What Am I Listening To? – January 2015

The start of a new year means a lot of catching up on stuff folks recommended to me last year that I didn’t quite get around to in time. But there are actually a couple brand new releases in here somewhere. January turned out to be a better month for new music than I expected!

2014_AndrewPeterson_AfterAllTheseYearsACollectionAndrew Peterson – After All These Years: A Collection
Lesson learned: Never trust a compilation made after an artist hops labels. This is ostensibly a best-of collection with tracks voted on by fans, but everything from 2003’s Love and Thunder and earlier had to be re-recorded, and most of the new versions are decidedly more adult contemporary than the already mellow originals. (“Isn’t It Love” got the worst treatment, being stripped down to a rather slow and dull acoustic arrangement that takes all of the bright optimism out of its original, more fast-paced interpretation.) The two new tracks that bookend it are pretty good, and a few of my personal favorites did make the cut, but overall I don’t think this represent’s Peterson’s best work, especially since they completely ignored his 2004 holiday album Behold the Lamb of God, which might just be his strongest one.

2014_BrookeFraser_BrutalRomanticBrooke Fraser – Brutal Romantic
Where have I seen that name before? Oh yeah, the credits on Power Point slides during church services, that’s where. I’m sure I’ve reacted to a lot of Brooke’s contributions to the Hillsongs collective with a tepid, “Ah well, I guess it might be something special with a top-notch worship team taking eight minutes to slowly build it up to a reverent fervor, but I’m already getting bored with it after three.” So I was quite surprised to learn that she’s actually a bit of a pop star in her own right in her native Australia. This record speaks a different language than anything you’d associate with Hillsongs, and apparently even anything Fraser has done as a solo artist in the past, since she challenged herself to set aside the guitar and piano and write songs around electronic instruments and rhythms. The result is much like a cross between Lorde and Feist, in the best possible way. Most of the grabby earworms are upfront, showcasing Fraser’s knack for rhythm as she explores the nooks and crannies of international and interpersonal melodrama. The second half is more intimate and downtempo, but the record keeps a very human focus throughout. This won’t mean much to those who count God-references-per-minute, but this is exactly the kind of smartly crafted pop record that I could tell from the first note would be right up my alley.

2014_Martel_ImpersonatorMartel – Impersonator
I’ve never been a massive fan of the Canadian Christian rock group Downhere, but I enjoyed enough of their work to own a few of their records early on. After the band went on hiatus, co-frontman Marc Martel apparently became a bit of a viral sensation due to his uncanny impression of Freddie Mercury, that led to a bit of a second career actually portraying the man in an onstage Queen revival. His solo debut reflects a bit of the theatrical bombast of his musical heroes on a lot of its better tracks (which also brings to mind Kevin Max’s similar obsession on a few occasions), while settling comfortably into pop/rock story-song mode just like his old band did on a few others. This record both celebrates Martel’s influences and asserts who he is as an individual, aside from Queen and aside from Downhere, and I honestly never would have thought before that those two worlds would ever collide in the first place, but I’m pretty glad they did.

2014_Matisyahu_AkedaMatisyahu – Akeda
While I haven’t really approached any of his later albums with the same fervor and curiosity that 2006’s Youth inspired within me, I have a lot of respect for this man, once pigeonholed as a Hasidic Jewish reggae superstar, now wary of being pigeonholed into any particular genre or religious school of thought. His music still honors those roots but is willing to venture beyond them, which can lead to inspiring and downright fun urban pop anthems just as easily as it can lead to cliched middle-of-the-road pop with a vague Caribbean flavor to it, or on the flip-side, overly long interludes and outros that meander to the point of making his albums rather tedious to get through. Akeda, with its odd insistence on starting with a few of its slowest tracks, and its bizarre beatboxing during the eight-minute track placed second to last out of its 15, is long-winded to be sure, but there are some beautiful meditative moments and a few straight-up bangers somewhere in between that do manage to keep me interested.

2014_YoungOceans_IMustFindYouYoung Oceans – I Must Find You
I tend to applaud Christian musicians who defy audience expectations of their songs being full of clear God and Jesus references, and being easy to adapt to Sunday services. They just weren’t all meant to fit that mold, and quite frankly, I’ve become bored with the whole “contemporary worship” thing to the point where finding the willpower to actually go to church these days is quite difficult for me. Giving Young Oceans a listen was my attempt at an attitude adjustment, since they seem to take more of an artful and perhaps even a liturgical approach to modern worship, and I tend to appreciate bands who can put some real thought into the genre and not spend all of their time trying to clone Chris Tomlin. The problem nowadays is that writing heartfelt songs of praise  in this more reflective “indie rock” style that some might be tempted to brand “hipster worship” is that this seems to have become a trend in and of itself, one that has become easy to imitate without understanding the reasons behind it. Sometimes I feel like Young Oceans handles this with a smart and delicate touch; at other times I think they mistake slow repetition and Latin song-titles and other music tropes that make them sound deep and well-read for actual artistry. That makes this record a bit of a long one to slog through. Sometimes it’s the perfect soundtrack to late-night reading, the right thing to help move me back into that reverent headspace and away from the frustrations of the day. At other times, it just exacerbates the impatience that I’m trying to teach myself not to give in to so often. Whether that’s the band’s problem or my problem remains to be seen.

2014_JoeHenry_InvisibleHourJoe Henry – Invisible Hour
I keep trying with Joe Henry, because I have a healthy respect for what he does (and I kind of hope I’ll bump into him at some hip South Pasadena coffeeshop one of these days – if so, I don’t want to sound like a complete ignoramus). I generally can’t get into most of his stuff, not because it’s in any way bad, but just because he speaks a very different musical language from the artists I normally listen to. This record’s a little more “folksy” than his usual “sparse jazzy” stuff, so it might help to bridge that gap a little. But I still get the sense it’ll take a long time for me to fully appreciate it.

2014_FooFighters_SonicHighwaysFoo Fighters – Sonic Highways
The Foos are one of those bands that I feel like I should have gotten into somewhere over the past twenty years, but they never really stood out to me aside from the occasional catchy song that I enjoyed in passing. The concept of their eighth album was enough to intrigue me – they set up shop in eight different cities, one per song, learning about each city’s musical history and shaping their own songs around some of those stories. You could argue that U2 did something similar with Rattle and Hum all those years ago, but this isn’t an exercise in genre roulette, for the most part. Dave Grohl and co. are more interested in adapting the language of some of these musical icons who came before them into their own chosen genre of muscular alternative rock (with a few more moody/anthemic offerings in the back half), than they are with straight-up imitating jazz or country or even the grunge music from which the band was originally born. The resulting experiment might actually play it too safe on a few occasions (where Grohl comes off sounding uncannily similar to the Barenaked Ladies’ Ed Robertson, of all people), but on the better tracks such as the Nashville-inspired “Congregation” or the weary-but-wise perspective on Nirvana’s old hometown heard in “Subterranean”, I really start to warm up to the band, to the point where I wonder what other tricks Grohl had up his sleeve all these years that I never knew about.

2015_BelleSebastian_GirlsinPeacetimeWanttoDanceBelle & Sebastian – Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance
I really shouldn’t let comments on a YouTube video shape my first impressions of a record. I can almost predict where it’s gonna go these days when a band known for having some indie cred decides to go all-out dance pop, even for just the one song. Vicious cries of “sellout” will follow, and those will be among the kinder remarks. My personal history with B&S only goes back three albums, and I only liked two of ’em including this one, so I’m not exactly an authority here, but I like it when a band is willing to change up their sound and showcase different aspects of their musical and songwriting talent. I don’t always get where Stuart Murdoch is coming from, but I felt like he and I were on the same wavelength for most of Write About Love and I appreciated his willingness to hand the mic off to a few of his bandmates here and there for variety’s sake. Variety is the name of the game here, with the songs running the gamut from the old familiar warm & comfy twee pop sound of their old days to some rather bold electro-pop tracks that might just be as amusing as they are because I kind of admire the band for not caring how kitschy they sound. Fuzzier rock sounds and even a bit of old-world folk music creep in on a few occasions, making this rather long disc one hell of a mixed bag, but it’s certainly not something I’m ever tempted to tune out.

2015_SleaterKinney_NoCitiestoLoveSleater-Kinney – No Cities to Love
I’ve always loved that Portlandia is a sketch comedy show headed up by two musicians. Even when the sketches have nothing to do with music, they benefit from Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen’s weird ability to poke fun at the little details of why we do everything the way we do it and what happens when the sorts of weirdos a city like Portland tends to attract choose to not follow those unwritten rules. I was familiar with some of Fred’s shtick from Saturday Night Live, but I wanted to better understand where Carrie was coming from as a musician. Her one-off project Wild Flag didn’t really do it for me, but then she managed to get her old band back together, and while I realize this is more of an immediate and even (dare I say it) catchy record than what they might have been known for in the past, I definitely think this is more my speed. Corin Tucker’s vocals take some getting used to, as did Brownstein’s when I first heard them, but there’s a fun sense of defiance to it that says, “We care more about rocking your face off than sounding or looking pretty.” And that’s kind of sexy in its own twisted way.

2014_Sia_1000FormsofFearSia – 1000 Forms of Fear
You know what I fear? Excessive diva-styled warbling set to vaguely urban electro-pop music that seems designed more for mainstream success than to make some sort of an artistic statement. Judging from appearances, Sia’s all about making statements, since her eccentricities are easy to compare to the likes of Rihanna or Lady Gaga, and folks are more likely to be talking about the creepy dancers in her music videos or her tendency to perform from beneath a veil and deliberately face away from the audience, than they are about the actual music. The actual music’s not bad – “Elastic Heart” and “Chandelier” have wormed their way into my mind over the last few weeks, and I more or less welcome the invasion. But there’s an uncomfortable clash between the wanting to do something edgy and creative and confrontational throughout these twelve songs, and just wanting their infectious rhythms and twenty-syllable-a-second vocal acrobatics to resonate throughout mall corridors worldwide. Given the vulnerable subject matter, that seems to do her a bit of a disservice, so this album is kind of leaving me cold as a result.

2015_TheLoneBellow_ThenCametheMorningThe Lone Bellow – Then Came the Morning
I enjoyed the powerhouse vocal trio’s self-titled debut a few years back, even if the bulk of the album was a little too low-key for my tastes. They walk a fine line between contemporary folk rock and neo-traditional country music, which gives this record a good amount of variety – the loudest and softest moments here are perhaps more extreme than on their last album. Pacing-wise, this record is designed to surprise you, since it saves a few of its biggest barn-burners for the last half. That may help to keep my attention through 13 tracks that could otherwise seem long-winded. Any sense of cohesion is shot to hell as a result, but this is one of those bands I enjoy more for strong singles I can put onto mixtapes than for the “complete album experience”. I bet they’re dynamite in concert.

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