What Am I Listening To? – May 2015

Here are my first impressions of the latest releases from Kathryn Calder, Mumford & Sons, My Morning Jacket, Punch Brothers, Incubus, Lifehouse, The Nor’easters, and Trails and Ways.

2015_KathrynCalder_KathrynCalderKathryn Calder – Kathryn Calder
Calder’s third solo record is a bit more reserved and spacious than her 2011 effort Bright & Vivid, but despite being an introverted record, it’s still indie pop with disarmingly beautiful melodies and eccentric instrumental choices. It’s one of those albums that can fade into the background if you’re not listening intently, due to the downplayed percussion on several tracks, though it still gives us the up-tempo “Take a Little Time” and “My Armour”, both of which are instant highlights. I feel a real sense of loss in some of the achingly lovely melodies strewn throughout the rest of the album. The whole thing doesn’t flow as beautifully from one track to the next as her last record did, but I’ve warmed up to it quite a bit nonetheless.

2015_MumfordSons_WilderMindMumford & Sons – Wilder Mind
Mumford & Sons are such an easy target. It’s a bit of a cliche at this point to criticize them for abandoning their folksy sound with the stacked vocal harmonies and going totally electric for this album. It still bugs me that they did it, though. It’s not that I can’t be open-minded about a band experimenting with different genres. It’s just that it seems disingenuous to completely abandon something you did reasonably well in exchange for something at which your talents are middling at best. M&S was an often predictable, but still effective folk act. They played those instruments like they wanted to be rock stars at times, so mixing in a bit of rock influence wasn’t necessarily a bad idea on paper. They just would have been better served to merge these elements rather than completely casting off their old sound. It seems like they’ve cynically jumped ship upon they realizing the whole “Americana revival” trend that got them so much press back when they first hit the music scene was losing steam. An artist making a sound they truly loved to make wouldn’t care about such things, right? Despite all of that, I do find a few of the guitar solos and chorus melodies to be strong, particularly in the opening track “Tompkins Square Park”, and the single “Believe” – once it lifts off from its uninspired synth intro, of course. Those tracks would have been nice curveballs on a record that was more about expanding the group’s sound rather than completely rebooting it. Unfortunately, they’re among the few creative surprises on a record that seems to think we’ll be excited the third or fourth time a quiet, meditative song that we have to turn the volume up just to hear suddenly shifts to mindlessly banging on massive power chords midway through. Once they’ve played that card, it gets really tedious to hear them keep doing it, and the tracks where they don’t do it mostly come across as ineffectual, mushy, non-committal pop/rock. Coldplay comparisons may abound, but Coldplay at their most banal churns out more consistent records than this.

2015_MyMorningJacket_TheWaterfallMy Morning Jacket – The Waterfall
My Morning Jacket may have started out as a “Southern rock” sort of band, but for as long as I’ve been into them, they’ve taken their love of the 1970s by the reins and barely stopped to look back. Maybe they were hinting at that before I got on board with Evil Urges? I don’t know. That record and Circuital didn’t exactly rock my world, but they had some solid highlights, and The Waterfall looks to bring a splash of progressive/psychedelic rock into the mix, which is not exactly a surprise since they’ve flirted with these sounds before, but here they have a couple tracks that really benefit from allowing the musicians to jam on a tasty riff for more than the length of a typical radio single, and it works in their favor, with only the album closer “Only Memories Remain” growing tedious as a result of it. The first four tracks on this record are all phenomenal for very different reasons, some of them electrifying and some all lush and chilled out, while a few deep album cuts later one provide a welcome break from the humdrum balladeering that tends to load down the back half of a typical MMJ album. The lyrics are mostly metaphysical B.S. aside from a straightforward breakup song or three, but I’ll grant them that it’s some really fun B.S. to listen to.

2015_PunchBrothers_ThePhosphorescentBluesPunch Brothers – The Phosphorescent Blues
Punch Brothers are one of those bands who have undeniable talent, but most of their work sails straight over my head. I can’t really criticize it because I can tell they’re using the language of jazz and classical and other genres of music I’m not terribly familiar with to flesh out their exploratory bluegrass sound. I just feel a bit cold sometimes when so many of their songs appear to sprawl out in several different directions, so I gravitate toward the more conventional hooks and song structures, a tendency that I seem to criticize others for when less out-there bands who are among my personal favorites attempt something more experimental and their audiences balk at the lack of obvious radio singles. I guess Nickel Creek is more my speed in terms of appreciating Chris Thile’s songwriting and mandolin prowess, and now that they’re back together, Punch Brothers can resume being really out-there, which they only partially took a break from on 2012’s Who’s Feeling Young Now?, the one record of theirs that I can make any real sense of. I’ll admit it – they’re just too smart for me.

2015_Incubus_TrustFallSideAIncubus – Trust Fall (Side A)
Incubus is back after another long hiatus… and after the stillborn disappointment that was If Not Now, When?, I was honestly ready for them to go away again for a while. The good news is that the funk and alt-rock influences are back. Even a tiny bit of metal influence, moreso in a few of the riffs than the actual speed or energy. There are some interesting grooves and unconventional ideas here that could have shown up on a lost Incubus record at some point in the early 2000s. The bad news is that the lyrics are sophomoric as all hell, devoting two entire tracks to lame dance parties and make-out sessions while trying to wow us with the high-concept, meaning-of-life shtick on the other two. Nothing here is terribly compelling, even if it occasionally gets my head bobbing. And calling it “Side A” pretty much breaks rule #1 of record naming in the rock & roll biz – you should never declare something to be the first in a series unless you know for a fact that you’ll wrap that series up and not get sidetracked by some other spur-of-the-moment idea (or just tepid sales). This puts it in company with such ill-conceived flops as Limp Bizkit’s The Unquestionable Truth (Part 1), but now that I think of it, maybe it’ll be a good thing if a side B never gets made.

2015_Lifehouse_OutoftheWastelandLifehouse – Out of the Wasteland
I can’t help but take this album title as a dig at Lifehouse’s last effort, Almeria, which… well, I’ll admit it, wasn’t a hit. I personally enjoyed that record. It came up a bit lacking in the energy department, but it was a needed departure from a sound Lifehouse could have continued making in their sleep. They’ve sort of returned to that sound here, for better or for worse, and they do it well enough at first, even throwing us a nice curveball with the piano ballad “Flight” that evolves into something far more compelling than it has any right to be. Somewhere around the midway point, it starts to fall apart and feel like one of the group’s more generic outings, such as their self-titled or Smoke & Mirrors. It might be a stronger record overall, but I’m not convinced that Lifehouse is ever going to mature beyond passable and vaguely grungy pop/rock and become a band that makes genuinely compelling art, considering how reflexively they seem to reverse course after an experiment is poorly received by the fanbase.

2013_TheNoreasters_EquilibriumThe Nor’easters – Equilibrium
Acapella is one of those genres that I enjoy as a novelty, but don’t tend to listen to terribly often, usually because the groups who achieve the most popularity in this genre are the ones who can rack up viral video views by covering hit pop songs of the day. With my tastes so out-of-step with modern-day Top 40 playlists, I’m not likely to know the source material, hence I can’t appreciate what’s being done with it. I’ve listened to a few Pentatonix tracks, and they’re great fun, but I don’t see myself going back to them much. The Nor’easters, a college acapella group from Northeastern University, seems to be on a similar trajectory, as I don’t know most of the material they’re covering on this album. There’s just something hauntingly good about a few of these versions that pulls me in despite not knowing the source material. I stumbled across them while I was searching for songs about New England on Spotify, and their gorgeous cover of Justin Timberlake’s “Blue Ocean Floor” (which is a pretty deep album cut for Timberlake and certainly not a song I was familiar with beforehand) was what sold me. The group’s tastes seem to run the gamut from modern R&B (Rihanna gets the acapella treatment twice, once via a duet she did with Coldplay), IDM and dance-pop music (there’s even a genuinely good Justin Bieber cover here, if you can believe that), to slightly more eccentric indie rock (Florence & The Machine get covered twice, with their take on “Spectrum” quite possibly emerging as the group’s signature song). Occasionally the source material doesn’t live up to the artistic ingenuity it takes to deconstruct and reconstruct all of those (mostly electronic) sounds, but when it does, I’m downright floored by it.

2015_TrailsandWays_PathologyTrails and Ways – Pathology
Definitely one of my most anticipated releases of the year. I’ve been aching for the South American-inflected indie pop band from Oakland to get a full length out ever since I fell in love with their loungey cover of M83’s “Midnight City” and every single track on their amazing Trilingual EP. This new LP doesn’t actually drop until June 2, but Soundcloud had a preview up early, so of course I jumped right on that. Three of Trilingual‘s songs made the jump to this record, with only “Nunca” retaining its original recording. “Mtn Tune” seems to have been slightly re-done, keeping the same basic feel but swapping out a few of the guitar and percussion sounds with other, equally energetic ones. “Terezinha” is the true surprise here, taking the upbeat, 80s-influenced “Tereza” and drastically altering it to more of an acoustic, tropical vibe, switching the lyrics from English to Portuguese, and swapping out Emma’s lead vocals for Keith’s. Not sure how I feel about that. The remaining 8 tracks are all new, and sound-wise they’re in a similar vein to the ones I first fell in love with, though the rhythms and hooks aren’t quite as in-your-face this time around. The group walks a fine line between brash, brightly-colored indie pop and more of a chill sound that you might mistake for “worldbeat”. It’s a unique combo, and I hope they keep finding new things to do with it for years to come.

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