What Am I Listening To? – May 2018

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.

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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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Parker Millsap – The Very Last Day: Is this Heaven? No, it’s Oklahoma.

2016_ParkerMillsap_TheVeryLastDayArtist: Parker Millsap
Album: The Very Last Day
Year: 2016
Grade: B

In Brief: This alt-country record starts off incredibly strong, showing off the young songwriter’s incredible chops with a lot more instrumental bite than his last record had. (Especially “Heaven Sent”. If nothing else, please go listen to that one for me.) Unfortunately, the record’s uneven second half never quite reaches its initial level of greatness again.

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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 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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What Am I Listening To? – June 2014

2014_TheSecretSisters_PutYourNeedleDownThe 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.

2014_SleepingatLast_CoversVol1Sleeping 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.

2014_LinkinPark_TheHuntingPartyLinkin 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.

2014_UmphreysMcGee_SimilarSkinUmphrey’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.

2014_EdSheeran_xEd 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.

2014_AndrewBird_ThingsAreReallyGreatHereSortofAndrew 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.

2014_ParkerMillsap_ParkerMillsapParker 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.