What Am I Listening To? – May 2017

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

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

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

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

What Am I Listening To? – April 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


John Mayer – The Search For Everything

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

Mew – Visuals

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

What Am I Listening To? – March 2017

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

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

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

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

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

What Am I Listening To? – February 2017

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

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

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

What Am I Listening To? – January 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Am I Listening To? – December 2016

2015_flinteastwood_smallvictoriesepFlint Eastwood – Small Victories EP
This is a really fun set of electropop songs that came out last year. I hadn’t heard of Flint Eastwood until she cropped up on MuteMath’s “Vitals” remix from the Changes album a few months back. The style of that song fits pretty well with the stuff she does with her own band (or as a one-woman band; I’m still not quite clear on this point) here. The hooks and melodies are downright infectious here – you can easily dance to pretty much anything here, but it’s all very thoughtfully written as well. The percussion on “Find What You’re Looking For” is downright hypnotic, and the five songs following it continue to grab my attention. Can’t wait for a full-length album from her!

2016_jimjames_eternallyevenJim James – Eternally Even
This isn’t the first time the frontman of My Morning Jacket has put out a solo project, but it’s the first time I’ve checked one out. He seems to follow the Thom Yorke method of scrapping together barely enough songs to call it an album, extending them in a trancelike sort of way beyond what the content really supports, and being a bit too sleepy with it overall to really make much of an impression. There are some mellow grooves here that I could probably learn to love over time (“Same Old Lie” in particular might help me work through a little of my post-election angst), but honestly, nothing much is jumping out at me here on the first few listens.

2016_skillet_unleashedSkillet – Unleashed
I’m gonna be honest; I expected this to be horrible and I listened to it just for the LOLs. And there are are definitely some cringe-inducing lyrics and cheesy middle-of-the-road ballads that warrant that exact response. However, it actually isn’t as terrible as Awake or Rise. Some of the riffs and rhythms, and especially the fun little guitar breakdown at the end of the album, at least momentarily reminded me that I can’t always expect Skillet to scrape the bottom of the barrel. They’re still unsubtle as all get out. They still don’t write great songs. They sure as hell won’t bring me back into their fandom with this album – that ship sailed after Comatose. But they occasionally rise to the level of making something tolerable. That’s progress, I suppose.

What Am I Listening To? – November 2016

2016_jimmyeatworld_integritybluesJimmy Eat World – Integrity Blues
I keep giving new Jimmy Eat World albums a chance, even though I haven’t truly connected with one of their records beyond a song or two in over a decade. This one may have finally broken the trend. It’s nothing groundbreaking for the band, but the songwriting and musicianship are more attention-grabbing right away and they keep that attention longer once a few of the initial surprises have worn off. The front half of the album is particularly strong.

2016_empireofthesun_twovinesEmpire of the Sun – Two Vines
I’m not sure if Empire of the Sun won me over in spite of their 80s-style campiness, or because of it. After their bizarre hodgepodge of a debut, they scaled back the weirdness for Ice on the Dune, and while that album had a number of strong songs and a more consistent sound throughout, I missed some of the quirkiness of their earlier stuff. Now the transformation seems complete on the third album, and there are so few surprises from song to song that I feel like they’re afraid to experiment much with their sound these days. Even when this thing is up-tempo (which is most of the record), it feels too laid-back and inclined to rely on cheesy, repetitive samples to propel the songs along. When you’re selling a highly stylized sound more than anything of real lyrical substance, that’s a bad place for a band to be.

2016_thedigitalage_galaxiesThe Digital Age – Galaxies
I’m so out of touch with contemporary worship music at this point that I honestly can’t tell how much of this album is self-composed, and how much is covers of currently trending worship songs. It’s mostly done in the high-octane, electronically-tinged rock style that these guys established when they were still members of the David Crowder Band. But the loose astronaut/space exploration theme bridging some of the tracks doesn’t add much to the experience, and musically these guys seem to be playing it pretty safe, unlike Crowder who still unapologetically mixes disparate genres in his solo work. I don’t even have a song I previously recognized like “All the Poor and Powerless” or “Oceans” as an inroad this time, so I’m finding it really hard to get into this album. Maybe when we start singing one or two of these songs in church, I’ll go back and see them with new eyes?

2016_norahjones_daybreaksNorah Jones – Day Breaks
Little Broken Hearts was a pretty daring album by Norah Jones standards. It makes sense that after taking listeners down her personal rabbit hole on that album, she’d want to throw some of her long-time fans a bone by going back to the more classic jazz and mellow pop hybrid that she first won the world over with on Come Away with Me. It’s the closest she’s sounded to that album in her entire career since. And it doesn’t blow me away, but I don’t mind it. I still need to listen more closely to figure out where the true highlights are.

2016_futureofforestry_awakenedtothesoundFuture of Forestry – Awakened to the Sound
I’m surprised that FoF managed to throw another full-length album together so quickly after Pages. Frankly I was so disappointed with Pages that I didn’t bother reviewing it, and the band had kind of fallen off my radar until the surprise release of this album right around Election Day. (I needed a good week to really get into the mood for it, but that’s not the band’s fault.) They’re slowly winning me back with this one. The days of FoF working from slow-burning baroque pop intros up to grandeur-filled modern rock climaxes are probably long gone, but I like the cinematic feel of a lot of these new songs and the way that several incorporate Eastern-style strings and backing vocals. Some of it is still a bit slow and ponderous for my tastes, but when listened to all in a row, it feels like a journey through the highs and lows of different landscapes, rather than the dull monotony of soft, middle-of-the-road, ballad after ballad that made most of Pages such a chore to get through.

2016_owel_dearmeOwel – Dear Me
I knew Owel must have had some really good things in store when I found out via Facebook that none of the excellent tracks heard on the Every Good Boy EP had even made the cut for the tracklisting on their second full-length album. Hearing it now, I can see why. A lot of these songs are sprawling, some even a bit challenging, in a way that’s definitely consistent with their self-titled album but that would have made most of the songs from that EP feel a bit out of place by comparison. This is an album that you really have to take your time with – it’s a slow-burner that owes a clear debt to the work of bands like Radiohead and Sigur Rós, but that also unfolds with the subtle grace of a band like Elbow. It’s an immersive indie rock experience that is in no hurry to impress the audience with pyrotechnics, but which instead is long on slow-building melancholy passages and intriguing songwriting. Owel is one of those bands where, even when the lyrics are esoteric and not easily interpreted, I always feel like I’m getting a glimpse into some intensely personal beliefs and experiences. Nothing here wows me quite as much as the first time I heard “Snowglobe”, but I’m actually glad the band isn’t so obviously repeating itself.