Sleeping States -
Sleeping States is the project of one British songwriter Markland Starkie, whose second/third album (depending on how you're counting) was released in the UK recently. I don't believe it has made it across the pond officially yet, but In the Gardens of the North is worth hearing as soon as you can get yourself a copy no matter where you live. The sparse, dark sound that Starkie creates probably can't be classified as lo-fi, at least not on this release, but his simple aesthetic has the sort of charming, DIY feel that makes what he accomplishes here seem especially impressive. Over a bed of spare percussion and soft yet insistent bass, Starkie utilizes a variety of guitars, strings, and his warm, even tenor to build songs that may seem modest at first listen as they're often quiet and restrained in nature, but the captivating melodies and attention to instrumental detail become quite gripping when you take the time to become fully immersed in the experience. Amid the lean, 9-song selection are some truly gorgeous moments, like the intimate guitar interplay on "The Next Village" or the gentle pop perfection of "The Cartographer" that closes the album, though with no excess, In the Gardens of the North is a consistently wonderful record.
Gardens of the South (MP3 via The Line of Best Fit)
Ample Branches -
I know next to nothing about indie rockers Ample Branches, though I gather they're from Lawrence, Kansas and have released at least one full-length album called True Vine, which I admit I've yet to hear. But when a somewhat mysterious email prompted me to download their new EP entitled Fluorescent Forest, I decided that even with no introduction, I'd give them a shot. Glad I did too, as the band's interesting mix of rock, Americana and psychedelia makes for an enjoyably varied and consistent five songs for their latest release. As the email read, this EP contains some of the band's "stock of recordings accumulated over the past few years," so what you get probably wouldn't be considered a cohesive set of tunes, but a showcase of the band's many capabilities. Opener "Empty Chair" is a continually-building, group-chanted anthematic rocker, the title track is funky and horn-laden, while "Keystone Can" is a classic rock tune filled with jazzy piano and guitar solos. Fortunately, though the spread of styles can be a bit overwhelming, Ample Branches handle each approach with confidence and success. Not sure about the release date or availability of this one, but I'll post a track here for the curious.
Empty Chair (MP3)
Sol Giant -
Pop-rockers Sol Giant are from sunny Southern California, but you could probably tell as much just by listening to their music. With bright guitars, urgent drums and epic, glowing choruses, the tunes they create seem somehow connected to their geographic source, at odds with the snow and cold that has settled outside my window as I write this. Although the band has a bit more 'mainstream' alternative sound than you're probably used to finding here, I've been loving their debut EP, entitled Strangers, which was released in November. Behind big-voiced singer/songwriter Eric Nicolau, the quartet makes alt-rock that's catchy and engaging, with enough of a twist to stay interesting throughout their five-song first effort. The earnest and subtly funky "Don't You Lie to Me" features sharp guitar lines and a sexy bass groove, while the jangly "Where I'm Supposed to Be" is a more Beatlesque pop number, but my personal favorite is the emotive acoustic ballad "Been to the Mountain." Strangers is a great start for this ambitious young band - hopefully they've got more on the way soon.