Like the paperwhite flowers her grandmother mails her each Christmas, Julie Davis surprised herself during the pandemic with a cloistered sort of resiliency, despite periods of intense self-doubt.
The flowers “start growing as the days get longer,” said Davis, a Denver indie musician known for projects such as Bela Karoli, Fairchildren (with longtime collaborator Nathaniel Rateliff) and Bluebook. “I was so depressed last Christmas I didn’t take them out of the box. When I finally opened it, I noticed that they had already started growing in the dark.”
“Paperwhites” is just one of nine arresting tracks on Bluebook’s new album, “Optimistic Voices,” which gets an album-release show at the Hi-Dive on Feb. 12. It’s a triumph of musical evolution for Davis, and a reclamation of her songwriting confidence.
It’s also just one of several hotly anticipated albums from Colorado artists for 2022, following an unusually strong run in 2021 from the state’s most prominent musicians, such jam-band royalty Leftover Salmon (May’s “Brand New Good Old Days”), EDM juggernaut and Red Rocks headliner Illenium (July’s “Fallen Embers”), and folk-rock legend Neil Young (December’s “Barn,” recorded near Telluride where Young owns a ranch).
You also may have missed GRiZ’s “Rainbow Brain”; The Velveteers’ “Nightmare Daydream”; Chris Daniels, Hazel Miller and Dana Marsh’s “What We Did”; A.J. Fullerton’s “The Forgiver and the Runaway”; Porlolo’s “No Praise, No Blame”; and The Centennial’s “Buried Gold,” among many others, Denver music experts and radio DJs said.
All are worth tracking down, according to Alisha Sweeney, local music director at Indie 102.3 FM, and Chris Kresge, host of “The Colorado Playlist” on 105.5 FM. Sweeney, for example, endorsed Alison Lorenzen’s November release of “Tender,” as well as N3ptune’s bracing December album, “Renaissance,” which heralded a brilliant, genre-hopping new artistic force in Denver..
The glut is a sign that Denver artists, forced out of performing live, have increasingly turned to notebooks and studios and making music that reflects the times — however traumatic. In Davis’ case, she wrote new songs for the first time in years while fleshing out Bluebook’s lineup with scene veterans Jess Parsons, Hayley Helmericks (Snake Rattle Rattle Snake) and Anna Morset (The Still Tide).
Recorded with James Barone (Tennis, Beach House) in June and August, “Optimistic Voices” also features Brad Cook (producer for Bon Iver) and mastering by Chris Colbert (Mazzy Star, Pedro the Lion).
Pedigree like that is common in a town with a humble music scene that still claims internationally touring, platinum-certified, Grammy-nominated artists The Lumineers, Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats, and Ingrid Andress as its own. It’s also somewhat expected among our cross-pollinated indie scene; Davis’ husband, Joseph Pope III, plays bass in the Night Sweats, while Davis has appeared with Rateliff and others on stage at Red Rocks and numerous music festivals.
But all that collaboration does little to soothe the sting of not being able to promote new releases in person.
Rateliff and the Night Sweats, who were just confirmed for Bonnaroo in June, watched a 2020 summer tour opening for Bob Dylan get canned by COVID, as well as Rateliff’s sold-out-in-advance tour for solo album “And It’s Still Alright,” even as it’s seeing some of its best streaming numbers yet.
While the Night Sweats returned to the road last year, this week Rateliff told The Denver Post that the band had also talked about a January 2022 North American tour to promote its new album, “The Future” — released in November as the Night Sweats’ third full-length. It would have followed their lacerating “The Tonight Starring Jimmy Fallon” performance of “Survivor” in November (Fallon’s a longtime fan and proponent). But the idea was scrapped due to worsening COVID-19 conditions. A publicist would not say how many dates it would have included.
“It was going to be a lot of bigger rooms that we hadn’t done before,” said Rateliff, who also recently bought South Broadway’s beloved Skylark Lounge with manager Chris Tetzeli and longtime friend Bob Ashby, rescuing it from a potentially gentrified fate. “We were a little reluctant and just decided to wait and let people sit with the record a little bit. … We’re still holding onto the dates for Europe in May and June.”
A pair of tellingly named singles from “The Future” — “Survivor” and “Face Down in the Moment” — have already joined the Night Sweats’ Top 5 biggest songs on Spotify, next to hits such as “S.O.B.” (132 million streams) and “You Worry Me” (65 million). The marriage of Rateliff’s formerly divergent personas, quiet folkie and, since 2015, soul-band leader, feels natural on “The Future,” ushering the Night Sweats further into hazy Americana while still honoring their beat-heavy throwback work.
“I definitely become a character of myself in that band,” Rateliff said. “It’ll be interesting to get back up there (on stage) and see if I can continue to be that person. … I get in my head (sometimes) with, ‘Maybe I’m just doing whatever I want whenever I want?’ But I still want us to feel like a band, so those guys’ opinions are important to me.”
Indie-folk act Covenhoven — which has quietly become one of Colorado’s most successful and most-heard artists with multiple songs licensed to TV and commercials — released another album worth revisiting, “IV,” in October. And The Lumineers, the biggest band to call Denver home, is releasing its fourth album, “Brightside,” on Friday, Jan. 14.
The title track is already a No. 1 hit at AAA radio.
“We were supposed to tour this past summer and fall and made a hard decision not to,” said Lumineers singer Wesley Schultz. His band also appeared on “The Tonight Show,” this time on on Thursday, Jan. 13. “It felt like we were being pessimistic, but you could also read the tea leaves.”
Schultz is taking nothing for granted in 2022, he said, while still crossing his fingers that spring and summer will be healthier times. The band’s new album, “Brightside,” certainly lends itself to the stage, with a louder, more rocking sound than fans may be used to. Schultz and Lumineers co-conspirator Jeremiah Fraites also released their own solo albums last year, hinting at the prolific nature of their lockdown-era songwriting.
“We’re trying not to have (expectations) and are treating this album like a $100 bill you just found lying around,” Schultz said, adding that “IV” is his favorite record the band has made. “This album reaffirms some belief in ourselves, because when Jer and I first started writing together 16 years ago, we were so full of self-doubt. … But recording this felt like we were free to express something, instead of having that inner critic dominate our headscapes.”
With The Lumineers and Bluebook leading the way, radio hosts Sweeney and Kresge are also looking forward to 2022 releases from Yonder Mountain String Band, Adiel Mitchell, Joe Michaels, Fast Eddy, and Rootbeer Richie & The Reveille. Sweeney plugged the rising, nationally signed indie duo Companion (formerly Annie Oakley) as another act to watch. Like Denver indie band Tennis, which rose to prominence on its buzzy demos, many of these acts are only releasing singles.
“Even with all these albums, we’re back in the land of singles these days,” she said. “Local supergroups, outside bands moving to Denver, and more artists seeing 1 million-plus streams on Spotify — that’s what 2022 looks like for Colorado music at the moment.”