Graded on a Curve:
Joe Kaplow,
Sending Money and Stems

Although currently based in Santa Cruz, CA, singer-songwriter Joe Kaplow has traveled extensively as a touring musician, a reality that has surely impacted the direct, vibrant approach of his latest album Sending Money and Stems. However, the set’s ten songs were crafted during quarantine, as digital files were shared via email with his mixer Mike Coykendall. The results exude a consistent positivity, a vibe that’s welcome in the world right now as cautious optimism begins to take hold. The album is out April 30 on vinyl (orange marble, black), CD and digital (the cassette is sold out, alas) through Fluff & Gravy.

Joe Kaplow isn’t an oldster, but as detailed in his unusually loquacious website bio, he’s been making music for quite a while now, 20 years by his count (reaching back to childhood), which is long enough that the massive setbacks brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic can seem like a catastrophe, or at the very least, can bring on changes in livelihood as music gets set aside, perhaps for good.

As is obvious, that didn’t happen in Kaplow’s case, but it did set him to thinking, as it certainly did with scores of others for whom recording and performance are more than a hobby. Often, this has resulted in sounds, songs, and indeed whole records, that directly address our global predicament with outcomes ranging from insightful and inspired but more frequently clichéd or downright ponderous. For Kaplow, it mainly meant that his second full-length was shaped remotely rather than by traveling up to Portland for mixing at Mike Coykendall’s joint.

This is to say that Sending Money and Stems isn’t an emotionally or instrumentally heavy affair. To the contrary, one could call it upbeat, amiable even, though I would stop short of tagging it as good-timey. But you might not, as opener “5 am” dives headfirst into a framework of lively fingerpicking and crisp drumming, complete with soaring vocal leads and a chorus that’s primed for a big group singalong when it’s safe to gather for a full-blown shindig.

Is pedal steel a part of the equation? You bet it is. But hey, don’t get the idea that Kaplow has chosen to marinate in a feelgood atmosphere while ignoring hard realities. Not at all, as the title and lyrics of the decidedly Neil Young-ish “February Prorated Rent” make clear, with the song retaining the folky harmonica that figures on his self-released debut of 2019, Time Spent in Between. It’s just that topically, he’s striving for more universal themes, so that the song avoids being a fatiguing bringdown in the present and is instead built to last.

The stems of the new record’s title refer to the raw audio files Kaplow would send to Coykendall for mixing (he’s credited with six tracks, Lucas Heinel with the other four). The audio avenue chosen for Sending Money and Stems is bright and sharp but not brittle (a hindering quality with too many contempo records) and all brought to life through layered instrumentation and a vocal tone that can occasionally bring to mind, as during “Little Sheep,” the more rocking moments in M. Ward’s work.

That track gets an immediate contrast with “Everything’s Gunna Be Alright,” Kaplow scaling back to just banjo and voice for a solid if not quite exceptional slice of Americana-tinged folk. “Cassette” follows, taking an initial turn toward atmospheric indie folk, though drums do belatedly enter to lend some weight to the scheme.

“How Old Is My Soul” is again reminiscent of Ward, but in a likeable twist, blends the aura of ’80s college rock with some straight-up busking. From there, “Rain Drums,” after its accordion-infused prelude, recalls Young once more. But it’s important to stress that these comparisons aren’t blatant style cops, as “Shark Fun” is a folk-rock strummer imbued with more pedal steel and, in building up to its conclusion, a surprisingly raucous outburst.

“Some Things” extends the rock sensibility (and with a nice dose of backing vocals), but only after putting the focus squarely on Kaplow’s voice and guitar at the outset, a combination that can handle the foregrounding, though I’m particularly fond of his soloing later in the cut, just prior to an abrupt segue into “Roses,” which like “Everything’s Gunna Be Alright” (although more full-bodied instrumentally), is a pleasant but not amazing turn for the finale.

Having sought out Time Spent in Between so to gain additional insight into Kaplow’s sound, I must admit to slightly preferring it to Sending Money and Stems. By its makers own admission, his debut is a darker record; I’d call it edgier and more introspectively folky. But his newest is an engaging grower and highly recommended to indie folk fans with a disdain for the overly wispy. It’s plain that Kaplow is comfortable elevating celebratory environs, and in a bit of concluding good news, he’s already got some house shows lined up.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B+

This entry was posted in The TVD Storefront. Bookmark the permalink. Trackbacks are closed, but you can post a comment.
  • SUPPORTING YOUR LOCAL INDIE SHOPS SINCE 2007


  • Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text
  • Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text