What Am I Listening To? – September 2018

Wow, did I really try to digest fourteen new albums this month? (OK, actually ten albums and four EPs, but still.) That’s a bit much, even for me. September had no shortage of intriguing releases, but I’ve actually had to save a few for October, just to make sure I have time to catch my breath after some of the Friday morning new music rituals that are now regularly stretching well into the afternoon.

Here are my first impressions of the latest releases from Iron & Wine, Matthew Thiessen & The Earthquakes, St. Paul & The Broken Bones, mewithoutYou, Animal Collective, Thrice, Yoav, Steven Page, Wye Oak, The Last Bison, Frontperson, Metric, Aphex Twin, and Mae.

Iron & Wine – Weed Garden EP
These 6 songs apparently didn’t make the cut for Iron & Wine’s rather sleepy 2017 release Beast Epic, or else weren’t completed in time. Either way, I’m not sure whether to be angry they didn’t get the chance to make that rather anemic album a bit stronger, or relieved that they didn’t get buried on that album. I’m not attached enough to any of these songs to have strong feelings either way – they’re all good, but none are truly great. “Waves of Galveston” and “Talking to Fog” are vaguely pretty in a way where I could maybe envision them slowly becoming dark horse favorites. “The Last of Your Rock & Roll Heroes” is playful enough that it might have been a nice change of pace, I suppose. And “Milkweed” is notable for centering its arrangement around quirky, staccato strings and piano. There’s a better album that I could probably compile from the 17 songs available between this EP and its parent LP, but most of it feels like Iron & Wine by the numbers at this point, so I’m not particularly excited to try.

Matthew Thiessen & The Earthquakes – Wind Up Bird
Also exploring his acoustic sensitive side is Matt Thiessen, better known as the lead singer of Relient K, who has been using this “Earthquakes” moniker rather confusingly for the odds and ends he’s put out as a solo artist over the years, dating all the way back to the initial release of “I Hate Christmas Parties” in 2001. This is first full-length album aside from the band, and I’m initially drawn into the sound of it, even if my excitement sags a bit in the midsection. Horns and other whimsical bits of instrumentation help to lift up the otherwise mellow coffeehouse vibe of some of the more playful songs, and in between all the lyrical witticisms, there’s some genuine heartbreak and tragedy to be found… or at least for me to hazard a guess at since a lot of these lyrics lean toward the allegorical side of things. Imagine if more of the tracks on Air For Free were in the vein of “Sleepin'” or “Flower”, and you’ll get a sense of the general direction Thiessen is headed on this one.

St. Paul & The Broken Bones – Young Sick Camellia
I listened to this band’s debut Half the City four years ago, and since Southern soul isn’t a genre I’m terribly familiar with, my reaction was mostly, “I respect their attempts at reviving the genre, and dude has some serious pipes, but this just isn’t for me.” Then “Apollo”, the disco-soul hybrid lead single from their third album, dropped this summer and I absolutely could not get enough of it. This is probably the most excited I’ve ever been for a new album to drop from a band I wasn’t previously into. And it delivers! There are only really nine songs here, but they run the gamut between upbeat, danceable singles, mid-tempo funk jams, and stark torch songs, all designed to show off the flexibility of Paul Janeway’s formidable vocals and the band’s horn and rhythm sections. They walk a pretty fine line between experimentation and continued revival of a classic genre here, with some loose snippets of a recorded conversation between Janeway and his grandfather serving as interludes to give the album some deeper thematic weight. This isn’t a perfect collection of songs, and the album feels a slight bit padded to disguise the fact that it’s slightly short on content, but I’ve been playing it relentlessly since it came it out several weeks ago, and my excitement for it hasn’t diminished at all.

mewithoutYou – [untitled] EP
This is a collection of mostly softer songs that apparently weren’t a good fit for the band’s upcoming [UNTITLED] LP, which I’ve been led to expect is going to mostly focus on the heavier side of mwY’s post-rock sound. Pity, because I tend to appreciate this band the most when the music makes the most of the dynamic contrast as it ebbs and flows between softer, more melodic and folksy segments and the heavier, screamier stuff. Seven mellow mwY songs all in a row isn’t the sort of thing that really holds my attention all that well, even though I’m willing to bet a few of these tracks like “Bethlehem, WV” and “Cities of the Plain” would have functioned beautifully as breathers in between some of the more intense tracks on the LP. (Well, aside from the minute and change of near-silence at the beginning of the latter, which is a bit excessive of a fade-in by any band’s standards.)

Animal Collective – Tangerine Reef
It’s sort of built into the Animal Collective mission statement that they are comprised of collaborating musicians who will rotate in and out of the band from one release to the next, as availability and inspiration allow. For the most part, that’s just meant swapping Deakin and Geologist in and out up until now – this has mostly been Avey Tare and Panda Bear’s show to run. As foreshadowed by last year’s baffling Meeting of the Waters EP, this is the first full-length effort from the Collective not to feature Panda Bear, who is the main source of the group’s more grounded pop sensibilities. Without him to rein in some of Avey’s excesses, the band is really abstract and out there, wandering somewhat aimlessly with nothing more than stray snippets of vocal melody and minimal rhythmic intrusion to make a “song” qualify as such. This aural companion, to what is apparently a video project intended to illustrate the beauty of endangered coral reefs, plays out as a mellow, distorted stream of consciousness, morphing from one track to the next almost imperceptibly. I want to say it’s meditative, ambient music, but the gloomy, machine-like metal echoes and other dissonant tactics in several tracks can be downright irritating to listen to, to say nothing of Avey Tare’s vocals, which go back and forth between mumbling barely coherent lyrics and yelping inane catchphrases. I suppose I had this maddening endurance test coming after getting all excited about how upbeat and focused the group was on Painting With. This is what happens when Avey Tare’s wilder, more exploratory side gets suppressed for too long, apparently. It’s emphatically not for me, and next time the group does anything without Panda Bear, I’ll know to treat it as a side project from an entirely different band and just skip it altogether.

Thrice – Palms
Thrice’s second album after their hiatus has me a lot less excited than 2016’s To Be Everywhere Is to Be Nowhere. That album didn’t even capture the most intriguing aspects of Thrice’s sound, choosing mostly to focus on the raggedy alt-rock they’d gotten down to a science in the latter portion of their career, but it was pretty consistent. This album is more of a hodgepodge akin to Beggars, meaning there are a few genre left turns that get me excited such as the electronic-tinged opener “Only Us”, and the driving acoustic song “Blood on Blood” (which drops in a harp solo, of all things). But for the most part, it doesn’t really congeal into a satisfying listening experience. Too much mid-tempo melodic rock material here that feels like it’s just status quo, at least compared to what I know Thrice is capable of. If they’re gonna try to change up genres from song to song over the course of an album, I’d really prefer for there to be some thematic connection between the material that gives deeper meaning to the sonic variation, a la The Alchemy Index.

Yoav – Multiverse
It’s been a solid decade ever since this solo acoustic troubadour with an affinity for live looping and making his guitar imitate the sound and mood of electronic music first piqued my interest on Charmed and Strange. His follow-up albums were a bit less interesting to me as they drifted further from the gimmick of producing every sound using an acoustic guitar and a bit of digital manipulation – now he’ll bring in an actual drum sequencer or synth pads where he finds it appropriate. His style of music evolves a bit more toward pure electronica on his fourth album without dropping the guitar gimmick entirely, and it’s slow to get going, but it’s still a fascinatingly dark blend of ideas coming from somewhere between the dance club and the coffeehouse. The brooding opener “Blood Moon”, the surprisingly upbeat anthem “One Nature”, and the emotional release of the epic closer “Reunion” are probably my favorite moments on this one.

Steven Page – Discipline: Heal Thyself Pt. II
It took two years for Page to follow up on 2016’s Heal Thyself, Pt. 1: Instinct, but by doing it at all, he becomes the rare artist who dared to title an album “Part 1” and then actually followed through with the next part of it. His brand of snarky, smart-assed pop/rock continues to be just a little bit edgier than the most pointed material he recorded with the Barenaked Ladies, while occasionally veering into showtune territory, because the guy’s got the pipes for it, whatever else you might want to say about his self-consciously dorky and occasionally off-putting demeanor. This album’s got a bit more bite to it due to the political climate that has emerged in America in the intervening years, which most notably comes to the foreground in the sarcastic rocker “White Noise”, which finds this Canadian taking aim at White Nationalist movements and the political clout they hold in America, from the viewpoint of “an immigrant and a Jew”. Nothing else on the album hits quite as hard, and at times I find Page’s bluntness on more personal matters a bit off-putting, but he’s got enough wacky hooks and stylistic diversity here to make sure the rough road is still a scenic route.

Wye Oak – The Louder I Call, the Faster It Runs
Wikipedia describes Wye Oak as more of an indie pop or indie folk band, though I’m just getting into them several albums into their discography, so what I’m hearing on this one reminds me more of an electronica/dance pop duo in the vein of Sylvan Esso, maybe with a bit more organic instrumentation and an affinity for bizarre time signatures and oddball segues between tracks. They’re not my favorite band in this genre, but I like the general formula of synthesized and organic instrumentation colliding with a female vocalist upfront and a multi-instrumentalist handling drums, keyboards and other various instruments – sometimes two of those at once! There are some beautiful songs on this record, some jarring ones, and some brooding ones I don’t quite know what to do with yet. Overall, it’s a positive introduction to a band I probably should have known about a long time ago.

The Last Bison – SÜDA
The Last Bison has taken quite a bit of time off between when I last saw them on their 2015 tour for VA and the 2018 release of an album that aims to completely blow apart listeners’ perceptions of the band. Perhaps due to necessity, they’ve abandoned their rich and raggedy folk-rock sound, due to several band members departing for various personal reasons over the years, leaving The Last Bison as a three-piece band, pursuing more of a keyboard-heavy indie rock sound. It’s difficult to describe their new sound, because a lot of these songs throw truly odd curveballs at the listener, aping 80s pop and dance music at times, but also drawing influence from world music here and there as Ben Hardesty digs into the indigenous music of places where his parents served as missionaries when he was a kid, and tries to incorporate the general mood and spirit of those genres without making the mistake of explicitly appropriating them. It’s weird stuff, and at times the way he smooths out his vocals to fit the new genre trappings makes the band sound almost unidentifiable compared to the days of Inheritance and VA. But for the most part, it works, and it’s certainly unique among all of the indie folk bands I’ve listened to that have tried to abruptly transition out of the genre.

Frontperson – Frontrunner
The ambiguously named Frontperson is a collaboration between Mark Andrew Hamilton of the band Woodpigeon, and Kathryn Calder from the New Pornographers. It’s mostly a collection of low-key quirky indie pop songs, just mellow enough to not demand your attention at first, but also just oddball enough to make you wonder what the heck inspired them once you listen more closely. With only 9 songs, and no real cohesion between most of them due to the bouncing back and forth between two very different vocalists (and only a few tracks prominently featuring both of them), this duo doesn’t quite seem fully committed to making this anything beyond a one-time collaboration just for the sake of their own artistic curiosity. But some of it’s interesting when given a second or third chance, and whenever Kathryn sings lead, her sweet cooing juxtaposed with the occasionally strange lyrics is often every bit as arresting as it is on her solo record.

Metric – Art of Doubt
Metric seems to be firmly planted in “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” territory with this album – it’s perhaps less reliant on electronic rhythms and keyboards than 2015’s Pagans in Vegas, and a little more determined to put the guitars upfront, but the hooks, melodies, and overall structure of their songs seem so straightforward on most of these cuts that I can’t help but feel they’re playing it a bit by rote. Perhaps the biggest surprise is the sheer length of some of these tracks – even singles like “Dressed to Suppress” (which is easily the album’s strongest song) can easily stretch out to five minutes. Lots of good songs here, but occasionally I’ll find myself checking how deep into the album I am, and being surprised that I’m only on track 8 or 9 when it seems like it should be wrapping up already. Metric’s a consistent enough band that I usually find their albums engaging, but they haven’t yet done anything that has made me truly fall in love with an entire album of theirs.

Aphex Twin – Collapse EP
I’ve pretty much accepted that I’m never really gonna “get” Aphex Twin. I’m not even sure there’s that much to “get” in the first place – you either like the sensory onslaught of drill-and-bass beats and occasional creepy ambient passages, or you don’t. I like the overall aesthetic, at least for a few minutes, and I’m intrigued by some of the weird freakouts that change things up in a few of the compositions on this EP, most notably the opener “T69 Collapse”. But even at 5 songs and 28 minutes, this is a bit much for me to handle all in one sitting. What seems innovative at the outset rapidly starts to feel repetitive. As with the last few Aphex Twin releases I checked out, I’m willing to say there’s a lot of creative talent on display here, and I think it’s great that he’s still forging his own path after more than three decades in the business… but it just ain’t for me.

2018_Mae_30EPMae – 3.0 EP
Maybe I’ve just been a bit cranky the first few times I listened to the first new batch of songs from this band in 8 years… but the latest incarnation of Mae seems a bit rudderless. The best ideas here – the previously released singles “5 Light Years” and “Let It Die” – seem to have a theme of conflict resolution similar to that heard on the (M)(A)(E) project released just before their hiatus. They don’t really advance the band’s sound, but they’re interesting songs that make it easy to imagine the band never left us. The other four tracks on this EP are… scattered, to say the least. The irritating vocal effects on “Sing” and “Our Love Is a Painted Picture” threaten to eclipse the actual songs, and I already knew from the release of “Picture” last year that I didn’t like it – it seems to confuse a schizophrenic lack of structure and resolution with actual artistic inspiration. That leaves “A Race for Our Autonomy” and “Space”, the former of which is presented as an acoustic version and could potentially develop into something more interesting if given the full band treatment on a future album, and the latter of which is SIX DAMN MINUTES OF CRICKETS. Sigh. Sounds like the new Mae is a little too full of itself to know when to rein in its excesses.

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