What Am I Listening To? – July 2018

2018_KinaGrannis_IntheWaitingKina Grannis – In the Waiting
Due to extenuating circumstances, involving a bizarre and traumatic experience in which Kina was trapped in Indonesia for several months due to a dispute concerning her work visa, this follow-up to Elements has been a long time coming. My understanding is that it’s completely crowd-funded, which probably explains the stripped down approach – Kina’s records already tended to be ballad-heavy, but this thing is literally nothing but ballads. The downbeat mood makes sense considering that it seems to have been a sobering couple of years for the singer-songwriter, so I get that it wouldn’t make sense to have a lot of jolly, percussive, lovey-dovey sorts of songs on this one. But still, there’s so little variation in the pacing and instrumentation that this one falls into the doldrums rather quickly and never really recovers. Released individually on her YouTube channel, as a few of these songs were in the intervening years, I can see several of these numbers being captivating on their own. All in a row, it’s an unforgiving slog of melancholy slowness, and I’m fine with that being the mood for an entire album, but I need a little more variance in the dynamics, you know? “Birdsong” is probably the highlight here due to how it subtly layers her backing vocals and a few other effects over an otherwise simple piano ballad about what sounds like a reflection on a sudden and tragic death. There’s certainly some depth of emotional experience to be mined within these songs… I’m just afraid a lot of it will go unnoticed due to how the music seems to do the exact opposite of begging for the listener’s attention at nearly every opportunity.

The Innocence Mission – Sun on the Square
I haven’t listened to an Innocence Mission record since 2007’s We Walked in Song, and to be honest, I haven’t truly enjoyed an Innocence Mission record since 1999’s Birds of My Neighborhood. They had fallen into a bit of a rut where their charmingly innocent-sounding brand of indie folk just started to sound like the same thing over and over, and while that approach doesn’t change drastically on Sun on the Square, there’s at least some more variance in the instrumentation for those willing to delve into the details – accordion, strings, bells, drums coming in at key moments on a few tracks, things like that. As usual, Karen Peris’s lyrics read like vignettes into oddly specific moments of her life that might not initially translate into a “big picture” meaning, but that become more compelling as the listener gains familiarity with the twists and turns of each individual song. I’ve listened to this one a lot more than I expected to – at 10 songs and 35 minutes, it goes down easy, and at least for a good two-thirds of the album, most of the individual tracks are quite memorable. The run of consecutive highlights from “Green Bus” through “Look Out From Your Window”, “Shadow of the Pines”, and “Buildings in Flower” is especially exquisite, with the lyrics and instrumentation living up to the sorts of detailed imagery the titles might lead one to expect.

Eisley – I’m Only Dreaming… Of Days Long Past
Normally, an acoustic remake of a full album can come across as little more than a set of glorified demos. Or the artist goes a different route and only remakes select songs, stuffing the rest with B-sides and other rarities and making it feel like more of a hodgepodge than a true remake of an album. Eisley is surprisingly consistent on this unplugged – or let’s just say, less plugged – reworking of their 2017 album I’m Only Dreaming, mostly following the structure and pacing of each of its 11 songs, but throwing a few curveballs into the instrumentation here and there. At best, a new arrangement refreshes a song that sounded quite different on the original LP – “A Song for the Birds” turns from upbeat, giddy pop into a tranquil, lush piano ballad emphasizing its gorgeous melody, and “Rabbit Hole”, which was already a stripped-down acoustic number, is transformed for the better with soothing keyboards and a slight bit of electric guitar ambiance. A few tracks that I was rather “meh” about on the original sparkle a little more on this version, and a few like “Louder than a Lion” still benefit from the use of strong vocal layering, despite the otherwise stripped-down production. But there are also a few casualties – most notably “Snowfall”, which loses its intriguing arrangement and its sudden tempo change, and turns into a bit of a piano dirge that frustratingly refuses to follow the captivating chord progression it once boasted. Overall I’d say my feelings about it are roughly equal to how I’ve come to see the original album – as a good, but not great, continuation of Eisley’s legacy despite the band being down to only two permanent members at this point. I’d love to hear them go back and redo some highlights from earlier Eisley records in this fashion at some point, but I won’t hold my breath.

Punch Brothers – All Ashore
Punch Brothers continue to be a difficult quintet to nail down genre-wise – despite the bluegrass-inspired instrumentation, their arrangements can lend themselves to sprawling multi-part song suites with classical and progressive rock leanings just as easily as they can lend themselves to tight, percussive, folksy jamming. All Ashore seems like more of a downbeat affair than their last few records – despite having only nine tracks, it feels quite dense, even though there’s nothing here as ambitiously long as “Familiarity” or the band’s ridiculous 40-minute opus “The Blind Leading the Blind”. For me, it’s got just the right balance of instant appeal and challenging song structures, and the lyrical focus on messy marriages and messier politics hints at a lot more to be revealed beneath the surface as I get deeper into this one. I’ll probably always appreciate Chris Thile the most as a member of Nickel Creek, but on records like these is where he seems to really let his muses run wild, and that gives him the potential to be both captivating and perplexing at unpredictable intervals.

KT Tunstall – BBC Live Sessions EP
This disc is a compilation of seven separate live-in-studio performances from the Eye to the Telescope era, roughly 2004-2007, when KT was just starting to make a name for herself as a live performer, with her use of live looping and unorthodox cover choices. Three songs from her debut album are featured in that context here, including the Jools Holland performance of “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree” that actually predated the studio version most of us in the States know as her first hit single. They’re alright. I kind of feel like a visual element is required to best appreciate her live performances from those days, due to how she’d become her own self-backing band by slowly building up each of the looping elements of a song. (“Other Side of the World”, not really demonstrating this technique, doesn’t do much more for me here than it did on the album.) The cover songs would probably get me going a little more if I knew anything about the originals – sorry, but I’ve never really been into Bob Dylan or Missy Elliot… and while I’m a big Radiohead fan, I’m not sure how I feel about “Fake Plastic Trees” as a languid lounge tune. I appreciate the range of influences that helped make KT the weirdo she is today, though.

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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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KT Tunstall – KIN: Pull it apart and put it back together how you want it.

2016_kttunstall_kinArtist: KT Tunstall
Album: KIN
Year: 2016
Grade: B

In Brief: It’s not as bold and inventive in the production and songwriting department as Tiger Suit, but KT wanted to make another pop album after the stark, downbeat Invisible Empire // Crescent Moon, and I’ve got to admit that this side of her is more my speed.

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Obsessive Year-End List Fest 2016: Favorite Songs

The final days of 2016 are upon us, and that can only mean one thing – it’s time for some long lists that try (perhaps in vain) to sum up the best music I was listening to this year. As always, I’ll start with the individual songs that stood out to me the most. The in-depth reasons why I love these songs so much are mostly spelled out in the album reviews I’ve linked to from here, but in addition to the usual video evidence, I’ve also included a quick blurb for each of the Top 30 entries, just to keep it from being a long list with no explanation whatsoever, I guess.

I’ve also made a Spotify playlist that collects a lot of these highlights, if you’d like to spend a few hours following along. (That one’s ordered more as I discovered the songs, not so much how I’d rank them now, and it’s limited to one track per artist.)

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What Am I Listening To? – September 2016

2016_glassanimals_howtobeahumanbeingGlass Animals – How to Be a Human Being
I’m not sure how to best describe Glass Animals; their style is kind of all over the place, but it incorporates elements of psychedelic rock and electropop with a strong undercurrent of hip-hop and R&B. Old-school Incubus isn’t a bad place to start as stylistic comparisons go, though vocally and lyrically they’re quite different. They lay down some pretty thick grooves on several of these tracks that pull in interesting little bits of percussion and instrumentation from far-away places, adding to the intrigue. Their lyrics read like a mishmash of Gen-Y urban life, which is sometimes charming, but sometimes a bit off-putting when it gets buried in more explicit language and drug references. Still, I think these guys are trying to tell some sort of a story and not just do it for shock value, so I’m willing to listen deeper and see if I can make heads or tails of it.

2016_wilco_schmilcoWilco – Schmilco
I certainly admire Wilco’s tendency to say “F the system” and turn out albums on a totally independent basis whenever they please, with as much or as little promotion they please. This was most striking on last year’s surprise release of Star Wars, a rather brief – and sadly, mostly forgettable – album which I didn’t necessarily expect a follow-up to so soon. Schmilco, as you might not expect from its electrifying cover art, seems to pull together a lot of the more acoustic and muted song ideas from those sessions, occasionally getting a little more electric or noisy or experimental, but mostly turning out to be even more hushed and laid-back than Sky Blue Sky. This puts a lot more emphasis on Jeff Tweedy’s songwriting, and his curious phrasings and tendency to look at things ironically are in fine form here, but for the most part the songs just don’t have the melodic heft or instrumental brilliance to make them measure up to what we know Wilco’s mellower material is capable of. The result is an album that certainly doesn’t mean to throw us for a loop as much as their most experimental stuff did, but that still ends up being their most tedious one to listen to all the way through since A Ghost Is Born. Maybe take a little more time on the next one, guys?

2016_kttunstall_kinKT Tunstall – KIN
Tunstall almost gave up the whole singer/songwriter thing for good during the three years between her fourth and fifth albums. I wasn’t a huge fan of the much mellower sound of Invisible Empire // Crescent Moon, but it seemed like a positive sign that she was refusing to be pigeonholed as an artist, so I’m admittedly surprised to see her returning to more rhythmic pop music with electronic overtones (as heard on Tiger Suit) for this new album, which was apparently crowd-funded. I’m not quite as fascinated with the nuts and bolts of the production as I was on Tiger Suit, but I think she does sassy, rhythmic pop/rock best, and the organic instrumentation does get to shine through on several tracks, so it’s probably best seen as an amalgamation of the styles explored in her first three albums. I’m not wowed by most of it, but there are some fun songs here and it’s an enjoyable listen overall.

2016_paperroute_realemotionPaper Route – Real Emotion
I want to say that this was my most anticipated release of 2016, but honestly, earlier this year I wasn’t even sure if they’d manage to pull another album together, given their habit of releasing the odd single here and there over the long four years since The Peace of Wild Things dropped back in 2012, without much of any news in between. Getting a preview of the singles that would wind up on this album when the band opened for MuteMath back in March was nice, though the structure of those songs seemed to emphasize the pop hooks more and the exploratory/ambient stuff heard on Absence a lot less, akin to the singles released from Peace. So I was pleasantly surprised at this album’s ambitious scope – 16 tracks provides plenty of time for rhythmically dense electro-rockers and catchy pop singles and cathartic ambiance and little bits of foreshadowing and song reprises over nearly an hour of music. Both of their past albums were so strong that my expectations here were almost unfairly high, and while this record is definitely more ambitious than their last two, it’ll take some time for me to figure out if I like it enough to top either of them. I already know after 4 or 5 listens that I like it a lot and will probably continue to spin it repetitively for the rest of the year, so that’s a very good sign.

2016_crowder_americanprodigalCrowder – American Prodigal
Total surprise. I had no idea Crowder was working on a follow-up to Neon Steeple, though I don’t tend to follow the CCM genre nearly as closely as I once did, so perhaps I shouldn’t have been so surprised. While Crowder continues to pull together every musical style under the sun that he personally enjoys making, the styles don’t clash as egregiously as they did on Neon Steeple, possibly because there’s a bit more rock to bridge the gap between the swampy, rootsy stuff and the ravey, dance-pop stuff. In general the electronic aspect of Crowder’s sound seems to have been scaled back, though now there are some bits of Gospel and even a few guest rappers in the mix, so musically this one’s still all over the place. It’s also got quite a few tracks to take in, with over an hour of music on the special edition, but my reaction on first listen was largely positive, and that certainly beats the strong distaste I felt when first listening to Neon Steeple (which nevertheless managed grow on me quite a bit over time).

Obsessive Year-End List Fest 2013: Dishonorable Mentions and Mild Disappointments

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).

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The Best of 2010: Contra to the Suits’ opinions, This Is What Was Happening

Is it just me, or did the year 2010 did just fly right on by? Usually that’s the sign of a good year, one so packed with exciting adventures that you just can’t seem to capture the time and get it to stand still. But it’s actually been a difficult one for me, a fact which may be reflected in a lot of my personal playlists from the last twelve months. Good music seemed to come out of the nooks and crannies as it does most years, but for a while, it seemed like a lot of the greatest stuff was eluding me. But that which seemed depressing at first became a place of solace during a hard year, and that which was happy became an inspiration to live a life worthy of the soundtrack. So my Top 10 list this year, while it follows my usual habit of emphasizing what I enjoyed listening to over what the critics or the general public or anyone else thought, seems to carry a little bit of extra personal weight, as I found so many moments of joy in absorbing it and in sharing it with other people. Music as a facilitator for community has always been one of my passions, and it’s because of this that I continue to expend so much energy writing about it for the handful of people who will actually read any portion of my long-winded articles.

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