The New Pornographers – Whiteout Conditions: Got so hooked on a feeling, I started dealing.

2017_TheNewPornographers_WhiteoutConditionsArtist: The New Pornographers
Album: Whiteout Conditions
Year: 2017
Grade: B

In Brief: The supergroup’s first album without Dan Bejar is one of their most stylistically consistent and enjoyable… and also perhaps one of their least offbeat and exploratory. I definitely enjoy it, but I can’t help but feel like something’s missing.

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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.

Tim Be Told – Friends and Foes: God, please don’t forget about the children like me.

2016_timbetold_friendsandfoesArtist: Tim Be Told
Album: Friends and Foes
Year: 2016
Grade: B-

In Brief: I admire Tim’s vulnerability as he takes a peek into broken relationships and tries to figure out where things went wrong and how to take the first steps toward reconciliation. But while Tim is a fabulous singer, the music on this record is often a bit too pretty and pristine to really match the conflicts that have led him to bare his soul.

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The Flaming Lips – Oczy Mlody: Hey, it beats Slimy Miley.

2017_theflaminglips_oczymlodyArtist: The Flaming Lips
Album: Oczy Mlody
Year: 2017
Grade: C+

In Brief: This album is to The Flaming Lips what Hail to the Thief was to Radiohead. It’s a summation of past sounds, perhaps a bit of a breather after two of their most experimental and alienating albums, but a record whose overall flow and concept suffers due to the attempt to paste together sounds and styles that have worked for them in the past.

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Ed Sheeran – ÷: Appealing to the Lowest Common Denominator?

2017_EdSheeran_DivideArtist: Ed Sheeran
Album: ÷
Year: 2017
Grade: B-

In Brief: Ed takes his music in a few new directions that I appreciate, and occasionally he shows some real wit in the songwriting department. But so much of this album feels calculated to clone the success of past singles and to pander to as wide an audience as possible. It drags down an otherwise enjoyable experience.

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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.

Hidden Figures – The Album: They Want the Moon, I’m on Mars.

2016_variousartists_hiddenfiguresthealbumArtist: Various Artists
Album: Hidden Figures: The Album
Year: 2016
Grade: B-

In Brief: The rare movie tie-in album that I enjoy both as a listening experience in and of itself, and as a strong reminder of key scenes in the film that inspired it. Despite a few moments that fall flat or don’t seem to relate directly to the film’s plot, Pharrell Williams did a pretty good job writing and arranging these songs, and picking the right female voices to bring most of them to life.

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