As part of the release of Digcast VI which focuses on NYC music, we are posting on each band in the podcast over the next five weekdays.
Follow the link above to listen to Town Hall discuss their track “Good Boy” and places in NYC where they like to get cheap falafel, hear experimental music & eat vegan breakfast, plus the majesty of Dave & Buster’s.
Town Hall is a folk trio of Stefan Weiner, Phoebe Ryan, and Jesse Kranzler that got started at NYU. In fact, they are all still currently students in the Clive Davis Recording Institute. Besides making NYU seem even cooler than it already did, it’s staggering to think about how talented Town Hall is given the members’ relatively young ages. They released their debut album Roots & Bells last month during the school year! Granted, they all study music, but that still blows my mind. Especially when you consider how good Roots & Bells is. Because it’s really, really good.
“Folk” is probably too simple a description for Town Hall’s sound or what one can expect to find on their album. Sure, it’s definitely present – for instance, there is plenty of mandolin, banjo, and earthy harmonies – but there are threads of many other sounds woven into the tapestry that is Roots & Bells. If you’ve followed our site and previous coverage of Town Hall, you know we are big fans of their cover performances (visit their Youtube channel to check them out) and as you can read more below, the diversity of the chosen songs speaks to the breadth of Town Hall’s musical fandom and passion. It is completely evident from listening to their album that they are simply huge lovers of music in general, excited to share their joys and to adventurously explore.
They all have some serious chops musically. They play a variety of instruments and everything sounds well-placed. The moods vary from humorous and upbeat to elegant and somber. Though there is percussion and plenty of contributing instruments, the emphasis is really on the stringed ones. The clean tones of the electric guitar, the pluck of banjo, the strums of the mandolins, all these textures dovetail magnificently. The vocals are perfectly matched between Stefan and Phoebe. They have beautiful voices, each of which gets its own occasional showcase, but which to me often sound best in harmony or at least trading off with the other.
I spent some time reading over the lyrics of the songs. Add them to the list of things that are very impressive about the band and this album. The writing is incredible. Obviously they have a gift for melody, but I would encourage you to really listen for what is being said. The songs often read like short stories and paint pictures of unique characters or poignant emotional situations. It’s not a dead on match, but a lot about the high literary quality and the folk/Americana/pop/rock blend gave me vibes of the Decemberists.
Anyways, I just loved so many of these stories and I think it takes a lot of creativity to imagine people and scenarios generally removed from what the typical life experiences of Stefan, Phoebe, and Jesse would tend to be yet still tap into universal human elements that give them powerful resonance. There’s the story of the nearly 150 year-old woman Mary A. Longden in the track of the same name, a tall tale that nonetheless speaks to the idea of tradition and what might be lost in a modern age of rapid and radical change. There’s the Wes Anderson-esque narrative “Swim Team” of the young boy who had no access to water or pools but taught himself swim in his kitchen. It’s a quirky but affecting metaphor for going after your dreams, as it’s definitely a sweet moment when he finally finds the water. In its stunning portrayal of a frayed but not yet broken relationship, “Fix This House” betrays a maturity that seems like it should be beyond the band’s years, yet comes across too naturally for it to be a fluke.
That’s just the first three tracks. Journey forward for song after song of incredible music and more fully realized messages, ranging from the carnivalesque look at true love vs. dependency in “The Strongest Hands,” to the emotionally bare and musically unadorned vulnerability of “Small.” There are probing looks at societal issues like on “Rockefeller” and “Alright,” and human connections in “Charlie” and “Just Watching My Breath.”
Roots & Bells has much depth and I highly recommend it as a moving and wonderful listening experience by an ultra talented young band that should only continue to grow and make more great music. It’s available on Bandcamp. Here are other relevant Town Hall links: Facebook, Twitter, and their main webpage once again. They will definitely be playing in NYC and around the country this summer, but nothing has been announced as of yet, so keep an eye on their webpage. I think there is going to be at least one more cover video coming out, so look out for that too.
When I spoke to Stefan, Phoebe, and Jesse at the Clive Davis Institute at NYU, it was right before a performance, so we didn’t have a lot of time to discuss much besides what made the podcast. However, we did talk about their cover videos and you can read that below.
TWD: Your series of covers – which I really enjoy – one thing I think is cool about them is the eclecticism of the choices. You have Jimmy Eat World, you have Ja Rule & Ashanti, you have the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack, Old Man Duff, each different than the last. What is that made you pick those?
Jesse – Originally, the idea was for each of us to pick two of our influences, because we all come from really different musical backgrounds, then try to arrange them in such a way so that it sounded like the three of us instead of just one of us. It kind of ended up changing.
TWD – What are those picks?
J – The one coming out next is mine, one of my favorite artists. [It should come out this week – TWD]
Phoebe – We were going to do a Dirty Projectors one, “My Off-White Flag,” but that one was so intense. But we all love the Dirty Projectors. But it was such a huge task. I chose the Ashanti and Ja Rule one. I had a country song I wanted to do…oh no, I was between Toni Braxton and Conway Twitty.
Stefan – We were gonna do “Unbreak My Heart” for Valentine’s Day.
P – I knew I wanted to a duet. There’s a Conway Twitty song called “Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man,” with Loretta Lynn. Then I was like, “Wait. Ashanti and Ja Rule have that song and it’s amazing.” I considered the J. Lo and Ja Rule, “I’m Real,” but I’m glad we went with the one we did.
S – All Ja Rule collabs are worth doing.
P – Yeah, it’s an unsaid thing (laughs).
TWD – That’s what I’ve always heard.
S – “Old Man Duff,” I collected 78 records back in high school and that was one of my favorites. It was an important one for me. Frankie Martin, the one who performed it originally, his granddaughter found the video and contacted us. Now we’re friends with her.
P – She loves it, she went insane when she saw the video. She was trying to show her mother how to use an iPhone. They went on YouTube and was like “Let’s just see if there’s Frankie Martin videos, I don’t think there will be” because he wasn’t like a huge star, but they looked it up and they were just freaking out about it. That made it all worth it.
S – And then “Didn’t Leave Nobody But the Baby,” was a cover we did on this tour that we did last summer. We did it a couple times with this band called the Relatives.
P – It meant a lot to us. It was a personal song we all shared together. So when we were thinking about covers we were like “Of course we’re going to do that one.”
S – We learned it in this park…
J – In Ashland, Oregon.
P – Sitting outside in the grass.
S – It was just magical. There was this hot breeze coming off the hot springs.
P – Oh yes, the springs in the mountain side. It was very romantic.