While there’s been a ton of new music to take in during the month of May, I’ve also spent a good chunk of the month listening to old R.E.M. albums as I follow along with Scott Aukerman and Adam Scott’s mind-bogglingly weird and highly entertaining R U Talkin’ R.E.M. Re: Me? podcast, which is basically “season two” of their equally amusing U Talkin’ U2 to Me? podcast. These guys are true music geeks who are perhaps most entertaining when their differences of opinion come to the fore as they dig through every single track of every album in R.E.M.’s diverse and sometimes highly challenging discography. I’m finally discovering the magic in some of the band’s earlier work that I had previously overlooked as “all sounding the same” as a result of this. And I can’t wait for them to get to Reveal, my personal favorite R.E.M. record… though I have my doubts about whether they’ll be kind to it.
Janelle Monáe – Dirty Computer
I had a whole paragraph written out for this one that tried to justify why I was enjoying the hodgepodge of musical styles, but not so much the lyrics, on this album. I deleted it when I realized it was just going to come across as mansplaining, whitesplaining, or heterosplaining something that wasn’t made with me as its target audience to begin with. I like Janelle’s personality and creativity, as both a musician and an actress. I admire her for coming out as pansexual on the eve of this album’s release. I support her endeavor to bring light to injustices and imbalances in American society in the lyrics of many of these songs. But I’ll be honest… despite an attempt to broaden my horizons by checking this one out, this album just isn’t for me. And that’s OK.
Parker Millsap – Other Arrangements
This is a bit of a cheeky title for an album that finds the young, gravelly-voiced alt-country singer exploring more of an electric guitar-based sound than his previous, mostly acoustic records. I think he adapts to it pretty well, though a number of these songs are jarringly short, to the point where a twelve-song album clocks in at just over half an hour. I’d have liked a little more time for Parker to jam with his band on a few of these tracks, especially the more rowdy or blues-leaning ones, but there are still some fun rockers and intriguing ballads here. Nothing quite as monumental as “Heaven Sent” here, but that’s the kind of tune a songwriter is lucky to come up with once in an entire lifetime.
Eleanor Friedberger – Rebound
The former Fiery Furnaces frontwoman continue to bore me on this release by not being quirky enough to overcome the bland tempos and melodies of most of her songs, and not telling compelling enough stories to make the middle-of-the-road instrumentation forgivable. She’s clearly trying to do something unique; it just seems so subdued in light of the avant-garde craziness of her old band. This is a more listenable set of songs than New View, but there still isn’t much of note here beyond the three singles that were released in advance of the album, which are all bunched together in the front half.
Beach House – 7
I slowly came to realize that I was pretty excited for this album to drop – and I kind of surprised myself there, because I’m generally rather “meh” about the overall Beach House aesthetic. But the group ditched some of their self-imposed limitations here, recorded with a live drummer, and made a significant attempt to add more dynamic range to their patented brand of hazy dream pop. The singles “Dive” and “Dark Spring” were what really got me going here, and while none of the deep cuts on the album are quite that exciting, there’s at least a lot of variance to be found in the front half of the album, before they finally settle back into the old Beach House sound for the last handful of tracks. This still isn’t an amazing recipe that keeps me engaged for an entire album, but it’s a stronger collection of songs than anything I’ve previously heard from the band.
A Perfect Circle – Eat the Elephant
I had tried out A Perfect Circle’s Thirteenth Step well over a decade ago when that record was brand new, and it didn’t really take. Since then I had sort of dismissed APC as “Tool-lite”, and I honestly wasn’t even sure I was that big on Tool outside of their landmark album Lateralus. APC’s long-awaited comeback will certainly frustrate some fans by taking a leisurely, baroque-pop approach on several tracks before really getting down to the nitty-gritty with a few hard-rocking singles, but I sort of like that their approach this time around was “expectations be damned, let’s make the music we feel like making”. The best songs here make some really pointed social commentary befitting Maynard James Keenan’s frustration with the Trump administration and the hypocrites who got him elected, and of course I’m on board with that. But there are some darkly amusing tracks like “So Long and Thanks For All the Fish”, which walk a fine line between humor and pessimism, that are really striking a chord with me as well. Not every experiment works here, but this record’s a real grower once you get used to the curveballs it has in store.
Young Oceans – Suddenly (Or the Nuclear Sunburst of the Truth Revealed)
It’s been a few albums since I gave I Will Find You a try, and after a few listens to their latest one, it seems that their reflective, sorta-post-rock vibe has remained intact. It’s the kind of sound that gets the job done – it sets the mood nicely for a meditative session of prayer and/or worship. The lyrics are appropriate to the liturgical setting, and manage to avoid cheesiness and cliches because they’re not trying to show off or shill for radio or get a big party going. So I have no doubt that the group’s intentions are genuine. But the songs still aren’t sticking with me, for the most part. This is a sound that is designed to be subtle, I guess, and I have a lot of respect for this band, but I can’t say that I really engage with their music on the deeper level that it’s quite obviously designed for. That’s an ongoing struggle for me and most worship bands these days, even some of the artsier ones like these guys, so the fact that I’m not deeply critical of Young Oceans’ approach probably makes them one of the better bands in the genre by default.
Umphrey’s McGee – It’s You
I was just about to start on a review of the Chicago prog rock/jam band’s January release, It’s Not Us, when a companion album suddenly dropped. Now I have to rethink everything, because these are apparently two pieces of an intended whole. Or, at the very least, the sessions for that first album were fruitful enough that the band didn’t feel right leaving the excess material on the cutting room floor, and thus it’s collected here. That could make It’s You feel like a B-sides record – and there are a couple tracks that go far enough afield of the established vibe that the two albums, for the most part, share with each other, that I’m tempted to ask if all of this material was truly studio album-worthy. But as always, the group’s breadth is admirable, and here they run the gamut from lovely acoustic instrumentals to guttural hard rock while always putting their exploratory stamp on it. I’ll probably review the two albums back-to-back at some point once I’ve got a better handle on what’s happening here, but no matter how you slice it, 19 meaty new songs (and one ridiculous throwaway interlude) from this hard-working band within the space of just a few months is certainly an admirable accomplishment.
Chvrches – Love Is Dead
While there are a few small surprises on Chvrches’ third album, such as the guest vocals of Matt Berninger on the ballad “My Enemy”, an instrumental track leading into the album’s up-tempo finale “Wonderland”, a little bit of live instrumentation to accentuate the arrangements here and there, or a few tracks with slightly more politically charged lyrics, for the most part the Scottish synthpop trio has stuck to its mantra of “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” And I really like their default sound, so this is not a bad thing, though it can seem a bit rote when that’s what’s going on for most of the album’s thirteen tracks. They’ve trended more and more toward choruses that repeat very simple phrases over the years, which is probably the first big barrier for new listeners and old fans alike to overcome. They had incredibly wordy choruses on The Bones of What You Believe that were still incredibly catchy, so this seems like an unnecessary sacrifice to make just to get a pop song stuck in the listener’s head. Still, I’d be lying if I said that most of those repetitive choruses hadn’t managed to beat me into submission in one way or another by this point. This thing’s barely a week old and I just can’t stop listening to it.