I decided to get this month’s “What Am I Listening To?” column out of the way early, since December is a slow month for new releases and I’m mostly busy reviewing my favorites from the year gone by, in order to get those all written up by December 31st. So here are all two of the new records I’ve managed to check out this month.
Falling Up – Silver City
This Christmas-themed release was one of THREE albums that Falling Up put out in 2013, but after the absolutely phenomenal Hours and the just-okay Midnight on Earthship, I didn’t want to oversaturate myself with their music, so I saved Silver City for this December. The band’s tendency to write sweeping, majestic melodies and weave obscure narratives into their cinematic brand of synth-rock is both a strength and a weakness as they strive to re-work old carols into their unique musical context. Sometimes the results are understated but beautiful, as heard on “Silent Night” and the first of their two takes on “O Holy Night”. Sometimes they’re brash and energetic, as heard on their robot-rock take on “Sugarplum Fairy” and their Mannheim Steamroller-inspired instrumental version of “Carol of the Bells”. And sometimes they’re just long-winded and too caught up in an unfortunate tendency to noodle about on their instruments without really going much of anywhere, which is most problematic on the seemingly interminable “Emanuel” and the unnecessary reprise of “O Holy Night”. (It takes a lot of effort to turn my favorite Christmas carol into my least favorite track on a holiday album; they should have quit while they were ahead with the first version.) The beauty and the bombast merge most effectively on their soaring version of “Song in the Air”, which has one of those melodies that rivals the deliciousness of my favorite tracks from Hours, as it quite heralds the arrival of a cosmic King from afar. Not even the ridiculously over-the-top panning from left to right speaker and back at the end of that one can kill the good mood it puts me in. The record closes with a suite of what I’m assuming are three original compositions by Falling Up – the instrumental, piano-driven title track and its quiet reprise, serving as bookends to a long and curious story song called “The Little Robot”, which I haven’t even begun to understand. All in all, about 50% of the material here is solid, so it’d be a strong Christmas EP if the band had edited down some of the more tedious passages in the other songs. Still worth a listen if you skip around those potholes, I suppose.
The Digital Age – Rehearsals, Vol. 2
I guess this is round two of the former David Crowder Band members experimenting with whatever hymn and modern worship covers were inspiring them at the time, without worrying about what would fit into an album later on. The first Rehearsals EP back in 2012 was a good appetizer for their full-length debut Evening:Morning, and I was pleased that their cover of “All the Poor and Powerless” made the final cut for the album. Here, the big flavor-of-the-year praise song being highlighted is “Oceans (Feet May Fail)”, which is given a slight electronic makeover, but which otherwise doesn’t really grab me for the same reason it hasn’t grabbed me when I’ve heard it in church. It just isn’t nearly as strong of a song to begin with. Elsehwere, their takes on old hymns and more “liturgical” material flirt with both electronica and country sounds, though not at the same time like Crowder did on his solo debut. Their up-tempo, banjo-driven take on “Blessed Assurance” is probably my favorite of the bunch. And whoever’s doing their best Johnny Cash impression on the closing track “Take Me Home”, I have to admit they had me fooled into thinking that was a cover of some obscure song of his I didn’t know about at first (it’s actually an original). Overall this isn’t as strong as the first EP or their full-length, and I’m starting to wonder if I’m going to get diminishing returns as these guys put some distance between themselves and their years with Crowder. At least there’s enough stylistic diversity here to show that they haven’t quite devolved into “generic modern praise band” territory. But they’re getting uncomfortably close to it at times.