As a former New York City resident, I can think of few neighborhoods I’d rather live in than the Upper West Side. Old money and overpriced, overprecious grocery stores every block – no thanks. But the Smittens’ gloriously catchy indiepop song almost makes the UWS appealing.
Any band can cite their influences when talking about their music. Fewer cite those influences within that music itself – at least not as frequently as Dino Bravo does.
From the first verse of the first song on their first album, the just-released Blind By Midnight, the Vermont rock quartet wears their favorite bands on their sleeves. That opener, “The Aerialists,” shouts out a couple Wilco albums that were important to guitarist Chris Farnsworth. The next track, “Sugar Coated Candy Stix,” describes singer Matthew Stephen Perry taking his future wife to a My Morning Jacket show (part of the closing song, “Pass the Mark,” musically nods to the same band’s “One Big Holiday”). A few songs later, bassist Joshua Shedaker writes a love song to Thin Lizzy.
In anyone else’s hands, the “bojotar” might be a pricey parlor trick. The inventor of this hybrid instrument, Vermont singer-songwriter Bow Thayer, combined a banjo, resonator guitar, and electric guitar into one axe. But this is a far cry from one of those one-man bands busking in the subway with some ramshackle contraption strapped to his back. The bojotar doesn’t look or sound particularly strange, but it gives Thayer a twangy slide/picking combo impossible to achieve with a traditional instrument.
Proper dental hygiene seems an odd inspiration for a garage-rock song. But from the recurring line that gave this song its title – “My teeeeth are nice and cleeeaaaannn” – “Teeth” veers into all sorts of oddball directions. It’s a love song for a minute, then a meta song about songwriting itself.
“Foxy folk” was the genre tag Abbie Morin adopted on 2015 solo album Shadowproof. The catchy branding isn’t accurate anymore. Like bandmate Caroline Rose, Morin has recently changed sounds (band names too in this case; Morin now performs as Hammydown). But it wasn’t entirely accurate then either. “Foxy folk” doesn’t really capture a song like “Better Half.”
On the surface, “Old North Ender” would seem to offer pretty regionally-limited appeal. It’s about one specific neighborhood in Burlington, Vermont, with a population of 11,000 (one of which is James Kochalka himself). Writing a song so specifically about one’s ‘hood may create an anthem for people within a ten-block radius, but presents an impediment to a track’s wider success.
Ava Marie bills themselves as folk music – their Bandcamp handle is literally “avamariefolk” – but don’t expect any acoustic guitars on “White Hides.” This is folk music as channeled through mewithoutYou, weird and knotty and hyperliterate. Or, if a mewithoutYou comparison means nothing, try The Decemberists – this song does toss in words like “loam” and “brackish” – if someone turned the dials up on all their distortion pedals.
There’s a trick I love in a lot of pop songs. Somewhere in the back half of the song, most instruments drop out. The chorus repeats once, a cappella or close to it. An instrument or two return as the chorus repeats, then a few more more the next time around. Eventually they all joyously crash back in. It’s the pop version of a dubstep drop, and equally effective.
The only live recording on this list, Brett Hughes’ “Sweet Little Bird” has yet to be released on a studio album. The version I’ve been playing for the latter half of the decade I ripped from a Vermont Public Radio session video. I hope to replace it with a higher-fi studio take one of these days.
This is a pick where the songwriter herself might not agree with me. Caroline Rose doesn’t play “America Religious” any more, nor any of the other songs from her first two albums. The singer-songwriter drastically changed her sound on most recent album Loner, from Americana to a spunky indiepop. On the whole, her music might be better for it; Loner is the best record of her career. But even if she might just as soon forget about a roots-rock gem like “America Religious,” we shouldn’t.