Walter Mitty Returns to His Makeshift Orchestra for Entertaining LP

Puddles of Alligators is an excellent collection of b-sides and a welcome release for Indi-folk fans.

Walter Mitty and His Makeshift Orchestra is a acoustic folk outfit from the West Coast. They debuted in 2009 with Every Town Needs a Cowboy which found them immediate success within the underground folk-pop movement of the day. A handful of releases followed with 2011’s Overwhelmed and Underdressed as the highlights, each of them developing the band’s mix of unique instrumental pallets, carefree production, and quirky lyricism. In 2017, the band began to go by the name Walter Etc. with two releases that year which largely kept with they original style. Now, they’ve returned to the Makeshift Orchestra moniker to release Puddles of Alligators, a collection of B-sides which never quite made the cut on their early albums.

While several of the band’s best features are here in spades, there are also quite a few surprising highlights. The percussion work, though simple, is extremely effective. The ringing tambourines on “Chocolate Old-Fashioned,” and the odd cymbals and clackers on “Farm Trees and Fences,” are fascinating touches on already interesting songs. This certainly wasn’t missing from earlier releases, but there seems to be even more attention paid to it here.

Beyond this, there is some excellent guitar work on tracks like “All the Pretty Fishes,” and the closer, “I’m off to Paradise.” There’s nothing showy here, but the rhythmic acoustic is present and well played across nearly every second of this LP and the short solo near the end of the record is extremely enjoyable.

Best of all, this album features a few fantastic interludes. “Hand-Me-Downs,” is a youthful, energetic cut early on while “It’s Raining in My Living Room,” is a brilliant, atmospheric track which serves as a perfect center point to the album. These make for great connective tissue between full length tracks and the latter is especially experimental and creative. 

The album even features some strong production choices on tracks like “Suck It Up.” The raw, clipping sound fits the whimsical style of the band perfectly. The mix is dirty and inexact, but gives each track a feeling like you’re in the room with them, which is exactly where you want to be.

For fans of Walter Mitty, it’ll be unsurprising to hear that the LP is packed with fantastic kazoo parts. From the earlier “Funny Faces,” to later entries like “Scrubbing the Mold,” and “Carry Me Back to the Purple Palace,” Walter Mitty continues to be the only artist in the industry, to my knowledge, who can consistently rock a kazoo solo at a moments notice. Its use much like the way a harmonica is utilized on many folk records, but the abrasive buzz is just an entirely different sound.

The LP’s strongest point though, comes in the simply hilarious lyricism. The opener, “Pink Eye,” jokes about the millennial stoner life with a sardonic tone which is summed up in the line “nice to meet you, I’m pathetic, let me be.” “Mellow,” on the other hand, is a short turnaround which poetically celebrates an enjoyable, but uneventful day with even more sharp-tongued sarcasm. Nearly every track features a few hilarious one liners, as is often the case with any of Walter Mitty’s work.

The album certainly isn’t perfect. Cuts like the title track or “Wetter Days,” are a bit boring as they lack any shining kazoo solos or memorable lyrics. Additionally, the pacing is a bit fast for my taste, without a single track clearing three minutes and only a few clearing two.

That being said, for fans of the band like myself, this is a welcome addition to the rather prolific catalog. The excellent instrumentation, hilarious lyricism, and well-played kazoo were expected from the beginning, but the addition of interesting interludes and raw production are welcome surprises.

Puddles of Alligators is an excellent collection of b-sides and a welcome release for Indi-folk fans.

6/10

Whitney’s Sophomore Effort is Packed With Heart and Fun!

Forever Turned Around is a fun listen which overcomes technical and pacing issues with pure heart and and a massive pallet.

Whitney is an indie-folk group from Chicago, Illinois. Formed in the breakup of indie rock outfit, Smith Westerns, guitarist Max Kakacek and drummer Julien Ehrlich joined forces with a handful of friends in 2016 for the band’s debut LP, Light Upon the Lake, which received wide acclaim from critics across the contemporary music landscape. They were particularly praised for their simple style and clear inspiration from early pop groups like The Byrds and early Beatles. The record was a hit for the young indie band and for well known indie label, Secretly Canadian and launched a headlining tour across Europe. With a fairly strong fanbase, anticipations were high for a sophomore release and, three years later, Forever Turned Around has arrived.

From the opening seconds of the LP, Julien Ehrlich’s drums are a standout highlight! Tracks like the opener, “Giving Up,” and “Valleys,” showcase a uniquely simple form of drumming which fits the band’s sound extremely well. There are no flashy fills or difficult time changes, but instead a nice steady rhythm with great cymbal work. The drums are also wonderfully mixed, with a crisp snap on every snare and a full thud to every kick.

Max Kakacek is also hard at work on guitar with a similar approach. Late cuts like “Day & Night,” or my personal favorite, “Friend of Mine,” feature some nice lead licks, but the majority of his best work comes in the rhythmic, acoustic work that makes up the melodic bass of most of the album. Again, he rarely stands out, but it’s that consistent performance which forms the strong backdrop for everything else to shine.

Kakacek does get a chance to take the spotlight a bit more, however, as the band’s lead vocalist. His soft harmonies and ringing falsettos on “Used To Be Lonely,” are able to sell the somewhat cheesy lyrics fantastically while his work on “My Life Alone,” is far less front and center but much more energetic and dynamic. Because of the band’s style, his vocals aren’t always front and center, but they always act as a wonderfully entry point to the band’s unique sound.

Without a doubt, however, the album’s best quality comes not from any one single member, but the group as a whole and their delightfully wide pallet. From the folksy brass sections on “Before I Know It,” to the oh-so-smooth saxophone on the excellent instrumental cut, “Rhododendron,” or even the swelling woodwinds on “Friend of Mine,” there always seems to be something interesting right around the corner and the pallet serves to color in the simple canvas at the base of each song.

Unfortunately, I am left with a handful of criticisms. Perhaps the most consistent issue comes in the production. With such a large array of instruments and a unique style to start with, this is a difficult album to mix, but the majority of it is muddy and lacks any clarity, so much so that a lot of great work is lost on tracks like “Song for Ty,” or the closing title track in a wave of indistinguishable sound.

Beyond this, there are certainly pacing problems which didn’t really exist on the debut. Even for fans of this falsetto heavy, folksy crooning, the lack of diversity in the tracklist starts to weigh on a listener by the end. Each track, on their own, is perfectly enjoyable, but the album, as a whole, definitely drags a handful of times.

Despite these complaints, Forever Turned Around is a solid sophomore effort. The simple, heartfelt shell of solid songwriting and melody is filled to bursting with a wide array of unique instrumentation and quirky harmonies. This album may not find a ton of crossover success, but for fans of this genre and this style, this is yet another solid release from an excellent group.

Forever Turned Around is a fun listen which overcomes technical and pacing issues with pure heart and and a massive pallet.

6/10

AMAZON LINK: https://amzn.to/2UbiiiB

Luke Combs’ Fourth EP Is Fun but Underwhelming

The Prequel is a fun listen that, while it doesn’t quite live up to its potential, does leave me excited to see where Combs will go next.

Luke Combs is a country singer/songwriter from Charlotte, North Carolina. He debuted in 2014 with a pair of self-released EPs which found some underground success and landed him a signing with Columbia Records in Nashville. His powerhouse voice and outlaw sensibilities made him a perfect fit for the rising tide of alt-country which has overtaken much of the industry and he road that wave to a very well received third EP, This One’s for You which was later expanded to become his first full length album. The expanded version went double platinum, topped the US Country chart, and Combs was named one of Sounds Like Nashville’s “Artists to Watch,” and won the CMA award for “New Artist of the Year.” To date, he’s one of the biggest artists in country music and he’s once again returning to the EP format for The Prequel.

The project opens with the raucous, twangy lead single, “Beer Never Broke My Heart.” The track is simply drenched in country twang but Combs’ strong vocal sells it with every word and the explosive instrumental helps quite a bit as well. There are a few production decisions which hold the song back from being truly fantastic, but it’s still an impressive, unapologetic opener that sets the tone extremely well.

This is followed by “Refrigerator Door,” which is a bit of a mixed back. Yet again, the twanging vocal and crashing instrumentals are pure country and the guitar solo is far more impressive than that of the opener. Additionally, the concept of using the refrigerator door as a window to larger reflection on life is quite an interesting idea, but unfortunately, most of the writing and rhyme scheme feels lazy. What’s worse, the photos that are described are fairly run of the mill and universal. It’s still a strong track, but it would’ve been much stronger if filled with well written lines and more personal details.

“Even Though I’m Leaving,” falls in the middle of the EP and once again, Luke brings a very classic country sound. Unlike the last cut, however, this track tells an interesting and heartfelt story of a father and son which feels much more personal. The more organic instruments are a welcome touch, especially with the inclusion of brighter tones like mandolins and acoustic guitars which offset the blues heavy sound thus far. All in all, it’s still a bit cheesy, but Luke sells it with a lead vocal that runs the gamut of emotions and has a genuinely vulnerable moment on the third verse.

“Lovin’ On You,” comes next and this track crosses the line just a bit for me. Combs’ accent is exaggerated to the point of being difficult to understand and the lyrics are entirely thoughtless. It’s not without its bright points as the saloon piano is a great touch and a handful of rhymes are somewhat impressive, but it just tries way too hard to lean into the country sound while lacking the storytelling and melodic writing that any great country song should have. 

“Moon Over Mexico,” closes out the project quite well. It’s a bit nondescript and doesn’t stand out amid the tracklist in any noticeable way, but it is quite well written and tells something of an interesting story. Once again, the song is plagued by a handful of strange and unnecessary production choices, mostly in terms of vocal effects, but a strong performance shines through those issues and makes for a much appreciated final track.

All in all, the EP certainly isn’t bad. For most listeners, I’d imagine the enjoyment of this project will come down to how much they enjoy country music on the whole. This is fairly well written and performed country music of the very twangy variety, but it fails to be anything more than that. Combs has the potential to be a crossover success on the level of Stapleton or Isbell later in his career, but to do that, his storytelling and lyrical chops will need to improve.

The Prequel is a fun listen that, while it doesn’t quite live up to its potential, does leave me excited to see where Combs will go next.

3/5

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Veronica Stanton Debuts With Catchy and Heartfelt EP

827 Miles is an incredibly listenable debut which has me excited to cover many more releases from Veronica Stanton.

Veronica Stanton is a country singer/songwriter from Jenkintown, PA and based in Nashville, TN. She got her start in local shows performing with a family band and learned sing and play music at home. She stepped out into more solo work in high school and began to pursue songwriting in earnest in college. After graduating, she came to Nashville and began playing the circuit of writers rounds before starting to work with producer Dan Knobler. Now, she’s released her debut EP, 827 Miles, named for the distance from her hometown to Nashville.

The project opens with the title track and immediately, much of what makes this EP special is present. Veronica’s sweet, bright vocal is easily the highlight of the cut, made all the better by some clever and well-written lyrics. Her rhyme schemes create instant earworms that demand a second listen and, thanks to nice, clean production, the her personality bubbles through every line. Songs that focus on missing home are also less prominent than they once were and it’s nice to hear the topic addressed so well once again.

“Flying,” follows and quickly, the strong instrumentation begins to shine through. Anthony DaCosta helms the electric guitar, which he did quite well on Joy Williams’ album which I covered earlier this week. His gentle touch and ear for melody are invaluable to this cut and many after. Beyond this, the verse-centric structure with a two bar chorus is unique and Stanton confidently channels shades of Dolly Parton in her soft but solid delivery. It’s yet another track which seems to demand a second listen.

“Wildflower,” falls perfectly in the middle of the five tracks and fills this position incredibly well. It’s far more lighthearted, lyrically, and the vocal melody on the chorus is nothing short of fantastic. Dan Knobler’s production is almost a sugar rush of bright guitars and a well placed organ that creates a beautifully shimmering piece of pop-country. As if this wasn’t enough, Veronica proves the legitimacy of her old school aesthetic with an awesome key change in the final third that perfectly closes out the funnest track on the project.

As “Rome,” rolls around, the organ takes the front seat, as do the drums for the first time. The changes quickly set the song apart from previous entries, but the great vocals, fun lyrics, and melodic lead guitar is no less present. In fact, the chorus may be the best of the EP and Stanton’s falsettos are an interesting touch which I wish had better utilized on each track. Overall, while “Rome,” doesn’t jump out the way earlier cuts do, it’s certainly one of the strongest of the bunch.

“Won’t Be Back Soon,” brings the project to a close and the roaring electric guitar on the intro quickly establishes the track’s irreverence. This is easily the lyrical highlight of the album as she turns the classic trope of promising a quick return to home on its head by pointing out that, for her to come back would mean failure in her dreams. The brilliant touch of storytelling is just icing on the cake of one more fantastic instrumental, complete with a rocking organ solo. “Won’t Be Back Soon,” is a perfect closer and brings the theme of the EP full circle.

Ultimately, I’m left without much to complain about. Each track is perfectly paced, well mixed, and well written. The theme is cohesive but not overbearing and Veronica’s voice is wonderfully at home in this modernized version of golden age, women’s country.

827 Miles is an incredibly listenable debut which has me excited to cover many more releases from Veronica Stanton.

5/5

AMAZON LINK: https://amzn.to/2UbiiiB

Joy Williams Gets Back to Basics with Intimate New Release

Front Porch is an intimate collection of simple, well-written folk songs which is elevated by fantastic performances and excellent writing.

Joy Williams is a folk singer/songwriter from Nashville, Tennessee. She’s best known as the feminine half of the fantastic country duo, The Civil Wars, but she’s made quite the name for herself as a solo act as well, working mostly in the contemporary Christian world. She debuted with a self-titled LP in 2001 and went on to be fairly prolific through 201 before she and her then writing partner, John Paul White, found breakout success with The Civil Wars. After the group announced an indefinite hiatus in 2012 and fully dissolved in 2014, Williams quickly returned to her solo career, reasing Venus to mixed reviews in 2015. After a longer period of silence than usual, she’s back with Front Porch, which sees Joy return to her folk roots in new and exciting ways.

The album opens with two of the best country songs I’ve heard all year in the opener, “Canary,” and the title track. Both tracks live and die by the fantastic vocal performances by Williams which decorate the entirety of this record. She finds a perfect mix of powerful, emotive singing and technically proficient executions of well written vocal melodies. Additionally, Kenneth Pattengale’s production does her a big favor by avoiding the trap of over correction and instead leaving every imperfection in place for a full picture of just how good she is.

Joy isn’t the only vocalists doing excellent work on this record, however, as Anthony DaCosta’s harmonies are fantastic. Tracks like “The Trouble with Wanting,” and the closer, “Look How Far We’ve Come,” are driven by airtight harmony lines in which DaCosta serves as a perfect counterpoint to Williams’ lead. Their voices blend remarkably well and he knows when to take a backseat and when to join her in the spotlight. No folk or bluegrass album can succeed without strong harmonies and Front Porch is no exception.

Instrumentally, the record is quite impressive as well. DaCosta and Pattengale share acoustic guitar duties and nearly every cut is the better for it. From the rhythmic backing on “When Does a Heart Move On,” to the sparse but complex lines on “Hotel St. Cecilia,” the guitar is consistently a driving force at the very front of every mix. Thanks to more great production, it’s able to set the tone of the record quite well.

The rest of the band is excellent as well. A hand full of strong mandolin and violin tracks decorate most of the album, most notably the fantastic “All I Need,” but none of them are as prominent as Russ Pahl’s pedal steel guitar. On the most country-esque cuts like “Be With You,” the steel guitar fits perfectly in the arrangement, never overpowering but consistently adding a howling melody to the already strong collection.

Perhaps the record’s best quality comes in Joy Williams’ lyricism. This is particularly true in the middle of the album with cuts like “When Creation Was Young,” and “Preacher’s Daughter.” The former is packed with powerful imagery which mirrors the powerful nature of the love it centers on. The latter is a wonderfully grounded tale of Williams’ childhood, with a heartbreaking final verse. Each and every song on this album showcases Joy’s incredible songwriting prowess and it’s a treat to hear.

Some of the arrangements are a bit of a mixed bag, specifically in terms of chord progression. While a track like the relatively simple “No Place Like You,” has such a fantastic, jazz-gospel inspired progression that it elevates the song far above what it would generally be, others like “One and Only,” make a few questionable choices which the track itself struggles to overcome in the execution. It’s the record’s only misstep, but it’s fairly noticeable when it’s at it’s worst.

Overall, I enjoyed Front Porch quite a bit. Venus was criticized for embracing modernity a bit too much and shedding much of Joy’s folk sensibilities, and while I’m a bit more partial to that record than most, it’s nice to hear her come back to her roots once again. She has a unique ability to make more traditional folk and bluegrass styles accessible to fans and non-fans alike, and it would be a shame to waste that.

Front Porch is an intimate collection of simple, well-written folk songs which is elevated by fantastic performances and excellent writing.

8/10

Every Richard Edwards Album Ranked!!

This one took me awhile, but it’s finally done! Here’s my ranking of every album in the discography of one of my favorite artists of all time!

10. Sling Shot To HeavenMargot and the Nuclear So & So’s (2014)

A longtime favorite of many Margot fans and of Richard himself, I generally find myself far less impressed. To be clear, it is quite an accomplishment. The songwriting is the best it’s been since their debut, the instrumentation is simple and spacey, and the harmonies are air tight. Unfortunately, the follow up, Tell Me More About Evil is comprised of nearly all the same tracks and, for my money, matches all the highlights of Sling Shot while surpassing it in several areas.

That being said, the album has no shortage of bright spots. “Long Legged Blonde Memphis,” channels the group’s blues influences well while “Wedding Song,” is a gorgeously vulnerable and well written. The instrumental on “Los Angeles,” actually adds quite a bit to the track and the overall spacious aesthetic makes the album feel fairly cohesive. I certainly see the appeal of this record, but in terms of the larger catalog, it has very little to offer.

9. BuzzardMargot and the Nuclear So & So’s (2010)

Margot’s first foray into the heavier, garage rock styles which would characterize the latter half of their catalog, Buzzard is an interesting piece of music. Lyrically, Richard’s mix of quirky and thoughtful is as balanced as ever, though much of his writing takes him to a darker place than previous efforts. The big changes come in the instrumentals which are often heavily distorted, though still just as well performed.

The album’s opener, “Birds,” is a favorite among Margot fans for its unique lyrics and manic energy, but I find myself equally impressed by tracks like the gloomy, distorted “Will You Love Me Forever?” There are still moments like “Tiny Vampire Robot,” and “Lunatic, Lunatic, Lunatic,” which call back to the earlier, more intimate sound, and the record seems to struggle with committing to the new style, somewhat to its detriment.

8. Animal!Margot and the Nuclear So & So’s (2008)

This record is very often ignored by casual listeners and that’s a shame considering what the band went through just to put it out. Long story short, Epic Records had chosen a tracklist, which would become Not Animal, for Margot’s second studio release. The band themselves, however, insisted on the tracklist which would become Animal! Arguments ensued and finally a drunk Richard Edwards threatened to leak the album online if the studio didn’t let them release both. And so, we have Animal! And Not Animal.

While, philosophically, I side with the artist on such an issue, the critical side of me is well aware that this is the inferior release. There are bright moments. “Hello, Vagina,” shines much more here thanks to its earlier appearance. Additionally, there are more bizarre cuts like “Mariel’s Brazen Overture,” which are a treat for long time listeners. Ultimately, Not Animal is the superior project, but Animal! Is exactly the kind of deep cut that’s worth a listen for true fans.

7. Rot Gut, DomesticMargot and the Nuclear So & So’s (2012)

From the opening moments, if the title and cover didn’t give it away, it’s clear that this is heaviest entry to Margot’s catalog, and for the most part, that works in its favor. While I much prefer the more folksy sound on earlier projects, I can appreciated the skillful guitar work and explosive nature of Rot Gut. Additionally, Richard’s voice makes the transition to garage rock quite well, with several powerful moments.

There are a few call backs to the earlier sound like the carefree comedy of “A Journalist Falls in Love with Death Row Inmate #16,” but the best moments come in the pure chaos of cuts like “The Devil,” and “Disease Tobacco Free.” “Frank Left,” is a lyrical highlight to be sure, though the album is somewhat lacking in the respect, and the psychedelic, piano driven closer “Christ,” is one of the record’s best tracks. It’s not my favorite, but if you enjoy Margot’s heavier side, Rot Gut is the best it gets.

6. Pity Party!Richard Edwards  (2017)

The second acoustic only album in Richard’s catalog, I struggled with whether to include this album as there’s very little original music and it only received a very limited vinyl release with nothing available over digital platforms. That being said, it’s absolutely fantastic and another fan favorite which earned it a slot on the list.  The tracklist is made up of acoustic, one-take versions of tracks from both LCCS and the then unreleased Verdugo.

The updates on older cuts like “When You’re Gone,” are welcome surprises with Richard’s very different voice acting as something of an unintentional commentary on the many years since their release. The relaxed, unproduced style also adds quite a bit to tracks like “Postcard,” and “Git Paid,” that didn’t quite shine through and get the attention they deserved on their more official releases. Overall, this is a record for the fans without a doubt, but I’m one of those fans and as such, I love it.

5. Lemon Cotton Candy SunsetRichard Edwards (2017)

While a three year hiatus is not all that long in the music world, Richard’s was certainly felt by his fans, particularly because we didn’t know that we’d get any more music. Finally, a long post was made on Instagram explaining the long silence and the struggles he’d been facing which ended with the hope that the forthcoming project would sound like “being lost at sea.” That it does.

Richard runs the gamut of emotions on this LP, from the hope that bleeds from every chord on “Little Dead Eye-d,” to the unfocused anger on “Disappeared Planets.” His catchy melodies are back in spades on tracks like “Rollin’, Rollin’, Rollin’,” and the best track, “Pornographic Teens.” Perhaps most importantly, he differentiates his new sound from that of his previous group’s with tracks like “Sister Wives,” and “Moonwrapped,” which lay the groundwork for the kind of orchestral folk style which would be fleshed out more on LCCS’ sister album. It was a beautiful return for a beloved artist.

4. Tell Me More About EvilMargot and the Nuclear So & So’s (2014)

Often wholly ignored by more casual fans, this is one my absolute favorite Richard Edwards efforts. Created as a final release before Margot disbanded, TMMAE is a collection of roughly recorded acoustic versions of earlier tracks, most of which come from the previous release, Slingshot to Heaven. It was recorded as a soundtrack for an 8mm film shot by Richard himself which is nearly as beautiful as the record itself.

Virtually every track on this album is wonderful, but I could choose a few favorites. The harmonies on “Hello, San Franciso,” are tight and warm, the guitar work on “Flying Saucer Blues,” is melodic and catchy, and the lyrics to tracks like “Lazy,” and “Gettin’ Fat,” are some of Richard’s funniest. The best cut on the record is “Bleary-Eyed Blue,” which may easily be my favorite track of his entire career. The album can seem a bit slowly and dreary to some, but to fans of the group, the intimacy of a record that makes you feel like you’re sitting right there with the band is invaluable.

3. VerdugoRichard Edwards (2018)

The tenth and most recent addition to the discography thus far, Verdugo is the much stronger sequel to Lemon Cotton Candy Sunset. The tight, ten track playlist is perfectly paced with a new and enjoyable surprise waiting around every corner. The orchestral elements which were lightly experimented with on LCCS decorate virtually every second of Verdugo, aided by fantastic production and a uniquely vintage aesthetic.

The quiet simplicity of “Something Wicked,” is starkly gorgeous, while the lush chaos of “Minefield,” is almost overwhelming. His ear for melody is as strong as ever on a cut like “Olive Oyl,” and “Gene,” is one of the best lyrical moments in his career. Possibly the best track is the closer, “Pornographic Teens,” appearing for the third time on a Richard Edwards album, this time in its best form. With nine albums under his belt, Richard went out of his way to craft something completely knew and creative that has me absolutely ecstatic for whatever is coming next.

2. The Dust of RetreatMargot and the Nuclear So & So’s (2006)

Margot’s mid-2000’s debut is quite the start for the indie-rock collective. The record is fantastically paced and presents a unique, developed sound from the start. The lyricism is excellent, the instrumentation is quirky, and the production is surprisingly well done for a debut album. This early period of Margot’s career has a strong folk-rock tilt which limits their potential to some extent, but nevertheless, Dust has some of the group’s best tracks.

The melodies on tracks like “On a Freezing Chicago Street,” and “Talking in Code,” are absolutely fantastic. Lyrically, tracks like “Skeleton Key,” and “Dress Me Like a Clown,” are extremely impressive. The album’s highlight, for me, is “Jen is Bringing the Drugs,” which serves as an early precursor to the intimate, heartfelt works that would come to characterize Margot’s later efforts. The Dust of Retreat is far from perfect, but it stands as a very impressive debut.

1. Not AnimalMargot and the Nuclear So & So’s (2008)

The other half of the aforementioned battle with studio executives, Not Animal is the version of this album that Margot would rather not have put out. As I said before, however, the studio’s list is much superior. The last Margot project to lean heavier on the folk side of folk-rock, Not Animal keeps everything that worked on Dust of Retreat and improves upon it for a finished product that’s simply gorgeous and one of my favorite records of all time.

There’s so much to love here. The anthemic choruses of “German Motor Car,” will have listeners singing along instantly, while the wider pallet and intimate recording of “As Tall As Cliffs,” radiates the fun the band is clearly having working as a collective. “Holy Cow!” Is a sweet but emotional cut and “Children’s Crusade on Acid,” is bold and experimental. Easily the highlight, however, is the band’s biggest hit to date by a mile, “Broadripple is Burning.” Not Animal is gorgeously written and performed and an absolute blast to listen to. A few of their later efforts may be more technically impressive, but for me, this the best iteration of Margot and the best album in Richard’s long career.

Andrew Bird’s 12th LP is a Listenable Piece of Folk Rock

My Finest Work Yet is a moderately enjoyable album that could’ve benefitted from having a few more cooks in the kitchen.

Andrew Bird is an indie-rock vocalist and multi-instrumentalist from Lake Forest, Illinois. He debuted as a solo artist with 2003’s Weather Systems, after leaving the band Bowl of Fire, with whom he’d spent most of the mid to late 90’s. His early work found some following, particularly with fans of the band, but after signing with Fat Possum Records, he dropped 2007’s Armchair Apochrypha, his first solo effort to chart on the Billboard 200.  He went on top the US Folk charts twice, first with 2012’s Break It Yourself, and again with 2016’s Are You Serious. With a long career which winds through a multitude of styles, labels, and albums, Bird has become a favorite of folk-rock fans thanks to a consistent output and creative style. This week, he’s released his 12th album, ambitiously titled My Finest Work Yet.

Immediately, Bird’s experience as a songwriter is obvious in the many unique chord progressions he uses. Tracks like the opener, “Sisyphus,” and the album’s strongest cut, “Proxy War,” are fairly unpredictable and the inventive progressions allow for a few unique vocal melodies as well. It’s easily the strongest point of Bird’s songwriting on this album.

Vocally, he’s quite strong as well. On “Olympians,” he seamlessly transitions from driving, simple verses to large howling choruses, executing each with quite a bit of power and support. With “Archipelago,” on the other hand, he sells a relatively run-of-the-mill track with a dynamic mix of sweet falsettos a riveting strength. Andrew has never been renowned as a particularly remarkable vocalist, but for the majority of this albums he gives quite strong performances that elevate even the less impressive songs.

Maybe the strongest piece of this puzzle, however, is his skill as an instrumentalist. He is best known as a strong violinist, and he exhibits this many times on the record, including an excellent solo on “Don the Struggle,” which leaves me wishing each track had contained such a solo. He’s also noted, in the album’s credits, for his whistling, which is admittedly fantastic! On “Manifest,” for example, he whistles an excellent melody which adds quite a bit to the track.

On the subject of lyrics, unfortunately, My Finest Work Yet stands on shaky ground. There are wonderful moments like early cut, “Bloodless,” which draws much inspiration from the Spanish Civil War in 1936. On the other hand, there’s a handful of pretentious and overall meaningless lyrics all over the album. “Cracking Codes,” and the closer, “Bellevue Bridge Club,” are the worst offenders on this front, packed full of words which say very little.

Another complaint which has dogged this LP since the release of its first singles is just how far out on his sleeve Andrew wears his influences. “Sisyphus,” though enjoyable, could sneak perfectly into any Father John Misty album, which “Olympians,” pulls heavily from early Springsteen efforts. Additionally, “Archipelago,” and “Proxy War,” bare striking resemblance to the work of the Beatles. It isn’t so egregious as to make these tracks unlistenable, and if Andrew were a younger songwriter, I could easily forgive this, but at this stage in his career, it’s frustrating to hear such lack of originality.

The worst offense, without a doubt, is the production, which Bird did himself. Nearly every one of the 10 songs is muddy, lifeless, and flat. Additionally, he seems to have no care for the different tones needed for each track. “Bloodless,” for example, is billed as some mysterious jazz piece, but the instruments are so brightly mixed that all intrigue is gone. The album’s worst track, “Fallorun,” is a jumbled mess which is made infinitely worse by the way each instrument bleeds into one another. This record would have benefitted from a more expert touch behind the board.

Ultimately, My Finest Work Yet is certainly enjoyable. For fans of the growing folk-rock movement, this is a fine listen to hold you over until the next Father John Misty or Fleet Foxes release, but it could’ve been much more. Andrew’s songwriting and instrumental abilities set this album up with a ton of potential, but poor production, a lack of originality, and a very mixed bag of lyrics hold it back.

My Finest Work Yet is a moderately enjoyable album that could’ve benefitted from having a few more cooks in the kitchen.

5/10

AMAZON LINK: https://amzn.to/2UbiiiB