January is always the month when I get to catch up on recommendations from fellow music lovers that I wasn’t aware of in time to evaluate them for myself in the previous year. Thus, if you’re someone who knows me personally, or if you run a blog/YouTube channel that I follow, and you posted some sort of a “Best of 2018” list toward the end of the year, there should be at least one thing you recommended that I decided to check out for myself this month.
Here are my first impressions of the latest from Django Django, Iceage, Lovebites, Myles Kennedy, Kacey Musgraves, Snail Mail, The Nor’easters, Coldplay, Evanescence, Switchfoot, and a compilation from Blurescent Records.
Django Django – Marble Skies
Yep, I’ve found yet another synthpop band to fawn over. This one seems to indulge in retro 80s and 90s tropes a little more than most, but they do some pretty shifty things with their melodies and the way they construct beats, which keeps this record entertaining. And occasionally there’ll be more of a guitar or piano-based rock arrangement just to shuffle things up a bit. At times they remind me of a poppier, less out-there Animal Collective, which isn’t at all a bad thing. This is a really addictive little record from a pretty well-established UK band that I’m sorry to have never heard of before.
Iceage – Beyondless
The best words I can think of to describe this Danish band are “art punk”. The arrangements are definitely unpredictable – sometimes it’s an aggressive wall of guitars and percussion and an oddly peppy horn section, sometimes it’s a more brooding mix of grungy rock and more classical elements. Sometimes they pummel through a song relentlessly to keep the tension up, sometimes they let the tension go slack and let the tempo be more fluid, with surprisingly messy results. They’re certainly confident in their unique mode of self-expression, which I admire, even if the vocal approach really isn’t my style. That aspect of the band seems to mute the more melodic and catchy aspects of their songs – which I’ll readily admit kind of comes with the territory. This one has taken several listens for me to feel like I’m truly starting to get into it… slowly but surely, it’s happening.
Lovebites – Clockwork Immortality
Lovebites is an all-female metal band from Japan. Let me explain that carefully, because when you read that description, you probably thought of Babymetal. These are not J-pop idols with a metal band backing them. These are five ladies who make metal music entirely on their own, and by all accounts, they’re every bit as technically good as some of their classic heroes from the genre. This is largely an exercise in reviving a genre that’s fallen out of favor in the U.S. but that still has a substantial audience in places like Japan and Scandinavia, and it’s a hell of a lot of fun, even though the exercise does begin to get a bit repetitive and cheesy by about 2/3 of the way through the album. But the first four tracks on this one are straight FIRE, demonstrating a knack for deliriously speedy riffs and solos and catchy choruses that don’t compromise any of the band’s hard-rocking energy. They go into slightly grittier territory on tracks 5 and 6, which is also fun, but then the band kind of settles into a predictable pattern after that. I have mixed feelings about the English lyrics, as they are usually pretty corny – sometimes I’d prefer it if the band sang in their native language, even if that meant I couldn’t understand it. But it’s notable that the band doesn’t delve into the uglier and more explicit tropes common to some of the darker metal genres. This is pure, unadulterated fun.
Myles Kennedy – Year of the Tiger
I’ve always known that Alter Bridge’s lead singer was a talented guitarist in his own right, but since the typical AB album is jam-packed with pyrotechnic displays of six-stringed proficiency, I often can’t tell where Mark Tremonti ends and Myles Kennedy begins. On his first solo album, he takes a surprising detour into folk, country, and blues, informed by the darker grunge/metal atmosphere his parent band is known for, but largely sidestepping the electric guitar in favor of all acoustic instrumentation, which means that on some of these tracks, the crisp acoustic instrumentation such as slide guitar and upright bass really shines. Lyrically, a lot of this album seems to have been inspired by the passing of Kennedy’s father when he was a child, and his subsequent loss of faith, and at times I’m not sure if the subject matter’s too heavy for the music, or if the music’s trying too hard to make a metal power ballad out of something that doesn’t need to be. (Essentially, the least interesting tracks sound like they could be acoustic renditions of Alter Bridge songs. The better ones are quite clearly in a different genre.) There are certainly a lot of moments here when the instrumental performances are downright joyous, and that infuses a lot of hope into the otherwise grim atmosphere, which is something that I think the lyrics seem to take note of toward the end of the record.
Kacey Musgraves – Golden Hour
As a country-pop artist, Kacey wouldn’t normally be on my radar, but I had two folks with markedly different tastes (one more into rock and mainstream pop, one more into Americana) who highly recommended this record, so I figured I’d give it a shot. At first, I like the balance that she achieves on this record – the material is mostly mellow, there’s just enough twang in the occasional banjo or other folksy instrument to keep it from being a run-of-the-mill pop record, and her vocals, lyrics and melodies create a soothing, image-rich atmosphere perfect for unwinding with a good book on a lazy afternoon. “Slow Burn” sets the tone perfectly for much of what’s to follow. But after a while, the pace of this record starts to seem a bit dead in the water, sounding an awful lot Michelle Branch at her most middle-of-the-road. And when she goes for bigger anthems, the lyrical conceits turn out to be a bit corny – see the trifecta of “Space Cowboy”, “Velvet Elvis”, and “Wonder Woman” for some of the most painfully cliched attempts at this. The more dance pop-oriented “High Horse” is certainly a highlight later in the album – perhaps in a genre nobody asked her to attempt, but more experimentation in that vein could certainly have helped this record to veer just far enough from the country-pop norm to warrant more frequent replays.
Snail Mail – Lush
This one was pitched to me as a thoughtful indie pop record whose sound lived up to its name – but I don’t agree with that assessment at all. It’s kind of in the same vein as artists like Jenny Lewis or Japanese Breakfast, where its ability to appeal to me is only as wide-ranging as the instrumentation, which for the most part seems to stick to the basics ingredients of guitar, bass and drums, often with a rather dry tone to them that might have been novel in the 90s, but that grates on my nerves when I hear it over and over in 2019. Lindsey Jordan seems a bit limited in her range as a vocalist, too, so while this record isn’t terribly long, I’ll confess that it starts to wear on me rather quickly.
The Nor’easters – Collective, Vol. II
As this college acapella group starts to pull more and more of their repertoire from what’s immediately present on the pop charts, I become less and less familiar with the source material, and not exactly motivated to go hunt down the originals to determine how faithful or inventive their arrangements are. They’ve previously managed to get me to like pop songs from sources I’d normally pay no attention to, and that seems to still be the case on more attention-grabbing tracks like their version of Ariana Grande’s “Breathin'”. But I miss their tendency to also take selections from the more left-of-center side of the music world – there’s no Bon Iver or Florence + The Machine here to counterbalance all of the poppy R&B and the stock cliches that tend to go with it, which don’t seem give a ton of room for inventive interpretation on the vocal side of things. I’ll fully admit that’s genre bias on my part, but in the past this group has done a bang-up job of overcoming that.
Coldplay – Live in Buenos Aires
It’s interesting to me that in late 2018, as their tour for A Head Full of Dreams came to a close, Coldplay finally saw fit to release a full-length concert, rather than an abbreviated live album like they’ve done in the past. I go back and forth on how much Coldplay interests me as a live act. Chris Martin sounds really off as a live vocalist, compared to in studio. But there’s no denying that the band puts on a true spectacle for their legions of fans, and their setlists span an impressive discography, often with new an old songs coming together in fascinating ways (most notably the backing track from “Midnight” making a reappearance in the opening verse of “Fix You”). The little asides to the audience in Spanish and the Soda Stereo cover certainly remind us of where this album was recorded, and on a macro level that they’re not only popular in the English-speaking world, which I appreciate. But outside of a track or two where the arrangement really surprised me, I’m honestly not that excited to go back and revisit all 2+ hours of this. It’s a good overview of what I missed out on by choosing not to go see the band live, and also a good reminder of why I’m not sure it’d be worth the inflated expense to do so at this point anyway.
Evanescence – Synthesis Live
These songs basically repeat the template from the Synthesis studio album, on which the big surprise was how intriguingly some of Evanescence’s most loved (and most obscure) songs got transformed into completely guitar-free arrangements with only piano, strings and electronic effects. The track order is slightly different, with a few of the reinventions left off in favor of an encore that features three songs not heard on the original Synthesis. And unlike the gripe I’ve had with Coldplay all these years, I will say that Amy Lee is much better off as a live vocalist when she isn’t manically running around the stage to keep up with the rocking energy around her. This setting suits her well, now that nu-metal is a style hardly anyone would let themselves be caught dead performing. I wouldn’t mind a new album in this vein. Don’t think I’ll go back to the live album much, though, as it doesn’t really offer a whole lot that I couldn’t get from Synthesis.
Switchfoot – Native Tongue
I’ll be honest – the singles released late last year didn’t really have me looking forward to Switchfoot’s eleventh album. It seems like a lot more drum programming and other studio tricks were going to work their way back into the Switchfoot repertoire, because that’s a more popular flavor than raggedy guitar rock where modern radio is concerned. I actually came around on the title track and “Voices”, though – those are fun songs that do feel a bit new and different compared to Switchfoot’s usual. And I can’t say that the rest of the album sticks to a single speed – sure, some of it is the same generic balladry that plagued a lot of their records from Hello Hurricane up through Fading West, but I’m hearing a few curveballs, too – a couple raggedy rockers, and even a track or two that I dare say takes the programmed pop thing and makes it work in the band’s favor. At 14 tracks, Switchfoot could really stand to trim some of the fat here – this album is a mixed bag at best, but my opinion of some of the more production-heavy songs may come up a bit after seeing them performed live – which I’ll get to do, since I just got tickets to go see them at the Wiltern in April.
Various Artists – Blurescent: More than Music, Volume 1
This compilation album was sent to me by a friend and fellow music lover from Lexington, Kentucky, who wants to get the word out about some of his favorite bands so much that he started his own record label and executive produced the CD I now have sitting on my desk. That’s some dedication right there. Lots of intriguing, artsy indie rock and electronic stuff to wade through here, including the first-ever CD release of the long lost Falling Up song “The Station”. This felt like the kind of mix CD I’d have made as one of my “Personal Soundtracks”, except someone else had made their personal version of it for my listening pleasure (and they did it the legal way) – and all the proceeds went to benefit a local child care/domestic abuse counseling center (with a few of the artists recording new songs specifically to support the cause). Here’s hoping I’ll discover a band through this compilation that goes on to become a personal favorite – some early candidates I’d be interested in taking a deeper dive with are New Canyons, Polychrome, and Northern Abbey.