Fans of solo acoustic guitar should check out Luke Brindley, as you're not going to find many better than he. His Invitation to Joy lives up to his title, as do his song titles. "The Lark" is full-bodied music with delicate little slides and death-defying cascades suggestive of flight, whereas "Magpie Spirit" is more enigmatic and unpredictable—just like magpies. "Dervish" has Middle Eastern undertones and, at 4:17, is the longest track on the CD, as befits a meditative composition. I loved the way Brindley occasionally strummed in ways that hinted at a sitar without actually attempting to emulate one. Is that a tabla I heard from percussionist Todd Isler? One seldom gets production credits on a download, but I think I detected a 6-string, a 12-string, and a steel guitar on this album's dozen tracks though, frankly, Brindley is such an amazing finger stylist he can probably make a 6-string sound like a twelve. Think I'm kidding? Listen to "El Camino De La Muerte" and you'll swear his hands are running from death itself. I'm a big fan of allowing strings to ring and meld, a Brindley trait and one I find more emotive than making sure each note is clean. So listen for harmonics that resonate through the picks and beneath the bass notes. Each track is masterful and tasteful. Another favorite of mine is "The Lat Days of Summer," which is wistful in ways that sum up how I feel about those waning days: thankful, but a little bit melancholy.
"Blue" is fresh, hummable, and upbeat, but realistic about helping a damaged person pick up the pieces. "I can see the beauty in you even when you're drowning in shame," sings Murfin, who also warns: "If you're looking for a break in the clouds it's going to be a while." That's part of a very memorable refrain, and the entire song glimmers with everything from keyboard to xylophone (Wes Blank), and is held together by steady bass (Andrew Bashore) and unobtrusive percussion (Zach Taylor). The chorus of "Curious" is even catchier and the song feels au courant, yet mixed with the vibe of a teen love song from the early 60s. And, yes, there's some more xylophone! Strong songwriting emerges throughout. "Sea Meets the Earth" is a nicely crafted song about a relationship that has trouble gelling—as they sometimes do. "Madness" explores the same terrain: "Take it slow–beautiful/Madness inside–my soul/Everything comes and goes…." "Collapse" is wall-to-wall sound, an appropriate aural maze for pained vocals about a lost soul trying to find the way out. It builds and grows lusher, until keyboards and drums take over the arrangement. Hopefulness seldom sounds this good.
"Life Unrehearsed," in which Etheridge sings: "I regret to inform you the prophets prevailed/The vows we have sworn to/Lie tattered and torn in the small details." I like that—not the breakup, but the fact that Etheridge isn't afraid to say that sometimes things don't work out. This song has a folk/blues groove with piano in the lead. Most, though, are in the country vein, with a bit of bluegrass instrumentation thrown in, especially mandolin. My favorite track was "Hush," which explores the power of the quiet, the mysterious, and the unsaid. A good line: "Hush—Silence keeps you safe/Secrets keep you whole." I also found "Hush" to be the most interesting vocally, as Etheridge adds a small slide to his voice that enhances the song's emotional impact. Overall, though, I think the other songs could use more melodic development. This is a pleasant album, but it lacks diversity in its instrumental and vocal colorings.
You Knew Me When is the Nashville-based husband/wife team of Cie and Karisa Hoover. Their EP, The Only You is a folk/indie rock compendium of four songs that have the quirky and slightly edgy flair of someone like Aimee Mann. My two favorite tracks were "Into the Wild," in which Cie sings in a style that's like a more down-home version of Cat Stevens and plays electric guitar in a way that sounds controlled, but slightly grungy. I also enjoyed that West African guitar echoes on "Seasons." Karisa is a very strong harmony singer.
Ramblin Pan is the stage name of Chicagoan Kristian Giglietti and it's a good one. He's a guy who can sing about life gone wrong because his own went haywire when, in a short few months, his father died, a serious relationship ended, and he ended up homeless. He used songwriting as therapy and the road back—aspects heard on his eponymous LP (NoiseTrade). He sings of "Letting Go" on the opening track, but he lays out the depths in "Cheap Motels in Moab": "It's 2 am and I can't sleep/I'm 28-years-old and there's no lying next to me/And all the friends I have are the ones I met last year/The ones before that never bothered to reappear/For the longest time I thought it was them/But, man, it was always me who bailed out in the end." Giglietti's music falls onto the folk/Americana side of things, with maybe a bit more of the latter in evidence given his penchant for starting a song with some flat top acoustic picking but segueing to electric. He has a lighter voice, one reminiscent of artists such as Ryan Adams, Noah Gunderson, and Tossing Cooper, but he's bold in experimenting with musical styles. "Less of a Man" is soulful and bluesy with runs evocative of B. B. King. And, yes, it sure sounds like he's back on track for real. "Almost Every Time" implores us to trust our instincts and "do what you gotta do," and he rounds off the album with a number titled "Home Again" that's more than just another road song.
Adam Hastings is a Phoenix-based artist who hails from New Hampshire. His In Black and White released this summer and its mix of folk and Americana also brings Noah Gunderson to mind. The songs I've heard from this release are rendered in a sweet high tenor with a hint of husk and are mostly in the folk idiom, with flashes of soft rock. "Love Games" has an earnest groove in which introspective piano notes clue us that these games are not ones anyone will win on current terms. "The BlackestNights" uses foreboding guitars to darken the mood. I wished the vocals had been a bit more distinct in their articulation. Although this may have been more of an MP3 issue, some of the tones ran together. I did, however, appreciate Hastings' contemplative songs and look forward to hearing him if he ventures back to New England.