What Am I Listening To? – November 2015

2014_SylvanEsso_SylvanEssoSylvan Esso – Sylvan Esso
I would have assumed from the name that Sylvan Esso was some sort of a Scandiniavian synthpop outfit. Turns out I was half right. They’re definitely a synthpop/electronic type of band, but they’re actually from North Carolina. Mountain Man singer Amelia Meath and producer Nick Sanborn struck up an unlikely partnership when he was asked to remix a Mountain Man song, which shows up on this album as the addictive “Play It Right”, surprisingly not too far of a cry from the old-timey acapella arrangement of the original. SE’s real triumph is when they explore the limits of live looping, sampling, and just how low those synths can go, which oughta lead to some interesting surprises if you’ve cranked up the bass while you’re bumping “Could I Be” in your car. The lyrics don’t shy away from sexuality and social commentary, as evidenced most clearly into the call for men to own up to their objectification of woman and then promptly cut it out in “Hey Mami”, and honestly I have no idea what the innuendos in “Dreamy Bruises”, “Dress”, and “Coffee” are all about. This record gets a bit hit-and-miss toward the end, but for the most part I think this offbeat duo really has something good going.

2015_FallingUp_FallingUpFalling Up – Falling Up
So this is it… our final trip into the weird and wonderful storybook (okay, more like door-stopper novel) land of Falling Up. The group purposefully designed this to be their farewell album, and at first glance it’s nothing remarkably different from what they’ve done before, but a typical album of theirs is so immediate with effervescent melodies and yet so byzantine with interconnecting themes and stream-of-consciousness lyrics that it’s perfect for someone like me who loves a killer hook as much as he loved a complicated rhythm or an oblique turn of phrase to puzzle over. While there are some minor issues in the production department, I think the band did an excellent job of showing off their fun, rockin’ side and their dreamy, artistic side without compromising either one. I love the heavy guitar riffs and the intricate musicbox themes alike, and drummer Josh Shroy may well be the MVP of this album, even if at times he overplays hos hand a bit. Jessy Ribordy’s vocals have also never been better. He’s come along way from the feisty and sort of scratchy early twentysomething all those youth group kids first heard on Crashings. And yet despite how far they’ve come, I never get the feeling that they’re embarrassed about, nor have they completely abandoned, their old sound. It echoes in the hallways of a mazelike mansion that just happens to have had a lot more rooms added on to it in the intervening years.

2015_FallingUp_HouseFullofCavernsEPFalling Up – House Full of Caverns
The companion piece to Falling Up’s final album was released earlier this summer, but for whatever reason those of us who backed the album financially didn’t get our promised download of the EP until now. I’m not sure if this set of sparse instrumental tracks was part of the sessions from the final album (if so, they made a very good call in trimming the fat) or meant to be a stand-alone all along. Either way, it’s an even farther cry from Falling Up’s expected sound than the mellow, easygoing Midnight on Earthship, which means you shouldn’t expect any big guitar riffs or fascinating drum fills here. Even for those who enjoyed The River Empires, this is gonna take a lot of patience. I’m also not sure what’s up with the final track actually having vocals, whether that was just a cut song from the self-titled or from some other project, but it gives the record a strange, soundtrack-like sort of quality. Maybe someday I’ll get deeper into this thing, but at the moment I’m so preoccupied with the self-titled that it’s really all the Falling Up I need for now.

2015_MuteMath_VitalsMuteMath – Vitals
Record #4 for MuteMath was an apparent attempt to consolidate their sound, to strip away some of the excess overthinking that plagues their earlier studio sessions and just stick to only what felt necessary to make a song work. The result is a set of their most uncluttered and optimistic songs since their self-titled debut. Honestly, though, I liked some of the clutter and the weird left turns that they took on Odd Soul I’m the rare fan who considers that their best album, so to go back to something more straightforward, even if it’s still got that fiery MuteMath energy to it, does feel like a slight step down. The best tracks on this record, especially “Joy Rides” and “Monument”, feel like a futuristic reimagining of old soul/R&B melodies I never even knew I had stuck in my head all these years, while the worst of it comes in the one-two punch of “Composed” and “Used To”, which scales a bit too much back in the hopes of minimalism making some sort of a statement. Ultimately this might still be better than Armistice, and there’s certainly a lot of solid hooks here, but it’s not their strongest statement, artistically speaking.

2015_GuyGarvey_CourtingtheSquallGuy Garvey – Courting the Squall
The Elbow frontman has finally stepped out on his own, and he’s come up with a solo record that’s either a slow, immersive, good-for-the-soul winter album frequently interrupted by blasts of jazzy percussive breakdowns… or vice versa. I like both sides, but the two sides don’t gel as well as they might on an Elbow record. Consider it Garvey’s chance to explore the extremes, the stuff that might have been too loud or too soft or too out-of-genre to keep an Elbow record flowing along as pristinely as they typically do. Garvey’s love of the slow burn and his fondness for horn and drum breakdowns come together quite effectively on the standout track “Harder Edges”, but the winsome ballad “Unwind” is also an early favorite of mine, something that could have easily closed out an Elbow record within the past few years. This isn’t too radical a departure if you’re a fan of the band, and Garvey’s lyrics and vocal delivery are like fine wine as always, so I definitely recommend checking it out if you enjoy even the occasional odd track from his band.

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