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.

What Am I Listening To? – April 2017

2016_EverythinginSlowMotion_LaidLowEPEverything in Slow Motion – Laid Low EP
This North Dakota band was a recommendation from the same brother who got me into Thrice all those years ago, and much like Thrice circa Vheissu, these guys seem to be in a transition period between post-hardcore and a more melodic, but still heavy, approach to modern rock music. While I think they’re still in search of a sound that truly sets them apart from some other bands in the genre, they do show potential on songs like “Coma”, which moves effortlessly from up-tempo anthem to heavy breakdown, or “Runaway”, which shows off some more progressive time signature and tempo shifts, particularly with its doom-y slowdown at the end. (Hey, the band has to live up to their name somewhere, right?) I’d like to see how this approach translates to a “full album” listen next time these guys put out an LP, but for now, this is an interesting first taste.

2017_TheNewPornographers_WhiteoutConditionsThe New Pornographers – Whiteout Conditions
The first New Pornos album without Dan Bejar streamlines their sound quite a bit. This is a lean & mean power pop record, much heavier on the keyboards than their past stuff, but still full of lively drums and guitars, that never really slows down to catch its breath aside from one or two mid-tempo tracks. It’s a lot of fun, and I love how well integrated the three remaining vocalists (A. C. Newman, Neko Case, and Kathryn Calder) are on pretty much every song, but I kind of miss the experiments and odd detours heard on some of Bejar’s material. Without that, and without any slower tracks to speak of, the album lacks highlights as strong as “The Bleeding Heart Show” or “Adventures in Solitude” or “My Shepherd”, which were some of my favorites on their past records. But this one’s still a fun romp.

2017_Tennis_YoursConditionallyTennis – Yours Conditionally
Tennis’s music might legitimately earn the term “yacht rock”, since the married duo that fronts the band has a love of sailing, which inspires many of their songs even if that’s not what the actual subject matter is about. The carefree, sunny tone of 70s and 80s soft rock colliding with modern-day indie pop is a good starting point for describing their sound, with female vocals that are reminiscent of Nina Gordon or Gwen Stefani in certain places. Think of a less gloomy, more upbeat Beach House and that might help. While the record settles into a bit of a lull of samey-sounding songs after a while, it definitely opens with its best material, and underneath the sugary-sweet vocals and laid-back instrumental work, a few of these songs actually offer a bit of subversive commentary on gender roles, while others are as straightforwardly lovey-dovey as they seem to be on the surface, reminding us that dissatisfaction with how the world defines husbands and wives doesn’t have to mean dissatisfaction in their own marriage.

2017_MichelleBranch_HopelessRomanticMichelle Branch – Hopeless Romantic
The 14 years in between Hotel Paper and Michelle’s latest solo album haven’t been entirely unproductive – I actually really enjoyed The Wreckers’ lone album, and her attempt at a similarly country-flavored solo career on the Everything Comes and Goes EP. But she probably wrote and then ended up having to scrap a good three albums’ worth of material between then and now, due to the extreme cycles of development hell she apparently went through with multiple record labels. She’s got a good arsenal of 14 songs now that she’s finally managed to put a record out, but the bad news is, they’re pretty boring. Her guitar-driven pop style in the old days wasn’t exactly innovative, but it was energetic and fun and occasionally had some real bite to it. A lot of these new songs are keyboard-driven, with weak hooks and limp drums. (That last bit’s extra-frustrating, given that she’s dating Black Keys drummer Patrick Carney, who played on the record.) The first few listens to this one were a real chore. It just seems designed to blend into the background, and that’s not a good look for a comeback album when you’re trying to reintroduce yourself to a fanbase that has probably almost doubled in age since they last heard from you.

2017_FlintEastwood_BrokeRoyaltyEPFlint Eastwood – Broke Royalty EP
The electropop sound I feel in love with on Small Victories has been further tweaked here, adding in hints of hip-hop and R&B influence, a bit of vocal distortion, and a generous helping of triumphant attitude. it’s a fun mixture, but the production gimmicks almost threaten to drown out the songwriting at several moments, making it harder for me to get into a lot of these new tracks, compared to how quickly her old material caught on. For some strange reason, “Glitches” and “Monster” from the previous EP show up again here, without much if anything changed from the original recordings. So you’re really only getting five new songs instead of 7… but those 5 are an intriguing attempt to expand on Flint’s sound.

2017_Incubus_8Incubus – 8
While it’s nice to hear these guys returning to an edgier sound after the extreme bore-fest that was If Not Now, When?, I still feel largely uninspired by this record after my first few times through it. A few of these songs sound like they could have fit on Make Yourself or A Crow Left of the Murder, but I’m not hearing the restless creative energy that was present on albums like Morning View or Light Grenades. I don’t need Incubus to return to an old sound, so much as I need them to continue thinking outside of the box in amusing and intriguing ways. I saw glimpses of that on the better tracks Trust Fall (Side A) a few years ago, which excited me far more than anything I’m hearing on this one.

2017_SleepingatLast_AtlasIntelligenceSleeping at Last – Atlas: Intelligence
The three light-as-a-feather tracks on SAL’s latest Atlas installment attempt to describe the roles that the body, heart and mind play in the human experience and in our decision-making process. As usual, it’s pretty stuff but I’m not hearing a lot of new ideas. The light electronic undertones of “Mind” probably make it the most interesting track; it contrasts nicely with the expected sentimentality heard on “Heart”. I guess at this point all Ryan O’Neal has left to finish is the 9-song Enneagram suite, and Atlas: Year Two might actually stand a chance of being wrapped up within the span of two years.


John Mayer – The Search For Everything

It’s been a full decade since I last considered a John Mayer album to be tolerable. I hated Battle Studies and was largely indifferent about the two laid-back acoustic records that followed. The Search For Everything feels like John’s acknowledgment that he can’t escape the mainstream; while there are some folksy tracks here and even a country influenced one, he mostly returns to the lightly bluesy pop of Continuum. The results aren’t terribly exciting, but they also aren’t terrible. The two things that make it hardest for me to engage John Mayer’s material these days are that his reputation as a guitarist far exceeds the actual talent displayed on his records, and his reputation as a womanizer with a big, stupid mouth makes it hard to sympathize with his songs of lost love and loneliness. That’s mostly true here, though a few moments of vulnerable soul-searching, most notably “In the Blood”, have managed to catch me off-guard.

Mew – Visuals

Mew cranked out a follow-up to 2015’s + – faster than they ever have to any of their previous albums, and superficially, it feels a lot like a companion to that album at first, to the point where I actually forgot that guitarist Bo Madsen had left after that one, because most of these songs could easily co-mingle with tracks from that album and a lot of us would be none the wiser. There’s nothing epically long here, which might be a first for Mew, but the surprisingly heavy opening riffs of “Candy Pieces All Smeared Out” and the uniquely tropical feel of “Twist Quest” serve as strong reminders that Mew is still very much in exploratory mode. This just came out a few days ago, and I’ll need a few more concentrated listens with headphones to really let its intricacies sink in, but I like what I’m hearing so far.

What Am I Listening To? – March 2017

2017_EdSheeran_DivideEd Sheeran – ÷
I made the obvious joke when this album first came out that critics would be strongly divided over it. Har har. But I have found that there’s a pretty strong “love it or hate it” factor to a lot of Ed’s genre-hopping here. X already felt like a bit of a compilation of “Here’s all the different styles of music Ed likes to play around” with; this one’s even more so, with his occasional rap breaks and even a bit of Celtic influence showing up at times among the more conventional, guitar-based, singer-songwriter fare. I’m frustrated with this one because my favorite musical moments tend to be paired with some of Ed’s more hedonistic lyrics (the guy sure sings about drinking and sex a lot, even while he’s trying to remind you life is about more than these things), and the better songwriting tends to show up in the more subdued songs. “Dive” is the one track so far where I feel like he hits the mark on both music and lyrics. His vocals on that song (as well as a few others) are just incredible. But then there’s a string of tracks in the back half of it that make up for it by being poorly written and not terribly interesting to listen to. So yeah, it’s a rough ride.

2017_TheShins_HeartwormsThe Shins – Heartworms
The Shins have this pattern of tantalizing me with some of their most intriguing, rhythmic material at the front of an album, and then settling into predictable indie pop patterns midway through that they never really recover from. Broken Bells has that problem too, but so far, both of their albums are more consistent than anything I’ve heard from The Shins. I just can’t bring myself to get excited about most of this record, despite James Mercer trying his best to give every song a distinctive sound and his vocals generally being a delight to listen to. The end result I end up remembering little bits of songs more than I end up remembering the actual songs as a whole. That’s usually not a good sign.

2017_ValerieJune_TheOrderofTimeValerie June – The Order of Time
Valerie June’s mixture of R&B/soul with rootsy southern elements was really interesting to me on her last album, Pushin’ Against a Stone. I didn’t like everything about that album, but it was an interesting window into a few genres I don’t normally listen to, so I felt like I wasn’t properly equipped to form a strong critical opinion on it. That’s probably even more true with this album, which puts a lot of Valerie’s more downbeat material front and center, saving the barn-burners for later in the album. I understand that it’s more about expressing a feeling than it is about instrumental prowess. But a lot of this record feels repetitive to me, and I also find myself getting annoyed with her vocals more often than I can remember being a problem on her last record. I’ll give it a few more tries, but I’ve got the sneaking suspicion that I’m not the intended audience for this one.

2017_JescaHoop_MemoriesAreNowJesca Hoop – Memories Are Now
I had never heard of Hoop until her collaboration with Iron & Wine’s Sam Beam on last year’s Love Letter For Fire, which was an underwhelming record that had a few charming standouts nonetheless. It seemed that the collaboration between two wildly creative artists ironically boxed in both of them. Jesca’s solo material, at least on this record, seems rather sparse, full of unusual instrumentation but often only lightly adhering to a steady rhythm. It’s not quite as out there as Joanna Newsom, but it’s headed in that direction. I can appreciate the imaginative approach she takes with her lyrics, particularly in the eyebrow-raising closing track “The Coming” where she describes a loss of faith over a brooding six minutes. This album will probably reveal more surprises to me as I dig more carefully into its nooks and crannies. But the first few listens were a bit of a struggle for me to get through despite there only being nine songs.

2016_LewisDelMar_LewisDelMarLewis Del Mar – Lewis Del Mar
Since Lewis Del Mar (which is a duo, not the name of an actual guy) was first described to me as indie rock with a Latin twist, I initially pictured something like Trails and Ways. That picture immediately dissolved when I heard the fuzzed-out, chaotic bass and drums that open the record, the kinda-raspy but soulful vocals of lead singer Danny Miller, and the collages of conversation and found sound that creep into the gaps in several of their songs. There’s definitely some Latin influence there, particularly in the convergence between the acoustic guitars and the syncopated beats, but there’s a restless experimental tone to much of this record that brings to mind groups like TV on the Radio or As Tall as Lions. I suppose you could throw in a little Vampire Weekend, since that’s everyone’s favorite go-to comparison when tropical rhythms make their way into indie rock music. But Lewis Del Mar won’t be easily mistaken for any of those bands. Sometimes their approach is a bit disorienting, but I like the “never know what you’re gonna get” aspect of this album, and it’s probably the one I’ll keep coming back to the most out of anything new that I gave a try this month.

What Am I Listening To? – February 2017

2017_elbow_littlefictionsElbow – Little Fictions
Album #7 is a bit more of an upbeat one for Elbow. Guy Garvey just seems to be in a happier place in his life, and despite the loss of drummer Richard Jupp, the band seems to have taken great joy in constructing rhythmic loops that drive a number of these otherwise minimal songs. Nothing here strays all that far into aggressive rock territory, but as dreamy Britpop albums go, this is one of the band’s finest, and the first three tracks in particular are pure velvety goodness – some of the most accessible stuff to come out of Elbow in a while, actually.

2017_eisley_imonlydreamingEisley – I’m Only Dreaming
I had really guarded expectations for this one after learning that only one of the three DuPree sisters who founded Eisley remained in the band. Their sisterly harmonies laid down thick on a bed of dark-but-dreamy indie pop were the band’s biggest draw. Sherri does an admirable job all by her lonesome, and it’s not like a casual listener could tell her voice apart from her sisters’ anyway, but there’s less piano now that Stacy’s gone, and the guitar riffs aren’t as memorable without Chauntelle. I’d almost consider this more of a solo project for Sherri, if brother Weston and cousin Garron, who fill out the rhythm section, weren’t still an integral part of the sound. Interestingly, male vocal contributions from Sherri’s husband, Say Anything singer Max Bemis, and Circa Survive frontman Anthony Green bring a different feel to a few tracks that turn out to be highlights, and a few other songs venture into more fantastical sonic landscape to offset the otherwise straightforward guitar pop. I probably won’t remember this as one of Eisley’s stronger records, but I like it more than The Valley, at least.

2017_robertrandolphthefamilyband_gotsoulRobert Randolph & The Family Band – Got Soul
Picking on Robert Randolph and his band for their clichéd and sometimes downright embarrassing lyrics is probably missing the point. This is a funky jam band with a steel guitar at its core, and the style of music they play is generally a delight to listen to. Got Soul is simply the band indulging in the delight of live performance, and as with most bands of this type, the studio record’s really just a template for their more exploratory live shows. They bring in a few guest vocalists, as per their usual, and everyone involved seems to be having a blast. But I still have to wince at their hackneyed attempts to be socially conscious in some of their lyrics. I have no issue with the message, but the way they convey it is just… OUCH. It’s one thing when a band knows their lyrics are just there as a placeholder to give a vocalist something fun to do, and another thing altogether when they’re under the illusion that they’re speaking to their audience in some meaningful way. Don’t go in expecting the latter, and you’ll be alright.

What Am I Listening To? – January 2017

2016_phantogram_threePhantogram – Three
You know I’m a sucker for female-fronted electronic acts, right? This duo sometimes reminds me of Metric, if they made more club-friendly bangers and more oddball experimental songs. The beat-heavy singles “You Don’t Get Me High Anymore” and “Same Old Blues” will likely grab most of the attention here, but the exploratory opening track “Funeral Pyre” might just barely edge them both out as my favorite, and I’m also drawn to some of the sample-heavy downtempo moments later in the album. The male vocals come as a bit of a surprise later in the album, bringing to mind Peter Gabriel of all people on the string-heavy “Barking Dog”, and then the next several tracks feature both vocalists, playing them off of each other in interesting ways. The album stays fresh throughout, and really the only thing I can find to complain about here is the total trashiness of the closing track “Calling All”, which is a bit too blunt for its own good.

2016_lisahannigan_atswimLisa Hannigan – At Swim
This Irish singer-songwriter got her start working with Damien Rice before embarking on a solo career. I’d never heard of her until this record, which is a largely down-tempo and intimate acoustic affair, with a hint of a Celtic lilt on a few of the more uptempo tracks, but also a bit of earthiness and smokiness that emerges in her vocals from time-to-time, while at other times she’s as clear and pristine as the still surface of a lake. This combination makes a few of the ballads real hidden gems. I have to be in the right mood to listen to this one all the way through, but when the timing’s right, it’s a thing of sublime beauty.

2016_tomhummer_dystopianbluesTom Hummer – Dystopian Blues
The above two albums were year-end recommendations from the Velocities in Music podcast, which I’ve been following on YouTube for a few years now. Just a couple guys from Iowa who listen to a ton of music and whose personal tastes constantly surprise me. Tom Hummer is one of those two guys, and he’s a recording artist in his own right, now on his fourth album. While his past stuff was already pretty experimental, this album is particularly out there, taking his music in a post-rock direction with almost no lyrics, and only 5 tracks, most of them on the long-ish side. The sound of it ranges from semi-doomy drones to tranquil piano and acoustic guitar pieces, and sometimes one morphs uncomfortably into the other, all of it in deliberate defiance of conventional song structure. (There’s even a recording of Tom as a child talking to his dad that comes up in one track, which brings an odd feeling of innocence and nostalgia to the otherwise challenging musical landscape.) It’s interesting listening to something like this when you know so much about an artist’s personal likes and dislikes, and you can hear bits and pieces of his influences creeping into the music, while at the same time he tries to resist taking those influences in any predictable direction.

2016_timbetold_friendsandfoesTim Be Told – Friends and Foes
Tim Ouyang pretty much is Tim Be Told at this point. I’ve known of the band for a while – piano-heavy sound, smooth R&B-style crooner for a frontman, that sorta thing – but I’ve never listened to one of their albums until now. My church’s senior pastor has been a big fan for a while now, and recently interviewed Tim for the Asian America Podcast, which is what piqued my interest in this particular record. He’s sort of a double minority, since you don’t see a lot of Asian-Americans in this genre, and he’s also a Christian whose music doesn’t fit neatly into the CCM market. On this record, as he deals with the topic of relationships that went sour and his attempts to reconcile some of them, a little bit of brave commentary on the topic of sexuality and gender identity emerges in a few songs, and since these are questions a lot of Christian artists are afraid to ask in their songwriting, I find myself wanting to support him just on principle. Plus the guy’s a really solid vocalist. Having said that, the instrumentation seems a bit sterile and polite given the conflict apparent in some of these songs. That happens a lot with singers in this genre working on an indie budget, unfortunately – but I hope one day Tim hooks up with a producer who can emphasize the balance between pretty and painful that is apparent in a lot of his lyrics.

2017_theflaminglips_oczymlodyThe Flaming Lips – Oczy Mlody
No, that’s not a typo. It’s not Cozy Moldy. Those are Polish words. The Flaming Lips are sort of back to doing dream pop like they were when I first got turned on to them in the early 2000s, but there’s something a bit more aloof and experimental about this album that sets it apart from a classic record like The Soft Bulletin. There are a lot more electronic drums and synths, for example, and the track lengths are more drawn out, not quite to the alienating level that they were on The Terror, but I guess it’s somewhere in between that, their more accessible stuff, and Embryonic. That is to say, it’s a mixed bag with a lot of oddball lyrics on apparently whatever subject matter came to mind. (And Reggie Watts speaking sexily about unicorns… because why the hell not?) I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with the band due to the sense of whiplash I can get as they switch from dreamy to trashy to downright horrifying without warning, and hanging out with Miley Cyrus for a few years seems to have ramped up that tendency (she even makes an appearance on the closing track, “We a Famly”, which surprisingly isn’t as obnoxious as I was expecting). I could probably dig a few melodic gems out of this weird wasteland of words and sounds and call them favorites, but it’s likely not an album I’ll go back to nearly as often as Yoshimi or Mystics.

2017_colonyhouse_onlythelonelyColony House – Only the Lonely
The adult sons of Steven Curtis Chapman front this four-man band whose main goal seems to be rocking out and having a blast without as much of a deliberate agenda as you might expect, given their lineage. Sure, I can hear echoes of the overly peppy, youth-group friendly anthems SCC used to hook me with at the beginning of nearly all of his albums, but Colony House doesn’t just play rock music to try on a different hat every now and then. They’ve got some pretty good chops, and they aren’t afraid to flex their muscles on occasion by changing up the tempo mid-song and going into a heavy, garage-bluesy sort of breakdown that sounds kinda like what Band of Skulls might do in similar circumstances. A few of their songs are still kinda goofy, but I’m impressed at how consistently they manage to keep the energy level up and the songs genuinely engaging, to the point where my favorite tracks actually show up near the end, which is where you’d expect the filler to go on most albums in this genre. It’s the most addictive thing I’ve heard in 2017 thus far.

2016_variousartists_hiddenfiguresthealbumVarious Artists – Hidden Figures: The Album
I don’t normally get into movie soundtracks. But I saw Hidden Figures a few weeks ago and loved it, and I was impressed at how well Pharrell Williams’ original compositions fit into the backdrop of segregated 1960s Virginia. Listening to the songs on their own reveals that the lyrics wander a great deal from the actual plot of the movie, but the songs that were paired with the most iconic scenes in the movie still prove to be memorable when listened to on their own. It has a bit of a “mixtape” feel to it, since Pharrell sings lead on four songs and hands the other six off to prominent female African-American entertainers such as Alicia Keys and Mary J. Blige. (And of course Janelle Monaé. She was actually in the film, so she gets two songs.) My only real complaint here is that some of the odd melodic choices in a few songs can fall a bit flat, and I don’t know that I needed to hear pretty much every style of music from classic soul to Gospel updated with 808 drums all over the place. Besides that, it’s one hell of an uplifting listen.