Houndmouth

In the last four years, Houndmouth have learned what it means to be a band. On their second album, Little Neon Limelight, they wear that wisdom like a badge of honor.

Less than a half-decade ago in the small Indiana city of New Albany, four pals were crafting tunes on their own, with few ambitions of turning those songs into a spectacle. That all changed when these friends crossed paths, and joined forces. Matt Myers, Shane Cody, Katie Toupin, and Zak Appleby became the drums and keys, guitars and harmonies of Houndmouth, and those personal numbers became the irrepressible core of an outfit turned magnetic.

In 2012, the group issued a self-titled EP on Rough Trade Records, the legendary imprint that signed them after seeing a single gig. One of 2013's most incandescent debuts, their From the Hills Below the City LP affirmed what label owner Geoff Travis had heard: the sounds of Americana, renewed by the youthful glow of songwriters, musicians and pals unafraid to both celebrate and desecrate them.

Others noticed, too. The Guardian noted that, with From the Hills, "reservations fade," while Rolling Stone's David Fricke lauded the "earthy melancholy with a rude garage-rock streak." Treks with the Drive-by Truckers and the Alabama Shakes followed, plus performances at the Newport Folk Festival, Lollapalooza and Bonnaroo. In cramped clubs and big theaters alike, Houndmouth earned a reputation as a must-see act, their hooks, energy and charisma making them feel like a lifelong friend you'd just met.

That success, though, turned what had started as fun into something closer to work. Houndmouth learned that being full-time musicians required much more than the nine-to-five endeavors they had left behind in Indiana. But they grew into the role and grew from it. Experiences accumulated; perspectives expanded. Relationships stalled; others progressed.

"We're not in party mode all the time anymore," says Myers. "We're refining how we write songs, writing about people we love, more important things than just nonsensical stuff." If that was the charge, then Little Neon Limelight is an unapologetic success. These eleven songs sparkle, fade, and sparkle again, mixing innocence and experience, acceptance and aspiration, horror and hope.

Recorded by Dave Cobb in Nashville, Little Neon Limelight pairs the energy and nerves of raw first takes with the accents and moods of a more contemplative, thoughtful unit. Hearts are broken and friends are exiled, love grows cold and drugs do damage, leaders make mistakes and money turns tricks. On the acoustic "Gasoline," one of the most poignant moments of Houndmouth's catalog, Toupin barbs the confessions of a perennial party girl with the specter of mortality. "Maybe I'll meet my maker on a bedroom floor," she sings, her voice fighting against its own existential fade as bowed cello traces her words. Haunted by samples of the buoyant opener and single "Sedona" and the noisy filigree of a Moog, the beautifully downcast "For No One" stalks through personal blues with conviction. Its world-weariness has been incubated by the world it surveys.

But all of these feelings aren't worn on Houndmouth's collective sleeves: Despite the turmoil embedded within many of these songs, they are equal parts energetic proclamation, built with choruses that can't be denied, harmonies that can't be escaped and rhythms that can't be resisted. With its carousel keyboards and start-and-stop drums, "Say I" is a combination come-on and kiss-off that might make Keith Richards blush. For "15 Years," Houndmouth conjures barroom bluster to voice the woes of a prisoner, backing the cries of his soul with howling organ and slashing guitar. When all the action drops into a shout-along, gospel-strong bridge, you might feel the urge to bust the fella out yourself. What's the point of having the blues, Houndmouth seems to say, if you can't have fun with them, too?

Nowhere is that balance of tragedy and triumph better than on the romp "My Cousin Greg," a Band-style saga where each member takes a turn with a verse. Written about Myers' actual cousin and former cover-band bandmate Greg, these four minutes present the title guy as a mischievous, enlightened and acerbic genius. He leaves Florida with his master's degree in physics for a brainy job in Los Angeles, raising metaphysical hell and questions along the way. Greg thinks his cousin has it made, touring the country by van while playing the songs he's written.

But Myers disagrees: "If you wanna live the good life/Well, you better stay away from the limelight," the quartet sings as one in the chorus, repeating the mantra as though it were their only lifeline to sanity. For those long drives, it's a reminder of the thrill and toil of what they now get to do. "For the first record, we were floating around after having been thrown into this," explains Myers. "This time, we were able to write more about experiences than random stories, because that's where we are in life. There had to be an attachment to what we recorded."

For Little Neon Limelight, the charged, charming and preternaturally mature Houndmouth did exactly that.

Brett Dennen

As common and simple as it is, "por favor" is such an evocative expression. From Spanish, it translates to "please," a word that suggests a need for something, a desire to make a change. "Por favor' was something I kept saying every day in the studio, and I got the other musicians saying it," says Brett Dennen. "We were goofing around, and Dave Cobb, my producer, said it should be the title of my new record. I laughed it off at first, but then I really thought about it."

"When you say please, you're asking something to come into your life," Dennen adds. "It might mean that you're weak and need something to make you strong. But you're admitting to some sort of weakness or some form of humility."

That notion is at the heart of Por Favor, Dennen's intimate and revealing new album that Elektra Records will release on May 20. Produced by Cobb, fresh from his Grammywinning work with Chris Stapleton and Jason Isbell, the record strips Dennen to his core as a songwriter with nothing to hide.

"All these songs came from a time of sadness for lots of different reasons. They came at a point when I wasn't feeling confident about myself," he says. "When I'm not feeling confident, I'm not a nice person to be around. I don't take care of my health, my relationships, my stuff, and it all cycles into a miserable place. And I have a really hard time admitting that I'm in that place."

A followup to 2013's Smoke and Mirrors, his sixth studio album dives deep into loneliness, loss, and love and all its side effects. It's the sound of an artist working through his insecurities in song, and thereby letting go of them. But it's by no means a sad affair, nor is it the "rainyday record" Dennen initially thought he was making.

Often framed by uplifting choruses and bright acoustic arrangements, these songs brim with optimism, the palpable sense that the tide is turning. "And I want to love you for the way you are/ Not the way I am/ So let's go now/ Back to the bonfire where we began," he sings over a chugging groove on "Bonfire."

On "Where We Left Off," the album's emotional powder keg, Dennen lays himself bare over the slack strum of guitar and one of his most unvarnished vocals ever recorded. The opening lines go straight for the jugular: "Everyone knows I'm a happy man/ But I haven't been right."

"Vulnerable was another word that kept coming up when I was making this record," Dennen admits. "Is there something I'm scared to say? Can I dig a little deeper, reveal a little bit more? How far can I go That was my direction, and once I got that in place, I started shooting down things that weren't in that zone."

"I kept telling myself that all I have to do is be authentic and make the songs about the lyrics and how they interact with my guitar," he continues. "I don't have to worry about whether they'll be on the radio or if they're different from my previous stuff."

Holed up at Cobb's Nashville studio, with musicians the producer assembled, Dennen and Cobb worked fast and kept the songs rough around the edges. Dennen appreciated Cobb's insistence on capturing them in just a few takes. "We recorded it the way people made records in the '60s - really fast, all on analog gear, very few rehearsals," he says. "We didn't do anything more than five times. We didn't secondguess ourselves - we just went with it. It's not sloppy, but it's in that right place between loose and tight and feelgood but not labored."

Cobb adds, "I worked with Brett because of his beautiful balance of wit and melody. He's very timeless in his writing and you really can hear his personality in every note he sings. The record was made totally live and we recorded all the vocals live with the band. It really was produced as stopped down as possible - we tried to make every note matter."

More than a decade after his selftitled debut catapulted him to stardom, Dennen was once again attracted to how he made his earliest recordings. "My whole approach was that I wanted to write and sing the songs from the same place that I wrote the first record, which was a place of trying to discover who I am," he says.

That marked a detour from his most recent releases. With those he felt like he was exercising his craftsmanship - "being a songwriter for the sake of being a songwriter," as he puts it. "I really wanted this new album to come across as a whole piece," Dennen says. "I consider it to be a batch of songs that all live together and complement each other." Which brings us back to the album title. Please.

"What was I asking for with this album" Dennen says. "I wanted to be a good person and feel good about myself again, but in a way that I knew it was OK to be sad. That's part of life, the ups and downs. But with these songs, I want to make people feel good about themselves and about life through the good and bad."

Lake Street Dive

A "side pony," the hairstyle that Lake Street Dive's Nonesuch debut is named after, is the kind of one-sided Cubism-worthy 'do that requires unwavering self-confidence to pull off. The foursome is not referring to the demure, swept-to-the-side fashion Taylor Swift occasionally sports, but more the outré look of, say, Napoleon Dynamite's friend Deb. However, a side pony, for them, is really a metaphor for their philosophy and personality as a band, one that seamlessly incorporates R&B, pop, '60s-era rock, and soul into a unique, dance-party-ready mix. As bassist Bridget Kearney puts it, "When we were settling on the album title, that one just stuck out to us as embodying the band's spirit. We've always been this somewhat uncategorizable, weird, outlying genre-less band. That's the statement we wanted to make with this record: be yourself."

Guitarist and trumpeter Michael "McDuck" Olson echoes her sentiment: "It came to mean something larger to us than the original image. The line, 'I'm just living my life, I rock a side pony' has a literal connotation: 'Don't judge me for my silly hairstyle.' But it has also come to mean anything you're doing for the sheer joy of it. We have always 'rocked our side pony.' Now we have a convenient phrase for it."

The members of Lake Street Dive—named after an avenue of seedy bars in Olson's native Minneapolis—met in 2004 as students at Boston's New England Conservatory of Music. Powerhouse singer Rachael Price fronted the quartet and drummer Michael Calabrese filled out the rhythm section. Though they were all studying jazz, their work together took an altogether different shape, informed by their love of classic pop, particularly from the '60s, when pop could mean the Beatles, the Supremes, Dusty Springfield, or the Beach Boys. They recognized the virtuosity—and timelessness—in the efforts of studio musicians like Muscle Shoals' legendary Swampers and L.A.'s Wrecking Crew. Similarly, their original repertoire combined musical sophistication with an easy going groove.

For several years, the group was a part-time proposition, with everyone living in different cities. (Calabrese and Olson eventually returned to Boston, while Price and Kearney migrated to Brooklyn.) In 2012, Lake Street Dive became a full-time combo after a YouTube video of the quartet acoustically performing the Jackson Five's "I Want You Back" on a suburban Boston street corner went viral. The arrangement was slowed-down and torchy, a little melancholic, more late-night New Orleans jazz than AM radio pop, and upwards of three million people were enchanted by it.

Producer T Bone Burnett, as impressed as everyone else, invited Lake Street Dive to perform on the 2013 Another Day, Another Time concert event he curated at New York City's Town Hall to celebrate the Coen brothers' folk revival-themed movie, Inside Llewyn Davis. Lake Street Dive made the most of its one-song slot, with its performance of the Olson-penned "You Go Down Smooth," garnering morning-after acclaim from the New Yorker, the Daily News, and the New York Times. The band looked striking too, like a retro lounge band that could have sprung from the surreal imagination of David Lynch. That star-making moment has been preserved on the Nonesuch soundtrack to Showtime's documentary of the concert.

Side Pony, recorded in the winter of 2015, has an exhilarating feel from start to finish. For listeners familiar with Lake Street Dive, it's a natural evolution of the band's sound. The arrangements offer a knowing nod to the past while the lyrics tackle the pitfalls of modern romance in a manner that's often more playful than rueful. And Price's vocals have a teasing swagger to them. Neither her heart nor her hairstyle will be messed with.

Singer Price agrees: "We're the happy breakup band. We like to write about our lives and real things but we always like music that makes you dance and lifts you up. And those things don't need to be separate from one another. A sad song doesn't need to be in a minor key and slow. That's something we try to blend and do as much as possible." The album track "Spectacular Failure," she notes, is sort of a "cheerful parody" of a hapless lothario. "The story and specifics aren't true but it was inspired by a real person who we turned into this mythical, terrible character."

Side Pony is produced by the eclectic Nashville-based Dave Cobb, whose credits include Sturgill Simpson, Chris Stapleton, and the Secret Sisters. Cobb's working method was to keep the recording fast and loose, as live-in-the-studio as possible, and to embrace the unorthodox.

This provided Lake Street Dive with a welcome challenge: an opportunity to experiment with sound and arrangements and to collaborate on songwriting in a way the band had never attempted before. For earlier discs, the band members each wrote their own material and by the time they'd all arrive in the studio, the songs would have been meticulously arranged-and then the group would simply record them.

But Cobb encouraged them to bring only the most basic demos. The band showed up in Nashville with a lot of ideas, 28 songs, for their first session, and quickly discarded more than half. After a break from recording to go tour Australia, the process took an even more freewheeling turn as the band labored collectively to come up with the final cuts for the disc, including the title track, the infectious sing-along "Hell Yeah," and the early '70s-styles funk of "Can't Stop."

At one point, Cobb encouraged the band to scour the dollar bins at used record shops, and then spin their finds in the studio, dropping the needle at random in search of inspiration. "Can't Stop," in particular, grew out of that exercise, spurred on by the wobbly sound of a warped old soul record they'd unearthed.

Kearney explains, "Dave wanted us to come without any preconceived idea of how we were going to do the songs, so we made only campfire-style sketch demos—me, McDuck, and Mike strumming guitar and all of us singing the melody. We could then easily slow a song down, change the chorus to minor—we could make some pretty broad strokes in the studio, just following a much more intuitive approach to finishing a song." She deadpans, "We used to be stiffer, more analytical conservatory kids. Now we like to use our conservatory skills for good, not evil."

Calabrese adds, "We would be working on a tune, trying stuff out, and Dave would stop us in the middle of the song and say, 'Let's try it this way instead.' His process was mercurial, changing direction quickly, going from 'we don't have anything' to 'we've got it!'" He continues, "We weren't always so sure. But then we'd listen to a comp and we'd agree that he'd heard something we hadn't. That's what good producers do: they capture lightning in a bottle."

Price says, "We realized working in the studio this way that we each have our own strengths: Bridget is a really fantastic lyricist. She's fast and she can come up with a lot of ideas. McDuck is the same way with harmony, with changes and chords. He can come up with a lot of options in a short period of time. It was great to see, through this particular recording process, how beautifully our individual strengths complement each other."

Lower Dens

Ribbon Music is pleased to announce the return of Baltimore's Lower Dens with their third album, Escape from Evil.

On Escape From Evil, Lower Dens' Jana Hunter emerges: cerebral and hot-blooded, rash and incorruptible, and, crucially, possessing of a loud, clear voice. The album sees Hunter stepping up and taking center stage, and emboldening every aspect of the band.

Escape From Evil is a cinematic, tonally rich work. The sounds are clean and warm. The pulse of the album is strong. Melodies are potent and songs are physical. Lyrics are direct, frank confrontations with life's common crises. The album title is brazen, and along with the grimly funny title of lead single, "To Die in L.A.", almost theatrical.

Lower Dens' 2010 debut, Twin-Hand Movement, was a stunning evolution of guitar brilliance and murky emotiveness, while its 2012 follow-up, Nootropics, was a stark, textured paean to experimental bands of the krautrock era. Escape From Evil marks a bold, monumental step forward for the band and the welcome manifestation of a singer we've never quite seen until now.