What Am I Listening To? – September 2021

Here are my thoughts on the latest from Deafheaven, Maxïmo Park, Colony House, Kacey Musgraves, Dolph Chaney, Thrice, Sufjan Stevens & Angelo De Augustine, and Lovebites.

Deafheaven – Infinite Granite
Spotify saw fit to recommend a song by this “blackgaze” band, despite both black metal and shoegaze generally being pretty far outside my wheelhouse, but once I realized what a metamorphosis Deafheaven had undergone on this new record, it made sense. Their style is much less heavy on this record than how their past work had been described to me; it’s more melodic and even ambient in places, with the guitars used more for shimmering textures than for brute force, and lead vocalist George Clarke singing a lot more than he screams or growls, only bringing out the big guns at the climaxes of a few tracks. I tend to appreciate heavy music more when it’s not constant aggression, but instead when a band builds up to it and then blows the audience away with a climax – such as at the end of “Mombasa”, when the band finally lets all hell break loose, giving me a sense of what they might have sounded like before. Some of this record works for me, but the sound of it does get a bit samey from one track to the next when the band isn’t pulling off those dynamic shifts midway through a track. It’s a sound that I found instantly likeable, but several of the songs kind of blur together due to the softer focus. “Great Mass of Color” is a stellar lead single, and there are a few more standouts later in the record, but I’m not 100% sold on whether this is a risk that is going to pay off. For every band that changes their sound in a way that I find more palatable, there is an established fanbase who is presumably a bit perplexed as to why they backed off from the more distinctive sound they had before, only to wind up sounding like a good number of other indie and post-rock bands that are attempting this sort of thing.

Maxïmo Park – By the Riverside EP
Having just been introduced to Maxïmo Park with their latest record Nature Always Wins a few months back, I’m thrilled to find three of my favorite tracks from that album in this short live set (“Partly of My Making”, “Versions of You”, and “Placeholder”), rounded out by two older selections (“The Hero” and “Our Velocity”) that are energetic and instantly engaging, despite my unfamiliarity with them. I figure this is what a live recording is supposed to do – showcase the new album that the band is out touring for (though this one sounds like it was an in-studio performance, not done in front of an audience), while bringing back some old highlights to please the longtime fans, and to intrigue new fans like me about what lies waiting to be discovered in their back catalogue. No huge surprises here if you know the album versions of the newer songs – these live cuts are faithful to the studio recordings almost to a fault, but these are the kinds of songs that have solid riffs, addictive rhythms, and thoughtful lyrics to spare, so I really can’t complain.

Colony House – Rotten Tomatoes EP
This EP is a bit of a stylistic hodgepodge in much the same way that Leave What’s Lost Behind was, possibly even more so, but in an EP format, I think I have a slightly higher tolerance for a band trying whatever comes to mind and seeing if it sticks. A few songs like the high-energy anthem “Lights On” and the silly-but-fun romantic romp “Natural” are vintage Colony House, while they experiment a bit with chill electropop on “Automatic”, featuring guest vocalist Fleurie, who adds a lot to the overall atmosphere. The real conversation piece here is the opener “O YA”, which is basically Colony House’s solution to the problem of how to follow up their songs “2:20” and “3:20” without actually titling a song “4:20”. The fact that they stretched the song to that exact length, even leaving in a bit of studio chatter that makes reference to it, is part of the joke, but the band’s attempt at a loud party anthem with Beastie Boys-esque rap verses is certainly unexpected even in that goofy context. The best tracks here further cement the band’s reputation as savvy entertainers whose music is even better live – and if you like this sort of thing and haven’t gotten around to seeing them live yet, this should be further proof that you definitely should someday.

Kacey Musgraves – Star-Crossed
It looks like Kacey is going the Taylor Swift route with this record, pretty much abandoning her country roots and instead putting together and even more diverse and colorful pop record than the acclaimed Golden Hour, which was honestly already headed in that direction. The fact that I’ve enjoyed both of these records despite having a general disdain for country-pop says a lot about Kacey’s songwriting skills and her knack for coming up with breezy melodies. This one’ll be a bit of a mixed bag for you if you were into the laid-back, blissed out vibe of Golden Hour, but it’s for good reason, since this one is loosely a concept album based on the unraveling of her marriage to fellow singer songwriter Ruston Kelly. That takes the splashy pop production in more of a melancholy direction, with minor-key chord progressions in a few places, Latin guitar sounds trickling into a few tracks (particularly the slow, cinematic title track), and some other intriguing surprises as she re-learns how to find herself apart from a relationship that sounds like it was all-consuming in a not-so-healthy way. Occasionally this album falls victim to the temptation to string together one too many generic empowerment anthems, or it tries out a production trick that doesn’t really work, like the cliched Eastern-sounding instrumentation on “Cherry Blossom”, the bits of auto-tune on “Good Wife”, and the gradual shift of production styles that goes from vintage to hyper-modern on the closing ballad, a cover of the Spanish folk song “Gracias a la Vida”. For every misfire, there’s a thoughtfully written (and possibly slightly sarcastic) song like “Breadwinner”, “Camera Roll”, or the lead single “Justified” that does an excellent job of getting to the heart of why that marriage didn’t work out, explores coping mechanisms in the wake of its demise, and learns to roll with the messy, non-linear process of healing and finding renewed confidence. (Or else it’s just a fun pop tune, like the disco-infused “There Is a Light” that shows up at the eleventh hour.) I may not agree with every artistic choice she makes, but in terms of what she’s trying to communicate here, I’m 100% in her corner.

Dolph Chaney – This Was Dolph Chaney
This compilation is the other side of the coin following the early 2021 release of This Is Dolph Chaney, on which the titular artist presented newly-recorded versions of some of his favorite songs that he’d written throughout the years, still put together with a DIY mentality, but with a better budget and a more robust backing band than what he had at his disposal the first time around. Now we get to hear (or revisit, if you were familiar with this artist back in the 90s and 2000s) what the originals actually sounded like. Much like the cover photo chosen to parallel the modern-day photo of Dolph on This Is, it’s a sequence of awkward-but-charming old snapshots that reveal both an artist who has come a long way in the ensuing decades, and one who had quite a bit of wit to spare even in this nascent state. I’m not going to lie – some of these original versions sound like very rough demos, where the sound quality of the guitars or drums, or even the timing of the instrumental and vocal tracks overlaid on top of each other, leaves a bit to be desired. (Thankfully my favorite track from This Is, “Meaningless”, sounded pretty good even in its earlier version, thanks to it focusing solely on vocals and the strong acoustic riffing that was central to the reimagined version.) There’s a good reason why he wanted a do-over on several of these tracks. But having the two collections side-by-side really is a genius move – it’s a way to document what once was, without touching it up at all, while also showing listeners the true potential that this set of songs had all along. I honestly wish more artists releasing best-of retrospectives would try something like this, as it’s often fun to hear how an artist would reinterpret their own classic songs knowing what they know now, but if you actually put a newly recorded version of an old favorite on such a compilation and present that as the “definitive” version that new fans will hear first, many will cry foul. This is a great way for an artist to have their cake and eat it, too.

Thrice – Horizons/East
Thrice is pretty much my go-to example of a once-heavy rock band that gradually pulled me in as they started to get more experimental. But even considering my willingness to roll with the various changes they’ve thrown at me over the years, I’ve gotta say… Come on, Thrice, what’re you doing? I had already found Palms to be a bit of an unfocused mess back in 2018, despite loving several tracks, and this new collection feels very much like a sequel to that one, in the sense that I can’t find much to help me make sense of its jumping around between tricky math rock, scratchy post-hardcore, bits of piano and keyboard ambiance, and seemingly whatever style came to mind for each individual song, regardless of how it flowed into the next. These are smart guys, so I have to assume there’s a rhyme and reason to this album that isn’t immediately apparent, but the first several listens have been rough going, particularly in the vocal department. Dustin Kensrue’s voice has always been a rough and rugged one, but it feels a bit like it’s starting to weaken here despite his occasional attempts at intensity, and the results aren’t exactly flattering. And that’s not even taking into account the tracks where they get politically preachy (“Buried in the Sun”) or make huge miscalculations about how cool it would be to reference older and much better songs (John Lennon on “The Dreamer”, several possible candidates on “Dandelion Wine”). Then again, I think the opener “The Color of the Sky”, is an engaging, percussion-driven rocker, and “Northern Lights” is one of the band’s better piano-based tracks, so who knows, maybe this album is a grower. Give me a few months and I guess I’ll get back to you on that.

Sufjan Stevens & Angelo De Augustine – A Beginner’s Mind
I was expecting the cringe factor to be pretty high on this one, so I was pleasantly surprised when that turned out to not be the case at all. Usually the collaborations are where Sufjan truly lets his freak flag fly, given how many random one-off projects with artists I’ve never heard of litter his otherwise formidable discography. And the stated inspiration for this album was basically just the two singer/songwriters holed up in a cabin together, watching an odd assortment of horror movies (e.g. Hellraiser III, Night of the Living Dead) and flash-in-the-pan pop culture flicks (e.g. Point Break, Bring It On Again). Each song was purportedly inspired by one of these wildly tonally different films, which had me half-expecting an all-over-the-place hodgepodge of silly ideas. Actually, this thing hews a lot closer to the sound of classic Sufjan than I had anticipated; apparently he and Mr. De Augustine are quite like-minded when it comes to the softer, eerier, more carefully textured side of indie folk. Many of these songs are beautiful in their understated simplicity, and a few reveal meek but stunning layers of sound if you’re willing to listen more carefully. I could hand-pick several favorites here that wouldn’t feel out of place on an album like Michigan or Carrie & Lowell, which is high praise, because that’s the side of Sufjan I appreciate the most. He’s had quite a prolific few years, first dropping the “new age” collaboration Aporia with his stepdad Lowell Brams in early 2020, then blindsiding us with the intriguing but incredibly bloated The Ascension at around this time last year, then daring us to meditate through five entire discs of distressed, wordless ambiance on Convocations midway through 2021. I have tried to keep up and be understanding, but my patience has limits and he’s tried every dang one of ’em, so I can honestly say, it’s good to have Sufjan the folksy singer/songwriter back. (And Angelo by his side, of course. I can’t really tell where one ends and the other begins due to their apparently similar sensibilities, but they clearly work well together.)

Lovebites – Five of a Kind (Live at Zepp Divercity Tokyo 2020)
Normally I’d say you’d have to be a pretty hardcore fan of a band to sit through an hour and forty-five minutes of an unrelentingly loud and energetic live show. But Lovebites actually makes it pretty easy with this live album, which is filled with gargantuan fan favorites from across all three of the Japanese heavy metal quintet’s albums so far (though sadly, due to the performance being recorded pre-pandemic, there’s nothing from the excellent Glory, Glory to the World EP which came out earlier this year). Electric Pentagram had to have barely come out of the shrinkwrap when this set was played, but the fans still seem to eat up a setlist that leans pretty heavily on that record, and I actually think the diversity of song lengths and styles provided by sprinkling in earlier cuts here and there works in favor of keeping this setlist moving along at a reasonably quick pace, ensuring that the onslaught of 5+ minute songs is a tad bit easier to handle than it typically is when listening to one of their albums straight through. (Also, lead singer Asami is downright adorable when she charmingly greets the crowd in her native Japanese, only to switch back to English for the classic metal move of screaming the title of your next song as excitedly as possible: “RAISE! SOME! HELLLLLLLLL!”) The timing of this release (and their forthcoming best-of with tracks voted on by the fans) is somewhat bittersweet, as bassist and founding member Miho recently decided to part ways with the band, leading them to declare a hiatus while they search for someone to fill her shoes. Normally bands can swap out a bassist or a drummer without anyone even noticing, but all five of this women are so monstrously talented that I’m sure it’ll have an effect on the composition and character of their songs one way or another. So this is the end of an era for Lovebites, even if it’s not the end of the band by any means. It’s certainly a good time to document what the band sounded like when all five of them were in perfect sync, systematically pummeling everything in their path.

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