What Am I Listening To? – October 2019

Here are my first impressions of the latest from Wilco, Derek Webb, Elbow, Jimmy Eat World, Alter Bridge, Coyote Kid, Northern Abbey, and Darlingside.

Wilco – Ode to Joy
I feel like it’s unfair to write a new Wilco album off as dull and irrelevant after only a few listens, but I’ve got to be honest – after not one, but two Jeff Tweedy solo albums that are very much in a similar vein as this one, I’m suffering from Tweedy fatigue. His habit of just barely croaking out his songs with only a hint of melody, to the tune of muted guitars and small-scale, thoroughly un-dynamic percussion, has gotten old fast. When he’s with his band, at least the occasional bit of experimental ambiance or sound manipulation comes through, but that’s mostly window dressing. It doesn’t make the actual songs interesting. My ears briefly perk up when I get to the single “Everyone Hides”, but honestly I couldn’t give you much of a reason to stick around beyond that.

Derek Webb – Stockholm Syndrome: Live in Texas
To celebrate the tenth anniversary of a game-changing album, Webb has gifted us with high-quality audio of a concert from 2009 in which the entire album was played, front to back. Since this record marked his abrupt transition from mostly mellow folk-rock to beat-heavy electronica, I can recall being curious at the time how Webb and his band would pull it off live. The answer is, quite superbly. The live drums and bass make a number of these songs sound even crisper and more urgent than they already did on the studio version, and while there’s not much that radically varies from the album arrangements, this is an incredibly faithful reproduction that gets kicked up a notch simply because it’s a live show. Smaller differences I’m picking up on are the extended “Opening Credits”, a few brief moments in which Derek talks to the audience or introduces the band (he never really does anything to shed light on song meanings, aside from a very cryptic dedication of the song “Jena & Jimmy” to the late J. Edgar Hoover), and maybe some punchier endings to songs that faded or fizzled out on the album. What’s really fascinating is the simple act of revisiting Stockholm Syndrome after 10 years, which is both a positive in terms of appreciating how woke Derek seemed to be at the time compared to a lot of his contemporaries in the Christian music industry who either had more conservative views or were afraid to speak up like he did when they broke from those views, and also a bit of a negative due to a few of the more relationship-oriented songs being uncomfortable to listen to in light of his subsequent affair and divorce. Either way, I’m sure those who got stuck with the “censored” version of the original album will no doubt be delighted to finally have a sanctioned release of “What Matters More”, one of the album’s cornerstone tracks that the record label balked at, and one whose message is still as important now as it was in 2009.

Elbow – Giants of All SizesElbow – Giants of All Sizes: I’ve the heaviest heart jackhammering in me.
Elbow’s new one may contain only nine songs, but it feels like a long, heavy sigh of a record. Losing three people who were close to members of the band will do that to the creative process, I guess. Not the Guy Garvey and co. don’t approach it with their usual wit and grace, but the mood here is definitely more cynical, doubtful, and despairing than 2017’s much brighter-hued Little Fictions. Not that we haven’t been through this sort of heaviness before in some of the deeper cuts on The Take Off and Landing of Everything or even The Seldom Seen Kid, but this record really forces you to sit with the uneasiness before bringing out some of the more delicate and beautiful moments you’d expect near the end, as Garvey celebrates his wife and son in a delightful set of closing tracks. The heavy stuff’s not bad, by any means. Leadoff single “Dexter & Sinister”, which also kicks off the album, is practically two songs rolled into one, as some of Elbow’s best epics are, brought to even higher heights by the guest vocals of Jesca Hoop in its latter half. This one’ll take time to really appreciate, but I’m used to Elbow being a band whose best stuff generally doesn’t hit me over the head right away.

Jimmy Eat World – Surviving
At this point, Jimmy Eat World knows what works for them and what doesn’t – they’ve got their blend of moody alt-rock and riff-heavy power pop down to a science, and from one album to the next, nothing much is going to shock listeners who tuned out after their early 2000s popularity waned and are just now giving them another try. I’ve been listening all along, and I definitely think this one goes toe to toe with 2016’s Integrity Blues, which I found to be an underrated rebound album after a few lackluster ones earlier in the 2010s. I liked pretty much the entire album on first listen, though I don’t reach anything that falls into “love” territory until I get to the back half of the album, where the triple threat of the current single “All the Way (Stay)” with its unapologetic sax solo coming in at the end, the reappearance of “Love Never” (which was released as a stand-alone single last year), and the extended heavy jam in the outro of “Congratulations” all loom large over an album full of mostly up-tempo rockers that are easily accessible, if not individually all that memorable. This album won’t change anyone’s world, but in an era where being a straight-up rock band isn’t likely to win you a ton of mainstream popularity points, there’s something to be said for staying in your lane and doing what you know you can do well.

Alter Bridge – Walk the Sky
Album #6 for this alternative metal group might include some subtle electronic looping, and sonic experiments that lead to unusual song intros, but for the most part you still know an Alter Bridge song when you hear one. Their formula of resolving damn near every song to the same basic template for a punchy chorus gets downright frustrating, especially when it leads to the juxtaposition of their dark, brooding sound with some glaringly out-of-place lyrics about faith and self-improvement. Don’t get me wrong – if Myles Kennedy is in a happier and less cynical place than he was on previous records, and he’s actually able to express some sort of belief in an afterlife or at least a better way of living, then more power to him. (It’s either that, or Mark Tremonti’s just writing more of the lyrics nowadays.) But it has the weird side effect of making their music seem preachier than I’m sure it was intended to come across. I’m hearing some solid riffs here and there, and of course the expected blistering solos from both guitarists, but thus far none of it seems to all come together in the form of a single song where I can say “Now this is a badass Alter Bridge track”. There was at least one immediate standout like that on past albums, and the absence of such a clear highlight on this album gives me the nagging feeling that maybe they’re starting to run out of ideas.

Coyote Kid – The Skeleton Man
While the band formerly known as Marah in the Mainsail has rebranded themselves to reflect that the action in their boisterous and raggedy brand of indie rock takes place mostly on dystopian dry lands rather than out at sea, this is about as direct and hard-hitting of a follow-up to the band’s last album under their previous name, 2017’s Bone Crown, as I could have hoped for. The tragic wildfire that scorched the earth at the end of that album serves as the backdrop the death-obsessed science fiction story being told on this album, and boy, does this band still know their way around an engrossing concept album. Austin Durry shows remarkable range here, his voice as gravelly and unmistakably loud as ever, but deftly navigating his way through some of the band’s punchiest and most melodic songs, while also getting a chance to descend into complete mania on a few of the heavier ones. And he’s wonderfully complemented by backing vocalist Cassandra Valentine, who takes the lead on a few haunting tracks midway through the album, effectively mirroring the eerie female-fronted highlights at the core of Bone Crown, just in more of a human (and possibly cyborg!) context. The frenetic duet between the two on lead single “Femme Fatale” made it one of my favorite songs of the year, hands-down, and the rest of the album is of similarly strong quality, making this a strong Album of the Year candidate right out of the gate (in a year that’s been woefully short on solid contenders, if I’m being honest).

Northern Abbey – Ceremonies EP
Northern Abbey is the solo project of Nick Lambert, former guitarist of Falling Up. With that band’s lead singer and overall mastermind Jessy Ribordy behind the boards, this might seem like something that would be in any Falling Up fan’s wheelhouse, and certainly when I first heard the standalone single “Glimpses” earlier this year, I was left expecting Northern Abbey to emerge as more of a meditative electronic offshoot of that general sound. This EP, which was funded by fans through an online pledge drive, is surprisingly straightforward at times, with pretty basic song structures, and even acoustic instruments coming to the foreground on certain tracks. Occasionally it hints at the same transcendent qualities of “Glimpses”, but on several occasions it’s stubbornly grounded, and it doesn’t seem to really take me anywhere as a listener. There just isn’t a whole lot that has really stood out to me after the first few listens – well, aside from the closing track “Thirties”, in which a man coming to terms with his own aging process seems to have taken stock of the sheer dorkiness of Owl City’s songwriting style and said, “Hold my beer”. Hopefully that song was just a gag. Still, none of these new tracks bode particularly well for the likelihood of Lambert launching a lasting career as a solo artist.

Darlingside – Extralife
Darlingside is the first of a series of bands I discovered via a wonderful little project of my wife’s, in which she generated a Spotify playlist for a recent road trip we took using a number of folk/rock and indie folk bands she knew I liked as a seed, and then branching out into the related recommendations from there and seeing what she liked, or thought I would like. This harmony-heavy indie folk group from Boston was one of the bands on that playlist that caught my attention, specifically with their song “Singularity”, which pretty much immediately struck me as transcendentally beautiful. It seems that this group has a bluegrass mindset in terms of how they mic their vocals (altogether around a single one, rather than individually), even if the instrumentation leans more toward acoustic singer/songwriter with the occasional touch of electric guitar or even synth. The songs on this record range from adorably pastoral to downright weird, at times reminding me of some of the beautiful and highly underrated ballads that the Barenaked Ladies have come up with in the years following Steven Page’s departure. How I’m describing these guys probably makes them sound like damn near every folk act I was infatuated with circa 2012 or 2013 (even though this particular album came out last year), but there’s a unique charm to this group that sets them apart, and their lyrics are just nerdy/literary enough to make the subject matter catch me off guard from time to time as well. I’m looking forward to hearing a lot more from these guys (and with two more albums and a string of EPs in their catalogue, there’s a lot left to explore).

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