What Am I Listening To? – April 2016

Here are my first impressions of the latest releases from Esperanza Spalding, Thao & The Get Down Stay Down, Gungor, M83, The Gray Havens, and Andrew Bird.

2016_EsperanzaSpalding_EmilysDevolutionEsperanza Spalding – Emily’s D+Evolution
I really had no idea what to expect from an Esperanza Spalding record. All I knew about her was that she was the jazz bassist who somehow managed to beat out Justin Bieber for the Best New Artist Grammy a few years back. None of that really tells you what you’ll be hearing on this record, which is an amalgamation of jazz, folk, funk, soul and rock stylings that often goes to unexpected and occasionally uncomfortable melodic places, but that continually surprises me with its kaleidoscope of sounds. It’s a horizon-stretcher for sure, and it’s already shaping up to be one of my favorites of 2016.

2016_ThaoTheGetDownStayDown_AManAliveThao & The Get Down Stay Down – A Man Alive
Thao Nguyen and her band are talented people. I really believe that they are. I just can’t stand her voice. I keep trying her on for size and deciding that she just doesn’t fit. I’m sure it’s an affectation rather than a lack of precision, perhaps a protest against the expected melodic nature and conventional structures of pop music, but on so many occasions, her attempts to do something different just sound like aimless caterwauling. It takes a lot of patience for me to get through a record like this as a result, despite the overall style and instrumentation being the kind of quirky indie rock I normally get very excited about. I guess I’ll try again once in a blue moon. I got over my vocal misgivings about Björk, after all.

2016_Gungor_OneWildLife_SpiritGungor – One Wild Life: Spirit
The middle section of Gungor’s One Wild Life trilogy focuses on… matters of vague spirituality? Honestly, I’m not sure what the difference between the Soul and Spirit themes was meant to be, as this record is as much of a genre-hopping exercise as the last, perhaps a little more weighted toward the upbeat side of the spectrum this time around, but there are a number of songs that I feel could have gone on either record and they wouldn’t have felt out of place. I appreciate the Gungors because I feel like they try to approach their Christian faith intelligently, even if that means deconstructing it and stepping away from all that they believe for a season just to find it all over again. But sometimes when trying to present their findings in song format, it’s just sort of this general wonder at the world around them, and a lot of generally happy-sounding esoteric stuff, mixed with the occasional cautionary tale like “Let Bad Religion Die”, a sentiment I agree with that might be stated too didactically for its own good. A few nods to previous songs that give this album continuity with Soul are a nice touch, but overall I’m finding that I connect with the music more than the message on this one.

2016_M83_JunkM83 – Junk
It’s hard to criticize an album that calls itself Junk, from a band like M83 that excels in mining cheesy stereotypes from the realm of 80s music and presenting them with bold-faced sincerity, and that was even stated by the artist to be a collection of songs that don’t really belong together. There’s some good space-pop here in the vein of Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, but there’s also a cavalcade of guest vocalists (French singer Mai Lan does her part to kick up a few of my personal favorite tracks here) and some instrumental segues that feel like they could have been part of the soundtrack to some unaired 80s sitcom or Lifetime original movie. I’ve developed a pretty high tolerance for nostalgic cheese over the years, which is weird because I missed out on most of the stuff we’re now nostalgic for back when it was new. But even given that tolerance, a few of these songs are so corny that they’re hard to stomach. It’s a mixed bag, and by all indications, it was meant to be.

2016_TheGrayHavens_GhostofaKingThe Gray Havens – Ghost of a King
Wait, there’s another Gray Havens record out already? I’m still not as familiar with Fire & Stone as I’d like to be. This time out the husband & wife duo seems to be have improved in pretty much area, from songwriting to melody to vocal delivery. Guitar and piano are still at the forefront, but there’s more grace and gravity to the arrangements now, at least if you can forgive the somewhat dorky synthpop indulgence on “Diamonds and Gold”. I still wish they’d trade off lead vocal duties rather than the husband always singing lead and the wife always singing backup, but despite that, they show some real growth on this record.

2016_AndrewBird_AreYouSeriousAndrew Bird – Are You Serious?
I tend to get into individual songs more than full albums when it comes to Andrew Bird. His unusual brand of violin-fronted, live-looped indie pop is often very downbeat and pensive, relying on wry wordplay more than big pop hooks to communicate whatever mood he’s in. When he does something more up-tempo, I tend to love it, but for the most part that’s not where he spends a lot of his time. This records favors the up-tempo a little more than his previous ones did, meaning there’s more immediacy to it at the outset, which helps me to remain patient through some of the subtler and softer moments. There’s a duet with Fiona Apple right in the middle of the album that really changes things up, too. It would be easy for Bird to settle into a formula after all these years, but this record reminds me that he’s a relentless tinkerer, and I have tons of respect for that.

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