Django Django – Glowing in the Dark: Been here before, this time we’ll make it alright.

Artist: Django Django
Album: Glowing in the Dark
Year: 2021
Grade: B-

In Brief: With Django Django’s fourth LP falling somewhere into the cracks between indie rock and electronica, as they so often do, I’m not exactly blown away by most of the results, but I’ve found it to be a warm and inviting record that is easy to throw on for repeat listens, and a nice little escapist soundtrack for 2021, a year that feels like it’s slowly emerging from darkness toward something resembling light.

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R.E.M. – Reveal: How (Else) to Disappear Completely

Artist: R.E.M.
Album: Reveal
Year: 2001
Grade: B+

In Brief: While Reveal is not destined to be remembered by most people as one of R.E.M.’s great albums, I’ve had a soft spot for it since it was only a few years old. The sometimes murky mix of R.E.M.’s experimental electronic and acoustic reflective modes, with almost nothing reminiscent of the more urgent sound of their alt-rock heyday, means that most of these songs are growers and a first listen isn’t likely to blow you away. But there are plenty of beautiful moments and intriguing turns of phrase here that feel like a snapshot of R.E.M. at a relatively healthy and upbeat moment in their lives. It’s an ideal record to put on while reading, journaling, meditating, or just plain lying back and relaxing on a long, languid summer evening.

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Jon Foreman – Departures: I’m sure you’ve got your reasons, but I have my doubts.

Artist: Jon Foreman
Album: Departures
Year: 2021
Grade: B-

In Brief: While it’s always nice to hear what’s on Foreman’s mind, the lack of an obvious theme on his third solo release makes it a little more difficult to track with some of the individual songs or understand how they fit into the overall picture. The mostly low-key, folksy style gets a little monotonous as the album wears on, but there are some instrumental surprises as well as a few guest vocalists and producers to help add color to the sound here and there. Departures is a good record with lots of insightful songwriting, but it doesn’t quite measure up to the potential realized on his seasonal EPs and The Wonderlands.

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Five Iron Frenzy – Until This Shakes Apart: Why is grace now civil disobedience?

Artist: Five Iron Frenzy
Album: Until This Shakes Apart
Year: 2021
Grade: B

In Brief: If you can forgive some awkward wordplay and some self-effacing humor that doesn’t quite tickle the funny bone, the celebrated ska/punk outfit actually has quite a bit to say that’s worth hearing on this album. More of it seems to be devoted to politics and social justice this time around, but the message is very much in keeping with their past material in this vein. It’s not quite the home run that Engine of a Million Plots was, but since this is now two albums past the point where we never thought we’d hear from Five Iron again, I really can’t complain too much.

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Foo Fighters – Medicine at Midnight: Is there more to this than that?

Artist: Foo Fighters
Album: Medicine at Midnight
Year: 2021
Grade: B

In Brief: The Foos set out to make a “dance-rock” record, and in their own weird way, they sort of succeeded at it. Aside from a few outliers, you shouldn’t expect a ton of depth here – and you definitely shouldn’t expect a ton of content. But the shift from Foo Fighters’ usual shtick that puts the spotlight more on their rhythm section actually shows us a band that secretly wants to have fun, underneath all the aggressive angst that has been their calling card since the 90s. And you know what? I can roll with that.

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The Decemberists – The Crane Wife: We’ll make our homes on the water.

Artist: The Decemberists
Album: The Crane Wife
Year: 2006
Grade: A-

In Brief: The Crane Wife is The Decemberists’ masterpiece. Pretty much everything they did well in the old days is on display here – the complex multi-part suites, the lilting folk anthems, the foreboding rockers, and even some of their finest pop songs. It’s not the farthest they’ve ever gone down the conceptual rabbit hole (that was their next album!), but it hits the sweet spot in terms of having a wealth of songs you can enjoy individually or as part of the larger tapestry being woven from start to finish.

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Liam Singer – The Ocean: It’s Always Ourselves We Find in the Sea.

Artist: Liam Singer
Album: The Ocean
Year: 2021
Grade: C+

In Brief: It might not be fair to judge The Ocean as though it were a full-length album, since it began life as an EP of loosely related compositions that were conceived in quarantine. You’ll only get three or four “songs” in the traditional sense here, with the other eight being instrumental or spoken word tracks. I could see this working well for a peaceful, meditative walk or drive along the coastline, and I admire the intent behind it, but coming off of the masterpiece that was Finish Him, it’s hard not to feel more than a little let down.

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Darlingside – Fish Pond Fish: The Daily Dawning of a Green New Age

Artist: Darlingside
Album: Fish Pond Fish
Year: 2020
Grade: B-

In Brief: Darlingside’s fourth LP is a bit of a frustrating step backwards toward safety and predictability. Their four-part harmonies are immaculate as always, but that might be part of the problem – their performances are so well-groomed that there’s little room for risk or experimentation. It becomes a crutch that they rely on to put meat on the bones of otherwise thinly constructed songs, which unfortunately makes this album a bit of a bore once the percussive delights heard in its first half fade into a string of interchangeable ballads.

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