What Am I Listening To? – December 2018

Not as much new stuff this month, because I am insanely busy going back through all of the albums I listened to since January in order to figure out the final placement for my best and worst of 2018 lists! Still, I found time to offer some brief thoughts on the latest from Mae, The 1975, Tennis, Jeff Tweedy, MuteMath, Trey Pearson, The Decemberists, and Mew.

Mae – Multisensory Aesthetic Experience
So this is it – the long-awaited full-length album from Mae. Nearly half of it was spoiled by single releases dating back as far as mid-2017, and the 3.0 EP a few months back, but for the most part I’m glad to finally have all of the material (minus the useless filler track “Space”, thankfully) in the context of a full-length LP. The 6 new songs presented here, as well as the puzzling track order, are going to take some time to digest, because this new project runs the gamut from the progressive-leaning pop/rock sound of the (M)(A)(E) project that was the last thing the band put out pre-hiatus, to some curiously classical and electronic-leaning experiments. I’m not gonna lie, some of the new stuff is major cheese. But some of it is strong enough that I could make a case for this one squeaking its way into my 2018 Honorable Mentions list.

The 1975 – A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships
So this new 1975 album is their OK Computer, apparently? A lot of critics seem to be digging it. I find it really tedious and confusing, without the respite of an occasional strong single here and there to help me wade my way through the album, which is what initially got me through the band’s previous album I Like It When You Sleep… (yada yada yada) until I could start to make sense of the more genre-hopping and experimental tracks. Don’t get me wrong, there were a slew of singles released ahead of this album – I just found them to be more hype than substance in most cases. None of them really did it for me. And the album as a whole isn’t really connecting with me, either. I hear the occasional genuinely intriguing lyric here and there that prompts a bit of navel-gazing over how much we’re allowing our lives and our personal relationships to take a backseat to modern technology. I also hear a lot of off-putting garbage that seems to be designed as intentional flamebait. Par for the course as far as 1975 lyrics are concerned, I guess. At least this one’s not as long and unwieldy as their last album. (Then again, it’s part one of a 2-album project that we’ll get to hear the back half of next May. Yikes, these guys are pretentious.)

Tennis – Tennis on Audiotree Live
This is a pretty standard “go into a studio and bang out live renditions of a handful of tracks from your last few albums” type release, intended to demonstrate the lovable simplicity of Tennis’s stripped-down approach – just a wife on keyboards and vocals, a husband on guitar, supported by pre-programmed drum loops. The five tracks I’m familiar with from Yours Conditionally and its companion EP We Can Die Happy are mostly presented in similar arrangements to the album versions, though “My Emotions Are Blinding” and “Fields of Blue” stand out for their markedly different tempos. The remaining two tracks are older songs that I’ll admit to not being familiar with, but that fit right in to the pleasantly romantic, yet slightly melancholy vibe that is their bread and butter.

Jeff Tweedy – WARM
I’m not sure why I listened to this, as I only marginally cared about the last few Wilco releases, and this solo effort by the band’s enigmatic frontman has a similar easygoing, acoustic vibe to Schmilco. Which is to say, there are lots of quirky left turns in the lyrics department, but musically it’s dull as dirt. This time he doesn’t even have the rest of the band around to go off on experimental tangents here and there. It’s so slow and sleepy at most points that I’m beggining for a mercy kill by the time the anti-climax of a six minute closer shows up. I hate to say it, but I think the days of Tweedy as a vital creative force in the world of indie rock are probably well behind him at this point.

MuteMath – Voice in the Silence EP
MuteMath is apparently still a band, though not much of one. Apparently Paul Meany is just going into the studio and recording stuff all by his lonesome and releasing it under his band’s name, because other folks keep randomly deciding to leave, and who needs those guys when he can play every instrument himself and have no one to argue with over the creative process, am I right? Well, if your preference leans more toward the mid-tempo/ambient side of MuteMath, then I guess you could make a case for Meany as a stand-in for the band’s former glory, but I have to say that none of these 4 new tracks gets me all that excited. The title track is decent. The other two new tracks are well-meaning, but a bit mushy. The remake of “Everything New”, which was originally a chilled-out highlight from Play Dead, is absolutely unnecessary, dragging on and on for a solid six minutes without the playful band interaction and the reprise of “Stroll On” in its outro that made the original version enjoyable. A more accurate name for this EP would have been Nothing’s New.

Trey Pearson – Love Is Love EP
The former frontman of Christian rock band everyday Sunday came out of the closet a few years ago. Sadly and predictably, this led to the band disbanding and Pearson being blacklisted from any meaningful avenue of exposure in the infuriatingly conservative Christian music industry. Due to this, I didn’t realize he’d managed to put out a solo EP back in 2017 until recently. Stylistically, he’s going in much more of a celebratory dance/pop direction, choosing to discard neither his sexuality nor his faith as he write songs addressing both. A few ballads make it clear that he’s been through a season of grief and wrestling with God, and come out a stronger and truer person on the other side, and I’m all for that. I will admit that hearing his slightly raspy voice in this genre, instead of the edgier and rustier brand of alt-rock Everyday Sunday was known for, is a bit odd. But he clearly had fun making these songs, and I totally respect that.

The Decemberists – Traveling On EP
These 5 songs were apparently culled from the same sessions as the band’s disappointing album I’ll Be Your Girl. They’re alright, I guess. The album was such a desperate hodgepodge of half-baked ideas that I can’t see how including any of these tracks (which veer more toward pop/rock than folk, but don’t venture into synth/keyboard-driven territory as much as the parent album) would have made it more jarring of a listen. At least I know that’s not a risk with the “band version” of “Tripping Along” – the lack of other participants was not the real problem that needed to be addressed with that one, as the lyrics are too God-awful for it to be rescued simply by changing up the presentation. Elsewhere, “Down on the Knuckle” and “Midlist Author” are marginally fun little pop/rock jaunts, while the title track fits in well enough with the group’s Americana-leaning albums from earlier this decade. “I Will Not Say Your Name” is the only one of the new tracks that turns out to be far too indulgent (and slow, and insufferably long), and that I’m genuinely glad was cut from the album.

Mew – Mew with Copenhagen Philharmonic
Mew’s more progressive and exploratory style of indie rock seems like it would lend itself well to a collaboration with their hometown’s symphony orchestra. Plenty of their songs have a cavalcade of colorful instrumentation as it is. But as often happens when re-imagining rock songs in a classical context, the energy and urgency of the performances tend to get lost due to the removal (or at least the downplaying) of the guitar and the rhythm section. This set was performed two years ago, in the gap between + – and Visuals, since first three songs performed all come from the former, with only “Carry Me to Safety” making an appearance from the latter. And the Glass Handed Kites is surprisingly well represented here, though these versions of its two closing tracks “White Lips Kissed” and “Louise Louisa” aren’t nearly as drenched in delicious sadness and despair as the original album versions – they seem too smoothed out and congenial to make as much of an impact (though the extended intros/outros that merge them seamlessly with “An Envoy to the Open Fields” in between are a nice little nod to the continuous nature of Kites). And I really didn’t need yet another iteration of “Comforting Sounds”. I know it’s a fan favorite, but I’ve always found its long coda to be a bit tedious, and the orchestra doesn’t give it enough power to make up for the lack of rock instrumentation. (Sorry, old-school Mew fans. I know it hurts to read that.) What the heck happened to No More Stories? It would have been fascinating to hear just about anything from that album re-imagined in this format… but it was the only album they skipped altogether during those performances, with the ten-minute “Rows” from + – also having been performed, but not making the cut here due to space constraints. (I really hope that one makes an appearance online at some point.)

2 thoughts on “What Am I Listening To? – December 2018

  1. The Mutemath release needs a bit of explanation, I think — too much, admittedly, as it was honestly hard to even tell what I was pre-ordering. Communication is not their strong suit.
    Anyway, this seems to be sort of an “emptying the vault” project that is meant as a parting gift (well… one that you pay for), but I guess also not exactly; because these days, it seems like no band is truly dead unless someone literally dies, and sometimes not even then. But it does seem likely this will be the last we hear from them for a long time.
    Also, there are 4 bonus tracks that are probably worth seeking out, somehow. They were exclusive only to those who pre-ordered the vinyl, which was limited to 1,000 copies. And yet they double the length of this thing. Yeah, yeah, I know — kinda crazy. It’s been confirmed that at least one of those is an outtake from Armistice — as in, the recording itself, with the full old band. (Whereas “Voice” is a reworked outtake from the same era, and “Sooner Or Later” probably is too.)
    As a matter of fact, I’m fairly certain ALL of these songs date back to that legendary scrapped album — minus “EN” and possibly “Happy To Oblige” (which sounds more like Vitals). “Kings” in particular is a fascinating peek into what could have been a shockingly dark, pessimistic record for them. Personally I’m glad they changed course, but it’s interesting to hear.

    • I had heard about the existence of extra tracks on the vinyl release (or as digital accompaniment to the pre-order of the vinyl release), but I figure if a band’s not gonna bother making those tracks part of the standard release, they must not be particularly proud of them to the point where they want those songs to have a wider audience. MuteMath used to be the kind of band where I’d want to seek out even their most obscure scraps (see “Architecture” from the “Backfire” single, which I think is a massively underrated highlight), but now that the band is essentially coming apart at the seams… eh, get back to me when you guys have figured out what the hell your new identity is.

      I also have to wonder, if outtakes are just now being released that are several albums old, if these are the songs that sparked arguments between band members that eventually drove some of them to jump ship out of frustration. Meany strikes me as a bit of a control freak, now that at least two members have left under sudden and mysterious circumstances and he seems to be sworn to secrecy regarding the details. It would not surprise me at all if Greg or Darren had considered those songs subpar and fought to keep them off of an album, and now Paul is releasing them as a sort of passive-aggressive “I told you so” now that he’s the sole person calling the shots.

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