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:
Mike 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.
Marika 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.
Umphrey’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.
Sara 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.
Andrew 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.
Belle & 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.
Rostam – 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…)
Charlie 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.