What Am I Listening To? – August 2017

2017_NicholeNordeman_EveryMileMatteredNichole Nordeman – Every Mile Mattered
It’s been 12 years since Nordeman’s last solo album, and while a lot’s changed for her personally during her long sabbatical, this record sounds to me like it could have easily followed just a few years after 2005’s Brave. That’s a blessing and a curse at the same time. A few choice songs still remind me that she can be a knockout songwriter when she puts her mind to it, particularly “Dear Me”, a letter to her younger self in which she repents of trying to exclude others from having a seat at the table with Christ. That song hits harder than any adult contemporary CCM track has hit me in a long time. Musically, this is still the largely piano-driven, radio-friendly CCM heard on Brave and Woven & Spun, without a whole lot of risks taken. Aside from a few corny pop tunes that sacrifice lyrical depth for cheap hooks, the lowlight here turns out to be an underwhelming and wholly unnecessary acapella cover of U2’s “Beautiful Day”. She had already covered their song “Grace” back in 2004. She should have left well enough alone.

2017_StephenChristian_WildfiresStephen Christian – Wildfires
Hey, speaking of Christian music… No, seriously, I’m not just making a pun on the guy’s name. Since Anberlin retired in 2014, the band’s lead singer has found a second career as a worship pastor, and on this album he presents a set of (presumably) worship songs written for that purpose. Not knowing this before I listened made it a shock to the system in the absolute worst way. Christian has hinted at his faith in intriguing ways when writing more open-to-interpretation lyrics for Anberlin – he just doesn’t strike me as nearly as interesting being totally straightforward with almost no mystique to the process whatsoever. Most alarmingly, the music here is infuriatingly generic, only passing as “rock” by the increasingly polished and programmed standards of Christian radio. This might as well be a Newsboys album – (and I don’t even mean one of the good ones from before Michael Tait was awkwardly grafted into the band). Despite Christian’s undeniably smooth and distinctive vocals and some agreeable catchy melodies, just getting through a single listen to this one was really hard for me. Aside from some mildly interesting synth textures on the duet “Atmosphere”, I’m not hearing anything even remotely approaching originality here. I’m not saying I hate this on principle just because of its chosen genre… I’ve heard some rather creative music that fits comfortably under the “contemporary worship” label on several occasions. It’s just that I know Stephen’s a good songwriter, and what he’s written here mostly feels like he’s doing a job to fill gaps in Sundays services. If he wants this to be listenable beyond that context, he needs to try a lot harder.

2017_GrizzlyBear_PaintedRuinsGrizzly Bear – Painted Ruins
For a band that pretty much knows they’re creating music most listeners won’t like right away, and will need a good five or so listens to fully absorb, I was actually surprised that I reacted rather warmly to this one the first time through. I’ve always had a hard time getting consistently excited about Grizzly Bear beyond a few select songs, since they can be beautifully layered and pull off the slow burn on their way to an exciting climax just as easily as they can seem to meander and go nowhere with their unconventional melodies and hazy guitar textures. But the highlights of their albums are usually fully of bedazzling and beguiling sounds that play best once I have a pretty good handle on what they’re building up to. A divorce seems to have been the impetus for a lot of the lyrics here, but nothing is ever that straightforward on a Grizzly Bear record. Even after a good five listens, I’m beginning to pick out highlights, but I still only have the vaguest of mental thumbnail sketches of what most of these songs are trying to accomplish. Sometimes I feel like that’s the way Grizzly Bear likes it.

2017_IronWine_BeastEpicIron & Wine – Beast Epic
If you’re tired of all the clutter and excess instrumentation and overproduction on Iron & Wine’s more recent albums, and you just wish Sam Beam would go back to the simplicity of his early days, then I guess this hushed acoustic record is for you. Personally, I prefer my Iron & Wine in larger-than-life mode. I think I&W does the mellow folk troubadour thing well, too, since it is what he first became known for. But I get diminishing returns from a full album of it, so I’ve had a really hard time paying attention to the details on all but a few of the songs here. The playful “About a Bruise” perks things up a bit, as if borrowing a page from some of the quirkier tracks on Beam’s collaboration with Jesca Hoop from last year. And the following song “Last Night” does some interesting things with the strings, I guess. “Song in Stone” and a few other ballads are vaguely pretty, but in comparison to other low-key I&W songs that stand out to me as personal favorites, nothing here’s quite as arresting as a “Fever Dream”, a “Joy”, or a “Resurrection Fern”. I was kind of hoping Beam was saving some bigger, widescreen compositions to put alongside the more intimate, hushed ballads this time around. But I suspect that with time, I’ll come to appreciate a lot of the songwriting on this record despite the relative lack of musical bells and whistles (in some cases literally) that I’ve come to appreciate on records like The Shepherd’s Dog and Ghost on Ghost.

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Arcade Fire – Everything Now: It goes on and on, I don’t know what I want.

2017_ArcadeFire_EverythingNowArtist: Arcade Fire
Album: Everything Now
Year: 2017
Grade: B

In Brief: While I really enjoy the disco-rock sound and the theme of media oversaturation, it’s a genre exercise that has its limits, and the repetitive choruses make those limits painfully clear. I enjoy this one more than a lot of Arcade Fire’s fanbase seems to, but I think they need to change things up and truly surprise us again when they get around to making album #6.

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Coldplay – Kaleidoscope: I want something just like about 40% of this.

2017_Coldplay_KaleidoscopeEPArtist: Coldplay
Album: Kaleidoscope EP
Year: 2017
Grade: B

In Brief: While I feel like this EP’s release was a bit overhyped, and I’m not inclined to trust rumors of the band having recorded their final album, there are some genuinely exciting new directions taken here that I’d love to see the band explore a little further… and also some embarrassing attempts at pop culture relevance that I wish they’d bury once and for all.

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Haim – Something to Tell You: Baby, it’s about time!

2017_Haim_SomethingtoTellYouArtist: Haim
Album: Something to Tell You
Year: 2017
Grade: B

In Brief: No shocking changes here – the Haim sisters stick largely to what worked on their first album. There might be a few more slick R&B grooves and guitar solos that sneak up on you, and that helps to keep this from feeling like a total retread of Days Are Gone. Still, that album is slightly better song-for-song than this one.

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What Am I Listening To? – July 2017

2017_JenniferKnapp_LoveComesBackAroundJennifer Knapp – Love Comes Back Around
Knapp’s sixth album is a bit more “rock” than Set Me Free was, but in that workmanlike, “heartland” sort of way where the pace of it is more relaxed and the guitars are there to get the job done without too much showing off. There’s the occasional musical bright spot – an earthy guitar solo, a few horns to accent a track or two, a winsome acoustic melody on one of the gentler songs. Unfortunately I’m still rather “meh” about the music overall. I’m excited about the lyrical content, which finds Jennifer digging more into the specifics of what it means to be in a loving, committed relationship with another woman. It’s been strongly hinted at on her past two albums, but never made explicit, and that opens up some new possibilities for her songwriting-wise, while other songs about forgiveness and rebuilding burnt bridges help to ensure it doesn’t ever become the one thing that consumes her identity as a songwriter.

2017_Haim_SomethingtoTellYouHaim – Something to Tell You
I’ve been waiting eagerly for this one ever since I became obsessed with Haim’s debut album in 2014. Some follow-ups take way too long to deliver, but thankfully this one doesn’t disappoint. I can hear a little bit more sampling and interesting use of syncopation as they explore their R&B side a little more, while their rock side emerges in the form of a few surprisingly raw moments of guitar solo glory. Still, this is a pop record at its heart – one which shows some growth in places, but falls back on repetitive choruses and melodies that don’t push themselves quite as much as they could in others. I’m still slightly partial to Days Are Gone, but I’m glad they tried a few things here that they hadn’t thought to the first time around.

2017_Coldplay_KaleidoscopeEPColdplay – Kaleidoscope EP
I don’t think the release of an EP deserves nearly as much hype as Coldplay built up for this one, by releasing nearly all five of its songs in some form ahead of time, and by pushing back the release date a few times. I think there’s been more buzz about this than a band’s usual between-album leftovers project simply because Chris Martin has talked about A Head Full of Dreams, to which this EP is a companion piece, as though it might be their final full-length album. There are some interesting ideas here that both recall Coldplay’s old days as well as suggesting some possible routes forward, both for good (see the off-kilter syncopation of “A L I E N S”) and for bad (see their unfortunate Chainsmokers collaboration “Something Just Like This”, which sounds even stupider presented as a live version here). But I’m a bit worried about the prospect of Coldplay becoming a “singles band” that releases material in a piecemeal fashion. When they pull a collection of songs together in a way where the sum means more than the individual pieces, as they did on Viva la Vida, they can be truly transcendent, but lately they seem a bit too preoccupied with having these massive stand-alone songs that capture the cultural zeitgeist, and considering themselves failures if a single falls short of that.

2017_Radiohead_OKComputer_OKNOTOK19972017Radiohead – OK Computer OKNOTOK 1997 2017
For the 20th anniversary of OK Computer, Radiohead re-released it with a second disc full of lost songs from the era, a few of which had been played live and made their way into fandom folklore, but had never seen official release on a studio recording for now. (There’s also a box set with some other goodies for the diehards. I’m just listening to the standard edition on Spotify.) OKC is my absolute favorite Radiohead album, which feels like one of the few things I have in common with a lot of Radiohead fans, and I didn’t even think it needed a remaster to be honest, because I don’t think there were any technical limitations at the time holding it back from achieving its full potential. But in listening to this version, I do hear occasional bits of instrumentation pop out that I hadn’t noticed as much in the bazillion times I’ve listened to the original release since I first got into the band circa 2001. The new songs and lost B-sides aren’t really doing as much for me – I would say it’s because I don’t have the personal history with any of those songs that some fans do, but also there isn’t as much thematic connection between any of them, which was the big draw for me on OKC (even though Radiohead swears up and down it wasn’t meant to be a concept album). You’ll probably like a lot of these tracks more if The Bends was your favorite era of Radiohead, since several sound like the direction they could have taken that sound before they decided to take the more introverted and progressive turn that make OKC such a landmark album.

2015_POD_TheAwakeningP.O.D. – The Awakening
I’m a bit out of the loop where P.O.D. is concerned. They put out a new album in 2015 that I didn’t even know about until just recently; back then I was actually really enjoying the acoustic SoCal Sessions album they’d put out the year before, which emphasized the actual musicality of the band over pure bravado and heaviness, and gave me hope that there might be some creative juice left in the band. Turns out they funneled that creative energy into a hilariously bad concept album, during which the spaces between every single song are filled with sound bytes and painfully stilted voice acting meant to portray some sort of a redemptive story arc. The music mostly follows this story, but occasionally veers from it to give us the typical “P.O.D. pumps up their hardcore fans” type anthem that makes me wonder if they’re still mentally trapped in the year 2002. (Skillet’s Rise isn’t a bad comparison in terms of the album’s structure, though from what little I remember of that subpar album, it was more tolerable than this.) A few tracks show signs of artistic growth, but for the most part this album is a cringe-inducing trainwreck – easily the worst thing I’ve heard from them since the pre-Satellite days.

2017_JohnReuben_ReubonicJohn Reuben – Reubonic
John Reuben was always a bit of an oddity in my music library, since I don’t normally listen to rap. My reason for liking him had nothing to do with him being a white rapper – I just found that, as goofy and self-deprecating as his music could be, he actually had some solid commentary on the commercial aspects and skewed political priorities of the Christian music industry in which he came to realize he was a square peg in a round hole as the years went on. He pretty much fell off the map after the lackluster Sex, Drugs & Self-Control in 2009, but now he’s back with an edgier album that was surprisingly likeable for me right out of the gate. Usually I think Reuben’s songs are weird and awkward at first, and then some of them grow on me over time. But I think he hit just the right balance of accessibility and experimentation with this one – and some of his more challenging lyrics are bound to shock and confuse the old CCM fans who still expect some sort of a Toby Mac protege, which gives him some real bonus points in my book. This might just outdo his previous career high point, Word of Mouth, but it’ll take a few more listens for me to be sure of that.

2017_ArcadeFire_EverythingNowArcade Fire – Everything Now
While Arcade Fire’s fifth album isn’t as much of a startling change-up as Reflektor, the mish-mash of disco, reggae, and electropop influences is still a large part of their music as it was on that album, which will leave some fans of their older work wanting due to the lack of “old-timey instruments”. But commenting on the excesses of pop culture, the more streamlined, danceable, instant-gratification sort of sound makes sense. Consider it their equivalent of U2’s Pop, I guess. I really enjoy most of what I’m hearing here, and I actually don’t mind Win Butler’s fervent, kinda-preachy vocals now that I’ve had all these years to get used to the band’s shtick. I relate to a lot of what they’re trying to communicate here. Still, they kind of went off the deep end in terms of repetition, with a few songs full-on repeating themselves in different musical contexts on almost identically-named tracks. And perhaps one too many choruses that get a bit redundant and make otherwise digestible-length songs feel like they go on for a bit longer than they really need to. Still, this album is an emotional gut-punch where it really counts, and usually they’ve had to accomplish that by way of songs that take several listens to grow on me. So either I’m used to the learning curve by this point, or Arcade Fire’s finally found that sweet spot in between challenging and accessible.

Lisa Hannigan – At Swim: My Place of Clear Water

2016_lisahannigan_atswimArtist: Lisa Hannigan
Album: At Swim
Year: 2016
Grade: B

In Brief: A mellow, soothing, and at times hauntingly beautiful collection of songs. Lisa’s hushed indie folk approach is subtle enough, and her lyrics are abstract enough, that her songs might not impress you right away, but they set the perfect mood for a rainy day spent curled up with a book or a late night de-stressing session.

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Lift Me Up, Let Me Go: My Top 20 Linkin Park Songs

I’ve usually been on the outside looking in when a well-known musician dies, and fans are left grieving. A number of famous singers and songwriters, both of the critically-acclaimed and chart-busting varieties, have left us in recent years, and in a lot of cases it’s been someone who I respected, though not someone whose music I had a lot of personal history with. That all changed when I learned of Chester Bennington‘s suicide just a few days ago.

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