What Am I Listening To? – July 2018

Here are my first impressions of the latest releases from Kina Grannis, The Innocence Mission, Eisley, Punch Brothers, and KT Tunstall.

2018_KinaGrannis_IntheWaiting

Kina Grannis – In the Waiting
Due to extenuating circumstances, involving a bizarre and traumatic experience in which Kina was trapped in Indonesia for several months due to a dispute concerning her work visa, this follow-up to Elements has been a long time coming. My understanding is that it’s completely crowd-funded, which probably explains the stripped down approach – Kina’s records already tended to be ballad-heavy, but this thing is literally nothing but ballads. The downbeat mood makes sense considering that it seems to have been a sobering couple of years for the singer-songwriter, so I get that it wouldn’t make sense to have a lot of jolly, percussive, lovey-dovey sorts of songs on this one. But still, there’s so little variation in the pacing and instrumentation that this one falls into the doldrums rather quickly and never really recovers. Released individually on her YouTube channel, as a few of these songs were in the intervening years, I can see several of these numbers being captivating on their own. All in a row, it’s an unforgiving slog of melancholy slowness, and I’m fine with that being the mood for an entire album, but I need a little more variance in the dynamics, you know? “Birdsong” is probably the highlight here due to how it subtly layers her backing vocals and a few other effects over an otherwise simple piano ballad about what sounds like a reflection on a sudden and tragic death. There’s certainly some depth of emotional experience to be mined within these songs… I’m just afraid a lot of it will go unnoticed due to how the music seems to do the exact opposite of begging for the listener’s attention at nearly every opportunity.

The Innocence Mission – Sun on the Square
I haven’t listened to an Innocence Mission record since 2007’s We Walked in Song, and to be honest, I haven’t truly enjoyed an Innocence Mission record since 1999’s Birds of My Neighborhood. They had fallen into a bit of a rut where their charmingly innocent-sounding brand of indie folk just started to sound like the same thing over and over, and while that approach doesn’t change drastically on Sun on the Square, there’s at least some more variance in the instrumentation for those willing to delve into the details – accordion, strings, bells, drums coming in at key moments on a few tracks, things like that. As usual, Karen Peris’s lyrics read like vignettes into oddly specific moments of her life that might not initially translate into a “big picture” meaning, but that become more compelling as the listener gains familiarity with the twists and turns of each individual song. I’ve listened to this one a lot more than I expected to – at 10 songs and 35 minutes, it goes down easy, and at least for a good two-thirds of the album, most of the individual tracks are quite memorable. The run of consecutive highlights from “Green Bus” through “Look Out From Your Window”, “Shadow of the Pines”, and “Buildings in Flower” is especially exquisite, with the lyrics and instrumentation living up to the sorts of detailed imagery the titles might lead one to expect.

Eisley – I’m Only Dreaming… Of Days Long Past
Normally, an acoustic remake of a full album can come across as little more than a set of glorified demos. Or the artist goes a different route and only remakes select songs, stuffing the rest with B-sides and other rarities and making it feel like more of a hodgepodge than a true remake of an album. Eisley is surprisingly consistent on this unplugged – or let’s just say, less plugged – reworking of their 2017 album I’m Only Dreaming, mostly following the structure and pacing of each of its 11 songs, but throwing a few curveballs into the instrumentation here and there. At best, a new arrangement refreshes a song that sounded quite different on the original LP – “A Song for the Birds” turns from upbeat, giddy pop into a tranquil, lush piano ballad emphasizing its gorgeous melody, and “Rabbit Hole”, which was already a stripped-down acoustic number, is transformed for the better with soothing keyboards and a slight bit of electric guitar ambiance. A few tracks that I was rather “meh” about on the original sparkle a little more on this version, and a few like “Louder than a Lion” still benefit from the use of strong vocal layering, despite the otherwise stripped-down production. But there are also a few casualties – most notably “Snowfall”, which loses its intriguing arrangement and its sudden tempo change, and turns into a bit of a piano dirge that frustratingly refuses to follow the captivating chord progression it once boasted. Overall I’d say my feelings about it are roughly equal to how I’ve come to see the original album – as a good, but not great, continuation of Eisley’s legacy despite the band being down to only two permanent members at this point. I’d love to hear them go back and redo some highlights from earlier Eisley records in this fashion at some point, but I won’t hold my breath.

Punch Brothers – All Ashore
Punch Brothers continue to be a difficult quintet to nail down genre-wise – despite the bluegrass-inspired instrumentation, their arrangements can lend themselves to sprawling multi-part song suites with classical and progressive rock leanings just as easily as they can lend themselves to tight, percussive, folksy jamming. All Ashore seems like more of a downbeat affair than their last few records – despite having only nine tracks, it feels quite dense, even though there’s nothing here as ambitiously long as “Familiarity” or the band’s ridiculous 40-minute opus “The Blind Leading the Blind”. For me, it’s got just the right balance of instant appeal and challenging song structures, and the lyrical focus on messy marriages and messier politics hints at a lot more to be revealed beneath the surface as I get deeper into this one. I’ll probably always appreciate Chris Thile the most as a member of Nickel Creek, but on records like these is where he seems to really let his muses run wild, and that gives him the potential to be both captivating and perplexing at unpredictable intervals.

KT Tunstall – BBC Live Sessions EP
This disc is a compilation of seven separate live-in-studio performances from the Eye to the Telescope era, roughly 2004-2007, when KT was just starting to make a name for herself as a live performer, with her use of live looping and unorthodox cover choices. Three songs from her debut album are featured in that context here, including the Jools Holland performance of “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree” that actually predated the studio version most of us in the States know as her first hit single. They’re alright. I kind of feel like a visual element is required to best appreciate her live performances from those days, due to how she’d become her own self-backing band by slowly building up each of the looping elements of a song. (“Other Side of the World”, not really demonstrating this technique, doesn’t do much more for me here than it did on the album.) The cover songs would probably get me going a little more if I knew anything about the originals – sorry, but I’ve never really been into Bob Dylan or Missy Elliot… and while I’m a big Radiohead fan, I’m not sure how I feel about “Fake Plastic Trees” as a languid lounge tune. I appreciate the range of influences that helped make KT the weirdo she is today, though.

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