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.
Artist: Linkin Park
Album: One More Light
In Brief: The problem with Linkin Park’s seventh album isn’t that it’s mellow and poppy. The problem is that it’s stubbornly, maddeningly generic, which is not something I could say about even the absolute worst songs on their previous albums.
Father John Misty – Pure Comedy
I really try to listen to a record at least twice before even offering an initial reaction to it in this monthly column. But sometimes working up the courage to go back for that second listen can be a real challenge. I knew enough about Father John Misty (aka Joshua Tillman, former drummer for Fleet Foxes and a solo artist in his own right even before that) to realize that his third album under this name probably wouldn’t be my cup of tea, but there was so much discussion surrounding this record, making it clear that he was discussing subjects that interested me, even if I didn’t necessary agree with his conclusions, that I felt like I had to hear for myself what folks were talking about. I can’t recall a time when I’ve ever had as strongly favorable a response to an artist’s lyrical prowess and yet as negative a response to the style of music they perform. Tillman seems to be a “three chords and the truth” kind of guy, maintaining a very simple light folk/rock backdrop on most of these tracks, centered around non-flashy piano or acoustic guitar, with maybe some background ambiance or other instrumentation, but with every song designed to put the lyrics front and center. I admire this in theory, but in practice, it takes otherwise fascinatingly written songs and makes them dull as dirt to listen to. Tillman has a strong, emotionally compelling voice, and he pretty clearly wants to get his point across – whether it be on the subject of religion viewed through the lens of mankind’s innate greed, or the charades of the music industry he’s become disillusioned with, or the impending doom of the planet due to the our greed and inability to coexist peacefully – without the instrumentation getting in the way. At times I feel like I’m getting lectured for being selfish enough to expect the music to actually entertain me – and the irony is that I’d be fine with this subject matter in a non-musical form, such as poetry or a podcast. Most of the tracks are just so long and slow that it takes a lot out of me to listen to more than a few of them at a time. He’s clearly made a statement with this one, but it gets to the point where the bold statement is diluted by the sheer length of time (ten or thirteen minutes on a few tracks, mostly repeating the same simple chord structure over and over again) that it takes to make it. There’s no doubt that the man has talent, but I feel like he’s making the assumption that anything more interesting in the performance department will cause listeners to ignore the lyrics – and I’ve personally got more than enough room in my brain to pay close attention to both when an artist tries not to compromise on either side of that equation.
Sylvan Esso – What Now
I’m struggling to figure out whether the evolution of this electronic duo’s sound from their debut makes them truly next-level (as the sounds and samples used are often surprising), or this is a step down from their debut because the song structures get so repetitive and the lyrics are largely stuck on self-referential “singing about making dance music and dancing to that music”. There’s definitely some catchy and occasionally edgy stuff here. But song-for-song, I think I prefer the band’s self-titled debut. Nothing here is hitting me quite as hard as “Hey Mami”, “Play it Right”, etc. did after the first several listens.
Feist – Pleasure
It’s interesting that Feist and Sylvan Esso both put out new albums on the same day in late April, with cover images where I can’t quite tell what the character pictured is doing. Leslie Feist and Amelia Meath from Sylvan Esso have a fair amount of vocal similarities and have even toured together in the past, though musically they couldn’t be more different. Feist is nominally “indie rock”, with a very bare-bones approach that often accentuates her delicate vocals and makes it surprising when the few louder moments leap out of nowhere. I tend to appreciate specific moments in her songs more so than the full songs, and that trend might be even more pronounced on this album, which I certainly didn’t expect to have anything as immediate as her breakout hit “1234” on it, but there aren’t even songs that grab me like “The Bad in Each Other” or “A Commotion” did on Metals. This is a very sparse record for the most part, with some interesting background sounds and stylistic choices here and there, but honestly, listening all the way through it is proving to be a bit of a chore for me. I just don’t think I’m really part of the target audience for this one.
Linkin Park – One More Light
I’ll happily defend Linkin Park’s right to change their sound on every album. They can’t keep repeating their old sound, despite how much their old-school fans might diss them for not being as good nowadays. All of their albums from Minutes to Midnight onward, despite how uneven a few of them may have been, have had really interesting experiments that stand among their best work precisely because they sound nothing like my old favorites from Meteora and Hybrid Theory. There have also been some ill-conceived experiments that didn’t work, but at least you couldn’t accuse the band of simply resting on their laurels. This album, though? It’s a change in sound, but the largely electronic, pop radio-oriented balladry found throughout its 10 tracks gets old fast. I feel like they’ve cut and pasted a lot of sounds that were popular on the radio 3-4 years ago – very generic beats, vaguely uplifting but cliched pop melodies, and really not a whole lot that shows the strengths of either of the band’s two vocalists. Mike Shinoda only gets to rap on one track, and while the tracks he sings on tend to be a little better written then Chester Bennington’s, musically they’re among the blandest of the bunch. They insist that guitarist Brad Delson is all over the thing with new and interesting guitar sounds, but if you’re manipulating the sound of the guitar so much that it may as well be another synthesized sound generated on a laptop (and ditto for your drummer, bassist, etc.), then I don’t know why you should even bother calling yourself a band any more. Linkin Park’s done very synthesized things in the past that I enjoyed because they had some energy, or some interesting ambiance, or were different from their surroundings. Here, the music is largely wallpaper. I expect this band to make a few wrong turns per album that really turn me off and force my attention to the genuine highlights elsewhere on the record, but I never expected them to be so consistently boring and middle-of-the-road.
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.
In Brief: It’s interesting to hear Linkin Park set aside the laptops for most of an album and focus on more of a raw, hard rock sound. Despite getting off to an awful start and wasting a few of its celebrity cameos, The Hunting Party shows a heck of a lot of growth for an album that they’re describing as a Hybrid Theory prequel.
The Secret Sisters – Put Your Needle Down
This neo-traditional country duo swings back and forth between peppy “girl group” songs from a bygone musical era and more brooding alt-country ballads, with a heavy emphasis on songs about breaking up with good men and wishing you knew how to break up with the bad ones.
Sleeping at Last – Covers, Vol. 1
Have you ever heard goofy 80s songs like “Safety Dance” or “Private Eyes” and thought, “Gee, what this really needs is a stripped-down, sensitive, acoustic arrangement, so that I can really focus on the heartfelt lyrics?” What do you mean, “No”? Well, too bad, because someone somewhere thought it would be a great idea to have Ryan O’Neal record these songs to underscore sensitive scenes in dramas like Grey’s Anatomy. Yeah, even for an SAL diehard like me, this is a bit difficult to defend. One or two of these songs might benefit from the arrangement, I guess. (“Total Eclipse of the Heart” has some pretty awesome key changes no matter how much you strip it down.) But for the most part, when listening to this, I’m slightly embarrassed for him. But then I figure, if it pays the bills and makes it possible to continue cranking out mostly excellent original material at such an ambitious rate, then soft rock on, dude.
Linkin Park – The Hunting Party
It’s interesting to hear Linkin Park set aside the laptops for most of an album and focus on more of a raw, hard rock sound. Despite getting off to an awful start and wasting a few of its celebrity cameos, The Hunting Party shows a heck of a lot of growth for an album that they’re describing as a Hybrid Theory prequel.
Umphrey’s McGee – Similar Skin
These guys’ albums are usually a bit of a buffet – you’ll get all sorts of tasty sounds mixed together with little rhyme or reason, and a bigger helping of all of them than you can easily digest in one sitting. With this album, they reined in some of their more out-there forays into funk, R&B, and acoustic instrumental music, and aimed to make a solid rock album from front to back. It still seems a bit all over the place at first, with songs like “The Linear” and “No Diablo” not quite fitting into the overall aesthetic (even though both are quite good). But once they hit the title track, they just knock it out of the park clear from there to the end of the album (especially when guitarist Jake Cinninger takes over on lead vocals – dude coulda fronted a metal or stoner rock band back in the day!) If you’ve avoided these guys in the past because you fear anything that sounds “jam band-y”, then this one might demonstrate how they can tighten up their studio performances a bit and wisely let some of their poppier songs wrap up more concisely, without losing the progressive, exploratory nature that makes their longer tracks such an adventure to listen to.
Ed Sheeran – x
I’m pretty easily impressed with anyone who can wow the crowd with hyperactive acoustic guitar playing and a bit of a funk/rap affectation on a genre of music that might otherwise be considered “coffeehouse”. That makes it easy to get into Sheeran’s catchier songs like “Sing”. And he’s no slouch on the mellower ballads, either (“Tenerife Sea” is an early standout that makes me want to take a flight to the Canary Islands right the heck NOW.) But then I listen closer to the lyrics and there’s just way too much getting drunk/high and screwing going on here. I guess I sort of appreciate the self-censoring on an otherwise harsh song like “Don’t”, which was allegedly so his daughter could listen. But then why write the song that way in the first place? I feel like Sheeran’s heart is in the right place, but there are too many voices dictating what enigmatic pop icons are supposed to do in this day and age, that cloud his judgment when he’s in the middle of writing a song that would’ve been perfectly effective without the posturing.
Andrew Bird – Things Are Really Great Here, Sort of…
It can take a long time for me to fully grasp what’s happening on any given album by Andrew Bird. The man is a poet and a multi-instrumental genius who excels at creating mesmerizing songs from the sparest of ingredients. But sometimes, given all that raw talent, his music is surprisingly subdued. He’s just not a “wall of sound” type guy, and so some of his most clever moments can take me forever to notice. Here, I’m one additional step removed from the apparent genius behind the material, since this is a tribute album to an act called The Handsome Family, whose work Bird has apparently covered quite a bit over the years. I know nothing about them, and while at first glance I might have not even known these weren’t Andrew Bird originals, I suspect that some of the same personality quirks that have stood out to me in tracks of his I’ve enjoyed in the past might not show up in full force here. Time will tell.
Parker Millsap – Parker Millsap
I discovered this gravelly-voiced country singer from Oklahoma on a total fluke. I was searching Spotify for songs about various places in California, and his track “Yosemite” came up in the search, and I fell in love with it. That gave me little warning about what the rest of the album was like – the dude isn’t afraid to show his red state (or is it red man state?) roots, and some of these tracks are real howlers. We’ll see how much of it catches on.
Broken Bells – After the Disco
A little more hit and less miss than the duo’s debut. Burton’s keyboards and production do an excellent job of keeping Mercer from sounding too sullen, while Mercer’s down-to-earth approach keeps Burton from drifting too far off into sonic Candyland.
The Farewell Drifters – Tomorrow Forever
This band does a bluegrass-inflected take on folk/rock music, which isn’t terribly original, but the instruments they play are always welcome sounds to my ears. Their lyrics can be naive at times, but they are also compelling in their yearning for the more innocent times we all have distant memories of handing around in the backs of our minds. I have a feeling they’ll grow on me, like The Lone Bellow did at around this time last year. (Edit: They didn’t, really. Every halfway clever lyrics seems to get sabotaged by an underbaked musical arrangement, and every inspired melodic or instrumental turn seems to get weighed down by sub-par songwriting.)
Linkin Park – Recharged
New single “A Light that Never Comes” is strong. The rest of this remix project is a bit of an exercise in endurance, applying modern dance music trends and various guest raps spots to the songs originally found on 2012’s Living Things. Even though I liked their first remix album Reanimation, I feel like a mistake was made here by repeating and emphasizing a lot of the wrong things. Part of Living Things‘ appeal was that it was short and sweet, like early Linkin Park albums were, but also tried a lot of diverse things like later LP albums did. The remixes, on the other hand, just don’t know when to quit, and what should be an energetic and stimulating experience just becomes an exhausting and irritating one guaranteed to have you checking iTunes over and over again to see just how much of it is left for you to endure.
Elbow – The Takeoff and Landing of Everything
First impression: Slooooooooow and really difficult to get into. After further listening: A bit more languid than Elbow’s usual, but not without its grand, anthemic moments, and its subtler bits that soothe the savage beast once they manage to get their hooks into you. Probably not a great place to start for new listeners, but a worthy addition to Elbow’s discography nonetheless.
Valerie June – Pushin’ Against a Stone
A bit of soul/Gospel with a strong hint of bluegrass. This woman takes all the elements of her Southern upbringing and puts them into one big, unpredictable, tossed salad of sassy sounds. It reminds me of how I felt when I first discovered Nicole C. Mullen several years ago… though hopefully in this case my interest will last longer than a couple of albums.
Drive-By Truckers – English Oceans
I’ve only ever really liked the Truckers on a single album – 2008’s overly long, but still intriguing Brighter than Creation’s Dark, which balanced the seediness of life in the trailer trashiest parts of America with deeper questions of morality and mortality and so forth. The albums since then seem to have slid back into a pattern of exploiting the trashiness just for its own sake, and while Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley can turn a clever phrase here and there, I just sort of feel trapped outside of their work most of the time. The departure of bassist and sometimes lead-vocalist Shonna Tucker really hurts, too – she was responsible for a few of my favorite moments on Brighter.
Nickel Creek – A Dotted Line
Nickel Creek is back after a 7-year hiatus with a new album which covers a lot of ground in only 10 tracks, re-establishing them as an instrumental, vocal, and lyrical force to be reckoned with.
Ghost Beach – Blonde
Pure, unadulterated 80s synthpop nostalgia. I’m not even gonna pretend there’s a huge amount of depth to it. But these guys use their arsenal of samples and synthesized sounds in creative and highly addictive ways.