Incubus – 8: You’re a Bunch of Songs I (Mostly) Never Want to Hear Again.

2017_Incubus_8Artist: Incubus
Album: 8
Year: 2017
Grade: D+

In Brief: Incubus returns to making actual rock music, which would have been a nice change following the lifeless If Not Now, When?, but subpar songwriting and bone-headed repetition kill off most of the creative spark this band once displayed. There are a few bits of experimentation here and there, but don’t hold your breath for anything fascinating in the exploratory department.

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What Am I Listening To? – June 2017

2017_FleetFoxes_CrackUpFleet Foxes – Crack-Up
Fleet Foxes’ first two albums made an instant fanboy out of me. Then they went on a long hiatus. Now they’re finally back with an album that is much more intentionally disjointed and sprawling than their past work… and I’m having a really tough time with it. Some of my favorite songs of theirs in the past had complex structures or unexpected moments where the dynamics would shift with little warning, so that’s not the problem per se… but I can’t help remember how, when I first heard of this band, the way they were described to me made me fear that their music would be too lo-fi for my liking. Now that’s actually happened, at least in a few small spots that have a huge effect on my opinion of some otherwise grandiose songs, and I just don’t ever want to have that many moments in the middle of a single song where I keep having to turn the volume up and down, or when a singer known for a gorgeous voice stacked with backing harmonies aplenty decides to show off his croakiest and most atonal side instead. This isn’t a terrible album – “Kept Woman”, “Cassius”, and “Fool’s Errand” stand among the gorgeous highlights, and I enjoy some of the more climactic moments in the longer songs. But overall, it’s the first album of theirs that I’ve had a difficult time getting truly excited about.

2017_TheSecretSisters_YouDontOwnMeAnymoreThe Secret Sisters – You Don’t Own Me Anymore
While it’s less up-tempo than Put Your Needle Down, which got me into this country duo back in 2014, the sparser sound of this record keeps the ladies’ vocals front and center, as they should be, while retaining the sadness and occasional sinister edge that lurk beneath their otherwise sweet, sisterly harmonies. (Just check out “Mississippi”, the murderous perspective-flip on their previous song “Iuka”. Yikes.) I’m glad they had Brandi Carlile to go to bat for them even when their old label lost interest and they got embroiled in a lawsuit with their former manager. Just the fact that The Secret Sisters are still making music is a sign that they’re stronger than a lot of bands that get chewed up and spit out by a heartless industry.

2017_Matisyahu_UndercurrentMatisyahu – Undercurrent
There’s this weird design aesthetic that seems to happen when R&B, hip-hop, and/or reggae artists go independent that makes it hard to tell the difference between their album covers and poorly Photoshopped fan art from someone’s favorite online RPG. I suppose it’s a decent enough signifier that Matisyahu is well past caring how mainstream-friendly his music is (or how pure it sounds to reggae fans, etc.) This album continues a trend heard on 2014’s Akeda that finds a number of the songs stretching out into free-form jams, with a bit of Matisyahu’s oddball beatboxing here and there. This time around it was deliberate on his backing band’s part – they just wanted to take these songs where they went and not give a damn about the time constraints of potential radio singles. These rather long-ish tracks (topping out at 14 minutes on the grand finale) are proving to be tough for me to digest, despite there being only 8 of them. But let’s be honest: Youth was an outlier, so I don’t fully expect to click with most of what he’s decided to do after the brief fluke of mainstream success that happened to come with that album and Light. This just isn’t a guy who panders to my sensibilities. In a way, I have to respect that.

2016_UmphreysMcGee_ZONKEYUmphrey’s McGee – ZONKEY
A jam band with so many influences spanning from classic rock to modern R&B could probably record a covers album in their sleep. But Umphrey’s went the less traditional route and decided to make studio versions of some of the “live mashups” they’d been performing at their Halloween concerts every year instead, which gives us such bizarre revelations as Radiohead’s “The National Anthem” colliding with Beck’s “Loser” and Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight”, or MGMT’s “Kids” syncing up in terrifying perfection with Nirvana’s “Come As You Are” and then later melting into Dead or Alive’s “You Spin Me Round” for no reason other than that it sounded cool. This is an absolutely ridiculous (or more appropriately, redonkulous) concept, and probably one with limited replay value, but I have to admit I get a kick out of most of these Frankensteined songs. Kudos to the band for having such stylistic breadth that they could do most of this with live instrumentation instead of simply by chopping up and remixing existing recordings.

2016_MattWertz_GunShyMatt Wertz – Gun Shy
Every now and then I discover that Matt Wertz has a “new” record out that’s like a year old by the time I actually get to it. And every time he gravitates farther away from his old acoustic singer/songwriter shtick and closer to full-on throwback pop nostalgia, with a little bit of white boy R&B on the side. It’s not a stylistic choice that gives his songs a lot of staying power, but they’re good for a bit of lighthearted summer fun, and that trend definitely continues here. The hardest-hitting stuff is mostly front-loaded, with the album falling into predictable patterns later on, with only the occasional highlight standing out in the album’s midsection… which for me is par for the course with Wertz’s albums, I guess.

2017_AltJ_RelaxerAlt-J – Relaxer
Alt-J sure went from a band I was super excited about to one I could hardly stand in record time. The fascination with understatement that the band pursued on most of their second record This Is All Yours is even more dominant here, which reveals some interesting slow grooves at times, but for the most part just tries my patience. The few upbeat moments seem to be harsher on the ears (and in the lyrical department) than I remember Alt-J being in their early days. Either way, I just can’t seem to win with these guys, which is a shame, because An Awesome Wave did such a good job of balancing the catchy stuff with the weird stuff with the quietly sublime stuff, and the band just seems to have become increasingly off-kilter ever since.

2017_Evanescence_LostWhispersEvanescence – Lost Whispers
This is mostly a collection of the B-sides from Evanescence’s three studio albums thus far. I’ve already heard most of these, and since they were mostly cut from the same cloth as the album tracks they weren’t deemed worthy of appearing among on hose releases, this collection is unsurprisingly rather forgettable. The surprising part is how ballad-heavy this disc is, and while I remember liking such unique touches as the sweet vocal layering on “Missing” and the harp on “Secret Door”, I’m not sure stringing several such tracks together presents any of them in the best light. Even coming from someone who thought Fallen was a blast, I have to admit that Amy Lee’s fatalistic melodrama gets old fast. The big draw for longtime fans is probably the remake of “Even in Death”, the lone refugee from their independent album Origin that didn’t get a big-budget reworking for Fallen but that continued to crop up in the band’s setlists after they’d decidedly left the rest of Origin in the past. (Pity; I rather liked Origin. Though it may have been a collection of demos, it showed way more stylistic diversity than any of their major-label efforts.) How is “Even in Death” reimagined here? As a piano ballad, stripped of the quirky electronic sounds and the dissonance that made it intriguing in the first place. Sigh. It’s like Evanescence is doing everything in their power to remind me that any fascination I once had with the band turned out to be rather shallow. They apparently have a new album due out later this year which promises to change things up… I won’t hold my breath.

2017_Mae_MAEMae – (M)(A)(E)
Mae has yet to release any actual new music (at least that I’m aware of) since reuniting a few years back. However, they’ve reissued their independently released 3-EP set, which was the last thing they did in 2009-10 before their hiatus, and that set, particularly the (m)orning EP, remains my second favorite work of theirs after The Everglow. I’m re-listening to it now because I noticed it had cropped up again on Spotify after the original EPs went missing. I’ve observed that they’ve cleaned up some of the messiness in the tracklisting by shortening or omitting some of the interludes, and merging most of them into the surrounding tracks for continuity. (m)orning is mostly intact, with only its final interlude “(m)orning Drive” missing; the “Good (a)fternoon” intro from (a)fternoon is also gone, making for a smoother transition from “Night/Day” into “Over & Over”. The latter of those two seems to be the only song to get significantly changed in the remaster, as its ending jam session is completely gone, as if the band had reconsidered their original decision to extend the track and decided it needed a radio edit, which is slightly disappointing. Elsewhere, the long interlude “(a)fternoon in Eden”, which was literally just several minutes of crickets, has been mercifully shortened to just a brief outro as “Communication” fades out, the intro “Good (e)vening” has been merged into “Bloom”, “Sleep Well” is now combined with its outro “Good (e)vening” (which makes sense because they really should never have been separate tracks), and the piano instrumental “Seasons” has been moved to the end of the project so that it doesn’t interrupt the flow of the (e)vening section as much. New listeners probably won’t notice or care about any of this, except that it makes the listening experience a little smoother where it could occasionally be frustrating on the original EPs. So this is an improvement overall. Regardless, the songs on this set were always high quality, and while the remaster brings out some vocal or instrumental bits that I hadn’t noticed before, this isn’t so much a radical reworking of the project as it is an opportunity to re-introduce it to new fans, or to folks who lost track of the band when they were no longer on a label.

Sylvan Esso – What Now: All you’ll hear is sound. (Wait, isn’t that how music normally works?)

2017_SylvanEsso_WhatNowArtist: Sylvan Esso
Album: What Now
Year: 2017
Grade: B-

In Brief: The duo’s second album features some clever sonic experimentation and the occasional brave lyric. But it too often falls back on the old cliche of making music about making music. And the highlights generally aren’t as strong as they were on the first album.

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Linkin Park – One More Light: Why is everything so NOT HEAVY??!?!

2017_LinkinPark_OneMoreLightArtist: Linkin Park
Album: One More Light
Year: 2017
Grade: D+

In Brief: The problem with Linkin Park’s seventh album isn’t that it’s mellow and poppy. The problem is that it’s stubbornly, maddeningly generic, which is not something I could say about even the absolute worst songs on their previous albums.

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Mew – Visuals: They could have made it; I believe they faded.

2017_Mew_VisualsArtist: Mew
Album: Visuals
Year: 2017
Grade: B-

In Brief: Mew’s keyboard-heavy indie rock sound will always inspire mental flights of fancy, and I appreciate the occasional heavier moments, too. But this record feels less “prog” than their last few, and I don’t think the songwriting is as intriguing, which means a lot of it is pleasant but forgettable.

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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.

Lewis Del Mar: Build Yourself a Technicolor Masterpiece.

2016_LewisDelMar_LewisDelMarArtist: Lewis Del Mar
Album: Lewis Del Mar
Year: 2016
Grade: B

In Brief: An interesting blend of Latin-inspired rhythms and guitar parts with indie/experimental rock sensibilities that are equal parts ambient and abrasive. Not every experiment works, but the effect of these unique ingredients coming together can be quite alluring when they get it just right.

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