What Am I Listening To? – June 2018

Wow, June was a crazy month for new music. Probably because there were five Fridays. A bunch of stuff I was looking forward to dropped on June 1, and then again just yesterday on June 29. Because I prefer to have listened to something a bare minimum of twice before mentioning it here, and just for the sake of my overall sanity, I’ve decided to punt a few of those June 29 releases to July, so that I can focus more on the few that I did manage to get to thus far.

Sucré – In Pieces EP
I’ll admit to being somewhat miffed when, after the hype leading up to it on social media, this turned out to be just a 10-minute EP, really more of a glorified single with a couple B-sides, that didn’t even include the earlier stand-alone single “Inside”. See, in the absence of any concrete explanation for why drummer Darren King left MuteMath so abruptly last year, I can only assume he wanted to make Sucré, his project with his wife and former Eisley member Stacy Dupree-King, a full-time gig. To have new material coming out piecemeal like this is better than nothing, but still they haven’t done a full-length album since 2012. The thing is, “In Pieces” is a nice, gooey, string-drenched plea in the vein of their debut album, while those B-sides I mentioned are actually even better than the title track, taking the band’s sound in even more of a percussive and electronic direction with some next-level production. I really hope an album is forthcoming that gives these scattered tracks (and maybe even some of the ones from 2015’s Loner EP) a final home.

Owl City – Cinematic
Owl City’s fifth album is every bit as garish and all over the place as its hastily Photoshopped together movie poster of an album cover. We already knew from the numerous Reel EPs leading up to this album what nine of the fifteen songs were gonna sound like, and a few of those were downright embarrassing, and make no better of a case for themselves in the context of the album, which is mostly a series of personal anecdotes about Adam Young’s Midwestern upbringing and his familial roots in the area. This is the sort of stuff that, if more artfully expressed, would make great little folksy vignettes on a Sufjan Stevens record, but when I listen to Owl City, I tend to expect silly, surreal, synth-laden flights of fancy, and I get relatively few of those here. “Lucid Dream” is a legit highlight that would have stood out from the pack even on the now-classic Ocean Eyes, and “Be Brave” makes a solid case for Young’s ability to succeed outside of synthpop, going for more of a Ben Folds-esque piano rock feel (minus the wit, but believable nonetheless). The rest of it runs the gamut from passable but unremarkable synthpop to some really inadvised forays into bro-country and inspirational pop balladry. 15 tracks of it is a lot to stomach, but it might actually be stronger song-for-song than the disastrous Mobile Orchestra, I suppose.

Neko Case – Hell-On
I love Neko Case’s voice, and her role as the most prominent female voice in The New Pornographers, but her solo material tends to be a tough sell for me. She’s a unique singer/songwriter due to how she structures songs, often eschewing the typical verse/chorus layout in favor of taking a song in a completely different direction to avoid repeating herself, a tactic used on even some of the catchiest, poppiest of the country-rock numbers heard here. She also tends to prefer more garish subject matter, making a few of her lyrics downright uncomfortable, although there’s no denying she approaches them with some serious songcraft. The clear talent that I have to acknowledge is on display exceeds the raw enjoyment I tend to get from listening to her, is what I guess I’m saying. But Hell-On is definitely a stronger record than either of her last two, in terms of both the songwriting and the genre-hopping. The opening run of four songs, from the mystifyingly weird title track up through the addictive single “Bad Luck”, are the clear highlights for me.

Father John Misty – God’s Favorite Customer
Around this time last year, I wrote an excessively long paragraph defending my lack of an ability to properly rate Father John Misty’s landmark recording Pure Comedy. I was long-winded in my attempts to say I admired his songwriting skills, but not so much his long-windedness. I see the irony in that now. Thankfully, this more concise fourth album from Josh Tillman trims a lot of the fat, keeping the lightly psychedelic folk/pop style but avoiding most of the excesses and dirge-like arrangements that made Pure Comedy a test of wills to listen to. A Father John Misty song doesn’t need to be long to provoke profound thinking in the listener, and from his darkly humorous third-person analysis of his own celebrity to some unflinching, uncomfortable vignettes into his own self-destructive habits, I can definitely say that each of these ten tracks is worth dissecting in its own right, even if the music doesn’t always excite me. So far it’s the melancholy ballad “Just Dumb Enough to Try” and the snarky rocker “Date Night” that grab my attention the most, but even the most plodding tracks here have their merits. I look forward to actually being able to rate this one soon.

The Flaming Lips – Greatest Hits, Vol. 1
It’s patently ridiculous for a band that’s been around since the 80s to only now have a “Volume 1” of their greatest hits released, especially when this isn’t even the first such compilation of their work that’s been put out. Still, I guess I have to admire the attempt to split this release into two versions – a single-disc collection of their grabbiest indie pop gems for listeners who are only just beginning to scratch the surface, and a four disc deep-dive for the dieheards who probably already have each and every album, EP, gummy skull, and other bizarro collectible. I’ve just been listening to the one-disc version, which skips their 80s material altogether and starts with early 90s highlights such as “They Don’t Use Jelly”, aruably the song that first put the Lips on the map. I was actually unfamiliar with anything from before The Soft Bulletin, so it’s nice to hear a little taste of what they were like in the 90s, even if my favorite material from the band is still the trio of dream pop albums from Bulletin up through At War with the Mystics. (I’m one of the few dissenters where Embryonic is concerned, but I must say it’s nice to hear “Silver Trembling Hands” again after all these years, without having to wade through 2 discs of jarring weirdness to get to it.) Of their conventional albums from the time period covered, Zaireeka and The Terror are skipped entirely, while a few other nagging exclusions such as “Fight Test” sorta bug me, but I can’t deny that if they had to whittle it down to a single disc, this is a pretty convincing collection of songs. I might check out the 4-disc version at some point, mostly to hear what some of their 80s material was like and to actually go through some more of the highlights from their discography in chronological order, but I can’t say I’m all that enthused to hear 2 discs’ worth of B-sides from a group already known for testing my patience on close to half of their album cuts.

Dave Matthews Band – Come Tomorrow
First I was really looking forward to this one, because it had been almost six years since the DMB’s last studio album. Then I heard the first few singles and I was indifferent. Then I found out Boyd Tinsley was on hiatus from the band and I was truly worried. Then I listened to the album and gradually got over my fears. First of all, Boyd’s been such a minor presence on the last few albums anyway that he may as well have been relegated to a few guest appearances – the band’s core sound is simply no longer dependent on the violin. Second, the lead single “Samurai Cop (Oh Joy Begin)” may seem like a pedestrian radio tune at first, but once you get past the stupid title, it turns out to be a genuinely uplifting song worthy of its parenthetical subtitle. Third, while Dave’s voice has certainly seen better days (as evidenced on the painfully off-key falsetto he whips out in “That Girl Is You”), the album is actually better off due to his willingness to lean into his role as father and elder. it informs the album with a certain sense of maturity… once you get past the handful of songs that are just about horndog Dave wanting to do the one thing that’s always on his mind, at least. There are some subtle intricacies to a few of the deep cuts on this album that make it more rewarding the deeper into it you get. I can’t say it’s gonna win the band a ton of new fans at this juncture, but give ’em credit for still being somewhat exploratory instead of just resting on their laurels after nearly three decades together. As long as nothing happens to drummer Carter Beauford (or, to state the obvious, Dave Matthews himself), the DMB can keep reconfiguring itself all it wants and I’ll probably be cool with it.

Arthur Buck – Arthur Buck
The hook for this newly formed alt-rock duo is pretty simple: Singer/songwriter Joseph Arthur got together with former R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck, and they actually followed through on the age-old “Hey, we should make an album together!” cliche. I’ve been a fan of Arthur’s on and off over the years, more so when he varies his work between the more delicate acoustic stuff and the more acidic, beat-driven indie rock stuff, to keep his creaky voice from getting too grating over the course of an album. Here, it’s almost entirely the latter, meaning that while the array of beats and melodies he and Buck throw together on this record are admirable, Arthur is the dominant force most of the time, with comparatively little room for Buck’s unique guitar style to come to the forefront. When Buck stands out with a solid riff, it easily brings back memories of all those classic R.E.M. records I’ve been going back through over the last few months, and occasionally there’s even a pretty solid solo. But this is really Arthur’s record at the end of the day, with Buck mostly following the lead of the song structures Arthur has put together. The synthesis of the two musicians’ styles is mildly interesting, but it’s also a nagging reminder that Arthur is no Michael Stipe, either lyrically or vocally, and his incessant drum programming is certainly no Bill Berry.

Kevin Max – AWOL
Kevin Max’s solo career has run the gamut from straightforward genre exercises honoring some of his favorite rock musicians, to out-there expressions of the “freak show” persona he brought to dc Talk, unshackled by the trappings of the Christian music industry, to bizarre and ill-advised cover albums, to his more tragically ill-advised stint with a reformed Audio Adrenaline. It’s hit and miss, to the point where I haven’t truly been excited to listen to a new KMax release since 2005’s The Impostor. I was pleasantly surprised to hear an 80s vibe running throughout this album, and while I suppose the obvious homages to The Cure, early U2, and the incessant synthpop acts popular back in those days are nothing groundbreaking, this ends up being the most immediately likeable record Max has done in a long time. Some of the lyrics are still quite strange, but there are also quite a few of them where he cuts the pretense and just straight-up confesses love for his wife, his Irish heritage, and yes, even Jesus. The result is a hell of a fun record that feels more genuine and less gimmicky than any of his previous solo releases.

Mike Shinoda – Post Traumatic
The short, blunt documentary of how Mike Shinoda was personally dealing with the death of Linkin Park frontman and close friend Chester Bennington that came out earlier this year, bearing the same name as this full length album, appropriately became its opening three tracks, with the smattering of singles released since then slotted into a rather generous track listing. This set of songs is unflinching and at times harrowing as Shinoda shares his continued journey of picking up the pieces and not letting one of the worst kinds of adversity get him down, but it’s also melodic and steeped in electropop and rock influences just enough to change things up. For the most part this is still a rap record, and Shinoda aptly demonstrates how much he’s grown as an emcee since the early days, but he also makes a case that Linkin Park could well have come up with more intriguing and cerebral pop music than what they had to offer on One More Light last year. “Crossing a Line” is currently stuck in my head; I’m sure others will follow.

Florence + The Machine – High as Hope
The next set of releases literally came out yesterday, so I’ve been lucky to squeeze in two listens and to even barely start to form an opinion. Keep that in mind when I say that I wish this record was more “Machine” without being any less “Florence”. The fiery-haired frontwoman is at the top of her game vocally and lyrically here, but the baroque rock arrangements of her band seem scaled back, afraid to really burst out of the speakers with the sort of power heard on a “What Kind of Man” or a “Shake It Out”. Early singles “Sky Full of Song” and even the upbeat “Hunger” didn’t bode well from my standpoint – the latter was sort of upbeat but lacked the musical masterstroke needed to really drive its message home. There are several delicate songs on this album that I would say need delicate arrangements to get their point across, but there are also several moments where Florence is going full steam and her band seems too timid to keep up. Some lamented on How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful that the band was already starting to feel more like a solo project, with the band only there to support the vocalist, and I didn’t quite hear it at the time, but now it’s a huge fear of mine. Despite that, I’m sure I’ll find more personal connections with these ten songs as I listen more deeply.

Jim James – Uniform Distortion
Two Jim James solo album in the space of about a year and a half, and yet no news on the follow-up to The Waterfall that My Morning Jacket supposedly already had some good momentum on when that record came out in 2015? That’s… not a good sign. Still, the MMJ frontman is a bit more engaging here than he was on the rather sleepy and confounding Eternally Even, going for more upbeat, offbeat arrangements in a set of nostalgic and sometimes goofy songs designed with the apparent purpose of showing off as many vintage guitar sounds as he can cram into a single album. It’s one of those records that is deliberated produced in a fuzzy sort of way that makes a few of the arrangements not kick as much ass as it feels like they should, but as always, James knows how to make a simple chord progression really sing when he takes his axe to it. This album feels very loose and unrehearsed, like he just got some dudes together in the studio and banged out these eleven tracks without too much fussing around in the studio after the fact. At several points, he straight up breaks out laughing in the middle of a song, giving it that “I just barely know what I’m doing” sort of charm that, oddly enough, works in his favor. I seem to enjoy James’s nostalgic and metaphysical musings the most when I can tell he’s not taking his own platitudes terribly seriously. They’re just a starting point for some sweet retro rock jams.

Katie Herzig – Delicate EP
This six-song set re-imagines, with an appropriately light acoustic touch, the first three tracks from Moment of Bliss, plus two tracks that are “oldies” by Katie’s own admission: “Lost and Found” and “Wish You Well”, and finally a cover of James Blake’s “The Wilhelm Scream”. I was looking forward to this project after hearing how surprisingly well “Beat of Your Own” worked as a softly hummed ballad, but thus far the other arrangements feel a bit empty – even the remake of “Lost and Found” featuring Sleeping at Last, a nice returned favor from when she helped out on his “Noble Aim” all those years ago. Even with the softer songs on Katie’s albums, there’s usually some sort of intricacy to even the quieter tracks that is being deliberately avoided here, so songs that were already on the mellower side simply didn’t have as far to go, hence my lack of a strong reaction here.


What Am I Listening To? – May 2018

While there’s been a ton of new music to take in during the month of May, I’ve also spent a good chunk of the month listening to old R.E.M. albums as I follow along with Scott Aukerman and Adam Scott’s mind-bogglingly weird and highly entertaining R U Talkin’ R.E.M. Re: Me? podcast, which is basically “season two” of their equally amusing U Talkin’ U2 to Me? podcast. These guys are true music geeks who are perhaps most entertaining when their differences of opinion come to the fore as they dig through every single track of every album in R.E.M.’s diverse and sometimes highly challenging discography. I’m finally discovering the magic in some of the band’s earlier work that I had previously overlooked as “all sounding the same” as a result of this. And I can’t wait for them to get to Reveal, my personal favorite R.E.M. record… though I have my doubts about whether they’ll be kind to it.

Janelle Monáe – Dirty Computer
I had a whole paragraph written out for this one that tried to justify why I was enjoying the hodgepodge of musical styles, but not so much the lyrics, on this album. I deleted it when I realized it was just going to come across as mansplaining, whitesplaining, or heterosplaining something that wasn’t made with me as its target audience to begin with. I like Janelle’s personality and creativity, as both a musician and an actress. I admire her for coming out as pansexual on the eve of this album’s release. I support her endeavor to bring light to injustices and imbalances in American society in the lyrics of many of these songs. But I’ll be honest… despite an attempt to broaden my horizons by checking this one out, this album just isn’t for me. And that’s OK.

Parker Millsap – Other Arrangements
This is a bit of a cheeky title for an album that finds the young, gravelly-voiced alt-country singer exploring more of an electric guitar-based sound than his previous, mostly acoustic records. I think he adapts to it pretty well, though a number of these songs are jarringly short, to the point where a twelve-song album clocks in at just over half an hour. I’d have liked a little more time for Parker to jam with his band on a few of these tracks, especially the more rowdy or blues-leaning ones, but there are still some fun rockers and intriguing ballads here. Nothing quite as monumental as “Heaven Sent” here, but that’s the kind of tune a songwriter is lucky to come up with once in an entire lifetime.

Eleanor Friedberger – Rebound
The former Fiery Furnaces frontwoman continue to bore me on this release by not being quirky enough to overcome the bland tempos and melodies of most of her songs, and not telling compelling enough stories to make the middle-of-the-road instrumentation forgivable. She’s clearly trying to do something unique; it just seems so subdued in light of the avant-garde craziness of her old band. This is a more listenable set of songs than New View, but there still isn’t much of note here beyond the three singles that were released in advance of the album, which are all bunched together in the front half.

Beach House – 7
I slowly came to realize that I was pretty excited for this album to drop – and I kind of surprised myself there, because I’m generally rather “meh” about the overall Beach House aesthetic. But the group ditched some of their self-imposed limitations here, recorded with a live drummer, and made a significant attempt to add more dynamic range to their patented brand of hazy dream pop. The singles “Dive” and “Dark Spring” were what really got me going here, and while none of the deep cuts on the album are quite that exciting, there’s at least a lot of variance to be found in the front half of the album, before they finally settle back into the old Beach House sound for the last handful of tracks. This still isn’t an amazing recipe that keeps me engaged for an entire album, but it’s a stronger collection of songs than anything I’ve previously heard from the band.

A Perfect Circle – Eat the Elephant
I had tried out A Perfect Circle’s Thirteenth Step well over a decade ago when that record was brand new, and it didn’t really take. Since then I had sort of dismissed APC as “Tool-lite”, and I honestly wasn’t even sure I was that big on Tool outside of their landmark album Lateralus. APC’s long-awaited comeback will certainly frustrate some fans by taking a leisurely, baroque-pop approach on several tracks before really getting down to the nitty-gritty with a few hard-rocking singles, but I sort of like that their approach this time around was “expectations be damned, let’s make the music we feel like making”. The best songs here make some really pointed social commentary befitting Maynard James Keenan’s frustration with the Trump administration and the hypocrites who got him elected, and of course I’m on board with that. But there are some darkly amusing tracks like “So Long and Thanks For All the Fish”, which walk a fine line between humor and pessimism, that are really striking a chord with me as well. Not every experiment works here, but this record’s a real grower once you get used to the curveballs it has in store.

Young Oceans – Suddenly (Or the Nuclear Sunburst of the Truth Revealed)
It’s been a few albums since I gave I Will Find You a try, and after a few listens to their latest one, it seems that their reflective, sorta-post-rock vibe has remained intact. It’s the kind of sound that gets the job done – it sets the mood nicely for a meditative session of prayer and/or worship. The lyrics are appropriate to the liturgical setting, and manage to avoid cheesiness and cliches because they’re not trying to show off or shill for radio or get a big party going. So I have no doubt that the group’s intentions are genuine. But the songs still aren’t sticking with me, for the most part. This is a sound that is designed to be subtle, I guess, and I have a lot of respect for this band, but I can’t say that I really engage with their music on the deeper level that it’s quite obviously designed for. That’s an ongoing struggle for me and most worship bands these days, even some of the artsier ones like these guys, so the fact that I’m not deeply critical of Young Oceans’ approach probably makes them one of the better bands in the genre by default.

Umphrey’s McGee – It’s You
I was just about to start on a review of the Chicago prog rock/jam band’s January release, It’s Not Us, when a companion album suddenly dropped. Now I have to rethink everything, because these are apparently two pieces of an intended whole. Or, at the very least, the sessions for that first album were fruitful enough that the band didn’t feel right leaving the excess material on the cutting room floor, and thus it’s collected here. That could make It’s You feel like a B-sides record – and there are a couple tracks that go far enough afield of the established vibe that the two albums, for the most part, share with each other, that I’m tempted to ask if all of this material was truly studio album-worthy. But as always, the group’s breadth is admirable, and here they run the gamut from lovely acoustic instrumentals to guttural hard rock while always putting their exploratory stamp on it. I’ll probably review the two albums back-to-back at some point once I’ve got a better handle on what’s happening here, but no matter how you slice it, 19 meaty new songs (and one ridiculous throwaway interlude) from this hard-working band within the space of just a few months is certainly an admirable accomplishment.

Chvrches – Love Is Dead
While there are a few small surprises on Chvrches’ third album, such as the guest vocals of Matt Berninger on the ballad “My Enemy”, an instrumental track leading into the album’s up-tempo finale “Wonderland”, a little bit of live instrumentation to accentuate the arrangements here and there, or a few tracks with slightly more politically charged lyrics, for the most part the Scottish synthpop trio has stuck to its mantra of “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” And I really like their default sound, so this is not a bad thing, though it can seem a bit rote when that’s what’s going on for most of the album’s thirteen tracks. They’ve trended more and more toward choruses that repeat very simple phrases over the years, which is probably the first big barrier for new listeners and old fans alike to overcome. They had incredibly wordy choruses on The Bones of What You Believe that were still incredibly catchy, so this seems like an unnecessary sacrifice to make just to get a pop song stuck in the listener’s head. Still, I’d be lying if I said that most of those repetitive choruses hadn’t managed to beat me into submission in one way or another by this point. This thing’s barely a week old and I just can’t stop listening to it.

What Am I Listening To? – April 2018

Andrew Peterson – Resurrection Letters, Volume 1
The prequel to 2008’s Resurrection Letters, Volume 2 was released on Good Friday, though Peterson had advised fans to wait until Easter Sunday to take it in, and I obliged his request during a solo walk on that cloudy afternoon. Taking it in for the first time, I found myself wishing I’d listened to Volume 2 more recently, since a number of these nine new songs reference the older ones, and I should probably do a side-by-side comparison before I write the review. The music here is still very liturgical, in keeping with the prologue EP he put out back in February, though since the EP covered Christ’s death on the cross and this one covers the immediate ramifications of his resurrection, the music here is generally more upbeat and anthemic. Opener “His Heart Beats” is an instant classic that may well be to Peterson what “Creed” was to Rich Mullins. A few of the other songs are more conversational, trying to imagine the point of view of various disciples, I suppose, though the storytelling here doesn’t seem quite as strong as it did on the more varied tracks heard on Volume 2. Strangely enough, I’m actually finding that the prologue EP resonates more with me song-for-song than the full album is was meant to set the stage for. But I like the sense of thematic closure that this new set of songs provide, and I think Volume 1 might actually have worked better all together as a 14-song suite, rather than sequestering the first part of the narrative as its own separate thing.

Chatham County Line – Autumn
I’m actually playing catch-up on this one – it came out in 2016, but I wasn’t aware of it until just recently, and as of this writing it is still the North Carolina bluegrass quartet’s latest album. They might push harder into traditional territory than they did on the fairly accessible Tightrope this time around, but I also feel like the group’s lost a little something in the vocal harmony department. The stories and instrumentation are fascinating on several of these songs, and they even employ light humor to decent effect on a few songs to offset the weepy tragedy heard in a few others. But I’m just not as struck by the melodies this time around. Nothing here is hitting me as hard as “Any Port in a Storm” or “Traveler”. Dave Wilson is by no means a bad vocalists, but there are a few moments when his voice doesn’t quite land on a note with quite the amount of power he seems to be aiming for, so a little more backup in that department might have helped this record to be a bit more memorable.

Kindo – Happy However After
The Reign of Kindo is now just known as Kindo (though Spotify has yet to catch up with the name change). The band had been posting quite a bit on their social media page as they released individual songs quite steadily to their Patreon supporters – I’ve never been a big fan of subscribing to a single band in this fashion because I’m way more interested in albums than singles, but they assured us that this was all leading up to their long-awaited fourth album, so I’m glad that the rest of us finally get to hear some of what their hardcore fans have been listening to for a while now. The name change doesn’t come with a radical shift in sound – they’re still making sophisticated, jazz-influenced pop/rock music with a Latin-inspired rhythm section that is at once catchy and complex, often running through several key changes and/or time signature shifts in the middle of a verse or chorus. What’s different here is that they rely a little more on electronic keyboards, giving their sound a unique twist that sometimes helps push it into more experimental territory, and that sometimes sounds a bit cheesy and dated. Song-for-song, I don’t think this set of ten songs is quite as strong as This Is What Happens or Play with Fire, but the singles released in advance of the album, “Return to Me” and “Human Convention”, definitely do a great job of encapsulating Kindo’s attempt to take things to the next level on this album, as do the prog-rock/jam-band overtones of the closer “City of Gods”. A few gentler ballads and slightly more conventional upbeat numbers can be found here and there, but for the most part this is a record that will need to sink in over time. There’s just too much going on here to take it all in at once, and I like that even after rebranding themselves, Kindo is still committed to playing by their own rules rather than taking a calculated stab at radio-friendliness.

The Colorist Orchestra & Lisa Hannigan – The Colorist Orchestra & Lisa Hannigan
This musical collaboration, which seems to be a set of live-in-studio takes in which Irish singer/songwriter Lisa Hannigan reimagines a few of her songs chamber-pop style with a string section to support her, just appeared out of nowhere on Spotify one day, so I honestly have no idea what precipitated it or who The Colorist Orchestra even is. The results aren’t quite what you’d expect – they don’t seem to be aiming for a cinematic, soundtrack-y sort of quality, but instead there’s a lot of plucking and ominous textures coming from the stringed instruments (and occasional other instruments like pianos and even a little bit of synth), ensuring that the atmosphere of these five songs ends up quite different from their original versions. (At least, for the four songs originally from At Swim – “Nowhere to Go” is the lone track redone from an older album of Lisa’s, and I’m not familiar with the original just yet.) I like how these new versions don’t always go where I’d expect, mood-wise, especially in the extended codas of “Fall” and “Funeral Suit”, which were much simpler compositions originally. At the same time, I miss the blissful vocal overdubbing that made a few of these tracks feel special and intimate in their original versions, and if I’m honest, none of my personal favorites from At Swim are represented here – “Lo” might be too upbeat for this sort of thing, but I’d sure have loved a reworked version of “Snow” or “Prayer for the Dying” or “Tender”. I kind of wish there was a little more to this collaboration than just an EP.

Kimbra – Primal Heart
The Kiwi pop/R&B singer’s third record seems to scale back the nostalgia that permeated her first two albums quite a bit. There are probably still some touches of 80s and 90s R&B, dance, and soul music that I’m not picking up on, but a lot of these new songs seem to be more minimalist and beat-heavy, easily revealing the more modern influences behind them. I’m not all that thrilled with this approach, but I don’t hate it either. A few of the early singles like “Human” and especially “Everybody Knows” showed a lot of promise by branching out in directions I hadn’t heard Kimbra go in before, and taking in the album as a whole, I have to say there’s still a fair amount of sonic diversity and experimentation here. Kimbra is more than just a singer/songwriter – she really thinks carefully about the sonic textures that she puts on an album, and how stripped back or densely layered each track should be. So even with the more modern sound, I never doubt that she’s in full control of her art, and is trying to make meaningful music that will last longer than whatever she’d have come up with if pure mainstream appeal had been the only thing on her mind.

What Am I Listening To? – March 2018

Future of Forestry – Union
A fully instrumental album actually seems like a pretty logical progression for Future of Forestry, considering how heavily Awakened to the Sound relied on classical instrumentation. While I’m not 100% wowed by the results, I do think scoring an entire album without the assistance of vocals or lyrics was a worthwhile challenge for Eric Owyoung to take on, and a few of these tracks are pretty magical, in much the same way as a few of my favorite instrumental tracks from Sleeping at Last, or maybe even that Christmas album Falling Up put out a few years back. Things get a bit sleepy in the back half of the record, and I think some of the more enthralling tracks that show up earlier on could have benefited from expanding beyond the standard pop song length if they were already going to break out of the verse/chorus structure. Still, I have to admire that Eric has run the gamut from “worship leader” to “esoteric indie rock frontman” to “cerebral composer” over the course of his career, leaving me with absolutely no idea what he might be inspired to try next.

Katie Herzig – Moment of Bliss
It’s been a long four years since Walk Through Walls, which at the time topped my list of favorite albums from 2014. This album was delayed long enough for singles from it to trickle out over the course of more than a year, so having heard 6 out of 11 songs before the album dropped, I have to admit that finally hearing the rest was a bit anti-climactic. I can’t hold that against another strong collection of quirky, upbeat, and life-affirming electro-pop songs, though. While this collection might not be as strong as her last few albums, I have to hand it to Katie for continually finding small ways to thwart expectations in the middle of a super-catchy pop song, or to do something more intricate and baroque with the arrangements on a few of her deep cuts that reveals a level of depth beyond what you might expect from her most commercial offerings. I’m also proud of Katie for deciding to go public about her relationship with fellow musician Butterfly Boucher when dropping the single “Weight Lifting”. The freedom to finally be oneself that she celebrates in that song carries an even deeper meaning with her coming out in mind.

Lucius – Nudes
There’s a part of me that gets really excited about the prospect of hearing unplugged versions of album cuts from an artist I already know to be seriously talented in both their studio and live arrangements. But there’s also a part of me that feels like it’s a bit of a cop-out to release a hodgepodge of acoustic versions, covers, B-sides, and actual new material and call it an album. Out of ten tracks, only three of these (“Tempest”, “Something About You” and “Until We Get There”) are actually remakes of songs from their two studio albums, and all of those are seriously disappointing compared to the originals. Remaking a song with only acoustic instruments shouldn’t always have to involve a huge drop in the tempo and energy level, you know? Why remake anything other than your ballads if that’s all you’re gonna do with ’em? The covers presented here are largely in the same vein as the bonus cuts from Good Grief – I can’t say I knew any of the songs beforehand, so I can’t really evaluate how well the Lucius versions hold up. A few of the new cuts are genuinely pretty, particularly the opening track “Woman”, which I can’t imagine wanting to hear in any presentation other than its delectable acoustic version. But for every highlight, there’s a dull lowlight, with the album reaching its nadir at the closing track, “Goodnight Irene”, which was recorded as a duet with Roger Waters, and sounds like they might as well have crammed themselves into Neil Young’s vintage straight-to-vinyl recording booth, considering the irritatingly poor sound quality that tries to pass itself off as charming and nostalgic. Sorry Lucius, but emphasizing a male vocalist when you’ve got two powerhouse ladies who need to remain front and center, and putting on the pretense of being old-school when you’re clearly a modern indie pop band, just doesn’t show off any of your best sides.

2018_EverythingEverything_ADeeperSeaEverything Everything – A Deeper Sea EP
This fittingly-titled companion piece to last year’s A Fever Dream shows off a lot of range in just four tracks. The subdued ballad “Mariana”, which plumbs the depth of a man’s depression, honestly would have been a better lead-in to that album’s closing track “White Whale”, if only it had been written in time. “Breadwinner” was an actual B-side from the album sessions; it’s catchy as hell and I think it’s making some sort of commentary on gender roles, and the only reason I’m fine with it not being on the album is because it’s a bit too similar melodically and rhythmically to “Can’t Do”. The remix of “Ivory Tower” is the only track here that I don’t care for – it demonstrates that when you take away the manic energy of the original and replace it with more of a chill club beat, the repetitive vocal hook becomes more irritating than entertaining. The closing track is a cover of Neil Young’s “Don’t Let It Bring You Down” that was recorded live during a radio station appearance last year – I’m not familiar with the original, but I’m gonna guess they took some vocal liberties to give the song a climactic ending, which I’m totally fine with.

I’m with Her – See You Around
I’m with Her is a folk/bluegrass trio comprised of singer/songwriters Sara Watkins, Aoife O’Donovan, and Sarah Jarosz. (Yeah, I realize the band name is unfortunate now that it carries the baggage of being attached to a failed presidential campaign. They chose it before Hillary did, okay?) Their first full-length album doesn’t immediately wow me in the way that any of my favorite material from Nickel Creek or from Watkins’ solo work does – a few of these tracks have a bit of attitude that I’m sure I’ll come to appreciate more on further listens, while the mostly downbeat tracks (particularly in the back half) are a bit too subtle to reveal their inner beauty right away, and I’m sure I’ll come around on a few more of them with time. Not knowing anything about the other two members of the band, I can’t say whether this is much of a change from either of their solo works, but it doesn’t sound like a big change for Watkins, and perhaps that’s why I’m mildly disappointed here, as her solo work already leans toward the subtle side and I was looking for something a little gutsier that would give her more of a chance to show off her skills on the fiddle and the other instruments I know she’s more than capable of playing.

Vertical Horizon – The Lost Mile
I’ve always regarded Vertical Horizon as the exact middle of the road where mainstream radio was concerned at around the turn of the century when the band hit peak popularity. That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement, but they had strong enough material that I enjoyed a few of their singles and their deep cuts at the time. (“Shackled” still gives me the chills, and for obvious reasons, they haven’t done anything remotely like that since Keith Kane left the band.) Since the popularity of their sound waned, the band went on a hiatus, and they came back in the late 2000s with pretty much just Matt Scannell and a revolving door of other players, I haven’t exactly been thrilled with any of their newer albums, since they’ve done almost nothing to update their sound or think outside of the box in the years since. This new album adds more keyboards to the mix, and to its credit, the band gives itself ample space for extended jams on several tracks instead of being rigidly confined to the length of a potential radio single. I suppose stuff like the length of a track doesn’t really matter when your sound has fallen out of favor with mainstream radio anyway. I appreciate the optimistic tone that this album takes overall, and I find a small bit of joy in some of the extended instrumental bits. But at its core, this is still pretty bland, forgettable pop/rock, and I was only ever excited about any of this band’s songs when the lyrics and melodies were strong enough to overcome their vanilla choice of genre, which generally doesn’t happen on this album, and I don’t hold out any hope for it happening much in the future, either.

The Decemberists – I’ll Be Your Girl
There’s a pretty clean break between the convoluted high-concept albums that The Decemberists were acclaimed for making in the 2000s, and the more straightforward, Americana-influenced material they’ve been putting out in the 2010s. I didn’t get into the band until the latter phase of their career was underway, but I found a lot to appreciate on What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World, and I’ve slowly come to realize how instrumentally crisp and lyrically solid of an album The King Is Dead was, so it’s not like I think simplifying the structure of their albums has to mean dumbing down their sound. But what I don’t think any of us wanted or expected from The Decemberists was a synthpop album. They seem rather non-committal about the idea themselves, only really making use of the much-touted synthesizers on a few key tracks, while most of the rest of the album genre-hops as it pleases, falling into a frustrating amount of repetitive ruts in the process, with downright irritating hooks in the place of actual clever lyricism. Lead single “Severed” was a bold experiment, and I wouldn’t have minded more off-the-wall genre-blending in that vein. Synthpop and folk/rock tend to mix like oil and water, but I think it would have been possible to capitalize on that odd mixture by emphasizing the ridiculous incongruity as “Severed” did. There are a few anthemic tracks in the vein of their last album that I appreciate, and “Rusalka, Rusalka/Wild Rushes” may as well be a refugee from some long lost Hazards of Love-era folk/rock opera that never got written, for all I know. It’s a highlight even though it does jack squat to fit into the rest of the album. Most of the rest of these new songs are massively disappointing. Honestly, listening to this album gets me straight up pissed off most of the time. I’m finding myself wanting to go back in time instead, and discover albums like The Crane Wife that I hadn’t given a chance back when they were new, just to wash the bad taste out after listening to this one.

The Corrs – Jupiter Calling
The Corrs seem to have been slow to warm up to streaming media platforms since they came back from the decade or so that they were on hiatus. Their first album back, White Light, never showed up on Spotify, and thus I haven’t bothered trying to track it down. Their follow-up album finally showed up on Spotify this month, and while I didn’t expect a ton from it, I’ve at least found some subtle beauty in the lead single “Song of Solomon” and a few other tracks. For the most part, this is rather bland, low-key, lovey-dovey folk pop with only the occasional hint of Celtic flair to live things up. A few attempts at more daring subject matter do stand out to me, such as the rather shallow attempt at political commentary on “SOS (Song of Syria)”, or the genuinely heartbreaking reflection on a miscarriage in “No Go Baby”. But the vast majority of The Corrs’ music outside of their landmark debut album Forgiven, Not Forgotten and their collection of Irish standards Home has been rather forgettable for me, and this album does very little to change that equation.

Jason Wade – Paper Cuts
Have you ever listened to a Lifehouse album and thought, “Gee, you know what the problem is with these guys? They rock way too hard! Could we do something about that?”, then I guess their lead singer’s solo debut is the album for you! I’ve actually heard a fair amount of mellower Lifehouse songs that do keep me engaged over the years – they’re the exception, not the rule, but they still exist, and usually it’s because the band has changed up the instrumentation from their usual (which is just a slightly more alternative spin on the aforementioned Vertical Horizon sound, if I’m being honest) in some way. Jason Wade as a solo artist doesn’t do a whole lot of changing things up, which means this album never ventures far from the confines of predictable, slightly folksy pop/rock. He’s even recycled a few songs from Lifehouse’s last album Out of the Wasteland (“Central Park” and “Wish”) that pretty much sounded like attempts at a solo breakout at the time, because I think this album had been in the works even before that point. I know Jason is still capable of the occasional song that truly surprises me (see “Flight”, also from Lifehouse’s last album, which sadly does not make a reappearance here), but finding those tends to require wading through a wasteland (puns intended) of forgettable material. Due to the lack of true variety, I can’t see myself making time for 14 tracks of this stuff terribly often.

Marc Martel – My Way, Vol. 1
Martel’s debut solo album Impersonator was rock solid, and I have to say I’m far more interested him as a singer/songwriter performing his own material than as a Freddie Mercury impersonator, even though the latter is what he’s largely known for these days. This six-song collection pulls together covers of some of Martel’s personal favorite songs, of course including the obligatory Queen cover (“Don’t Stop Me Now”), but also being diverse enough to include songs from as early as the 50s (“Unchained Melody”, popularized in the 60s by the Righteous Brothers) and as late as the 90s (the Tom Waits deep cut “Take It with Me”). There’s only so much one can add to songs like these that have mostly been covered ad nauseum by other singers, and while Martel is a powerhouse vocalist more than capable of the range necessary to knock these out of the park from a technical standpoint, there really isn’t much appeal for me here beyond the initial novelty. It’s especially odd that he made the decision to strip The Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” of its bouncy rhythm and intricate instrumentation, or to Michael Bublé it up, big band style, on A-ha’s “Take On Me” (which is probably still the highlight of the EP). And of course, the less said about the insufferable title track (which was notably hated by Frank Sinatra himself), the better.

What Am I Listening To? – February 2018

A pretty significant change to my listening habits this month is that I’m trying to be more open-minded about listening to singles aside from the albums they may or may not be attached to. I largely stopped paying attention to singles years ago, around when I stopped listening to any form of radio, because the risk of getting a negative first impression of a forthcoming album, or else being frustrated that a good song had been entirely left off of a studio album, seemed to outweigh the potential reward of enjoying the song as a listening experience unto itself. As much as I love to cherry-pick favorite tracks from albums for my own personal playlists, I often don’t discover how much I truly love those songs until I get to hear them in the grander context of a series of songs they were intended to be a part of. I’m more of an “album” guy than a “singles” guy, and that’s probably not gonna change any time soon, but since singles tend to come out so far in advance of the album these days, I figure I might as well be evaluating those songs when most of the artist’s other fans are, rather than being way late to the party when the album finally drops. I probably will still change my mind about some of these after hearing them in their “full album” context, but I think I’m patient and smart enough these days to manage expectations of a forthcoming album when a sneak peek catches me off-guard in some way.

I also finally got around to “following” a number of artists on Spotify, which I’ve discovered causes individual songs to show up in my “Release Radar” playlist as they come out. Or occasionally it’ll go back and pick one for me if it’s been out for a little while but Spotify can tell I haven’t listened to it on my own yet. This should keep me from completely missing out on new albums/singles from artists I had followed in the past but then sort of forgot about, without the hassle of having to manually look them up every now and then just to see if they’ve done anything new recently. I’ve got a running playlist of my own to keep track of these new releases and helpful suggestions from Spotify, at least the ones that seem like they might be worth repeated listens. I figure once those get released on an album and/or I get sick of hearing them on their own, I’ll drop them from the playlist to make room for new stuff. We’ll see how often I manage to squeeze that playlist into my listening habits as it evolves over the months to come.

Now, for the actual albums and EPs I’ve given a try this month:

2018_MikeShinoda_PostTraumaticEPMike Shinoda – Post Traumatic EP
This set of three songs was Mike’s way of documenting his feelings about the passing of bandmate Chester Bennington, and the difficult questions about where he should go from here career-wise, while everything was still raw. While there’s some interesting production here in keeping with his past work with both Linkin Park and Fort Minor, the real draw is the lyrics. In some ways I see it as a more of a podcast in musical form, rather than something I’d return to a lot for its musical value, because while hooks and melodies exist, it’s really the rap verses that hold the power here. It’s a difficult listen at times, considering how unfiltered and “in the moment” some of his thoughts are. But I’ve always appreciated Mike’s vulnerability – he doesn’t feel the need to maintain a pretense of toughness when honesty will do the job, and he’ll still come back with a vicious retort to the nay-sayers all the same.

2017_marikahackman_imnotyourmanMarika Hackman – I’m Not Your Man
Marika is a British singer/songwriter whose style falls somewhere between soothing folk music and defiant indie rock. I’d seen this album recommended by a few vloggers and critics’ year-end lists that I pay attention to, so I figured I’d give it a shot, but there’s something off-putting about her style that is a bit difficult to place. Aside from a few sorta-whimsical and sorta-angry moments that I find amusing (particularly the opening track “Boyfriend”, which has an eerily similar chorus to the All Star United song “Smash Hit” from 20 years ago!), the music on this album is mostly wallpaper to me – and there are fifteen tracks’ worth of it, so it gets exhausting. On my first few listens, not a whole lot really registered, and by the third time through, this album was actively putting me in a bad mood, so I can’t say I’m likely to come back for more.

2018_UmphreysMcGee_ItsNotUsUmphrey’s McGee – It’s Not Us
It’s refreshing to hear a new studio album full of original compositions from these guys after nearly four years. In between Similar Skin and this one came the odds-and-ends collection The London Session and the bizarre mash-up covers album Zonkey, neither of which really held a lot of value for me beyond their initial novelty, and a slew of live releases that I didn’t bother listening to, because these guys are long-winded enough on their studio albums as it is. I’m excited to hear that the tougher progressive rock sound from Similar Skin is largely intact, while hints of the genre-hopping from their earlier albums are beginning to show up a little more often, making for an unpredictable listen with plenty of shifting rhythms and technically impressive guitar pyrotechnics, but also a few more relaxed or out-of-left-field tracks that change things up in enjoyable ways. The headbang-worthy second half of “Remind Me” butting right up against the lush acoustics of “You & You Alone” should make it clear that this band still has both serious chops and impressive range. A few tracks might settle into predictable “jam band” territory (particularly the Dave Matthews Band-wannabe “Speak Up”), but there honestly isn’t a track here that I dislike or even find mediocre.

2017_SaraGroves_AbidewithMeSara Groves – Abide with Me
It seems like every folksy CCM singer/songwriter from the Midwest or the South has to attempt a hymns album at some point in their career. Sara Groves’ version is a lot like Cindy Morgan’s from a few years’ ago, in that it inflects these hymns with a little bit of down-home charm, but I can’t say any of the arrangements are truly groundbreaking. There might be a few cases where she’s changed up the familiar melodies in the hopes of doing something groundbreaking – which I guess she did with her version of “Come Thou Fount” all those years ago. But I don’t really see the point of this practice if it isn’t something listeners familiar with a hymn can immediately sing along with. There’s a middle space between a recognizable arrangement of a traditional song with inventive instrumentation, and a completely new song with your own lyrics and melody, where I think a lot of the least interesting modern worship songs and hymn covers tend to reside. This album is decent for background music while reading or meditating on a lazy Sunday, I suppose, but I can’t see myself actively listening to it a whole lot.

2018_AndrewPeterson_ResurrectionLettersPrologueAndrew Peterson – Resurrection Letters: Prologue
I honestly thought Peterson was just being cheeky when he released Resurrection Letters, Vol. II a decade ago. I didn’t think a first volume would ever actually exist, or that it needed to, since the point of that album was to explore the “what happens next” after the end of the already familiar story of Jesus’s resurrection from the Bible – ergo, we already knew Volume I. But he’s actually planning to release Volume I on Good Friday, and the five songs that made it on to the prologue are a thematic exploration of Christ’s death on the cross in order to lead up to it. Some of these arrangements are pretty interesting – particularly the final words of Jesus on the cross sung in a round in “Last Words (Tenebrae)” – but they also feel like they’re setting up musical motifs and lyrical themes for the album to follow through on, so I’m hearing a lot of table-setting going on here, but nothing truly transcendent. I’ve been a fan of Peterson’s for a very long time, and he tends to achieve a mellow form of transcendence at least once per album, so I’ve still got high hopes for the album to follow.

2018_BelleandSebastian_HowtoSolveOurHumanProblemsVol3EPBelle & Sebastian – How to Solve Our Human Problems, Pt. 3 EP
I’ve been enjoying this series of EPs quite a bit so far – there’s something charming about the whole “pasty white guys from Scotland offering their take on 60s and 70s nostalgia” vibe they’ve cultivated thus far. The third and final EP does seem like a bit of an odd conclusion, though. While it finally brings the track “Everything Is Now” full circle with actual lyrics, and the continued genre roulette ranging from mellow folk to Motown is amusing, I don’t think the highlights are as strong this time out. I’m particularly baffled by their decision to bring in guest female vocalists on two out of these five tracks. Sarah Martin has held her own quite nicely on the songs she’s contributed to this project thus far (and “Poor Boy” on this EP might just be the standout), so I have to wonder if when they bring in an outside voice, she’s like “Um, guys? I’m right here.” Still, even if this set of songs ends the collection in a very different place from where it started, I do appreciate how strongly the female voices are elevated here, as if to indicate that maybe the male voices being dominant won’t be sufficient to solve the problems that have been expressed thus far. Now, are these fifteen songs meant to hang together as an album played in the exact order heard on this series of EPs? I have my doubts. Once I manage to figure out if the “compliation” containing all fifteen songs and released on the same day as this EP presents them in that same order or not, I should be able to attempt a coherent review of the “album” as a whole.

2017_Rostam_HalfLightRostam – Half-Light
Rostam Batmanglij may no longer be a full-time member of Vampire Weekend, but his solo debut makes it pretty clear how much influence he had on their sound as it evolved over the years. Something soothing and sometimes chaotic rhythms collide with a heck of a lot of synth ambience and a little bit too much vocal pitch-shifting for me to handle all in one sitting. There’s probably a lot to dig into here in terms of cultural references and social commentary, and his voice (heard only briefly on a few Vampire Weekend songs, as I recall) gives his songs more of a hazy, elliptical feel in contrast to the “yelpy schoolboy” vocals of Ezra Koenig. Overall, I feel like Rostam was stronger with his old bandmates, but I can’t fault him for wanting to branch out and try something different. (Now, about that fourth Vampire Weekend album we’ve been told to expect this year…)

2018_CharliePeacock_WhenLightFlashesHelpIsontheWayCharlie Peacock – When Light Flashes Help Is on the Way
An interesting side effect of Spotify notifying me when an artist I follow has new music out is that sometimes one of those artists will have multiple careers going on in tandem. Charlie Peacock the witty singer/songwriter trying to bust free from the perceived boundaries of Christian pop music, and Charlie Peacock the acclaimed folk revival producer, don’t really give you any idea of what to expect from Charlie Peacock the jazz aficionado. (His 2012 release No Man’s Land might have bridged the gap between all three, but that’s still a quite different beast from this one.) He’s apparently been releasing instrumental jazz albums interspersed with his other work over the years, but this is the first time I’ve actually tried listening to one of them. And I’m quickly reminded of how far I am out of my depth with this sort of thing. But that’s not to say it’s so outlandishly improvisational that I can’t get into the groove of these mostly up-tempo, sax-heavy compositions. I hear bits of unusual instrumentation lurking beneath some of them, and an overall “late night in a small town” sort of vibe to many of them, and I can admire the attempt, but I don’t really have the language to describe what the performers on this album are trying to accomplish or who they’re taking their musical cues from. It certainly tries a lot harder than a stereotypical “smooth jazz” outfit would, but I’m gonna go out on a limb and guess that it’s not gonna reinvent genre conventions or anything. It’s just a group of friends with solid musical chops (including Jeff Coffin of Flecktones and Dave Matthews Band fame) getting together with no big agenda other than to take some musical sketches and doodle all over them and just see where that goes, and I respect it for that.

What Am I Listening To? – January 2018

The new year brings with it a smattering of projects I missed out on over the course of last year – mostly EPs and a few projects that are still in progress. I’m always hungry for new music, but especially after I’ve spent most of December ruminating on the year that came before.

Belle & Sebastian – How to Solve Our Human Problems, Pt. 1 EP
Apparently the members of Belle & Sebastian are weary of releasing another full-length album and having the attention it gets die out quickly, so they’re releasing their latest batch of new songs in three installments of five tracks each. This one came out in December, and it’s a little bit of everything I’ve enjoyed about B&S thus far – a little bit twee pop, a little bit 60s, a little bit synthesized, lots of interplay between the three vocalists at interesting moments, and even a little bit political at one point. I’d have preferred a conventional album release, as I think all of this material is album-quality (except perhaps for the jam session “Everything Is Now”, which will apparently get filled out with more lyrics on Part 3), and anyone who enjoyed Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance will probably get into the groove with these new tunes quite easily. The Stevie Jackson/Stuart Murdoch duet “Sweet Dew Lee” is probably the most addictive new song I’ve heard thus far in 2018… though obviously it’s early still.

Animal Collective – The Painters EP
Animal Collective released not one, but two EPs in 2017, and I knew nothing about them until just recently. The first is basically a continuation of the sound heard on Painting With, perhaps with slightly mellower vibes on one or two tracks (which I actually wouldn’t have minded as breathers on the album proper), and a left-field cover of Martha and the Vandellas’ “Jimmy Mack”, which I can’t say I was familiar with before hearing this new version, but going back and comparing it to the original Motown recording from the late 60s, I can appreciate both versions, and that adds to my enjoyment of the unconventional genre hop Animal Collective took with it half a century later.

Animal Collective – Meeting of the Waters EP
The other Animal Collective EP is an entirely different beast, recorded on location in the Amazon rainforest, with ambient natural sounds taking up large chunks of the runtime, and very loose acoustic strumming and seemingly spontaneously composed vocal melodies threatening to turn into songs but never quite following through. It’s the first Animal Collective release that I know of which doesn’t feature Panda Bear, who strikes me as the more pop-oriented of the band’s contributors. Avey Tare and Geologist are on their own here, which means the results are highly experimental, and I suppose I can imagine chilling out to this if you’re in the right mood, but I found myself getting really impatient with it, even though I’ve appreciated some of the band’s more slow/ambient passages in the past. It’s honestly not something where I’d even know where to begin in terms evaluating it and sticking a rating on it. I’m not gonna say it’s bad music, but I honestly have no desire to ever listen to it again.

Elbow – The Best Of
Elbow has slowly become one of my all-time favorite bands over the years, and I’ve always thought that it would probably be easier to get folks into the band with a carefully curated collection of their best songs than with an individual album of theirs (though I could make a decent case for The Seldom Seen Kid, which was my personal gateway – and more than half of that album shows up on the deluxe edition of this compilation!) The problem is, the band has more intriguing deep cuts than bona fide hits, and probably no two fans agree on which songs should make the cut for a collection like this, so it’s bound to disappoint nearly all of us in some way. Even some of the tracks I thought were hits, such as “Fallen Angel”, “Forget Myself” and “Mexican Standoff”, didn’t make the cut here, while there’s a surprisingly broad selection of tunes I’d consider dark horse picks, some of which are tracks that became personal favorites of mine gradually over the years, and some of which I still consider really tedious and am kind of surprised the band considers their best work. (I mean, “The Loneliness of a Tower Crane Driver”? “My Sad Captains”? “Puncture Repair”?! That last one’s barely even a song!) But I can honestly say that my favorite track from each album made the cut (“Scattered Black and Whites”, “Fugitive Motel”, “Station Approach”, “Mirrorball”, “The Birds”, “New York Morning”, and “Magnificent (She Says)”, respectively), and I have fond memories of most of the tracks picked here, even if the order they’re presented in makes for a bit of a disjointed walk down memory lane. Really, a seasoned Elbow fan could just as easily curate their own playlist that would meet their satisfaction (and I’ve done exactly that on Spotify), so the only appeal for completists here is the newly recorded Beatles cover “Golden Slumbers” (which isn’t doing a lot for me) and the John Grant duet “Kindling (Fickle Flame)”, which originally appeared sans duet vocal on Little Fictions. Will this collection entice a lot of potential new fans to get caught up? I have my doubts, even though overall this is a collection of pretty high-quality songs that shows off most of the band’s strengths.

Portugal. The Man – Woodstock
You know these guys. They recorded “Feel It Still”, which is that funky little ninja of a song that somehow slipped its way into mainstream radio playlists and got stuck in everyone’s head last year. “Ooh, I’m a rebel just for kicks now” – does that ring any bells for ya? Sounds like it should be Pharrell Williams or Bruno Mars or one of those guys? Yeah, that’s Portugal. Checking out this album after getting hooked by that surprise hit single will likely lead to disappointment, as most of it is more of a mid-tempo, programming-driven affair dominated by hefty doses of vocal manipulation and occasional suburban hip-hop posturing. Some of it’s enjoyable, but it’s not really the indie rock/soul mashup I was expecting, outside of a select few tracks. I can see some follow-up single potential in “Live in the Moment” and “Rich Friends”, but those honestly don’t even sound like they came from the same band. These guys have been around for quite a while without my ever having heard of them, so for all I know they’ve been pulling off this musical chameleon act for ages now. What I’m hearing here just doesn’t hang together all that well as an album – I get really tired of it somewhere around track seven or eight out of ten.

Brooke Waggoner – Sweven Remixes
Waggoner’s more free-form, piano ballad-heavy, classical-leaning style of indie pop doesn’t seem like the kind of thing that would lend itself well to remixing. But she showed a more aggressive side on Originator that was largely absent on Sweven, so I figured some of these versions might reintroduce a bit of that sass. As usual, I should know better than to get my hopes up for remix albums. Some of these transformations are mildly amusing at the outset, but most of them get downright repetitive, often dragging the original songs out well past the breaking point, assuming they haven’t committed themselves to just repeating a snippet of the lyrics from the get-go. It might make sense for a track like “Widow Maker” or “Fink” that already had a little bit of rhythmic attitude to it. It gets more and more ridiculous the further this collection digs into the original album’s deep cuts. Usually I’ll take a song with a strong sense of rhythm over one without, but in the case of strong ballads like “Pennies and Youth” and “Fellow” from the original album, I’ll take those over these alienating versions any day.

The Nor’easters – Collective, Vol. 1
College acapella group covers popular charting songs from the past few years, with the occasional bone thrown to the indie rock crowd. You know the drill. Once again, I hesitate to grade these guys on versions of songs where I have little to no familiarity with the originals. The only one I knew going into this was Bon Iver’s “715 – CRΣΣKS”, which was already acapella in its original version, just really heavy on the AutoTune. Here it sounds a bit less annoying and more conventional, and doesn’t end so abruptly. (I’d have preferred “33 GOD”, but whatever.) Elsewhere, “Cheyenne” is a darn strong opener, which means they got me to like a Jason Derulo song. This is the same group that got me to admit to liking songs by Justin Bieber and Justin Timberlake in the past, as well as being partially responsible for getting me into Florence + The Machine. Those unlikely accomplishments are why I keep checking their new stuff out.

Dia Frampton – Bruises
I really enjoyed Dia’s collaboration with producer Joseph Trapanese, known as Archis, back in 2015, and I was hoping for a full-length follow-up to that excellent EP. What started off as Archis’ debut LP ended up being Dia’s second solo album, and the result of losing Trapanese’s input is a lot of slow and melancholy material without as much of the rich instrumentation that made Archis feel like something more cinematic and special. I understand why Red was a bit more commercial than what Dia was aiming for (it’s hard not to have that happen when you score a short-lived record deal as a result of being a runner-up on The Voice), but I actually really enjoyed that album, and I’m just not hearing as much variety or strong melodies that really grab me here. It’s been a tough few years for Dia – the exposure brought by The Voice and the unwillingness of booking agents and record execs to accept her as part of her old band Meg & Dia rather than as a solo act apparently caused a bit of a rift that broke up the band, and according to a blog entry she wrote, she’s already witnessing how quickly the industry can chew up and spit out a young artist before they even hit 30. So she has my sympathy as I listen to the trails and tribulations described on this record. It just isn’t very engaging listening for reasons other than that.

Peter Bradley Adams – A Face Like Mine
Eastmountainsouth was a mellow Americana duo that put out just one record back in 2003, combining old-timey folk harmonies with occasional bits of drum programming and smooth pop production, maybe even a slight hint of worldbeat on a few tracks. It was one of my go-to records back in the day when I wanted to listen to something more down-tempo and melancholy. Since they split up, the male half of the duo has released solo records every few years, and every now and then I check one out and quickly get bored with it. That pattern hasn’t changed here. Adams has a soothing voice – the kind of thing that made me take note when he was singing duets with Kat Maslich-Bode (who, for her part, has only managed a 6-song EP in the entire time since their split), and that had me looking forward to some solo material from him. But the dude only really has that one speed: soothing. It gets monotonous over the course of an album, even when said album only has 9 songs. About all that stands out to me here is his version of “On Jordan’s Stormy Banks I Stand”, which falls into that unfortunate category of “Covers of hymns and other classic songs that annoy me by ditching the melody I liked in favor of an unremarkable new one”. Guess I’ll go back to forgetting about this guy for another few years, then.

Belle & Sebastian – How to Solve Our Human Problems, Pt. 2 EP
Volume 2 of this collection came out on my 40th birthday, and I have wholeheartedly accepted it as a birthday gift. With a slightly quirkier tone than its already engaging predecessor, this EP really reminds me of some of the more manic tunes that first caught my attention on the otherwise downbeat The Life Pursuit way back in 2006. “Cornflakes” is downright bizarre, in the way that only Stevie Jackson can do bizarre. And the two ballads here, “I’ll Be Your Pilot” and “A Plague on Other Boys”, are among Stuart Murdoch’s finest, telling engaging stories that are held aloft by the use of an English horn and Sarah Martin’s flute, respectively. This group’s best tracks tend to feel like they’re unstuck in time, and I’m definitely feeling that throughout the majority the songs on this project thus far.

Spoon – Hot Thoughts
Spoon is one of those unconventional indie rock bands that has been around since the 90s and yet I never got into them. They apparently make some killer catchy tunes. The two guys behind the Velocities in Music podcast are huge fans of the band, even having done a deep-dive of their entire discography, and their glowing recommendation of this album on more than one occasion convinced me to finally take the plunge. I appreciate the lightly funky, sometimes baroque, and eclectic nature of their songs, while I can tell their lyrics will take me some time to untangle in a few places. That’s the kind of first impression that tends to bring me back for more quite frequently when I’m just starting to listen to a “new” band.

Paramore – After Laughter
Paramore has also been around for a while, and I’ve probably had tangential exposure to some of their past material, but I don’t know, even with the unique angle of having a chirpy female vocalist up front, a lot of pop/punk/emo type bands tend to sound the same to me, so I never investigated any further until now. They’ve changed up their sound for this one, bringing in more dance-pop and 80s influences, and even that sort of a reimagining is becoming old hat for a lot of rock bands trying to stay relevant these days, so my initial exposure to their single “Hard Times” didn’t indicate anything special was going on here, either. Now that I’ve listened to the full album, I’m actually impressed at how this change comes across as more than a gimmick. Hayley Williams is deliberately contrasting the peppy music with lyrics that depict some genuine struggles, and our tendency to mask those struggles by looking like we’re happy or we have it all put together when we really don’t. These are themes tons of bands have explored, but I like that Paramore is doing it while expanding the boundaries of their previous sound in eclectic ways, hitting a lot of the same sweet spots than bands like Chvrches and Haim have managed to hit for me in recent years.

Calexico – The Thread that Keeps Us
This one just came out last Friday and I haven’t had much time to digest it, but I will say I’m pleasantly surprised at how the band put some of their more upbeat, aggressive, and instrumentally colorful material up front this time around. Calexico albums are usually downbeat affairs befitting their “desert noir” image, which means they can take a long time to grow on me, but I tend to return to them with great frequency once they do. There’s a lot to take in here, with 15 tracks on the regular edition and a whopping 22 on the deluxe version, and things do get a bit duskier in the album, meaning I’ll need time for more in-depth listening before I have an informed perspective on this record as a whole. But my first impressions are more positive than they have been to the band’s last few slow-burners.

What Am I Listening To? – December 2017

U2 – Songs of Experience
I’ve been looking forward to this one ever since it was promised as a companion album to 2014’s Songs of Innocence. But I feel like my eagerness to listen and re-listen to this one dissipated more quickly than it has with U2’s last few albums. I still love the band, but despite their ability to still write songs that feel energetic and vital, the production isn’t doing them any favors, and that renders even some of the biggest rockers on this album a bit limp. I hate to say they’re showing their age, because I don’t think meaningful rock music should only be the domain of young people. But the passion feels neutered, especially considering how thinly the guitars and drums are rendered on songs like “Lights of Home” and “The Blackout” that are supposed to be a bit grittier/darker than U2’s usual. There are some solid pop anthems here, I guess… and some disappointingly weak ballads. I do appreciate how “American Soul” and “13 (There Is a Light)” bring sentiments first heard on “Volcano” and “Song For Someone” full circle – there’s thematic resonance here even when the music falls a bit flat.

The Lone Bellow – Walk into a Storm
Album #3 is mostly more of the same for this country/Americana trio, which has wisely relocated from New York to Nashville since we last heard from them on Then Came the Morning. At this point I consider The Lone Bellow more of a singles band than an album band, which is to say there are a few barn-burners up front here, but the deep cuts aren’t doing as much for me, and while the vocals are passionate as always, the overall themes and musical ideas heard in most of the songs are kind of old hat. I do love the obvious Fleetwood Mac influence that comes out in “Deeper in the Water” and the string melody in “May You Be Well” that is strongly reminiscent of The Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony”. But these moments come dangerously close to plagiarism, which probably means that my other favorite moment, Kanene’s lead vocal on the rollicking “Feather”, is borrowing heavily from some other artist I can’t pinpoint. These guys are entertaining, but not particularly original.

Green Day – Greatest Hits: God’s Favorite Band
The first half of this 22-track compilation is a decent history lesson for someone like me who has only been into Green Day since the American Idiot years. I have passing familiarity with their early hits, including a few like “Minority” and “Brain Stew” that I knew I enjoyed but couldn’t remember the titles of until hearing them here for the first time in several years. I can’t say I’ve ever felt compelled to sit down and listen to any of their older albums from front to back, and even finding a few of their old tracks here that I do enjoy doesn’t really change that. The picks from American Idiot onward are somewhat predictable, even disappointing in the case of 21st Century Breakdown, considering how poorly the two big singles “Know Your Enemy” and “21 Guns” represented the creative breadth of that album. The completist in me thinks there should be at least one song from each installment of the Uno/Dos/Tre! trilogy here, rather than all of it being represented by the lone single “Oh Love”, but then I remember: I didn’t like those albums at all, so who cares? Apparently not Green Day’s record label. That just leaves Revolution Radio, which is represented by two strong single and a rather baffling inclusion of the ballad “Ordinary World”, re-recorded with a guest vocal from Miranda Lambert. It’s not that exciting. Neither is the new track “Back in the USA”, which feels like political Green Day by the numbers at this point. Green Day may be God’s favorite band, but I’m still not entirely convinced they should be one of mine. (Side note: I love the stained glass motif in the cover art, which references the cover images from all the other albums these singles came from.)

Maroon 5 – Red Pill Blues
WHY DO I CONTINUE TO LISTEN TO THESE GUYS? I know they’re only going to disappoint me, even when my expectations are low to begin with. I had this album saved in my Spotify library since late October after seeing some overwhelmingly negative reviews, and yet it took me well over a month to work up the courage to actually hear how bad it was for myself. The addition of two band members hasn’t made them sound like more of a band – this is just pathetically sterile, warmed over R&B, which cares about no form of self-expression other than re-establishing Adam Levine as a sex symbol wavering back and forth between his sensitive and bad boy modes. Between the toothless programming and the out-of-place rap features (which are apparently cringe-y even to some folks who are actual fans of Kendrick Lamar, A$AP Rocky, etc.), this might just be the most awful thing I’ve heard all year. Even when the band shows some inkling of actually coloring outside the lines of the meme-dominated modern pop landscape’s expectations, we get the tedious 11-minute vamp “Closure”, which is basically a staring match with anyone brave enough to actually listen all the way through to the end of the album’s standard edition. I’m done with these guys. I don’t even think I’ll have the courage to listen to these guys out of morbid curiosity after this.

Christine Denté – Closer to Free EP
This is a brief little batch of new songs – 5 tracks and a scant fifteen minutes – from a longtime favorite vocalist of mine, best known as the fairer half of Out of the Grey. At this point I’m slightly confused as to what constitutes a solo record by Christine vs. what constitutes an Out of the Grey record – I can only assume it depends on her husband Scott’s level of involvement. This one was actually produced by the couple’s son Julian, and it’s a good mix of smart indie pop and the classic, glossy, slightly experimental Out of the Grey sound, just more based around keyboards than guitars for obvious reasons. In many ways, it feels like more of a return to form than A Little Light Left did. Hearing her voice again always feels like a welcome visit from one of my oldest friends, so I’m sure I’ll continue to appreciate new music from Christine in pretty much any capacity.