What Am I Listening To? – September 2019

Here are my first impressions of the latest from The Shins, Death Cab for Cutie, Lovebites, Django Django, Global Genius, Belle & Sebastian, Thom Yorke, Brittany Howard, M83, and The New Pornographers.

The Shins – The Worm’s Heart
Oh, inverted album! I didn’t know this 2018 re-imagining of the band’s 2017 album Heartworms existed until just recently – the idea was to flip the order of the songs from front to back, and radically change the pacing and style of most of them so that the slow ones were fast and vice versa. Of course, most of the album is mid-tempo, so this isn’t as exciting of a transformation as it sounds, particularly as it nears the end and my favorite three tracks from the original album get remade as the sort of kinda-upbeat-but-not-really deep cuts that would normally show up late in a Shins album. But it’s probably still more musically diverse than the original album was. Turning former-closer-now-opener “The Fear” into more of a rocker and the annoyingly bouncy “Rubber Ballz” into a surprisingly charming acoustic ballad were among the best moves here. Still, there isn’t a Shins album yet that I feel compelled to go back and listen to all the way through very often, and this doesn’t change the trend at all for me.

Death Cab for Cutie – The Blue EP
Yet another selection of cut tracks from an album that begs the question of why the album would have been any worse off than including them. Last year’s Thank You for Today was pretty good, but I see no reason why parts of it that dragged or just felt like Ben Gibbard getting up on a soapbox about exes who did him wrong couldn’t have been replaced with tracks like the more expansive “To the Ground” or the rhythm-heavy, tragic narrative of “Kids in ’99”. Those two opening tracks rank among Death Cab’s best, but the other three tracks on this EP don’t hold my interest nearly as much. Somewhere within the 15 tracks shared between the album and EP, though, there’s a much better fan edit of the album waiting to happen.

Lovebites – Daughters of the Dawn – Live in Tokyo 2019
The all-female Japanese band takes their classic, lovably cheesy power metal sound on the road in this two-disc set that has ample time to hit pretty much all of the highlights from their two albums. Distractions of them trying to address their Japanese audience between songs in weirdly accented English aside, this set capably proves that the formidable instrumental chops heard on their albums can be faithfully reproduced in a live setting, and thus this band isn’t just a pretty gimmick. I appreciate the extended riffs on a few of my favorites from Clockwork Immortality, especially the slow, drawn-out piano intro of “Empty Daydream”, but I’ll probably need to familiarize myself a little more with their first album Awakening from Abyss to fully appreciate this set.

Django Django – Winter’s Beach EP
Since I’d never heard of Django Django until I checked out their excellent 2018 release Marble Skies at the beginning of the new year, I didn’t know they’d released a companion EP later in the same year until very recently. It’s OK. The group’s knack for vintage synth sounds and trance-y, beat-heavy jams with occasional acoustic elements is easily recognizable here, but with these five songs (and one instrumental) being rather uniformly laid-back, nothing jumps out to me as readily as any of the highlights on Marble Skies. I kind of feel that way about most of their previous two albums, though – so who knows, maybe if you’re a longtime fan of the band, this will sound more like a return to form.

Global Genius – New Folk
The rather presumptuously-named Global Genius is more of a production company than a true band, with Nashville session players Scott Denté (better known as the husband/guitarist in Out of the grey) and Ken Lewis at its core. Apparently they’ve done a ton of session work for more well-known musicians and landed their compositions in a number of commercials, but you wouldn’t guess it from this rather small-scale collection of 9 songs that mostly sounds like a few dudes walked up to the stage during an open mic at your local coffee shop, one with an acoustic guitar and one with an electric, and just sort of took turns harmonizing on each other’s songs (with an occasional third vocalist thrown into the mix – aside from Scott I honestly can’t tell who’s who). The results range from sublime, contemplative songs about love and the pursuit of happiness like the engrossing opener “Say Everything”, to ridiculously hackneyed metaphors that almost sound ripped from an album of children’s music from the 70s or 80s (“Every Kind of Light” and the excruciatingly cheesy “Local Honey”). It’s a suprisingly small-scale project from a team with such huge aspirations – especially when you consider that their latest single “Summer Song”, with guest vocalist Leigh Nash, isn’t even on the album (nor would it have been a good fit). For the most part, I like this, but I’m not sure if I can hold out hope for a ton of future potential in a musical collective that seems to mostly exist for the purpose of writing jingles and performing other people’s background music.

Belle & Sebastian – Days of the Bagnold Summer
W’re only a year out from the larger-than-life How to Solve Our Human Problems project, and B&S are already back with a much more subdued album that it sounds like was intended as a soundtrack tie-in to a film based on a graphic novel that isn’t expected to be released in 2020. I can’t comment on how any of these songs tie into the film’s plot, but I can say that this is the most subdued the band has been since the late 90s when they got their start, being full of mostly ballads (two of which are repurposed songs from earlier in their discography) and a handful of short instrumental passages. It isn’t until the single “Sister Buddha” shows up late in the album that I feel like the band really breathes some life into this album, and after that comes the excellent acoustic number “This Letter” and the closing montage and that’s it. This probably won’t be remembered as an essential entry in the band’s catalogue, but it has its merits, I suppose.

Thom Yorke – ANIMA
My reaction whenever the Radiohead frontman goes solo (or works with a side project, in the case of Atoms for Peace) is generally that I like his idiosyncratic approach to electronica in principle, but in practice the music gets so repetitive and clinical that it’s hard to find much of anything in it that really makes me feel something. 2014’s Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes was the nadir; this 9-song project might just be the pinnacle. I’m not totally in love with this record, but I appreciate how he seems to go for ballsier, more danceable arrangements in a few places, and it feels like more of the tracks are distinct from each other than usual, even if what they’re all about remains as inscrutable as ever. With a few more listens, I could end up either really loving this, or really not caring about it. Hard to say. All I know is that it’s managed to hold my interest longer than anything else he’s done on his own.

Brittany Howard – Jaime
It’s not promising when you get into a band who has only just dropped their second album, they seem to mostly disappear for the next few years, and then suddenly their lead singer comes out with a solo album while there’s still no real news of what the actual band has been up to all this time. Howard’s voice and overall presence really had to grow on me when I first listened to Alabama Shakes’ Sound & Color, and I came to really appreciate what she brought to the table as a soulful and sometimes very aggressive lead vocalist, a songwriter, and a formidable guitarist. Her solo debut is a little more scattershot, still running through the hitlist of Southern soul, blues, and garage rock influences we’d expect from Alabama Shakes, but also taking a few really bizarre turns with even more bizarre production choices on tracks like the messy rant “13th Century Metal” or the synth-drenched closer “Run to Me”. Even on the lead single “History Repeats”, which I’ve come to appreciate for its solid groove, it’s hard to know what the hell she’s singing about since the production doesn’t really emphasize vocal clarity. But it’s enough to tide me over (fingers crossed) the Shakes get their act together and deliver album #3.

This fully instrumental album is a sequel to the French electronic band’s 2007 release Digital Shades, Vol. 1, which I did not know existed despite the fact that I’ve been going through M83’s early discography this year (and boy, it has been rough going). While obviously this de-emphasizes the more pop aspects of Anthony Gonzalez’s songwriting due to the lack of vocals and choruses, the warm glow of nostalgia is still incredibly strong here, as the album was basically designed to evoke memories of favorite video game soundtracks from the 80s and 90s. That doesn’t mean these are chiptunes or anything, but if some of those old adventure games had come to life as feature films during that era, the instrumentation heard throughout this record would be apt. It’s a bit on the long side with a lot of slow-building tracks that take a while to establish their strongest instrumental bit, but the drum-heavy “Lune de Fiel” and the otherworldly closer “Temple of Sorrow” are definitely resonating with me.

The New Pornographers – In the Morse Code of Brake Lights
This is album #2 without Dan Bejar in the band, so we’d all better get used to it. Now that touring vocalist/violinist Simi Stone has been added as an official member, that gives the band even more of a female-heavy vocal mix than before, despite Carl Newman still being the band’s primary lead vocalist and songwriter. With his compositions dominating the album as they did on 2017’s Whiteout Conditions, the overall tone and pace are once again quite consistent, though the band remembered to throw in a few actual ballads this time, and while I miss the non-stop fast pace of that record, it’s probably for the best that they didn’t go for two straight albums of that. The band’s penchant for quirky word salads and heavily stacked vocals comes to the track on the singles “The Surprise Knock” and “Falling Down the Stairs of Your Smile”, which have unconventional hooks, but given time they’ll be difficult to get out of your head. Elsewhere, I’m thrilled to hear new-ish drummer Joe Seiders making his mark on a few percussion-heavy tracks, and the string section come to the forefront to give Simi a chance to flex her muscles. Despite a few down-tempo tracks that seem a bit dull at first, this album retains the group’s collaborative spirit and exuberant vocal presence, even if they seem mostly disinterested in reinventing their own wheel at this point. They know what works for them. For the most part, it still works for me as well.

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