What Am I Listening To? – October 2014

2014_TheLastBison_VAThe Last Bison – VA
Though they were one and done on the major label deal that gave us Inheritance just last year, you wouldn’t know it from listening to this backwoodsy “baroque folk” outfit’s third full-length album. The lessons learned as they sharpened up old songs for a wider audience on their previous album translate well to a lively set of new songs here, some alight with bells and strings and stomping percussion, and some more reflective, open-ended, and incredibly breathtaking as a result. Ben Hardesty is an acquired taste as frontmen go, but his ragged voice is much easier to “acquire” here, thanks to him reining in some of its edgiest tendencies. Even though there might not be anything as career-defining as their epic “Switzerland” here, it’s their strongest collection of songs as a whole, with so many standout tracks that it’s hard to pick a favorite.

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Alt-J – This Is All Yours
“This is all bullsh*t”, was my first impression of the confusing and frustrating follow-up to An Awesome Wave – a record which was probably mostly bullsh*t as well, but it was rhythmic, psychedelic, tongue-twisting and fun bullsh*t. Here they’re minus a bass player and, apparently, a major creative force in the band, and while their trademark percussive grooves and twisted choirboy vocal breakdowns come out swinging on several tracks, they’re mixed together with a lot of quiet and frankly rather dull material, bringing the album to a screeching halt whenever it threatens to really get going. For all of their attempts to tie related thoughts together with song suites and sequels to older songs and so forth, and to catch tastemaker blogs off-guard by sampling Miley Cyrus, the material just isn’t strong enough to warrant the musical whiplash. There’s something wrong when my favorite tracks on an album are the fun old-school rocker they wrote just to mimic “normal” rock music tropes, and the sneaky Bill Withers cover that got slipped in as a hidden track.

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Jenny Lewis – The Voyager
This is one of those records that was recommended to me because I like a simple, tuneful pop/rock album from time to time. I have no frame of reference for Jenny Lewis’s past work (unless you count seeing The Wizard as a kid). So I don’t know whether this has always been her thing or whether she’s an underground rock chick finally indulging a love affair with mainstream pop a la Liz Phair. All I know is that this one really isn’t hitting home with me. Not a whole lot really stands out to me instrumentally (aside from the keyboard chords at the beginning of the first track sounding eerily similar to “Pennsylvania” by Jars of Clay, of all things), and the lyrics are just TMI. I get that this was one of those honest, cleansing sort of singer-songwriter records that sweeps all the skeletons out of the closet, and some folks appreciate that sort of candor in a songwriter. I’m just not really grasping the lessons learned in any of it, or really anything that I can relate to in the process.

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Sara Groves – The Collection
Sara Groves is one of those artists who I nominally still follow, but who hasn’t really captured my interest throughout an album since 2004’s The Other Side of Something. That, and especially 2002’s All Right Here, which first got me into her music, are well-balanced record that show off her fun-loving pop and folk sensibilities while also spotlighting her tender and thought-provoking piano ballads, which I’m guessing are the point of entry for most of the folks who listen to her nowadays, considering how heavily her last few records emphasized those. She’s got a gift for wit and storytelling that is uncommon in Christian music these days, so I respect her even though I don’t listen to her all that often. This retrospective collection, which pulls together a whopping 27 songs, four or so of them brand new, into a 2-disc set, feels like a mix tape made for me by someone who wants me to go back and notice a lot of those mellower ballads that weren’t the obvious hit singles nor the quirkiest experiments. There’s no “Less Like Scars”, no “All I Need”, no “In the Girl There’s a Room”. Some of the picks were likely a surprise to veteran fans, I’d suspect, though there are a few mellower “deep album cuts” that I remember enjoying back in the day which were nice to go back and relive. I’m reminded of how much I missed the boat on “You Are the Sun” and a few other highlights from Add to the Beauty, which is represented by more cuts on this collection than any of her other albums. And I loved finally getting to hear her own take on “Lay It Down”, the track she wrote (but did not sing on) for Jars of Clay’s The Shelter project in 2010. But an 11-track album from Sara is hard for me to sit through these days, so 27 is just asking way too much. This is a walk down memory lane that I have to take in short segments.

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Lights – Little Machines
I was a little concerned when I heard that Lights was deliberately headed in more of a mainstream direction with this one, writing song’s with the audience’s enjoyment in mind and not so much with the tendency to experiment. Siberia wasn’t a perfect record, but I appreciated its muddier touchers, its deep bass lines going into the red, its unabashed dubstep and IDM influences, and heck, even its rap breaks that drew derision from a lot of her fanbase. But song for song, Little Machines might edge out both of her previous albums. It certainly starts strong, and quite unexpectedly, with the tranquil, reflective “Portal” taking everything that you shouldn’t do at the beginning of a big pop album and somehow making it work. Big, fun singles “Running with the Boys” and “Up We Go” are up next, and from there it steps down from brilliant to merely good for several songs, then deflates to merely average by album’s end. I tend to cherry-pick more than I listen all the way through with Lights’ albums anyway, so having a solid two-thirds of the record before things start to feel a bit ho-hum is better than her usual.

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My Brightest Diamond – This Is My Hand
Wow, I really did not see this one coming. There were some cute and thought-provoking songs on Shara Worden’s previous album , 2011’s All Things Will Unwind, that spoke to me even though their mostly mellow, classical-leaning style didn’t always work wonders for me. She might have been in the “Respect, but don’t often listen to” category just like Sara Groves. This album is a brave leap forward for Shara, maintaining the fluttering woodwinds and the dramatic horns and all of those other Sufjan Stevens-y touches, but throwing a hell of a lot of percussion at it, both live and electronic, and I am totally in love with the weird synthesis of genres that came out of this. Opening track “Pressure”, with its drum corps banging away, may be the catchiest thing she’s ever done, but the front half of this album is track after track of creative genius, and while the back half mellows a bit, it doesn’t lose the intriguing synthesis of electronic beats and baroque pop instrumentation. Her voice seems so pure and motherly that it’s hard to imagine her having a sinister side, but a few of these songs are deliciously creepy, while “Resonance” lives things up near the end, boggling my mind as I try and keep track of its time signature, a seemingly impossible task with everyone doing something different at the same time.

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Jennifer Knapp – Set Me Free
Given the inevitable controversy when Jennifer decided to come out as a lesbian right before the release of her comeback album in 2010, I almost expected that the uncharitable response from a lot of folks who liked her back in her “Christian music” days might just drive her back into seclusion. Things were rather quiet in the Knapp camp for a few years, but thankfully she’s still recording. Letting Go wasn’t a “coming out” album, per se, and Set Me Free follows suit by speaking in largely universal terms about hurts and fears and judgments and sweet moments of falling in love that are enhanced if you know the backstory, but that are still beautiful in their own quiet way if taken on more general terms. It’s a very mellow album – even more so than The Way I Am, so those looking for the gutsy vocals and guitar licks that first wowed them on “Undo Me” or “Inside” (depending on how far back you go with her music, I guess) will be largely disappointed, outside of the excellent opening track and maybe one other song. It’s not an album I see myself returning to a whole lot for that reason. But a few of her lyrics hit the nail on the head regarding so-called brothers and sisters who have failed to love her, and that sort of subject matter is really important to me, as a Christian who is trying to figure out how believers who have a difference in understanding regarding what the Bible says on such a hot topic as homosexuality can still exist as a community and actually demonstrate real love for one another, and whose church is currently trying to figure that out on a very practical level.

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OK Go – Hungry Ghosts
OK Go is easy to write off as another one of those silly power pop acts with nothing to say and a ton of gimmicks to distract you from it in their Facebook-baiting music videos. But they experiment a lot more than I think they get credit for, and while their new album is a touch more up-tempo and crowd-pleasing throughout than Of the Blue Color of the Sky was, there still aren’t very many moments where I’d accuse them of coasting and making by-the-numbers pop/rock. Electronic tinkering rules the day on a lot of these songs, while playful disco influences keep popping up here and there, all of it a bit over-the-top at times, but definitely designed to put a smile on your face. (The last third does limp a bit due to its tracks all being mid-to-slow-tempo, but that’s a minor issue.) The two biggest and catchiest tracks on the album have already been given the epic single-take video treatment, and I’m sure more will follow, but even if there was nothing to look at, I’d still be playing the hell out of this one for the foreseeable future.

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