Florence + The Machine – High as Hope: THIS IS NOT AN ENDING.

Artist: Florence + The Machine
Album: High as Hope
Year: 2018
Grade: C+

In Brief: The stripped down approach and more starkly personal lyrics are a strong move… in theory. But this just plain doesn’t work for a powerhouse vocalist and an eccentrically creative songwriter of Florence’s caliber. The production mushes everything together whenever the music tries to pick up a little steam. The songs have an irritating habit of cutting off before they really feel like they should end. And whatever’s left of “The Machine” feels like it’s too timid to assert itself the way it used to.

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I’m With Her – See You Around: Hey, it’s a better band name than “Make Americana Great Again”.

Artist: I’m With Her
Album: See You Around
Year: 2018
Grade: B-

In Brief: A smart but subdued folk/bluegrass record from an all-female trio that at times appears to be holding back the full power of their vocal harmonies and songwriting skills. This took a while for me to fully get into, but I can now say that I’m with I’m With Her.

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What Am I Listening To? – August 2018

Lo Moon – Lo Moon
I’m listening to these guys because they’ll be the opening band when I go to see Chvrches in concert next month. They’re an L.A. band with a bit of a shoegaze/sophistipop vibe, which basically means an 80s pop style with indie rock aesthetics, and a generally slow-burning pace to most of their songs. (Oh, and the Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart is their guitarist’s dad.) I like the overall sound, but taken all together as an album, it can get a bit tedious. Occasional bits of unexpected instrumentation help, as do some of the more memorable drum cadences that occasionally rise above the smooth, even surface. On an emotional level, this sometimes reminds me of Paper Route’s mellower material. Their first single “Loveless” is the standout here for very good reasons, but there are some gems to be found among the deep cuts as well.

Jason Mraz – Know.
It’s fitting that the title of Mraz’s sixth album appears to be a rebuttal to that of his fifth album, Yes!, without any actual negativity, because this is basically more of the same. I’ve gone from loving Mraz’s first album, to feeling mildly positive about his next two, to mostly writing him off as a faux-philosophical Jimmy Buffet with only the occasional white boy hip-hop tropes and terrible lyrical puns to help differentiate him, and I’m sticking with that last description for this album. I will say that more of the songs here get stuck in my head than on Yes!, but then I realize that’s only because he’s ripping off “I’m Yours” for like the umpteenth time, and for all of the smarmy, self-referential quips in his songwriting, you’d think he’d be self-aware enough to realize this shit’s getting old FAST.

Plumb – Beautifully Broken
Plumb has managed to intrigue me over the last twenty years with musical styles ranging from trip-hop to dance-pop to lullabies, of all things. She was an early influence on Evanescence, and at one point, she sounded an awful lot like she had been influenced by Evanescence in turn. None of these were terribly original sounds, but they fit her subject matter pretty well. Her latter years haven’t been nearly as consistent, ranging mostly from middle-of-the-road pop to dull worship ballads. This album brings back more of the personal subject matter, and stylistically it’s in line with 2013’s Need You Now, minus any of the standout tracks that made that record tolerable. Her usual stock characters – overworked moms, distant lovers longing to be understood, troubled abuse victims who dress all gothy and stuff – populate this one in such a predictable manner that it honestly starts to feel a bit exploitative at times. There’s a difference between telling someone their brokenness can be redeemed and they’re loved for exactly who they are, and implying that God broke them on purpose just for the sake of the redemptive origin story, and a few of these songs (most notably the title track) veer uncomfortably close to the latter.

Death Cab for Cutie – Thank You for Today
Death Cab’s first album without longtime guitarist/producer Chris Walla doesn’t sound radically different from 2015’s Kintsugi to my ears. Much like on that album, they’re most interesting when they’re doing something rhythmic and up-tempo – their music’s a little too glossy at this point to really feel like something I can call “indie” or “emo”, but solid riffs and drum loops make a few of these tracks stand out, most notably the use of sampling in the lead single “Gold Rush”. Ben Gibbard’s usual relationship songs often feel rather possessive and one-sided, even when he isn’t deliberately going for that approach, so I’m not exactly the biggest fan of him as a songwriter, and I’m rather ambivalent about him as a vocalist most of the time, too. But I’ll give him credit for branching out from that subject matter for a few tracks that seem to explore what gives a city its identity, and whether heavy nostalgia for the way that city once was does a person more harm than good.

Sawyer – Easy Now EP
I enjoyed Sawyer’s opening set for Katie Herzig enough to want to hear more, but the duo doesn’t have a proper album out yet, so for now I’ll have to use this EP they put out in 2017 to get a sense of their studio sound. I like the twin guitar approach and the sisterly vibe they have, but a lot of the breakup songs feel like they’re covering ground I’ve heard a million young singers cover before, and the production plays it a bit too safe for them to stand out next to pop revivalists such as Haim that are clearly an influence on the duo. A few strong riffs and chorus melodies, most notably on “The Last Thing”, come closest to the winning personality they displayed in concert – I hope more of that will be heard if and when they get an LP together someday.

DeVotchKa – This Night Falls Forever
Well, I can finally scratch these guys off of the Watch List after several years of not knowing what the heck was going on with them. I’ve really missed this group’s highly dramatic blend of Latin, Eastern European, baroque pop and indie rock sounds ever since first getting into them with 100 Lovers back in 2011. I still have no idea why they vanished for so long, but it’s good to have them back. This new album seems to pick up where the group left off, perhaps with more oblique melodies and even more of a flair for melodrama, but also with some straight-ahead guitar-driven singles that are as catchy as the deep cuts on this album are downright odd. Since most of these tracks are in the 4-5 minute range, taking in the entire album at once can be a bit exhausting due to how much emotion Nick Urata seems to wring out of every note. (Imagine Joe Henry singing boleros, with Andrew Bird on hand for a vigorous whistling solo here and there, and you’ll kind of get the idea.) But there’s a lot of romance and heartbreak and intrigue waiting to be discovered as I dig deeper into this one. I’m looking forward to spending more time with it.

Katie Herzig live @ The Troubadour: Starting a revolution against our own confusion

Deep into Katie Herzig‘s set at the Troubadour in West Hollywood last night, as she was playing an acoustic version of the fan favorite track “Hologram” by request, two odd realizations suddenly came to me:

  1. Wow, this was the first Katie Herzig song I ever heard, and that was 10 frigging years ago.
  2. Why wasn’t this song a huge hit?!?!?!

Now, there are a ton of more-or-less independent artists I follow who seem to have a strong cult following on the Internet, and who I could get salty about in terms of the mainstream pretty much ignoring them. But a lot of them make music that might not be “catchy” in the conventional sense, so I’m cool with it not being mainstream radio fare. Katie Herzig, though, seems to be the type of unabashedly poppy singer.songwriter who should have had a real shot at some hits back in the late 2000s. I probably only think that because I’ve always been super out-of-touch with what it takes to actually make music popular, but regardless: “Hologram” was a fun, upbeat, ridiculously catchy, self-effacing song about relationship failure that should have found a much larger audience.

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The Innocence Mission – Sun on the Square: Some lost things I will hope to find

Artist: The Innocence Mission
Album: Sun on the Square
Year: 2018
Grade: B

In Brief: Though it took a few listens to get over the initial “every song sounds the same” impression I had of this album, there’s more diversity in the color, tone, and instrumental textures to be found on the group’s tenth album than I can remember there being on those old Innocence Mission albums I listened to well over a decade ago. Now that the modest little vignettes in a number of these hopeful, innocent little folk songs have begun to sink into my subconscious, they seem to offer sublime glimpses of eternity despite their almost ephemeral nature.

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Dave Matthews Band – Come Tomorrow: Let the children lead the way. (And let the dads make the dad rock.)

Artist: Dave Matthews Band
Album: Come Tomorrow
Year: 2018
Grade: B-

In Brief: The DMB’s comeback after a six-year gap between albums may not be the most attention-grabbing entry in their discography, but there’s a subtle richness to a lot of the instrumentation that makes it easier to tolerate the usual bits of hedonism and outright nonsense that tend to crop up in the typical Dave Matthews lyric. The band is showing its age a bit at this point, but they also seem to be quite comfortable with that age.

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Owl City – Cinematic: The soundtrack to a boring documentary you can’t even watch.

2018_OwlCity_CinematicArtist: Owl City
Album: Cinematic
Year: 2018
Grade: C

In Brief: Somewhere within this hodgepodge of bland personal anecdotes and ill-advised bits of genre-hopping, are a small handful of truly imaginative synthpop songs that remind me of why I once risked the scorn of fellow critics to proclaim that I actually liked Owl City. While sifting through 15 songs (and 3 alternate versions!) to find those rare gems is generally not a delightful experience, this album might still be a step up from Mobile Orchestra.

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