Foo Fighters – Concrete and Gold: Heavy Metal in My Bones

2017_FooFighters_ConcreteandGoldArtist: Foo Fighters
Album: Concrete and Gold
Year: 2017
Grade: B-

In Brief: Content-wise, it’s nice to have more to work with than on Sonic Highways, but a strong front half sets up far too lofty expectations for an anemic back half. Foo Fighters can still rock my face off with the best of them, but their softer/more experimental side doesn’t quite hold my attention like I wished it did.

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What Am I Listening To? – November 2017

2017_CircaSurvive_TheAmuletCirca Survive – The Amulet
It’s easy to characterize this as a “softer” Circa Survive album, simply because Anthony Green is doing more melodic stuff with his vocals and less screaming. There’s still some heaviness there, but not every song needs it, and in scaling back the roughness, it continues a pattern established by their last few albums. I’m OK with this, as it leads to highlights that are still fast-paced and beautifully performed, such as the gorgeous vocal performance in opening track “Lustration” and the complex drum rolls and math-y rhythms of “Tunnel Vision”. Where Green brings out the angrier, more acidic side of his voice, as on “Never Tell a Soul” or “Rites of Investiture”, it’s a welcome change of pace rather than it being an overbearing thing that has to happen in every song like some harder rock bands feel the need to do. It’s an evolution similar to Thrice about 10 or 12 years ago, and it’s no mistake that the two bands recently toured together. I will say that I have difficulty telling a number of the songs apart, even after several listens, due to the similar pace of most of them and the more melodic focus overall, but that also means the results aren’t as uneven as they were on Descensus, which had stronger highlights but was more of a mixed bag.

2017_Owel_LiveFromAudioPilotStudiosOwel – Live From Audio Pilot Studios
10 of the 12 tracks from Owel’s excellent sophomore album Dear Me are reconstructed pretty faithfully in a “live in studio” setting here, with non-album track “All I’ll Ever Know” squeezing its way into the set. (Sadly, “Annabel” and “Places” don’t make an appearance – both were personal favorites of mine.) While there are no radical surprises in these renditions, it’s neat to hear the chimes at the end of “Albert and the Hurricane” segue perfectly into “Slow” (these were the two bookend tracks on the album), and overall I’m impressed at how well the band can pull off their complex and multi-layered sound in a live setting. This must have been recorded before violinist and backing vocalist Jane Park left the band – I hope they manage to find a suitable replacement for her, since her instrument (as well as the keyboards she plays on several songs) is pretty integral to a lot of their work.

2017_RinaSawayama_RINAEPRina Sawayama – RINA EP
Born in Japan and raised in England, this young singer/songwriter unabashedly draws from R&B and teenybopper pop sounds from around the turn of the century. I wasn’t super into this sound at the time, but reviews emphasizing the creative production and interesting themes explored in these songs made me figure it could be worth a listen. I like a lot of it for the same reason I enjoy Kimbra’s music – it’s a smart take on a genre that only works for me when the songs have interesting melodic twists and turns, don’t exist solely to cram an obvious pop hook down your throat, and feel like they have something to say beyond the typical love songs and breakup songs and style with no substance. Rina throws a number of odd curveballs throughout this mini-album – edgy rock guitars, key changes you just plain don’t see coming, a slick R&B duet, some interludes that I really wish had been expanded into full songs, and intriguing commentary on what it means to connect with other humans in the Internet age. She’s definitely one to watch – I hope a full-length album is forthcoming to show us more of what she’s got on her mind.

2017_Tennis_WeCanDieHappyEPTennis – We Can Die Happy EP
A 5-song set from the married duo who so effortlessly made me fall in love with their music on Yours Conditionally earlier this year. Those songs could well be from the same sessions or recorded shortly thereafter – a few show off slightly more dance-y rhythms, but just about any of them would feel at home on the album, making me wonder why they ended up on a separate release in the first place. Opening track “No Exit” is the standout here, but there really isn’t a dud in the bunch, and I love how the Beach House-y closing ballad “Building God” feels like it could segue right back into “In the Morning I’ll Be Better”, completing a 15-song set meant to be listened to on a loop.

2017_Evanescence_SynthesisEvanescence – Synthesis
Evanescence’s long-awaited fourth album is mostly old material, re-recorded with orchestral instrumentation and electronic percussion in place of the heavy guitar riffs and rock drums heard on their previous records. This may be the result of Amy Lee following a personal muse that her old label kept her from following for many years, or it may just be a smart rebranding of a sound that made Evanescence massively famous and then rapidly fell out of favor with mainstream audiences. Either way, while I miss some of the rocking energy of some of the songs from Fallen and The Open Door that made the cut, it’s a second shot at life for several tracks that I had honestly forgotten about from their lackluster self-titled album (most of which sound almost unrecognizable on first listen), and there are two brand new songs and a few instrumental segues to round out the set as well. Taking it all in at once is a bit much, and I don’t think leaning so heavily on old material bodes well for the future of Evanescence, either as a band or a solo act, but it’s nice to hear old favorites given a new creative spark, and one wonders if this might have been the direction Evanescence intended all along, if not for the interference of their label during the heyday of nu-metal. A few of these songs, such as “My Immortal”, “Lacrymosa”, and “Secret Door”, were pretty heavily focused on piano and/or strings in their original versions, which can sometimes mean that there’s not as much to reimagine in these versions. What I really hope for is that this record, which drops the rock side of their sound almost completely, leads to a truer synthesis of the classical and heavy rock sides of Evanescence if/when they actually manage to record again as a full band.

2017_BarenakedLadies_FakeNudesBarenaked Ladies – Fake Nudes
I really wasn’t looking forward to this one. The Barenaked Ladies will probably never get out from under the shadow of departed co-founder Steven Page, and for a while there I was surprised that they kept trying, since the material on Grinning Streak and Silverball was largely inferior, even when compared to Ed Robertson’s material from their older records. I’m not gonna say that this record will bring back old fans in droves, but you know what? Against all odds, it makes me HAPPY. I seriously mean that. Even though the opening ballad “Canada Dry” is a bit of a sad folk song, and several of the other highlights are the more downbeat tunes, I feel like Robertson and co. had stronger inspiration for a lot of these songs. With that said, a number of them are still quite silly and goofy, and they band’s back to a point where it seems they’re not at all concerned with being taken seriously as mainstream rock stars. They’re perhaps prouder to immediately identify themselves as uniquely Canadian here than they’ve been since the early days, rather than trying to blend into to the American hit radio scene, which has had no use for them in a very long time anyway. This disc brings together a lot of their musical influences in unexpected ways, pushing them a little further from the middle of the road that they stubbornly clung to on their last few albums. Kevin Hearn is genuinely coming into his own as a sidekick to Ed – he gets a co-write and/or lead vocal on nearly half of the album, and with a Jim Creeggan track thrown in as well, the band is starting to feel more democratic again, instead of just feeling like the Ed Robertson show. Robertson is better off creatively when he doesn’t have to carry the weight of a record mostly by himself.

2017_Bjork_UtopiaBjörk – Utopia
I honestly don’t know what to do with this one. At over 70 minutes, it’s Björk’s longest album, which is saying something when Vulnicura was already a bit of a gauntlet to get through. While Utopia is a much happier record overall due to Björk apparently being back on the dating scene and experiencing the thrill of new love again, that doesn’t necessarily translate to more up-tempo music. Thumping beats and electronic experimentation still play a role here, but it’s far diminished compared to Björk’s 90s work or even the softer incarnation of it on VespertineVulnicura was a dark record, but it at least had a variety of musical moods, and it felt like it had enough tracks with more anchored melodies and structures to balance out the more spacey, experimental stuff. Here, the first two tracks remind me strongly of Vespertine, and I pretty much instantly fell in love with them, while most of the rest of the album is a long, slow crawl full of trilling flutes and birdsongs and pregnant pauses in the middle of long, spacious songs. Björk’s melodies often reach out like tendrils, seeking hooks that they haven’t yet found, and while I could tolerate that sort of defiance of rhythm and traditional song structure here and there on her past albums, it gets really annoying when she does it track after track here. Despite this being one of Björk’s more easygoing records mood-wise (outside of the few tracks where she rails against her ex-lover and the patriarchy in general, at least), it may well be her most challenging work thus far.

Josh Ritter – Gathering: When it finally rains, it pours.

2017_JoshRitter_GatheringArtist: Josh Ritter
Album: Gathering
Year: 2017
Grade: B-

In Brief: This one’s got some ramshackle romps, some haunting ballads that plumb the depths of the soul, and some laid-back country numbers. Yep, it’s a Josh Ritter album, alright – though I wouldn’t say it’s a career landmark this time around.

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Alt-J – Relaxer: Don’t do it.

2017_AltJ_RelaxerArtist: Alt-J
Album: Relaxer
Year: 2017
Grade: C

In Brief: Alt-J has gone from being a groove-laden, psychedelic indie band occasionally interrupted by dull ballads, to a band largely focused on ballads, some of them lushly orchestrated and some of them rather dull, occasionally interrupted by jarring rockers. It’s not a good look.

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The Killers – Wonderful Wonderful: And I shall give thee moderate cause to rejoice.

Artist: The Killers
Album: Wonderful Wonderful
Year: 2017
Grade: B-

In Brief: The Killers are probably always going to strike me as a highly inconsistent band. I can’t decide whether I want them to be more serious or more silly, and they often swerve in one direction when I’d expect them to go in the other. But they make a good case for both sides of their personality on their fifth album, which shows some genuine maturity in places without casting off their fun, glammy side. I’d say it’s their best work since Hot Fuss, actually.

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What Am I Listening To? – October 2017

Lights – Skin & Earth
So I guess this is Lights’ first concept album? The songs are supposed to follow the storyline of a comic that was published online in monthly installments leading up to the release of the full album. I haven’t dug into the comic just yet, so I can only take a guess at what sort of story these songs are telling – perhaps some sort of a relationship saga ultimately leading to betrayal? In terms of sound and subject matter, there’s not much different here from Lights’ usual synth-driven sound, which is always pleasant and youthful in nature, but which only rarely excites me these days. On this record in particular, it’s the rush of the opening number “Skydiving” that does it for me, as well as the more aggressive, guitar-driven “Savage” and the R&B-tinted ballad “New Fears”, the latter of which is honestly one of her most vulnerable and best-written songs. The rest is mostly forgettable, unfortunately – for upbeat dance-pop, it often feels like it’s just not hitting as hard as it ought to, which makes this Light’s mellowest record, if only by a matter of small degrees.

Cool Hand Luke – Cora
I honestly didn’t expect Cool Hand Luke to put out any more albums after Mark Nicks, the sole remaining member of the band, put out Of Man as his farewell release before heading off to seminary in 2011. His first album back, while not as directly Biblical as that stunning study of Christ’s final days on Earth, is an intriguing one, embracing dance and electronic overtones on several tracks, which makes the bass grooves stand out first and foremost on quite a few of them. Doesn’t sound like the kind of thing that would fit an act who has traditionally sung about weighty themes of faith and conviction, but there’s still a bit of rock edge to some of it as well as the expected piano ballads, so this is more of an augmentation of the CHL sound rather than a complete genre-hop. The lyrics in the more “playful” songs actually do manage to justify the experimentation, and ultimately, while this is still more of a record you’d put on to have deep thoughts to rather than to dance to, it accomplishes what it sets out to pretty well.

Marah in the Mainsail – Bone Crown
Once I got used to the extremely gravelly vocals of Austin Durry, I found that I really enjoyed Marah in the Mainsail’s overall aesthetic on their first album, Thaumatrope. Apparently that was a concept album and I didn’t even realize it. Their follow-up is more obviously thematic, with the songs all being about various woodland creatures engaged in a fight for dominance. I love the presence of horns on a few of these tracks – they add a nice dimension to the band’s sound that makes some of the more “battle-oriented” songs feel especially urgent. One of my chief complaints about Thaumatrope was that they had a female vocalist in the band but didn’t seem quite sure how to use her for more than the occasional backing vocal and one track where she sang lead. Here, she plays more directly off of Austin, singing lead on a handful of tracks that feel like they have a reason to portray events from the point of view of a character that needs her voice instead of his. I have some minor issues with the production making some of the softer and eerier moments here difficult to appreciate when you’re not wearing headphones, but aside from that, this is a really solid listen. Throw The Decemberists, The Last Bison, and mewithoutYou into a blender, and you’d get something sorta like this, I guess.

Passion Pit – Tremendous Sea of Love
I’m just gonna say this even if it might be an unpopular opinion: I liked Passion Pit a lot more during that brief window of time (basically their second album Gossamer) when they felt more like a band than a solo project. I can’t blame Michael Angelakos for following his muse, even if he had to let go of pretty much all of his bandmates to do it, and since I appreciate his honesty where issues such as mental health are concerned, I can’t make a convincing argument for why his music should continue to be more commercial and label-driven. As an artist, he’s better off doing what he wants to do without any artificial parameters placed on it. And I admire his decision to release an album largely made up of “first drafts” that he didn’t have to slave over in the studio forever and ever, available free of charge to an audience whose attention he cares about much more than he does their money. With that said, a lot of these songs are even more obnoxious and ineffectual than some of the tracks that were already pushing the limits of my patience on Kindred. You don’t go into a Passion Pit record without having a high level of tolerance for falsetto vocals and a wide array of neon-colored, high-pitched noises. I certainly understand that much by now. But on this one, where a number of the tracks are largely instrumental and based more around sampling than any conventional song structure, it’s an endurance test even for me, despite the album only being 35 minutes long. I can appreciate Angelakos as a man trying to work through personal struggles with his art, offering his life as an open book for anyone who might benefit from listening in. But as a musician, he gets on my last damn nerve.

Derek Webb – Fingers Crossed
Speaking of albums that are endurance tests… I think Derek Webb has officially entered what I like to call “The Father John Misty Zone” with this one. I’ve always been intrigued by what Webb has to say, even if sometimes the music (which is a combination of mostly downbeat folk music and a little bit of electronica) can be a little on the dry side. This one’s got 13 tracks, several stretching past the five minute mark, and it’s over an hour long as a result. Considering the unrelenting darkness and cynicism stemming from some of the worst years of Derek’s life that transpired between his last album and this one, it’s a formidable set of songs that takes a lot of courage for me to even approach. I don’t want to say that this album is solely about the extramarital affair he got caught red-handed in that led to his divorce from Sandra McCracken in 2014 and the apparent persona non grata status he’s had in the music industry he once called home since then, but it clearly informs a lot of the dark days and difficult questions he ponders here. He’s completely uncensored on this one, so if his use of a few mild-to-medium-strength profanities on past albums bothered you, you’re gonna want to steer clear for that and a few other reasons as well. The struggle I have when listening to this one is to what extent I should feel compassion for Derek as he goes through an apparent crisis of faith leading him to wonder if he was never truly one of God’s chosen, or whether those who have criticized his actions and apparently cut off all fellowship with him were doing so in defense of a wife and family whom he wounded very deeply, even though he’s expressed remorse for doing so. It’s good for music to challenge me, so I think it’s worth the effort to try to understand the anguish he’s communicating here (often quite poetically, though sometimes rather harshly), even if I think to some extent he’s sleeping in a bed he’s made for himself, and this doesn’t constitute a believable reason for lashing out at God. I’m not gonna lie – this is a rather soul-crushing listen, and because of that, I’ve only made it through this one twice thus far.

Queens of the Stone Age – Villains
QOTSA is one of those bands that I want to like, due to the heaviness and slight campiness of their sound. It feels like they’re one of the few straight-up rock bands still enjoying a fair amount of mainstream success these days. But for some reason, even when they’re trying to be more upbeat, even a bit dance-y as they are on this Mark Ronson-produced set of songs, the songs feel a bit too stifled, too labored over to truly bust out of their cages and be the menacing monstrosities the band seems to want them to be. I hear some solid riffs throughout this record, some catchy grooves, some interesting math-y rhythmic detours, and the occasional more progressive song structure. Maybe even a few lyrics that amuse or intrigue me here or there. I can’t say any of it’s bad. It’s just that none of it excites me all that much.

I can’t decide if it’s just my own personal hangups that make the inherent sexuality in a lot of St. Vincent’s songwriting come across as off-putting, or if it’s an effect she’s deliberately going for. Some might be tempted to label her as indie rock’s answer to Lady Gaga, but I think it’s more a case of both women paying tribute to personal heroes like David Bowie in their music. This album feels more immediately “grabby” in the pop hook department than either of her last two did (though it wasn’t for lack of trying on either of those), and when it works, as on “Pills”, “Los Ageless”, and “Sugarboy”, those hooks stay in my head for days. There’s more of a sharp contrast between the glammy, bouncy rockers and the ballads on this album, with the sad story “Happy Birthday, Johnny” as a standout, and the more piano-driven “New York” being a potential tear-jerker… if only she hadn’t ruined a passionate farewell to the aforementioned musical hero with her repeated use of the big M-F bomb. Sometimes I feel like she’s got something genuinely intriguing to say; at other times I feel like she’s just trying to get a rise out of her audience, and maybe that’s just me still being more of a prude than I want to admit, but it keeps a lot of St. Vincent’s music at arm’s length for this listener.

Kevin Max – Serve Somebody EP
Kevin Max as a solo artist has always been rather erratic in terms of his output, but especially so following his brief stint with Audio Adrenaline, where he can’t seem to decide between two potential personas: “aloof teller of dystopian science-fiction tales” and “straightforward crooner serving up the classics to win back the crowd”. He’s always worn his influences on his sleeve, but perhaps never more obviously than on this EP, where he covers old-school pop and rock songs by the likes of The Call, Mr. Mister, U2, Rich Mullins, Bob Dylan, Larry Norman, and uh, dc Talk. That last one seems a bit self-serving (pun!), but to be fair, “Red Letters” was never even a single, definitely more of a deep album cut that you’d have to be more than a casual fan of dc Talk to appreciate, so I don’t mind him reliving his own glory days with that one, even if it doesn’t sound as powerful without Mike and Toby to back him up. Honestly, none of this is as good as the source material he’s covering, and the rule of cover songs is supposed to be that you either deliver it with at least the same amount of oomph fans of the original would expect, or else you go in a different direction and boldly make it your own, and Kevin isn’t quite daring enough to do the latter convincingly when he tries to, nor does he quite have the swagger to pull off the former, so this EP is a bit of a lukewarm mess as a result. To be fair, I’ve always disliked the Bob Dylan song from which the EP gets its name (and I know it’s sacrilege to bag on Dylan, but bear with me here), and there are two versions of that one here for me to endure – one rock, one Gospel, both rather insufferable. And having one of those right next to Larry Norman’s “Righteous Rocker” only serves to highlight the fact that it’s basically the Jesus Music version of the same lyrical conceit. So those three tracks may be coloring my opinion of the entire thing. Still, even with the songs I initially liked that he’s taking on here, I’d rather listen to the original any day.

Iron & Wine – Beast Epic: Sorry, but I don’t think either of those descriptors applies here.

Artist: Iron & Wine
Album: Beast Epic
Year: 2017
Grade: C+

In Brief: Sam Beam is a skillful songwriter, his voice is always soothing, and his lyrics are always intriguing. But his decision to revert back to the simpler style of his earlier efforts makes for a rather underwhelming album. I like both the layered, experimental side of Iron & Wine and the hushed, laid-back, folksy side, and it seems like a step backwards to cast off one side for the sake of the other.

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