What Am I Listening To? – August 2018

Here are my first impressions of the latest releases from Lo Moon, Jason Mraz, Plumb, Death Cab for Cutie, Sawyer, and DeVotchKa.

Lo Moon – Lo Moon
I’m listening to these guys because they’ll be the opening band when I go to see Chvrches in concert next month. They’re an L.A. band with a bit of a shoegaze/sophistipop vibe, which basically means an 80s pop style with indie rock aesthetics, and a generally slow-burning pace to most of their songs. (Oh, and the Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart is their guitarist’s dad.) I like the overall sound, but taken all together as an album, it can get a bit tedious. Occasional bits of unexpected instrumentation help, as do some of the more memorable drum cadences that occasionally rise above the smooth, even surface. On an emotional level, this sometimes reminds me of Paper Route’s mellower material. Their first single “Loveless” is the standout here for very good reasons, but there are some gems to be found among the deep cuts as well.

Jason Mraz – Know.
It’s fitting that the title of Mraz’s sixth album appears to be a rebuttal to that of his fifth album, Yes!, without any actual negativity, because this is basically more of the same. I’ve gone from loving Mraz’s first album, to feeling mildly positive about his next two, to mostly writing him off as a faux-philosophical Jimmy Buffet with only the occasional white boy hip-hop tropes and terrible lyrical puns to help differentiate him, and I’m sticking with that last description for this album. I will say that more of the songs here get stuck in my head than on Yes!, but then I realize that’s only because he’s ripping off “I’m Yours” for like the umpteenth time, and for all of the smarmy, self-referential quips in his songwriting, you’d think he’d be self-aware enough to realize this shit’s getting old FAST.

Plumb – Beautifully Broken
Plumb has managed to intrigue me over the last twenty years with musical styles ranging from trip-hop to dance-pop to lullabies, of all things. She was an early influence on Evanescence, and at one point, she sounded an awful lot like she had been influenced by Evanescence in turn. None of these were terribly original sounds, but they fit her subject matter pretty well. Her latter years haven’t been nearly as consistent, ranging mostly from middle-of-the-road pop to dull worship ballads. This album brings back more of the personal subject matter, and stylistically it’s in line with 2013’s Need You Now, minus any of the standout tracks that made that record tolerable. Her usual stock characters – overworked moms, distant lovers longing to be understood, troubled abuse victims who dress all gothy and stuff – populate this one in such a predictable manner that it honestly starts to feel a bit exploitative at times. There’s a difference between telling someone their brokenness can be redeemed and they’re loved for exactly who they are, and implying that God broke them on purpose just for the sake of the redemptive origin story, and a few of these songs (most notably the title track) veer uncomfortably close to the latter.

Death Cab for Cutie – Thank You for Today
Death Cab’s first album without longtime guitarist/producer Chris Walla doesn’t sound radically different from 2015’s Kintsugi to my ears. Much like on that album, they’re most interesting when they’re doing something rhythmic and up-tempo – their music’s a little too glossy at this point to really feel like something I can call “indie” or “emo”, but solid riffs and drum loops make a few of these tracks stand out, most notably the use of sampling in the lead single “Gold Rush”. Ben Gibbard’s usual relationship songs often feel rather possessive and one-sided, even when he isn’t deliberately going for that approach, so I’m not exactly the biggest fan of him as a songwriter, and I’m rather ambivalent about him as a vocalist most of the time, too. But I’ll give him credit for branching out from that subject matter for a few tracks that seem to explore what gives a city its identity, and whether heavy nostalgia for the way that city once was does a person more harm than good.

Sawyer – Easy Now EP
I enjoyed Sawyer’s opening set for Katie Herzig enough to want to hear more, but the duo doesn’t have a proper album out yet, so for now I’ll have to use this EP they put out in 2017 to get a sense of their studio sound. I like the twin guitar approach and the sisterly vibe they have, but a lot of the breakup songs feel like they’re covering ground I’ve heard a million young singers cover before, and the production plays it a bit too safe for them to stand out next to pop revivalists such as Haim that are clearly an influence on the duo. A few strong riffs and chorus melodies, most notably on “The Last Thing”, come closest to the winning personality they displayed in concert – I hope more of that will be heard if and when they get an LP together someday.

DeVotchKa – This Night Falls Forever
Well, I can finally scratch these guys off of the Watch List after several years of not knowing what the heck was going on with them. I’ve really missed this group’s highly dramatic blend of Latin, Eastern European, baroque pop and indie rock sounds ever since first getting into them with 100 Lovers back in 2011. I still have no idea why they vanished for so long, but it’s good to have them back. This new album seems to pick up where the group left off, perhaps with more oblique melodies and even more of a flair for melodrama, but also with some straight-ahead guitar-driven singles that are as catchy as the deep cuts on this album are downright odd. Since most of these tracks are in the 4-5 minute range, taking in the entire album at once can be a bit exhausting due to how much emotion Nick Urata seems to wring out of every note. (Imagine Joe Henry singing boleros, with Andrew Bird on hand for a vigorous whistling solo here and there, and you’ll kind of get the idea.) But there’s a lot of romance and heartbreak and intrigue waiting to be discovered as I dig deeper into this one. I’m looking forward to spending more time with it.

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