Listening party: A year of local music

We take in a lot of music here at Xpress. Happily, there’s a lot of great music to be found in and around Asheville. Less happily, there aren’t enough hours in the day to review every CD, EP, 7-inch and MP3 collection that finds its way to our desks and our inboxes — but we’ve got that listed among our goals for 2014. So send us your new recordings in the new year. Until then, we’ll relive a selection of 2013’s local hits.

The No One Faction, The Echo And Narcissus

Lead track "Regards from a Southern Town" is a hand-clapping, sweeping-harmony, soaring-fiddle affair. Its dream-pop-Americana leanings recall The Dream Academy — specifically, that band's "Life in a Northern Town," though the relationship (other than the songs’ titles) is subtle. The No One Faction is the project of Asheville-born Jaron Pearlman (now an Atlanta-based audio engineer). He has an ear for collaboration, pulling from a pool of musicians that includes Old North State’s Dillon and Jantzen Wray as well as the spooky, aptly named "Dark Roads." Full review at

Even the Animals, self-titled

The album has a light touch — it's gentler, more twilit and wistful than singer-songwriter Jeff Markham’s past projects. The music is well-matched to his hazy tenor, but not every song is a study in slow-core. "Fire to Metal" thumps and snaps; a tambourine pairs with kick drum and handclaps. The lyrics trip and spit; the whole track is a bonfire, popping and crackling, bright-charged and leaping against a black sky. "Better Than You Think" is a moody captured moment — as much about love and loss as the rest of the album, but here the emotion is distilled, the few words encapsulating a feeling so vivid and so fleeting.

dep, Ever Looming

Opening track "Stretched for Home" is so pretty it almost hurts. Not initially, though: It starts off with slow, round tones. Gray dawn, gentle rain. Chimes and organ, then the sprightly jog of strings. Strings that dance and others that float, and still other instruments that swirl as the rhythms and patterns of the song grow more complex. This is a spiraling in but not a tightening, which is kind of a metaphor for spiritual growth and the process of gaining expertise. "Last Known Surroundings" features Stephanie Morgan — it’s the album's only vocal track, yet even here what’s sung are not lyrics but sounds. Morgan's voice is another instrument, another texture for composer/musician Danny Peck to layer.

Ryan Sheffield and the High Hills, Telescope

The album recalls any number of bands. The insouciance and cleverness of They Might Be Giants and Bare Naked Ladies, the boozy swagger of The Pogues, the loose-limbed, starry-eyed stomp of The Lumineers. “Waves,” the opener, is a grand introduction that sways like a boat at sea, its very equilibrium dependent on a willingness to abandon the solid earth and be rocked by these poignant melodies. "Ghosts of Summer" deftly pairs rawness and beauty. It's a tattered love song, something sweet without being precious — and that's kind of the thing with all the album's offerings. There's a tongue-in-cheekness to Sheffield's writing, a sort of wink. But there's also an underlying realness that doesn't flinch and doesn't shrink from its own humanness.

Hank West & The Smokin' Hots, Starship Nighthawk

This album is a journey through eras and influences. Surely Louis Armstrong lurks in one candlelit corner while Marlene Dietrich, at the peak of her silver screen mojo, slinks just out of sight. There's a hint of old New York, of the Cotton Club, of men in wingtips and women in pearls. But there's also an unbuttonedness, a sultriness conveyed through the horns and the high-flying tangos. "Colombiana" is a wondrous romp through south-of-the-border dance styles, speakeasy piano, fierce horns, shimmering cymbals and lounge vocals. What Hank West & the Smokin' Hots do, with Starship Nighthawk’s most exploratory songs (like the spacey-nightmare-carnival romp "Baba Kush," one of the few offerings without lyrics), is continue to innovate.

The Luxury Spirit, Forgotten Albatross

Here, big songs are crafted from vast soundscapes of layered guitars and driving percussion. These are sonic palettes colored in measures by grunge, Americana and the heavy, straightforward rock that would fill a stadium or resonate from a basement. "Angel Bones" is slower and more melodic than opening tracks "Legionnaire" and "Light." Frontman Bob Burnett lets his vocals take center stage (spelled by crisp guitar solos). There's a spare romance at play here, and a hint of late nights and the kind of rough-edged melodies that make for impromptu slow dances. "Just the Opposite" is built on warm-yet-wistful chords and swirling atmospherics that portend a big moment even before the lyrics are fully understood.

Acoustic Syndicate, Rooftop Garden

The album is unexpected. "Heroes" launches with a dance beat. But don't worry, Syndicate fans. The band has not gone electro-pop. This is still an Americana album, but it's one that stretches and reaches. "Forward" is driving, blood-pumping and wide-open. The band's harmonies are tight and, even as the instrumentation builds, the recording is so clear that the rhythmic plunk of the banjo shares space with the squeal of fingers over acoustic guitar frets. "Bicycle Song" opens with hand drums and, until the electric guitar comes in, it could be a world-beat song. But even with its rock base, it's a buoyant track. Jazz influences and syncopation (and some jaw-dropping finger-picking) burble beneath the surface while Bryon McMurry's vocals, though not expressly lithe, rise above. The song also paints this beautiful picture of one of life's simple pleasures: riding a bike, feeling raindrops and friendship and the heady rush of freedom.

Alligator Indian, More Songs About Animals and TV

On “Corpsing,” electronics and vocals leap and swoop interchangeably, sometimes with aching beauty, sometimes as discordant as one red sock in a washer full of whites. "Later, Data Dog" creeps on ascending and descending scales. It's not the sort of song you can cozy up with, but it's endlessly interesting. Prickly, icy, atonal, meditative but unsettling, eerily appealing. The percussion pops and crackles beneath Spooky Bubble's smooth voice, a vocal that never loses its polish yet never cares about being the prettiest thing in the room. Which, of course, makes it the prettiest thing in the room.

Red Honey, Red Honey and the Pleasure Chest

"Backs to the Wind" hints at psychedelia with swirling guitar licks and Erica Jane Ferraby's commanding, marching vocal. The music lilts and sways around her delivery, which ranges from an almost spoken-word approach to echoing, sweeping whoops of sound. "Bang Bang!" unleashes a maelstrom of cymbals and heavy guitars. Though one of the record's shortest tracks, it's also one of the most zealous. But the band's energy and dynamism can be felt just as well — perhaps more so, on the recording as opposed to a live show — in "Blackbird.” Part stomp and chant, it whips and churns from some unfathomable deep, resounding with tambourine and voodoo. The final track, "Daydreaming," is a mood changer — more honky-tonk, more old country. The guitar jangles, the drum is all snap and two-step and, as Ferraby hits vintage, rounded notes, there's a definite wink.

Warm the Bell, You Are the Sun

From the launch of lead track, "Little Bird," it's apparent that this is more than ’60s-reminiscent folk. The harmonies, the unhurried guitars, the percussive rattle, the way the vocals evolve into a round by the song's end — yes. Definitive ’60s. But there's also indie-rock savvy. "Now I Know," loping and breezy, is suffused with a nostalgia both personal and universal. The lyrics skip lightly over the layered guitars, but there's ballast tucked in between the verses. "Cold in March” is a standout track. The doo-wop-style background vocals brighten up what could have been a sad song. Like all of Warm the Bell's songs, there's a shoe-gaze inclination, but it's tempered with sweet harmonies. Equally potent is the orchestration, as on the achingly dusky and longing-saturated "The Edge of the Night." That song ought to be accompanied by a symphony.

Marley Carroll, Sings

The 12-song collection leads with "Hunter," a moody, lithe track that’s both haunting and inviting. The song wends its way through textures and bubbling rhythms while Carroll’s smooth tenor sings of childhood and ghosts. "Speed Reader" changes direction. Its sonic palette hints at jazz and funk before settling into jaunty beats and lustrous vocals. The dense, earthy, nocturnal "Woodwork," its vocals just an accent to the sounds of gongs, rattles and heartbeat drumming, is juxtaposed with "Black Light." The latter, with its scratchy-record lead and thumping bass, unfolds into a sylphlike pathway of seductive sway and late-night incandescence. For all the electronics employed, there's a very human and supple thread that runs throughout Sings, an apt name for the upfront-ness of the vocals.

RBTS WIN, Palm Sunday

The album is the band's most fully realized effort to date, a culmination of years of experimentation, trial and error, personal growth, deepening friendship and unrelenting exploration of melody, beats and words. "Mountain Child" is a pulsing nocturne, its wilderness barely contained between earthy bass and spacey flourishes. The instrumental “Tidal Prism” is a brief but intoxicating aerial show, all cirrus clouds and jet stream drift. "When I Think of You" is all strong grooves and tender sentiment, bolstered by muscular beat and sophisticated sheen. “Stay Wavy” is a sort of tribute to the band’s creative process: a constant immersion in inspiration, a sort of musical telepathy with the universe.

Emily Easterly, Decent Animal

“We went song by song and decided what each song lent itself to,” says songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Emily Easterly. Some, like opening track “Decent Animal,” with its spooky piano intro and thick drum, are polished. The title track abandons pop sheen in favor of garage-y, lo-fi rock. The bass is menacing, and the drums are a tart slap between each staccato recitation of the chorus. “Wrecking Ball” lands somewhere between those two extremes. The drums sound as if they’re being played in a cave, but Easterly’s vocal swandives over a sonic field of crunchy guitars and galvanic keys.

— Alli Marshall can be reached at

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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