What Am I Listening To? – September 2015

2015_SleepingatLast_AtlasLifeSleeping at Last: Atlas: Life
The first EP in “Year Two” of SAL’s Atlas project is a deeply personal one for Ryan O’Neal, since it’s his first set of songs to be released since the birth of his daughter last year. Though it’s just three songs plus a brief instrumental intro, the way Ryan examines the roles of the parents of a newborn child, and the sons and daughters trying to understand their own identity as they grow into men and women. As with most of the series so far, nothing breaks the SAL formula in any surprising way, but the instrumentation is immaculate and the songs speak to me pretty profoundly in a season of my life where I’m trying to get myself psyched up for the challenge of parenthood.

2015_JonForeman_TheWonderlandsDarknessJon Foreman – The Wonderlands: Darkness
Coming on the heels of the Shadows EP, I’d have expected this to be all doom and gloom, tinged with Foreman’s usual poetic wisdom of course, but still pretty dark. Parts of it are, but as a whole I’d say Shadows was the more death-obsessed batch of songs, and I feel like this batch turns a corner and finds moments of solace and renewal in the solitude of the wee morning hours. The unusual instrumentation on a few tracks, and the occasional curveball like bringing in Sara Watkins for the duet “June & Johnny”, help to keep things fresh. As on the Spring EP way back in 2008, I can see Foreman turning a narrative corner here that ought to lead to a satisfying conclusion when he drops the fourth and final EP in the series next month.

2015_BarenakedLadies_SilverballBarenaked Ladies – Silverball
The Barenaked Ladies used to be one of my favorite bands, but I stopped keeping track of them after the huge disappointment that was Grinning Streak, to the point where I had no idea they had a new album out for several months, until just recently. While I get that a first listen can b deceiving, I got the impression that I wasn’t missing much when I finally forced myself to sit through this one. It vacillates between dull mid-tempo pop/rock and unbearably cheesy mid-tempo pop/rock. I appreciate the attempt at a slightly more democratic songwriting process – with Kevin Hearn contributing two songs and Jim Creeggan contributing one, it feels a bit less like it’s just the Ed Robertson vanity project all the way through. But all three of them seem to be running on fumes these days. Nobody in this band has come up with truly promising material since All in Good Time five years ago, and even that was a mixed bag.

2015_Chvrches_EveryOpenEyeChvrches – Every Open Eye
I honestly can’t think of a 2015 release that I was looking forward to more than this one. Probably because The Bones of What You Believe was so immaculately solid, and I knew the group was intent on not fixing what was never broke. That means they’re not second-guessing themselves and completely pulling the rug out from under us by radically changing up their sound. It’s still synthpop, perhaps even more 80s-inspired last time around, certainly taking a few cues from their musical heroes in Depeche Mode whom they were fortunate enough to tour with a couple years back, but perhaps reining in the darkness just a tad. They do what they do extremely well throughout this record, and it puts a huge smile on my face, though I will admit that by the time the ninth or tenth track rolls around, I can kind of predict the overall structure of each song and it does feel a bit too safe for comfort. A few more surprises might be a good idea next time around, but this is still one of the most delightful records I’ve heard this year.

2015_Metric_PagansinVegasMetric – Pagans in Vegas
Not to be overlooked in the synthpop/electronica department is Metric, who have sort of carved out a niche somewhere between those genres and indie rock over their last few records, and who reveal an oddly appealing fascination with 8-bit sounds and the whole chiptune genre on their latest. Metric has a tricky time balancing the smart, artsy stuff with the intentionally trashy stuff – Synthetica leaned a bit too much in the latter direction for my tastes. But this one seems to be working for me almost effortlessly. They know how to craft a killer pop hook, and in this case they make a strong case for the bleeps and bloops of video games co-existing triumphantly with a live band, so it’ll be interesting to see how they flip the script on the next album they’re already planning, which is said to not involve any instruments made after 1970.

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