What Am I Listening To? – November 2019

As we round the corner into the home stretch of 2019, I’m trying to cram in a lot of the odds and ends that have released over the past month (and even a few that I missed out on last year) while simultaneously trying to gear up for my year-end (and decade-end!) list-making extravaganza. So I’m a bit scatterbrained and perhaps haven’t given some of this stuff as focused of a listen as I normally might. Worst case scenario, I’ll come back to some of it in 2020, after the dust settles and my slate is clear from all of the heavy nostalgia that has taken up most of my listening time recently.

Oh yeah, and there are a few Christmas albums/EPs that have come out recently, which I’ve made the decision to ignore until the beginning of December. I’ll do this column a little earlier next month so that I can actually cover those before Christmas arrives. For now, I’m focusing on the non-seasonal stuff.

Here are my first impressions of the latest from Sawyer, Merriment, Lord Huron, Hollow Coves, The Last Bison, Grace Potter, Andrew Osenga, R.E.M., Charlie Peacock, Darlingside, Global Genius, Coldplay, and Medical Morning.

Sawyer – Less Than More Than EP
I first discovered this indie pop duo when they opened for Katie Herzig last year, and it sounds like they’ve stuck to their formula of glossy pop with smooth guitar licks a la Haim while improving their craft on their second EP. Lead track “Emotional Girls” is the clear standout, with its witty commentary on men who scapegoat women as the source of all their problems. The rest is pretty typical relationship fare, but it’s fun and it goes down easy. I’m looking forward to a proper debut album from these two soon, hopefully in 2020.

Merriment – Funny Thing EP
Since Merriment’s debut album Sway was basically “Eisley, but mellower and with more of a coffeehouse vibe”, I didn’t expect huge things from them going forward, nor was I even sure they’d follow it up at all. The younger DuPree siblings have added a bit of programming and electronic experimentation to their sound here, and I’m not immediately sold on the new style. The songs are still fairly low-key, emphasizing the songwriting, so it’s not really that radical of a change – it just feels a tad less organic, without adding enough variety to their sound to make the change an exciting one. After several listens, there isn’t a single song out of the six that has genuinely held my attention.

Lord Huron – Vide Noir
Lord Huron was another one of my wife’s discoveries that I was turned on to via the Spotify playlist she made for our road trip last month. I was immediately intrigued by their name and their woodsy sound, which was strongly reminiscent of Fleet Foxes, though it turns out that the first songs of theirs I heard were from their debut album all the way back in 2012. They’ve branched out during the years in between, incorporating elements of indie pop and psychedelic rock into their sound; at times there’s a dark undercurrent to their lyrics that reminds me a bit of Blitzen Trapper. I wouldn’t say they’re particularly out there, but it does help to distinguish them from their early influences. They also seem to have gone down a rabbit hole in terms of their songwriting, with each album getting successively more and more obsessed over unrequited love, to the point where it drives the central character of their most recent album into a dark, near-suicidal state of mine. So, not exactly a feel-good record. It’s certainly a story that I hope is fictional, given how dogged this dude’s determination to get the girl or die trying is. But the music is lush, varied, and top-notch all around, engaging from the first washed-out notes of “Lost in Time and Space” to the final, mystical strains of “Emerald Star”. The two-part suite “Ancient Names” is easily the highlight here, but strong performances abound throughout the record, so it’s one I’ve been coming back to quite a bit over the last few weeks.

Hollow Coves – Moments
Another track on that same playlist that really caught my attention was Hollow Coves’ “Coastline” – a modest but effective acoustic rock number about looking forward to escaping to a beautiful coastal area with a special someone. Nothing revolutionary in the music or lyrics department, but it really fit the mood of that trip. That turned out to be from this Australian duo’s 2017 EP Wanderlust, not the debut LP that they released just this year, but the common thread throughout both seems to be that the musical style is about as middle-of-the-road adult contemporary as possible, with little in the way of inventive melodies or instrumentation. There’s only so much a group can bank on vague nostalgia and individual listeners’ travel bugs to hold their attention, and thus far I haven’t found anything these guys have done that has been nearly as captivating as “Coastline”. I keep trying, but this record is such an albatross – only 11 tracks but the songs seem to go on forever, which is definitely working against them if breezy, easygoing acoustic/atmospheric pop is what they’re aiming for.

The Last Bison – The Last Bison on Audiotree Live
After The Last Bison radically reinvented their sound on SÜDA last year following the loss of several band members, I was intrigued to hear how they would perform these songs in a more stripped-down acoustic setting. The Hüshed Tracks EP from a few months back largely answered that question – gentle but tasteful arrangements that used the violin and cello to accentuate parts originally performed by keyboards or electric guitar. These live versions performed in-studio for Audiotree mostly cover the same ground, but are much rougher, with lead singer Ben Hardesty straight up missing notes or even forgetting a lyric for a few bars in some places, meaning we’re not hearing these songs at their best. “Cold Night” is the only selection from SÜDA heard here that we hadn’t already heard redone – it continues to annoy me that the back half of that album is getting very little attention. They tack on a new take on their classic “Switzerland” at the end, which just doesn’t sound the same without its signature acoustic guitar riffs/runs and that fantastic violin solo in the middle. It’s a song that shouldn’t really be attempted without a larger ensemble at their disposal. This EP was pretty disappointing all around.

Grace Potter – Daylight
I had never heard of Grace Potter until she showed up on my Release Radar playlist in Spotify with the song “Back to Me”, a fun, soulful little romp featuring Lucius on backing vocals. Turns out they back the singer/songwriter up on several cuts on this album, which falls mostly into the category of mellow soul and indie pop, with occasional shades of country, and even a little psychedelia on the title track. Potter’s voice is very smoky and occasionally a bit squeaky; she ranges from a soft croon to belting out a few of the more upbeat numbers as if she were fantasizing about fronting AC/DC, so while I may not appreciate all the aspects of her range, I can at least say that she has range. I’ll probably need a few more spins to appreciate some of the stylistic subtleties here; this one’s pretty well off my beaten path, and while I’m glad that the presence of Lucius helped to bring it to my attention, the ballad-heavy nature of the record means that I don’t always think their capability as backing vocalists is used all that well on some of the tracks where they appear – nor is Potter’s formidable talent as a lead vocalist, for that matter.

Andrew Osenga – The Painted Desert
After writing up my Top 20 Caedmon’s Call Songs column at the beginning of the month, I realized that I was all caught up with Derek Webb’s solo career, but hadn’t really checked in on Andy Osenga’s in a while. Turns out he put out this low-key album last year that, at its best, features some exquisite and emotionally affecting songwriting, even if there isn’t a whole lot of variation from track to track. Osenga’s style sits pretty close to the softer side of Caedmon’s Call and The Normals – bands that he used to be a part of – while also resembling some of the more atmospheric material he’s helped to co-write or co-produce for Andrew Peterson. “Beautiful Places” is a real stunner at the beginning of the album, and there are a few songs deeper in that manage to take me by surprise lyrically, but in terms of melody, tempo, and instrumentation I’m not hearing a ton of variation here, which can make getting all the way through this album a bit of a task for me.

R.E.M. – Monster (25th Anniversary Edition)
No, I haven’t had time to listen to all five discs of audio on this gargantuan expanded re-release of one of R.E.M.’s most misunderstood and bargain bin-destined albums. My main interest here is the remixed version of the album on the third disc, which apparently gave producer Scott Litt the chance to go back and re-evaluate a lot of his original mixing decisions. Monster in its original incarnation was a deliberately murky, fuzzy, and inscrutable album masquerading as a glammy rock record – I like a lot of its songs for their crunchy sound and their sense of swagger, even though I haven’t connected with most of them to the point of really loving them. The choice to obscure the vocals on a lot of them meant it was full of potential classics that have remained underrated for the last quarter of a century. Finally hearing the vocals more clearly on tracks like “King of Comedy”, “Star 69” or “Circus Envy” makes it slightly easier to hazard a guess as to what the band might have been on about, but it also takes away a bit of the mystery, so I have mixed feelings as to whether those songs are better off sounding all confused and muffled. The decision to remove a rather distinctive guitar part from the album’s most well-known track “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” is a bit of an annoyance, and the much clearer mix on the anguished Kurt Cobain tribute “Let Me In” arguably robs the song of its raw power, but overall the album is more accessible and less exhausting to listen to straight through, so I’d say it’s a tossup which version is better. I’m not deep enough into the R.E.M. mythology to find an entire disc of B-sides or a 2-disc live concert from the Monster era all that fascinating, personally, which is why I haven’t delved into the other discs, though fans who were huge on the band at the time will probably enjoy hearing what were presumably the live debuts of several songs from both that album and the previous two records that the band hadn’t done tours for.

Charlie Peacock – Family Fiddle EP
This brief EP features four instrumental tracks and one with lyrics and a female vocal, all of them centered around (unsurprisingly) the fiddle. It’s definitely different from Peacock’s instrumental jazz albums, more in the vein of “newgrass” bands like Nickel Creek, if they were particularly ballad-heavy and didn’t mind bringing in non-bluegrassy instruments like the synth, organ, or electric guitar for atmosphere. I could see a few of these tracks helping to fill out his rather short album Lil’ Willie from earlier this year, since the style on that one was a bit of a folk/pop hybrid as well.

Darlingside – Look Up & Fly Away EP
Not long after I got into Extralife, the band’s full-length release from 2018, I discovered that the band had put out a set of B-sides from those sessions earlier this year. Stylistically, they’re pretty similar to the brand of harmony-heavy indie folk with occasional electronic tweaking that the band showcased on their last album, though the more progressive length and structure of the title track seems like something they haven’t really tried before. Opening track “Rodeo” continues to demonstrate this band’s flair for oddball story songs that don’t go in quite the direction you might expect, while “Paradise Bay” wins the award for pure soothing escapism near the end. It’s a solid set all around, even if I’m not hearing a highlight on the order of “Singularity” just yet. (Which I guess is fine, because if they had something else that good, they should’ve put it on the album!)

Global Genius – Life
While this is the second album to come out this year under the Global Genius name, I’m not sure if the same people were involved in making it. This is a collection of instrumental pieces by composer Phillip Keveren; it’s mostly your standard soundtrack fare with dramatic strings, piano, harp, and occasionally an interjection from an unexpected instrument such as synth or saxophone. It mostly floats by inoffensively – none of this is bad, but none of it really leaves much of an impression either. It’s incidental music that might have more context if there were a visual to go with it.

Coldplay – Everyday Life
This new double album from Coldplay is essentially their Rattle & Hum. No, it’s not a mix of live and studio tracks, nor does it have an accompanying film. But it’s so scattershot, seeing the band delve into multiple genres and even a bit of world music in an attempt to communicate a message, that it comes across as more than a bit pretentious, sacrificing a lot of the things that the band does well in the hope of proving their higher artistic aspirations to a world skeptical of the poppier output on their last few albums. I like the idea of this record, with the duality of the Sunrise and Sunset discs, and themes of ethnic conflict and religious violence emerging with language that is at times quite a bit startling by Coldplay’s usual standards. They clearly wanted to tell us all to cut the bullshit and start treating our fellow human beings like human beings here, and I admire the message, even if the attempts to masquerade as a completely different kind of band, or even to put Chris Martin out there all by his lonesome as an acoustic singer/songwriter spontaneously churning out demos with minimal production effort, often fall flat compared to the expectations generated by the grandeur of the early single “Orphans” and its experimental jazz/worldbeat-inflected B-side “Arabesque”. This is an interesting album to pick apart in terms of understanding the band’s reasons for making it, but not a particularly fulfilling one to listen to from front to back. Viva la Vida is an example of how this band challenged their norms with amazing results; this album just feels they’re like blowing up the whole concept of Coldplay with the hope that it might generate some conversation.

Medical Morning – Ghost Riot – Volume 1
This EP is the first release by the first band signed to Blurescent Records (a fledgling label that had previously released the More Than Music compilation at the beginning of this year, which wound up getting me into several new bands). Their music reminds me a bit of the band Young Oceans, in the sense that the lyrics are very “vertical” and express worship/reverence toward God, but the style is in more of a post-rock/shoegaze vein. That means the music is more immediate, but the guitars and vocals are really hazy at times, to the point where I often can’t make out the lyrics and I’ve even found myself questioning whether my headphones are plugged in correctly. It’s an aesthetic choice that I realize is deliberate; sometimes that sort of thing can put me at odds with a band early on when I can’t really tell what is being sung. But they do have a knack for meditative melodies that rise up beautifully out of the repetitive structures of their songs; the closing track “Unsetting Sun” is the best example of this.

4 thoughts on “What Am I Listening To? – November 2019

    • I’m absolutely flabbergasted that I somehow managed to go all these years without ever having heard of them. You’d think a “Recommended if you like Fleet Foxes”-type plug would have come up at some point in 2012 or 2013 when that style of music was still very big in the indie world.

      Turns out I had briefly heard the band back in 2015 due to their song “Ends of the Earth” being used in the Community finale… it still didn’t ring a bell when I heard it again this year. That song is so magical and memorable that I’m honestly disappointed in myself for not making a note of it then.

      • I discovered them at the same time as Fleet Foxes, I think from a friend who was really into that indie folk stuff.

        And you know what, I think Ends of the Earth is the first song I heard too. I particularly fell in love with the Strange Trails album when that came out, though.

  1. Lonesome Dreams is definitely my favorite of theirs so far. Strange Trails has some solid songs, but the overall theme and sheer length of it start to wear on me after a while. It could stand to be one or two tracks shorter, I think. Vide Noir is a welcome change from a musical standpoint, though some of the thematic issues remain.

    I was into Fleet Foxes from close to the beginning, though I really resisted listening to them when they were first recommended to me. Someone made the mistake of describing their sound as “lo-fi” and I was like “Oh hell no”. I finally relented and immediately kicked myself for what I had almost missed out on.

    By the time Lord Huron debuted in 2012, Fleet Foxes had begun their long hiatus between albums, so it would have been nice to have them in my collection then. Nowadays I wouldn’t think to compare the two bands as readily, because both have diverged a bit from their original sound.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s