What Am I Listening To? – August 2021

Here are my thoughts on the latest from Kye Kye, Anberlin, Weezer, The Killers, Switchfoot, Umphrey’s McGee, Chvrches, Toad the Wet Sprocket, and Mouse Rat.

Kye Kye – Arya
The surprise return of this electropop band after close to seven years of radio silence following their sophomore release Fantasize came with pretty much no explanation, at least not that I could find with a quick Google or on their Facebook page. So, completely out of nowhere, we get this very long series of sixteen tracks, all of which lean much more heavily on the ambient stuff than their past work, some of which have enticing grooves, but most of which seem to be going more for mood than meaning, with the vocals slurred or otherwise blending into the instrumentation, and very little standing out that makes me think “Aha, here’s what this song is trying to say”. That’s a definite change from their older stuff, when I did sometimes have trouble making out Olga Yagolnikov’s lyrics, but could generally get the gist of what she was singing about. And there are long stretches of instrumental rumination or even near-silence in some of these tracks (to the point where some of them almost feel like I’m listening to an unmastered or unauthorized bootleg). I’m sure that given time, I’ll pick out some highlights, but for now, I’m having a bit of a difficult time wading through the 70+ minutes of new music that’s been dumped on us all at once, seemingly with zero context.

Anberlin – As You Found Me
Livestream #5 covered Anberlin’s 2010 release, Dark is the Way, Light Is a Place. As with the rest of this series, I’m enjoying getting to hear them perform a lot of the deep cuts that I’d never heard them play before, despite seeing them when albums like this one were new. This is one of their shorter albums, at only ten tracks, so there weren’t as many rarities here, but I’ve definitely developed more of an appreciated for tracks like “You Belong Here”, “Take Me (As You Found Me)”, and the closer “Depraved” this time around that I was perhaps a little bit disappointed with when the album first came out. The one big weakness with this series is that the band has started to kill more and more time talking between songs, some of which is informative as it discusses the history behind certain songs (such as Stephen Christian being adamant that the lead single “Impossible” wasn’t album material until the band talked him into it), but some of which is just banter that doesn’t translate if you’re not seeing the band interact live. Whoever engineered this clearly cut some of this, as Stephen makes references occasionally to stuff he supposedly said earlier in the same set, so it’s mystifying to me why so many intro tracks were left in that eat up so much time. This extends a 40-minute album to an hour-long performance, and aside from a slight extended intro to “We Owe This to Ourselves”, it’s not because the actual songs had anything added to them. I already know from having watched the Vital livestream that this is only gonna get worse.

Weezer – OK Human
After all these years of being peripherally aware of the band (including having met their bassist once and not realized who he was!), I’m finally taking the plunge and listening to some Weezer records this year. Due to my ongoing 90s binge, I’ve started with The Blue Album and Pinkerton, but I figured I should also get a sense of where they’re at currently, so I decided to give this short little blast of symphonic power pop a try, and once I’ve got this one down I’ll probably check out Van Weezer as well. This one really lets their piano-heavy side and their love of bands like The Beach Boys come out to play; some of it’s just playful and dorky enough to make me believe for a sec that they’re recaptured a bit of their youthful spirit, while some of the mellower material is surprisingly poignant, particularly a string of ballads beginning with “Numbers” in the middle of the album. At just barely half an hour, this thing is a bit of a lightweight, but given how frequently Weezer puts out new material (and the fact that they’re apparently promising us four new albums next year), I can’t really complain too much. This is a pleasant enough listen, though I’m not familiar enough with the Weezer catalogue at this point to determine whether it’ll be remembered as one of the greats. (My money’s on “probably not”, though.)

The Killers – Pressure Machine
I’ve gotta say, I’m impressed by The Killers for following through on their lofty promise to deliver another album so sooner after Imploding the Mirage, which came out around this time last summer. I guess we have Covid to thank for that, since they obviously haven’t been touring. Like the previous album, the full band wasn’t really present for this one – guitarist Dave Keuning is back in the saddle, but now bassist Mark Stoermer is taking a break. Unlike that album, this is a much more somber affair that at times doesn’t feel like the work of a band at all. A few of the tracks build to mild crescendos (particularly the stunning opener “West Hills”, which has an almost Celtic lilt to it), while several others almost feel like stripped-back solo efforts from Brandon Flowers, and this isn’t categorically a bad thing, even though I tend to appreciate The Killers for their showmanship more than their songwriting most of the time. This one needed to focus more on the songwriting and to get away from the Vegas-y glitz heard on most of their records, because it’s about Brandon’s rural hometown of Nephi, Utah, and the jarring contrast between its deeply religious population and the epidemic of depression, joblessness, and drug abuse tearing many small American towns like that apart. The record really takes its time to delve into some of these bleak slices of life, which fits the stripped-down setting even if it means the music doesn’t excite me all that much. I appreciate the amount of thought that they put into exploring that concept, but I’ll warn you, it’s not an easy listen if you’re really paying close attention. The full version of the album is extended with snippets of interviews that appear between most of the songs, which helps to give concepts to the characters who inhabit the songs, but after listening to it that way once or twice, you’ll probably want to skip most of these interludes. The band was nice enough to anticipate that and also provide an “abridged” version of the album that contains just the songs, without the interview portions. This means you can choose whichever version suits your mood, and if you want to single out a particular song for a playlist, you’re not stuck with an unwanted intro or outro tacked onto it. Honestly, I wouldn’t be opposed to more bands taking this approach, when they feel that an album has stories behind it that are important enough to warrant the additional commentary, but don’t want to bog listeners down by making them sit through it every time. Streaming is perfectly set up for this sort of approach to work well, because you can release two versions of the same album at pretty much no additional cost (while presumably still only releasing one version physically for the die-hards).

Switchfoot – Interrobang
I’m also impressed with Switchfoot for managing to be so productive during the pandemic – Jon Foreman has been live-streaming some sort of performance or another on a pretty regular basis ever since the beginning of lockdown, with these gradually evolving into elaborate, nostalgic string of full-band shows exploring much of their discography in amusingly weird settings. In the midst of all that, they also put out a covers EP last summer and Foreman released a full-length solo EP earlier this year. Album #12 for the band seems to have been a deliberate attempt to push themselves outside of their comfort zone – their choice to work with producer Tony Berg was made in part because they’re Christians and he’s an atheist, and the intent of the album is to explore the mechanics of relationships and conversations between people who disagree, rather than just being an effort by one group to proselytize to the other (which is how Christian rock traditionally works, though Switchfoot has generally distanced themselves from the worst of it). The singles released in advance of the album were deliberately backwards from how you’d expect the usual hype-building campaign for a new record to go – they seemed rather muted and experimental, and we were a good four or five songs in before anything resembling one of Switchfoot’s usual fuzzy alt-pop anthems emerged. Given that, the album wasn’t actually as out there and difficult to digest as I was expecting, but perhaps that’s because they got a lot of the curveballs out of the way ahead of time. Interrobang is very much a product of a tense year when it seemed like the noisy arguments between passionate groups with different political and moral views were at an unprecedented boiling point; to write songs encouraging us to turn down the noise and figure out how to sit down and listen to each other and wrestle honestly with that discomfort is no small feat. There may not be an individual song here that gets me as excited as some of the highlights from Where the Light Shines Through or even the flawed Native Tongue, but it might be a stronger artistic statement than anything they’ve made in a while, and I like that at this point in their career, they’re still willing to challenge listeners and themselves, instead of delivering the predictable comfort food that has bogged down a lot of their post-Beautiful Letdown releases.

Umphrey’s McGee – You Walked Up Shaking in Your Boots But You Stood Tall and Left a Raging Bull
This is UM’s first studio album since the 2018 twin surprise of It’s Not Us and It’s You, and this new record is… instrumental? More specifically, it’s a collection of the different compositions that the band has used as “walk-up music” to introduce their live sets over the years, apparently because they begin their concerts like wrestlers begin their matches. The album’s aptly named, at least. I’m not sure listening to 12 of these compositions in rapid succession amounts for much of a listening experience – predictably, on most of these tracks, you get some sort of an intriguing buildup that starts with a percussion groove and/or a memorable melodic figure on the guitar or piano, maybe a decent solo or breakdown if you’re lucky, but right when you’d expect one of these tracks to segue into something truly epic on one of their albums, you just end up having to start again from scratch. There are a couple exceptions – the moderate sizzle of “Depth Charge” segues into “You Got the Wrong Guy”, where the guitars finally explode during the last two minutes of what is essentially a unified five-minute piece, and “Le Blitz” and “Le Sac” pull a similar trick in reverse later in the album. (Man, with titles like these, “There’s No Crying in Mexico”, and “Nipple Trix”, maybe I should be grateful there are no lyrics.) Ironically, doing an all-instrumental record leads to less meandering than you’ll hear on a typical UM release, because the need for most of these tunes to build to a crescendo and then duck out of the way right when the audience is expecting a segue into something epic means that they can’t draw too much attention to themselves as stand-alone pieces. (The six-minute closer “October Rain” might be the lone exception – it’s extremely rare for something like that to be the longest track on one of their albums.) But unless you’re a diehard who has seen the band live enough to hear a few of these compositions at the beginnings of a few shows and thought, “Gee, I wish that little jam had made it onto an album!”, I can’t imagine you’d get a whole lot out of this. By definition, it’s all buildup with very little payoff.

Chvrches – Screen Violence
Chvrches are pretty committed to their “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach at this point – four albums deep and the magical well of synthpop sounds that they keep drawing from has yet to run dry. They’re fully confident to write and produce all of their own material, only doing co-writes on the rare occasion that it serves the song, such as their collaboration with The Cure frontman Robert Smith on the standout single “How Not to Drown”. Having a few months to listen to both that song and “He Said She Said” definitely set my expectations pretty high for this new album, and the entire front half of it is rock solid, with the new single “California” delivering melancholy but thoughtful musings on failure and accepting loss, and the opener “Asking for a Friend” and the pseudo-title track “Violent Delights” both doing interesting things with inventive programming and extended song structure, going above and beyond the expected approach of just hitting us with fun synths and stellar chorus hooks and wrapping it up within an acceptable radio-friendly time limit. Nothing on this album truly pushes the envelope in terms of exploring new territory, but it’s hard to complain when they’re such wizards at the style they’ve chosen, with the songs always having a basis in skilled lyricism, especially on the topic of power structures and gender roles in modern-day society. If you’re not already a Chvrches fan, this album won’t change your life or anything – and even as someone who thinks all of their records so far are top-notch, I can admit that things do start to get a bit pedestrian in the back half of this one. It doesn’t wrap up on as strong of a note as it could. But it’s hard to complain too much about any record with such a flawless front half. I’m an unapologetic Chvrches fanboy, so you know this one’ll probably rank high on my list at the end of the year.

Toad the Wet Sprocket – Starting Now
Like Weezer, Toad is one of those bands whose classic 90s material I’ve been brushing up on this year. I’ll admit to being so far out of the loop with these guys that I didn’t even know they’d gotten back together in the early 2000s after their breakup in the late 90s. So when a few of their new songs started showing up on Spotify, I just assumed these were re-releases of long lost B-sides or something like that. Had no idea that there was a new album just around the corner, or that it wasn’t even their first one since reunifying. To be fair, the sound of it is quite different than the Toad I’ve gotten to know from three decades ago. They used to walk a pretty fine line between rootsy folk/rock and angsty college rock; these days the angst is all but gone and the music is much more relaxed and folksy, even borderline country in a few places. Glenn Phillips also seems to have evolved vocally over the years, to the point where I wouldn’t have immediately recognized any of the new stuff as Toad if I couldn’t see on my screen that it was credited to them. It’s still the same people, minus a long-time drummer who was swapped out for their touring drummer, so this isn’t one of those “in name only” reunions. But still… man, this thing is frustratingly middle-of-the-road at times. I realized it the second or third time through the opening track “Game Day” – I don’t mind these guys being sunnily optimistic and even trying to show off a little lyrical wit, but musically this thing sounds like generic radio-fodder from the mid-2000s, when mediocre bands like Train and The Fray were clogging up the airwaves. That’s not what you want from a classic band like Toad. It gets even worse when Michael McDonald duets on “The Best of Me” – the guy’s a powerhouse singer with a one-of-a-kind soulful voice, but throwing him into the mix with Phillips just sounds like a desperate pairing designed by committee to earn the band some sort of nostalgic crossover appeal. It just plain doesn’t work. “Dual Citizen” is also a head-scratcher, with its sudden switch to keyboards and drum pads as the dominant instruments; it sounds like it belongs on a completely different album. Basically all I’ve got to take refuge in here are the more stripped-down ballads, which still don’t have the emotional impact of some of Toad’s classic slow-burners, but at least in those cases, intelligent songwriting seems to be winning out over gimmicky, outdated pop hooks. I’m glad these guys have gotten back to a point where they enjoy playing together again, but I’m not sure if this particular album is just a misstep or if this is the sound they’ve settled on in their post-reunion phase. Sometimes it might be better to leave our fond memories of old favorite bands firmly in the past.

Mouse Rat – The Awesome Album
Have I fallen in a timewarp leading back to the early 2010s? It feels like I have while listening to many of these deliberately generic, lyrically inept rock anthems that were originally written for Chris Pratt’s fictional band on the sitcom Parks and Recreation. I’m not sure whether Pratt and the writer/producers who made up his fictional band actually went into a studio and re-recorded these songs for real, or whether these are just the original recordings we only got to hear smaller snippets of in the episodes, but either way, the timing of this release is odd to say the least. The show’s been off the air for six years now, and while it’s one of my all-time favorites and I’m happy to revisit it at any time, I can only suspect this is happening now because they figure new folks have retroactively discovered the show on streaming during quarantine, and Pratt is a much bigger star nowadays than he was when the show started out, so in a roundabout way, this is an excuse for one of those “actor vanity project” albums. The joke in the early days of P&R was that Pratt’s character Andy Dwyer was a loser manchild with no real prospects, who was sheltered and naïve enough to believe that his band of middle-of-the-road radio rock wannabes who took the blandest elements of Matchbox Twenty, Dave Matthews Band, Pearl Jam, etc. and married them to amusingly dumb inspirational clichés and sophomoric gag phrases like “Sex Hair”, was actually going somewhere. Within the show’s universe, I could laugh at the inexplicable popularity of their music with the local townsfolk (which was almost as bewildering as their outsized adoration of Lil’ Sebastian the miniature horse); on the album, the joke gets old pretty fast, and it’s clear that there wasn’t much to a lot of these songs beyond what was needed for the joke, as several run for only one two minutes before petering out, and a few feel like tossed-off single takes where Pratt was just ad-libbing during a scene. Sure, I’ll always get misty-eyed at the cheesy but sentimental “5,000 Candles in the Wind” (an ode to the aforementioned dead horse), and occasionally there’s another song that will actually make something clever out of the dumb joke it started with (see the far too literal “Catch Your Dream”, featuring a guest appearance from Nick Offerman’s character Ron Swanson as his saxophone-wielding alter ego Duke Silver), but there’s not enough here to sustain my amusement for 14 tracks. Two bonus tracks were tacked on that actually have nothing to do with Mouse Rat at all, but are still fun little mementos for fans of the show who remember the Unity Concert in Season 6, in which Wilco guest-starred as the fictional band Land Ho! and actually debuted a snippet of their song “Pickled Ginger” from the then-upcoming Star Wars. That song reappears here, credited to Land Ho! in keeping with the whole “fictional band” conceit, while lead singer Jeff Tweedy also appears as his fictional equivalent Scott Tanner for a solo acoustic number once again featuring Duke Silver. It’s a cute little bit of nostalgia for those of us who were into the show, though I can’t imagine it meaning all that much to anyone else. There’s something to be said for deliberately bland novelty music that pokes fun at the morass of adult contemporary post-grunge that rock radio fell into in the early 21st century, but even that joke was a bit old in 2009 when the show began.

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