern Wisconsin, to a remote cabin in the dead of winter, where he spent his days reading by the fire, listening to music and recovering from the pains of the outside world. He ate whatever he could afford and performed simple day-to-day tasks like chopping logs to pass the time. Soon, his days evolved into cathartic, emotionally-charged instrumental sessions. He had turned the cabin into a studio, and when he emerged, he had developed For Emma, Forever Ago — what I would contend is the most personal and best record of 2008.

Vernon took on the name Bon Iver — which, appropriately, is a basterdized form of the French “bon hiver,” or “good winter.” He constructed the bare bones of a song — the melody and guitar — then listened to that base layer over and over until he formed lyrics for each tone that he found fitting. By layering his vocals, he creates a lush, beautiful sound that is as warm as a fire on a cold winter day.

On Bon Iver’s debut album, For Emma, Forever Ago, each of the nine songs are carefully constructed with acoustic guitars and chilling harmonies. In “Flume,” the album’s haunting opener, Bon Iver layers multiple guitars, drums and strings into a depressing ode to loneliness and isolation. While the tone of the album is far from happy, the album manages not to linger too long on bleakness, with songs like “For Emma” that bear triumphant horn sections and major chord progressions.

However, the greatest beauty of Vernon’s work is the replay value. I find myself enjoying different parts of the album with every different mood I’m in, and picking a favorite track on this record is damned near impossible. Every song is worthwhile, each guitar riff and lyric feels deeply personal and with every listen, the audience feels more and more rewarded, being pulled into Vernon’s world one melody at a time.

In their first single, “Skinny Love,” the most accessable and personal track on the album, Bon Iver asks “Who will love you? / Who will fight? / Who will fall far behind?” and you wonder if Vernon had asked himself those same questions in his cabin two winters ago. He searched for the answers through solitude, recuperation and his music. What had once been an awful and depressing period in his life has changed into a “good” winter, one that now, he is able to share with us.

by Asst. Entertainment Editor Geoff Schorkopf