Courtney Barnett’s music might not immediately grab you. Instead, it slowly works its way into your memory with patient, simple melodies and incisive lyrics. Caught somewhere between Byrds-ian jangle and Kurt Cobain’s dark humor, the young Melbourne, Australia singer-songwriter writes songs that ramble and breathe; her singing often sounds more like a loose conversation than a go-for-broke rock star moment.
Barnett got her start with a small, self-funded label called Milk! Records in 2012, which she used to release her own music and albums by her friends. It became a self-contained universe, just a fun distraction from day-to-day monotony. But soon Barnett’s own chronicling of that monotony started catching ears. The slacker charm of songs like “Avant Gardener” have an immediate appeal, thanks to Barnett’s easy-going band (hilariously dubbed Courtney Barnett & The Courtney Barnetts) and her deadpan sense of humor. Last fall, she packaged her two EPs together as The Double EP: A Sea Of Split Peas and picked up raves from Pitchfork and Rolling Stone.
The EP/album/whatever-you-want-to-call-it is getting a wider re-release this week thanks to Mom + Pop Records. In an interview with Pitchfork, Barnett admits The Double EP was a little more slapdash than your average record. “An album is a thing you take time out and go work on,” she says. “I can’t wait to make an album. I’ve got a bunch of songs half-ready to go, and I might start on it early next year.” Self-deprecating humor aside, Barnett has already made a name for herself, with both slowly-unfolding epics and short, electrified bursts. “David” finds her fronting a bluesy rock band just as easily, delivering killer lines like “I don’t really like any of your friends, but it’s not that hard for me to pretend.”
Don’t let the acoustic instruments and copious mustaches fool you. While rousing folk-pop has had its moment in the sun thanks to Mumford & Sons and the Lumineers, Saintseneca cut a far darker path. Zac Little formed the band in 2009, but the revolving door of musicians in and out of the group means Saintseneca has been forced to evolve over time. They started out playing in front of punk crowds, and as a result, Saintseneca’s music is spiked with punk urgency. Tension sits at the core: Little wrote the songs for the band’s second album, Dark Arc, on a bass guitar, and the minimal set-up allows for push-and-pull between the four band members.
Saintseneca’s multi-part harmonies can go from a sweet coo into a full roar at the drop of a hat, and the songs often follow suit. The band stopped by Studio 1A recently, and one of the highlights from the live performance was “Blood Bath.” What starts out as an acoustic lullaby soon lives up to its name, thanks to guitar feedback and a driving beat on the back half of the song. It grabs your attention–a trick Saintseneca is honing into a formidable weapon.
Woods started out as a bedroom recording project for Jeremy Earl and Jarvis Taveniere, and their early releases tended to skew towards noisy jams and experiments. But underneath the tape hiss were some seriously catchy songs, informed as much by the Grateful Dead and Neil Young as much as the Brooklyn punk scene Woods grew up in. The band released at least one full record per year between 2009 and 2012, all while practically living on the road.
The two-year gap between 2012′s Bend Beyond and With Light And With Love (out today) is notable for a band as prolific as Woods, but the break pays off. The group has focused its sound, both in recording quality and songwriting. Gone is the off-the-cuff style that Woods made its name on; now the band is more interested in sparkling melodies than lo-fi weirdness. They’ve relocated their studio to upstate New York, and the rural pace suits them just fine. “Leaves Like Glass” lopes along at countrified speed, mixing in organ and psych-folk guitars with Woods’ sun-filled harmonies. It’s the sound of a veteran band getting better and better with every release.
Photo by Jeff Bierk
Timber Timbre’s Taylor Kirk belongs to that long list of Canadian songwriters who have mastered the sound and feel of Americana despite living north of the border. His group’s fifth album, titled Hot Dreams, does American better than most American contemporaries can.
Timber Timbre’s sound perches at the intersection of folk, blues, and soul, but it’s built up through a dark, almost swampy energy and an added touch of Canadian coldness. The Toronto-based trio favors simple arrangements with minimal instrumentation, giving plenty of room for the songs to breathe and really sink in. Kirk’s lonesome voice is always front-and-center, weaving dark tales about sinners, saints, and everyone in between.
Despite the low-key feel, they’re starting to gain traction, both in their native country and abroad. Timber Timbre’s smoky sound has been taken out of the clubs and put on much larger stages the past few years. They’ve toured with Laura Marling and fellow Canadian Feist, and in 2011, their album Creep On Creepin’ On was shortlisted for Canada’s prestigious Polaris Prize (Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs beat it out). Even with the added attention, Timber Timbre keep doing their thing. Hot Dreams subtly refines their sound, and on standout “Curtains!?”, the group adds a driving beat to go with their spaghetti western spookiness.
In 2008, Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent were two solo artists with a handful of murder ballads between themselves. The South Carolina duo decided to release the collection as Shovels & Rope–reflecting the dark subject matter–and they loved the imagery so much that the name stuck. Now married, Hearst and Trent tour under the name Shovels & Rope, though they’re a lot less sinister than the name suggests.
In the grand tradition of so many folk artists before their time, the duo make their racket almost entirely through acoustic means. “I’m inspired by being limited to just a few things,” Trent told the Boston Globe, but even with a limited arsenal, Shovels & Rope know how to put on a show. Hearst and Trent act as the guitarist and drummer simultaneously, and in the live setting it can be hard to distinguish whose limbs are whose. Their powerful harmonies are influenced as much by Exene Cervenka and John Doe of the legendary punk band X as by Johnny and June Cash–punk raucousness but with a country soul.
Shovels & Rope will bring their critically-acclaimed live act to Old Settler’s Music Festival, playing tonight at 7pm. Today’s song of the day comes from a vintage performance captured in Studio 1A. “O’ Be Joyful”–which originally appeared on the band’s self-titled 2012 effort–is part sing-along, part rock-and-roll barnstormer, and it proves there’s joy to be had in old traditions.