Austin singer-songwriter Miranda Dodson didn't set out to write one of those songs that "sounds like one thing but means another"; it just happened that way. On first listen, the haunting, soul-searching "Try Again" appears to tell the story of a relationship gone wrong, but the heartbreak Dodson sings about is, in fact, her real struggle to bear a child. Following a miscarriage, Dodson found herself saddled with a sense of shame. During an interview with KUTX, she told me, "I thought, 'Something's wrong with me.' That's because no one talks about this." Dodson turned to her songwriting as a kind of therapy, but when she was done, she decided to go public — with both the song and her story — in the hope that others might find it therapeutic. What the song leaves out is the real-world ending: Her son just celebrated his first birthday. On second thought, "Try Again" is just what it sounds like: a love song. — David Brown, host of KUTX's Texas Music Matters
"Freedom comes from being unafraid of the heartache that can plague a man." That's one wallop of a line buried toward the end of "Hope of a Lifetime," the opening song on The Milk Carton Kids' forthcoming album, The Ash & Clay. It's a quiet realization packed into a quiet, thoughtful tune. Of course, quiet is what this duo does best. In the background, a carefully plucked guitar sounds as if it's climbing a ladder to peek up over a fence time and again, a curious scale which perfectly matches the song's cathartic message about emerging from a long-lurking darkness. At first, it seems like a song about reveling in survival. Listen more closely, though, and you hear the quiet moment when you emerge on the other side of something difficult, the subtle breath you take before carrying on. — Kim Ruehl, FolkAlley.com
Cayucas embodies the sound I grew to love living on the West Coast; the combination of the sand, the '60s, surfing, the weather and the legendary musicians who came before. Named after a sleepy seaside California town, Cayucas makes dreamy yet energetic pop with outstanding song craft. "High School Lover" is the perfect pop concoction for fantastic and frantic young love, not to mention the perfect angst-y Valentine's Day jam (check out the video!). One listen to the words — about a girl who used to write love letters to lead singer Zach Yudin — and the connection is instantaneous, complete with a propulsive drumbeat to drive this snappy track straight into your heart. I'll play this song, complete with gymnasium-style cheering, all spring and appropriately into the summer. — Anne Litt, KCRW.
In the late '60s, John Lennon wrote a song called "I'm Just a Child of Nature," inspired by famed Beatles guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. In 1971, Lennon changed the words and included the song on Imagine, calling it "Jealous Guy." It's stringy and insinuating and, in its new iteration, an apology. A few months later, Donny Hathaway covered the song and changed it again — his piano-heavy version from Donny Hathaway Live sits back in the cut, saucy and guilty. That's the track that "Juice" — a song by Chicago's Chance the Rapper — takes a big bite out of. The loose sample shades his brassy, goosed flow with vulnerability while baring his unapologetic arrogance. "Juice" is a song about standing on the brink, toiling away at something that depends on other people's acceptance, talking big for the time being. "I ain't afraid of the booth," he says, standing on the shoulders of giants. — Frannie Kelley, NPR Music's Microphone Check
Katie Mullins is a singer-songwriter — just not in the way you might think. Admit it: You're picturing Woman with Guitar, right? Well, the closest Mullins gets to that is the baritone ukulele (which is pretty close, actually), but several songs on her latest album, Wedding, feature her singing and accompanying herself on the mbira, a thumb piano from Zimbabwe. "Spring" features her clear, ringing voice, both in the melody and in a glowing overdubbed chorus; percussion and eventually cello flesh out the sound. The mbira's gently insistent, almost minimalist fragments and Mullins' poetic vocals are a mixed marriage for sure, but then, the title of the album refers not to matrimony, but to the blending of dissimilar or even opposite ideas. — John Schaefer, host of WNYC's Soundcheck