What Am I Listening To? – May 2019

Here are my first impressions of the latest from Vampire Weekend, Joy Williams, My Epic, Andy Moore, Martin Smith, Umphrey’s McGee, Jesus Jones, and Sleeping at Last.

Vampire Weekend – Father of the Bride
With 18 tracks, the first new Vampire Weekend album in 6 years is going to take a while for me to fully unpack. I already knew before its release that I was head over heels for “Harmony Hall”, which might just be the best damn single the band has ever released. “Sunflower” and “This Life” were great fun as well – all while giving the impression that darker and more sinister themes were hidden behind their sunny exteriors. Much of the album plays out that way, though I would say more of it is relaxed and mid-tempo, including some lovely and inventive duets with Danielle Haim, who may as well be the band’s new fourth member due to her prominent role as a backing and sometimes co-lead vocalist throughout the album. There might be a few moments where a handful of samey tracks in a row makes the album drag a bit – the edgier and janglier components of the band’s sound heard on the early albums and songs like “Diane Young” are largely missing here (though the bizarre club beat/flamenco fusion of “Sympathy” is a nice little jolt to the system). But I appreciate the ambition and sheer scope of this album, which is meant to start a new chapter for the band, and like with Modern Vampires of the City, it’ll probably take me years to fully realize how strongly I feel about this body of work as a whole.

Joy Williams – Front Porch
Post-Civil Wars solo album #2 for Joy feels like a deliberate attempt to win back fans of the duo’s folksy sound, perhaps after some of them jumped ship due to the poppier contours of Venus. I rather liked the blend of folk and light electronica heard on that album, as it established a bridging of past and present for her as a solo artist. While this album is more consistently and deliberately acoustic, with rich instrumentation on a few tracks like “Canary” and “When Creation Was Young” that really gets me excited, the sum total of these twelve songs can get rather samey if taken all in a single listen. There are moments where the lyrics don’t come across quite as cleverly as her collaborations with John Paul White did, or I feel like she needs a duet partner to really sell the song, or else there’s some nagging thing missing that I can’t quite put my finger on. It’s a good effort, but not a great one.

My Epic – Violence EP
The companion piece to last year’s Ultraviolet EP is appropriately aggressive, serving as a counterpoint to the more reflective and ambient pacing of its predecessor. While Ultraviolet spent most of its time ruminating on existential quandaries, Violence seems to want to goad the listener into getting downright angry about injustices they’ve experienced, lapses in logic from the religious fanatics around us, and tragic events in our own lives that we’re often told to just accept as being part of “God’s plan”. It’s not a full-on screamo record, though a few tracks approach that level of intensity, and the heaviest of the highlights such as “White Noises” and “Spit It Out” are interestingly offset by the eerie droning of the more meditative tracks “Spit and Blood” and “Tsuneni”. This division of musical personalities across a set of EPs reminds me of what Thrice was doing on The Alchemy Index just over a decade ago, and that’s really good company for a band like My Epic, who strives to balance the intellectual with the spiritual and not give short shrift to either side, to be in.

Andy Moore – Endless Wave
Yes, I said Andy, not Mandy. (I’m more interested in her as an actress than a singer, but that’s a whole other discussion.) Andy Moore is the former guitarist of Deas Vail, who still runs the band’s Facebook page even though they’re defunct. Through that page, I found out he’d been doing a series of one-man-band covers on YouTube, of heavy-hitters like U2, Arcade Fire, and Radiohead, and these were all spot-on, indicating that he had good skills as a vocalist and multi-instrumentalist. So I figured I’d check out his debut solo EP when he announced his release. I’m not quite sure what to make of it, because if any of these 8 songs are as epic as his influences, I’ll confess I’m not hearing it yet. It would be unrealistic for me to expect the same keyboard-heavy sound or falsetto vocals that made Deas Vail such a big draw for me – Moore’s voice is more muscular, and he tends to stick to the bare-bones rock arrangement of drums, bass guitar. He does some interesting things with vocal layering here and there, especially on the opening track “At Your Feet”, and occasionally there’s a rhythmic cadence that reminds me of something more complex that Deas Vail would have done. But most of these songs are more meditative, even trance-like on occasion, and at times I want to say there’s a noticeable modern worship influence here, by way of indie rock bands who explore the less commercial side of it such as Young Oceans. Not a bad mix of influences for a solo artist to start with when finding his own voice, but thus far nothing on this EP has noticeably jumped out at me.

Martin Smith – Iron Lung
Speaking of modern worship, this is the second (depending on how you count the various God’s Great Dance Floor releases) solo album from the former frontman of Delirious?, who back in the late 90s and the 2000s were at the forefront of shaping the genre’s sound, while also trying to challenge the very conventions they had helped to establish, with mixed results. Smith without his old band tends to be a mellower affair, though since he was their primary songwriter, I can’t say that most of these long, soaring anthems with somewhat repetitive refrains are terribly surprising. This type of music really only appeals to me nowadays when the music seems to be doing something more (forgive me for using this phrase) cutting edge. I can hear a bit of that in the lead single “Great and Glorious”, which adeptly mixes glo-stick-waving electro-rock with a bit of Gospel fervor, putting Smith in good company with musical contemporaries such as The Digital Age. But most of this isn’t exciting me, and a few of the lyrics are a bit theologically problematic, such as on the title track, where he implies that God deliberately gave him deficient lungs as a kid to instill in him a lesson about needing God. It’s been a full decade now since Delirious? decided to go out on a relative high note, and to be honest, if they’d chosen to continue on as a band, I’d probably be getting diminishing returns from them by this point for very similar reasons.

Umphrey’s McGee – Anchor Drops Redux
For the 15th anniversary of the album that marked an important step in their sonic evolution, UM has both remixed and remastered the original recordings, with the full album repeated on both discs. I listened to Anchor Drops a fair amount when I was first getting into the band back in the Death by Stereo days, but I can’t say I know it well enough to be informed about what specific sonic details were brought to the forefront by the remixed/remastered versions. It’s a fun album to revisit, though – but also long and inconsistent one, since this is where the band’s “We can be whatever the hell genre we want” attitude most strongly asserted itself. There’s everything from off-beat, lumbering prog rock instrumentals, to weirdly robotic electro-rock, to calming acoustic passages, to even a country duet. There’s plenty of solid riffing and fun, freewheeling spontaneity to be found throughout the tracklist, and of course it leads off with “Plunger”, which remains one of their most twisty and turny, yet also engaging and enduring, performances. But it’s a bit exhausting to take this album all in at once, and now I remember why Anchor Drops is a record that I respect a fair amount, but don’t seem to come back to all that often.

Jesus Jones – Passages
I was only vaguely aware of the existence of Jesus Jones back in their early 90s heyday, so I honestly didn’t even know what style of music they played until this long-awaited, fan-funded comeback album of theirs (their first since 2001!) was recommended to me recently. Credit where it’s due: They were mixing edgy alt-rock riffs with programmed dance and hip-hop beats back when my musical tastes were still too nascent to realize how much I appreciated such a thing. Hearing them do it now, I have to remind myself that this is a throwback effort by one of the early trendsetters in the genre. At times I really like the abrasive, buzzing nature of the synths and the heavily processed guitar licks, but sometimes when you throw in Mike Edwards’ scratchy and kinda-shouty lead vocals, it’s a bit much to take, even though I have to acknowledge it’s all very catchy. The lyrics on this album seem to be occupied with social ills and wondering how the hell we let society regress to the point that it has over the past several years, which is something that will always get my attention, though there’s a point where the lyrics seem to turn a corner from making bewildered observations to kind of lecturing the audience a bit, which I’m not so keen on. This one’s growing on me, though I can’t see it eclipsing some of my favorites in the electro-rock genre any time soon.

Sleeping at Last – Atlas: Enneagram
The final song cycle in “Year Two” of Ryan O’Neal’s Atlas project (which I put in quotes because this particular “year” began in 2015!) has actually been released, one song at a time, over a period of close to two years, with the song “One” coming out in late 2017, and further songs following it every few months or so until finally “Nine” was released to subscribers this month. So I’ve got a pretty good handle on what I think of the first eight songs already. In attempting to personify each of the nine Enneagram personality types, he once again runs the gamut from meticulous, busybody baroque indie pop arrangements to lightly caressed piano or guitar ballads, and my tastes tend to lean more toward the former than the latter, which makes more lighthearted and upbeat tracks like “One” and “Seven” feel like stronger highlights than some of the slower stuff. (Though the exploratory “Five”, which tricks you into thinking it’s a slow instrumental before unfolding into a near six-minute ballad, is certainly a standout, which is good because I’m pretty sure I’m a Type Five.) But I appreciate how each track has its own distinct personality, even if that means the song cycle when listened to together doesn’t really seem to bridge the gaps between one track and the next to form a truly unified suite in the way I initially hoped it would. (So… I guess “Year Three” of this project that started way back at the beginning of 2013 is now slated for 2020? Better late than never.)

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