10. Kevin Morby – Sundowner [Dead Oceans]
Kevin Morby has always been a songwriter whose work is hugely influenced by place; on Singing Saw he told us of a life in Mt. Washington in North East LA, on City Music he summoned the frenetic nature of New York City and placed it straight to tape. For his latest album Sundowner, Kevin went slightly further off the beaten track, following his relocation to Kansas City, his aim for Sundowner was to, “put the Middle American twilight – its beauty profound, though not always immediate – into sound”. While the previously mentioned records were perhaps slightly uneasy portraits, listening to Sundowner, Kevin seems to have found a city that he wants to paint in a more positive light, and while themes of solitude and insecurity might permeate the record, at its heart there’s a simple adoration for the city he now calls home.
Sundowner opens with a strum of warm-acoustic guitar, introducing Valley, a song of subtle, isolated paranoias, Kevin staring down, “in the valley below, they all pretend not to know us, they all act like they don’t know”. Like much of the record it has a certain us against them quality, as if Kevin is shutting out the wider world, striking a divide between his bubble and the rest of the planet. It is a theme present in the ominous Brother, Sister, when their distrust of the wider turns to outlaw violence, “hit them hard sister, then get to running. I will brother, they’ll never see it coming”. The theme of tying yourself to another at the cost of all others, is equally, if more subtly, explored on the beautifully spacious stand-out, Don’t Underestimate Midwest American Sun, it’s romantic to the point of obsession, “my whole life baby I have been waiting, don’t go, don’t go, please, stay here, stay near me”. There’s a fantastic complexity to Kevin’s portraits of the city he knows so well; whether he’s feeling the pending gloom of twilight or the rush of new love, there always seems to be layers of thought, isolation turns to paranoia, affection turns to obsession. This is a vision you want to dip into, to see, “the sky’s proud announcement that another day will be soon coming to a close as the pink light recedes”, yet equally this doesn’t feel like a place to linger, after the dusk comes the night, as he sings on A Night At The Little Los Angeles, “life is not some fairy tale, some story book you wrote, well, it leads you by the heart now and it comes right out your throat”.
9. Wednesday – I Was Trying To Describe You To Someone [Orindal Records]
Released way back in February when the world seemed an almost entirely different place, I Was Trying To Describe You To Someone is the second album from Wednesday, the Asheville, North Carolina-based quintet, built around the songwriting of Karly Hartzman. Musically, the album exists in stark contrast to the band’s minimal synth-pop debut, with a three-pronged assault of guitars used to create an urgent fusion of everything from shoegaze to Southern-states Americana, with Karly’s crystalline vocals placed in the centre of the storm.
Opening track, Fate Is…, is a stirring introduction to the record, arriving not with a whimper but with a scream; it enters on a crescendo of howling guitars and clattering drums, like you’ve walked into an Explosions In The Sky concert just as they’re reaching their gigantic bone-shaking finale. As always at the songs core is Karly’s vocal, channeling a similar spirit to Life Model’s Sophie Evans or The Sunday’s Harriet Wheeler, whose band name directly influenced Wednesday, as she sings, “fate is drawing back it’s leg to kick me”, with the acceptance of one feeling truly down on their luck. By the time the opening track has passed, you’re glad for the relevant calm of Billboard, with it’s heady-bass and shimmering layers of guitar, by no means is it gentle, yet in comparison it has a certain calm. That textural flow is repeated throughout the record, as moments of raw noise are paired with more thoughtful reflections, such as Love Has No Pride, a song that seems to pair heartache with a certain pride that they’ll never settle for the boring middle ground, the people, “dull with their misplaced pride and their love of violence, young mothers hair in curlers, doing the laundry getting the mail”. As the record slides into the second half, particularly wonderful is previous single, November, it perfectly pairs the muted and the intense, as guttural guitars collide with hushed vocals, perfectly delivering the poetic lyrics, “the windows smirk at me, they’re letting in the dark, there’s nothing like the way you loiter in my heart”, as the whole thing gets lost in a wall of perfect all-engulfing static. Even on closing track, Revenge on the Lawn, when they pare everything right back, there’s still a warm crackle of tape for company, as Karly concludes, “I’m here if someone sees me”. Throughout I Was Trying To Describe You To Someone, there’s something unflinching about Wednesday’s musical vision, a band who understand there’s joy in contrast, and that beauty often lies on the line between serenity and chaos; a record perfectly out of step with the trends of the world around it, and all the more wonderful as a result
8. A.O. Gerber – Another Place To Need [Hand In Hive / Copper Mouth Records]
Sometimes albums feel like a reflection of time and place, on others like A.O. Gerber’s stunning debut album, Another Place To Need, it’s closer to a reflection of an entire life-time. Recorded over three years, with A.O. herself co-producing alongside fellow artist Madeline Kenney, Another Place To Need feels like an outpouring of thoughts and creativity, an eclectic and intriguing record very much in its creators image.
Discussing the inspiration behind the album, A.O. has suggested it is about, “fantasy and loneliness”, about how often when we create our own fiction, it can isolate us from the world around us, and even from ourselves. Much of the record seemed to find A.O. looking into the mirror, not recognising the person in front of her, and confused by the way that others seem to perceive her. Musically, Another Place To Need is a beautifully paced affair, the stunning Old Blue brings the album into being with its intro of meandering pianos and hushed vocals, that take a turn for the lightly jazzy, as A.O. begs for a deeper connection, before falling back to, “blue my, old friend blue”. The album is littered with moments of connection and departure, be it rushing for the freedom of coastal air on the lush Full Bloom, or asking on the fantastic Strangers, “did you love me or just the idea?”. From there, the record slides to it’s majestic centre-piece, Tell Me, a frank and open depiction of female sexuality paired with ideas of self-doubt and insecurity, “do you think that you could love me? Do you see something that’s something or do you see nothing at all?” Towards the close, Bleeders is delightful, with woozy waves of saxophone and twanging guitar, floating around the surprisingly pulsing rhythm track, while the closing track. All I’ve Known, bring the record to a stunning ending in the poignant refrain, “I keep on feeling this is all my fault again and again”. Throughout Another Place To Need, there’s a sense of lyrical doubt that’s contrasted with the boldness of the musical brush strokes, for all the questioning this is a record that sounds rightly confident, a bold and beautiful statement of intent that’s just waiting to be discovered.
7. Dana Gavanski – Yesterday Is Gone [Full Time Hobby/Ba Da Bing/Flemish Eye]
Long before her debut album was even announced, you could feel there was a certain buzz around Dana Gavanski, a fizzle of word-of-mouth excitement, the sense of an artist on the verge of something very special. When that album, Yesterday Is Gone, arrived in March, thankfully it more than lived up to expectations. Co-produced by Dana, alongside Toronto-based musician Sam Gleason and Tuung’s Mike Lindsay, this is an album that kept things stripped back, and was all the better for that decision.
While some people seem to stumble into song-writing, for Yesterday Is Gone, Dana took a different, all-together more professional approach. Attempting to make sense of a particularly painful break-up and life in her then home city of Toronto, Dana put herself to the grind-stone, setting up in her home-office and keeping office hours, working on crafting a record she could be proud of. The result is a record that is almost knowingly poised, inspired by artists like Aldous Harding and David Bowie, who seem to inhabit characters while still maintaining a sense of self, Dana tried to shed self-consciousness and to embrace simplicity. The resultant record is an amalgamation of worlds, while drawing musical comparisons to the likes of Julia Holter or Vashti Bunyan, Dana is equally unafraid to permeate her stories with a flair for the dramatic, from the swooping vocals of What We Had, destined for a thousand Cate Le Bon comparisons, to the clattering crescendos of Everything That Bleeds. Perhaps the best summary of the record arrives on the title track, as, to a backing of bright woodwind and distant Casio-buzz, Dana sings, “‘I’m learning how to say goodbye, to let you go and face the tide, to wrap my feelings in a song”. This isn’t a break-up record, this is the album that comes afterwards, an album about re-learning your place in the world, yesterday is gone and for Dana Gavanski, the future looks magnificent.
6. Tenci – My Heart Is An Open Field [Keeled Scales]
Starting back in 2018 as the bedroom-folk project of Jess Shoman, Tenci lift their name from Jess’, “kindred spirit”, her grandmother Hortencia; who even makes a very beautiful cameo at the end of Blur Spring in voicemail form, reminding Jess how much she loves her and telling her, “don’t get tired of my call, okay love”. It’s those tiny moments that seem to permeate so much of Tenci’s stunning debut, My Heart Is An Open Field; a record of gentle exploration, of untying the knots that make up a life and learning to accept yourself as you are right now. Both lyrically and musically this is a record of subtle triumphs, little sparks of joy woven together into something truly remarkable.
The album opens with Earthquake, it is a track of perfect simplicity, built largely around a single arpeggiated guitar-line, a quavering country-licked sound, that runs through the track like a meandering river, a base on which the adornments of easy drums, and Jess’ instantly recognisable vocal can drift and dance. This is a record best taken whole, it creates an atmosphere in which to get lost, there’s an easiness to the world Jess and her bandmates create, for all the complexity within, it is a record that is just a joy to listen to, a sound intriguingly their own without feeling like it’s ever difficult or deliberately odd. From the opening track, the record flows through the subtle ramble of Hair Sticks, to Serpent with its military marching-drum and fluttering twangs of guitar. While far more experimental than the phrase might imply, Your Heart Is An Open Field, is at its heart a folk-record, take a track like Forgot My Horse’s Name, with it’s prominent slide-guitar, if it was a Willie Nelson cover you wouldn’t be shocked, while the easy drum shuffle of No Wings has a timeless, almost Nick Drake-like quality. The record ends fittingly on the title track; a beautifully recorded guitar line, full of fingers buzzing on strings, is slowly built on by woodwind, slide guitar and the gentlest of percussive licks, as Jess seems to give the responsibility of her heart over to mother nature, “trees weep with tangled limbs, give it all to the wind, my heart is an open field”. Whenever I listen to this record, I’m left with the feeling that it’s all over just a little too soon, that I really wish Tenci could stay a little longer, let me stay a while in the beautiful world their music creates, for now though, I’ll just be glad this record exists: it’s a triumph.