Nichole Nordeman – Every Mile Mattered
It’s been 12 years since Nordeman’s last solo album, and while a lot’s changed for her personally during her long sabbatical, this record sounds to me like it could have easily followed just a few years after 2005’s Brave. That’s a blessing and a curse at the same time. A few choice songs still remind me that she can be a knockout songwriter when she puts her mind to it, particularly “Dear Me”, a letter to her younger self in which she repents of trying to exclude others from having a seat at the table with Christ. That song hits harder than any adult contemporary CCM track has hit me in a long time. Musically, this is still the largely piano-driven, radio-friendly CCM heard on Brave and Woven & Spun, without a whole lot of risks taken. Aside from a few corny pop tunes that sacrifice lyrical depth for cheap hooks, the lowlight here turns out to be an underwhelming and wholly unnecessary acapella cover of U2’s “Beautiful Day”. She had already covered their song “Grace” back in 2004. She should have left well enough alone.
Stephen Christian – Wildfires
Hey, speaking of Christian music… No, seriously, I’m not just making a pun on the guy’s name. Since Anberlin retired in 2014, the band’s lead singer has found a second career as a worship pastor, and on this album he presents a set of (presumably) worship songs written for that purpose. Not knowing this before I listened made it a shock to the system in the absolute worst way. Christian has hinted at his faith in intriguing ways when writing more open-to-interpretation lyrics for Anberlin – he just doesn’t strike me as nearly as interesting being totally straightforward with almost no mystique to the process whatsoever. Most alarmingly, the music here is infuriatingly generic, only passing as “rock” by the increasingly polished and programmed standards of Christian radio. This might as well be a Newsboys album – (and I don’t even mean one of the good ones from before Michael Tait was awkwardly grafted into the band). Despite Christian’s undeniably smooth and distinctive vocals and some agreeable catchy melodies, just getting through a single listen to this one was really hard for me. Aside from some mildly interesting synth textures on the duet “Atmosphere”, I’m not hearing anything even remotely approaching originality here. I’m not saying I hate this on principle just because of its chosen genre… I’ve heard some rather creative music that fits comfortably under the “contemporary worship” label on several occasions. It’s just that I know Stephen’s a good songwriter, and what he’s written here mostly feels like he’s doing a job to fill gaps in Sundays services. If he wants this to be listenable beyond that context, he needs to try a lot harder.
Grizzly Bear – Painted Ruins
For a band that pretty much knows they’re creating music most listeners won’t like right away, and will need a good five or so listens to fully absorb, I was actually surprised that I reacted rather warmly to this one the first time through. I’ve always had a hard time getting consistently excited about Grizzly Bear beyond a few select songs, since they can be beautifully layered and pull off the slow burn on their way to an exciting climax just as easily as they can seem to meander and go nowhere with their unconventional melodies and hazy guitar textures. But the highlights of their albums are usually fully of bedazzling and beguiling sounds that play best once I have a pretty good handle on what they’re building up to. A divorce seems to have been the impetus for a lot of the lyrics here, but nothing is ever that straightforward on a Grizzly Bear record. Even after a good five listens, I’m beginning to pick out highlights, but I still only have the vaguest of mental thumbnail sketches of what most of these songs are trying to accomplish. Sometimes I feel like that’s the way Grizzly Bear likes it.
Iron & Wine – Beast Epic
If you’re tired of all the clutter and excess instrumentation and overproduction on Iron & Wine’s more recent albums, and you just wish Sam Beam would go back to the simplicity of his early days, then I guess this hushed acoustic record is for you. Personally, I prefer my Iron & Wine in larger-than-life mode. I think I&W does the mellow folk troubadour thing well, too, since it is what he first became known for. But I get diminishing returns from a full album of it, so I’ve had a really hard time paying attention to the details on all but a few of the songs here. The playful “About a Bruise” perks things up a bit, as if borrowing a page from some of the quirkier tracks on Beam’s collaboration with Jesca Hoop from last year. And the following song “Last Night” does some interesting things with the strings, I guess. “Song in Stone” and a few other ballads are vaguely pretty, but in comparison to other low-key I&W songs that stand out to me as personal favorites, nothing here’s quite as arresting as a “Fever Dream”, a “Joy”, or a “Resurrection Fern”. I was kind of hoping Beam was saving some bigger, widescreen compositions to put alongside the more intimate, hushed ballads this time around. But I suspect that with time, I’ll come to appreciate a lot of the songwriting on this record despite the relative lack of musical bells and whistles (in some cases literally) that I’ve come to appreciate on records like The Shepherd’s Dog and Ghost on Ghost.