What Am I Listening To? – September 2017

Here are my first impressions of the latest releases from Everything Everything, Japanese Breakfast, MuteMath, Foo Fighters, The Nor’easters, Josh Ritter, and The Killers.

2017_EverythingEverything_AFeverDreamEverything Everything – A Fever Dream
I’m kicking myself for not knowing about these guys until they were on album #4. Their highly danceable band of rock with occasional “math-y” rhythmic tricks, falsetto vocals, and politically-charged lyrics brings together a lot of the things I love about bands like Doves, TV on the Radio, and The Temper Trap, just to name a few. This thing shot up to the upper echelons of my “Best of 2017” so far list, and you can probably expect to see it high up in my year-end countdown. (First I need to get a full review of it posted. That’s coming soon… I hope.)

2017_JapaneseBreakfast_SoftSoundsFromAnotherPlanetJapanese Breakfast – Soft Sounds From Another Planet
Japanese Breakfast is the solo project of Korean-American musician Michelle Zauner. Nothing about it sounds particularly Japanese (or for that matter, Korean), but she did start the project with the intent of influencing more Asian-Americans to write and record their own music. Admittedly I stumbled across her music simply because of the name – a friend found it on Spotify when looking for “Japanese” music to play in the background we played a board game set in the country. What her music does sound like to me is a lot of the breathy, meditative indie folk/pop from the 90s – probably the kind of thing that would have piqued my curiosity at the time, but that seems a bit old hat to me now. There are some really interesting sonic textures in a few of the songs, due to her doing something atonal with the guitar, using Auto-tune and spoken word vocals on a song, or bringing in some bits of baroque instrumentation to help set a few tracks apart from the otherwise straightforward, mid-tempo ambient coffeehouse style that seems to be her default. It’s hard me to stay focused throughout this album due to the samey nature of several songs toward the end, and the way her voice wavers back and forth between soft and dreamy and honestly kind of grating.

2017_MuteMath_PlayDeadMuteMath – Play Dead
MuteMath’s fifth album seemingly can’t be talked about without mentioning the abrupt departure of Darren King, a drummer who has achieved almost god-like status among the band’s fans. How well they’ll do without him remains to be seen, but he was a full participant on this album, and any shortcomings here can’t be blamed on Darren or the lack of Darren. This was a more difficult record for me to get into than any of MuteMath’s previous ones – it’s more complex and jammy like Odd Soul, possibly as a response to the more streamlined, radio-friendly Vitals, though you’ll hear some overlap in the sound and mood of both albums since they were being worked on concurrently. What’s tough for me is that while it gives the four players in the band plenty of time to show off, the energy level of Odd Soul isn’t there, which puts it in this weird space where many of the songs are more laid back but they’re not as instantly memorable as previous “chill” songs in the band’s discography. A lot of it’s still very up-tempo, just not as in your face, though there are some surprising moments on both the loud and soft ends of the spectrum. I’m listening to this one a lot and it is gradually growing on me, but it doesn’t seem likely that it’ll hold a candle to their self-titled album or Odd Soul in the long run.

2017_FooFighters_ConcreteandGoldFoo Fighters – Concrete and Gold
This is only the second time I’ve listened to a Foos album all the way through, and the first time I’ve listened to a “conventional” release of theirs that didn’t have every song undergo a completely different writing and recording process in a different studio like on Sonic Highways. So I don’t share the complaints of some fans who say they’re repeating themselves or they’ve lost their way after whatever their last fan favorite album was. All I know is that there’s some heavy stuff here that kicks ass, I’m generally in line with Dave Grohl’s aggressive but likeable attitude on most of these songs, the guest appearances here (Justin Timberlake! Paul McCartney! Some dude from Boyz II Men!) unfortunately don’t add up to much of anything noticeable, and a few of the tracks can get a bit dreary when the band slows down the tempo. A mixed bag of good and mediocre, basically. Overall, I’m enjoying it, but without the central concept piquing my curiosity about the story behind each individual song, it’s unfortunately a bit too tempting to simply pick out the highlights and ignore the rest.

2016_TheNoreasters_RiseThe Nor’easters – Rise
This college acapella group managed to get me hooked on enough of their versions of pop songs I was previously unfamiliar with on their last album Equilibrium, including a gorgeous Justin Timberlake ballad and a pair of Florence + The Machine songs that may well have been the catalyst to get me into that band. Here, the only songs I recognize right out of the gate are the pair of Sia covers that open and close the album, “Alive” and “Elastic Heart”. I adore “Elastic Heart”, and their arrangement here is an appropriately climactic show-stopper, but I’m rather meh on “Alive” and most of the rest of the Sia songs I’ve heard, to be honest. I’m not even familiar with a lot of the original artists on the tunes in between, so I’m pretty well out of my depth in terms of judging how their performances stack up to the mostly R&B/pop-leaning tunes they’ve chosen to cover. I could see this potentially being a catalyst to get me to check out a few of the original versions, particularly “Honeymoon Avenue”. While sometimes I think plucking pop songs from the Top 40 sets up a lead/background dynamic that isn’t the best way for an acapella group to show its range, they do some interesting things with the rhythms and backing “instrumentation” on several of these tracks that help to set them apart from the usual “just lay down a beat and shove a singer up front for the audience to applaud”. (On that note, why the live version of “Runnin'”? The crowd noise is really distracting when this is otherwise a studio project.)

2017_JoshRitter_GatheringJosh Ritter – Gathering
While this one’s a bit less country-inflected than Sermon on the Rocks, one can always expect a rambling roulette of folksy sounds on a Josh Ritter record, with the occasional allusions to old-time religion, various models of travel, and colorful metaphors for a broken heart, and on all of those notes, this one doesn’t disappoint. From up-tempo anthems with a vulnerable side they can only barely manage to hide like “Showboat” to long, haunting ballads like “Dreams” that tell arresting stories, Ritter shows no signs of his creativity waning. And while I may not always understand or appreciate where he takes each individual song, he reminds me many times on this record why he’s still one of my favorite songwriters.

2017_TheKillers_WonderfulWonderfulThe Killers – Wonderful Wonderful
I enjoy The Killers in two modes: When they’re clearly doing something big, cheesy, and just plain fun, as on a lot the dance/synth rock oriented tracks heard on their debut Hot Fuss (and to a lesser extent Day & Age), or when they can pull off convincing ballads that are neither too lightweight nor too bogged down in self-serious theatrics. They walk that fine line better here than they have on any album since their debut, and while only a handful of tracks here are instant love, I’m tracking better with the overall thematic arc of this record than I did with pretty much anything on Sam’s Town or Battle Born. Commentary on what actual manhood means in the 21st century is prevalent throughout, and there are probably enough hints of how Brandon Flowers’ Mormon upbringing clashes with his seedy Las Vegas side to write an entire term paper on. It sounds more like he actually has a story to tell than like he’s trying so painfully hard to convince us he has a story to tell, which is an important distinction that separates some of these new songs from the band’s past work. Flowers is still emphatically not one of my favorite vocalists, but I don’t seem to mind his yelpy, ever-so-slightly-off-key delivery this time around, so that’s a sign of progress as well. Also, “The Man” is such a stupidly addictive single that I’m quite happy to forget “Human” ever existed.

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