What Am I Listening To? – March 2018

Future of Forestry – Union
A fully instrumental album actually seems like a pretty logical progression for Future of Forestry, considering how heavily Awakened to the Sound relied on classical instrumentation. While I’m not 100% wowed by the results, I do think scoring an entire album without the assistance of vocals or lyrics was a worthwhile challenge for Eric Owyoung to take on, and a few of these tracks are pretty magical, in much the same way as a few of my favorite instrumental tracks from Sleeping at Last, or maybe even that Christmas album Falling Up put out a few years back. Things get a bit sleepy in the back half of the record, and I think some of the more enthralling tracks that show up earlier on could have benefited from expanding beyond the standard pop song length if they were already going to break out of the verse/chorus structure. Still, I have to admire that Eric has run the gamut from “worship leader” to “esoteric indie rock frontman” to “cerebral composer” over the course of his career, leaving me with absolutely no idea what he might be inspired to try next.

Katie Herzig – Moment of Bliss
It’s been a long four years since Walk Through Walls, which at the time topped my list of favorite albums from 2014. This album was delayed long enough for singles from it to trickle out over the course of more than a year, so having heard 6 out of 11 songs before the album dropped, I have to admit that finally hearing the rest was a bit anti-climactic. I can’t hold that against another strong collection of quirky, upbeat, and life-affirming electro-pop songs, though. While this collection might not be as strong as her last few albums, I have to hand it to Katie for continually finding small ways to thwart expectations in the middle of a super-catchy pop song, or to do something more intricate and baroque with the arrangements on a few of her deep cuts that reveals a level of depth beyond what you might expect from her most commercial offerings. I’m also proud of Katie for deciding to go public about her relationship with fellow musician Butterfly Boucher when dropping the single “Weight Lifting”. The freedom to finally be oneself that she celebrates in that song carries an even deeper meaning with her coming out in mind.

Lucius – Nudes
There’s a part of me that gets really excited about the prospect of hearing unplugged versions of album cuts from an artist I already know to be seriously talented in both their studio and live arrangements. But there’s also a part of me that feels like it’s a bit of a cop-out to release a hodgepodge of acoustic versions, covers, B-sides, and actual new material and call it an album. Out of ten tracks, only three of these (“Tempest”, “Something About You” and “Until We Get There”) are actually remakes of songs from their two studio albums, and all of those are seriously disappointing compared to the originals. Remaking a song with only acoustic instruments shouldn’t always have to involve a huge drop in the tempo and energy level, you know? Why remake anything other than your ballads if that’s all you’re gonna do with ’em? The covers presented here are largely in the same vein as the bonus cuts from Good Grief – I can’t say I knew any of the songs beforehand, so I can’t really evaluate how well the Lucius versions hold up. A few of the new cuts are genuinely pretty, particularly the opening track “Woman”, which I can’t imagine wanting to hear in any presentation other than its delectable acoustic version. But for every highlight, there’s a dull lowlight, with the album reaching its nadir at the closing track, “Goodnight Irene”, which was recorded as a duet with Roger Waters, and sounds like they might as well have crammed themselves into Neil Young’s vintage straight-to-vinyl recording booth, considering the irritatingly poor sound quality that tries to pass itself off as charming and nostalgic. Sorry Lucius, but emphasizing a male vocalist when you’ve got two powerhouse ladies who need to remain front and center, and putting on the pretense of being old-school when you’re clearly a modern indie pop band, just doesn’t show off any of your best sides.

2018_EverythingEverything_ADeeperSeaEverything Everything – A Deeper Sea EP
This fittingly-titled companion piece to last year’s A Fever Dream shows off a lot of range in just four tracks. The subdued ballad “Mariana”, which plumbs the depth of a man’s depression, honestly would have been a better lead-in to that album’s closing track “White Whale”, if only it had been written in time. “Breadwinner” was an actual B-side from the album sessions; it’s catchy as hell and I think it’s making some sort of commentary on gender roles, and the only reason I’m fine with it not being on the album is because it’s a bit too similar melodically and rhythmically to “Can’t Do”. The remix of “Ivory Tower” is the only track here that I don’t care for – it demonstrates that when you take away the manic energy of the original and replace it with more of a chill club beat, the repetitive vocal hook becomes more irritating than entertaining. The closing track is a cover of Neil Young’s “Don’t Let It Bring You Down” that was recorded live during a radio station appearance last year – I’m not familiar with the original, but I’m gonna guess they took some vocal liberties to give the song a climactic ending, which I’m totally fine with.

I’m with Her – See You Around
I’m with Her is a folk/bluegrass trio comprised of singer/songwriters Sara Watkins, Aoife O’Donovan, and Sarah Jarosz. (Yeah, I realize the band name is unfortunate now that it carries the baggage of being attached to a failed presidential campaign. They chose it before Hillary did, okay?) Their first full-length album doesn’t immediately wow me in the way that any of my favorite material from Nickel Creek or from Watkins’ solo work does – a few of these tracks have a bit of attitude that I’m sure I’ll come to appreciate more on further listens, while the mostly downbeat tracks (particularly in the back half) are a bit too subtle to reveal their inner beauty right away, and I’m sure I’ll come around on a few more of them with time. Not knowing anything about the other two members of the band, I can’t say whether this is much of a change from either of their solo works, but it doesn’t sound like a big change for Watkins, and perhaps that’s why I’m mildly disappointed here, as her solo work already leans toward the subtle side and I was looking for something a little gutsier that would give her more of a chance to show off her skills on the fiddle and the other instruments I know she’s more than capable of playing.

Vertical Horizon – The Lost Mile
I’ve always regarded Vertical Horizon as the exact middle of the road where mainstream radio was concerned at around the turn of the century when the band hit peak popularity. That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement, but they had strong enough material that I enjoyed a few of their singles and their deep cuts at the time. (“Shackled” still gives me the chills, and for obvious reasons, they haven’t done anything remotely like that since Keith Kane left the band.) Since the popularity of their sound waned, the band went on a hiatus, and they came back in the late 2000s with pretty much just Matt Scannell and a revolving door of other players, I haven’t exactly been thrilled with any of their newer albums, since they’ve done almost nothing to update their sound or think outside of the box in the years since. This new album adds more keyboards to the mix, and to its credit, the band gives itself ample space for extended jams on several tracks instead of being rigidly confined to the length of a potential radio single. I suppose stuff like the length of a track doesn’t really matter when your sound has fallen out of favor with mainstream radio anyway. I appreciate the optimistic tone that this album takes overall, and I find a small bit of joy in some of the extended instrumental bits. But at its core, this is still pretty bland, forgettable pop/rock, and I was only ever excited about any of this band’s songs when the lyrics and melodies were strong enough to overcome their vanilla choice of genre, which generally doesn’t happen on this album, and I don’t hold out any hope for it happening much in the future, either.

The Decemberists – I’ll Be Your Girl
There’s a pretty clean break between the convoluted high-concept albums that The Decemberists were acclaimed for making in the 2000s, and the more straightforward, Americana-influenced material they’ve been putting out in the 2010s. I didn’t get into the band until the latter phase of their career was underway, but I found a lot to appreciate on What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World, and I’ve slowly come to realize how instrumentally crisp and lyrically solid of an album The King Is Dead was, so it’s not like I think simplifying the structure of their albums has to mean dumbing down their sound. But what I don’t think any of us wanted or expected from The Decemberists was a synthpop album. They seem rather non-committal about the idea themselves, only really making use of the much-touted synthesizers on a few key tracks, while most of the rest of the album genre-hops as it pleases, falling into a frustrating amount of repetitive ruts in the process, with downright irritating hooks in the place of actual clever lyricism. Lead single “Severed” was a bold experiment, and I wouldn’t have minded more off-the-wall genre-blending in that vein. Synthpop and folk/rock tend to mix like oil and water, but I think it would have been possible to capitalize on that odd mixture by emphasizing the ridiculous incongruity as “Severed” did. There are a few anthemic tracks in the vein of their last album that I appreciate, and “Rusalka, Rusalka/Wild Rushes” may as well be a refugee from some long lost Hazards of Love-era folk/rock opera that never got written, for all I know. It’s a highlight even though it does jack squat to fit into the rest of the album. Most of the rest of these new songs are massively disappointing. Honestly, listening to this album gets me straight up pissed off most of the time. I’m finding myself wanting to go back in time instead, and discover albums like The Crane Wife that I hadn’t given a chance back when they were new, just to wash the bad taste out after listening to this one.

The Corrs – Jupiter Calling
The Corrs seem to have been slow to warm up to streaming media platforms since they came back from the decade or so that they were on hiatus. Their first album back, White Light, never showed up on Spotify, and thus I haven’t bothered trying to track it down. Their follow-up album finally showed up on Spotify this month, and while I didn’t expect a ton from it, I’ve at least found some subtle beauty in the lead single “Song of Solomon” and a few other tracks. For the most part, this is rather bland, low-key, lovey-dovey folk pop with only the occasional hint of Celtic flair to live things up. A few attempts at more daring subject matter do stand out to me, such as the rather shallow attempt at political commentary on “SOS (Song of Syria)”, or the genuinely heartbreaking reflection on a miscarriage in “No Go Baby”. But the vast majority of The Corrs’ music outside of their landmark debut album Forgiven, Not Forgotten and their collection of Irish standards Home has been rather forgettable for me, and this album does very little to change that equation.

Jason Wade – Paper Cuts
Have you ever listened to a Lifehouse album and thought, “Gee, you know what the problem is with these guys? They rock way too hard! Could we do something about that?”, then I guess their lead singer’s solo debut is the album for you! I’ve actually heard a fair amount of mellower Lifehouse songs that do keep me engaged over the years – they’re the exception, not the rule, but they still exist, and usually it’s because the band has changed up the instrumentation from their usual (which is just a slightly more alternative spin on the aforementioned Vertical Horizon sound, if I’m being honest) in some way. Jason Wade as a solo artist doesn’t do a whole lot of changing things up, which means this album never ventures far from the confines of predictable, slightly folksy pop/rock. He’s even recycled a few songs from Lifehouse’s last album Out of the Wasteland (“Central Park” and “Wish”) that pretty much sounded like attempts at a solo breakout at the time, because I think this album had been in the works even before that point. I know Jason is still capable of the occasional song that truly surprises me (see “Flight”, also from Lifehouse’s last album, which sadly does not make a reappearance here), but finding those tends to require wading through a wasteland (puns intended) of forgettable material. Due to the lack of true variety, I can’t see myself making time for 14 tracks of this stuff terribly often.

Marc Martel – My Way, Vol. 1
Martel’s debut solo album Impersonator was rock solid, and I have to say I’m far more interested him as a singer/songwriter performing his own material than as a Freddie Mercury impersonator, even though the latter is what he’s largely known for these days. This six-song collection pulls together covers of some of Martel’s personal favorite songs, of course including the obligatory Queen cover (“Don’t Stop Me Now”), but also being diverse enough to include songs from as early as the 50s (“Unchained Melody”, popularized in the 60s by the Righteous Brothers) and as late as the 90s (the Tom Waits deep cut “Take It with Me”). There’s only so much one can add to songs like these that have mostly been covered ad nauseum by other singers, and while Martel is a powerhouse vocalist more than capable of the range necessary to knock these out of the park from a technical standpoint, there really isn’t much appeal for me here beyond the initial novelty. It’s especially odd that he made the decision to strip The Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” of its bouncy rhythm and intricate instrumentation, or to Michael Bublé it up, big band style, on A-ha’s “Take On Me” (which is probably still the highlight of the EP). And of course, the less said about the insufferable title track (which was notably hated by Frank Sinatra himself), the better.


Obsessive Year-End List Fest 2017: Favorite Albums (and Honorable Mentions)

Out of the increasingly eclectic list of albums that makes its way into my Spotify playlists (and eventually my physical collection, wherever possible), here’s the stuff that I enjoyed the most in 2017, and that I would absolutely recommend, with no reservations, to anyone whose favorite type of music can best be described as “stuff that challenges me in some way but that is always super catchy”. (Is that not a musical genre? it should be.)

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Obsessive Year-End List Fest 2017: Favorite Songs

It’s that time of year again where I run through the list of songs that inspired me, entertained me, or just plain got stuck in my head for amusing reasons, more than any other songs in the last 12 months. Most of these were released in 2017. Some came out in 2016 and I either didn’t hear them until this year or didn’t come to fully appreciate them in time for last year’s list. I’ve given brief explanations and YouTube links for the Top 30. For the rest… just check the reviews where they’re linked, if you’re curious.

And as always, many of these songs (limit one per artist) are collected in my 2017 in a Nutshell playlist over on Spotify.

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Everything Everything – A Fever Dream: Shame About All of Our Neighborhoods

2017_EverythingEverything_AFeverDreamArtist: Everything Everything
Album: A Fever Dream
Year: 2017
Grade: A-

In Brief: With relentless, hypnotic rhythms, hypnotic guitar and synth melodies that sear into your brain, and politically-charged lyrics, Everything Everything has, well, just about everything I’ve been hoping to get out of an indie rock record in the year 2017.

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What Am I Listening To? – September 2017

2017_EverythingEverything_AFeverDreamEverything Everything – A Fever Dream
I’m kicking myself for not knowing about these guys until they were on album #4. Their highly danceable band of rock with occasional “math-y” rhythmic tricks, falsetto vocals, and politically-charged lyrics brings together a lot of the things I love about bands like Doves, TV on the Radio, and The Temper Trap, just to name a few. This thing shot up to the upper echelons of my “Best of 2017” so far list, and you can probably expect to see it high up in my year-end countdown. (First I need to get a full review of it posted. That’s coming soon… I hope.)

2017_JapaneseBreakfast_SoftSoundsFromAnotherPlanetJapanese Breakfast – Soft Sounds From Another Planet
Japanese Breakfast is the solo project of Korean-American musician Michelle Zauner. Nothing about it sounds particularly Japanese (or for that matter, Korean), but she did start the project with the intent of influencing more Asian-Americans to write and record their own music. Admittedly I stumbled across her music simply because of the name – a friend found it on Spotify when looking for “Japanese” music to play in the background we played a board game set in the country. What her music does sound like to me is a lot of the breathy, meditative indie folk/pop from the 90s – probably the kind of thing that would have piqued my curiosity at the time, but that seems a bit old hat to me now. There are some really interesting sonic textures in a few of the songs, due to her doing something atonal with the guitar, using Auto-tune and spoken word vocals on a song, or bringing in some bits of baroque instrumentation to help set a few tracks apart from the otherwise straightforward, mid-tempo ambient coffeehouse style that seems to be her default. It’s hard me to stay focused throughout this album due to the samey nature of several songs toward the end, and the way her voice wavers back and forth between soft and dreamy and honestly kind of grating.

2017_MuteMath_PlayDeadMuteMath – Play Dead
MuteMath’s fifth album seemingly can’t be talked about without mentioning the abrupt departure of Darren King, a drummer who has achieved almost god-like status among the band’s fans. How well they’ll do without him remains to be seen, but he was a full participant on this album, and any shortcomings here can’t be blamed on Darren or the lack of Darren. This was a more difficult record for me to get into than any of MuteMath’s previous ones – it’s more complex and jammy like Odd Soul, possibly as a response to the more streamlined, radio-friendly Vitals, though you’ll hear some overlap in the sound and mood of both albums since they were being worked on concurrently. What’s tough for me is that while it gives the four players in the band plenty of time to show off, the energy level of Odd Soul isn’t there, which puts it in this weird space where many of the songs are more laid back but they’re not as instantly memorable as previous “chill” songs in the band’s discography. A lot of it’s still very up-tempo, just not as in your face, though there are some surprising moments on both the loud and soft ends of the spectrum. I’m listening to this one a lot and it is gradually growing on me, but it doesn’t seem likely that it’ll hold a candle to their self-titled album or Odd Soul in the long run.

2017_FooFighters_ConcreteandGoldFoo Fighters – Concrete and Gold
This is only the second time I’ve listened to a Foos album all the way through, and the first time I’ve listened to a “conventional” release of theirs that didn’t have every song undergo a completely different writing and recording process in a different studio like on Sonic Highways. So I don’t share the complaints of some fans who say they’re repeating themselves or they’ve lost their way after whatever their last fan favorite album was. All I know is that there’s some heavy stuff here that kicks ass, I’m generally in line with Dave Grohl’s aggressive but likeable attitude on most of these songs, the guest appearances here (Justin Timberlake! Paul McCartney! Some dude from Boyz II Men!) unfortunately don’t add up to much of anything noticeable, and a few of the tracks can get a bit dreary when the band slows down the tempo. A mixed bag of good and mediocre, basically. Overall, I’m enjoying it, but without the central concept piquing my curiosity about the story behind each individual song, it’s unfortunately a bit too tempting to simply pick out the highlights and ignore the rest.

2016_TheNoreasters_RiseThe Nor’easters – Rise
This college acapella group managed to get me hooked on enough of their versions of pop songs I was previously unfamiliar with on their last album Equilibrium, including a gorgeous Justin Timberlake ballad and a pair of Florence + The Machine songs that may well have been the catalyst to get me into that band. Here, the only songs I recognize right out of the gate are the pair of Sia covers that open and close the album, “Alive” and “Elastic Heart”. I adore “Elastic Heart”, and their arrangement here is an appropriately climactic show-stopper, but I’m rather meh on “Alive” and most of the rest of the Sia songs I’ve heard, to be honest. I’m not even familiar with a lot of the original artists on the tunes in between, so I’m pretty well out of my depth in terms of judging how their performances stack up to the mostly R&B/pop-leaning tunes they’ve chosen to cover. I could see this potentially being a catalyst to get me to check out a few of the original versions, particularly “Honeymoon Avenue”. While sometimes I think plucking pop songs from the Top 40 sets up a lead/background dynamic that isn’t the best way for an acapella group to show its range, they do some interesting things with the rhythms and backing “instrumentation” on several of these tracks that help to set them apart from the usual “just lay down a beat and shove a singer up front for the audience to applaud”. (On that note, why the live version of “Runnin'”? The crowd noise is really distracting when this is otherwise a studio project.)

2017_JoshRitter_GatheringJosh Ritter – Gathering
While this one’s a bit less country-inflected than Sermon on the Rocks, one can always expect a rambling roulette of folksy sounds on a Josh Ritter record, with the occasional allusions to old-time religion, various models of travel, and colorful metaphors for a broken heart, and on all of those notes, this one doesn’t disappoint. From up-tempo anthems with a vulnerable side they can only barely manage to hide like “Showboat” to long, haunting ballads like “Dreams” that tell arresting stories, Ritter shows no signs of his creativity waning. And while I may not always understand or appreciate where he takes each individual song, he reminds me many times on this record why he’s still one of my favorite songwriters.

2017_TheKillers_WonderfulWonderfulThe Killers – Wonderful Wonderful
I enjoy The Killers in two modes: When they’re clearly doing something big, cheesy, and just plain fun, as on a lot the dance/synth rock oriented tracks heard on their debut Hot Fuss (and to a lesser extent Day & Age), or when they can pull off convincing ballads that are neither too lightweight nor too bogged down in self-serious theatrics. They walk that fine line better here than they have on any album since their debut, and while only a handful of tracks here are instant love, I’m tracking better with the overall thematic arc of this record than I did with pretty much anything on Sam’s Town or Battle Born. Commentary on what actual manhood means in the 21st century is prevalent throughout, and there are probably enough hints of how Brandon Flowers’ Mormon upbringing clashes with his seedy Las Vegas side to write an entire term paper on. It sounds more like he actually has a story to tell than like he’s trying so painfully hard to convince us he has a story to tell, which is an important distinction that separates some of these new songs from the band’s past work. Flowers is still emphatically not one of my favorite vocalists, but I don’t seem to mind his yelpy, ever-so-slightly-off-key delivery this time around, so that’s a sign of progress as well. Also, “The Man” is such a stupidly addictive single that I’m quite happy to forget “Human” ever existed.