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.

What Am I Listening To? – November 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Am I Listening To? – October 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Am I Listening To? – September 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Am I Listening To? – August 2017

2017_NicholeNordeman_EveryMileMatteredNichole Nordeman – Every Mile Mattered
It’s been 12 years since Nordeman’s last solo album, and while a lot’s changed for her personally during her long sabbatical, this record sounds to me like it could have easily followed just a few years after 2005’s Brave. That’s a blessing and a curse at the same time. A few choice songs still remind me that she can be a knockout songwriter when she puts her mind to it, particularly “Dear Me”, a letter to her younger self in which she repents of trying to exclude others from having a seat at the table with Christ. That song hits harder than any adult contemporary CCM track has hit me in a long time. Musically, this is still the largely piano-driven, radio-friendly CCM heard on Brave and Woven & Spun, without a whole lot of risks taken. Aside from a few corny pop tunes that sacrifice lyrical depth for cheap hooks, the lowlight here turns out to be an underwhelming and wholly unnecessary acapella cover of U2’s “Beautiful Day”. She had already covered their song “Grace” back in 2004. She should have left well enough alone.

2017_StephenChristian_WildfiresStephen Christian – Wildfires
Hey, speaking of Christian music… No, seriously, I’m not just making a pun on the guy’s name. Since Anberlin retired in 2014, the band’s lead singer has found a second career as a worship pastor, and on this album he presents a set of (presumably) worship songs written for that purpose. Not knowing this before I listened made it a shock to the system in the absolute worst way. Christian has hinted at his faith in intriguing ways when writing more open-to-interpretation lyrics for Anberlin – he just doesn’t strike me as nearly as interesting being totally straightforward with almost no mystique to the process whatsoever. Most alarmingly, the music here is infuriatingly generic, only passing as “rock” by the increasingly polished and programmed standards of Christian radio. This might as well be a Newsboys album – (and I don’t even mean one of the good ones from before Michael Tait was awkwardly grafted into the band). Despite Christian’s undeniably smooth and distinctive vocals and some agreeable catchy melodies, just getting through a single listen to this one was really hard for me. Aside from some mildly interesting synth textures on the duet “Atmosphere”, I’m not hearing anything even remotely approaching originality here. I’m not saying I hate this on principle just because of its chosen genre… I’ve heard some rather creative music that fits comfortably under the “contemporary worship” label on several occasions. It’s just that I know Stephen’s a good songwriter, and what he’s written here mostly feels like he’s doing a job to fill gaps in Sundays services. If he wants this to be listenable beyond that context, he needs to try a lot harder.

2017_GrizzlyBear_PaintedRuinsGrizzly Bear – Painted Ruins
For a band that pretty much knows they’re creating music most listeners won’t like right away, and will need a good five or so listens to fully absorb, I was actually surprised that I reacted rather warmly to this one the first time through. I’ve always had a hard time getting consistently excited about Grizzly Bear beyond a few select songs, since they can be beautifully layered and pull off the slow burn on their way to an exciting climax just as easily as they can seem to meander and go nowhere with their unconventional melodies and hazy guitar textures. But the highlights of their albums are usually fully of bedazzling and beguiling sounds that play best once I have a pretty good handle on what they’re building up to. A divorce seems to have been the impetus for a lot of the lyrics here, but nothing is ever that straightforward on a Grizzly Bear record. Even after a good five listens, I’m beginning to pick out highlights, but I still only have the vaguest of mental thumbnail sketches of what most of these songs are trying to accomplish. Sometimes I feel like that’s the way Grizzly Bear likes it.

2017_IronWine_BeastEpicIron & Wine – Beast Epic
If you’re tired of all the clutter and excess instrumentation and overproduction on Iron & Wine’s more recent albums, and you just wish Sam Beam would go back to the simplicity of his early days, then I guess this hushed acoustic record is for you. Personally, I prefer my Iron & Wine in larger-than-life mode. I think I&W does the mellow folk troubadour thing well, too, since it is what he first became known for. But I get diminishing returns from a full album of it, so I’ve had a really hard time paying attention to the details on all but a few of the songs here. The playful “About a Bruise” perks things up a bit, as if borrowing a page from some of the quirkier tracks on Beam’s collaboration with Jesca Hoop from last year. And the following song “Last Night” does some interesting things with the strings, I guess. “Song in Stone” and a few other ballads are vaguely pretty, but in comparison to other low-key I&W songs that stand out to me as personal favorites, nothing here’s quite as arresting as a “Fever Dream”, a “Joy”, or a “Resurrection Fern”. I was kind of hoping Beam was saving some bigger, widescreen compositions to put alongside the more intimate, hushed ballads this time around. But I suspect that with time, I’ll come to appreciate a lot of the songwriting on this record despite the relative lack of musical bells and whistles (in some cases literally) that I’ve come to appreciate on records like The Shepherd’s Dog and Ghost on Ghost.