On Father John Misty’s “I Love You, Honeybear”

Under the alter-ego of Father John Misty, John Tillman, former Fleet Foxes drummer, has firmly established himself as a ground-breaker within the indie, folk-pop cannon with his remarkable album “I Love You, Honeybear.” Tillman’s sophomore release is an intimate and personal but consciously unsentimental exploration of love. The album speaks to the singularity of any couple’s love story, specifically that which he shares with his wife, while respecting the universal experience of exclusivity two people share when falling in love.

I surmised that the album was largely inspired by the goings-on of Tillman’s own life since so many similar themes are explored with such honesty, vulnerability, grit, and richly lyrical detail. After a little research, I found this to be true. Honeybear’s eleven tracks predominantly chronicle the lead up to his marriage to Emma Elizabeth Tillman, capturing the rush of their chance meeting in a parking lot to their first night together to his desire for her to take his name. A few songs also touch on life before meeting his honeybear, contrasting the emptiness of loveless sex and his past sins with the total fulfillment he feels with Emma, the weariness he feels in the face of this messed up world with the meaning he finds in love.

Tillman adapts the love song to suit the intimacy of his own unique experience and quirky aesthetic. He has unapologetically created a collection of distinctive songs on love and connection that transcend the modern indie-folk genre in sound, branching off into pop, punk, synth, soul, and even mariachi, and lyric. His instrumentation and arrangements are constantly surprising, both in the pairing of lyric with sound and in the progression of the songs themselves. But what I love most about the genre-bending, strange beauty that is “Honeybear” are Tillman’s moments of gritty disclosure and his lines of brilliantly lush imagery (my particular favorite – “the Rorschach sheets where we make love”).

In dramatic fashion, the opening track and title song paints a glorious picture of falling in love despite the depravity and destruction of the world. A dreamy chorus of “I love you, honeybear” circles around lamentations of death filling the streets, suspicious neighbors, inherited mental illness, and all range of social malaise. It’s an oddly romantic song in which Tillman juxtaposes the strength of his love and commitment with the inevitable downfall of the world in lyrics such as “My love, you’re the one I want to watch the ship go down with.”

I was first turned on to Father John Misty when I heard “Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins)” by chance on the radio. It felt, quite simply, like THE definitive song about falling in love. I was immediately swept up in the playfulness of the mariachi band and Tillman’s sweet lyrics, absolutely reeking of tenderness and infatuation and loving abandon. Now I’m already married, but as soon as I heard this song, I instantly wanted to go back in time to my wedding day and dance my heart out to this tune with my husband. Albeit, the tempo isn’t really appropriate for any kind of conventional dancing, but the images “Chateau” evokes are of love’s purity and joy and exaltation – the very things I want my wedding day and subsequent marriage to constantly evoke. “Chateau Lobby #4” is one of those rare songs that spectacularly captures the complete essence of the remarkable experience of falling in love.

We get a taste of Tillman’s take on soul in “When You’re Smiling and Astride Me,” a song about loving someone with honesty and full disclosure. I adore how Tillman ponders on loving someone for who they are: “I’ll never try to change you/As if I could, and if I were to, what’s the part that I’d miss most?” Although lyrically the song is relatively straightforward and short in length, Tillman draws this one out to its maximum emotive potential, making the simplicity of the sentiment all the more powerful and unmistakable.

The lyrics of “Nothing Good Ever Happens at the Goddamn Thirsty Crow,” a song which recounts with shame the singer’s drunken mishaps, seem like the perfect fit to a fast-paced, country-infused tune. While I certainly hear more country strains on this track than any other from “Honeybear,” Tillman surprisingly slows this one down to a ballad of sorts. It becomes a mournful lament on his mistakes in judgment and action and it works remarkably well.

“Bored in the USA” is Tillman’s largest departure from love songs, turning instead to witty social commentary set to piano and a laugh track. The restrictions, obsessions, and emptiness of middle class American life are all subject to Tillman’s harsh critique in the lead single off of “Honeybear.” It’s at once an interesting satire, a conventionally appealing song in the vein of piano men everywhere, and a plea for something deeper.

Tillman closes out his album by recounting the very event which inspired it all: meeting his wife by chance in a store parking lot. “I Went to the Store One Day” narrates their initial encounter and the absurd role chance plays in it all. The choice to end with this song is wise, as though Tillman explicitly withheld a description of the circumstances that gave way to the love expressed on “Honeybear” until his very last chance. But it also ends the album on a note of hope, with this great meditation on the future that is equal parts sardonic and endearing: “Insert here a sentiment re: our golden years.”

 

 

 

 

On Alvvays

It’s that time of year again when Best of 2014 lists pop up all over. After overindulging in a month-long musical smorgasbord of Christmas carols and holiday classics, revisiting some of the past year’s best releases offered a welcome change of pace. I’ve been pleasantly reminded of the year’s most unfairly forgotten albums, with Alvvays’ self-titled debut at the top of that list. Like a welcome day of sun-kissed summer air, Alvvays surprisingly and to much delight popped up on my radar again, audibly transporting me out of this December’s rain and drear.

Though Alvvays hails from Toronto, their sound blends polished, vintage southern California surf rock with modern low-fi, indie pop. Lead singer Molly Rankin’s brooding vocals drip with equal parts sincerity and disinterest, an endearing and enticing combination. The entire album is worth a thorough and uninterrupted listen to, the way they used to do in the old days. Here are just a few of my thoughts on my three favorite Alvvays tracks.

The album opens with “Adult Diversion,” a song you can’t help but imagine as score for a grainy home video depicting lazy summer day antics and grungy late night parties. I was delighted to discover that the group’s music video for this track encapsulated my vision exactly as, if not even better than, was pictured in my own imagination. But contrary to the carefree tone of “Adult Diversion,” the song’s lyrics express longing, insecurity, and even darkness: “If I should fall, act as though it never happened/I will retreat, and then go back to university/If I should fall, act as though it never happened/I will retreat and sit inside so very quietly.” This contrast, like that between Rankin’s dark vocals and Alvvays’ breezy instrumentation, is just the thing that keeps you coming back for more. 

From the first time I heard the single “Archie, Marry Me,” I was addicted to the sound. Alvvays perfects the indie pop hook on this track about desiring the rite of matrimony despite our most rational arguments against it. It’s a call to screw the man and buck convention in the very act of getting married. Maybe contrast doesn’t play such a big role in this tune but it still satisfies, begging to be heard and shared.

“Party Police” is a more subdued track in both lyric and sound. The song is a plea for keeping things simple, if not downright carnal, in spite of the confusion clouding the relationship between singer and subject. But Rankin doesn’t let the track end without tagging on the disclaimer “if you don’t want to, you don’t have to.” I love the rawness of this sentiment, how her insecurity is so honestly and frankly felt, even after suggesting to her lover/subject “we could find comfort in debauchery.”

I first fell for Alvvays during a rough summer, a season when I didn’t have the time or energy to feel the way this album made me want to feel (content, youthful, bold, free… the list goes on and on). But now, finally, as 2014 comes to a close, the lyrical accessibility, listen-ability, and optimism of Alvvays feels just right. Enjoy!

 

On Caroline Smith and the Goodnight Sleeps

I was first drawn to Caroline Smith and the Goodnight Sleeps’ 2011 album Little Wind. Because I was streaming Sarah Jaffe’s Suburban Nature album on a near-constant basis, Spotify recommended Caroline Smith to me. I’m almost alarmed at how accurately Spotify seems to predict my taste these days. Maybe I’m simply lacking in musical variety lately, which may explain why I feel a mixture of writer’s block and deja vu when writing music reviews as of late. But I digress.
Songs such as “Shoulders Strong” and “Tanktop” snuck up on me with their subtle instrumentation and catchy melodies, proving Spotify to be 100% correct. While the Little Wind album is inherently easy to listen to, it has more cool and personality than that phrase might originally suggest. “Eagle’s Nest” has a soulful but anthemic quality to it as the chorus builds and swells in a beautiful round. “Scholarships” always sneaks up on me as the introduction of twinkling bell sounds transforms into a full indie jam. Full of sass and attitude, the penultimate track, “Denim Boy,” hints at the new direction which Smith’s music has taken with her most recent release. Smith’s quirky sense of humor certainly places its mark upon her lyrics but fails to undermine the sincerity of her songs. Little Wind is a cohesive and continually satisfying little piece of musical craftsmanship that I can’t help listening to again and again.
Her most recent release sheds the Goodnight Sleeps backing band and adds a little more soul and R&B to the mix. I wasn’t immediately drawn to this change since it was such a departure from the sound I had only recently fallen for. But once I found a few videos of Caroline’s new tunes performed live, they grew on me and filled a girl-power void in my heart that I didn’t realize was there. There is plenty of heartbreak and heartache in these songs, satisfying the blues component of that R&B label. But a defiant streak of female empowerment underlies all the tunes, further fueled by the addition of two ladies singing back up.
The title track “Half About Being a Woman” is just one such song – and it was the first one that really hooked me to the new turn in Caroline’s musical aesthetic. I’m a sucker for those intense vocal crescendos, when a singer puts all her raw emotion and talent into belting out the lyrics she so perfectly composed. Though the highly polished album track wasn’t an immediate favorite of mine, one particular live video (posted below) captivated a side of this song that rang more authentic to me. And then I couldn’t get it out of my head. The first single “Magazine” also highlights Caroline’s brilliant arrangement of back up vocals and the lady power sensibilities of her new album.
Though I only discovered Ms. Smith two weeks ago, I took advantage of the opportunity to see her perform a few days ago at World Cafe Live at the Queen in Wilmington. Caroline took the stage with just an acoustic guitar and her two back up singers. Despite the seemingly meager arrangement, she captured the intimate room with her surprisingly vibrant sound, cool harmonies, and general adorableness. From her palpable presence onstage to her ability to draw so much musical entertainment out of so few accompaniments, it was plainly obvious to me that Caroline Smith is heading for even better things in a big way. 

On Sarah Jaffe

It’s remarkable how much context can influence taste and perception. Sarah Jaffe’s single “Clementine” has received pretty heavy rotation on the local college radio station. But since I mostly heard the song in my car while stuck in traffic, it was, to me, just another overly played indie hit of sorts. Once I listened to Jaffe’s debut album Suburban Nature in full, however “Clementine” took on a whole new sound, meaning, and specificity.

The whole of Suburban Nature has an autumnal quality to it, rounded out by Jaffe’s not overly feminine vocals and moody melodies. But that’s not to say that her music is somber. The album has a darkness to it that is hard to capture in words; not quite melancholic nor angst-ridden, Jaffe’s debut album has an indefinable dark beauty, a harder edge to her sound that I’ve found all too alluring. Though her sound is reminiscent of the broodingly simple songs of Jessica Lea Mayfield, Jaffe’s music has a more full and appealing richness to it.

I have been so taken with Jaffe’s debut release from back in 2010 that I’ve barely even touched on the more recent portions of her impressive catalog. I’m currently too preoccupied with all the gems on Suburban Nature to explore any other Jaffe tunes.

“Before You Go” was a great selection for the opening track slot – its anthemic, pulsing beat, though relatively upbeat, sets the tone for the entirety of the forthcoming album. And we get of taste of Jaffe’s talent as a lyricist right from the first verse of this 16-line song: My heart pretends/not to know how it ends/yes, hello self-esteem/we shall finally be free.

A few tracks later comes “Clementine,” a melodious tune that swells into beautiful, catchy, and perfectly dance-able indie pop. It’s a heavy rotation favorite for me – the kind of song I listen to on repeat, the soundtrack to housework and impromptu dance sessions. Content and sound are delightfully fused in this one – the very sound of the song evokes just those feelings induced by the lyrics. It’s a pretty perfect song in my book and I have yet to grow tired of listening to it endlessly.

“Summer Begs” highlights the more feminine side of Jaffe’s sound, as well as her talent for penning wonderfully unpredictable melodies.

It took me a while to discover “Watch Me Fall Apart” as it comes so close to the end of the album – I was caught up repeating earlier tracks before allowing myself to even take a first listen to this most fast-paced, folksy song. It’s probably one of the more widely accessible songs on Suburban Nature, but that’s not to say it isn’t emotionally driven and raw.

If you need further evidence of how completely smitten I am with Sarah Jaffe, I actually purchased a copy of this CD. I don’t have an ipod or any other means of listening to music digitally in my car and this is an album that yearns for some drive time. So I caved and actually purchased a physical CD, something I have not done for more years than I can count. And that fact alone has got to mean something.

On The Shouting Matches

Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon has proven himself to be quite the musical Renaissance man. Under the stage name Bon Iver, Vernon’s melodically mumbling tunes were met with wild indie success. Though I found his debut effort (supposedly written while Vernon was locked in an isolated cabin recovering from a breakup all by his lonesome) much more satisfying and accessible than his more recent work under the name Bon Iver, I still considered myself a fan – just one with a fledgling interest in the man. But it was a delight to come across Vernon’s project The Shouting Matches, a true musical smorgasbord that showcases a much wider range of sound than Bon Iver ever has.

Leading off the threesome’s first full length album “Grownass Man” is “Avery Hill,” a tune that positively reeks of classic rock and roll. When I played the song for my husband (not a particularly fond fan of Bon Iver’s music) and cunningly withheld the name of the man behind the tune, he guessed it was a Warren Zevon song. Though Zevon wasn’t a bad guess, it was certainly a departure from the truth. Other comparisons have been made to Tom Petty, Stevie Ray Vaughn, the Black Keys, and Wilco – and none of them are off the mark.

The Shouting Matches’ album offers a healthy dose of nearly every musical subgenre within the blues and rock realms. But the thing that makes this album so remarkable is the way in which The Shouting Matches blend sounds not only from track to track but throughout the course of each song. Much like Letitia VanSant, The Shouting Matches have a remarkable ability to surprise listeners. They challenge convention, even by indie standards, combining guitar-heavy musical hooks with melodies from completely separate schools. Take “Gallup, NM” – it starts off with a healthy dose of Southern rock sounds leading to a guitar solo so reminiscent of Wilco’s Nels Cline (of whom I am a devoted fan) that I had to check if he wasn’t featured on the track. And the opening vocals of “New Theme” immediately brought to mind Dr. Dog, a Philadelphia-based band whose name is nearly synonymous with retro lo-fi in my book. But the song takes on a more soulful sound as it progresses, forcing me to make comparisons to JD McPherson, the 21st century’s answer to authentic rhythm and blues.

So maybe The Shouting Matches are a bit self indulgent as nearly every song off “Grownass Man” brings to mind yet another one of my favorite musical artists. But it’s refreshing to have another bluesy band on offer these days, especially since more than a few of The Shouting Matches’ tunes, in particular “Three Dollar Bill,” are painfully danceable (that is, it’s painful to listen to them and not dance). And it never ceases to amaze me that some musicians are able to create such disparate worlds through their music. To think that the gorgeous but melancholic sounds of Bon Iver and the gritty, genre-fusing Southern rock of The Shouting Matches stem from one talented man is not only inspiring, it fills me with anticipation for what musical genius I might discover in some unexpected place next.

See their entire Coachella set here and listen to their album in it’s entirety thank to NPR here.

 

 

 

On I Am Not A Hipster

I was initially drawn to I Am Not a Hipster purely because the title piqued my curiosity. Scrolling through the OnDemand offerings in search of Seven Psychopaths, I noticed this film’s name, imagining it was some farcical story of trendy young people. The brief synopsis of the film indicated some hipster-elements, but conveyed the sense of this film as more of a drama than an ironic comedy. Though the movie’s title does little to convey the gravity and subtly of the movie – in fact, I’d argue it is completely at odds with the tone of the film – it certainly caught my attention and helped me discover this gem in the first place.

I Am Not A Hipster centers around Brook, an Ohio-born singer songwriter transplanted to San Diego. Though he achieved great indie success with his first album released one year ago, the brooding musician is questioning the whole notion of creating art while tangible needs are not being met elsewhere in the world. Brook is tied to a video clip of a tsunami effortlessly sweeping away houses and destroying lives. This simple cinematic device conveys the intensity with which Brook experiences the suffering of others.

Brook’s three sisters and father come to visit him in San Diego, the hometown of their late mother. The trip is a happy reunion for the four siblings, but also an opportunity for the grieving family to spread the ashes of their beloved wife and mother in the place where she was born. When Brook’s at times obnoxious but ultimately endearing sisters take over his life for a week, he becomes visibly more comfortable and at peace. The pain in their goodbye is subtle but visceral, as Brook obviously struggles with his decision to desert his family and their mid-Western home after his mother’s death.

I’m a fan of simple movies, of films that are rather austere in their plot lines but still resonant. There’s an art to simplicity, a beauty in the economy of words (something I obviously have yet to master), a talent to creating that which is boiled down to its essence. While movies in this vein can feel slow and are often downright arduous to watch (like Sofia Coppola’s 2010 movie Somewhere was for me), certain films of this sect shine by virtue of their simplicity. Once, Spooner, and I Am Not A Hipster all fit this mold, for there is enough authenticity to ensure that viewers care about the characters in these films, but not too much complexity as to sacrifice the universality of their stories. Brook’s relationship with his father is one such element to which anyone could relate, an example of family tensions simultaneously strained and strengthened by family tragedy.

I actually anticipated that I Am Not A Hipster would a Southern California take on the movie Once since the trailer focused more heavily upon Brook’s musical career. But what starts out as a film about one member of the San Diego music scene instead becomes an earnest exploration of creativity and family. Although Brook is never the most likable character to follow, we are still drawn to him by virtue of raw musical talent, his self-righteous doubts about creating art, and the plain love that emerges when he is surrounded by family.

The mystery remains as to the meaning behind this movie’s very forward title. I imagine that it stems from some of Brook’s contentions about art – as he questions the meaning of creativity, he also denies the importance of image that so many trends bank on. It remains hard for me to agree with the film’s title given the abundance of hipster-elements peppered throughout, from incredible underground bands you’ve never heard of to fixed gear bikes, from the way people talk and dress and to the art shows and concerts they attend, the look and feel of this movie screams hipster. But in a satisfyingly good way.

 

On The Lumineers

At this point in time, it’s pretty hard to have avoided hearing The Lumineers’ debut single “Ho Hey” on radio airplay or as background music for a popular TV commercial for some product I have managed to forget. Their sound falls easily into a currently popular genre of polished indie folk alongside bands such as Mumford and Sons and The Avett Brothers. Though the band’s self-titled full length album is not as completely satisfying as the first single, there are moments of pure folk brilliance. It is these few songs, which will get your feet tapping and make your heart melt (at least a little bit), that have made this album a quick staple in my current CD rotation.

The opening notes of the Lumineers’ first tune, “Flowers in Your Hair,” instantly reminded me of Jeff Tweedy’s solo cover of an Uncle Tupelo tune  called “Wait Up” (listen here). Tweedy fan that I am, I was immediately hooked. As the Lumineers’ tune picks up, it becomes increasingly engaging and ultimately serves as a wise and satisfying choice for the album’s opening track.

 

The tune that I have found most irresistible is “Classy Girls,” a simple song about trying to steal a kiss from an alluringly elusive girl in a bar. The first few lines are reminiscent of a classic Irish folk ballad, just string and vocals over the quiet cacophony of a bustling pub. But the song transforms into a rousing melody as the lyrics narrate a particularly flirtatious game of hard to get. Maybe its the careful incorporation of background chatter or just the storyline of the song, but the most natural setting in which I can imagine enjoying “Classy Girls” is live in a comfortably crowded bar. I’ve been listening to this track nearly nonstop whenever I find myself in the car and it hasn’t gotten old yet.

 

And then there’s “Ho Hey,” another melodic love song that begs for a sing-along session. The chorus of voices that chime in on this tune make it an mid-tempo anthemic folk tune. The sentiment of the Lumineers’ first single is sincere and its simplicity matched by the effortlessness with which this one will get stuck in your head.

 

Though there are some songs that I routinely skip while listening to the album, there are just as many tunes that I know will become tried and true favorites of mine long after the Lumineers have expanded their catalog.

On Away We Go

I know that this movie came out over three years ago – in fact, I saw it in theaters three times the summer it was released. But I have a very dear attachment to this film and I didn’t have a blog way back then. So I figured that it was about time I give this movie a little time in the spotlight.

One of the reviews I read for Away We Go (sorry, I can’t remember the source) described it as the kind of movie that sneaks up on you and catches you by surprise. Though I know all viewers and critics didn’t share in this feeling, I personally could not agree more. Away We Go came out at a time when there were plenty of other movies I was highly anticipating going to see – this was not necessarily one among them. I went in with little background beyond the fact that John Krasinski (better known as Jim from The Office) was in this film and that Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida were the writers behind the screenplay. I left the theatre feeling like this was just the movie I’d been waiting for without even realizing it.

Backed by the beautiful sounds of Alexi Murdoch, Away We Go documents a youngish couple who finds themselves pregnant. Burt Farlander, portrayed by Krasinski, and Verona DeTessant, played by Maya Rudolph, met in college and, post-grad, settled down in the same town as Burt’s parents. But when the Farlanders decide to move to Belgium just months before their grandbaby is due, Burt and Verona realize that all ties to the place they call home are gone. The two take off to search for the perfect place to settle down and start their family of three, visiting family and friends along the way.

Part of this film’s charm is the very relationship between Burt and Verona around which it is centered. Maybe it’s because I can relate to the dynamic between a goofy but lovable boyfriend paired with a more straight-laced girl. Or maybe it’s just because they’re a well-written on-screen couple. It could be that Krasinski and Rudolph just have great chemistry. More accurately it is probably a combination of all three. Their relationship achieves the perfect balance of fun, humor, sincerity, kindness, companionship, and love. Their characters are relatable but humorous, so it isn’t too long before they’ve won you over.

As Burt and Verona seek a potential home, they travel to locales far and wide and encounter a wide array of characters, portrayed by Jim Gaffigan, Allison Janney, and Maggie Gyllenhaal among others. Most of their connections to these new towns are tenuous at best, and nothing feels quite right. But don’t mistake this for a cheesy drama – though the couple learns about themselves through the course of their trip, the movie doesn’t play like a made-for-TV movie. Rather it is an alternative take on the coming of age story where our main focus is not on a single character but instead on a loving and stable couple.

Though I won’t give away the conclusion to the story, I do have to say that the ending of Away We Go is absolutely beautiful. There is something undeniably compelling about the soundtrack paired with the images on screen and the very feelings that the final 5 minutes of the film evoke. After having seen all sides of Burt and Verona, after having experienced the range of emotions that their trip elicits, I think it is only natural to feel as content and calmly satisfied as the characters on screen when the movie comes to an end.