Mew – Visuals: They could have made it; I believe they faded.

2017_Mew_VisualsArtist: Mew
Album: Visuals
Year: 2017
Grade: B-

In Brief: Mew’s keyboard-heavy indie rock sound will always inspire mental flights of fancy, and I appreciate the occasional heavier moments, too. But this record feels less “prog” than their last few, and I don’t think the songwriting is as intriguing, which means a lot of it is pleasant but forgettable.

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What Am I Listening To? – April 2017

2016_EverythinginSlowMotion_LaidLowEPEverything 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.

2017_TheNewPornographers_WhiteoutConditionsThe 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.

2017_Tennis_YoursConditionallyTennis – 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.

2017_MichelleBranch_HopelessRomanticMichelle 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.

2017_FlintEastwood_BrokeRoyaltyEPFlint 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.

2017_Incubus_8Incubus – 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.

2017_SleepingatLast_AtlasIntelligenceSleeping 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.

Obsessive Year-End List Fest 2015: Favorite Albums (and Honorable Mentions)

Here’s the cream of the crop, folks – the list of albums that captivated me most in the year 2015. While some of these picks are likely about as predictable as the likelihood of a YouTube comments section devolving into a vicious political flamewar, there are a few cases here where I genuinely surprised myself by falling in love with an artist or even a genre that I had previously decided was “just not my thing”. I hope the music that comes out in 2016 challenges me in similar ways.

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Obsessive Year-End List Fest 2015: Favorite Songs

The first order of business as 2015 comes to a close is to sift through all of my favorite songs that I first heard this year (or perhaps late last year, and it just took me a little longer to appreciate them) and attempt to put them in order, which as usual starts to get a bit silly below the top 30 or so. Music videos and some live performances are embedded for that first chunk of the list. As I’ve done in previous years, I’ve also got a Spotify playlist that covers a lot of these, limited to a song per artist and more in chronological order of when I discovered them.

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Mew – + -: Pros and Cons and Pros and Cons and Proooooooooooos…

2015_Mew_PlusMinusArtist: Mew
Album: +-
Year: 2015
Grade: B+

In Brief: As gorgeous and otherworldly as Mew’s brand of “indie stadium rock” can be, + – doesn’t quite reach the heights of No More Stories… or And the Glass Handed Kites, which were more progressive in nature and felt like more of a deeply connected listening experience. This album is more akin to Frengers, in that it feels more like it’s simply 10 good tracks with a few “instant classic” highlights scattered among them.

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What Am I Listening To? – April 2015

2015_FutureofForestry_PagesFuture of Forestry – Pages
I’ve considered Future of Forestry to be a personal favorite for long enough that pretty much everything they do is a must-buy. I might have to reconsider that position after their sudden release of this new album, which I bought without hearing of a note of it and subsequently realized was supremely disappointing. I understand that Eric Owyoung wanted the more stripped-down sound of this record to be a surprise to everyone and that any singles or snippets released in advance would ruin that surprise, but I kind of think such a drastic change in an artist sound warrants some advance warning, because people get into that artist for specific things that are perceived to make them unique. In FoF’s case, I really enjoyed their knack for layering unconventional instruments on top of what otherwise might be considered straightforward pop/rock (or “worship music” on their earlier works), creating a sense of “reverent grandeur” that had you waiting on the edge of your seat for a gorgeous, exciting climax. The occasional acoustic or ambient song served as a nice comedown from the highs of the surrounding songs. Now that nearly everything has been stripped back to piano and/or acoustic guitar with the percussion scaled back to a perfunctory role when it appears at all, it’s a perfect illustration of why some bands shouldn’t fall back on the “simpler is better” mantra. A few subtly beautiful songs emerge, but having so many of them in a row doesn’t serve any of the individual highlights well. Only the up-tempo “By the Water” stands out on first listen, and of course the cover of Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time”, more so because I recognize it than because I actually enjoy it. Sleeping at Last has done the whole “Sparse acoustic take on 80s nostalgia” thing to death, as have Iron & Wine and other artists long before; these days it’s less of a novelty and it generally just serves to make a once upbeat and enjoyable song sound lethargic and tedious. FoF has seriously damaged my trust with this one, so “try before you buy” will have to be my default position with whatever they put out next.

2015_DeathCabforCutie_KintsugiDeath Cab for Cutie – Kintsugi
This is Death Cab’s first album since Ben Gibbard’s marriage to Zooey Deschanel ended; that was credited for some of the happier songs on Codes & Keys, so it seems only natural to assume that it inspired a lot of the breakup songs on this record. I got into Death Cab during an experimental phase, with a record that they now seem to have distanced themselves from, but this one seems to take them even further in an electronic/pop direction than that one did. I’ll take it over lo-fi indie rock any day, I guess, but I’m slowly realizing that the songs I really enjoy on this one are sturdy, catchy, well-produced pop/rock, and there’s not necessarily a whole lot of depth or exploration beyond that. A few moments, like the dirty guitar solo in “Black Sun”, are nice surprises, but for the most part, these guys seem to be coasting rather than pushing themselves to explore.

2014_POD_SoCalSessionsP.O.D. – SoCal Sessions
I really didn’t expect to like this as much as I did. P.O.D. has been the object of my ridicule more often than they’ve been a band I would genuinely recommend, at least on their last few albums, so I didn’t think a collection of acoustic remakes that leaned more heavily on their recent material would be much more than a novelty. But I’m always intrigued by the idea of taking genres of music that are more electric, rhythm, or noisy in general, and re-imagining them in more of an unplugged setting. I actually think P.O.D.’s strengths are demonstrated more clearly when they give their guitarists and their percussionist space to do some a little more melodic and subtle. it brings out their Latin and reggae influences, which i think serve the band better than the “nu-metal” tag that’s probably made the outside world see them as a relic of the early 2000’s. Considering that, heavier material like “Alive”, “Youth of the Nation” and “Will You” survives the transition incredibly well, while mellower offerings that might not come to mind as readily when one thinks of the group’s “greatest hits” benefit from the lack of production gloss. Even though I think four songs from the mostly-awful Murdered Love is overkill when there’s so much better material from their past to revisit (I mean, how is “Thinking About Forever” not part of this collection?), “Lost in Forever” will always be a personal favorite, and I was astonished at how drastically “Panic & Run”, a merely mildly irritating song buried in between two terrible ones on that album, was re-imagined here, with piano and harmonica and an “acoustic reggae/punk” sort of feel that works better than it sounds like it would on paper. “Set Your Eyes to Zion” is old-school as they get here, but that one’s another highlight, a reminder of the first time I realized P.O.D. had more tricks up their sleeve than just bone-headed screaming and thrashing. I wouldn’t mind if they did this sort of thing full-time.

2014_Sucre_LonerEPSucré – Loner EP
Sucré’s A Minor Bird was such a beautiful album, but since Stacy King, Darren King, and Jeremy Larson all had day-jobs, I figured it was just a one-off collaboration and I didn’t expect to hear anything further from the three of them together. Somehow they managed to slip this EP under the radar last year without my noticing it. It’s barely 15 minutes long (with its lead track sounding almost comically rushed), but it expands their baroque pop sound into more rhythmic territory, probably due to King’s influence, with a track or two sounding like it could have been a repurposed MuteMath song. The booming beats might seem like oil and water when contrasted with Larson’s dramatic string arrangements, but I sort of like the “throw everything at the studio and see what sticks” approach taken on this EP and I can only hope it leads to a follow-up album that brings together the best of these elements into something a little more unified.

2014_OwlCity_UltravioletEPOwl City – Ultraviolet EP
All Things Bright and Beautiful took the childlike dorkiness of Owl City’s mainstream debut Ocean Eyes and cranked it up too far for its own good. Then came the rushed follow-up The Midsummer Station, which toned down the personality seemingly as a knee-jerk reaction and came off as generic dance-pop posturing for mainstream chart success as a result. Adam Young seems to have rediscovered some of that old passion and personality on this EP that came out late last year, supposedly the first in a series, because maybe he can avoid loading down albums with meaningless filler if he puts out fewer songs at a time? I don’t know; I’ve only ever been a casual fan, so I’m not the best judge. These new songs seem to balance the lightness and weightiness a lot better, to the point where the much more serious message of “This Isn’t the End” seems almost at odds with the bouncy syncopation. But at least Young seems to have more on his mind than creating vapid party songs this time around.

2015_Calexico_EdgeoftheSunCalexico – Edge of the Sun
This Latin/jazz/indie rock outfit won me over very slowly last time around with Algiers, a record that I considered sleepy at first, but that turned out to have such strong highlights that I returned to it a lot more than I expected to, compared to the slightly more upbeat and diverse Carried to Dust, which first got me into the band but which I rarely listen to all the way through. This new album brings back some of that diversity and collaborative energy, with guests from both sides of the border showing up to offer subtle bits of vocal flavoring, the most surprising of which is Neko Case – a not a voice you’d normally employ for subtle harmonic effect, but it works well here. Not working so well for me are the synths and programming that rear their heads on a few of the tracks – I like electronic pop music and I like Calexico’s brand of dusty, sepia-toned folk/rock, but the two just don’t mix, and it interferes with the otherwise addictive atmosphere of up-tempo tracks like “Cumbia de Donde” and “Falling From the Sky”.

2015_PassionPit_KindredPassion Pit – Kindred
I’ve realized something about Passion Pit. I need a bit of darkness and density to balance out the chirpy vocals and the superficially happy sound (by that I mean that the sound is happy on the surface, not that the sound is superficial in and of itself). Otherwise it just feels like taking a huge breath of helium. I’m lighter than air, but it makes me feel funny. Gossamer worked for me because underneath all the programmed and processed noise, there was some sense of interplay between the various instruments and it felt like the work of a band. This one feels a lot more like a solo project. Which may be what Passion Pit truly is at the end of the day – just Michael Angelakos and whatever musicians are by his side to support his vision. But maybe what I’m realizing is that Gossamer was a bit of a fluke and I’m not really that much into Passion Pit as a whole.

2014_VariousArtists_GoteeRecordsTwentyYearsBrandNewVarious Artists – Gotee Records: Twenty Years Brand New
This 20th anniversary project for a label that had just started out back in the mid-90s, when I was still in high school, reminds me a bit of a similar project ForeFront records did toward the end of my college years. The concept of hearing fresh faces and industry veterans alike covering some of the label’s biggest hits (and a few more obscure, presumably personal-to-the-artist favorites as well) is intriguing. The label specialized in hip-hop and urban artists at first, at a time when such artists couldn’t find a whole lot of major label backing in CCM, so it makes sense for some of them to cover each other’s material, even if at times the results are too goofy for their own good. Elsewhere, they have fun with the notion that not-so-urban artists like the folksy Jennifer Knapp and the meat-and-potatoes rock outfit House of Heroes were once on the label, allowing more rhythmically-minded artists to cover their songs (including, quite surprisingly, a reunited Out of Eden turned HoH’s “Constant” into a soulful ballad). Not all of these tracks are ones I was even familiar with the first time around, and there are as many awful ideas here as there are good ones (Knapp’s “Undo Me” really didn’t need a hip-hop remake, especially when Grits had already done a much more convincing collaboration with Knapp in real time back in 2002), but a few of the covers are genuinely inspired, and it’s nice to hear that John Reuben, who has been M.I.A. for the last six years or so, is in fact still “Dippity Doin'” something.

2015_Mew_PlusMinusMew – + –
I was probably more excited for this than any other April release. It’s been six years since I first fell in love with Mew’s “indie stadium” sound, and boy, I fell hard. Other than a greatest hits project and the Jonas Bjerre’s Skyscraper soundtrack (which I still highly recommend even though I’ll probably never see the film), I’ve heard very little from the band since then, and this new record had an awfully long gestation period, but it gave them time to welcome their original bassist back into the fold and fully integrate him back into their sound, so that ain’t a bad thing. They’re clearly happy to be working together again – even in this new album’s moodiest passages, there’s an exuberance and a sense of childlike wonder. I’d say it’s a bit more straightforward (by Mew standards, at least) than the every-song-flowing-into-the-next approach of And the Glass Handed Kites or the kaleidoscope of wonderful sounds heard on No More Stories, but there’s still a fair amount of intricacy within these ten tracks, especially considering that “Rows” is downright epic at nearly eleven minutes long. It’ll take me a while to fully digest the various songs beyond the singles, and the little bits within a few of the songs that don’t sound like the rest of the song, but Mew likes to keep me guessing and I still enjoy trying to figure them out.

2015_Owel_EveryGoodBoyEPOwel – Every Good Boy EP
Owel’s debut was so surprisingly intricate and beautiful and professionally done that I was surprised it was an independent release. I guess they’ve finally moved beyond the status of “best unsigned band I can think of” since they’ve at least got some minor label support for this new EP. The more immediate, and dare I say sort of poppy, lead track is certainly the biggest attention-getter – its feisty strings and other bits of baroque instrumentation remind me it’s still Owel, but there’s definitely a bit more aggression and urgency to the vocals and the overall approach than I’d normally expect from them. Elsewhere, things get more dreamy and exploratory, especially on “Razors”, which continually throws me off with its fluid and yet offbeat piano melody. If this is what the group puts out as a stopgap, they must have some amazing stuff in store for their next full-length.