J. Tillman -
J. Tillman - perhaps best known as the drummer for last year's breakthrough folk group Fleet Foxes - is a remarkably prolific singer/songwriter who has just released his sixth album in only five years. He's been getting significantly more attention since 2008, but I imagine Year In the Kingdom will still fly under the radar of many, which really shouldn't be the case. Tillman uses a simple combination of acoustic guitar, limited percussion, and his soft, stirring voice for the majority of his tunes (though there is the occasional instrumental embellishment as well), crafting beautifully sparse songs that make his new record a brief but captivating musical experience. And as Year In the Kingdom is Tillman's second release this year (Vacilando Territory Blues is the other), it just seems even more impressive. As far as highlights go, it's difficult to pick as the album just sounds so complete when taken in as a whole, but the delicate, strummed title track and the gorgeous "Howling Light" would be my suggestions on where to start.
Heavenly Bodies (MP3 via Pitchfork)
The Subjects -
The Subjects have what I imagine is a fairly unique origin story. The band started in high school, which is pretty standard, of course, but the fact that two of the band members were students and two were teachers at the time is a little more unusual. It's a combination that works well for them, though, as evidenced by the quality of their infectious and smart pop rock music. The quartet already have a full-length album to their name and now they've returned with the New Soft Shoe EP, which I've been loving recently. The boys have a kind of easy confidence to them that makes what they do seem much easier and more natural than you'd think it could actually be, and each of the three songs - the percussion heavy "Winter Vacation," the synth-rocker "Right2Know," and the bouncy piano-pop track "Little Mountaintops" - is delivered with the perfect balance of pop simplicity and indie innovation. You can only find the new EP on thinkindie.com, but you can get "Winter Vacation" for free below.
Winter Vacation (MP3 via RCRD LBL)
The Shaky Hands -
Of the three bands featured here, The Shaky Hands adhere most closely to pure rock 'n' roll, though they do much more than simply pay tribute to classic rock. The Portland-based band have recently released their third album in three years and fortunately their prolific schedule hasn't seemed to damped the quality or energy of their music. Let It Die is a solid third effort for the group, one that isn't often flashy or showy - it just focuses on great melodies and songwriting to capture your attention rather than throwing in lengthy jam sessions or fiery guitar solos. That's not to say that this bunch isn't talented - the rolling bass lines, sharp guitar riffs, and steady percussion all add to the experience and make this a rock album worth mentioning in a year full of them. The rough and raw title track, the cruising "Caught In the Storm" and the bouncy "Allison and the Ancient Eyes" are the definite highlights here.
Allison and the Ancient Eyes (MP3 via RCRD LBL)