What Am I Listening To? – June 2019

Here are my first impressions of the latest from Barenaked Ladies, Switchfoot, Lisa Hannigan & s t a r g a z e, The Han Solo Project, Yeasayer, Iron & Wine / Calexico, Thrice, and Billie Eilish.

Barenaked Ladies – Fake Nudes Naked
I did not properly manage my expectations when the BNL announced an acoustic companion to their 2017 album Fake Nudes, which was the first record of theirs I had truly enjoyed in nearly a decade. Turns out this is just an EP covering roughly half the album rather than a remake of the entire thing – which means that unfortunately we don’t get to hear how the band redoes some of the more quirky/exotic numbers like “Flying Dreams” or “Bag of Bones” unplugged. While it’s fun to hear some of the bouncier and more electric guitar/keyboard-driven songs such as “Lookin’ Up” reimagined, I have to wonder why they bothered with tracks like “Canada Dry” or “The Township of King” when they could have picked others – those were some of my favorites from the album, but they were already largely unplugged, so these new versions don’t offer much of anything different. Honestly, this sort of feels like one of those “Just keep us in the fans’ consciousness so we can pump up our streaming numbers”-type gimmicks that a lot of bands are doing when they put out new EPs, remixes, or stand-alone singles these days.

Switchfoot – Live from the Native Tongue Tour
This EP collects five live recordings, all of songs from the new Native Tongue album, as performed on their tour stop at the Tabernacle in Atlanta this spring. (And the studio version of “Native Tongue” again, for some reason.) Since the five songs picked here were the four singles that lead off the project, plus “Take My Fire”, there isn’t much of a surprise here for someone like me who actually caught the tour, though it is nice to have these versions of “Native Tongue” and “Voices” that are more guitar-driven than the album versions. Other than “Let It Happen”, which was skipped in the setlist when I saw them here in L.A., this doesn’t provide the opportunity to hear how some of the other tracks from the album were performed live – and I get the feeling that a good 50% of the album might never have made it into the setlists, judging from how much time they had to spend mining the back catalog. I guess I can’t complain too much about that, since it meant those of us who were there got a pretty good selection from Where the Light Shines Through as well… though as far as I recall, there was never a live release from that album’s tour back in 2016, so it would have been nice to pad this EP out with a few of those live renditions as well.

Lisa Hannigan & s t a r g a z e – Live in Dublin
This hour-long live set, recorded in the capital of Hannigan’s native Ireland, features the chamber pop collective s t a r g a z e as her backing band, which means a lot of her mellow folk songs get reworked with more of a lush, classical backdrop – nothing too radically different from the studio versions, but it is interesting to hear how they alter the energy of a more upbeat arrangement in a song like “Lo”, or how they cleverly mimic the drum programming originally heard in the non-album track “Swan”. For the most part this is still a very mellow set, mostly focusing on her 2016 album At Swim, which is represented almost in its entirety here (unfortunately not including “Snow” and “Tender”, which were a few of my personal favorites), also bringing in a few tracks from her previous albums to round out the set. This is a well put together and very soothing live set – perhaps I can’t see myself listening to it a ton in lieu of the album, but it does emphasize that Hannigan’s openness to experimenting with electronic and ambient effects in the studio doesn’t mean she’s forgotten the magic of an organic live performance when she’s got the musicians with her to pull it off.

The Han Solo Project – Admiral Ackbar’s Lonely Limbs Club Band
If a band exists for the sole purpose of performing humorous rock songs about the Star Wars franchise, does that make them a filk band even if they’re not playing actual folk music? However you classify it, this set of ten songs (which is the band’s fourth album, actually) is a nice little dose of geeky fun, mostly making use of alt-rock, grunge, and power pop tropes to convey their witty aspirations about the sometimes questionable plots of the films, but occasionally veering into unexpected stylistic territory, such as the sudden genre switch on the aptly named “It’s a Trap!”, which turns out to be the biggest laugh-out-loud moment on the entire record. The band’s lead singer is Tom Hummer, who is also a singer/songwriter in his own right, as well as being the co-host of the Velocities in Music podcast. He puts the same wit on display here that I’m used to from the podcast, while also displaying a deep working knowledge, and affection for, both the film series and the numerous genre tropes he’s aping from the last few decades’ worth of rock music history.

Yeasayer – Erotic Reruns
I had never heard of this band until their incredibly cheery disco-rock single “Ecstatic Baby” showed up in my Release Radar playlist on the album’s release date. While that’s a fun, funky little love song, reminiscent of OK Go in some ways, I wouldn’t say that’s entirely representative of the band’s sound or usual subject matter. They’re described as more of a psychedelic/experimental rock band, which I can hear in some of these tracks, but there are pretty strong funk/rock and power pop elements to some of it as well. At nine tracks and just under half an hour, this album from them is a bit anemic (particularly in its middle section where the melodies just aren’t grabbing me as much), but I do enjoy some of the skewering that modern political figures get in a few of the more outspoken songs on the record, particularly “24 Hour Hateful Live!” The album title’s a bit misleading, as I guess a few of the more danceable love songs could be considered sexy, but it’s never particularly explicit, and I’d say more of the record is rather cynically stated political stuff.

Iron & Wine / Calexico – Years to Burn
This EP marks the second time the two groups have collaborated, following 2005’s In the Reins EP. it was that first collaboration that introduced me to Calexico when I was still fairly new to Iron & Wine; I now have a pretty long history with both, and I have to say that the result seems a bit too subtle for what I’m used to from both of them. There are interesting bits of experimentation such as the eight-minute, three-part “The Bitter Suite” that turns out to be the record’s centerpiece, and the free-form instrumental “Outside El Paso”, but especially considering how Claexico upped the ante on how full their sound could be on their most recent album, it’s surprising to hear their horn section either making low-key contributions or sitting out entirely on some of these tracks. They do better at featuring the different vocalists, though – Joey Burns is more prominent here that he was on In the Reins, which felt more like an Iron & Wine project where Calexico just so happened to be the backing band, and Jacob Valenzuela even gets to contribute a Spanish lyric to the “Pájaro” segment of “The Bitter Suite”. Most of the tracks are more straightforward, though, and aside from the controlled slow burn of “Midnight Sun” that suits the mellower end both of their sounds quite well, I can’t say these songs are really grabbing my attention, for the most part.

Thrice – Deeper Wells EP
This EP, first released for Record Store Day in April, finally made it to streaming services in June. Apparently these four songs were B-sides leftover from the Palms sessions, and after seeing Thrice wax effusively on social media about how much they loved these songs and it pained them that they didn’t make the cut for the album, I guess it begs the question: Who exactly was stopping them from putting them on an already short and rather disjointed album that was stylistically all over the place to begin with? Everything here hovers around a “medium good”, in my opinion, with “In This Storm” standing out as its one track that approaches greatness. Sub any of these tracks in for one of the more ho-hum offerings on Palms, or even tack them on to the end of the album lackadaisically, and I wouldn’t have complained about the overall listening experience being compromised in any way. Once again, I suspect that the reason bands are saving material they actually believe in that could have made the album is because it artificially inflates their numbers to have a separate project to stream/sell at just the right strategic moment when the numbers from the actual album release are starting to fall off. I hate to be cynical when it comes to Thrice, because they’re one of my favorite bands… but come on guys, who was really forcing your hand on this one?

Billie Eilish – When All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?
I might never have heard of Billie Eilish, if not for DJ Khaled’s immature whining about how her album went #1 instead of his despite, in his opinion, no one having heard it. DJ Khaled is such a do-nothing poser whose name has only been made famous through the efforts of the other artist he somehow manages to gather to do his dirty work, so of course I couldn’t resist checking this one out just to spite the guy. Usually if there’s a #1 artist I know nothing about, it’s because they’re coming from the more hip-hop, R&B, or club music side of pop music, and Eilish does bear a few of those influences, but what I’m hearing here is actually a pretty interesting blend of skeletal, DIY indie pop, and window-rattling production techniques that really crank up the bass and distortion in the middle of songs where you often wouldn’t expect it. She and her brother have somehow accomplished not only a distinctive style, but an unimaginable amount of viral popularity, despite her ripe young age of 17. That’s right – girl isn’t even old enough to vote yet, and she was born after the turn of the century, and usually I’m not the target audience for musicians that young (and I might still not be, judging from how uncomfortable some of the vampy antics in songs like “Bad Guy” and “All the Good Girls Go to Hell” make me feel). But the production style leads to a pretty good mix of seductive earworms and sublime low-key balladeering, and surprisingly, it’s a few of the sleeper hits from the back half of the album (especially “Ilomilo” and “I Love You”) that really got my attention. At her best, she reminds me of artists like Kimbra or Lights who make very “laptoppy” music at times, but who put the songwriting and production ahead of meme bait, making a strong plea to be taken seriously as artists despite the youthful nature of their music.

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