Noosa – Wonderland
I had no idea who Noosa was when she guested on Ghost Beach’s song “Close Enough”, but that was my favorite track on their album and I promised myself I’d follow up on her if/when she got any solo material out. That was last year. I forgot about her until I tried the yogurt Noosa (no direct relation – both are named for a coastal region of Australia), and a short wiki-walk revealed to me that she had put an album out last year. It’s mostly light, lovey-dovey synthpop, a few darker tones here and there, but nothing earth-shattering. Definitely mellower than her 80s-obsessed collaborators in Ghost Beach. At times she reminds me of Kye Kye, but with better enunciation, and a few of the pop gems on this album really shine, but it’s a bad sign that it all starts to bleed together in my mind after a while despite the album only having nine tracks.
Nate Ruess – Grand Romantic
Why did I listen to this? Just, WHY??!?! I knew fun. was headed down a bad road after the barely-salvageable trainwreck that was Some Nights. I don’t know why I thought their lead singer putting out a solo effort would somehow constitute and improvement. fun. was always over-the-top and paid no attention to genre boundaries, and I liked them for that on their first record, Aim & Ignite, but since then it’s felt increasingly like they’re trying to drive home a lot of half-baked hooks by sheer brute force, just piling on a lot of loud and busy sounds until the listener cries uncle. That trend continues on Grand Romantic, and while it pays homage to about a million influences ranging from classic rock to hip-hop, it’s all just sort of obnoxiously thrown together with no apparent master plan. The massively irritating hook to “AhHa” is a solid indicator of what you’re in for throughout the rest of the album. And that’s coming from a listener who normally appreciates larger-than-life pop hooks and the “wall of sound” approach to production.
Joy Williams – Venus
Joy’s put out a number of solo EPs that went largely under the radar both before and after her stint with The Civil Wars, but this is her first full-length solo album in ten years, and it should probably go without saying that her current output has precious little in common with the contemporary Christian pop music of her early years. I’d still classify this as a pop album, perhaps one with subtle hints at spirituality here and there, but aside from the afro-beat left turn taken on the single “Woman (Oh Mama)”, this is mostly a downbeat affair, where programming and keyboards and such are applied to the more stripped-down sensibility of The Civil Wars. A lot of these are folks songs dressed up in the clothing of pop songs, which will annoy purists, but I appreciate the change of pace, because the gentle thump of a muted dance beat or the sensitive touch of a piano brings a bit of personality out of these songs that a mere acoustic guitar wouldn’t. The last few years were definitely hard times for Joy; we still don’t fully understand why The Civil Wars broke up and we possibly never will, but Joy hints at some of the reasons behind that discord in what we’d otherwise assume were romantic breakup songs, and knowing that she’s sorting through the wreckage of a broken musical partnership that some of us had come to love dearly makes those songs cut to the quick more than your typical romance-gone-bad song ever would (though there are a few of those as well, but since she and her husband are still together, that story at least has a happy ending).
mewithoutYou – Pale Horses
mwY is a band I probably wouldn’t have gotten into if they hadn’t genre-hopped so much on their last few records – as articulate and fascinatingly complex as Aaron Weiss’s lyrics can be, there’s only so much raspy shouting I can take before I need a good solid melody to really drive a song home. Ten Stories was the record that balanced the band’s heavy rock and more melodic sensibilities in ways I found favorable, and Pale Horses seems to continue that trend, perhaps nudging it one more notch back into the rawer/heavier territory of their earlier works, since a lot of the hooks here are less obvious and the song structures meander a bit more. There’s an interconnectedness to it that makes me intrigued to better understand the relationship between all of these songs, but it does make it difficult for me to pinpoint standout tracks. So far “Watermelon Ascot” and “D-Minor” are working out the best for me in that department, but there doesn’t appear to be a single weak link throughout these eleven tracks.
Wilco – Star Wars
I’ve made a lot of not-so-kind assumptions about Wilco over the years, from thinking they were either doing some heavy drugs or else just being difficult on purpose to troll their audience, but my perception of them has shifted a great deal ever since Sky Blue Sky, and listening to their best-of collection over the past few months has helped me to understand their pre-Yankee Hotel Foxtrot work a bit better, too. Jeff Tweedy once struck me as a rather temperamental and aloof fellow who was probably tough to get along with, but now I think he’s one of the nicest guys in rock & roll, and Wilco’s surprise release of this record at no charge to the audience definitely reinforces that image. One look at the cuddly kitten on the cover and the ridiculous title (considering there’s pretty much nothing science fiction-y about this record) tells you that they’re just having fun and not taking themselves all that seriously. If this were a full-priced record, a lot of us would probably feel a bit ripped off, since it’s barely over half an hour long and a lot of its songs have that “just bang it out in one take and don’t overthink it” sort of feel, but since it’s free, I guess we really can’t complain. The fuzzy, stomping guitars are tons of fun and there are a few more delicate and intricate moments here, but nothing really grabs me right away like “Impossible Germany”, “One Wing”, or “Art of Almost” did on their last few records. I enjoy this record, but I don’t really find myself engaging with it deeper down.
Owl City – Mobile Orchestra
I swear, Wilco and Owl City must have switched album covers, because doesn’t a cuddly kitten seem way more appropriate for Owl City than whatever sort of funky machine they’ve got going on here? (It vaguely reminds me of Wilco’s The Whole Love cover, thus completing the circle.) I’m not sure if consider Owl City’s new one a return to form after the half-baked blunder that was The Midsummer Station, or whether it’s an over-correction from that record’s lack of personality quirks, because all of the traits that made Owl City so syrupy and goofy on his first two major releases are back in spades. A lot of the melodies and lyrical ideas, while cheery and uplifting, seem like Owl City by numbers at this point, and I do appreciate the guest spots yanking Adam Young across various genre boundaries, but since literally every other track has a featured vocalist, it starts to reek of desperation for relevance after a while. Meanwhile, there’s a pair of Christian-radio friendly praise songs that will probably serve to reinforce the “See, it’s Christian music after all!” attitude that some kids/parents apparently require to ensure that Owl City doesn’t fall under the evil banner of “secular music”, and look, I appreciate a guy being straightforward about his faith, but these are some of the most unimaginative lyrics I’ve ever heard from a guy whose overactive imagination is typically his selling point. This is a real mixed bag, is what I’m saying.
Gungor – One Wild Life: Soul
The first album in Gungor’s independently released One Wild Life trilogy won’t be physically available until August 7th, but subscribers got a digital copy right away, so I’ve had at least a little extra time to digest this one. By all accounts, it’s an ambitious project. Hearing one third of it doesn’t really tell me the full scope of it, but just based off of this one album, my feelings are that it’s a bit more sleepy of a record than I Am Mountain, but it’s also less schizophrenic. The mostly slower pace of these songs and the classical instrumentation meeting up with modern programming, while not always the most fascinating thing for me to listen to, reinforces my view of Gungor as an artist who is truly unbound to genre, and that includes the genre of “Christian music”, with its predetermined evangelical agenda and its specific codewords that you must parrot in order to remain in the club. Michael and Lisa Gungor can’t help but be honest when they go through periods of doubt or hold views that break from the expected politics of that subculture, and though they’ve been branded as apostate by the less forgiving elements of that crowd, they continue to stress unity among all Christians as a goal to work towards, rather than just seeing themselves as part of an opposing team and giving the vitriol right back to their detractors. Knowing that adds a ton of weight to the most upbeat anthems on this track, which are essentially Gungor’s creed of “Love God, love others, nothing else matters” in a nutshell, while the final three introspective tracks on the album feel like a complete mini-suite taking a person through various uncomfortable stages of doubt and skepticism and finally back around to faith. It’s the other mellow tracks that come earlier in the album and seem to define its overall slow pace that I’ve had a hard time digesting. I’m sure they play an important role in the narrative, but I’m still distracted by how long it seems like this album takes to really get going compared to their earlier efforts.
Jon Foreman – The Wonderlands: Sunlight
Jon Foreman’s understated but beautiful collection of seasonal EPs that he put out in 2007/8 restored my faith in him as a songwriter – I felt that he was really repeating himself with Switchfoot, but on his own he could go into more detail, tell stories that were more allegorical or even a little more uncomfortable for the audience, but bring it right back around to Scripture and to his unwavering faith in God being sovereign over all the things, even when his own heart was dark or the Christians around him were being just plain awful people. That thread seems to persist on Sunlight, which once again confronts the discomfort of life being finite and religiosity not providing all the right answers to people in genuine need. As with the seasonal EPs, just as many of these songs are dressed up with interesting instrumentation as the ones that are left as bare-bones folk music, and Jon’s raspy vocals are put out there with little in the way of overdubs or any audible sweetening, but that maintains an authentic tone even when the songs are dressed up in a light amount of pop production, like the moving and altogether excellent opening track “Terminal”, which may be one of the best songs he’s ever written even if it mines that same old “Live your life ’cause you’ve only got one” theme that Switchfoot has run into the ground time and time again.
Jon Foreman – The Wonderlands: Shadows
I haven’t had as much of a chance to digest the counterpart to Sunlight yet; its songs are mostly mellower and far more melancholy, given that they’re almost universally about death. None of them caught my ear as immediately, to tell you the truth, but there’s a haunting beauty to the closing “Siren Song”, and over time, I may come to appreciate the Psalm-like “Your Love Is Enough” as a sequel to his now-classic “Your Love Is Strong”. Those hoping for fun, peppy Switchfoot-style anthems probably already know to look elsewhere.
Umphrey’s McGee – The London Sessions
A collection of odds and ends coming from an anything-goes jam band already known for having albums that feel like collections of odds and ends seems like it might only be intended for the truly hardcore fans. I’m not there yet, but I thought last year’s Similar Skin was highly consistent and a welcome attempt to rein in some of their crazier genre-hopping, so I didn’t mind checking out a few acoustic remakes of highlights from that album (along with the classic “Plunger”) recorded in one of the world’s most famous studios. Most of the rest of the tracks are non-album cuts that had largely only been played live up to that point, which in UM terms means they hadn’t really nailed down a final song structure or possibly even the final lyrics and they decided to finally bang those out. “Bad Friday” appears to be the best of the bunch in that department; a few other tracks still feel under-baked or just downright silly. Of course band with such a strong inclination to cover anything and everything recording on The Beatles’ old stomping grounds couldn’t resist paying tribute, so they close the record with their take on “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”, which to be honest has never been one of my favorite Beatles songs because its lyrics are so annoyingly repetitive and annoyingly repetitive and annoyingly repetitive and the song just seems to go on and on and on and on and on until it ends abru