This is part three of a series chronicling each year of my life as viewed through the lens of a song that was meaningful to me in some way that represents a significant aspect of my life experience in that year. This segment covers the third decade of my life. Be sure to catch up on Part 1 and Part 2 first.
Artist: John Mayer
Album: The Search for Everything
In Brief: This album seems like an amalgamation of all of Mayer’s previous sounds and styles. It’s a smidge more interesting to listen to than the pair of folk albums he released during his “rural isolation” period, and far less infuriating than Battle Studies, but I gotta be honest, I still prefer his first three albums, and that’s not likely to change any time soon.
Everything 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.
The 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.
Tennis – 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.
Michelle 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.
Flint 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.
Incubus – 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.
Sleeping 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.
When going over my least favorite music of the year, I have to point out as always that there is far worse music out there than anything on this list – mostly by artists who turned me off so much with a single or two, or with obnoxious public personas, that I wouldn’t want to listen to an album of theirs to begin with. But these are all sub-par albums I managed to listen to all the way through at least twice, by artists that I’ve genuinely enjoyed in the past (with maybe one exception).
In Brief: John Mayer is all reputation and little demonstration these days. This overproduced, instrumentally restrained album with its hackneyed relationship advice is Exhibit A.
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.
The end of 2009 is upon us, friends. It was a year that many of us didn’t look forward to, already knowing to expect financial woes and potential job losses (if not already realized ones) going into it – a year where the unexpected road ahead seemed to promise more hardship than exciting new possibilities to explore. but a poor year for the world was a rich year for music – either because artists channelled their angst into some of the best songs they’d ever written, or because more and more of them were jumping ship on the big labels and finding freedom to go where their imaginations would take them even if the audiences weren’t as big as a result. Some found artful ways to downsize while others played it as over-the-top as they could in defiance of expectations. In the end, it was a more exciting year than I could have anticipated, one that has left me with a lot to look forward to.