For me, the new year signals a time to refresh, and that also goes for my music collection. This is when I dig through Bandcamp, attend shows with bands I’ve never heard of on the bill, and get recommendations from friends in the know. Here are three off-the-beaten path local releases I’ve discovered in the new year.

photo by Seth Halleran

SmackTalk – Servin’ It Hot (out March 7)

Saxophone-fronted collective SmackTalk is the brainchild of Sidney Hauser, a brilliant Seattle-bred saxophonist and songwriter whose funky, angular, and soulful compositions have, in the case of Seattle jazz, exploded expectations about what sort of music is made in Seattle and who can make it. Through songcraft, musicianship, and bold authenticity, Servin’ it Hot makes me single-handedly optimistic for the future of Seattle’s music scene.

Hauser, a graduate of the University of Washington, brings together a band of talented Seattle twentysomethings on the EP, proving that jazz isn’t just for baby boomers. But also, SmackTalk is far from purist about jazz – while Hauser definitely draws on her background in jazz harmony and improvisation, her compositions bring in funk energy, the tender sensuality of neo-soul, the exploratory nature of creative music, and the addictive quality of earworm pop melodies and digital effects.

On “Beams,” the album’s only vocal track, singer Emma Horton’s smooth, dexterous voice pours forth like honey, accented by soaring moments from the saxophone section – Hauser, Natalie Barry on alto and tenor— playing in artfully-arranged harmony.

“Tidal,” the third song on the five-song album, starts by featuring these saxophonists with a sort of cheerful, churning pattern that steadily swirls, bringing the rest of the band into its grasp. Interesting synth and saxophone moments add energy and excitement to the piece, which feels like a climbing wave, eventually cresting in a funky solo section that spotlights the solidity of the rhythm section’s interlocking groove.

Each song on Servin’ It Hot works this way—starting in familiar space and then pushing past expectations, offering some really new and fresh sounds for the city. Only SmackTalk’s second release, Servin’ It Hot is unabashedly brave, capturing Hauser’s growth as an improviser, songwriter, and band leader, and underscoring the work SmackTalk are doing to find their own voice as a band.

Servin’ It Hot drops in early March. For more details visit SmackTalk on Bandcamp.

photo by Jason Trinkle

Annie Ford Band – At Night (out February 8)

Annie Ford is the sort of artist one can literally stumble upon while walking the streets of Pike Place Market, where she has been a busker for a decade. But she’s no forgettable distraction for a passerby. She sings as if she’s having a candid conversation, and she draws her listener into a secret with humor, pep, and charm.

That’s how it goes with her newest release At Night, which drips with flavors of country, klezmer, folk, and even a little bit of psychedelia. It proves that Ford, and her co-songwriter Matt Manges, have further-honed their talent for original folk songs unlike any others found in the Seattle-area.

On this new album, it’s clear Ford and the band are feeling in limbo. On “Ain’t No Place,” she’s a woman leaving Mississippi for the unknown; on “Demon Lover,” she forsakes a husband and three children for a new man; on “Restless Dreams” she walks a tightrope into a world suspended from time. With this in mind, the album mirrors Seattle’s present crisis of identity, a product of the ripple effects it has on the individual identities of the people who live here.

This sort of tension comes up lyrically, as well as musically. Additions like the other-worldly whine of Olie Eshlemen’s pedal steel and the bestial rumble of Ivan Molton’s baritone sax imply the sort of strange, liminal state that the Annie Ford Band contends with.

Overall, Ford and the band have more of a fierceness than ever before on At Night. A big part of that is Ford’s crisp, resolute, and honest vocals, hanging in the foreground without facade or effect. Ford isn’t playing tricks on her audience – she’s bracing them for transit.

At Night drops February 8th. For more details visit Annie Ford Band on Bandcamp.

photo by Kyle Todaro

Antonioni – The Odds Were All Beating Me (out now)

Antonioni may as well be a meteor out of nowhere. The Odds Were All Beating Me, released January 12th, is Antonioni’s first in two years, and only their second EP ever—but it’s a formidable ball of indie-rock fire. While they exhibit that grunge-punk quality that lives inside much of the music from this area, lead singer Sarah Pasillas – whose lilting, ethereal voice recalls Sinead O’Connor, Bjork, and Enya – brings a dreamier vibe to their music.

“Snow Globe” features this aspect of Pasillas’ voice prominently, making her the foreground to a thunderhead of odd sounds – coins falling to the floor, a person talking into a seashell, a Tibetan singing bowl. Her voice arises from the controlled mess.

The EP’s first track, “Creature Feature,” designates Antonioni as part of the same contemporary scene that’s birthed other currently-popular indie bands like Great Grandpa and Dude York: taking the mumble-singing, a raw guitar sound, and feeling of encompassing dreariness that Nirvana made big, and invigorating it. Antionioni make it a bit lighter by adding more upbeat pop diversions and effects. “Old News,” on the other hand, almost sounds like the Cranberries—Pasillas sings assertively, with turns and inflections like Dolores O’Riordan, while the repetitious guitar pattern has the same sort of jangling, broken-sounding chords that Cranberries’ lead guitarist Noal Hogan mastered.

The album is an interesting snapshot of Seattle, torn as it is between so many different moments in the scene’s musical history and looking for a place to rest. With Antonioni, the city may have found a band with which they can sit and stay awhile.