What Am I Listening To? – October 2018

Here are my first impressions of the latest releases from KT Tunstall, Hellogoodbye, The Gray Havens, Jim James, mewithoutYou, St. Vincent, Blitzen Trapper, Kimbra, Alter Bridge, Marc Martel, and Flint Eastwood.

KT Tunstall – WAX
The second part of an album trilogy that KT began with 2016’s KIN is supposed to represent the body, the more gut level instincts that we experience, as opposed to the more spiritual components of the human experience that I guess KIN was about. I’m not really hearing it, though – these arrangements are by and large very safe, predictable, mid-tempo pop/rock, nothing terribly gutsy about them. I suppose there’s a bit more electric guitar than keyboards this time around, but the result is a duller, less colorful collection of songs that doesn’t provide enough rock to make up for the lack of pop. The best we get is an assertive rhythm guitar riff in a few tracks – and even that quickly gets repetitive, compared to much better songs in that same vein that KT has recorded previously. So this is a pretty boring release overall. A few interesting lyrics here and there as KT sticks up for herself in the face of detractors, but still nothing much to write home about.

Hellogoodbye – S’only Natural
Hellogoodbye’s last two records each put a different spin on the playful power pop style they had started out with – Would It Kill You? was more of a live band effort, while Everything Is Debatable was wall-of-sound electropop with some occasional retro touches. Forrest Kline has gone more introverted and intimate with the band’s fourth album, trotting out old disco tropes as well as a bit of jazz and lounge in a few of the ballads. At times the nostalgia wins me over, but at this point I’ve heard disco-rock revival done much better by other bands, and I’m getting diminishing returns from it as a throwback trend in indie music overall. Hellogoodbye’s take on the genre leads to such a gentle, breathy, and minimal record in comparison to what I’d usually expect from the band – I really need a stronger lead vocal performance to offset everything they’ve scaled back. At its best, there are still some mildly catchy tunes here, but at its worst, this is a half-hearted impression of bands like OK Go and The 1975.

The Gray Havens – She Waits
The Gray Havens have always been rather straightforward in their use of stories and allegories to communicate their faith. Their third album is no different in that sense, but it feels like they’re leaning away from the quirky folk/rock style of storytelling they started out with and instead getting uncomfortably close to middle-of-the-road inspirational pop music. There are a few left turns into unexpected genres here – a string arrangement that makes a track or two feel more cinematic, or the surprising guest rap from Propaganda on “High Enough”, which I figure is the sort of thing an artist like The Gray havens can pull off exactly once. Outside of a very small handful of highlights, this feels very generic, and even a bit half-hearted, since out of 11 tracks, three are short interludes, meaning there’s only 8 new songs here and we already got to hear most of ’em before the album dropped. Meh.

Jim James – Uniform Clarity
This is an acoustic version of James’ summer release Uniform Distortion, with what sounds like unfussy one-take remakes of all eleven tracks from that album, plus a few bonus tracks. I’m always game to hear how well a set of songs like this translates to more of an intimate setting, but what mostly gets revealed here is that these songs were dependent on the fuzzy riffing and jamming heard on the main album to make them work. The guitar riffs were half the fun originally, and here those have been largely replaced with dull acoustic strumming. This version of the album only serves to reveal how moronic a lot of the lyrics are, and how thin James’ vocals are when he can’t overdub himself and so forth. This pretty quickly starts to feel like an idea James didn’t think through all that well, and by less than halfway through it, I’m reminded of why I haven’t even come back to the electric version of the album all that much – the songs don’t really have a lot of staying power aside from “Throwback”. Also, his habit of giggling at odd moments in the middle of several songs, while it was kind of charming on Uniform Distortion due to the spontaneous feel of many of those recordings, starts to feel especially gimmicky here – he’s either trying to force that same air of spontaneity, or else he was just super high when he laid down the vocal tracks.

mewithoutYou – [UNTITLED]
The full-length companion to the surprisingly downbeat [untitled] EP from a few months back confirms my suspicion that mwY was saving quite a bit of ferocity for the album proper – it opens with some of the band’s loudest, most dissonant and scream-filled tracks, though never without losing the eerie and sometimes incongruous sense of melody that can often add a lot of flavor to this band’s post-hardcore sound. The middle of the album falls more into the melodic indie rock category, with a few tracks roaring back to life near the end – it’s not as exhilarating a mix of styles as heard on an album like It’s All Crazy! or Ten Stories, but there’s a lot here to pique my curiosity. If there’s one thing I can usually count on with mwY, it’s unusual literary references and stray little in-jokes in their songs that can add new meaning to them due to connections you hadn’t noticed before even when you’re ten or twenty listens deep. So I’ll have to reserve judgment on this one for quite a while, I think.

St. Vincent – Masseducation
Much like the Jim James entry above, this is a set of stripped-back performances of the songs heard on St. Vincent’s 2017 album MASSEDUCTION. They’re more piano-based than guitar-based, and a great deal of them are slowed down to fit the starker atmosphere. Again, I’m not hearing a lot of new revelations in these versions, though I do appreciate that she at least had the forethought to rearrange the track order here. For every moment like “Sugarboy” where I’m impressed that she can manage to keep up with the frenetic pace of the original, there seem to be several more where it’s just plain old boring chords, which is not the side of Annie Clark’s instrumental talents I’m most interested in hearing. And a few of the more rhythmic songs from the original version clearly weren’t meant to work in a mellower context. I know people often say that stripped-down versions like these help the listener to focus on the lyrics, but I rather like that some of the most intensely tragic songs on the original were glammed up with grimy guitars and dance beats and such, adding to the dissonance and desperation of it all. I didn’t have any trouble keeping up with the story. I don’t know why Annie seems to have expected that to be a problem.

Blitzen Trapper – Furr (10th Anniversary Deluxe Edition)
I’ve never been huge into Blitzen Trapper – I listened to the original release of Furr quite a bit circa early 2009, I liked a few tracks off of Destroyer of the Void in 2010, and then I just plain forgot about them for a while. Occasionally I’d dive back in with one of the many follow-up albums they’ve put out in the decade since, and not find much to hold on to. In my mind they’ve occupied a sort of midpoint between Wilco and Fleet Foxes, and I’m not even that big of a Wilco guy these days, and Fleet Foxes have become experimental enough in their own right that it makes Blitzen Trapper’s experimentation with the indie folk genre seem quaint by comparison. Still, there’s more solid material on Furr than I can remember fully appreciating at the time, and the ten B-sides included here from the apparently prolific recording sessions for the album are very much in the same vein as the stuff that actually made the cut the first time around. Definitely nothing as instantly memorable as Furr‘s title track or “Lady on the Water”, but I could see myself still listening to a few of these songs again in a few years when I’ve once again forgotten to keep up with whatever Blitzen Trapper is currently doing.

Kimbra – Songs From Primal Heart Reimagined
Now here’s a case study in how to strip down songs from your album and present them in acoustic form, and still make it interesting. Kimbra goes the dusky late-night jazz club route with these four remakes of tracks from her recent album, and while I’d have loved to hear her do all twelve, at least the four songs represented here are somewhat unpredictable picks. “Black Sky” and “The Good War” benefit greatly from their shift to quiet, piano-based arrangements, with her cool, breathy vocals and the upright bass really accentuating the jazzier elements of those songs’ chord structures. “Everybody Knows” is the only track represented here that was a single in its original version, I think, and while it was my favorite song on Primal Heart, it’s folk/jazz hybrid approach based around acoustic guitar might actually be the weakest of the bunch on this EP. “Hi Def Distance Romance” is the most surprising pick for a reimagining, being a rather frenetic and weird track whose original version was cut from the LP – here it’s dramatically less cluttered, revealing an entire different side of the song while keeping its odd time signature and melodic structure intact. Unlike Jim James and St. Vincent’s entries above, where I thought the fully produced versions of the songs were far superior in all cases, these remade tracks are different enough to make me wish Kimbra could find a way to reincorporate the crisp, intimate vibe she presents here into the more keyboard and loop-heavy sound she’s come to prefer on her LPs.

Alter Bridge – Live From the Royal Albert Concert Hall
This double live album proves to things to me: One, that Alter Bridge is a hard-working modern alt-metal band with an impressive back catalogue of hits and deep cuts, and Two, that they go back to the same well both lyrically and musically quite a bit, and having similarly-minded songs back-to-back that were originally separated by years in their discography only serves to highlight this weakness of theirs. (Seriously, I think there are three songs in a row here that trot out the tired old “tomorrow/sorrow/borrow” rhyme scheme.) I can’t see myself wanting to listen to this much Alter Bridge in one setting very often, and I don’t think any of these live versions manage to eclipse the album versions – if anything, the similar guitar sound from track to track due to the need to keep the setlist paced efficiently only serves to bury a lot of tracks that were originally highlights for me. No doubt it would be a blast to watch them in action if I were there in person. But that excitement, for the most part, just doesn’t translate to this live recording.

Marc Martel – Thunderbolt and Lightning
Wow, Martel’s really milking this “dead ringer for Freddie Mercury” thing for all it’s worth, isn’t he? I can’t say that I blame him – it’s gotten him far more attention than his original solo material or his stint with downhere ever did. And since his talent has been validated by the other members of Queen, to the point where he’s played on stage and toured quite a bit as a frontman for a Queen tribute band, and some of his vocal work is even being used in the soon-to-release Bohemian Rhapsody film, it seems like a wise move to finally make studio recordings of some of his own Queen covers available. We already got “Don’t Stop Me Now” on the My Way, Vol. 1 EP earlier this year, and it makes a reappearance here, alongside six other covers ranging from Queen’s best known songs (“Bohemian Rahpsody”, “We Are the Champions”, “Under Pressure”, and the one that started it all for Martel, “Somebody to Love”) to a few lesser-known personal favorites of his (“Love of My Life”, “You Take My Breath Away”). I realize upon listening to this that my knowledge of Queen is pretty superficial – I don’t even know the lyrics to most of the more familiar songs outside of the choruses, and I only know “Bohemian Rhapsody” all the way through because of Weird Al. So I’m not the best person to judge Martel’s work here. But I will say that the decision to utilize symphonic elements and drum programming in a few places makes a few of these arrangements feel a little more sterile and less band-oriented than what I remember of the originals. The vocal performance is spot-on, of course, but I guess that’s what you get when you shift the emphasis from one of the most classic bands in classic rock to a solo vocalist. I think my favorite cut here is the duet with Kevin Max, who fills in for David Bowie on “Under Pressure”. “We Are the Champions” is probably the track that brings back the warmest nostalgic feelings, since I realized even as a teenager whose was still largely unexposed to a lot of the cream of the classic rock crop that the song was super catchy and did unusual and fascinating things with its melody. But why include this song twice (the second time as a short reprise to close out the record) and omit “We Will Rock You”? That’s a huge oversight. This is a good morsel for fans of Queen and Martel alike, but personally, I’d like a follow-up to The Impersonator where Martel flexes his vocal chops on more original material.

Flint Eastwood – This Is a Coping Mechanism for a Broken Heart
This surprise release, the third EP from Flint Eastwood in as many years, is quite a change in direction after her feel-good standalone single “Real Love” from this summer. If “Real Love” was the sound of Jax Anderson falling in love with a girl and broadcasting her LGBTQ pride to the world, this EP (as you might surmise from the title) is a startling contrast, detailing the fallout from that relationship ending. Rather than catchy electropop or bold urban pop bangers, this time she’s going for more of a grimy mix of introverted electronica, R&B, and hip-hop, with a few rappers and other guest vocalists to spice up the mix, but almost purposefully avoiding anything obviously geared for radio as she sifts through the ashes of what went wrong in each successive “chapter” of this six-song saga, the songs often bleeding right into one another with no discernible breaks. It’s a bold move, and it takes her into “explicit tag” territory on nearly every track as she avoids censoring herself when dealing with the pain and frustration. These songs were apparently composed in a late-night studio session while the feelings were still raw, and while obviously some post-production took place to get the guest vocals done and the programming synced up so that everything would flow as well as it does, it still stands as an interesting snapshot of a very dark point in time for this artist. I’m not sure if any of these tracks will end up among my favorite Flint Eastwood songs when all is said and done, but I applaud the use of a song cycle to tell a continuous story, putting the emphasis back on lyrics after most of Broke Royalty seemed to be more about stylistic posturing. I think that could have fascinating implications for an eventual full-length LP (which, after the two years I’ve been following her, still has yet to materialize).

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