Clusterpluck is an album review roundup feature meant to say more with less.
LoneHollow, LoneHollow (EP)
Those who follow the Boom-or-Bust Jukebox feature will I know I’ve been excited for this project for a while, the second collaboration between Rylie Bourne and Damon Atkins as LoneHollow. I missed out on covering the duo’s debut project despite being familiar with Bourne’s past solo work, so let’s make up for lost time by discussing this new self-titled EP. Now, there’s two complications: For one, this is a second self-titled EP and as such might cause confusion between the two projects, and it’s only a five-song project that includes a few covers. But unlike that debut, which found the two members shifting between lead vocals, Bourne takes the full lead here while Atkins handles the guitar work, and the resulting shift is a project with more muscle and bite than the previous project. In other words, despite those aforementioned complications, this is absolutely great.
And I do think it’s important to highlight that balance between the two, mostly because Bourne has always been the sort of lower, richer presence behind the microphone that can pull off that darker allure without sounding outright gravelly or husky. So she’s just as able to put a daring, somewhat howling, dangerous spin on the “Slide Over” cover and give it a fiery howl as she is able to add a harrowing delivery to “I Don’t Love You Anymore” and “Love Her” to give their respective subtexts a ton of emotive heft. She’ll play coy with her significant other on the latter track as the “other woman” and dare him to return to his actual lover, but there’s a hint of regret – not outright anger – that fuels that decision, and the amped-up progression does it a lot of favors. But she’ll also play coy with herself on the “I Don’t Love You Anymore” cover, and the thing about her delivery is, you almost believe she’s actually convinced herself of what she says in that title hook, if only to support a tougher facade she feels she needs to build. It’s why I’m not as wild about “Lonesome & Alone” as a closer, if only because, coming off an opening murder ballad and tracks that are equally as dark and hefty in their progressions, it doesn’t reach the same fiery height as its predecessors in terms of its presentation or content, and as such is somewhat of a down ending.
But, hey, speaking of presentation, we have Atkins adding a much-needed snarl and heft to these guitar tones to support the darker content. It leans into overall southern-Gothic tones more than that previous project – which, hey, is fine by me – and I love that these tones can echo that tension, from the multiple extended blues-inspired solos of “Slide Over” that are just awesome, the crunching groove against the weedy organ on “Not Today,” the muted, damn-near sinister and swampy accents of “I Don’t Love You Anymore,” and the snaky percussion that adds a frenetic groove to the simultaneous hurt and confusion of “Love Her.” Again, it’s only got five songs, and I always wish these sort of projects fleshed things out a little more. But what we have is also great without any qualifiers needed, really, and this can tango with some of the best releases this year anyway. Decent 8/10 – It’s an absolute firestarter.
- Favorite tracks: “Love Her,” “I Don’t Love You Anymore,” “Slide Over,” “Not Today”
- Least favorite track: “Lonesome & Alone”
Parker Millsap, Be Here Instead
This is another artist I’ve discussed this year through the Boom-or-Bust Jukebox feature, and honestly, delving deeper into my thoughts on Parker Millsap’s output thus far beyond that is a little more complicated. He’s the sort of indie-folk prodigy who started out in that vein through his first few releases and delivered the excellent The Very Last Day in 2016, but 2018’s Other Arrangements was more of a lateral shift toward retro pop which I wasn’t as impressed with. And while I did like the lead single to this new project that leaned into atmospheric folk-pop, I was prepared for another experimental shift that could go either way. Sadly, this mostly leans into retro soul and isn’t a good fit for Millsap in the slightest. And I don’t know what to say other than the grooves are choppy, overmixed and just lacking in actual muscle and that Millsap is really overselling things here vocally. It doesn’t help that he and his team incorporated atmospheric reverb to fill in a lot of the space here and were a little too trigger-happy with it. It creates a wall of sound that all blurs together and isn’t as distinct for him, given that a lot of indie-country acts have leaned in this direction in recent years. It also doesn’t help that the content is preachy and scans as yet another pandemic-themed album that skirts on vague platitudes and little more aside from when it’s being damn-near apocalyptic in framing the here and now. You’ve got to just roll with it, on “Rolling,” but hell if you’re supposed to know what to do afterward, and that’s before mentioning the absolutely saccharine, overwrought love songs like “Now, Here,” “Always,” and “It Was You” that aren’t convincing in the slightest.
Now, that’s not to say Millsap isn’t a convincing performer given the right backdrop. Give him less in his way on “The Real Thing” – the one experimental moment that actually works, if only for a commitment to a defined atmospheric groove and tense progression – and “In Between” and he’s fine. That tells me he’s adapting to a style rather than trying to make it his own, like trying to add a blusterous swagger to “Dammit” and “Being Alive” that he just doesn’t have. It’s overly self-indulgent and an unfortunate backslide all around. Decent 4/10.
- Favorite tracks: “The Real Thing,” “In Between”
- Least favorite track: “Rolling”
SUNDAYS, Inner Coasts
This is one of those groups I desperately regret not covering after the release of its 2019 debut album, which was a shimmering collection of indie-folk tunes that was richly melodic and adventurous in its progression. I mean it when I say that Danish band SUNDAYS would have given Billy Strings stiff competition for my favorite song of 2019 with “Shade of the Pines,” so let’s make up for lost time with its newest album, Inner Coasts. Of course, this is also the point where I tell you that this follow-up is nothing like that debut and that this is absolutely the tougher sell between those two, and both statements would be correct. And while I know immediately comparing the only two projects in a band’s catalog is a bad trap that critics can fall into when covering early acts, that shift is important to note, if only because it’s a stylistic one that supports an overarching story, that being a natural maturation for our lead character. Lead singer Magnus Jacobson was inspired to pen something more blunt and dark in comparison to that debut, and I hear it in the general ebb-and-flow that comes with shaking off the self-consumed angst and ego that frames our youth as we grow older. Wiaca explored it from a youthful, adventurous, optimistic perspective that was purposefully naive in execution, and while it’s a stylistic choice I prefer to this one, I do appreciate the shift here nonetheless. So he’ll be self-critical of his worst tendencies and acknowledge them on “Salt of the Earth” and add a tension to “Shadow Dress” that really kickstarts the theme again.
What gripped me more, though, were the bottleneck moments in between, like confronting a past relationship with someone else he thought would work out once before when they thought they knew what love was on the absolutely beautiful “Weightless Feathers,” only for time to add a different sort of weight, if you will, and help them look back on it without those rose-colored glasses, even if it was still an experience that shaped them and meant something. And that informs the more tense perspective of the present day, where he finds himself falling again for someone new on tracks like”Drifter” and “All We Have is Time” yet is still unsure of himself to accept that responsibility, which manifests into something deeper beyond himself on the nature-themed, near-cinematic “Siberia.” But there’s also “Song for the Times,” which is a separate moment from the project that emphasizes love and unity and is the one “pandemic-themed” song here, and even if it is self-aware enough to note that critics and cynics won’t like it (heh), that doesn’t in and of itself make it a needed moment or one that blends in well here. Of course, while we’re noting criticisms, I admit Jacobson is a bit hit-or-miss for me as a vocalist, and while I’m not wild about the tracks that push him in his upper range – which is breathy and too fragile – like “Shadow Dress” or “Song for the Times,” as an emotive interpreter he’s excellent. And when there’s a more noticeable frenetic tension in the lingering, low-end stabs of acoustics, violin, and reverb on “Drifter” or when he’s paired against Marie Linander Henriksen to give “Weightless Feathers” a deeper complexity and subtly needed perspective, he captures a darker atmosphere that he wasn’t able to explore in greater detail on Wiaca. But really, the multi-layered harmonies from the entire band are the key ingredient here once again, if only because they strengthen some already beautiful melodies and add the subtext that this sort of struggle isn’t unique to our main character, but one shared by anyone figuring themselves out along the way.
Now, stylistically, this is the sort of indie-folk project that only loosely fits in with what I normally cover here, and while this is the sort of muted variety that’s not as outright distinctive for this particular group, SUNDAYS still performs it better than most. And really, melody and layered production is where this group continues to shine. It’s still yearning and earnest, but also more tempered and self-aware of itself. It may not be as outright bright this time around, but the shimmering, ethereal textures are still stunning across the board, and if anything, I will say this is the more consistent project of the two. The band still coaxes its melodies with layers of synth for deeper atmospheric richness, but never to the point of overtaking the mix, and as such makes “Drifter” the sort of mind-warp that supports the actual content. And again, “Weightless Feathers” is the sort of stunner that speaks for itself off the brushes of skittering acoustics and excellent harmonies. Of course, I have noted that this is the sort of stylistic shift I’m not always wild about, and I do think tracks like “Midnight Passing” and “Song for the Times” get a bit overly self-indulgent with their atmosphere and feel a bit clunkier and heavier than they should be. Flip the script, though, and we have “Siberia,” which accents its haggard violin tones against a generally huge atmosphere that leads to a surprisingly bright finish, which I did prefer over the actual closer, “Take Me Home.” Again, I’m a bit more hesitant with this album, and it’s the sort of mood project that time will either be generous to or help to fade away, but I’m confident for now that it will stick. Very light 8/10.
- Favorite tracks: “Weightless Feathers,” “Drifter,” “Salt of the Earth,” “Siberia,” “All We Have is Time”
- Least favorite track: “Song for the Times”