What Am I Listening To? – May 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Kindo – Happy However After: What I’ve Found Is Golden

Artist: Kindo
Album: Happy However After
Year: 2018
Grade: B+

In Brief: With the name change comes an even stronger commitment to jazzy complexity, Latin rhythms, elaborate torch songs, and apparently a newfound love of electronic keyboards. It’s not my favorite variant on the Kindo sound, but it’s certainly a unique way for them to go against the flow in the current rock music climate, and they’re clearly still at the top of their game performance-wise.

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Calexico – The Thread that Keeps Us: Love in the Age of the Extremes

2018_Calexico_TheThreadThatKeepsUsArtist: Calexico
Album: The Thread that Keeps Us
Year: 2018
Grade: B+

In Brief: What this album lacks in special guests, it makes up for with its slightly more aggressive and exploratory sound. Calexico still balances their dusky desert folk, indie rock, Latin, and jazz influences pretty well, with this album coming out a little stronger on the “rock” side of the spectrum, but not alarmingly so. It’s a welcome change after the sleepier vibe of their last few records.

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The Decemberists – I’ll Be Your Girl: What a Terrible Album.

Artist: The Decemberists
Album: I’ll Be Your Girl
Year: 2018
Grade: C-

In Brief: A distressingly unfocused and non-committal album full of weird genre-hopping experiments that rarely work, and grating repetition that sucks any potential humor or narrative value out of most of the songs. I applaud the willingness to take risks with their sound, but I honestly get the impression from this album that The Decemberists are just plain exhausted from all the epic-length records that they used to make, and only half trying at this point. Not everything on this record is awful, but enough of it ranges from mildly disappointing to downright irritating that I end up in a bad mood pretty much every time I listen to it.

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What Am I Listening To? – April 2018

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

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

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

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

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

Spoon – Hot Thoughts: TheyfinallytalkedmeintolisteningtoSpoon

Artist: Spoon
Album: Hot Thoughts
Year: 2017
Grade: B+

In Brief: The band’s ninth album is a kaleidoscope of colorful sounds befitting its cover art. I love how the urgent, raspy vocals of Britt Daniel collide with the inventive percussion grooves, the jangly guitars and layered keyboard sounds, and the occasional atmospheric bits as well. They’ve got a streamlined indie pop aesthetic that keeps the songs mostly concise and flowing from one into the other with laser-guided accuracy, but they also leave space for the occasional experimental or “jam band”-type indulgence, which works out a lot better than it probably sounds like it should. It’s hard to believe it took me THIS long to get into these guys.

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Jon Foreman live @ Azusa Pacific University: Terminal Bliss

Jon Foreman’s “25 in 24” tour provided not only a fascinating behind-the-scenes glimpse at how his unlikely feat of performing 25 shows in 24 hours came to be a few years ago, but also reminded fans of just how deeply his conviction to live each and every hour of life he’s been given to the fullest still runs. This was a breathtaking show, with unique arrangements of songs from Foreman’s solo albums and a few fan-selected Switchfoot tracks, revealing entire new worlds of possibility behind even songs I’d known and loved for close to two decades.

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