What Am I Listening To? – March 2015

2015_TheDecemberists_WhataTerribleWorldWhataBeautifulWorldThe Decemberists – What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World
My search for Pacific Northwest-based bands a few months back reminded me that I’d run across this band from time to time over the past several years, but never really given them a chance because their lead singer had one of “those” voices. Nowadays, that doesn’t really even register. So I figured it was high time for me to take the plunge. My first impressions were positive, and I’ve been spinning it quite a bit throughout the month of March, so I must be finally getting into this band. Front half is a lot stronger than the back half, but there are 14 songs here, so there’s plenty of room for the band to attempt the occasional out-of-genre experience that only sort of works for them.

2015_TheLastBison_DoradoEPThe Last Bison – Dorado EP
This is basically four leftover songs that didn’t make the cut for VA last fall. Not because the material was subpar; just because it didn’t seem to fit anywhere. Personally, I think these tracks would have improved an already strong album – three of the four are excellent, with the title track lagging behind only slightly at “pretty good”. I’m always excited to hear more from this band, and it was nice to at least have some brief familiarity with the songs before seeing the band live (when they played the entire EP except, sadly, for “You Are the Only One”, the surprisingly subdued and lushly gorgeous ballad that closes it out).

2015_KevinMax_BrokenTemplesKevin Max – Broken Temples
So let me get this straight… Kevin left Audio Adrenaline so that he could make an album full of generic programmed dance/pop songs just like the ones he sang for Audio Adrenaline? On paper, I don’t have a problem with energetic dance/pop music. Even if it’s radio-friendly. And I don’t have a problem with Kevin writing the occasional less oblique, more “devout” lyric. But I was drawn to Kevin’s solo work because it was offbeat and pulled from a variety of influences. Aside from some interesting bits of dissonance on the two “Derek Webb remixes”, there’s no mystery to this album. (Other than that it makes me ponder the mystery of whatever happened to Derek after the bombshell he dropped on us last year, and whether anyone else in CCM-land is brave enough to ever work with him again.) And those remixes are 2 out of 10 tracks that appear not long after the original versions of the songs they’re reworking, so this isn’t even really much of an “album”. Maybe some of this will grow on me later, but on first listen, I’m super-disappointed.

2015_ModestMouse_StrangerstoOurselvesModest Mouse – Strangers to Ourselves
Modest Mouse isn’t exactly at the top of my list of bands I’ve been pining for a new record from, since their albums tend to be highly erratic and I tend to enjoy them more for individual songs such as “Dashboard” than for the full listening experience from end-to-end. Still, when a band goes 8 years between records, you have to wonder what’s up. I can’t argue with a band taking its time, especially when the end result is 15 tracks and a solid hour of music. But inconsistency is still an issue here, almost to the point where the band seems to be following a template despite how much they keep tinkering with their sound over the years. There’s a lot of material that’s surprisingly middle-of-the-road here despite Isaac Brock’s manic vocal delivery and his often darkly cynical subject matter. The singles stand out in a huge way, especially “Lampshades on Fire” and “The Ground Walks, with Time in a Box”. (And if the latter isn’t one of their most amusingly odd song titles, I don’t know what is. Then again, so is “God Is an Indian and You’re an A**hole”, which is barely even a song, so maybe don’t give away the one joke you’ve got in the title, guys.) Some of the other scattered tracks are intriguing. But making it all the way to track 15 is a really tedious endeavor.

2014_Neulore_AnimalEvolveNeulore – Animal Evolve
I really enjoyed this duo’s vocal and guitar interplay, and their chemistry with the audience, when I saw them open for The Last Bison this month. Unfortunately, not much of those appealing traits are immediately apparent in listening to their first full-length EP, which has some admirable arena-sized choruses and intimate ballads, but much of which is shrouded in a cloud of keyboards and murky pop production. It just doesn’t compliment their strengths. This is the kind of record where I might hand-pick a few favorite songs, but they’ll pale in comparison to my first impressions upon hearing them in concert.

2015_SufjanStevens_CarrieLowellSufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell
Definitely a quieter record than Sufjan’s usual, but emotionally it packs a hell of a punch. I came in expecting something like Seven Swans, stylistically speaking, because everyone who has heard it points out that it’s more hushed and acoustic. But I was surprised at the inherent “ambiance” in some of these songs – those quiet little moments of reflection where a simple (presumably electronic) tone poem takes over, as it does during some of the quieter moments of Michigan or Illinois. That makes his choice of words in a few songs all the more shocking, though that aspect of the album doesn’t dominate it. It’s extremely confessional, even when doing so doesn’t paint the singer in the best light.

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