SXSW: Rachel Ries

Hailing from the vast expanses of South Dakota, Rachel Ries can bring audiences to tears with the trembling of her harmonies. A talented instrumentalist, and deft songwriter, Ries has been traveling around the country accompanying Anais Mitchell as part of the Young Man Band on Mitchell’s most recent tour.

My introduction to Ries was at the Whip In. Just south of downtown Austin, right off of I-35, situated on a busy corner of the southbound access road, the Whip In is a flat-roofed, cinder-block building that at first glance looks much like an ordinary convenience store. But upon entering, its clear that it is a different creature. To the right of the door, there is a cozy dining space warmed by wooden church pews, antique tables, Indian wooden screens, and colorful printed textiles. Beercave, coffeehouse, cozy restaurant: The Whip In is a magical place.

It was there that I saw Ries play for the first time. She took the stage with Anais Mitchell, Matt Fockler, and Southpaw Jones, and performed a suite of songs including Mitchell’s powerful “Young Man In America.”

Ries pulled every last one of my heartstrings; she had me weeping in awe. Despite the myriad of performers that I saw across the city during SXSW, it was Ries’ raw performance that impacted me the most.

That night I chatted with her and picked up a copy of her most recent recording, On Laurel Lake EP. Besides overflowing with massive doses of honesty, the On Laurel Lake EP reveals skilled production and recording techniques. Ries tackled the album by herself on a personal retreat in Tennessee and dug deep to patch the songs together.

On this album, Ries’ trembling harmonies punctuate her sophisticated melodies. Her craftmanship is apparent on this exquisite folk recording. From the slightest wavering of vocals to the gentlest of brushes on the guitar pickups, Ries captured it all on the recording. While not as seemingly hip as Bon Iver’s Blood Bank, her recordings on the EP have a poignant delicacy that allow it to exist free from hype. In a different vein from On Laurel Lake is Ries’ 2007 release, Without A Bird.

Warmly analog and carefully orchestral, Without a Bird showcases the artistry of some of Chicago’s finest players: Kevin O’Donnell (Andrew Bird’s Bowl of Fire, Neko Case), Joel Paterson (Devil in a Woodpile, Kelly Hogan, Steve Dawson), Alison Chesley (Bob Mould, Verbow, Poi Dog Pondering) and Ariel Bolles (Bakelite 78). Without a Bird was recorded and mixed analog and it shows. As would be expected, in contrast to the On The Lake EP, the songs have much more of the city’s rhythms flowing through them.

Across albums, Ries’ music constantly grapples with the tumultuous dichotomy between life in the city and life in the country. In her own words: “This life I’ve chosen felt suddenly precarious, muddled, and far too far from the source. What do we really need? Out here in the ‘real’ world I ask for so much more than family, faith, food and shelter. So much vapor.”

While Ries’ songs are heartbreaking, they are not love songs. They speak to life — its joys and its anguish. Memories, dreams, and illusions sit beside anguished lonesomeness in Ries’ songs to create a heart wrenchingly powerful combination.

Fans of early Liz Phair, Anais Mitchell, Ani DiFranco, and early Regina Spektor  will certainly find much to like in her recent recordings.

Post by Juan Fernandez


Alt Tuesday: Two Door Cinema Club

With Two Door Cinema Club’s second album in the works, it seems fitting that I throw out a review of their first album. Tourist History received a lot of critical acclaim — and for good reason. The 10-song indie dance-rock album has quite a few amazing tracks on it.

Two Door Cinema Club is doing something very refreshing for the indie scene. The lead single off of their album, “What You Know,” made a solid dent in alternative charts with its hot melody and dancey chorus.

What Two Door does for modern music is actually quite revitalizing. It is pretty apparent that they have worked heavily on their melody and their rhythms. Tracks like “Cigarettes In The Theater” display strong riffs that were carefully plotted out. “Do You Want It All?” is a melodic track in 7/4 time, which catches the listener off guard — in a good way of course.

Despite the strength of most of the tracks on here, Two Door Cinema Club’s main problems are quite basic. A lot of their songs tend to run together as they do not exactly experiment with what they do. They know what they do well and they stick to it. Unfortunately, their second problem is more significant: They lack substance in their songs lyrically.

If you haven’t figured it out yet, in Alt Tuesdays, I place a lot of emphasis on writing quality lyrics that actually mean something. Two Door tends to fail entirely at presenting those. After learning all of the lyrics to “What You Know” for my a cappella group, I realized that the song literally says nothing from beginning to end. A little disappointing, to say the least. Fortunately, this is not a problem that is apparent unless you look for it. Although I suppose I just made you look for it… whoops.

Here’s the thing about Two Door, though: They are simply a band that knows how to sound tight on an album, which is quite admirable considering that a strong sense of rhythm and melody both seem to be absent from a lot of modern music. Look out for a new record from them soon, as I would bet that their second effort is a similar sounding pop gem.


SXSW: The Wilderness of Manitoba

There is a special place in my heart reserved for the majestic autumnal folk of The Wilderness of Manitoba. After hearing the band’s song “Hermit,” I immediately sought out a Canadian release of their debut album When You Left the Fire (they would not be distributed in the states for another seven months) and kept it on repeat throughout the fall and winter months. The band’s wandering compositions manage to capture a romanticized idea of nature in a way that no other modern folk can.

I saw The Wilderness of Manitoba for the first time at The Black Cat in Washington D.C. while they were touring in support of the American release of their album. Their performance, as expected, was phenomenal. The band performed songs off of their album as well as a couple of songs from the Hymn of Love and Spirits EP. After the show in D.C., the band was gracious enough to give me an interview. We discussed the differences between festivals and isolated shows, the origin of their name (a museum exhibit), and the differences between American and European audiences, among other things. This was my first interview and I was anxious about whether I could actually interview well, however the musicians were so chill and thoughtful that we ended up talking for almost twenty minutes and I was sad to leave.

After all of this, there was no question that I would be at their SXSW performance at the Velveeta Comedy Room on Thursday, March 15. There couldn’t have been more than 30 people in the audience, a fact that was both infuriating and exciting. On one hand, it was frustrating to see that the band was not getting the kind of attention they deserve, however I couldn’t deny the intimacy this small size lent the performance.

I was thrilled to see that The Wilderness of Manitoba had not lost its magic. The band performed a mix of older songs and songs that will be released on their upcoming album, which the band has just recently finished recording. At first the newer material was a total shock: Electronics! Who would have thought that a band that could produce music as beautifully as The Wilderness of Manitoba would turn to electronics? I admit, it took me a little bit to adjust to the idea. Once I did, though, I found myself enjoying the new material just as much as their older material — not only because it sounded great but also because I was curious. How could electronic aesthetics fit into the ethos of The Wilderness of Manitoba?

After the show, lead vocalist and guitarist Will Wettwham was kind enough to share some of his thoughts. Also, he remembered me from the last time I had interviewed the band. What a great guy. Click more for the interview.

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