In the initial 60 seconds of the hypnotic hook and first words of “95 & Retro” on Brandon Ross’ EP out on Flophouse Records, “The Valedictorian,” it’s clear that Ross is a step beyond most other hip hop that’s been released in the northern part of Maine. The production quality is much higher, the stylistic diversity is better, and the youthful, energetic Ross — age 18, a recent graduate of Hermon High School — is a much more talented rapper than skeptics might think. The inevitable comparisons to Maine’s biggest rap export, Spose, pretty much end with the fact that they share a home state, and that Spose appears on one track here. Ross is more rough around the edges, with some grit in his voice and a bit more aggression, too. He does, however, have that sense of humor that helps balance out the braggadocio. The crisp production by Bangor mainstay Andrew Clifford makes the whole album extremely listenable. It’s an excellent addition to the growing pantheon of Maine rappers.
For a guy who has been around the Maine music scene for the better part of a decade — mostly as a member of screamo band Arms Against a Sea — Dustin Saucier has had plenty of time to develop his own songwriting voice. It’s on display on “The Paper EP,” a six-song collection that features just Saucier, his acoustic guitar and a bit of bass and cello. Though Saucier certainly draws on the wellspring of emo and pop-punk songwriting that has buoyed others, there’s far more going on here. There’s some of that fragile, melodic Elliott Smith soul-baring, as on the haunting “Home,” and the aching harmonies throughout even bring to mind, at times, Fleet Foxes, as on gorgeous “Feigning Fight” or the impassioned “The Fox and the Rabbit.” Though Saucier does wear his heart on his sleeve, it never feels as though he’s emoting for emotions’ sake; it feels real, it feels honest, and it feels like Saucier is mature enough to know when to reign it in. “The Paper EP” is probably the biggest, best Maine musical surprise I’ve encountered in the past six months. It’s really good. If you like smart, engaging songwriting, you’d do well to seek it out.
Of The Trees – a.k.a. Tyler Coombs — is one of the most popular and respected DJs in Maine. The term “DJ” only describes about half of it, however. A listen to “Vacationland,” the four-song EP he released this fall, proves he’s as much a composer as a DJ. The first track, “Fever Trip,” manages to combine loping reggae beats with some sweet arpeggiated synths that bring to mind both Daft Punk and 1970s prog rock. “Hyperflux” samples some hip hop “unhs” and “yeahs” but layers them on top of more cascading synth sounds and some dubstep-inspired breaks, before lowering the intensity with “Absolution,” an at times extremely pretty, extremely atmospheric track, and the similarly moody “Last Request.” Electronic music has experienced quite a popular resurgence in the past few years, and for my money, Of The Trees is at the top of the heap, presently, in Maine talent.
The sweet-voiced Anna Lombard, formerly of Gypsy Tailwind and later Anna and the Diggs, released in the late summer her debut full-length solo LP, “Head Full of Bells,” an accessible pop collection tinged with the country and blues that her previous bands synthesized so well. Lombard has one of those voices that should be and rightfully is put front and center — a soulful, precise thing that has served her well and continues to do so on “Head Full of Bells.” It easily draws comparisons to fellow roots-pop artists like KT Tunstall or Brandi Carlile, from the country-rock of “They Want Us Dead” to the melodic kiss-off “Nothing Of Us Left.” Lombard worked on the album with songwriter and major label session musician Adam Agati, a Portland native who lends a polished sheen to songs like the catchy, guitar-driven “Waiting for Rescue,” or the sad but confident “Life Takes,” the latter of which could be heard on an Adele album.