What Am I Listening To? – June 2018

Wow, June was a crazy month for new music. Probably because there were five Fridays. A bunch of stuff I was looking forward to dropped on June 1, and then again just yesterday on June 29. Because I prefer to have listened to something a bare minimum of twice before mentioning it here, and just for the sake of my overall sanity, I’ve decided to punt a few of those June 29 releases to July, so that I can focus more on the few that I did manage to get to thus far.

Here are my first impressions of the latest releases from Sucré, Owl City, Neko Case, Father John Misty, The Flaming Lips, Dave Matthews Band, Arthur Buck, Kevin Max, Mike Shinoda, Florence + The Machine, Jim James, and Katie Herzig.

Sucré – In Pieces EP
I’ll admit to being somewhat miffed when, after the hype leading up to it on social media, this turned out to be just a 10-minute EP, really more of a glorified single with a couple B-sides, that didn’t even include the earlier stand-alone single “Inside”. See, in the absence of any concrete explanation for why drummer Darren King left MuteMath so abruptly last year, I can only assume he wanted to make Sucré, his project with his wife and former Eisley member Stacy Dupree-King, a full-time gig. To have new material coming out piecemeal like this is better than nothing, but still they haven’t done a full-length album since 2012. The thing is, “In Pieces” is a nice, gooey, string-drenched plea in the vein of their debut album, while those B-sides I mentioned are actually even better than the title track, taking the band’s sound in even more of a percussive and electronic direction with some next-level production. I really hope an album is forthcoming that gives these scattered tracks (and maybe even some of the ones from 2015’s Loner EP) a final home.

Owl City – Cinematic
Owl City’s fifth album is every bit as garish and all over the place as its hastily Photoshopped together movie poster of an album cover. We already knew from the numerous Reel EPs leading up to this album what nine of the fifteen songs were gonna sound like, and a few of those were downright embarrassing, and make no better of a case for themselves in the context of the album, which is mostly a series of personal anecdotes about Adam Young’s Midwestern upbringing and his familial roots in the area. This is the sort of stuff that, if more artfully expressed, would make great little folksy vignettes on a Sufjan Stevens record, but when I listen to Owl City, I tend to expect silly, surreal, synth-laden flights of fancy, and I get relatively few of those here. “Lucid Dream” is a legit highlight that would have stood out from the pack even on the now-classic Ocean Eyes, and “Be Brave” makes a solid case for Young’s ability to succeed outside of synthpop, going for more of a Ben Folds-esque piano rock feel (minus the wit, but believable nonetheless). The rest of it runs the gamut from passable but unremarkable synthpop to some really inadvised forays into bro-country and inspirational pop balladry. 15 tracks of it is a lot to stomach, but it might actually be stronger song-for-song than the disastrous Mobile Orchestra, I suppose.

Neko Case – Hell-On
I love Neko Case’s voice, and her role as the most prominent female voice in The New Pornographers, but her solo material tends to be a tough sell for me. She’s a unique singer/songwriter due to how she structures songs, often eschewing the typical verse/chorus layout in favor of taking a song in a completely different direction to avoid repeating herself, a tactic used on even some of the catchiest, poppiest of the country-rock numbers heard here. She also tends to prefer more garish subject matter, making a few of her lyrics downright uncomfortable, although there’s no denying she approaches them with some serious songcraft. The clear talent that I have to acknowledge is on display exceeds the raw enjoyment I tend to get from listening to her, is what I guess I’m saying. But Hell-On is definitely a stronger record than either of her last two, in terms of both the songwriting and the genre-hopping. The opening run of four songs, from the mystifyingly weird title track up through the addictive single “Bad Luck”, are the clear highlights for me.

Father John Misty – God’s Favorite Customer
Around this time last year, I wrote an excessively long paragraph defending my lack of an ability to properly rate Father John Misty’s landmark recording Pure Comedy. I was long-winded in my attempts to say I admired his songwriting skills, but not so much his long-windedness. I see the irony in that now. Thankfully, this more concise fourth album from Josh Tillman trims a lot of the fat, keeping the lightly psychedelic folk/pop style but avoiding most of the excesses and dirge-like arrangements that made Pure Comedy a test of wills to listen to. A Father John Misty song doesn’t need to be long to provoke profound thinking in the listener, and from his darkly humorous third-person analysis of his own celebrity to some unflinching, uncomfortable vignettes into his own self-destructive habits, I can definitely say that each of these ten tracks is worth dissecting in its own right, even if the music doesn’t always excite me. So far it’s the melancholy ballad “Just Dumb Enough to Try” and the snarky rocker “Date Night” that grab my attention the most, but even the most plodding tracks here have their merits. I look forward to actually being able to rate this one soon.

The Flaming Lips – Greatest Hits, Vol. 1
It’s patently ridiculous for a band that’s been around since the 80s to only now have a “Volume 1” of their greatest hits released, especially when this isn’t even the first such compilation of their work that’s been put out. Still, I guess I have to admire the attempt to split this release into two versions – a single-disc collection of their grabbiest indie pop gems for listeners who are only just beginning to scratch the surface, and a four disc deep-dive for the dieheards who probably already have each and every album, EP, gummy skull, and other bizarro collectible. I’ve just been listening to the one-disc version, which skips their 80s material altogether and starts with early 90s highlights such as “They Don’t Use Jelly”, aruably the song that first put the Lips on the map. I was actually unfamiliar with anything from before The Soft Bulletin, so it’s nice to hear a little taste of what they were like in the 90s, even if my favorite material from the band is still the trio of dream pop albums from Bulletin up through At War with the Mystics. (I’m one of the few dissenters where Embryonic is concerned, but I must say it’s nice to hear “Silver Trembling Hands” again after all these years, without having to wade through 2 discs of jarring weirdness to get to it.) Of their conventional albums from the time period covered, Zaireeka and The Terror are skipped entirely, while a few other nagging exclusions such as “Fight Test” sorta bug me, but I can’t deny that if they had to whittle it down to a single disc, this is a pretty convincing collection of songs. I might check out the 4-disc version at some point, mostly to hear what some of their 80s material was like and to actually go through some more of the highlights from their discography in chronological order, but I can’t say I’m all that enthused to hear 2 discs’ worth of B-sides from a group already known for testing my patience on close to half of their album cuts.

Dave Matthews Band – Come Tomorrow
First I was really looking forward to this one, because it had been almost six years since the DMB’s last studio album. Then I heard the first few singles and I was indifferent. Then I found out Boyd Tinsley was on hiatus from the band and I was truly worried. Then I listened to the album and gradually got over my fears. First of all, Boyd’s been such a minor presence on the last few albums anyway that he may as well have been relegated to a few guest appearances – the band’s core sound is simply no longer dependent on the violin. Second, the lead single “Samurai Cop (Oh Joy Begin)” may seem like a pedestrian radio tune at first, but once you get past the stupid title, it turns out to be a genuinely uplifting song worthy of its parenthetical subtitle. Third, while Dave’s voice has certainly seen better days (as evidenced on the painfully off-key falsetto he whips out in “That Girl Is You”), the album is actually better off due to his willingness to lean into his role as father and elder. it informs the album with a certain sense of maturity… once you get past the handful of songs that are just about horndog Dave wanting to do the one thing that’s always on his mind, at least. There are some subtle intricacies to a few of the deep cuts on this album that make it more rewarding the deeper into it you get. I can’t say it’s gonna win the band a ton of new fans at this juncture, but give ’em credit for still being somewhat exploratory instead of just resting on their laurels after nearly three decades together. As long as nothing happens to drummer Carter Beauford (or, to state the obvious, Dave Matthews himself), the DMB can keep reconfiguring itself all it wants and I’ll probably be cool with it.

Arthur Buck – Arthur Buck
The hook for this newly formed alt-rock duo is pretty simple: Singer/songwriter Joseph Arthur got together with former R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck, and they actually followed through on the age-old “Hey, we should make an album together!” cliche. I’ve been a fan of Arthur’s on and off over the years, more so when he varies his work between the more delicate acoustic stuff and the more acidic, beat-driven indie rock stuff, to keep his creaky voice from getting too grating over the course of an album. Here, it’s almost entirely the latter, meaning that while the array of beats and melodies he and Buck throw together on this record are admirable, Arthur is the dominant force most of the time, with comparatively little room for Buck’s unique guitar style to come to the forefront. When Buck stands out with a solid riff, it easily brings back memories of all those classic R.E.M. records I’ve been going back through over the last few months, and occasionally there’s even a pretty solid solo. But this is really Arthur’s record at the end of the day, with Buck mostly following the lead of the song structures Arthur has put together. The synthesis of the two musicians’ styles is mildly interesting, but it’s also a nagging reminder that Arthur is no Michael Stipe, either lyrically or vocally, and his incessant drum programming is certainly no Bill Berry.

Kevin Max – AWOL
Kevin Max’s solo career has run the gamut from straightforward genre exercises honoring some of his favorite rock musicians, to out-there expressions of the “freak show” persona he brought to dc Talk, unshackled by the trappings of the Christian music industry, to bizarre and ill-advised cover albums, to his more tragically ill-advised stint with a reformed Audio Adrenaline. It’s hit and miss, to the point where I haven’t truly been excited to listen to a new KMax release since 2005’s The Impostor. I was pleasantly surprised to hear an 80s vibe running throughout this album, and while I suppose the obvious homages to The Cure, early U2, and the incessant synthpop acts popular back in those days are nothing groundbreaking, this ends up being the most immediately likeable record Max has done in a long time. Some of the lyrics are still quite strange, but there are also quite a few of them where he cuts the pretense and just straight-up confesses love for his wife, his Irish heritage, and yes, even Jesus. The result is a hell of a fun record that feels more genuine and less gimmicky than any of his previous solo releases.

Mike Shinoda – Post Traumatic
The short, blunt documentary of how Mike Shinoda was personally dealing with the death of Linkin Park frontman and close friend Chester Bennington that came out earlier this year, bearing the same name as this full length album, appropriately became its opening three tracks, with the smattering of singles released since then slotted into a rather generous track listing. This set of songs is unflinching and at times harrowing as Shinoda shares his continued journey of picking up the pieces and not letting one of the worst kinds of adversity get him down, but it’s also melodic and steeped in electropop and rock influences just enough to change things up. For the most part this is still a rap record, and Shinoda aptly demonstrates how much he’s grown as an emcee since the early days, but he also makes a case that Linkin Park could well have come up with more intriguing and cerebral pop music than what they had to offer on One More Light last year. “Crossing a Line” is currently stuck in my head; I’m sure others will follow.

Florence + The Machine – High as Hope
The next set of releases literally came out yesterday, so I’ve been lucky to squeeze in two listens and to even barely start to form an opinion. Keep that in mind when I say that I wish this record was more “Machine” without being any less “Florence”. The fiery-haired frontwoman is at the top of her game vocally and lyrically here, but the baroque rock arrangements of her band seem scaled back, afraid to really burst out of the speakers with the sort of power heard on a “What Kind of Man” or a “Shake It Out”. Early singles “Sky Full of Song” and even the upbeat “Hunger” didn’t bode well from my standpoint – the latter was sort of upbeat but lacked the musical masterstroke needed to really drive its message home. There are several delicate songs on this album that I would say need delicate arrangements to get their point across, but there are also several moments where Florence is going full steam and her band seems too timid to keep up. Some lamented on How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful that the band was already starting to feel more like a solo project, with the band only there to support the vocalist, and I didn’t quite hear it at the time, but now it’s a huge fear of mine. Despite that, I’m sure I’ll find more personal connections with these ten songs as I listen more deeply.

Jim James – Uniform Distortion
Two Jim James solo album in the space of about a year and a half, and yet no news on the follow-up to The Waterfall that My Morning Jacket supposedly already had some good momentum on when that record came out in 2015? That’s… not a good sign. Still, the MMJ frontman is a bit more engaging here than he was on the rather sleepy and confounding Eternally Even, going for more upbeat, offbeat arrangements in a set of nostalgic and sometimes goofy songs designed with the apparent purpose of showing off as many vintage guitar sounds as he can cram into a single album. It’s one of those records that is deliberated produced in a fuzzy sort of way that makes a few of the arrangements not kick as much ass as it feels like they should, but as always, James knows how to make a simple chord progression really sing when he takes his axe to it. This album feels very loose and unrehearsed, like he just got some dudes together in the studio and banged out these eleven tracks without too much fussing around in the studio after the fact. At several points, he straight up breaks out laughing in the middle of a song, giving it that “I just barely know what I’m doing” sort of charm that, oddly enough, works in his favor. I seem to enjoy James’s nostalgic and metaphysical musings the most when I can tell he’s not taking his own platitudes terribly seriously. They’re just a starting point for some sweet retro rock jams.

Katie Herzig – Delicate EP
This six-song set re-imagines, with an appropriately light acoustic touch, the first three tracks from Moment of Bliss, plus two tracks that are “oldies” by Katie’s own admission: “Lost and Found” and “Wish You Well”, and finally a cover of James Blake’s “The Wilhelm Scream”. I was looking forward to this project after hearing how surprisingly well “Beat of Your Own” worked as a softly hummed ballad, but thus far the other arrangements feel a bit empty – even the remake of “Lost and Found” featuring Sleeping at Last, a nice returned favor from when she helped out on his “Noble Aim” all those years ago. Even with the softer songs on Katie’s albums, there’s usually some sort of intricacy to even the quieter tracks that is being deliberately avoided here, so songs that were already on the mellower side simply didn’t have as far to go, hence my lack of a strong reaction here.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s