The Flaming Lips – Oczy Mlody: Hey, it beats Slimy Miley.

2017_theflaminglips_oczymlodyArtist: The Flaming Lips
Album: Oczy Mlody
Year: 2017
Grade: C+

In Brief: This album is to The Flaming Lips what Hail to the Thief was to Radiohead. It’s a summation of past sounds, perhaps a bit of a breather after two of their most experimental and alienating albums, but a record whose overall flow and concept suffers due to the attempt to paste together sounds and styles that have worked for them in the past.

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Ed Sheeran – ÷: Appealing to the Lowest Common Denominator?

2017_EdSheeran_DivideArtist: Ed Sheeran
Album: ÷
Year: 2017
Grade: B-

In Brief: Ed takes his music in a few new directions that I appreciate, and occasionally he shows some real wit in the songwriting department. But so much of this album feels calculated to clone the success of past singles and to pander to as wide an audience as possible. It drags down an otherwise enjoyable experience.

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What Am I Listening To? – March 2017

2017_EdSheeran_DivideEd Sheeran – ÷
I made the obvious joke when this album first came out that critics would be strongly divided over it. Har har. But I have found that there’s a pretty strong “love it or hate it” factor to a lot of Ed’s genre-hopping here. X already felt like a bit of a compilation of “Here’s all the different styles of music Ed likes to play around” with; this one’s even more so, with his occasional rap breaks and even a bit of Celtic influence showing up at times among the more conventional, guitar-based, singer-songwriter fare. I’m frustrated with this one because my favorite musical moments tend to be paired with some of Ed’s more hedonistic lyrics (the guy sure sings about drinking and sex a lot, even while he’s trying to remind you life is about more than these things), and the better songwriting tends to show up in the more subdued songs. “Dive” is the one track so far where I feel like he hits the mark on both music and lyrics. His vocals on that song (as well as a few others) are just incredible. But then there’s a string of tracks in the back half of it that make up for it by being poorly written and not terribly interesting to listen to. So yeah, it’s a rough ride.

2017_TheShins_HeartwormsThe Shins – Heartworms
The Shins have this pattern of tantalizing me with some of their most intriguing, rhythmic material at the front of an album, and then settling into predictable indie pop patterns midway through that they never really recover from. Broken Bells has that problem too, but so far, both of their albums are more consistent than anything I’ve heard from The Shins. I just can’t bring myself to get excited about most of this record, despite James Mercer trying his best to give every song a distinctive sound and his vocals generally being a delight to listen to. The end result I end up remembering little bits of songs more than I end up remembering the actual songs as a whole. That’s usually not a good sign.

2017_ValerieJune_TheOrderofTimeValerie June – The Order of Time
Valerie June’s mixture of R&B/soul with rootsy southern elements was really interesting to me on her last album, Pushin’ Against a Stone. I didn’t like everything about that album, but it was an interesting window into a few genres I don’t normally listen to, so I felt like I wasn’t properly equipped to form a strong critical opinion on it. That’s probably even more true with this album, which puts a lot of Valerie’s more downbeat material front and center, saving the barn-burners for later in the album. I understand that it’s more about expressing a feeling than it is about instrumental prowess. But a lot of this record feels repetitive to me, and I also find myself getting annoyed with her vocals more often than I can remember being a problem on her last record. I’ll give it a few more tries, but I’ve got the sneaking suspicion that I’m not the intended audience for this one.

2017_JescaHoop_MemoriesAreNowJesca Hoop – Memories Are Now
I had never heard of Hoop until her collaboration with Iron & Wine’s Sam Beam on last year’s Love Letter For Fire, which was an underwhelming record that had a few charming standouts nonetheless. It seemed that the collaboration between two wildly creative artists ironically boxed in both of them. Jesca’s solo material, at least on this record, seems rather sparse, full of unusual instrumentation but often only lightly adhering to a steady rhythm. It’s not quite as out there as Joanna Newsom, but it’s headed in that direction. I can appreciate the imaginative approach she takes with her lyrics, particularly in the eyebrow-raising closing track “The Coming” where she describes a loss of faith over a brooding six minutes. This album will probably reveal more surprises to me as I dig more carefully into its nooks and crannies. But the first few listens were a bit of a struggle for me to get through despite there only being nine songs.

2016_LewisDelMar_LewisDelMarLewis Del Mar – Lewis Del Mar
Since Lewis Del Mar (which is a duo, not the name of an actual guy) was first described to me as indie rock with a Latin twist, I initially pictured something like Trails and Ways. That picture immediately dissolved when I heard the fuzzed-out, chaotic bass and drums that open the record, the kinda-raspy but soulful vocals of lead singer Danny Miller, and the collages of conversation and found sound that creep into the gaps in several of their songs. There’s definitely some Latin influence there, particularly in the convergence between the acoustic guitars and the syncopated beats, but there’s a restless experimental tone to much of this record that brings to mind groups like TV on the Radio or As Tall as Lions. I suppose you could throw in a little Vampire Weekend, since that’s everyone’s favorite go-to comparison when tropical rhythms make their way into indie rock music. But Lewis Del Mar won’t be easily mistaken for any of those bands. Sometimes their approach is a bit disorienting, but I like the “never know what you’re gonna get” aspect of this album, and it’s probably the one I’ll keep coming back to the most out of anything new that I gave a try this month.

Hidden Figures – The Album: They Want the Moon, I’m on Mars.

2016_variousartists_hiddenfiguresthealbumArtist: Various Artists
Album: Hidden Figures: The Album
Year: 2016
Grade: B-

In Brief: The rare movie tie-in album that I enjoy both as a listening experience in and of itself, and as a strong reminder of key scenes in the film that inspired it. Despite a few moments that fall flat or don’t seem to relate directly to the film’s plot, Pharrell Williams did a pretty good job writing and arranging these songs, and picking the right female voices to bring most of them to life.

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Eisley – I’m Only Dreaming: You, Me, and a few less DuPrees

2017_eisley_imonlydreamingArtist: Eisley
Album: I’m Only Dreaming
Year: 2017
Grade: B-

In Brief: While Stacy and Chauntelle’s departure is a pretty serious drawback here, Sherri does an admirable job of keeping the Eisley sound her fans know and love intact, while also experimenting with new sounds here and there. This works better than expected, aside from a few maddeningly generic songs that probably would have been left out had her sisters been around to contribute their own material.

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KT Tunstall – KIN: Pull it apart and put it back together how you want it.

2016_kttunstall_kinArtist: KT Tunstall
Album: KIN
Year: 2016
Grade: B

In Brief: It’s not as bold and inventive in the production and songwriting department as Tiger Suit, but KT wanted to make another pop album after the stark, downbeat Invisible Empire // Crescent Moon, and I’ve got to admit that this side of her is more my speed.

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Elbow – Little Fictions: I prefer to think of them as “Fun Size Alternative Facts”.

2017_elbow_littlefictionsArtist: Elbow
Album: Little Fictions
Year: 2017
Grade: B+

In Brief: This album goes down smoother than The Take Off and Landing of Everything, though it may not have as much dynamic range, or as many climactic or startling moments. Some recent personal and professional changes in the band lineup lead to a sunnier and surprisingly more groove-based Elbow record, which I’d say is more accessible than their last few without radically altering their sound.

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