What Am I Listening To? – October 2016

Here are my first impressions of the latest releases from Bon Iver, Gungor, Trails and Ways, Green Day, MuteMath, Regina Spektor, Alter Bridge, and Sleeping at Last.

2016_boniver_22amillionBon Iver – 22, A Million
Justin Vernon’s no longer obsessed with random places on maps. He’s obsessed with numbers now. Oh, and Autotune. Layers and layers of Autotune, to the point where I really have to question the limits to which that particular tool can be stretched. I get that it’s an artsy effect, not an attempt to correct mistakes. If anything, he seems fascinated with the imperfections that occur when the sound of his voice is warped beyond recognition. It’s amusing in small doses, but grating in larger ones. I can’t fault him for going full experimental with his previous baroque pop/folk sound, but several of these new songs feel like non-events as a result of it. This album’s an intentional mess, and getting a lot of praise for it, but to me it’s just OK.

2016_gungor_onewildlifebodyGungor – One Wild Life: Body
The final chapter of the One Wild Life saga has an intriguing concept behind it – following the thoughts and instincts of a person from life to death, and dealing with the various emotions, desires, and needs they have along the way. At this point I think I’m more excited by the high-concept ideas Gungor shoots for than the actual music – though this album seems a little more consistent than the last two in terms of its pacing (being generally more uptempo certainly helps, despite the purposefully slow beginning and end). I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a bit burned out on their occasional habit of sabotaging a good hook just to make a song sound more artsy-fartsy than it really needs to be. And the way the trilogy finally wraps up, while it’s a nice bookend to the way Soul started out, it a bit anti-climactic. Sometimes I think Michael and Lisa second-guess themselves to ridiculous extremes, but then I’m glad to have a Christian artist who is willing to think outside the box instead of recording rote worship songs over and over. Body isn’t perfect, but it might be the most consistent and fully realized of the three One Wild Life albums when all is said and done.

2016_trailsandways_ownitTrails and Ways – Own It
I should probably know by now that when I fall in love with a band due to the beautiful synergy shown by several equally important members, and especially, it seems, when their music is dependent on multiple vocalists to make the track listing diverse and the harmonies really soar, that band is in a precarious spot when key members choose to move on. Trails and Ways lost both of their female members between albums, and in addition to the loss of rich backing vocals, those two members were also their bassist and lead guitarist. They’ve been replaced by temporary touring members here, as far as I can tell, with the two guys being the only permanent members of the group remaining, and that reduces what was once a unique and diverse sound to a bit of a monotonous take on modern-day indie pop. The songwriting’s still intriguing, but the vocals just don’t pop like they used to, and the bits of foreign language that used to give so many of their songs character are gone, too. There are a few genuinely catchy songs in the mix, but most of this album runs together in my mind, and it feels like a rushed attempt to deliver a follow-up when some time to hang back and reinvent the band in more of a carefully planned way probably would have been a better approach.

2016_greenday_revolutionradioGreen Day – Revolution Radio
Wooing back their old-school pop-punk fans with their trilogy of albums released in 2012 kinda backfired, so it seems Green Day is back to making the sorts of politicized rock operas that gave them a second career with American Idiot and 21st Century Breakdown. This album doesn’t quite have the teeth or the sonic variation that those records did, but I still see it as a welcome course correction for the band. The songs are pretty sturdy, aside from one or two misfires, the commentary on violence and the media’s relationship with it are timely, even if the political approach seems old hat for Green Day at this point, and I like the little thematic nods that bring “Somewhere Now” (easily my favorite of the 12 new songs) full circle at the end of the epic rocker “Forever Now”. Nothing here breaks new ground for Green Day, but at least they’re well-aware of their strengths and generally playing to them.

2016_mutemath_changesMuteMath – Changes
A MuteMath remix album sounds like a really good idea on paper. They’re already well-known as a killer live band with a hefty dose of computerized sounds to sweeten the pot, so going full electronica doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch. And they’ve got friends in all the right places when it comes to potential remixers. Unfortunately, as with most remix albums, a lot of these tracks are borderline tedious, dragging down the tempos or repeating sections of well-loved songs from Vitals to the point where it becomes grating, not really improving on any of the source material. Getting through this thing was a real chore, despite (or perhaps because of) my positive feelings about the original versions. (Also: Why do we need two versions of “Monument”, but they couldn’t be bothered to remix “Bulletproof”? Grrr.) Adding female vocals to the title track “Vitals” was a good call, and I do really enjoy the brand-new song “Changes”, which fits alongside the remixes sonically, but doesn’t make the mistake of mucking up something I previously enjoyed, and doesn’t let its weird sonic detours get in the way of actual song structure. This feels like a “Keep our merch on the shelves after our last album didn’t sell so well” type of project, sadly.

2016_reginaspektor_rememberustolifeRegina Spektor – Remember Us to Life
Regina Spektor seems to be known first and foremost for her quirkiness, but there’s some real substance beneath the cutesiness. She’s a very thoughtful songwriter, and sometimes the musical roulette game she plays doesn’t show that off as well as it could in the form of a full-length album. This new one seems to shore up some of the pacing problems her last few had, and I feel like both the ideas behind each song and the actual execution work for me more often than they used. If I’m honest with myself, I’m more drawn to the sinister and sassy up-tempo tracks than the quieter ballads, but this record’s got a fair amount of both to digest. Definitely one I’ll be coming back to a lot in the closing months of 2016.

2016_alterbridge_thelastheroAlter Bridge – The Last Hero
My weariness with a band’s overall sound getting repetitive, and my tendency to tune out partway through an album, have come back with a vengeance here. Green Day got off easy. Alter Bridge seems to be so hell-bent on proving they can rock hard for the duration of an album that it just plain gets tiring to listen to. And this sucker is over an hour long! Yikes. I love that they’re still willing to merge alt-rock, grunge, and old-school metal techniques in a day and age where none of those things are trendy. But their better records, particularly Blackbird, had some amount of calm before the storm, maybe a few poppier or more acoustic tracks (sacrilege, I know) to make the onslaught hit harder when they would dive back into heavier material. The social commentary seems to get cornier and cornier as the years go by, too – they’re tiptoeing into Dream Theater territory at this point, and that’s not the way in which I’d want a band to be like Dream Theater.

2016_sleepingatlast_atlasemotionsSleeping at Last – Atlas: Emotions
You’d almost expect this to be Inside Out: The Song Cycle, except for the absence of Disgust, I guess. And Ryan O’Neal is certainly a huge fan of the film, and all things Pixar. But here, the core emotions of Joy, Sorrow, Anger and Fear that he explores don’t so much aim to express those emotions directly through the music as they do to describe the psychological impact on each of them as we learn to define the world around us based on our experiences. Ryan’s delicate voice and generally bright instrumental palette make it especially tricky for him to fully capture Anger and Fear, especially with the latter being an instrumental (which contains some surprising sonic twists compared to his usual work, though nothing overtly terrifying), but as always, reading the stories behind the songs makes his approach a lot easier to understand, and the more up-tempo/aggressive approach of both Joy and Anger helps to ensure that those in particular will probably find their way into my pantheon of favorite SAL songs.

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