When I first started listening to Manchester Orchestra*, I remember thinking: this song sounds like losing your mind – but in a good way.
*Not from Manchester. Not an Orchestra.
After seeing the band perform live at Bristol’s Fleece, I still can’t articulate a better description of their music. There’s a little of Brand New in their intensity, a lot of Modest Mouse in their oddness, but it’s really the schizophrenic-break-in-3-minutes vibe that sets the band apart.
When the band announced they’d be playing the title track from their new album, ‘Cope’, a guy near me murmured – half-fearful, half-awed – ‘this song is loud.’ And, yes, it was, loud. Emo rock is often characterized by alternating lulls and loudness, with soft song openings that plunge into screaming intensity at the chorus. But Manchester Orchestra take this to an extreme – especially in their live show.
Matt Nathanson’s musical love letter to San Francisco proves that radio-ready rock doesn’t have to be soulless.
After more than a decade of producing DIY rock music that mostly stayed beneath the radar, Matt Nathanson has taken a slow swerve towards the mainstream in recent years. Unfortunately, the carefully-calculated polish of his recent work (Some Mad Hope, Modern Love) has too often resulted in songs that are weaker than his early, indie efforts. New album Last of the Great Pretenders is yet another attempt to redress this balance and produce pop-rock for the masses that also retains the grit that made Nathanson’s early songs so likeable.
Paying your dues pays off
What’s immediately obvious is that Great Pretenders displays a veteran’s command of song-writing and performance. This is unsurprising, since when I think of musicians who have paid their dues, I inevitably think of Matt Nathanson.
The idea of spending your formative years playing poky music venues and releasing indie records for an audience of dozens may be outdated, it may be problematic. But, in the case of Nathanson, this process of ‘paying your dues’ has given him a deft musical touch. (If you ever have the chance to see Nathanson play live, take it. His live shows invariably bring energy, wit and feel-good rock music.)
Sunshine and fog
In Great Pretenders, Nathanson plays up his fifteen years of living in San Francisco by creating an album that not only name-checks the landmarks of the city (Alcatraz, the pretty boys in the Castro, the “Earthquake weather”), but also evokes its sunshine and fog, its shrugging joie de vivre.
In writing a musical love letter to San Francisco, Nathanson succeeds in producing perhaps his most cohesive album to date. And, for anyone who loves San Francisco, the plethora of great songs about SF make for a genuine treat.
Josh Ritter draws on his considerable experience as a songwriter to turn highly-personal heartbreak into an album that’s relatable and gorgeously raw.
On first listen, Josh Ritter’s The Beast In Its Tracks feels undeniably understated. Fans of his genre-spanning, rock- and pop-tinged Historical Conquests, or his elaborate, literary-themed So Runs the World Away, may be disappointed at how straightforward and simple an album this is (on the face of it, anyway).
Beast is pure folk music, and it has more in common with his early releases (Golden Age of Radio and Hello Starling) than it does with the musical experimentation of his later albums.
Master of folk music
Fortunately, Ritter is a master of folk music, so releasing an album that’s “just” a folk album isn’t much of a complaint. (Relevant side note: this is still my favourite factlet about Ritter: he went to college to study neuroscience, like his parents, who are both neuroscientists, but then switched his major to ‘American History Through Narrative Folk Music’. I bet that was a fun conversation with Mom and Dad!)
Songs like the immediately-likeable, silver-lining-themed ‘Joy to You Baby’ show the ease at which Josh Ritter can turn out folk-pop gems. Yet – however melodic, however seemingly-simplistic – Beast quickly reveals itself as a complicated creature.
Eisley swim through a dreamy, underwater landscape in Currents, with an album of lovely indie-pop that’s marred ever so slightly by pretension and over-production.
Eisley are not a band that can be accused of taking the easy route to success. Throughout their long career, from teenagers to adults (parents, even), there has been a sense that they’ve wanted to do things their own way. For the close-knit family members from Texas, being on a major label never seemed to sit well with them. And attempts to re-shape their early songs (such as the harsh, creepy ‘Telescope Eyes’) into radio-ready fare sapped them of their life.
Eisley have also repeatedly eschewed aligning themselves with the new wave of hipster indie-pop bands (such as similar-sounding She and Him, The Like, etc.), persistently touring with rock bands instead – and putting on a surprisingly rock-influenced show themselves. They’ve also avoided playing the ‘Christian family band’ card, even though Christian pop music could have been a lucrative niche for them.
The band’s fourth full-length album, Currents, is also the one that they’re had the most creative control over. Self-produced and recorded in their home studio, Currents is almost entirely a family affair. When the family refer to it as their fifth baby (Stacy, Chauntelle, Weston and Sherri all had flesh-and-blood babies of their own this year), they’re not kidding.
The question is: has doing things their own way – and sometimes, doing things the hard way – worked out well for Eisley?