What Am I Listening To? – January 2018

The new year brings with it a smattering of projects I missed out on over the course of last year – mostly EPs and a few projects that are still in progress. I’m always hungry for new music, but especially after I’ve spent most of December ruminating on the year that came before.

Here are my first impressions of the latest releases from Belle & Sebastian, Animal Collective, Elbow, Portugal. The Man, Brooke Waggoner, The Nor’easters, Dia Frampton, Peter Bradley Adams, Spoon, Paramore, and Calexico.

Belle & Sebastian – How to Solve Our Human Problems, Pt. 1 EP
Apparently the members of Belle & Sebastian are weary of releasing another full-length album and having the attention it gets die out quickly, so they’re releasing their latest batch of new songs in three installments of five tracks each. This one came out in December, and it’s a little bit of everything I’ve enjoyed about B&S thus far – a little bit twee pop, a little bit 60s, a little bit synthesized, lots of interplay between the three vocalists at interesting moments, and even a little bit political at one point. I’d have preferred a conventional album release, as I think all of this material is album-quality (except perhaps for the jam session “Everything Is Now”, which will apparently get filled out with more lyrics on Part 3), and anyone who enjoyed Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance will probably get into the groove with these new tunes quite easily. The Stevie Jackson/Stuart Murdoch duet “Sweet Dew Lee” is probably the most addictive new song I’ve heard thus far in 2018… though obviously it’s early still.

Animal Collective – The Painters EP
Animal Collective released not one, but two EPs in 2017, and I knew nothing about them until just recently. The first is basically a continuation of the sound heard on Painting With, perhaps with slightly mellower vibes on one or two tracks (which I actually wouldn’t have minded as breathers on the album proper), and a left-field cover of Martha and the Vandellas’ “Jimmy Mack”, which I can’t say I was familiar with before hearing this new version, but going back and comparing it to the original Motown recording from the late 60s, I can appreciate both versions, and that adds to my enjoyment of the unconventional genre hop Animal Collective took with it half a century later.

Animal Collective – Meeting of the Waters EP
The other Animal Collective EP is an entirely different beast, recorded on location in the Amazon rainforest, with ambient natural sounds taking up large chunks of the runtime, and very loose acoustic strumming and seemingly spontaneously composed vocal melodies threatening to turn into songs but never quite following through. It’s the first Animal Collective release that I know of which doesn’t feature Panda Bear, who strikes me as the more pop-oriented of the band’s contributors. Avey Tare and Geologist are on their own here, which means the results are highly experimental, and I suppose I can imagine chilling out to this if you’re in the right mood, but I found myself getting really impatient with it, even though I’ve appreciated some of the band’s more slow/ambient passages in the past. It’s honestly not something where I’d even know where to begin in terms evaluating it and sticking a rating on it. I’m not gonna say it’s bad music, but I honestly have no desire to ever listen to it again.

Elbow – The Best Of
Elbow has slowly become one of my all-time favorite bands over the years, and I’ve always thought that it would probably be easier to get folks into the band with a carefully curated collection of their best songs than with an individual album of theirs (though I could make a decent case for The Seldom Seen Kid, which was my personal gateway – and more than half of that album shows up on the deluxe edition of this compilation!) The problem is, the band has more intriguing deep cuts than bona fide hits, and probably no two fans agree on which songs should make the cut for a collection like this, so it’s bound to disappoint nearly all of us in some way. Even some of the tracks I thought were hits, such as “Fallen Angel”, “Forget Myself” and “Mexican Standoff”, didn’t make the cut here, while there’s a surprisingly broad selection of tunes I’d consider dark horse picks, some of which are tracks that became personal favorites of mine gradually over the years, and some of which I still consider really tedious and am kind of surprised the band considers their best work. (I mean, “The Loneliness of a Tower Crane Driver”? “My Sad Captains”? “Puncture Repair”?! That last one’s barely even a song!) But I can honestly say that my favorite track from each album made the cut (“Scattered Black and Whites”, “Fugitive Motel”, “Station Approach”, “Mirrorball”, “The Birds”, “New York Morning”, and “Magnificent (She Says)”, respectively), and I have fond memories of most of the tracks picked here, even if the order they’re presented in makes for a bit of a disjointed walk down memory lane. Really, a seasoned Elbow fan could just as easily curate their own playlist that would meet their satisfaction (and I’ve done exactly that on Spotify), so the only appeal for completists here is the newly recorded Beatles cover “Golden Slumbers” (which isn’t doing a lot for me) and the John Grant duet “Kindling (Fickle Flame)”, which originally appeared sans duet vocal on Little Fictions. Will this collection entice a lot of potential new fans to get caught up? I have my doubts, even though overall this is a collection of pretty high-quality songs that shows off most of the band’s strengths.

Portugal. The Man – Woodstock
You know these guys. They recorded “Feel It Still”, which is that funky little ninja of a song that somehow slipped its way into mainstream radio playlists and got stuck in everyone’s head last year. “Ooh, I’m a rebel just for kicks now” – does that ring any bells for ya? Sounds like it should be Pharrell Williams or Bruno Mars or one of those guys? Yeah, that’s Portugal. Checking out this album after getting hooked by that surprise hit single will likely lead to disappointment, as most of it is more of a mid-tempo, programming-driven affair dominated by hefty doses of vocal manipulation and occasional suburban hip-hop posturing. Some of it’s enjoyable, but it’s not really the indie rock/soul mashup I was expecting, outside of a select few tracks. I can see some follow-up single potential in “Live in the Moment” and “Rich Friends”, but those honestly don’t even sound like they came from the same band. These guys have been around for quite a while without my ever having heard of them, so for all I know they’ve been pulling off this musical chameleon act for ages now. What I’m hearing here just doesn’t hang together all that well as an album – I get really tired of it somewhere around track seven or eight out of ten.

Brooke Waggoner – Sweven Remixes
Waggoner’s more free-form, piano ballad-heavy, classical-leaning style of indie pop doesn’t seem like the kind of thing that would lend itself well to remixing. But she showed a more aggressive side on Originator that was largely absent on Sweven, so I figured some of these versions might reintroduce a bit of that sass. As usual, I should know better than to get my hopes up for remix albums. Some of these transformations are mildly amusing at the outset, but most of them get downright repetitive, often dragging the original songs out well past the breaking point, assuming they haven’t committed themselves to just repeating a snippet of the lyrics from the get-go. It might make sense for a track like “Widow Maker” or “Fink” that already had a little bit of rhythmic attitude to it. It gets more and more ridiculous the further this collection digs into the original album’s deep cuts. Usually I’ll take a song with a strong sense of rhythm over one without, but in the case of strong ballads like “Pennies and Youth” and “Fellow” from the original album, I’ll take those over these alienating versions any day.

The Nor’easters – Collective, Vol. 1
College acapella group covers popular charting songs from the past few years, with the occasional bone thrown to the indie rock crowd. You know the drill. Once again, I hesitate to grade these guys on versions of songs where I have little to no familiarity with the originals. The only one I knew going into this was Bon Iver’s “715 – CRΣΣKS”, which was already acapella in its original version, just really heavy on the AutoTune. Here it sounds a bit less annoying and more conventional, and doesn’t end so abruptly. (I’d have preferred “33 GOD”, but whatever.) Elsewhere, “Cheyenne” is a darn strong opener, which means they got me to like a Jason Derulo song. This is the same group that got me to admit to liking songs by Justin Bieber and Justin Timberlake in the past, as well as being partially responsible for getting me into Florence + The Machine. Those unlikely accomplishments are why I keep checking their new stuff out.

Dia Frampton – Bruises
I really enjoyed Dia’s collaboration with producer Joseph Trapanese, known as Archis, back in 2015, and I was hoping for a full-length follow-up to that excellent EP. What started off as Archis’ debut LP ended up being Dia’s second solo album, and the result of losing Trapanese’s input is a lot of slow and melancholy material without as much of the rich instrumentation that made Archis feel like something more cinematic and special. I understand why Red was a bit more commercial than what Dia was aiming for (it’s hard not to have that happen when you score a short-lived record deal as a result of being a runner-up on The Voice), but I actually really enjoyed that album, and I’m just not hearing as much variety or strong melodies that really grab me here. It’s been a tough few years for Dia – the exposure brought by The Voice and the unwillingness of booking agents and record execs to accept her as part of her old band Meg & Dia rather than as a solo act apparently caused a bit of a rift that broke up the band, and according to a blog entry she wrote, she’s already witnessing how quickly the industry can chew up and spit out a young artist before they even hit 30. So she has my sympathy as I listen to the trails and tribulations described on this record. It just isn’t very engaging listening for reasons other than that.

Peter Bradley Adams – A Face Like Mine
Eastmountainsouth was a mellow Americana duo that put out just one record back in 2003, combining old-timey folk harmonies with occasional bits of drum programming and smooth pop production, maybe even a slight hint of worldbeat on a few tracks. It was one of my go-to records back in the day when I wanted to listen to something more down-tempo and melancholy. Since they split up, the male half of the duo has released solo records every few years, and every now and then I check one out and quickly get bored with it. That pattern hasn’t changed here. Adams has a soothing voice – the kind of thing that made me take note when he was singing duets with Kat Maslich-Bode (who, for her part, has only managed a 6-song EP in the entire time since their split), and that had me looking forward to some solo material from him. But the dude only really has that one speed: soothing. It gets monotonous over the course of an album, even when said album only has 9 songs. About all that stands out to me here is his version of “On Jordan’s Stormy Banks I Stand”, which falls into that unfortunate category of “Covers of hymns and other classic songs that annoy me by ditching the melody I liked in favor of an unremarkable new one”. Guess I’ll go back to forgetting about this guy for another few years, then.

Belle & Sebastian – How to Solve Our Human Problems, Pt. 2 EP
Volume 2 of this collection came out on my 40th birthday, and I have wholeheartedly accepted it as a birthday gift. With a slightly quirkier tone than its already engaging predecessor, this EP really reminds me of some of the more manic tunes that first caught my attention on the otherwise downbeat The Life Pursuit way back in 2006. “Cornflakes” is downright bizarre, in the way that only Stevie Jackson can do bizarre. And the two ballads here, “I’ll Be Your Pilot” and “A Plague on Other Boys”, are among Stuart Murdoch’s finest, telling engaging stories that are held aloft by the use of an English horn and Sarah Martin’s flute, respectively. This group’s best tracks tend to feel like they’re unstuck in time, and I’m definitely feeling that throughout the majority the songs on this project thus far.

Spoon – Hot Thoughts
Spoon is one of those unconventional indie rock bands that has been around since the 90s and yet I never got into them. They apparently make some killer catchy tunes. The two guys behind the Velocities in Music podcast are huge fans of the band, even having done a deep-dive of their entire discography, and their glowing recommendation of this album on more than one occasion convinced me to finally take the plunge. I appreciate the lightly funky, sometimes baroque, and eclectic nature of their songs, while I can tell their lyrics will take me some time to untangle in a few places. That’s the kind of first impression that tends to bring me back for more quite frequently when I’m just starting to listen to a “new” band.

Paramore – After Laughter
Paramore has also been around for a while, and I’ve probably had tangential exposure to some of their past material, but I don’t know, even with the unique angle of having a chirpy female vocalist up front, a lot of pop/punk/emo type bands tend to sound the same to me, so I never investigated any further until now. They’ve changed up their sound for this one, bringing in more dance-pop and 80s influences, and even that sort of a reimagining is becoming old hat for a lot of rock bands trying to stay relevant these days, so my initial exposure to their single “Hard Times” didn’t indicate anything special was going on here, either. Now that I’ve listened to the full album, I’m actually impressed at how this change comes across as more than a gimmick. Hayley Williams is deliberately contrasting the peppy music with lyrics that depict some genuine struggles, and our tendency to mask those struggles by looking like we’re happy or we have it all put together when we really don’t. These are themes tons of bands have explored, but I like that Paramore is doing it while expanding the boundaries of their previous sound in eclectic ways, hitting a lot of the same sweet spots than bands like Chvrches and Haim have managed to hit for me in recent years.

Calexico – The Thread that Keeps Us
This one just came out last Friday and I haven’t had much time to digest it, but I will say I’m pleasantly surprised at how the band put some of their more upbeat, aggressive, and instrumentally colorful material up front this time around. Calexico albums are usually downbeat affairs befitting their “desert noir” image, which means they can take a long time to grow on me, but I tend to return to them with great frequency once they do. There’s a lot to take in here, with 15 tracks on the regular edition and a whopping 22 on the deluxe version, and things do get a bit duskier in the album, meaning I’ll need time for more in-depth listening before I have an informed perspective on this record as a whole. But my first impressions are more positive than they have been to the band’s last few slow-burners.

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