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.

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Obsessive Year-End List Fest 2016: Favorite Albums (and Honorable Mentions)

This is the music I’ll remember the most when I think back on 2016. Not just the great singles (though these albums have plenty of those) or the dark horse picks buried deep in the track listings (tons of those too, though), but the way these records all flow from song to song, creating a continuous listening experience that makes spending nearly an hour of time with each artist (or more, in a few cases) worthwhile. On my most cynical days, I’d say that thanks to both terrestrial radio doing its thing and the ephemeral lifecycle of most songs and artists that go “viral” on social media, the single is a much more easily digestible and obtainable format for popular music nowadays, putting the album in danger of becoming a lost art. But from the very obscure to the decidedly mainstream, every record on this list would be here to prove me wrong.

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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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Lucius – Good Grief: It’s the Dreaded Sophomore Record, Charlie Brown.

2016_Lucius_GoodGriefArtist: Lucius
Album: Good Grief
Year: 2016
Grade: B+

In Brief: A strong, although schizophrenic, follow-up to an amazing debut. In some ways, Lucius was bound to confuse me a little bit by not repeating the same formula, but they seem like the kind of band that is willing to push themselves into new and slightly uncomfortable areas, which gives them a refreshing edge that helps them stand out from their peers.

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What Am I Listening To? – March 2016

2016_MiikeSnow_iiiMiike Snow – iii
Miike Snow inches a little closer toward the mainstream with their third release, adding a ton more sampling to their already heavily electronic sound and downplaying the live instrumentation that they balanced so well with it on Happy to You. At times I’m intrigued with where the trip-hop, R&B, and club influences take them, but then there are other times when I think you can only loop an 808 drum so many different ways before you start to get diminishing returns. Add some egregious use of Autotune on a few tracks, and some sleazy lyrics here and there, and it starts to remind me of a bad fun. or Maroon 5 record. Not exactly a direction I was hoping they’d take, but there are enough enjoyable tracks despite that to keep my interest.

2016_The1975_ILikeItWhenYouSleepForYouAreSoBeautifulYetSoUnawareofItThe 1975 – I Like It When You Sleep, For You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware of It
I’m pretty sure this album title has already been mocked six ways from Sunday for its stalker-ish vibe and its ridiculous length, so I won’t belabor the point. I know nothing of The 1975’s previous sound, but on this record they spend well over an hour on total genre roulette, mostly centered around synthpop and disco-funk (think Empire of the Sun, M83, maybe a little bit of The Killers), but with some unexpected R&B and ambient influences on several tracks in the album’s introverted midsection, and a few rather cloying acoustic tracks at the end. Not all of this is necessary, despite frontman Matt Healy’s claims to the contrary. And some of the lyrics are downright goofy to the point where I’m not sure they’re aiming for self-parody – it can be really distracting on a few songs that have an otherwise very sincere demeanor to them. At times I want The 1975 to just pick an identity and go with it, instead of being a band in what seems like a constant state of flux, but I have to admit they have more on their minds than just the throwaway retro-pop exercise I was expecting based on the first few (admittedly extremely catchy) singles.

2016_Lucius_GoodGriefLucius – Good Grief
This would have been one of my most anticipated 2016 releases if I had even known it was coming out ahead of time. I have pretty high expectations of this group since Wildewoman was such an ideal combination of “perfect pop album” and a few ragged edges. This one seems to have that whole sophomore album curse at first with the group branching out into programmed pop (which really makes them sound like Haim) and a few other new sounds. The overall pacing and structure of the album seeming a bit weird at first; at times I wouldn’t realize it was Lucius, but then the dual female vocals get going and I realize it can’t be anyone else. I feel like they take more vocal risks here, which sometimes pushes the song climaxes into near-shouting territory. I had a love/hate relationship with this on their last album as well, but I’d say it’s more prominent here. Other than the bizarre ending of “Gone Insane”, it’s not too terribly painful. Ultimately, some pretty catchy stuff that doesn’t always play by the rules I expect it to, with a few of the seams showing, but basically where a growing band needs to be on album #2.

2016_ParkerMillsap_TheVeryLastDayParker Millsap – The Very Last Day
This is the second solo record from the Oklahoma-based country/blues singer from with the ragged voice that makes it hard for me to believe this guy’s still in his early 20s. I like his songwriting style for much the same reason I like Josh Ritter’s and Iron & Wine’s, in the sense that his stories are haunted by Bible Belt culture and aren’t afraid to touch on the pros and cons of how a person of conservative faith has his outlook on life shaped by it. Most attention-grabbing in that vein this time around is “Heaven Sent”, a heartbreaking plea for love from a gay son to his father that could easily be the other side of the dialogue ehard in Court Yard Hounds’ “Ain’t No Son”. Elsewhere, Millsap gets more raucuous and more sparse than his last album on a few tracks, making sure we can’t easily pin him down to a single genre, and for the most part, I prefer it that way.

Obsessive Year-End List Fest 2014: Favorite Albums and Honorable Mentions

As always, I’m closing the year out with a summary of my favorite records from the year gone by. The only qualifying factors to make this list are that they must be full-length albums consisting of new material (I have a separate section for EPs and collections of previously released material), with a release date in 2014. Everything I really enjoyed this year that falls outside of those boundaries still gets a mention, just not a ranking.

It was really hard to pick a clear #1 this year. I love the top four albums on this list just about equally. Two are more “baroque” pop records that lean toward the electronic and experimental, and two are more in-your-face rock records. They’re the only “A grades” that I gave out this year. Which one is my favorite among them changes based on my mood, so I basically gave the #1 slot to the one I’ve enjoyed for the largest chunk of the year. I can’t imagine very many other people who would ever actually listen to all four of them, let alone like them all, but they all come with my highest recommendations for anyone into the types of music these individual artists are making.

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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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