What Am I Listening To? – November 2018

Here are my first impressions of the latest releases from Rosanne Cash, The Lone Bellow, Muse, Crowder, Fleet Foxes, Esperanza Spalding, Mumford & Sons, P.O.D., Chvrches, Kevin Max, and My Brightest Diamond.

Rosanne Cash – She Remembers Everything
While I was a bit underwhelmed by Cash’s last album of original studio recordings, 2014’s The River and the Thread, I found myself immediately soothed and warmed by the presence of her voice on this new album, particularly the stunning slow-burner of a title track that she co-wrote with Sam Phillips. Collaborations elsewhere with The Decemberists’ Colin Meloy, Kris Kristofferson, and Elvis Costello prove that she’s still got quite a bit of creative spark well into her sixties, following in the footsteps of her famous father, who seemed to never slow down creatively right up to his dying day. If this project has a weakness, it might be that the production is a bit bland in a few places and it leans heavily toward ballads, meaning it’s not quite the progressive leap forward in sound that 2006’s Black Cadillac was. Still, listening to this album this feels like reuniting with a wise old friend.

The Lone Bellow – The Restless EP
This EP seems to designed to tide over fans of the folk/country vocal trio in between albums – it’s a mostly acoustic affair, there are two new original songs and three remakes of tracks from their studio releases (one each per album), and the collection is rounded out by covers of The National’s “Pink Rabbits” and Adele’s “Water Under the Bridge”. While I don’t feel that this format really puts the group’s best foot forward, since their powerhouse vocal harmonies are really their strongest selling point and most of these versions are rather subdued, I do marginally enjoy a number of these tracks, particularly the Adele cover (which is saying a lot for someone who respects Adele as a vocalist, but can’t really get into her musical style).

Muse – Simulation Theory
The year and a half leading up to the release of this album was torture. Damn near half the album was released as singles over that long stretch of time, and the vast majority of those songs didn’t get much response from me beyond a tepid, “Eh… it’s alright, I guess?” I finally began to warm up to “Pressure” and “The Dark Side” not long before the album dropped… and whaddaya know, those are pretty much the highlights. I do think that the album opens quite strongly on “Algorithm”, and I appreciate the experiments with mish-mashing electronic distortion, R&B/dance rhythmes, and off-the-wall folk influence together on “Propaganda” and “Break it to Me”. Beyond that, the album gets bland rather quickly. It’s mostly stuff that Muse has done better before, despite their playful attempt to rebrand themselves as a nostalgia act shamelessly pulling together every 80s influence they can think of. The weak attempts at political lyrics get even more frustrating once I realize that for all of their bluster against fake news, thought policing and authoritarianism, they’re not giving us much of anything better than “Our side’s right and your side’s WRONG!” for the so-called resistance to work with. But hey… it’s a way more listenable album than Drones!

Crowder – I Know a Ghost
Long, meandering concept albums are one of David Crowder’s trademarks at this point. He and his old band proved several times over that there was room for stylistic experimentation and artistic expression within the otherwise narrow confines of contemporary worship music, and post-breakup, Crowder’s attempts to merge disparate genres have been quite admirable, even if they didn’t always come across as believable. His third record is where the wheels appear to be coming off a bit, as the R&B and Gospel influences that once sounded novel when co-mingled with the rock, bluegrass, electronica, and acoustic wizardry he was known for are all starting to feel a bit cliched at this point. I doesn’t help that the lyrics have gotten even more simplistic than they already were, leading to several tracks that strike me as watered-down WASPel, indistinguishable from a lot of CCM radio aside from the vocalist (and vocals have never been Crowder’s main selling point, if I’m honest). The creative spark still shows on bizarre barn-burners like “Wildfire” and the Spanglish rap collaboration with Social Club Misfits, “La Luz”, as well as a run of bluegrass-influenced songs in the second half of the album. But at 16 songs and just over an hour, this one’s a bit of a chore to get through in one sitting. It simply doesn’t hang together the way albums like Church MusicIlluminate, or even American Prodigal did.

Fleet Foxes – First Collection 2006-2009
It’s interesting to hear Fleet Foxes’ 2008 self-titled debut and its companion EP Sun Giant repackaged along with a handful of other early works from the band, as if to say, “These are the days before our band was fully formed”. I’m so familiar with those 2008 recordings that I can’t imagine the band being any more perfect than they were at that point. Even hearing the band in their relative infancy on their little-known 2006 EP for the first time, where the music was a bit more rock-oriented, the gorgeous harmony vocals weren’t yet as big of a fixture, and the lyrics were more “lovelorn schoolboy” type fair, I can tell they were headed for great things due to how rich some of the melodies and instrumental passages were. It’s nice to have these songs unearthed for a wider audience here and now in 2018, even though I can’t imagine I’ll return to some of the unfinished sketches and demos of self-titled album tracks on the final disc of this collection as often as I’ll go back to the 2006 EP. These documents of the band’s creative process in action are helpful in demonstrating how much some of those now-beloved tracks morphed and changed before they were ready for prime time – “Ragged Wood” didn’t even have its front half in those early days, “English House” was a bit looser and told a different story as far as I can tell from the lyrics, and “He Doesn’t Know Why” had a completely different set of lyrics and the instrumentation from “Quiet Houses”, sounding nothing like the song we now know by that title. If nothing else, these versions make me grateful for a band that was willing to recognize that they were off to a good start with these compositions, but that they needed to push them a little harder to become something truly fascinating.

Esperanza Spalding – 12 Little Spells
While Spalding’s 2016 album Emily’s D+Evolution was an out-of-genre experience for me, I quickly fell in love with that record’s alluring mix of jazz, R&B, rock and funk styles. Spalding continues to push the boundaries of what people would expect to define her as a jazz bassist on this deeply confounding concept record, once which ventures so far from conventional song structure and rhythm at times that I’m unsure what to do with it. The idea of focusing each song on a different part of the body is an intriguing one, and I can get into a few of the light grooves and oddball asides she has to offer here, but for the most part this has been a long and formidable record for me to approach all at once. It could be the rare album from an artist I’ve enjoyed in the past to end up on my “Don’t Get It, So I Can’t Rate It” list – this makes Janelle Monáe seem easily digestible by comparison.

Mumford & Sons – Delta
After completely disowning their folksy beginnings on Wilder Mind and then taking a bizarre (but fascinating) side journey into the world of African music on the collaborative Johannesburg EP, Mumford & Sons have apparently decided that they’re now OK with acknowledging the acoustic instrumentation that first put them on the map. But they’re gonna do it on their own terms, which apparently for them means a lot of electronic tweaking of those sounds, along with a more atmospheric approach on several tracks. Somewhat disappointingly, this leads to a record that I guess I can acknowledge is less middle-of-the-road and more experimental than Wilder Mind, but that is also flat-out boring for long stretches of time. We’ve got 14 tracks and an hour of music to wade through here, so for the most part, this is not an engaging way for them to change up their sound. What I’ve realized about this band that I fell out of love with in 2015 just about as quickly as I had fallen in love with them in 2012 is that their old sound was probably more of a gimmick or an affectation than anything else. Even the vocal harmonies often take a back seat, leaving Marcus Mumford’s rugged lead vocal out there by himself, which really doesn’t help the band to put their best foot forward in terms of having an enjoyable sound to listen to. As they’ve grown bored with the sound that made them famous, it’s become a real chore to listen to most of the music they’ve put out. And I can’t think of another record (at least, in the more mainstream end of pop and rock music) that’s come out in 2018 that I’ve dreaded sitting down and listening to again after a deeply disappointing first try than this one.

P.O.D. – Circles
Oh, Payable on Death. Time has proven over and over again how silly and irrelevant your nu-metal stylings are, and yet you seem to come back swinging even harder on each release, defiantly unconcerned with the fact that popular culture has long since moved on. In a way, I have to admire P.O.D.’s decision to stay the course and keep mining the hip-hop, reggae, punk, and metal influences that worked for them back in the day, even if at this point most of the songs are pale reflections of their glory days, with some of them coming across as more than a bit salty that their sound is no longer a hot commodity on rock radio. A few moments where they experiment with their style a bit are the strongest ones here, like the title track, which has some mellower keyboards and programming, and a bit of smoother reggae influence before the harder rock stuff kicks in. The weakest tracks are definitely the ones where they once again brag about how they’re gonna rock your face off and how Southern California is the best place ever. This is a pretty tired effort from P.O.D. overall, the kind that makes you wonder if the band is still under the delusion that it’s 2003 and they need to figure out how to follow up Satellite in a way that generates more radio hits. But at least it’s nowhere as embarrassing as the corny radio drama/dystopian Gospel tract heard on The Awakening.

Chvrches – Hansa Session EP
I’ve known for a while that Chvrches’ high-octane brand of synthpop translated quite well to a stripped-down acoustic setting – several in-studio sessions for various radio stations and so forth have proved that much. Here they pair up with a string section for mellower reflections on five of the tracks from their latest album Love Is Dead, with uniformly successful results. None of these versions are going to eclipse the originals from the album in my mind, but I admire how well their music translates in an analog context, since it’s a reminder that there’s always good songcraft underpinning it, that shines through quite brightly even when you take away all of their electronic toys. I really wish I could have heard them remake the entire album in this fashion, or sprinkle in some selections from their older records as well. Maybe one day they’ll release a full LP of songs from across their discography performed live in this setting. I’d snap that thing up in a heartbeat.

Kevin Max – Romeo Drive
KMax continues to demonstrate how darn prolific he is by turning out not one, but two heavily 80s-influenced albums in the span of a single year. This one is a collaboration with “synth wizard” (Kevin’s words, not mine) Service Unicorn, which really seems like more of an expanded EP due to it having only 9 tracks, 2 of which are poems and one of which is a cover of Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart”. But it’s probably the most directly conceptual release he’s put out in a while – while previous  albums such as Cotes d’Armor and Playing Games with the Shadow may have been vaguely about some sort of a dystopian future (and this album may well be a continuation of those stories, as hinted at in a few of the lyrics), this one establishes right away that he’s playing the role of a robot or android who seems to have been designed as a romantic companion, and who has somehow gained sentience. It’s an interesting thematic hook for the album, which unfortunately falls a bit flat due to a number of the choruses being on the repetitive side and the synths not doing much of anything all that unusual. (I’m kind of suffering from 80s revival overload at this point.) The chosen genre at least fits the story well, and it makes sense that Kevin’s delivery is quite “robotic” in a few places… but I’m not gonna lie, the overuse of Autotune to sell this point gets old fast. It doesn’t feel like it comes to much of a conclusion, either – this could very well be yet another “Side A” for a project that Kevin didn’t have the funds to complete, and that sadly will probably not generate the level of fan interest he’s hoping for in order to justify seeing the rest of it through.

My Brightest Diamond – A Million and One
This is Shara Nova’s first full-length release following a divorce and a name change, and in many ways it seems to be a defiant “I am woman, hear me roar” sort of record establishing newfound independence for an artist who was already pretty determined to forge her own path. Stylistically, this seems like a logical progression from 2014’s This Is My Hand in the sense that it pushes her music in even more of an electronic direction, though I miss the woodwinds and marching bands and other bits of classical instrumentation that made that record such a fascinating synthesis of ideas. This one might be even more experimental and all-over-the-place – it’s certainly been tough to see the bigger picture behind it on my first few trips through its 10 tracks, and if you’re looking for more straight-ahead bangers like the early single “Champagne”, you’re probably going to be disappointed. (The tough guitars in the first half of “You Wanna See My Teeth” might sort of qualify, as well as the provocative “White Noise”, which is confusingly placed at the end of the album.) But I do appreciate how the songs swing wildly back and forth between defiant, even physically confrontational statements of inner strength, and low-key, vulnerable, I-messed-up-and-I-miss-being-in-love ballads. Befitting her chosen stage name, My Brightest Diamond continues to demonstrate that she is a multifaceted artist who refuses to be dismissively classified by others.

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