What Am I Listening To? – July 2019

Here are my first impressions of the latest from Sigrid, Jesca Hoop, Jason Wade, Tom Hummer, Ed Sheeran, Chris Rice, Charlie Peacock, The Flaming Lips, Of Monsters and Men, Meg & Dia, and Spoon.

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Sigrid – Sucker Punch
Sigrid is a Norwegian singer/songwriter who has a healthy blend of mainstream and indie pop influences. Throughout this record I’m hearing echoes of Lights, Lorde, Owl City, even a little bit of Adele. The punchy electropop numbers that have a little more attitude to them tend to be my favorites, more so than the small handful of ballads or the breezier, more mainstream pop numbers, though I’ll admit that “Basic” is hands down the catchiest thing here – a dance/pop song that makes a clever case for its unabashedly straightforward and happy outlook on a relationship. These are all sounds I’ve heard before, and I think Sigrid is still working out her own identity as an artist, but I appreciate the presence of a few tracks where the lyrics push back at industry practices and the habit of chewing up and spitting out young pop stars, and insist she won’t be turned into anyone’s puppet. Time will tell how strongly she sticks to that stance.

Jesca Hoop – Stonechild
This is a considerably far less quirky and more relaxed folk album than 2017’s Memories Are Now. Some beautiful vocal melodies on a few tracks (especially due to the presence of Lucius on backing vocals) and intriguing lyrics give me the impression that there’s much more to this record than I’m hearing on the surface. For now I’m going with advance single “Red, White and Black” as the biggest attention-getter, especially after digging into the song’s backstory and the social/political statement it’s trying to make. But my favorite track on her previous album was the spacious, haunting closer “The Coming”, so I’m aware that I’ll need to listen more carefully to a lot of the low-key material before I can really sum this one up.

Jason Wade – Gresham EP
The five acoustic tracks – just Jason and a lone guitar as far as I can tell – are even more stripped down than his solo debut Paper Cuts, a record which I found to be rather long and lifeless. The brevity of this EP works in its favor, as does the focused lyrical content – these all appear to be songs about his childhood, his parents’ divorce, and his apparently abusive father. He’s addressed these things here and there in Lifehouse songs over the years, but this record feels like a much more thorough and vulnerable documentation of a difficult time in his life, and I really respect his ability to write about it so candidly, even if the music isn’t really anything special.

Tom Hummer – Real Life
The same voice that had me cracking up at Star Wars in-jokes on the Han Solo Project album I wrote about last month, and who has been an interesting critic/commentator whose musical tastes I’ve followed for several years as one half of the Velocities in Music podcast, now has his fifth solo album out. It’s a moody affair that ruminates on his various influences ranging from prog rock post-rock to indie folk, merging them in unexpected ways. Each track has a person’s name as its subtitle that is presumably a personal acquaintance or family member, giving the impression that these songs were all inspired by real relationships, some of them rather conflicted, in Tom’s life. Whether his voice is meant to represent his own side of the story or the other person’s is an open question, as many of these songs are quite cryptic. His affinity for weaving snippets of recorded conversations into the mix continues here, adding an air of (sometimes deliberately incongruous) levity to a few songs. It’s an unconventional mix of sounds that might not yield a ton of strong hooks on first listen, but it’s an interesting glimpse into how someone who listens to a ton of music on a regular basis can digest and regurgitate a wide array of songs styles in a way that still presents a cohesive artistic identity.

Ed Sheeran – No.6 Collaborations Project
I knew this was gonna be bad. Every stereotype about Ed Sheeran’s that comes to mind when I feel the need to play defense when acknowledging that I’ve generally enjoyed his previous albums becomes the absolute worst version of itself in this contrived collection of feature-driven singles all designed to be crammed down the throats of consumers who are likely to give most of the songs a pass simply because Sheeran is such a smooth, likeable performer and they might recognize the name of the other person he’s singing with. Most of these are blatantly commercial attempts at exploiting Sheeran’s hip-hop influences, and I’ll admit that I’m still pulled in by the seductive combination of acoustic guitar and rapidly flowing lyrics on several of these songs. But once it’s overtaken by predictable “hip-pop” production to the point where it’s emphasizing guest talent and dime-a-dozen hooks over Sheeran’s actual songwriting and performance skills, I’m out. The lyrics are almost universally stupid – when he and his guests aren’t sleazily hitting on women or bragging about how much money they make and how big of an audience their tours can draw, Sheeran has an annoying habit of trying to make us believe he’s still just a regular guy who doesn’t fit in at lavish celebrity parties, which comes across as total bullshit due to the sheer amount of tryhard effort he puts into this topic. The few ballads are boring, the straight ahead pop cuts such as lead single “I Don’t Care” (where he’s utterly indistinguishable from Justin Bieber, who is clearly there for name recognition alone) are far-too-easy targets for complaints about the current state of mainstream pop, and honestly the only thing that truly surprises me is the closing number “Blow”, where Chris Stapleton and Bruno Mars tear it up with heavier guitars and far more swagger than you would ever expect on a Sheeran record. Sheeran’s really just along for the ride on that one, as he is for most of this album. I don’t care how much you liked anything Sheeran’s done before. Avoid this one at all costs.

Chris Rice – Untitled Hymn: A Collection of Hymns
Chris Rice was one of my biggest “Watch List” artists for several years, due to how he seemed to completely disappear after his 2007 album What a Heart Is Beating For. He’d been working during that time, writing songs for other people as well as getting more into the visual arts and releasing a poetry book, but he hadn’t recorded any new music as a solo artist for over a decade, until this year. Unfortunately, his first album back feels like a bit of a punt where one might have expected a refreshing return to his comforting and imaginative singer/songwriter style, because it’s a set of hymn covers instead of an album of genuinely new material. Confusingly titled after an original hymn Rice originally wrote for 2003’s Run the Earth, Watch the Sky (which is presented in a new version here), pretty much everything else here goes for a traditional approach, meaning you’re not going to hear particularly fresh takes on any of these hymns. To Rice’s credit, at least there’s some variance between his usual low-key piano-driven style and some more folk/bluegrass oriented cuts, so it’s not as sparse of an affair as his many Living Room Sessions releases. At least you’ll be able to sing along to most of these and not be baffled at a decision to completely rewrite the melody or throw in an unnecessary pop chorus, which has been the trend among most worship-oriented contemporary Christian musicians ever since Matt Redman made it cool at around the turn of the century. I do at least respect this album for that, even if it’s not a particularly exciting or intriguing listen.

Charlie Peacock – Lil’ Willie
Peacock doesn’t release new projects terribly often these days – he’s best known as a producer, and when he does release an album of his own material, there’s about a 50/50 chance of it being either a vocal pop album or an instrumental jazz album. This one appears to be the follow-up to 2012’s No Man’s Land, in the sense that it continues to explore the branches of his family tree and the influences that made him grow up to be the enigmatic musician he is now. His birth name, Charles William Ashworth, appears to have inspired the title, and a few songs appear to explore the tension between who a person is in real life and the persona they put forth on stage. The stew of folk, blues, country, and R&B influences isn’t nearly as strong on this record as on No Man’s Land, though it does still lean toward the folksier end of pop, with some slight rock influence. It’s just a lot shorter – a mere half an hour – so the songs don’t have quite as much space to fill with bedazzling instrumentation. We’ll see if any of this sticks in my head the way some of his older work has.

The Flaming Lips – King’s Mouth
When I heard that The Flaming Lips had a release planned for Record Store Day back in April that was a concept album with narration by The Clash guitarist Mick Jones on nearly every song, I thought it was going to be terrible. This is a band whose output can vary wildly depending on where they follow their muses, and despite how much I loved a few of the dreamier songs on 2017’s Oczy Mlody, it was a maddening album to listen to front-to-back, so I wasn’t exactly clamoring for a record that de-emphasized the individual songs in favor of an ongoing narrative. Surprisingly, this one turns out to be pretty listenable, despite its dark and sometimes off-putting story of a giant baby who grew up to be king and who eventually died a sacrificial death to protect his kingdom. The band’s definitely back in “dream pop” mode, in terms of emphasizing melody and catchy choruses in their storytelling, which makes the album surprisingly listenable as it flows from track to track, despite Jones’s narration making it difficult to isolate individual highlights that work well outside of the story. Probably the biggest weakness of this album (aside from the gorier details of the king’s death) is how much they’ve dialed down the more psychedelic elements. They used to be able to balance weirdness and catchiness really well when their put their minds to it. But here, the percussion feels subdued, a lot of the melodies and chord progressions feel pretty basic, and the overall mood might resemble The Soft Bulletin or Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, but there’s nothing here performance-wise that truly stuns me the way that the highlights on those records did.

Of Monsters and Men – Fever Dream
Well, it looks like OMAM got bit by the electropop bug. They’re one of the last bands I would have wanted to see go in this direction, since their joyous folk/rock sound seemed so expansive and full of mythical possibilities on 2012’s My Head Is an Animal, and I hate to see them lose that aspect of their identity. But 2015’s Beneath the Skin wasn’t a terribly convincing attempt at a move into gloomier alt-rock territory, so maybe it’s for the best that they didn’t continue on that path. Some of the piano and drum loop-driven tracks here are actually pretty engaging, and I like the atmosphere in some of the darker ballads, but I feel like I’m spending a lot of this record waiting for something interesting to happen. It’s also weird to me how much Raggi dominates lead vocals here. Nanna still gets a few tracks to herself, most notably the rather misleading singles “Alligator” and “Wild Roses” (which are clear highlights), and there are a handful of songs where the two trade off between the verse and chorus as they always have, but there are just so many tracks where he’s the first voice we hear, and it gets a bit overbearing, especially with the questionable decision to auto-tune him to hell and back in a few places. He’s got more of a “weathered folk singer” type of voice that is meant to contrast with Nanna’s clearer, more youthful vocals, so this is absolutely the wrong direction for him, and for the band as a whole. As if trying to head off accusations of the band selling out by changing sounds so drastically, he even spends one song trying to convince us that “My head is still an animal”. Sorry dude, I’m not buying it. This is actually still a pretty listenable record despite its glaring flaws, but it gives me the nagging feeling that the OMAM I once knew and loved might be dead and buried for good.

Meg & Dia – happysad
Now here’s a reunion that I genuinely wasn’t expecting. The 2000s indie rock band Meg & Dia went their separate ways after an unsuccessful attempt to make things work with an uncooperative record label trying to push Dia Frampton as a solo act, at the expense of her sister Meg, who hung on for a while as guitarist for her backing band, but understandably got sick of not being able to share the spotlight in the band the two had created together. There had been a rift between the two for several years while Dia put out a few of her own solo efforts (as well as the short-lived Archis collaboration). At some point, there was enough water under the bridge that they both realized they were tired of not making music together, so they recorded this album on a low budget with some musicians/producers who believed in their art rather than seeing them as a potential cash cow, and here we are a surprise half hour of new music from a band most of us figured we’d never hear from again. Though it’s less of a “band” this time out and more of a pop project, heavy on the drum programming, but still with the same feisty wit and charm that first drew me to tracks like “Monster” and “Roses” back in the day. Stylistically this is probably closer to Dia’s solo effort Red than any of Meg & Dia’s albums, though there’s a DIY attitude to it that avoids the “design-by-committee” problems that plagued her brief foray into pop music stardom. It’s basically what Meg & Dia might have sounded like if all the drama from The Voice had never happened, they’d never broken up, and they’d simply veered in more of an electropop direction in the 2010s. I’m cool with that. It’s not their best effort, but I’ll take it over Cocoon and Dia’s Bruises for sure.

Spoon – Everything Hits at Once: The Best of Spoon
While I’m not a longtime Spoon fan, I have made it most of the way through their discography at this point, enough to actually recognize most of the highlights included on this retrospective covering almost two decades’ worth of their output. I’m gonna predict that actual longtime fans of the band are gonna take issue with most of their favorite albums only being represented by a single song (as I do with 2017’s Hot Thoughts only having its title track represented here – though if you had to pick only one from that album, that would certainly be the one to pick), and also with their earliest albums from the 90s not making an appearance at all. A mere 12 tracks collected on a single disc (plus the brand new song “No Bullets Spent”, which I enjoy but which sounds like it could be a lost companion to Hot Thoughts‘ “Shotgun”) seems like a rather shortsighted way to cover the varied output of a hard-working band that has been at it since I was in college. I feel like there should be a 2-disc expanded version, to fully immerse newer listeners like myself in the best of the best. I wonder if these 12 selections (which all seem like great picks, as they demonstrate the band’s irresistible blend of raggedy garage rock and power pop influences with a strong emphasis on rhythm) are truly representative of the band’s career arc as a whole, or if these are simply expected to be the most recognizable tracks to casual listeners, and also if this set will bias me in terms of what to really listen for as I dig deeper into some of their albums that I’ve only listened to once or twice at this point. For now I’m viewing it as more of a jumping off point, a gateway into some of those older records that have been trickier for me to unravel, than a true summation of their career.

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