What Am I Listening To? – November 2014

2014_AphexTwin_SyroAphex Twin – Syro
This isn’t the first time I’ve checked out an Aphex Twin album on a lark. I reviewed Drukqs back in the day, and I really didn’t know what the heck I was talking about, because that probably isn’t the place a newbie would want to start with Aphex anyway. It’s all over the place and feels rather thrown together. But even on a comparatively more cohesive album like Syro that seems to be getting a lot of acclaim from the fanbase, it’s quite apparent that I’m probably never going to “get” Aphex Twin. I like quirky, rapid-fire electronic rhythms that menacingly sneak up on you as they grow and change throughout the duration of a track. I like a lot of groups that do weird things with vocal samples. But no matter what Aphex does (short of abruptly switching to mellow piano for a track, or featuring samples of someone’s R-rated conversation in a club), it all sounds the same to me. At this point, I’m willing to take Aphex devotees at their word when they tell me this is brilliant, and just move on.

2014_ThomYorke_TomorrowsModernBoxesThom Yorke – Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes
Speaking of Aphex devotees, Radiohead’s frontman is clearly one of them, and he seems to have been spending most of his solo career (and a fair chunk of his main gig) trying to emulate his hero. This stuff actually has lyrics and song structure, for the most part, so for me there’s a little more of an entry point. But Yorke minus his bandmates is a tough sell for me. The ingredients are there – glitchy electronic beats, super melancholy lyrics, disorienting ambiance… I’ve listened to Radiohead long enough to enjoy these things even when they take me far from the conventional alt-rock landscape. But most of these songs lack soul. They lack humanity. They feel like exercises in which any possible sense of joy or spark of inspiration was summarily banished from the room. A track or two might hold up well by itself, but taken as a whole, this thing is monotonous. And I still have a bone to pick with Yorke for (a) being such a stick-in-the-mud when it comes to making his music available on Spotify, and (b) putting out such short albums that end up feeling half-assed as a result, because what little material is there generally pales in comparison to his best work from yesteryear.

2014_SteveTaylorthePerfectFoil_GoliathSteve Taylor & The Perfect Foil – Goliath
All hail the Almighty Kickstarter! It has this mysterious power to end the longest-running hiatuses as far as the careers of old favorite musicians are concerned. There’s also PledgeMusic and Indiegogo, of course… but what I’m saying is, it’s a great time to get the old band back together, or in Taylor’s case, throw together a new one and resume writing such witty and incisive material that it starts to feel like you were never gone. Jimmy Abegg, John Mark Painter, and former Newsboys frontman Peter Furler make up The Perfect Foil, and they live up to their name, creating the sort of crunchy and oddly catchy alternative pop/rock that feels like a perfect follow-up to Squint, which was the last record Taylor released until now, and the one that got me hooked… in high school. It takes talent to skewer modern church culture, politics, technology, and other contemporary issues that I’m probably missing as I try to unravel his lyrics, and to do it without sounding like a curmudgeonly grandpa pointlessly griping about the things those kids do nowadays that he doesn’t understand. Taylor’s still got it. The Church needs its court jester, and it’s great to finally have him back.

2014_Copeland_IxoraCopeland – Ixora
Also getting the band back together, but not after nearly as long of a break, is Copeland, who broke up in 2010, but who probably should have just told us they needed a little time off, because a 4-year break is still less time than it takes U2 to get an album out these days. I guess it was more a matter of Aaron Marsh having a strong enough compulsion to write and record new material and the other guys being available to make it come to life, because he likely wasn’t planning this when the group parted ways. The result isn’t exactly an epic comeback, but if you know Copeland, than you know that “small is the new big” is pretty much their M.O. In Motion was their peak in terms of conventional indie pop/rock arrangements, and then from Eat, Sleep, Repeat onwards, they’ve been consistently stripping away the layers, carefully crafting delicate textures with the piano and various electronic sounds, and layers upon layers of Marsh’s fragile vocals. Ixora is an even quieter record than You Are My Sunshine, only really bringing percussion or guitars to the forefront in two or three of its ten tracks. But as with all things Copeland, it wears its heart on its sleeve. The aim of this record seems to be an exercise in mental time travel, trying to preserve beautiful moments from a long-dead relationship in amber, taking a page from some of Anberlin’s more low-key, emotional material as it asks questions about what could have been and what could still be. Copeland albums always need a lot of time to sink in before I can figure out what makes some of those delicate moments so brilliant. So I probably won’t review this one until after the new year has come and gone.

2014_TVontheRadio_SeedsTV on the Radio – Seeds
Is it just me, or is TVOTR gravitating toward the middle of the road? This album isn’t a bad one – plenty of catchy rhythm tracks and thought-provoking lyrics and strong tag-team vocals to go around. But I feel like the rap, R&B and funk influences have diminished this time around. Those were part of the fun of first getting my head around the band’s sound on Dear Science. I suppose Seeds is a livelier record than Nine Types of Light as a result of the music being more straightforward (and don’t get me wrong, I’ll be blasting “Happy Idiot” and “Could You” like there’s no tomorrow), but it’s also one of their longest so far, and by somewhere around track 9 or 10, I want to beg them to change things up a little and throw something like a “Dancing Choose” or a “Love Dog” or a “No Future Shock” my direction just to keep me from feeling like I’ve got them figured out.

2014_Wilco_WhatsYour20Wilco – What’s Your 20?
This 20-year Wilco retrospective covers highlights from each of their studio albums (plus the Mermaid Avenue collaborations with Billy Bragg), in more or less chronological order. I hadn’t gone back any farther that Summerteeth, so this is my first exposure to their older material. It’s a lot to take in at once, and even revisiting the albums I’m already familiar with can get tedious if I don’t break the huge track listing of this double disc collection into smaller chunks. I find myself wondering if these are fan favorites or band favorites or a little bit of both. (My personal favorite, “Impossible Germany” made the cut, so I guess I can’t complain.) I feel like mixing up the order could have helped; it’s sort of dull to have four straight tracks from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot presented back-to-back in their original order. Juxtaposing old and new would make this a more interesting listen for me, but I guess I could always just shuffle it. (I still need to check out the companion release, Alpha Mike Foxtrot, which collects unreleased tracks from the same time period, but something tells me that one could be rough going.)

2014_HouseofHeroes_HarktheHouseofHeroesSingHouse of Heroes – Hark, the House of Heroes Sing
A brief little 3-song EP from a band who usually manages to cram good things into such small packages. Unfortunately their Christmas release isn’t one of those packages. I was hoping for some acapella goodness here, but they don’t really play to their vocal strengths, nor do they attempt any epic rocking on these carols. It’s more of a feel-good, pop/rock approach, and the song selection doesn’t really jive with that. Also: How can they give it such a title without actually including a version of, “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing?” This thing’s a miss on so many levels. Um, just get that concept album done that you were supposed to be working on guys. I loved the Smoke EP, and a new LP would sure be an awesome way to ring in my new year.

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