What Am I Listening To? – June 2014

Here are my first impressions of the latest releases from The Secret Sisters, Sleeping at Last, Linkin Park, Umphrey’s McGee, Ed Sheeran, Andrew Bird, and Parker Millsap.

2014_TheSecretSisters_PutYourNeedleDownThe Secret Sisters – Put Your Needle Down
This neo-traditional country duo swings back and forth between peppy “girl group” songs from a bygone musical era and more brooding alt-country ballads, with a heavy emphasis on songs about breaking up with good men and wishing you knew how to break up with the bad ones.

2014_SleepingatLast_CoversVol1Sleeping at Last – Covers, Vol. 1
Have you ever heard goofy 80s songs like “Safety Dance” or “Private Eyes” and thought, “Gee, what this really needs is a stripped-down, sensitive, acoustic arrangement, so that I can really focus on the heartfelt lyrics?” What do you mean, “No”? Well, too bad, because someone somewhere thought it would be a great idea to have Ryan O’Neal record these songs to underscore sensitive scenes in dramas like Grey’s Anatomy. Yeah, even for an SAL diehard like me, this is a bit difficult to defend. One or two of these songs might benefit from the arrangement, I guess. (“Total Eclipse of the Heart” has some pretty awesome key changes no matter how much you strip it down.) But for the most part, when listening to this, I’m slightly embarrassed for him. But then I figure, if it pays the bills and makes it possible to continue cranking out mostly excellent original material at such an ambitious rate, then soft rock on, dude.

2014_LinkinPark_TheHuntingPartyLinkin Park – The Hunting Party
It’s interesting to hear Linkin Park set aside the laptops for most of an album and focus on more of a raw, hard rock sound. Despite getting off to an awful start and wasting a few of its celebrity cameos, The Hunting Party shows a heck of a lot of growth for an album that they’re describing as a Hybrid Theory prequel.

2014_UmphreysMcGee_SimilarSkinUmphrey’s McGee – Similar Skin
These guys’ albums are usually a bit of a buffet – you’ll get all sorts of tasty sounds mixed together with little rhyme or reason, and a bigger helping of all of them than you can easily digest in one sitting. With this album, they reined in some of their more out-there forays into funk, R&B, and acoustic instrumental music, and aimed to make a solid rock album from front to back. It still seems a bit all over the place at first, with songs like “The Linear” and “No Diablo” not quite fitting into the overall aesthetic (even though both are quite good). But once they hit the title track, they just knock it out of the park clear from there to the end of the album (especially when guitarist Jake Cinninger takes over on lead vocals – dude coulda fronted a metal or stoner rock band back in the day!) If you’ve avoided these guys in the past because you fear anything that sounds “jam band-y”, then this one might demonstrate how they can tighten up their studio performances a bit and wisely let some of their poppier songs wrap up more concisely, without losing the progressive, exploratory nature that makes their longer tracks such an adventure to listen to.

2014_EdSheeran_xEd Sheeran – x
I’m pretty easily impressed with anyone who can wow the crowd with hyperactive acoustic guitar playing and a bit of a funk/rap affectation on a genre of music that might otherwise be considered “coffeehouse”. That makes it easy to get into Sheeran’s catchier songs like “Sing”. And he’s no slouch on the mellower ballads, either (“Tenerife Sea” is an early standout that makes me want to take a flight to the Canary Islands right the heck NOW.) But then I listen closer to the lyrics and there’s just way too much getting drunk/high and screwing going on here. I guess I sort of appreciate the self-censoring on an otherwise harsh song like “Don’t”, which was allegedly so his daughter could listen. But then why write the song that way in the first place? I feel like Sheeran’s heart is in the right place, but there are too many voices dictating what enigmatic pop icons are supposed to do in this day and age, that cloud his judgment when he’s in the middle of writing a song that would’ve been perfectly effective without the posturing.

2014_AndrewBird_ThingsAreReallyGreatHereSortofAndrew Bird – Things Are Really Great Here, Sort of…
It can take a long time for me to fully grasp what’s happening on any given album by Andrew Bird. The man is a poet and a multi-instrumental genius who excels at creating mesmerizing songs from the sparest of ingredients. But sometimes, given all that raw talent, his music is surprisingly subdued. He’s just not a “wall of sound” type guy, and so some of his most clever moments can take me forever to notice. Here, I’m one additional step removed from the apparent genius behind the material, since this is a tribute album to an act called The Handsome Family, whose work Bird has apparently covered quite a bit over the years. I know nothing about them, and while at first glance I might have not even known these weren’t Andrew Bird originals, I suspect that some of the same personality quirks that have stood out to me in tracks of his I’ve enjoyed in the past might not show up in full force here. Time will tell.

2014_ParkerMillsap_ParkerMillsapParker Millsap – Parker Millsap
I discovered this gravelly-voiced country singer from Oklahoma on a total fluke. I was searching Spotify for songs about various places in California, and his track “Yosemite” came up in the search, and I fell in love with it. That gave me little warning about what the rest of the album was like – the dude isn’t afraid to show his red state (or is it red man state?) roots, and some of these tracks are real howlers. We’ll see how much of it catches on.

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