Jennifer Knapp – Love Comes Back Around: Middle of the Straight Road

2017_JenniferKnapp_LoveComesBackAroundArtist: Jennifer Knapp
Album: Love Comes Back Around
Year: 2017
Grade: C+

In Brief: While it’s a thematically warmer record that opens up a little more about the long-term relationship that Jennifer has been in, I’m not finding a whole lot here that keeps me engaged on a musical level. She’s played it safe with her mid-tempo heartland rock/adult contemporary style for two albums in a row now, and that’s a bit frustrating given the unique perspective that she has to offer.

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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.

Jennifer Knapp – Set Me Free: I still love you, Jennifer, but this record? Not so much.

2014_JenniferKnapp_SetMeFreeArtist: Jennifer Knapp
Album: Set Me Free
Year: 2014
Grade: C+

In Brief: What starts off as a gutsy, confessional, and even mildly confrontational record sadly slips into the adult contemporary doldrums barely a third of the way in, and it never truly recovers. I’ve got nothing but love for Jennifer as a person, but Set Me Free plays it way too safe to be nearly as lovable as her classic albums or even Letting Go.

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Obsessive Year-End List Fest 2014: Favorite Songs

It’s that time of year again, when I arbitrarily sort through the list of songs I’ve been obsessed with over the past 12 months, and try to whittle it down to a semi-reasonable list of 100 favorites. A lot of these were released in 2013, and a few even in 2012, but as usual, I was late to the party.

Music videos and some live performances are embedded for most of the Top 30. I didn’t want to go too far beyond that, for fear of crashing your browser. I’ve also created a Spotify playlist that explores a number of these favorites, more or less chronologically in the order that I discovered them.

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What Am I Listening To? – October 2014

2014_TheLastBison_VAThe Last Bison – VA
Though they were one and done on the major label deal that gave us Inheritance just last year, you wouldn’t know it from listening to this backwoodsy “baroque folk” outfit’s third full-length album. The lessons learned as they sharpened up old songs for a wider audience on their previous album translate well to a lively set of new songs here, some alight with bells and strings and stomping percussion, and some more reflective, open-ended, and incredibly breathtaking as a result. Ben Hardesty is an acquired taste as frontmen go, but his ragged voice is much easier to “acquire” here, thanks to him reining in some of its edgiest tendencies. Even though there might not be anything as career-defining as their epic “Switzerland” here, it’s their strongest collection of songs as a whole, with so many standout tracks that it’s hard to pick a favorite.

Alt-J – This Is All Yours
“This is all bullsh*t”, was my first impression of the confusing and frustrating follow-up to An Awesome Wave – a record which was probably mostly bullsh*t as well, but it was rhythmic, psychedelic, tongue-twisting and fun bullsh*t. Here they’re minus a bass player and, apparently, a major creative force in the band, and while their trademark percussive grooves and twisted choirboy vocal breakdowns come out swinging on several tracks, they’re mixed together with a lot of quiet and frankly rather dull material, bringing the album to a screeching halt whenever it threatens to really get going. For all of their attempts to tie related thoughts together with song suites and sequels to older songs and so forth, and to catch tastemaker blogs off-guard by sampling Miley Cyrus, the material just isn’t strong enough to warrant the musical whiplash. There’s something wrong when my favorite tracks on an album are the fun old-school rocker they wrote just to mimic “normal” rock music tropes, and the sneaky Bill Withers cover that got slipped in as a hidden track.

Jenny Lewis – The Voyager
This is one of those records that was recommended to me because I like a simple, tuneful pop/rock album from time to time. I have no frame of reference for Jenny Lewis’s past work (unless you count seeing The Wizard as a kid). So I don’t know whether this has always been her thing or whether she’s an underground rock chick finally indulging a love affair with mainstream pop a la Liz Phair. All I know is that this one really isn’t hitting home with me. Not a whole lot really stands out to me instrumentally (aside from the keyboard chords at the beginning of the first track sounding eerily similar to “Pennsylvania” by Jars of Clay, of all things), and the lyrics are just TMI. I get that this was one of those honest, cleansing sort of singer-songwriter records that sweeps all the skeletons out of the closet, and some folks appreciate that sort of candor in a songwriter. I’m just not really grasping the lessons learned in any of it, or really anything that I can relate to in the process.

Sara Groves – The Collection
Sara Groves is one of those artists who I nominally still follow, but who hasn’t really captured my interest throughout an album since 2004’s The Other Side of Something. That, and especially 2002’s All Right Here, which first got me into her music, are well-balanced record that show off her fun-loving pop and folk sensibilities while also spotlighting her tender and thought-provoking piano ballads, which I’m guessing are the point of entry for most of the folks who listen to her nowadays, considering how heavily her last few records emphasized those. She’s got a gift for wit and storytelling that is uncommon in Christian music these days, so I respect her even though I don’t listen to her all that often. This retrospective collection, which pulls together a whopping 27 songs, four or so of them brand new, into a 2-disc set, feels like a mix tape made for me by someone who wants me to go back and notice a lot of those mellower ballads that weren’t the obvious hit singles nor the quirkiest experiments. There’s no “Less Like Scars”, no “All I Need”, no “In the Girl There’s a Room”. Some of the picks were likely a surprise to veteran fans, I’d suspect, though there are a few mellower “deep album cuts” that I remember enjoying back in the day which were nice to go back and relive. I’m reminded of how much I missed the boat on “You Are the Sun” and a few other highlights from Add to the Beauty, which is represented by more cuts on this collection than any of her other albums. And I loved finally getting to hear her own take on “Lay It Down”, the track she wrote (but did not sing on) for Jars of Clay’s The Shelter project in 2010. But an 11-track album from Sara is hard for me to sit through these days, so 27 is just asking way too much. This is a walk down memory lane that I have to take in short segments.

Lights – Little Machines
I was a little concerned when I heard that Lights was deliberately headed in more of a mainstream direction with this one, writing song’s with the audience’s enjoyment in mind and not so much with the tendency to experiment. Siberia wasn’t a perfect record, but I appreciated its muddier touchers, its deep bass lines going into the red, its unabashed dubstep and IDM influences, and heck, even its rap breaks that drew derision from a lot of her fanbase. But song for song, Little Machines might edge out both of her previous albums. It certainly starts strong, and quite unexpectedly, with the tranquil, reflective “Portal” taking everything that you shouldn’t do at the beginning of a big pop album and somehow making it work. Big, fun singles “Running with the Boys” and “Up We Go” are up next, and from there it steps down from brilliant to merely good for several songs, then deflates to merely average by album’s end. I tend to cherry-pick more than I listen all the way through with Lights’ albums anyway, so having a solid two-thirds of the record before things start to feel a bit ho-hum is better than her usual.

My Brightest Diamond – This Is My Hand
Wow, I really did not see this one coming. There were some cute and thought-provoking songs on Shara Worden’s previous album , 2011’s All Things Will Unwind, that spoke to me even though their mostly mellow, classical-leaning style didn’t always work wonders for me. She might have been in the “Respect, but don’t often listen to” category just like Sara Groves. This album is a brave leap forward for Shara, maintaining the fluttering woodwinds and the dramatic horns and all of those other Sufjan Stevens-y touches, but throwing a hell of a lot of percussion at it, both live and electronic, and I am totally in love with the weird synthesis of genres that came out of this. Opening track “Pressure”, with its drum corps banging away, may be the catchiest thing she’s ever done, but the front half of this album is track after track of creative genius, and while the back half mellows a bit, it doesn’t lose the intriguing synthesis of electronic beats and baroque pop instrumentation. Her voice seems so pure and motherly that it’s hard to imagine her having a sinister side, but a few of these songs are deliciously creepy, while “Resonance” lives things up near the end, boggling my mind as I try and keep track of its time signature, a seemingly impossible task with everyone doing something different at the same time.

Jennifer Knapp – Set Me Free
Given the inevitable controversy when Jennifer decided to come out as a lesbian right before the release of her comeback album in 2010, I almost expected that the uncharitable response from a lot of folks who liked her back in her “Christian music” days might just drive her back into seclusion. Things were rather quiet in the Knapp camp for a few years, but thankfully she’s still recording. Letting Go wasn’t a “coming out” album, per se, and Set Me Free follows suit by speaking in largely universal terms about hurts and fears and judgments and sweet moments of falling in love that are enhanced if you know the backstory, but that are still beautiful in their own quiet way if taken on more general terms. It’s a very mellow album – even more so than The Way I Am, so those looking for the gutsy vocals and guitar licks that first wowed them on “Undo Me” or “Inside” (depending on how far back you go with her music, I guess) will be largely disappointed, outside of the excellent opening track and maybe one other song. It’s not an album I see myself returning to a whole lot for that reason. But a few of her lyrics hit the nail on the head regarding so-called brothers and sisters who have failed to love her, and that sort of subject matter is really important to me, as a Christian who is trying to figure out how believers who have a difference in understanding regarding what the Bible says on such a hot topic as homosexuality can still exist as a community and actually demonstrate real love for one another, and whose church is currently trying to figure that out on a very practical level.

OK Go – Hungry Ghosts
OK Go is easy to write off as another one of those silly power pop acts with nothing to say and a ton of gimmicks to distract you from it in their Facebook-baiting music videos. But they experiment a lot more than I think they get credit for, and while their new album is a touch more up-tempo and crowd-pleasing throughout than Of the Blue Color of the Sky was, there still aren’t very many moments where I’d accuse them of coasting and making by-the-numbers pop/rock. Electronic tinkering rules the day on a lot of these songs, while playful disco influences keep popping up here and there, all of it a bit over-the-top at times, but definitely designed to put a smile on your face. (The last third does limp a bit due to its tracks all being mid-to-slow-tempo, but that’s a minor issue.) The two biggest and catchiest tracks on the album have already been given the epic single-take video treatment, and I’m sure more will follow, but even if there was nothing to look at, I’d still be playing the hell out of this one for the foreseeable future.

The Best of the Ought Nots, Part I: 81-100

The beginning of a new year, 2010, and a new third digit in our numbering system for years that indicates I’ll likely never see another year with “0” in that slot for the rest of my lifetime, means that for the first time, this relatively young music fan gets to look back at entire decade (these things being commonly delineated by that third digit even if the technical scientific approach says our decade isn’t over until the beginning of 2011) and try to sum it all up in terms of the music that was meaningful to me over the course of nearly a third of my life. That’s right, I’m just a smidgen over 30, which means that the 2000’s (or the “Ought Nots”, as I’ve decided to call a decade of learning what not to do in retrospect) were my first full decade of being a true music fan. I might have come of age and finished high school and college in the 90’s, and I have my fair share of nostalgic tunes to whisk me back to those days. But this most recent decade was when I truly opened up, with the advent of file sharing and social networking making it remarkably easy to burst the bubble of “Christian music only” that I started out with, to go beyond the basic pop/rock styles largely dominant on the radio, and to really dig deep and find my own musical personality, unburdened by rumors of danger beyond the comfortable fences I had previously built for myself.
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