What Am I Listening To? – November 2017

2017_CircaSurvive_TheAmuletCirca Survive – The Amulet
It’s easy to characterize this as a “softer” Circa Survive album, simply because Anthony Green is doing more melodic stuff with his vocals and less screaming. There’s still some heaviness there, but not every song needs it, and in scaling back the roughness, it continues a pattern established by their last few albums. I’m OK with this, as it leads to highlights that are still fast-paced and beautifully performed, such as the gorgeous vocal performance in opening track “Lustration” and the complex drum rolls and math-y rhythms of “Tunnel Vision”. Where Green brings out the angrier, more acidic side of his voice, as on “Never Tell a Soul” or “Rites of Investiture”, it’s a welcome change of pace rather than it being an overbearing thing that has to happen in every song like some harder rock bands feel the need to do. It’s an evolution similar to Thrice about 10 or 12 years ago, and it’s no mistake that the two bands recently toured together. I will say that I have difficulty telling a number of the songs apart, even after several listens, due to the similar pace of most of them and the more melodic focus overall, but that also means the results aren’t as uneven as they were on Descensus, which had stronger highlights but was more of a mixed bag.

2017_Owel_LiveFromAudioPilotStudiosOwel – Live From Audio Pilot Studios
10 of the 12 tracks from Owel’s excellent sophomore album Dear Me are reconstructed pretty faithfully in a “live in studio” setting here, with non-album track “All I’ll Ever Know” squeezing its way into the set. (Sadly, “Annabel” and “Places” don’t make an appearance – both were personal favorites of mine.) While there are no radical surprises in these renditions, it’s neat to hear the chimes at the end of “Albert and the Hurricane” segue perfectly into “Slow” (these were the two bookend tracks on the album), and overall I’m impressed at how well the band can pull off their complex and multi-layered sound in a live setting. This must have been recorded before violinist and backing vocalist Jane Park left the band – I hope they manage to find a suitable replacement for her, since her instrument (as well as the keyboards she plays on several songs) is pretty integral to a lot of their work.

2017_RinaSawayama_RINAEPRina Sawayama – RINA EP
Born in Japan and raised in England, this young singer/songwriter unabashedly draws from R&B and teenybopper pop sounds from around the turn of the century. I wasn’t super into this sound at the time, but reviews emphasizing the creative production and interesting themes explored in these songs made me figure it could be worth a listen. I like a lot of it for the same reason I enjoy Kimbra’s music – it’s a smart take on a genre that only works for me when the songs have interesting melodic twists and turns, don’t exist solely to cram an obvious pop hook down your throat, and feel like they have something to say beyond the typical love songs and breakup songs and style with no substance. Rina throws a number of odd curveballs throughout this mini-album – edgy rock guitars, key changes you just plain don’t see coming, a slick R&B duet, some interludes that I really wish had been expanded into full songs, and intriguing commentary on what it means to connect with other humans in the Internet age. She’s definitely one to watch – I hope a full-length album is forthcoming to show us more of what she’s got on her mind.

2017_Tennis_WeCanDieHappyEPTennis – We Can Die Happy EP
A 5-song set from the married duo who so effortlessly made me fall in love with their music on Yours Conditionally earlier this year. Those songs could well be from the same sessions or recorded shortly thereafter – a few show off slightly more dance-y rhythms, but just about any of them would feel at home on the album, making me wonder why they ended up on a separate release in the first place. Opening track “No Exit” is the standout here, but there really isn’t a dud in the bunch, and I love how the Beach House-y closing ballad “Building God” feels like it could segue right back into “In the Morning I’ll Be Better”, completing a 15-song set meant to be listened to on a loop.

2017_Evanescence_SynthesisEvanescence – Synthesis
Evanescence’s long-awaited fourth album is mostly old material, re-recorded with orchestral instrumentation and electronic percussion in place of the heavy guitar riffs and rock drums heard on their previous records. This may be the result of Amy Lee following a personal muse that her old label kept her from following for many years, or it may just be a smart rebranding of a sound that made Evanescence massively famous and then rapidly fell out of favor with mainstream audiences. Either way, while I miss some of the rocking energy of some of the songs from Fallen and The Open Door that made the cut, it’s a second shot at life for several tracks that I had honestly forgotten about from their lackluster self-titled album (most of which sound almost unrecognizable on first listen), and there are two brand new songs and a few instrumental segues to round out the set as well. Taking it all in at once is a bit much, and I don’t think leaning so heavily on old material bodes well for the future of Evanescence, either as a band or a solo act, but it’s nice to hear old favorites given a new creative spark, and one wonders if this might have been the direction Evanescence intended all along, if not for the interference of their label during the heyday of nu-metal. A few of these songs, such as “My Immortal”, “Lacrymosa”, and “Secret Door”, were pretty heavily focused on piano and/or strings in their original versions, which can sometimes mean that there’s not as much to reimagine in these versions. What I really hope for is that this record, which drops the rock side of their sound almost completely, leads to a truer synthesis of the classical and heavy rock sides of Evanescence if/when they actually manage to record again as a full band.

2017_BarenakedLadies_FakeNudesBarenaked Ladies – Fake Nudes
I really wasn’t looking forward to this one. The Barenaked Ladies will probably never get out from under the shadow of departed co-founder Steven Page, and for a while there I was surprised that they kept trying, since the material on Grinning Streak and Silverball was largely inferior, even when compared to Ed Robertson’s material from their older records. I’m not gonna say that this record will bring back old fans in droves, but you know what? Against all odds, it makes me HAPPY. I seriously mean that. Even though the opening ballad “Canada Dry” is a bit of a sad folk song, and several of the other highlights are the more downbeat tunes, I feel like Robertson and co. had stronger inspiration for a lot of these songs. With that said, a number of them are still quite silly and goofy, and they band’s back to a point where it seems they’re not at all concerned with being taken seriously as mainstream rock stars. They’re perhaps prouder to immediately identify themselves as uniquely Canadian here than they’ve been since the early days, rather than trying to blend into to the American hit radio scene, which has had no use for them in a very long time anyway. This disc brings together a lot of their musical influences in unexpected ways, pushing them a little further from the middle of the road that they stubbornly clung to on their last few albums. Kevin Hearn is genuinely coming into his own as a sidekick to Ed – he gets a co-write and/or lead vocal on nearly half of the album, and with a Jim Creeggan track thrown in as well, the band is starting to feel more democratic again, instead of just feeling like the Ed Robertson show. Robertson is better off creatively when he doesn’t have to carry the weight of a record mostly by himself.

2017_Bjork_UtopiaBjörk – Utopia
I honestly don’t know what to do with this one. At over 70 minutes, it’s Björk’s longest album, which is saying something when Vulnicura was already a bit of a gauntlet to get through. While Utopia is a much happier record overall due to Björk apparently being back on the dating scene and experiencing the thrill of new love again, that doesn’t necessarily translate to more up-tempo music. Thumping beats and electronic experimentation still play a role here, but it’s far diminished compared to Björk’s 90s work or even the softer incarnation of it on VespertineVulnicura was a dark record, but it at least had a variety of musical moods, and it felt like it had enough tracks with more anchored melodies and structures to balance out the more spacey, experimental stuff. Here, the first two tracks remind me strongly of Vespertine, and I pretty much instantly fell in love with them, while most of the rest of the album is a long, slow crawl full of trilling flutes and birdsongs and pregnant pauses in the middle of long, spacious songs. Björk’s melodies often reach out like tendrils, seeking hooks that they haven’t yet found, and while I could tolerate that sort of defiance of rhythm and traditional song structure here and there on her past albums, it gets really annoying when she does it track after track here. Despite this being one of Björk’s more easygoing records mood-wise (outside of the few tracks where she rails against her ex-lover and the patriarchy in general, at least), it may well be her most challenging work thus far.

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What Am I Listening To? – October 2017

Lights – Skin & Earth
So I guess this is Lights’ first concept album? The songs are supposed to follow the storyline of a comic that was published online in monthly installments leading up to the release of the full album. I haven’t dug into the comic just yet, so I can only take a guess at what sort of story these songs are telling – perhaps some sort of a relationship saga ultimately leading to betrayal? In terms of sound and subject matter, there’s not much different here from Lights’ usual synth-driven sound, which is always pleasant and youthful in nature, but which only rarely excites me these days. On this record in particular, it’s the rush of the opening number “Skydiving” that does it for me, as well as the more aggressive, guitar-driven “Savage” and the R&B-tinted ballad “New Fears”, the latter of which is honestly one of her most vulnerable and best-written songs. The rest is mostly forgettable, unfortunately – for upbeat dance-pop, it often feels like it’s just not hitting as hard as it ought to, which makes this Light’s mellowest record, if only by a matter of small degrees.

Cool Hand Luke – Cora
I honestly didn’t expect Cool Hand Luke to put out any more albums after Mark Nicks, the sole remaining member of the band, put out Of Man as his farewell release before heading off to seminary in 2011. His first album back, while not as directly Biblical as that stunning study of Christ’s final days on Earth, is an intriguing one, embracing dance and electronic overtones on several tracks, which makes the bass grooves stand out first and foremost on quite a few of them. Doesn’t sound like the kind of thing that would fit an act who has traditionally sung about weighty themes of faith and conviction, but there’s still a bit of rock edge to some of it as well as the expected piano ballads, so this is more of an augmentation of the CHL sound rather than a complete genre-hop. The lyrics in the more “playful” songs actually do manage to justify the experimentation, and ultimately, while this is still more of a record you’d put on to have deep thoughts to rather than to dance to, it accomplishes what it sets out to pretty well.

Marah in the Mainsail – Bone Crown
Once I got used to the extremely gravelly vocals of Austin Durry, I found that I really enjoyed Marah in the Mainsail’s overall aesthetic on their first album, Thaumatrope. Apparently that was a concept album and I didn’t even realize it. Their follow-up is more obviously thematic, with the songs all being about various woodland creatures engaged in a fight for dominance. I love the presence of horns on a few of these tracks – they add a nice dimension to the band’s sound that makes some of the more “battle-oriented” songs feel especially urgent. One of my chief complaints about Thaumatrope was that they had a female vocalist in the band but didn’t seem quite sure how to use her for more than the occasional backing vocal and one track where she sang lead. Here, she plays more directly off of Austin, singing lead on a handful of tracks that feel like they have a reason to portray events from the point of view of a character that needs her voice instead of his. I have some minor issues with the production making some of the softer and eerier moments here difficult to appreciate when you’re not wearing headphones, but aside from that, this is a really solid listen. Throw The Decemberists, The Last Bison, and mewithoutYou into a blender, and you’d get something sorta like this, I guess.

Passion Pit – Tremendous Sea of Love
I’m just gonna say this even if it might be an unpopular opinion: I liked Passion Pit a lot more during that brief window of time (basically their second album Gossamer) when they felt more like a band than a solo project. I can’t blame Michael Angelakos for following his muse, even if he had to let go of pretty much all of his bandmates to do it, and since I appreciate his honesty where issues such as mental health are concerned, I can’t make a convincing argument for why his music should continue to be more commercial and label-driven. As an artist, he’s better off doing what he wants to do without any artificial parameters placed on it. And I admire his decision to release an album largely made up of “first drafts” that he didn’t have to slave over in the studio forever and ever, available free of charge to an audience whose attention he cares about much more than he does their money. With that said, a lot of these songs are even more obnoxious and ineffectual than some of the tracks that were already pushing the limits of my patience on Kindred. You don’t go into a Passion Pit record without having a high level of tolerance for falsetto vocals and a wide array of neon-colored, high-pitched noises. I certainly understand that much by now. But on this one, where a number of the tracks are largely instrumental and based more around sampling than any conventional song structure, it’s an endurance test even for me, despite the album only being 35 minutes long. I can appreciate Angelakos as a man trying to work through personal struggles with his art, offering his life as an open book for anyone who might benefit from listening in. But as a musician, he gets on my last damn nerve.

Derek Webb – Fingers Crossed
Speaking of albums that are endurance tests… I think Derek Webb has officially entered what I like to call “The Father John Misty Zone” with this one. I’ve always been intrigued by what Webb has to say, even if sometimes the music (which is a combination of mostly downbeat folk music and a little bit of electronica) can be a little on the dry side. This one’s got 13 tracks, several stretching past the five minute mark, and it’s over an hour long as a result. Considering the unrelenting darkness and cynicism stemming from some of the worst years of Derek’s life that transpired between his last album and this one, it’s a formidable set of songs that takes a lot of courage for me to even approach. I don’t want to say that this album is solely about the extramarital affair he got caught red-handed in that led to his divorce from Sandra McCracken in 2014 and the apparent persona non grata status he’s had in the music industry he once called home since then, but it clearly informs a lot of the dark days and difficult questions he ponders here. He’s completely uncensored on this one, so if his use of a few mild-to-medium-strength profanities on past albums bothered you, you’re gonna want to steer clear for that and a few other reasons as well. The struggle I have when listening to this one is to what extent I should feel compassion for Derek as he goes through an apparent crisis of faith leading him to wonder if he was never truly one of God’s chosen, or whether those who have criticized his actions and apparently cut off all fellowship with him were doing so in defense of a wife and family whom he wounded very deeply, even though he’s expressed remorse for doing so. It’s good for music to challenge me, so I think it’s worth the effort to try to understand the anguish he’s communicating here (often quite poetically, though sometimes rather harshly), even if I think to some extent he’s sleeping in a bed he’s made for himself, and this doesn’t constitute a believable reason for lashing out at God. I’m not gonna lie – this is a rather soul-crushing listen, and because of that, I’ve only made it through this one twice thus far.

Queens of the Stone Age – Villains
QOTSA is one of those bands that I want to like, due to the heaviness and slight campiness of their sound. It feels like they’re one of the few straight-up rock bands still enjoying a fair amount of mainstream success these days. But for some reason, even when they’re trying to be more upbeat, even a bit dance-y as they are on this Mark Ronson-produced set of songs, the songs feel a bit too stifled, too labored over to truly bust out of their cages and be the menacing monstrosities the band seems to want them to be. I hear some solid riffs throughout this record, some catchy grooves, some interesting math-y rhythmic detours, and the occasional more progressive song structure. Maybe even a few lyrics that amuse or intrigue me here or there. I can’t say any of it’s bad. It’s just that none of it excites me all that much.

St. Vincent – MASSEDUCTION
I can’t decide if it’s just my own personal hangups that make the inherent sexuality in a lot of St. Vincent’s songwriting come across as off-putting, or if it’s an effect she’s deliberately going for. Some might be tempted to label her as indie rock’s answer to Lady Gaga, but I think it’s more a case of both women paying tribute to personal heroes like David Bowie in their music. This album feels more immediately “grabby” in the pop hook department than either of her last two did (though it wasn’t for lack of trying on either of those), and when it works, as on “Pills”, “Los Ageless”, and “Sugarboy”, those hooks stay in my head for days. There’s more of a sharp contrast between the glammy, bouncy rockers and the ballads on this album, with the sad story “Happy Birthday, Johnny” as a standout, and the more piano-driven “New York” being a potential tear-jerker… if only she hadn’t ruined a passionate farewell to the aforementioned musical hero with her repeated use of the big M-F bomb. Sometimes I feel like she’s got something genuinely intriguing to say; at other times I feel like she’s just trying to get a rise out of her audience, and maybe that’s just me still being more of a prude than I want to admit, but it keeps a lot of St. Vincent’s music at arm’s length for this listener.

Kevin Max – Serve Somebody EP
Kevin Max as a solo artist has always been rather erratic in terms of his output, but especially so following his brief stint with Audio Adrenaline, where he can’t seem to decide between two potential personas: “aloof teller of dystopian science-fiction tales” and “straightforward crooner serving up the classics to win back the crowd”. He’s always worn his influences on his sleeve, but perhaps never more obviously than on this EP, where he covers old-school pop and rock songs by the likes of The Call, Mr. Mister, U2, Rich Mullins, Bob Dylan, Larry Norman, and uh, dc Talk. That last one seems a bit self-serving (pun!), but to be fair, “Red Letters” was never even a single, definitely more of a deep album cut that you’d have to be more than a casual fan of dc Talk to appreciate, so I don’t mind him reliving his own glory days with that one, even if it doesn’t sound as powerful without Mike and Toby to back him up. Honestly, none of this is as good as the source material he’s covering, and the rule of cover songs is supposed to be that you either deliver it with at least the same amount of oomph fans of the original would expect, or else you go in a different direction and boldly make it your own, and Kevin isn’t quite daring enough to do the latter convincingly when he tries to, nor does he quite have the swagger to pull off the former, so this EP is a bit of a lukewarm mess as a result. To be fair, I’ve always disliked the Bob Dylan song from which the EP gets its name (and I know it’s sacrilege to bag on Dylan, but bear with me here), and there are two versions of that one here for me to endure – one rock, one Gospel, both rather insufferable. And having one of those right next to Larry Norman’s “Righteous Rocker” only serves to highlight the fact that it’s basically the Jesus Music version of the same lyrical conceit. So those three tracks may be coloring my opinion of the entire thing. Still, even with the songs I initially liked that he’s taking on here, I’d rather listen to the original any day.

What Am I Listening To? – September 2017

2017_EverythingEverything_AFeverDreamEverything Everything – A Fever Dream
I’m kicking myself for not knowing about these guys until they were on album #4. Their highly danceable band of rock with occasional “math-y” rhythmic tricks, falsetto vocals, and politically-charged lyrics brings together a lot of the things I love about bands like Doves, TV on the Radio, and The Temper Trap, just to name a few. This thing shot up to the upper echelons of my “Best of 2017” so far list, and you can probably expect to see it high up in my year-end countdown. (First I need to get a full review of it posted. That’s coming soon… I hope.)

2017_JapaneseBreakfast_SoftSoundsFromAnotherPlanetJapanese Breakfast – Soft Sounds From Another Planet
Japanese Breakfast is the solo project of Korean-American musician Michelle Zauner. Nothing about it sounds particularly Japanese (or for that matter, Korean), but she did start the project with the intent of influencing more Asian-Americans to write and record their own music. Admittedly I stumbled across her music simply because of the name – a friend found it on Spotify when looking for “Japanese” music to play in the background we played a board game set in the country. What her music does sound like to me is a lot of the breathy, meditative indie folk/pop from the 90s – probably the kind of thing that would have piqued my curiosity at the time, but that seems a bit old hat to me now. There are some really interesting sonic textures in a few of the songs, due to her doing something atonal with the guitar, using Auto-tune and spoken word vocals on a song, or bringing in some bits of baroque instrumentation to help set a few tracks apart from the otherwise straightforward, mid-tempo ambient coffeehouse style that seems to be her default. It’s hard me to stay focused throughout this album due to the samey nature of several songs toward the end, and the way her voice wavers back and forth between soft and dreamy and honestly kind of grating.

2017_MuteMath_PlayDeadMuteMath – Play Dead
MuteMath’s fifth album seemingly can’t be talked about without mentioning the abrupt departure of Darren King, a drummer who has achieved almost god-like status among the band’s fans. How well they’ll do without him remains to be seen, but he was a full participant on this album, and any shortcomings here can’t be blamed on Darren or the lack of Darren. This was a more difficult record for me to get into than any of MuteMath’s previous ones – it’s more complex and jammy like Odd Soul, possibly as a response to the more streamlined, radio-friendly Vitals, though you’ll hear some overlap in the sound and mood of both albums since they were being worked on concurrently. What’s tough for me is that while it gives the four players in the band plenty of time to show off, the energy level of Odd Soul isn’t there, which puts it in this weird space where many of the songs are more laid back but they’re not as instantly memorable as previous “chill” songs in the band’s discography. A lot of it’s still very up-tempo, just not as in your face, though there are some surprising moments on both the loud and soft ends of the spectrum. I’m listening to this one a lot and it is gradually growing on me, but it doesn’t seem likely that it’ll hold a candle to their self-titled album or Odd Soul in the long run.

2017_FooFighters_ConcreteandGoldFoo Fighters – Concrete and Gold
This is only the second time I’ve listened to a Foos album all the way through, and the first time I’ve listened to a “conventional” release of theirs that didn’t have every song undergo a completely different writing and recording process in a different studio like on Sonic Highways. So I don’t share the complaints of some fans who say they’re repeating themselves or they’ve lost their way after whatever their last fan favorite album was. All I know is that there’s some heavy stuff here that kicks ass, I’m generally in line with Dave Grohl’s aggressive but likeable attitude on most of these songs, the guest appearances here (Justin Timberlake! Paul McCartney! Some dude from Boyz II Men!) unfortunately don’t add up to much of anything noticeable, and a few of the tracks can get a bit dreary when the band slows down the tempo. A mixed bag of good and mediocre, basically. Overall, I’m enjoying it, but without the central concept piquing my curiosity about the story behind each individual song, it’s unfortunately a bit too tempting to simply pick out the highlights and ignore the rest.

2016_TheNoreasters_RiseThe Nor’easters – Rise
This college acapella group managed to get me hooked on enough of their versions of pop songs I was previously unfamiliar with on their last album Equilibrium, including a gorgeous Justin Timberlake ballad and a pair of Florence + The Machine songs that may well have been the catalyst to get me into that band. Here, the only songs I recognize right out of the gate are the pair of Sia covers that open and close the album, “Alive” and “Elastic Heart”. I adore “Elastic Heart”, and their arrangement here is an appropriately climactic show-stopper, but I’m rather meh on “Alive” and most of the rest of the Sia songs I’ve heard, to be honest. I’m not even familiar with a lot of the original artists on the tunes in between, so I’m pretty well out of my depth in terms of judging how their performances stack up to the mostly R&B/pop-leaning tunes they’ve chosen to cover. I could see this potentially being a catalyst to get me to check out a few of the original versions, particularly “Honeymoon Avenue”. While sometimes I think plucking pop songs from the Top 40 sets up a lead/background dynamic that isn’t the best way for an acapella group to show its range, they do some interesting things with the rhythms and backing “instrumentation” on several of these tracks that help to set them apart from the usual “just lay down a beat and shove a singer up front for the audience to applaud”. (On that note, why the live version of “Runnin'”? The crowd noise is really distracting when this is otherwise a studio project.)

2017_JoshRitter_GatheringJosh Ritter – Gathering
While this one’s a bit less country-inflected than Sermon on the Rocks, one can always expect a rambling roulette of folksy sounds on a Josh Ritter record, with the occasional allusions to old-time religion, various models of travel, and colorful metaphors for a broken heart, and on all of those notes, this one doesn’t disappoint. From up-tempo anthems with a vulnerable side they can only barely manage to hide like “Showboat” to long, haunting ballads like “Dreams” that tell arresting stories, Ritter shows no signs of his creativity waning. And while I may not always understand or appreciate where he takes each individual song, he reminds me many times on this record why he’s still one of my favorite songwriters.

2017_TheKillers_WonderfulWonderfulThe Killers – Wonderful Wonderful
I enjoy The Killers in two modes: When they’re clearly doing something big, cheesy, and just plain fun, as on a lot the dance/synth rock oriented tracks heard on their debut Hot Fuss (and to a lesser extent Day & Age), or when they can pull off convincing ballads that are neither too lightweight nor too bogged down in self-serious theatrics. They walk that fine line better here than they have on any album since their debut, and while only a handful of tracks here are instant love, I’m tracking better with the overall thematic arc of this record than I did with pretty much anything on Sam’s Town or Battle Born. Commentary on what actual manhood means in the 21st century is prevalent throughout, and there are probably enough hints of how Brandon Flowers’ Mormon upbringing clashes with his seedy Las Vegas side to write an entire term paper on. It sounds more like he actually has a story to tell than like he’s trying so painfully hard to convince us he has a story to tell, which is an important distinction that separates some of these new songs from the band’s past work. Flowers is still emphatically not one of my favorite vocalists, but I don’t seem to mind his yelpy, ever-so-slightly-off-key delivery this time around, so that’s a sign of progress as well. Also, “The Man” is such a stupidly addictive single that I’m quite happy to forget “Human” ever existed.

What Am I Listening To? – August 2017

2017_NicholeNordeman_EveryMileMatteredNichole 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.

2017_StephenChristian_WildfiresStephen 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.

2017_GrizzlyBear_PaintedRuinsGrizzly 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.

2017_IronWine_BeastEpicIron & 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.

What Am I Listening To? – July 2017

2017_JenniferKnapp_LoveComesBackAroundJennifer Knapp – Love Comes Back Around
Knapp’s sixth album is a bit more “rock” than Set Me Free was, but in that workmanlike, “heartland” sort of way where the pace of it is more relaxed and the guitars are there to get the job done without too much showing off. There’s the occasional musical bright spot – an earthy guitar solo, a few horns to accent a track or two, a winsome acoustic melody on one of the gentler songs. Unfortunately I’m still rather “meh” about the music overall. I’m excited about the lyrical content, which finds Jennifer digging more into the specifics of what it means to be in a loving, committed relationship with another woman. It’s been strongly hinted at on her past two albums, but never made explicit, and that opens up some new possibilities for her songwriting-wise, while other songs about forgiveness and rebuilding burnt bridges help to ensure it doesn’t ever become the one thing that consumes her identity as a songwriter.

2017_Haim_SomethingtoTellYouHaim – Something to Tell You
I’ve been waiting eagerly for this one ever since I became obsessed with Haim’s debut album in 2014. Some follow-ups take way too long to deliver, but thankfully this one doesn’t disappoint. I can hear a little bit more sampling and interesting use of syncopation as they explore their R&B side a little more, while their rock side emerges in the form of a few surprisingly raw moments of guitar solo glory. Still, this is a pop record at its heart – one which shows some growth in places, but falls back on repetitive choruses and melodies that don’t push themselves quite as much as they could in others. I’m still slightly partial to Days Are Gone, but I’m glad they tried a few things here that they hadn’t thought to the first time around.

2017_Coldplay_KaleidoscopeEPColdplay – Kaleidoscope EP
I don’t think the release of an EP deserves nearly as much hype as Coldplay built up for this one, by releasing nearly all five of its songs in some form ahead of time, and by pushing back the release date a few times. I think there’s been more buzz about this than a band’s usual between-album leftovers project simply because Chris Martin has talked about A Head Full of Dreams, to which this EP is a companion piece, as though it might be their final full-length album. There are some interesting ideas here that both recall Coldplay’s old days as well as suggesting some possible routes forward, both for good (see the off-kilter syncopation of “A L I E N S”) and for bad (see their unfortunate Chainsmokers collaboration “Something Just Like This”, which sounds even stupider presented as a live version here). But I’m a bit worried about the prospect of Coldplay becoming a “singles band” that releases material in a piecemeal fashion. When they pull a collection of songs together in a way where the sum means more than the individual pieces, as they did on Viva la Vida, they can be truly transcendent, but lately they seem a bit too preoccupied with having these massive stand-alone songs that capture the cultural zeitgeist, and considering themselves failures if a single falls short of that.

2017_Radiohead_OKComputer_OKNOTOK19972017Radiohead – OK Computer OKNOTOK 1997 2017
For the 20th anniversary of OK Computer, Radiohead re-released it with a second disc full of lost songs from the era, a few of which had been played live and made their way into fandom folklore, but had never seen official release on a studio recording for now. (There’s also a box set with some other goodies for the diehards. I’m just listening to the standard edition on Spotify.) OKC is my absolute favorite Radiohead album, which feels like one of the few things I have in common with a lot of Radiohead fans, and I didn’t even think it needed a remaster to be honest, because I don’t think there were any technical limitations at the time holding it back from achieving its full potential. But in listening to this version, I do hear occasional bits of instrumentation pop out that I hadn’t noticed as much in the bazillion times I’ve listened to the original release since I first got into the band circa 2001. The new songs and lost B-sides aren’t really doing as much for me – I would say it’s because I don’t have the personal history with any of those songs that some fans do, but also there isn’t as much thematic connection between any of them, which was the big draw for me on OKC (even though Radiohead swears up and down it wasn’t meant to be a concept album). You’ll probably like a lot of these tracks more if The Bends was your favorite era of Radiohead, since several sound like the direction they could have taken that sound before they decided to take the more introverted and progressive turn that make OKC such a landmark album.

2015_POD_TheAwakeningP.O.D. – The Awakening
I’m a bit out of the loop where P.O.D. is concerned. They put out a new album in 2015 that I didn’t even know about until just recently; back then I was actually really enjoying the acoustic SoCal Sessions album they’d put out the year before, which emphasized the actual musicality of the band over pure bravado and heaviness, and gave me hope that there might be some creative juice left in the band. Turns out they funneled that creative energy into a hilariously bad concept album, during which the spaces between every single song are filled with sound bytes and painfully stilted voice acting meant to portray some sort of a redemptive story arc. The music mostly follows this story, but occasionally veers from it to give us the typical “P.O.D. pumps up their hardcore fans” type anthem that makes me wonder if they’re still mentally trapped in the year 2002. (Skillet’s Rise isn’t a bad comparison in terms of the album’s structure, though from what little I remember of that subpar album, it was more tolerable than this.) A few tracks show signs of artistic growth, but for the most part this album is a cringe-inducing trainwreck – easily the worst thing I’ve heard from them since the pre-Satellite days.

2017_JohnReuben_ReubonicJohn Reuben – Reubonic
John Reuben was always a bit of an oddity in my music library, since I don’t normally listen to rap. My reason for liking him had nothing to do with him being a white rapper – I just found that, as goofy and self-deprecating as his music could be, he actually had some solid commentary on the commercial aspects and skewed political priorities of the Christian music industry in which he came to realize he was a square peg in a round hole as the years went on. He pretty much fell off the map after the lackluster Sex, Drugs & Self-Control in 2009, but now he’s back with an edgier album that was surprisingly likeable for me right out of the gate. Usually I think Reuben’s songs are weird and awkward at first, and then some of them grow on me over time. But I think he hit just the right balance of accessibility and experimentation with this one – and some of his more challenging lyrics are bound to shock and confuse the old CCM fans who still expect some sort of a Toby Mac protege, which gives him some real bonus points in my book. This might just outdo his previous career high point, Word of Mouth, but it’ll take a few more listens for me to be sure of that.

2017_ArcadeFire_EverythingNowArcade Fire – Everything Now
While Arcade Fire’s fifth album isn’t as much of a startling change-up as Reflektor, the mish-mash of disco, reggae, and electropop influences is still a large part of their music as it was on that album, which will leave some fans of their older work wanting due to the lack of “old-timey instruments”. But commenting on the excesses of pop culture, the more streamlined, danceable, instant-gratification sort of sound makes sense. Consider it their equivalent of U2’s Pop, I guess. I really enjoy most of what I’m hearing here, and I actually don’t mind Win Butler’s fervent, kinda-preachy vocals now that I’ve had all these years to get used to the band’s shtick. I relate to a lot of what they’re trying to communicate here. Still, they kind of went off the deep end in terms of repetition, with a few songs full-on repeating themselves in different musical contexts on almost identically-named tracks. And perhaps one too many choruses that get a bit redundant and make otherwise digestible-length songs feel like they go on for a bit longer than they really need to. Still, this album is an emotional gut-punch where it really counts, and usually they’ve had to accomplish that by way of songs that take several listens to grow on me. So either I’m used to the learning curve by this point, or Arcade Fire’s finally found that sweet spot in between challenging and accessible.

What Am I Listening To? – June 2017

2017_FleetFoxes_CrackUpFleet Foxes – Crack-Up
Fleet Foxes’ first two albums made an instant fanboy out of me. Then they went on a long hiatus. Now they’re finally back with an album that is much more intentionally disjointed and sprawling than their past work… and I’m having a really tough time with it. Some of my favorite songs of theirs in the past had complex structures or unexpected moments where the dynamics would shift with little warning, so that’s not the problem per se… but I can’t help remember how, when I first heard of this band, the way they were described to me made me fear that their music would be too lo-fi for my liking. Now that’s actually happened, at least in a few small spots that have a huge effect on my opinion of some otherwise grandiose songs, and I just don’t ever want to have that many moments in the middle of a single song where I keep having to turn the volume up and down, or when a singer known for a gorgeous voice stacked with backing harmonies aplenty decides to show off his croakiest and most atonal side instead. This isn’t a terrible album – “Kept Woman”, “Cassius”, and “Fool’s Errand” stand among the gorgeous highlights, and I enjoy some of the more climactic moments in the longer songs. But overall, it’s the first album of theirs that I’ve had a difficult time getting truly excited about.

2017_TheSecretSisters_YouDontOwnMeAnymoreThe Secret Sisters – You Don’t Own Me Anymore
While it’s less up-tempo than Put Your Needle Down, which got me into this country duo back in 2014, the sparser sound of this record keeps the ladies’ vocals front and center, as they should be, while retaining the sadness and occasional sinister edge that lurk beneath their otherwise sweet, sisterly harmonies. (Just check out “Mississippi”, the murderous perspective-flip on their previous song “Iuka”. Yikes.) I’m glad they had Brandi Carlile to go to bat for them even when their old label lost interest and they got embroiled in a lawsuit with their former manager. Just the fact that The Secret Sisters are still making music is a sign that they’re stronger than a lot of bands that get chewed up and spit out by a heartless industry.

2017_Matisyahu_UndercurrentMatisyahu – Undercurrent
There’s this weird design aesthetic that seems to happen when R&B, hip-hop, and/or reggae artists go independent that makes it hard to tell the difference between their album covers and poorly Photoshopped fan art from someone’s favorite online RPG. I suppose it’s a decent enough signifier that Matisyahu is well past caring how mainstream-friendly his music is (or how pure it sounds to reggae fans, etc.) This album continues a trend heard on 2014’s Akeda that finds a number of the songs stretching out into free-form jams, with a bit of Matisyahu’s oddball beatboxing here and there. This time around it was deliberate on his backing band’s part – they just wanted to take these songs where they went and not give a damn about the time constraints of potential radio singles. These rather long-ish tracks (topping out at 14 minutes on the grand finale) are proving to be tough for me to digest, despite there being only 8 of them. But let’s be honest: Youth was an outlier, so I don’t fully expect to click with most of what he’s decided to do after the brief fluke of mainstream success that happened to come with that album and Light. This just isn’t a guy who panders to my sensibilities. In a way, I have to respect that.

2016_UmphreysMcGee_ZONKEYUmphrey’s McGee – ZONKEY
A jam band with so many influences spanning from classic rock to modern R&B could probably record a covers album in their sleep. But Umphrey’s went the less traditional route and decided to make studio versions of some of the “live mashups” they’d been performing at their Halloween concerts every year instead, which gives us such bizarre revelations as Radiohead’s “The National Anthem” colliding with Beck’s “Loser” and Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight”, or MGMT’s “Kids” syncing up in terrifying perfection with Nirvana’s “Come As You Are” and then later melting into Dead or Alive’s “You Spin Me Round” for no reason other than that it sounded cool. This is an absolutely ridiculous (or more appropriately, redonkulous) concept, and probably one with limited replay value, but I have to admit I get a kick out of most of these Frankensteined songs. Kudos to the band for having such stylistic breadth that they could do most of this with live instrumentation instead of simply by chopping up and remixing existing recordings.

2016_MattWertz_GunShyMatt Wertz – Gun Shy
Every now and then I discover that Matt Wertz has a “new” record out that’s like a year old by the time I actually get to it. And every time he gravitates farther away from his old acoustic singer/songwriter shtick and closer to full-on throwback pop nostalgia, with a little bit of white boy R&B on the side. It’s not a stylistic choice that gives his songs a lot of staying power, but they’re good for a bit of lighthearted summer fun, and that trend definitely continues here. The hardest-hitting stuff is mostly front-loaded, with the album falling into predictable patterns later on, with only the occasional highlight standing out in the album’s midsection… which for me is par for the course with Wertz’s albums, I guess.

2017_AltJ_RelaxerAlt-J – Relaxer
Alt-J sure went from a band I was super excited about to one I could hardly stand in record time. The fascination with understatement that the band pursued on most of their second record This Is All Yours is even more dominant here, which reveals some interesting slow grooves at times, but for the most part just tries my patience. The few upbeat moments seem to be harsher on the ears (and in the lyrical department) than I remember Alt-J being in their early days. Either way, I just can’t seem to win with these guys, which is a shame, because An Awesome Wave did such a good job of balancing the catchy stuff with the weird stuff with the quietly sublime stuff, and the band just seems to have become increasingly off-kilter ever since.

2017_Evanescence_LostWhispersEvanescence – Lost Whispers
This is mostly a collection of the B-sides from Evanescence’s three studio albums thus far. I’ve already heard most of these, and since they were mostly cut from the same cloth as the album tracks they weren’t deemed worthy of appearing among on hose releases, this collection is unsurprisingly rather forgettable. The surprising part is how ballad-heavy this disc is, and while I remember liking such unique touches as the sweet vocal layering on “Missing” and the harp on “Secret Door”, I’m not sure stringing several such tracks together presents any of them in the best light. Even coming from someone who thought Fallen was a blast, I have to admit that Amy Lee’s fatalistic melodrama gets old fast. The big draw for longtime fans is probably the remake of “Even in Death”, the lone refugee from their independent album Origin that didn’t get a big-budget reworking for Fallen but that continued to crop up in the band’s setlists after they’d decidedly left the rest of Origin in the past. (Pity; I rather liked Origin. Though it may have been a collection of demos, it showed way more stylistic diversity than any of their major-label efforts.) How is “Even in Death” reimagined here? As a piano ballad, stripped of the quirky electronic sounds and the dissonance that made it intriguing in the first place. Sigh. It’s like Evanescence is doing everything in their power to remind me that any fascination I once had with the band turned out to be rather shallow. They apparently have a new album due out later this year which promises to change things up… I won’t hold my breath.

2017_Mae_MAEMae – (M)(A)(E)
Mae has yet to release any actual new music (at least that I’m aware of) since reuniting a few years back. However, they’ve reissued their independently released 3-EP set, which was the last thing they did in 2009-10 before their hiatus, and that set, particularly the (m)orning EP, remains my second favorite work of theirs after The Everglow. I’m re-listening to it now because I noticed it had cropped up again on Spotify after the original EPs went missing. I’ve observed that they’ve cleaned up some of the messiness in the tracklisting by shortening or omitting some of the interludes, and merging most of them into the surrounding tracks for continuity. (m)orning is mostly intact, with only its final interlude “(m)orning Drive” missing; the “Good (a)fternoon” intro from (a)fternoon is also gone, making for a smoother transition from “Night/Day” into “Over & Over”. The latter of those two seems to be the only song to get significantly changed in the remaster, as its ending jam session is completely gone, as if the band had reconsidered their original decision to extend the track and decided it needed a radio edit, which is slightly disappointing. Elsewhere, the long interlude “(a)fternoon in Eden”, which was literally just several minutes of crickets, has been mercifully shortened to just a brief outro as “Communication” fades out, the intro “Good (e)vening” has been merged into “Bloom”, “Sleep Well” is now combined with its outro “Good (e)vening” (which makes sense because they really should never have been separate tracks), and the piano instrumental “Seasons” has been moved to the end of the project so that it doesn’t interrupt the flow of the (e)vening section as much. New listeners probably won’t notice or care about any of this, except that it makes the listening experience a little smoother where it could occasionally be frustrating on the original EPs. So this is an improvement overall. Regardless, the songs on this set were always high quality, and while the remaster brings out some vocal or instrumental bits that I hadn’t noticed before, this isn’t so much a radical reworking of the project as it is an opportunity to re-introduce it to new fans, or to folks who lost track of the band when they were no longer on a label.

What Am I Listening To? – May 2017

2017_FatherJohnMisty_PureComedyFather John Misty – Pure Comedy
I really try to listen to a record at least twice before even offering an initial reaction to it in this monthly column. But sometimes working up the courage to go back for that second listen can be a real challenge. I knew enough about Father John Misty (aka Joshua Tillman, former drummer for Fleet Foxes and a solo artist in his own right even before that) to realize that his third album under this name probably wouldn’t be my cup of tea, but there was so much discussion surrounding this record, making it clear that he was discussing subjects that interested me, even if I didn’t necessary agree with his conclusions, that I felt like I had to hear for myself what folks were talking about. I can’t recall a time when I’ve ever had as strongly favorable a response to an artist’s lyrical prowess and yet as negative a response to the style of music they perform. Tillman seems to be a “three chords and the truth” kind of guy, maintaining a very simple light folk/rock backdrop on most of these tracks, centered around non-flashy piano or acoustic guitar, with maybe some background ambiance or other instrumentation, but with every song designed to put the lyrics front and center. I admire this in theory, but in practice, it takes otherwise fascinatingly written songs and makes them dull as dirt to listen to. Tillman has a strong, emotionally compelling voice, and he pretty clearly wants to get his point across – whether it be on the subject of religion viewed through the lens of mankind’s innate greed, or the charades of the music industry he’s become disillusioned with, or the impending doom of the planet due to the our greed and inability to coexist peacefully – without the instrumentation getting in the way. At times I feel like I’m getting lectured for being selfish enough to expect the music to actually entertain me – and the irony is that I’d be fine with this subject matter in a non-musical form, such as poetry or a podcast. Most of the tracks are just so long and slow that it takes a lot out of me to listen to more than a few of them at a time. He’s clearly made a statement with this one, but it gets to the point where the bold statement is diluted by the sheer length of time (ten or thirteen minutes on a few tracks, mostly repeating the same simple chord structure over and over again) that it takes to make it. There’s no doubt that the man has talent, but I feel like he’s making the assumption that anything more interesting in the performance department will cause listeners to ignore the lyrics – and I’ve personally got more than enough room in my brain to pay close attention to both when an artist tries not to compromise on either side of that equation.

2017_SylvanEsso_WhatNowSylvan Esso – What Now
I’m struggling to figure out whether the evolution of this electronic duo’s sound from their debut makes them truly next-level (as the sounds and samples used are often surprising), or this is a step down from their debut because the song structures get so repetitive and the lyrics are largely stuck on self-referential “singing about making dance music and dancing to that music”. There’s definitely some catchy and occasionally edgy stuff here. But song-for-song, I think I prefer the band’s self-titled debut. Nothing here is hitting me quite as hard as “Hey Mami”, “Play it Right”, etc. did after the first several listens.

2017_Feist_PleasureFeist – Pleasure
It’s interesting that Feist and Sylvan Esso both put out new albums on the same day in late April, with cover images where I can’t quite tell what the character pictured is doing. Leslie Feist and Amelia Meath from Sylvan Esso have a fair amount of vocal similarities and have even toured together in the past, though musically they couldn’t be more different. Feist is nominally “indie rock”, with a very bare-bones approach that often accentuates her delicate vocals and makes it surprising when the few louder moments leap out of nowhere. I tend to appreciate specific moments in her songs more so than the full songs, and that trend might be even more pronounced on this album, which I certainly didn’t expect to have anything as immediate as her breakout hit “1234” on it, but there aren’t even songs that grab me like “The Bad in Each Other” or “A Commotion” did on Metals. This is a very sparse record for the most part, with some interesting background sounds and stylistic choices here and there, but honestly, listening all the way through it is proving to be a bit of a chore for me. I just don’t think I’m really part of the target audience for this one.

2017_LinkinPark_OneMoreLightLinkin Park – One More Light
I’ll happily defend Linkin Park’s right to change their sound on every album. They can’t keep repeating their old sound, despite how much their old-school fans might diss them for not being as good nowadays. All of their albums from Minutes to Midnight onward, despite how uneven a few of them may have been, have had really interesting experiments that stand among their best work precisely because they sound nothing like my old favorites from Meteora and Hybrid Theory. There have also been some ill-conceived experiments that didn’t work, but at least you couldn’t accuse the band of simply resting on their laurels. This album, though? It’s a change in sound, but the largely electronic, pop radio-oriented balladry found throughout its 10 tracks gets old fast. I feel like they’ve cut and pasted a lot of sounds that were popular on the radio 3-4 years ago – very generic beats, vaguely uplifting but cliched pop melodies, and really not a whole lot that shows the strengths of either of the band’s two vocalists. Mike Shinoda only gets to rap on one track, and while the tracks he sings on tend to be a little better written then Chester Bennington’s, musically they’re among the blandest of the bunch. They insist that guitarist Brad Delson is all over the thing with new and interesting guitar sounds, but if you’re manipulating the sound of the guitar so much that it may as well be another synthesized sound generated on a laptop (and ditto for your drummer, bassist, etc.), then I don’t know why you should even bother calling yourself a band any more. Linkin Park’s done very synthesized things in the past that I enjoyed because they had some energy, or some interesting ambiance, or were different from their surroundings. Here, the music is largely wallpaper. I expect this band to make a few wrong turns per album that really turn me off and force my attention to the genuine highlights elsewhere on the record, but I never expected them to be so consistently boring and middle-of-the-road.