What Am I Listening To? – November 2016

Here are my first impressions of the latest releases from Jimmy Eat World, Empire of the Sun, The Digital Age, Norah Jones, Future of Forestry, and Owel.

2016_jimmyeatworld_integritybluesJimmy Eat World – Integrity Blues
I keep giving new Jimmy Eat World albums a chance, even though I haven’t truly connected with one of their records beyond a song or two in over a decade. This one may have finally broken the trend. It’s nothing groundbreaking for the band, but the songwriting and musicianship are more attention-grabbing right away and they keep that attention longer once a few of the initial surprises have worn off. The front half of the album is particularly strong.

2016_empireofthesun_twovinesEmpire of the Sun – Two Vines
I’m not sure if Empire of the Sun won me over in spite of their 80s-style campiness, or because of it. After their bizarre hodgepodge of a debut, they scaled back the weirdness for Ice on the Dune, and while that album had a number of strong songs and a more consistent sound throughout, I missed some of the quirkiness of their earlier stuff. Now the transformation seems complete on the third album, and there are so few surprises from song to song that I feel like they’re afraid to experiment much with their sound these days. Even when this thing is up-tempo (which is most of the record), it feels too laid-back and inclined to rely on cheesy, repetitive samples to propel the songs along. When you’re selling a highly stylized sound more than anything of real lyrical substance, that’s a bad place for a band to be.

2016_thedigitalage_galaxiesThe Digital Age – Galaxies
I’m so out of touch with contemporary worship music at this point that I honestly can’t tell how much of this album is self-composed, and how much is covers of currently trending worship songs. It’s mostly done in the high-octane, electronically-tinged rock style that these guys established when they were still members of the David Crowder Band. But the loose astronaut/space exploration theme bridging some of the tracks doesn’t add much to the experience, and musically these guys seem to be playing it pretty safe, unlike Crowder who still unapologetically mixes disparate genres in his solo work. I don’t even have a song I previously recognized like “All the Poor and Powerless” or “Oceans” as an inroad this time, so I’m finding it really hard to get into this album. Maybe when we start singing one or two of these songs in church, I’ll go back and see them with new eyes?

2016_norahjones_daybreaksNorah Jones – Day Breaks
Little Broken Hearts was a pretty daring album by Norah Jones standards. It makes sense that after taking listeners down her personal rabbit hole on that album, she’d want to throw some of her long-time fans a bone by going back to the more classic jazz and mellow pop hybrid that she first won the world over with on Come Away with Me. It’s the closest she’s sounded to that album in her entire career since. And it doesn’t blow me away, but I don’t mind it. I still need to listen more closely to figure out where the true highlights are.

2016_futureofforestry_awakenedtothesoundFuture of Forestry – Awakened to the Sound
I’m surprised that FoF managed to throw another full-length album together so quickly after Pages. Frankly I was so disappointed with Pages that I didn’t bother reviewing it, and the band had kind of fallen off my radar until the surprise release of this album right around Election Day. (I needed a good week to really get into the mood for it, but that’s not the band’s fault.) They’re slowly winning me back with this one. The days of FoF working from slow-burning baroque pop intros up to grandeur-filled modern rock climaxes are probably long gone, but I like the cinematic feel of a lot of these new songs and the way that several incorporate Eastern-style strings and backing vocals. Some of it is still a bit slow and ponderous for my tastes, but when listened to all in a row, it feels like a journey through the highs and lows of different landscapes, rather than the dull monotony of soft, middle-of-the-road, ballad after ballad that made most of Pages such a chore to get through.

2016_owel_dearmeOwel – Dear Me
I knew Owel must have had some really good things in store when I found out via Facebook that none of the excellent tracks heard on the Every Good Boy EP had even made the cut for the tracklisting on their second full-length album. Hearing it now, I can see why. A lot of these songs are sprawling, some even a bit challenging, in a way that’s definitely consistent with their self-titled album but that would have made most of the songs from that EP feel a bit out of place by comparison. This is an album that you really have to take your time with – it’s a slow-burner that owes a clear debt to the work of bands like Radiohead and Sigur Rós, but that also unfolds with the subtle grace of a band like Elbow. It’s an immersive indie rock experience that is in no hurry to impress the audience with pyrotechnics, but which instead is long on slow-building melancholy passages and intriguing songwriting. Owel is one of those bands where, even when the lyrics are esoteric and not easily interpreted, I always feel like I’m getting a glimpse into some intensely personal beliefs and experiences. Nothing here wows me quite as much as the first time I heard “Snowglobe”, but I’m actually glad the band isn’t so obviously repeating itself.

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