Doves – The Universal Want: Back to the Old Fairgrounds

Artist: Doves
Album: The Universal Want
Year: 2020
Grade: A-

In Brief: A rock solid comeback from a British rock trio that I’ve sincerely come to miss in the ten years they’ve been gone. Unlike a lot of reunion or post-hiatus albums I’ve heard recently, this is more of a streamlining and less of a reinvention. The grooves are more percussive, the hooks are more immediate, and what Doves may lack in experimentation this time around, they more than make up for with consistent, compelling performances. This is an excellent rock record in an era where they’ve become increasingly more difficult to find.

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Lewis Del Mar – AUGUST: I need to reach a life outside my mind.

Artist: Lewis Del Mar
Album: AUGUST
Year: 2020
Grade: B

In Brief: It’s not quite the “technicolor masterpiece” that I know the duo still has in them somewhere, but Lewis Del Mar shows some solid growth and surprising relatability on their sophomore release. Their more diffuse, experimental tendencies are nicely counterbalanced by the sharpness of the acoustic guitars and Latin-flavored rhythms, and this time around it feels like there’s more of an intended structure to the record, which might not be as wildly mood-swingy as some of the extremes on their first one, but which feels cohesive enough to take the listener on a journey from a place of isolation and transience to one of peace and belonging by the album’s end.

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What Am I Listening To? – September 2020

A few of my longtime favorites dropped new releases this month – with one of them coming as a complete surprise! Here are my first impressions of the latest from Doves, Everything Everything, The Flaming Lips, Fleet Foxes, Sufjan Stevens, Sylvan Esso, Blitzen Trapper, The Gray Havens, and Will Butler.

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Billie Eilish – Don’t Smile at Me: You’re italic, I’m in bold.

Artist: Billie Eilish
Album: Don’t Smile at Me EP
Year: 2017
Grade: B

In Brief: I sure would love to have been in the know when Billie’s debut EP first started making waves a few years ahead of the bombshell that was When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? Her musical style and lyrical narratives were ridiculously all over the place at this early stage, but considering that this stuff all came from the minds of two teenage siblings, it definitely shows imagination and ingenuity beyond either of their years. (And also a few moments that I can only imagine must have made their parents worry a little bit.)

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Finneas – Blood Harmony: When Our Younger Siblings Become Ridiculously Famous, What Do We Do?

Artist: Finneas
Album: Blood Harmony EP
Year: 2019
Grade: B+

In Brief: While Finneas’s take on minimalist indie pop obviously shares some DNA with the sound he helped his sister to cultivate, there’s a little less darkness and more playfulness (and also less whisper-singing!) than you’d expect from a Billie Eilish record. Throw in a little bit of Ed Sheeran, some Michael BublĂ©, maybe a dash of Avicii, and a pinch of Yoav or Bon Iver due to the occasional use of live looping, and that’s pretty much the Finneas O’Connell recipe. It works quite well, especially when it leaves a clever lyric exposed just as it’s about to take a hard left turn.

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My Morning Jacket – The Waterfall II: Ooh, I wonder where the time went.

Artist: My Morning Jacket
Album: The Waterfall II
Year: 2020
Grade: C+

In Brief: I’m more inclined to call this album a series of deleted scenes from 2015’s The Waterfall than a true sequel to it. While I’m glad that the material finally saw the light of day, and there are a few potential classics to be unearthed here, most of the material is overly slow and ponderous, and it doesn’t hang together well as a continuous listening experience. MMJ is capable of doing mellow mood-setters quite well, but usually it’s because they remember to slowly ramp up the guitar pyrotechnics, and lean on their vintage psychedelic rock and R&B influences. A number of these songs seem quite stark due to those elements being scaled back, which makes The Waterfall II their most tepid and tedious listening experience since the band’s early days.

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Tyson Motsenbocker: Someday I’ll Make It All Up to You: I want better days to miss.

Artist: Tyson Motsenbocker
Album: Someday I’ll Make It All Up to You
Year: 2020
Grade: B-

In Brief: Sound-wise, this is pretty standard singer-songwriter fare, but I do appreciate Tyson’s observational skills as he engages in warm nostalgia on some tracks while openly questioning its value on others. From easygoing love songs to a witty rumination on the deconstruction of a person’s faith, he’s got a good variety of subject matter here that just needs more of a distinctive musical stamp to really help him stand out from the pack.

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Florence + The Machine – Ceremonials: Every Color Illuminates

Artist: Florence + The Machine
Album: Ceremonials
Year: 2011
Grade: B+

In Brief: Even though How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful was my entry point into this weird and wonderful band, and remains my favorite album of theirs, Ceremonials might just outclass it in terms of consistency and sheer ambition. It’s the point where the music and lyrics best match the scope of Florence Welch’s hauntingly beautiful voice, with each song rising into the night sky like a weird incantation meant to bring all manner of ghosts and spirits out to play. It’s not every day that an artist can play with spiritual warfare as an aesthetic and have me raving effusively about the results.

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Haim – Women in Music, Pt. III: I’ve been trying to find my way back for a minute.

Artist: Haim
Album: Women in Music, Pt. III
Year: 2020
Grade: B-

In Brief: The Haim sisters are all over the place on this record. It’s encouraging to hear them branching out from their nostalgic blend of pop/rock, but I have to be honest and say that some of these experiments land with a dull thud, and their attempts to be more forthright and adult in their lyrical content are occasionally a bit jarring. Also, the decision to tack on their three singles from late 2019 as “bonus tracks” is a baffling one. Still, this was one of my most anticipated albums of 2020 and it was a bummer to see it get pushed back due to the pandemic, so I’m glad we finally have some new Haim tunes to crank up, even if a lot of them are weird ones.

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