High Highs

Earlier this year, Brooklyn based Aussie duo High Highs loosed “Movement” – the first single from the then untitled follow up to their debut full length Open Season. It was a sparse, somber gem that manages to shuck the twosome’s trademark dream-pop stylings without being all that dramatic of a departure. Now in “Ocean to City”, the title track from their upcoming 3 song EP, the pop elements make their triumphant return. High Highs’ talents have always lied in their ability to take pair their beautiful, languid melodies with just the right amount of forward momentum.

“Ocean to City” manages to dial that up a few notches – arriving at an artfully more poppy direction than even the most infectious Open Season cuts.  And yet in what is becoming their signature High Highs handles the increased tempo with absolute delicacy and grace. It’s a downright rush of sound, a deluge of synths but High Highs gentle care ensures that it never reaches the apex of aural onslaught, instead arriving as multi-layered pop masterwork. It’s catchy and hints at just enough of a change of direction from the duo to excite at High Highs’ continued progress. Their second full length may be ways away but “Ocean to City” reveals High Highs have just enough tricks up to their sleeve to avoid another slow burner.

High Highs’ Ocean to City EP dropped October 7th. Grab it here »

One of the joys of following along with Portals’ ongoing traveling showcase Living Spaces has been the ability to not only to discover new artists I haven’t seen before but to engage with those who’ve made their mark previously play in smaller, more intimate venues. The fact that it’s with a bunch of people just as receptive and excited to be there is a definite plus. One such artist – singer/songwriter Julie Byrne (whose beautiful record Rooms With Walls and Windows helped ring in the new year) is one of those artists I’ve been able to catch multiple times mostly in part to Portals’ shared love of her.

While there’s no word yet on whether or not a new Julie Byrne record is in the works, those in attendance at the inaugural Living Spaces show at Brooklyn’s The Silent Barn were in for a treat. First, Byrne went electric. Secondly, Byrne captivated the crowd with a new track by the name of “Natural Blue” and while no one caught it at the time, Byrne was able to commit it to tape (or in this case video) when she flew across the pond to play at this year’s Green Man Festival.

“Natural Blue” is one part beguiling folk idyll and one part showpiece – not in that it’s all flashy but the nature of its very construction spotlights the absolute beauty of Byrne’s vocals that are perfectly complimentary to the nature-invoking travelogue/love song. It’s stunningly simplistic; virtually unadorned and entrancing solely on the virtues of Byrne’s ineffable talent but a wonderful example of what is so magical about Byrne as a performer.

Ontario Gothic

I can remember with perfect clarity the moment when New York based Canadian Foxes in Fiction won me over. It was, during a tragically short set during Portals’ and Stadiums & Shrines’ CMJ showcase back in 2012, when Warren Hildebrand busted out his alternate Alberto version of “Fifteen Ativan”. Normally one for atmospherics and tendency to focus on the dreamier part of dream-pop it appealed to the pop lover in me. It was astonishingly straight forward and while there were few songs like it, it was the hook I needed to really dig in to the rest of the Foxes in Fiction catalog.

The appeal of “Glow (v079)” is essentially similar to that of my visceral infatuation with “Fifteen Ativan” in that it is perhaps the most accessible of Ontario Gothic‘s 7 tracks. While others of the album’s tracks might require you to be in a particular mood or mental state to repetitively enjoy them, “Glow” is track for whenever that manages to combine Warren Hildebrand’s ethereal aesthetic with that of a quietly surging flood. Crafted from a sample of Wonder Bear’s “V079″, Foxes in Fiction manages to transform it from the sparse introspection to a glittering pop gem. It’s a slow build, delicately unfolding but in its untamed moments hits with the intensity of sudden downpour. Hildebrand essentially slips into full on producer mode – giving in completely to his more electronic leanings (Ontario Gothic for the most part eschews many of these past experimentations for a much more organic manipulation of sound). In the context of the album it hits like a mack truck though it’s a rather restrained bit of brilliant songcraft.

Pick up a copy of Ontario Gothic on vinyl or pay-what-you-want digital here »

Yellerkin

When I first heard the first single “Solar Laws” from Katonah, NY exports Yellerkin I was instantly enamored. Of this there was no denying. The vivacious energy and seamless blend of the then duo’s musicianship not only capitalized on the potential for infectious genre-blurring pop but hinted at a knack for pitch perfect songcraft that’d serve them well in the future. Yellerkin’s at their best when utilizing the talents of all of its members – Adrian Galvin’s emotive vocals and effervescent charm paired with Luca Buccellati’s electronic wizardry and rock solid supporting role.

While the Yellerkin live set has evolved from quintet to a modest trio including Tei Shi drummer Gabe Smith, the one constant is the twosome at the center of the experimental pop maelstrom and “Tools” is an example of the brilliant effects of Galvin and Buccellati in total consonance. “Tools” resembles generic pop structure but inverts it a little – featuring the harmonic howled chorus first and foremost before things set off in divergent but surprising parallel paths. “Tools” shows a remarkable amount of subtlety – embroiled for much of its duration in a sort of tonal ebb and flow that finally rises towards a full on synth-pop explosion that feels earned after about three minutes of teasing.

On “Tools”, Yellerkin show exceptional growth embarking on the electronic direction they want to pursue without losing sight of the much straight forward pop elements at their inception and hints at exciting things after the release of their self-titled EP earlier this year. Here’s hoping it’s not too long before we get a glimpse at what else Yellerkin have up their sleeve but until then “Tools” will make good company.

Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear

I remember the very first time I ever heard Devendra Banhart’s voice. I remember thinking of the quote Jimi Hendrix said about “how he sees music in colors” and thinking Banhart had vocal chords that had to be painted in a swatch labeled “ROYGBIV”. Despite lacking a sonic case of synesthesia myself, Banhart’s voice had an eccentric narrative quality that matched his own homeless-guy-on-the-streets to record-releasing-indie-artist fairy tale. Last week, fully reaping the benefits of living in Nashville, I saw a last minute show during Americana Fest at Jack White’s Third Man Records and can now say I remember the very first time I saw Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear live.

Ward’s voice has a strange texture; rich and dramatic as if it wants to bellow big enough for an opera house, yet strained with the shards of emotion that litter the generational voices of soul singers. Then there are the different vocal personalities he portrays, like that of Frank Black or Isaac Brock, Ward throws his voice from falsetto yelps to low growls in an instant while retaining the same familiarity despite leaping across an emotional spectrum too varied for even legendary high school guidance counselors. Check out “Silent Movies” to see what I mean:

Then there is the excellent extracurricular story that publicists, journalists, labels, managers, and fans alike are going to adore. Madisen Ward is accompanied by his guitar wielding, backup-singing mother to make this a duo unlike any other. Like Jade Castrinos and Victoria Bergsman once did for Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes and Peter Bjorn and John respectively, the Mama Bear adds an understated female element you can’t imagine the song without once hearing her sing. During the show I saw, which captivated 100+ industry types in sheer silence, she commented about her guitar when handing it to her son, “I bought that guitar in 1979. I never knew that I would have son who would be playing it. That’s pretty cool.”

Also cool: everything about this Independence, Missouri duo, including the strong set of songwriting chops Ward possesses. I hope they’re ready for a fun and fast ride.