What Am I Listening To? – March 2019

Here are my first impressions of the latest from Gary Clark, Jr., Chatham County Line, Kings Kaleidoscope, The Japanese House, Over the Rhine, Cindy Morgan, Priest, Andrew Bird, Gungor, and Owel.

Gary Clark, Jr. – This Land
Well, I certainly picked a challenging one to start the month off with, didn’t I? I caught Clark’s performance on SNL recently and was impressed by his blend of funk, soul, R&B, and classic rock influences with his formidable fuzzy guitar playing. The title track makes one hell of a blunt statement about racism in the American South and how it seems to have only gotten worse for a man like Clark who is proud to be both Black and Southern, in the age of Trump. It’s a monolithic track whose righteous anger I have a lot of respect for (although for obvious reasons, I’m not gonna get caught dead singing along to it). The rest of the album makes some occasional political commentary, but nothing near that fiery, and is comparatively more easygoing – he seems more interesting in reviving these genres for the nostalgic feel than in reinventing them, at least on this album. That feels like a missed opportunity based on expectations that were built up by the title track, though the blend of styles certainly keeps things lively over the course of these 15 songs – you’ve got your Prince-styled bangers, your classic rock and blues homages, a few sultry crooners, some funk/rock jams that bear passing resemblance to Robert Randolph & The Family Band, even a punk-influenced track that reminds me of something Alabama Shakes might try. I can’t really say that I connect with a lot of the songwriting here (and there’s a track or two that I think kinda borders on objectifying women). But I recognize that I’m a passerby checking out something that is beyond his usual horizons, and not someone who is really all that well qualified to be critiquing this record. It’s certainly an intriguing array of performances, even if I don’t see myself coming back to the album as a whole very much.

Chatham County Line – Sharing the Covers
Apparently the impetus behind this album was that the band had been doing bluegrass covers of songs running the gamut from classic blues, rock, and country to modern alternative and indie in their live shows, fans had asked for studio versions, and none existed, so they went ahead and recorded a bunch of them and called it an album. Aside from some of the newer stuff they covered like Wilco’s “I Got You (At the End of the Century)” and Beck’s “Think I’m in Love”, there isn’t a ton here that I personally recognize, so I may not be the right audience for this, but I do appreciate the band’s breadth of influences. You’ll find songs dating as far back as the 1930s and as recent as the 2000s covered in this band’s neo-traditionalist style, and as usual, the instrumental talent on display is impressive, even though the overall performance style starts to get samey after a while. I tend to find more pleasant surprises when bands like Nickel Creek or Punch Brothers do these sorts of covers, personally, but this ain’t a bad collection… even if some of the lyrics in these songs clearly haven’t aged all that well. (I’m lookin’ at you, “Girl on the Billboard”.)

Kings Kaleidoscope – The Rush EP
This band was recommended to me in the comments on my recent review of Crowder’s I Know a Ghost, in which I discussed what I did and didn’t want from attempts by modern worship bands trying to cross-pollinate between wildly divergent genres. Wikipedia describes the Seattle band as having influences ranging from Motown to math rock, and while I don’t get a sense of their full range just from this 3-song EP (which is really an eight-minute suite broken out into three distinct tracks), I can definitely tell they’re aiming for a more musically progressive and lyrically awestruck take on the genre, which is an approach that brings to mind now-defunct bands like The Myriad, Gungor, even some of the David Crowder Band’s more out-there moments. This isn’t “worship music” in the strict sense, but it has that air of reverence and curiosity to it that I appreciated from the aforementioned bands. The vocalist and some of the more synth-driven elements of the band’s musical style really remind me of As Tall as Lions. These are definitely all good reference points for a band to have, and I realize I’m only scratching the surface. I started here because this EP is their most recent release, and I like it enough to seek out more from the band, so I guess at some point I’ll go back to their most recent full-length LP and determine if I want to hear more from there.

The Japanese House – Good at Falling
The Japanese House is the chosen moniker for British singer/songwriter Amber Bain. (Not to be confused with Japanese Breakfast, which is also a one-woman solo project. Those two really should get together and open a Japanese B&B or something.) Her music is chill electropop, for the most part, with bits of organic instrumentation and sampling working their way into the mix, and it’s the kind of sound that was superficially appealing to me at first even though I can’t say a lot of the songs are really sticking with me. Apparently she’s been labeled by many as “the female 1975” due to having gotten a lot of exposure from touring with The 1975. I guess I can see that in some of The 1975’s more out-there, synth heavy moments where they seem to forget they’re an actual band. That sort of thing is more tolerable coming from a solo artist, so while I’m not over the moon for this record, it certainly goes down a lot easier than The 1975’s last awkward mess of an album did.

Over the Rhine – Love and Revelation
Their second Christmas album notwithstanding, this is the first release from OTR since 2013’s Meet Me at the Edge of the World, which was the first of their albums since I first got into the band way back in 2002 that I didn’t really care for. This one is more or less in the same vein, it just isn’t a sprawling double album, so it’s more tolerable listen even if I’m not terribly thrilled with their low-key folk sound at this point. They’ve always been a rather slow and sparse band, and some of their most adventurous recordings seemed like an exercise in seeing how far they could take that while keeping the songs compelling – see the highlights of Ohio or Drunkard’s Prayer for some fine examples. I feel like somewhere along the way, they de-emphasized the sultrier jazz and soul influences along with their more exploratory tendencies, making the melodies and structures of their songs a lot more straightforward in the process, and as a result, you get a lot of songs with rather plain acoustic guitar strumming, not a whole lot of other instrumental adornment, and Karin Bergquist trying her best to add vocal spice to melodies that honestly don’t deserve it. “Los Lunas” is the clear standout here, which for some strange reason is the album’s opening track despite sounding like it should be a deep cut. I’m sure I’ll find some other low-key favorites over time, but for now I have to say that the first few listens have been rather underwhelming.

Cindy Morgan – Autumn & Eve, Old Testaments, Vol. I
Cindy Morgan was probably one of the most creative of the pop singers who still sounded radio-friendly enough to cultivate a big audience in the Christian music world back in the mid-to-late 90s. Her turn toward Americana and country in the late 2000s seems to have been modestly well received, too. At least, I thought it was a nice little career renaissance for her. But I think she’s taken that aspect of her sound as far as it can go. The arrangements on this EP, which I’m guessing is intended to explore the early chapters of Genesis, the Garden of Eden and the fall of man, are mostly long, sparse, and honestly kind of bleak. That may be by design, but when you’ve got several ballads in a row all hovering around the five-minute mark, it gets tedious despite the face that there are only actually five songs total (and one reprise). The opening track, “In the Beginning”, lets the twangy instrumentation loose a bit more, in the same way that some of my favorite tracks from Postcards and Beautiful Bird did, but even that reminds me that Morgan already covered more or less this same subject matter in the opening track “In the Garden” from 1998’s The Loving Kind. Overall, this EP just doesn’t hold my interest, and I hope if there are further installments in this series, that she finds a way to change things up a bit.

Priest – The Lost Lions EP
Priest is a lot like Chvrches. (That sentence is really amusing, now that I think about it.) This appears to be the solo project of synthpop artist Madeline Priest, who hails from Florida and who I first discovered via the Blurescent compilation I mentioned a few months back. Her most recent EP features 4 songs, all of them filled to the brim with catchy beats, crystal clear vocals, and spiritual overtones that entice me to dig deeper into the meanings of the song (rather than just sounding like a Christian rip-off of her obvious heroes). There’s probably a bit more she could do to differentiate herself from other artists in the genre, but there’s some real songcraft behind the sound and I think that will give her a chance at some real staying power once listeners get past the superficial similarities.

Andrew Bird – My Finest Work Yet
I love how presumptuous the title of this record is. Bird’s been pretty consistent over the years with his blend of witty lyrics, often sparse but insidiously catchy arrangements, and virtuoso violin playing and whistling. So I appreciate the notion that he’s trying to push himself to not merely rest on his laurels, even if it kills him (as implied by the darkly amusing cover image). Bird’s dry sense of humor and renewed fervor for sociopolitical commentary is clearly on display on the opening tracks “Sisyphus” and “Bloodless”, which take a few listens to catch on but ultimately rank among some of the most ingenious songs he’s ever recorded. Elsewhere, there’s some pretty good variance between the sparse stuff that really makes you focus in on the lyrics, and the more fun/upbeat/occasionally math-y stuff, which if I’m not mistaken includes a few callbacks to his now decade-old album Noble Beast. Bird somehow manages to be self-referential here without coming across as cocky or conceited. He’s too self-deprecating (and everything else-deprecating) for that.

Gungor – Archives
After many years of chronicling a couple’s journey from ranking among CCM’s most popular worship leaders, to going through an utter crisis of faith leading them to completely deconstruct everything they believed, to finally arriving at a much more progressive (and controversial to their old audience) form of Christianity, Michael and Lisa Gungor have decided to close the book on their band – which isn’t to say they’ll never make music again, but apparently they don’t intend to do it using “Gungor” as their band name. This final release from the band is essentially a hodepodge of all the material that either got cut from their albums over the years, or that was recorded after One Wild Life came out and never had the chance to make it onto an album. I don’t fully understand their more recent decision to “reorganize” the three-disc project One Wild Life into a single album (which resulted in all of the dropped songs vanishing from my Spotify playlists until they reappeared on Archives) – it’s as if they got self-conscious and decided over half of the material from that admittedly experimental project wasn’t really album worthy, so all 18 of those exiled tracks (many of which were among my favorites from the project) got dumped here in a bafflingly illogical order. Interspersed between are a handful of new songs, which range from the intentionally goofy “Shake” to the utterly serious and politically charged “American Republican Jesus” and “The Christ Whore”, both of which feel more like off-the-cuff rants about how evangelical Christianity has sold itself out to Trumpism than they do fully realized songs. (I wholeheartedly agree with the points Michael Gungor makes in these songs, but the execution leaves a bit to be desired.) Most of the second half of this sprawling project appears to be comprised of older B-side material, including what sounds like the remnants of an abandoned hymns project, probably from the Beautiful Things/Ghosts Upon the Earth era. While it’s fun trying to pinpoint what part of the band’s history some of these songs came from, I can’t say that I’m going to want to listen to all 33 tracks and 2 hours of this in a single setting – especially when I’m already used to hearing the One Wild Life material in its original context. It’s weird to hear songs such as “Anthem”, “Alien Apes”, and “We Are Stronger” that I love so much, and to find myself feeling upset that now people who stream or purchase the One Wild Life album might not even know these songs exist. Maybe the end of Gungor means that whatever the future holds for these two musicians, it won’t involve as much second-guessing themselves when fans who seem to only want endless clones of Beautiful Things react ambivalently or negatively to their new material.

Owel – Paris
Owel has slowly become one of my favorite indie bands over the years – the ingredients that go into their music might not be immediately distinguishable from a lot of other bands, but the way they delicately walk the line between “catchy indie pop band that happens to have a violin” and the longer, more dramatic and ethereal, borderline progressive stuff makes it a more deep and meaningful experience than I tend to get from a lot of bands with a superficially similar sound. I was worried when violinist Jane Park left the band that their sound might change in an undesirable way, but new violinist Patti Kilroy establishes right out of the gate on a few tracks that this group won’t be dumbing down their arrangements at all. Lead single “I Saw Red” didn’t really clue me in on that, but the follow-ups “No Parachutes” and “Weather Report” gave me a good idea of where this album was going, still going for those percussion-heavy, euphoric pop refrains, and those gradually moving from quiet to grandiose ballads, but with a little bit more density and a few more twists and turns to the arrangements. This thing has only been out for three days and I haven’t yet wrapped my head around the full scope of it, but it’s easily on par with Owel’s last two albums, and I’m excited to really dig into the details over the coming weeks.

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