What Am I Listening To? – July 2017

2017_JenniferKnapp_LoveComesBackAroundJennifer Knapp – Love Comes Back Around
Knapp’s sixth album is a bit more “rock” than Set Me Free was, but in that workmanlike, “heartland” sort of way where the pace of it is more relaxed and the guitars are there to get the job done without too much showing off. There’s the occasional musical bright spot – an earthy guitar solo, a few horns to accent a track or two, a winsome acoustic melody on one of the gentler songs. Unfortunately I’m still rather “meh” about the music overall. I’m excited about the lyrical content, which finds Jennifer digging more into the specifics of what it means to be in a loving, committed relationship with another woman. It’s been strongly hinted at on her past two albums, but never made explicit, and that opens up some new possibilities for her songwriting-wise, while other songs about forgiveness and rebuilding burnt bridges help to ensure it doesn’t ever become the one thing that consumes her identity as a songwriter.

2017_Haim_SomethingtoTellYouHaim – Something to Tell You
I’ve been waiting eagerly for this one ever since I became obsessed with Haim’s debut album in 2014. Some follow-ups take way too long to deliver, but thankfully this one doesn’t disappoint. I can hear a little bit more sampling and interesting use of syncopation as they explore their R&B side a little more, while their rock side emerges in the form of a few surprisingly raw moments of guitar solo glory. Still, this is a pop record at its heart – one which shows some growth in places, but falls back on repetitive choruses and melodies that don’t push themselves quite as much as they could in others. I’m still slightly partial to Days Are Gone, but I’m glad they tried a few things here that they hadn’t thought to the first time around.

2017_Coldplay_KaleidoscopeEPColdplay – Kaleidoscope EP
I don’t think the release of an EP deserves nearly as much hype as Coldplay built up for this one, by releasing nearly all five of its songs in some form ahead of time, and by pushing back the release date a few times. I think there’s been more buzz about this than a band’s usual between-album leftovers project simply because Chris Martin has talked about A Head Full of Dreams, to which this EP is a companion piece, as though it might be their final full-length album. There are some interesting ideas here that both recall Coldplay’s old days as well as suggesting some possible routes forward, both for good (see the off-kilter syncopation of “A L I E N S”) and for bad (see their unfortunate Chainsmokers collaboration “Something Just Like This”, which sounds even stupider presented as a live version here). But I’m a bit worried about the prospect of Coldplay becoming a “singles band” that releases material in a piecemeal fashion. When they pull a collection of songs together in a way where the sum means more than the individual pieces, as they did on Viva la Vida, they can be truly transcendent, but lately they seem a bit too preoccupied with having these massive stand-alone songs that capture the cultural zeitgeist, and considering themselves failures if a single falls short of that.

2017_Radiohead_OKComputer_OKNOTOK19972017Radiohead – OK Computer OKNOTOK 1997 2017
For the 20th anniversary of OK Computer, Radiohead re-released it with a second disc full of lost songs from the era, a few of which had been played live and made their way into fandom folklore, but had never seen official release on a studio recording for now. (There’s also a box set with some other goodies for the diehards. I’m just listening to the standard edition on Spotify.) OKC is my absolute favorite Radiohead album, which feels like one of the few things I have in common with a lot of Radiohead fans, and I didn’t even think it needed a remaster to be honest, because I don’t think there were any technical limitations at the time holding it back from achieving its full potential. But in listening to this version, I do hear occasional bits of instrumentation pop out that I hadn’t noticed as much in the bazillion times I’ve listened to the original release since I first got into the band circa 2001. The new songs and lost B-sides aren’t really doing as much for me – I would say it’s because I don’t have the personal history with any of those songs that some fans do, but also there isn’t as much thematic connection between any of them, which was the big draw for me on OKC (even though Radiohead swears up and down it wasn’t meant to be a concept album). You’ll probably like a lot of these tracks more if The Bends was your favorite era of Radiohead, since several sound like the direction they could have taken that sound before they decided to take the more introverted and progressive turn that make OKC such a landmark album.

2015_POD_TheAwakeningP.O.D. – The Awakening
I’m a bit out of the loop where P.O.D. is concerned. They put out a new album in 2015 that I didn’t even know about until just recently; back then I was actually really enjoying the acoustic SoCal Sessions album they’d put out the year before, which emphasized the actual musicality of the band over pure bravado and heaviness, and gave me hope that there might be some creative juice left in the band. Turns out they funneled that creative energy into a hilariously bad concept album, during which the spaces between every single song are filled with sound bytes and painfully stilted voice acting meant to portray some sort of a redemptive story arc. The music mostly follows this story, but occasionally veers from it to give us the typical “P.O.D. pumps up their hardcore fans” type anthem that makes me wonder if they’re still mentally trapped in the year 2002. (Skillet’s Rise isn’t a bad comparison in terms of the album’s structure, though from what little I remember of that subpar album, it was more tolerable than this.) A few tracks show signs of artistic growth, but for the most part this album is a cringe-inducing trainwreck – easily the worst thing I’ve heard from them since the pre-Satellite days.

2017_JohnReuben_ReubonicJohn Reuben – Reubonic
John Reuben was always a bit of an oddity in my music library, since I don’t normally listen to rap. My reason for liking him had nothing to do with him being a white rapper – I just found that, as goofy and self-deprecating as his music could be, he actually had some solid commentary on the commercial aspects and skewed political priorities of the Christian music industry in which he came to realize he was a square peg in a round hole as the years went on. He pretty much fell off the map after the lackluster Sex, Drugs & Self-Control in 2009, but now he’s back with an edgier album that was surprisingly likeable for me right out of the gate. Usually I think Reuben’s songs are weird and awkward at first, and then some of them grow on me over time. But I think he hit just the right balance of accessibility and experimentation with this one – and some of his more challenging lyrics are bound to shock and confuse the old CCM fans who still expect some sort of a Toby Mac protege, which gives him some real bonus points in my book. This might just outdo his previous career high point, Word of Mouth, but it’ll take a few more listens for me to be sure of that.

2017_ArcadeFire_EverythingNowArcade Fire – Everything Now
While Arcade Fire’s fifth album isn’t as much of a startling change-up as Reflektor, the mish-mash of disco, reggae, and electropop influences is still a large part of their music as it was on that album, which will leave some fans of their older work wanting due to the lack of “old-timey instruments”. But commenting on the excesses of pop culture, the more streamlined, danceable, instant-gratification sort of sound makes sense. Consider it their equivalent of U2’s Pop, I guess. I really enjoy most of what I’m hearing here, and I actually don’t mind Win Butler’s fervent, kinda-preachy vocals now that I’ve had all these years to get used to the band’s shtick. I relate to a lot of what they’re trying to communicate here. Still, they kind of went off the deep end in terms of repetition, with a few songs full-on repeating themselves in different musical contexts on almost identically-named tracks. And perhaps one too many choruses that get a bit redundant and make otherwise digestible-length songs feel like they go on for a bit longer than they really need to. Still, this album is an emotional gut-punch where it really counts, and usually they’ve had to accomplish that by way of songs that take several listens to grow on me. So either I’m used to the learning curve by this point, or Arcade Fire’s finally found that sweet spot in between challenging and accessible.

Obsessive Year-End List Fest 2015: Compilations, EPs, and Last Year’s Leftovers

The next order of business as I relive some of my favorite music from the past year is to give credit to the odds and ends that I really enjoyed, but considered categorically ineligible for my “Top Albums” list, either because they aren’t full-length albums, they were re-releases of older material, or they were released in 2014 and I just didn’t catch up to them in time to put them on last year’s list.

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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.

Divad’s Soundtrack #62: May-June 2006

One of my favorite memories from the early years of our marriage is all the places Christine, who was still relatively new to Southern California and seeing it through different eyes than I always had, found for us to explore together. For some reason I seem to romanticize the idea of exploration, of filling in a previously unknown spot on the map that most of the people you know might not know anything about, and sharing that new experience together. Ten years later, I still haven’t lost my excitement about that, but new places like those have become harder to find, so I tend to look back with fond nostalgia at the “innocence” of finding out for the first time that some of these beautiful places were tucked away, far from the typical overcrowded tourist spots.

In with the New:
The Violet Burning
Rosanne Cash
Belle & Sebastian

Out with the Old:
Shaun Groves
Tool
The Corrs
Charlie Hall
Dean Gray

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Divad’s Soundtrack #61: March-April 2006

Spring 2006. Lots of rain that winter made for good hiking in those months. Life was relatively free from turmoil as far as I can remember, so a lot of the songs I chose for this mix, particularly on Disc One, instead identified with the difficulties others around me were going through. Disc Two has a more drawn-out set of mellow songs to wind it down than my mixes usually do, which may reflect my more peaceful state of mind at the time, though it’s in sharp contrast with the heavier material at the beginning of that disc. Figuring out how to transition between the various moods on these soundtracks is a puzzle that I will never completely solve.

In with the New:
Jack Johnson
The Listening
Justis Kao
Matisyahu
Dean Gray

Out with the Old:
Superchic[k]
Mark Schultz
Fernando Ortega

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Divad’s Soundtrack #60: January-February 2006

There are certain years in my life that I’m heavily nostalgic for. Just seeing the number “2006” brings a flood of memories back, most of them incredibly happy ones. It’s not the only such year, but it’s the example that comes to mind most readily when I ponder which year’s been by favorite so far. It was the first year that Christine and I really got to settle in as newlyweds, with big dreams but no pressure to make big plans in the near-term future, and with the stress that lingered throughout most of 2005 finally gone, this to me is where the “honeymoon” truly started on a more emotional level.

In with the New:
Thrice
KT Tunstall
Calexico

Out with the Old:
Bethany Dillon
Ken Oak Band
Nichole Nordeman
Chris Tomlin

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