What Am I Listening To? – December 2017

Here are my first impressions of the latest releases from U2, The Lone Bellow, Green Day, Maroon 5, and Christine Denté.

U2 – Songs of Experience
I’ve been looking forward to this one ever since it was promised as a companion album to 2014’s Songs of Innocence. But I feel like my eagerness to listen and re-listen to this one dissipated more quickly than it has with U2’s last few albums. I still love the band, but despite their ability to still write songs that feel energetic and vital, the production isn’t doing them any favors, and that renders even some of the biggest rockers on this album a bit limp. I hate to say they’re showing their age, because I don’t think meaningful rock music should only be the domain of young people. But the passion feels neutered, especially considering how thinly the guitars and drums are rendered on songs like “Lights of Home” and “The Blackout” that are supposed to be a bit grittier/darker than U2’s usual. There are some solid pop anthems here, I guess… and some disappointingly weak ballads. I do appreciate how “American Soul” and “13 (There Is a Light)” bring sentiments first heard on “Volcano” and “Song For Someone” full circle – there’s thematic resonance here even when the music falls a bit flat.

The Lone Bellow – Walk into a Storm
Album #3 is mostly more of the same for this country/Americana trio, which has wisely relocated from New York to Nashville since we last heard from them on Then Came the Morning. At this point I consider The Lone Bellow more of a singles band than an album band, which is to say there are a few barn-burners up front here, but the deep cuts aren’t doing as much for me, and while the vocals are passionate as always, the overall themes and musical ideas heard in most of the songs are kind of old hat. I do love the obvious Fleetwood Mac influence that comes out in “Deeper in the Water” and the string melody in “May You Be Well” that is strongly reminiscent of The Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony”. But these moments come dangerously close to plagiarism, which probably means that my other favorite moment, Kanene’s lead vocal on the rollicking “Feather”, is borrowing heavily from some other artist I can’t pinpoint. These guys are entertaining, but not particularly original.

Green Day – Greatest Hits: God’s Favorite Band
The first half of this 22-track compilation is a decent history lesson for someone like me who has only been into Green Day since the American Idiot years. I have passing familiarity with their early hits, including a few like “Minority” and “Brain Stew” that I knew I enjoyed but couldn’t remember the titles of until hearing them here for the first time in several years. I can’t say I’ve ever felt compelled to sit down and listen to any of their older albums from front to back, and even finding a few of their old tracks here that I do enjoy doesn’t really change that. The picks from American Idiot onward are somewhat predictable, even disappointing in the case of 21st Century Breakdown, considering how poorly the two big singles “Know Your Enemy” and “21 Guns” represented the creative breadth of that album. The completist in me thinks there should be at least one song from each installment of the Uno/Dos/Tre! trilogy here, rather than all of it being represented by the lone single “Oh Love”, but then I remember: I didn’t like those albums at all, so who cares? Apparently not Green Day’s record label. That just leaves Revolution Radio, which is represented by two strong single and a rather baffling inclusion of the ballad “Ordinary World”, re-recorded with a guest vocal from Miranda Lambert. It’s not that exciting. Neither is the new track “Back in the USA”, which feels like political Green Day by the numbers at this point. Green Day may be God’s favorite band, but I’m still not entirely convinced they should be one of mine. (Side note: I love the stained glass motif in the cover art, which references the cover images from all the other albums these singles came from.)

Maroon 5 – Red Pill Blues
WHY DO I CONTINUE TO LISTEN TO THESE GUYS? I know they’re only going to disappoint me, even when my expectations are low to begin with. I had this album saved in my Spotify library since late October after seeing some overwhelmingly negative reviews, and yet it took me well over a month to work up the courage to actually hear how bad it was for myself. The addition of two band members hasn’t made them sound like more of a band – this is just pathetically sterile, warmed over R&B, which cares about no form of self-expression other than re-establishing Adam Levine as a sex symbol wavering back and forth between his sensitive and bad boy modes. Between the toothless programming and the out-of-place rap features (which are apparently cringe-y even to some folks who are actual fans of Kendrick Lamar, A$AP Rocky, etc.), this might just be the most awful thing I’ve heard all year. Even when the band shows some inkling of actually coloring outside the lines of the meme-dominated modern pop landscape’s expectations, we get the tedious 11-minute vamp “Closure”, which is basically a staring match with anyone brave enough to actually listen all the way through to the end of the album’s standard edition. I’m done with these guys. I don’t even think I’ll have the courage to listen to these guys out of morbid curiosity after this.

Christine Denté – Closer to Free EP
This is a brief little batch of new songs – 5 tracks and a scant fifteen minutes – from a longtime favorite vocalist of mine, best known as the fairer half of Out of the Grey. At this point I’m slightly confused as to what constitutes a solo record by Christine vs. what constitutes an Out of the Grey record – I can only assume it depends on her husband Scott’s level of involvement. This one was actually produced by the couple’s son Julian, and it’s a good mix of smart indie pop and the classic, glossy, slightly experimental Out of the Grey sound, just more based around keyboards than guitars for obvious reasons. In many ways, it feels like more of a return to form than A Little Light Left did. Hearing her voice again always feels like a welcome visit from one of my oldest friends, so I’m sure I’ll continue to appreciate new music from Christine in pretty much any capacity.

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