Forever strives for the grand. With track names like “The Heavens Turn By Themselves” and “Flying Saucers Are Real,” it’s apparent that Sleep ∞ Over’s Stefanie Franciotti is tackling issues beyond the mundane. Sonically, she’s created a record of patient, atmospheric electronic music over which she has laid some very breathy vocals. The lyrics are often indistinct, but the focus is more on the soundscapes Franciotti creates as sounds build and morph in unexpected ways (check “Cryingame”). When those sonic experimentations are centered around solidly written songs, like “Romantic Streams” or “Stickers,” Forever strikes gold.
Guns of Navarone aren’t as interested in crafting elaborate soundscapes as they are with writing damn good country-rock songs. We’ve already elaborated on the fantastic “I Am Taking You Tonight” in our best songs of the year list but that’s only one of the gems here. There’s the rollicking “Winnipeg, Manitoba” (with it’s chorus about being “cold up there”), the bittersweet “Don’t Shoot the Messenger,” and the pleading “Gatsby Did It All for a Girl.” With the sweet guitar leads and Cory Reinisch’s effecting vocals, this is the kind of songwriting that feels directly tied to Austin’s influences, as much at home at Threadgill’s as on Red River. If you like the Old 97’s or the Jayhawks, this album is an absolute must for you to check out.
Sorne’s debut album is the first in a multi-album series that ostensibly will tell the story of five siblings born into a tribal future world. There is an extensive mythology (available on Sorne’s website), and we still have yet to fully understand all of it as it appears on House of Stone. Fortunately, the songs are ridiculously compelling even without the background. Sorne is able to build his songs around intense rhythmic patterns, weave in layers of background vocals, and manage accessible melodies. Musically, he nails the tribal vibe around which his lyrics also center. He is one of the most engaging live performers in town right now, and that’s largely thanks to having such great material to work from.
This is classic rock – both in the sense that it sounds like the genre we know as “classic rock” and that it’s rock music that sounds timeless. We’ve already endlessly extolled the virtues of “Downtown Girl,” but listen to “Way to Go Baby” for bouncing 60s pop-infused bitterness, or “Brass Tacks” for some gritty swamp stomp, or “So Cool” for a tender ballad. Not in the Face is far more than just a one-hit wonder. Jonathan Terrell and Wes Cargal show the Black Keys how it’s done on Bikini. Though it’s just the two of them, they pack in more than enough energy and emotion. It’s pure rock and roll with great songs.
There was no better three-song opening this year than the total knockout punch of “Imagine Hearts,” “Weekend Dudes” and “So High” on Colour Trip. None of those songs is more than two and a half minutes, but each one is a tightly packed ball of intensity that herald the arrival of a great band and album. Over the rest of the album, RD stretches out a bit more, playing with tempo changes on “Tambourine Girl,” for example. The swirling guitars meld with the smooth voices of Elliot Frazier and Alex Gehring to monstrous walls of sound, mixing pure rock power with the hazy chillwave vibe that permeates much of contemporary indie music (like on the appropriately-named “Day Dreamy”). Colour Trip is a creative, cohesive album that has rightly earned Ringo Deathstarr more notoriety this year in indie rock circles.
One of the more prolific rock bands in town, the Sour Notes continue to evolve with Last Looks. Though they are a traditional four-piece rock band, the Sour Notes find fresh approaches and sounds. “Big Dreams” churns forward relentlessly like a bulldozer, “The Moment You Feel It” is a touching acoustic ballad with a spine, “Nothing’s More Contagious Than Evil” combines ominous arpeggios with a rocking backbeat that help the song live up to its name. And then there’s “Hot Pink Flares,” which like other tracks on the album shifts from one section to another to keep the listener guessing while sounding as epic as anything. After multiple spins, this is an album that continues to fascinate.
In 2011, Andrew Kenny somehow cornered the market on the acoustic guitar. Acoustic guitars dominate Two Matchsticks, forming the core of its distinctive sound, and are at times augmented by subtle percussion and ringing electric guitar leads. Kenny often employs guest vocalists (like Leslie Sisson, Matt Pond, and Ben Gibbard – yes, that Ben Gibbard) in order to produce sublime harmonies. And yet, as wonderful as all of the atmospheric touches are, the album wouldn’t work nearly as well without the gorgeous songs. “Two Matchsticks,” “Too Pretty to Say Please,” and “Criminals Win” are only some of the highlights on this beautiful record. In a time when so many bands are expanding their sounds with samplers and synthesizers in order to stand out, The Wooden Birds have embraced organic simplicity to great effect.
As with The Wooden Birds, Pure X have delivered their own version of a stripped-down record. Their approach, however, is markedly different. This South Austin trio plays all their songs live with no overdubs, maintains the simplest of drum parts and has guitar leads that are sometimes as minimal as one note. Yet, everything is slathered in reverb and processed with effects that give the record a hazy, dreamlike feel. Drawing from 80s slowcore forebears like The Jesus and Mary Chain and Galaxie 500, Pure X take their time cultivating their atmospheric sounds. Some songs, like “Heavy Air,” meander in the vein of early Sigur Ros, while others, like “Twisted Mirror” or “Dry Ice” weave the experimentation around tight songs. It’s a distinctive sound in Austin right now (along with friends Sleep ∞ Over), and a fascinating one.
2011 was good to Wild Child. They seemed to emerge out of nowhere to sudden and widespread critical acclaim. We saw them at the Beauty Bar at the start of the summer to a half-full crowd and by their CD release in late October they had packed the Parish full, and it’s largely thanks to this fantastic album. It’s tender and heart-wrenching all at once, as singers Kelsey Wilson and Alexander Beggins explore relationships from every nook and cranny. While the lyrics engage the listener’s emotions, the music stays interesting with unique instrumentation and original arrangements. Between their violin, cello, ukulele and glockenspiel, Wild Child has a lot of unconventional instruments at their disposal but somehow avoid ever sounding gimmicky. These songs have clearly come from the heart and they’re played with essential passion.
SPEAK are a great pop-rock band and I Believe in Everything is their manifesto. It is a treatise on how pop-rock should sound. This band has hooks pouring out of its ears, and often songs have multiple ones over the course of three minutes. And of the ten songs, there are no duds, no dull moments. Much has been made of hit song “Carrie” (which has now started garnering radio play on 101X), but what about opening salvo “Wars,” which declares war on ex-lovers and pop-haters alike? Or the waltz of power ballad “81”? Or the manic voices on “Stand By Us”? SPEAK refuse to believe that “accessible” can’t also mean “smart” as they toy with pop conventions while also exploiting them. Just try to listen to this and not enjoy yourself. It can’t be done.