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Music

Penny and Sparrow: Let a Lover Drown You

The suspicious will sniff suspiciously at this record which seems to have been assembled from a storyboard rather than from chance. Ah well. There's still chemistry and enough songs to love that even the haters can't hate long.


Penny and Sparrow

Let a Lover Drown You

Label: Single Lock / Thirty Tigers
US Release Date: 2016-03-11
UK Release Date: 2016-03-11
Amazon
iTunes

What if you erased all the messy male/female stuff of the Civil Wars and got down to business with two dudes who were at least on the surface contradictory? You’d get Penny and Sparrow. The Austin, Texas duo is comprised of vocalist Andy Baxter and composer Kyle Jahnke, two men who met in college and then took to the road in support of homemade recordings, eking out a name for themselves on this coast or that by combining elements of the aforementioned Civil Wars, the Swell Season, Bon Iver, Simon and Garfunkel as well as the music of Stephen Sondheim.

If the songs got a little unnecessarily complicated along the way the pair stripped things down to their barest essence on this latest outing. Aided by producers John Paul White (the Civil Wars again) and Ben Tanner (Alabama Shakes) the pair have delivered a collection of songs that are sometimes dark, sometimes gorgeous and tailor made for an audience that seeks out the kind of records that Ray LaMontagne put out early in his career and then cast aside or that Sam Beam never quite has gotten across with Iron & Wine.

These are songs that largely appear to be about intimacy, about things done in darkened rooms (and some not-so-darkened ones) between two people at the heights of their passions or in the ashes of them. An example of the later appears to during the dark expanses of “Bed Down” in which you can almost feel the emotions of one lover grow colder while the emotions of another burn hotter and hotter until the embers flitter away. The same might be said of “Makeshift”, which sounds as though it were cut right in someone’s front room -- it’s that boldly intimate and also that, well, tailor made.

It's hard to know if this kind of thing is sincere of contrived. The skeptical critic, the one who found the just-add-water aura of John Paul White’s unit finds that this smells just a little too strongly of something we’ve all heard before and not necessarily the best parts of it either. The less generous critic might argue that we’ve heard this before: We’ve half-listened to it in coffee shops and dorm rooms and at parties where people stayed too long as the last haze of something from the local dispensary wafted out of the room.

On the other hand, the rugged “Each to Each”, which lumbers like Neil Young and emotes like Beam or LaMontagne, feels new-ish, as though it was born of directed inspiration and not a board meeting.

It’s easy to take shots at an outfit like this, of course, to believe that there’s something less organic than we’d like there to be. Doesn’t matter, though, because audiences will come again and again to something they perceive is real and there’s enough a ruggedness to this duo that capitalism and time will treat them well enough until they break apart and those dedicated fans wait breathlessly for a reunion that doesn’t disappoint.

In the meantime, skeptics can still enjoy “Eponine” and several others here. Just don’t think too hard about the motives and you’ll be fine.

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Music

The Best Indie Rock of 2017

Photo courtesy of Matador Records

The indie rock genre is wide and unwieldy, but the musicians selected here share an awareness of one's place on the cultural-historical timeline.

Indie rock may be one of the most fluid and intangible terms currently imposed upon musicians. It holds no real indication of what the music will sound like and many of the artists aren't even independent. But more than a sonic indicator, indie rock represents a spirit. It's a spirit found where folk songsters and punk rockers come together to dialogue about what they're fed up with in mainstream culture. In so doing they uplift each other and celebrate each other's unique qualities.

With that in mind, our list of 2017's best indie rock albums ranges from melancholy to upbeat, defiant to uplifting, serious to seriously goofy. As always, it's hard to pick the best ten albums that represent the year, especially in such a broad category. Artists like King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard had a heck of a year, putting out four albums. Although they might fit nicer in progressive rock than here. Artists like Father John Misty don't quite fit the indie rock mold in our estimation. Foxygen, Mackenzie Keefe, Broken Social Scene, Sorority Noise, Sheer Mag... this list of excellent bands that had worthy cuts this year goes on. But ultimately, here are the ten we deemed most worthy of recognition in 2017.

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White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

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Despite J.J. Abrams successfully resuscitating the Star Wars franchise with 2015's Star Wars: The Force Awakens, many fans were still left yearning for something new. It was comforting to see old familiar faces from a galaxy far, far away, but casual fans were unlikely to tolerate another greatest hits collection from a franchise already plagued by compositional overlap (to put it kindly).

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Yeah Yeah Yeahs played a few US shows to support the expanded reissue of their debut Fever to Tell.

Although they played a gig last year for an after-party for a Mick Rock doc, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs hadn't played a proper NYC show in four years before their Kings Theatre gig on November 7th, 2017. It was the last of only a handful of gigs, and the only one on the East coast.

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