Artist: The Decemberists
Album: The King Is Dead
In Brief: The Decemberists took a hard turn toward twangy Americana at the start of the last decade. I can’t imagine the move toward more conventional and accessible song structures, and away from high concept albums, sitting well with fans of the increasingly complex and long-winded magnum opuses they made toward the end of the 2000s. But for me, this is the record that manages to hit the sweet spot. The crisp production puts the rustic instrumentation upfront, making the record evocative of the wide open American West, and it songs work together thematically while also being enjoyable individually, without the surrounding context being required listening. This might be a dark horse pick, but it’s easily my favorite Decemberists album thus far.
Album: The Center Won’t Hold
In Brief: While I’m all for hearing Sleater-Kinney attempt to reinvent the sound they’ve had for 20+ years, the pop and electronic influences on this record don’t really mesh well with the righteous anger and irreverent commentary of their old punk rock sound. This leads to some unfortunate side effects as the group’s lyrics and hooks have been simplified, the vocal interplay between the two singers has been scaled way back, and the percussion has become so well-mannered that it was apparently a rather joyless record for their now-former drummer to participate in. This isn’t a career-destroying record, but it could turn out to be a legacy-damaging one.
Artist: Liam Singer
Album: Finish Him
In Brief: Singer’s expressive, percussive, and incredibly intricate style of piano-based indie pop music, with occasional choral and electronic accents, is truly a magnificent thing to behold. Equal parts playful and confident, uncertain and exploratory, this hour-long album makes me feel a level of excitement over discovering a brilliant new artist that I experience maybe two or three times a decade. (And this is his fifth album, which means I’ve been missing out for quite some time now.)
Artist: The Decemberists
Album: I’ll Be Your Girl
In Brief: A distressingly unfocused and non-committal album full of weird genre-hopping experiments that rarely work, and grating repetition that sucks any potential humor or narrative value out of most of the songs. I applaud the willingness to take risks with their sound, but I honestly get the impression from this album that The Decemberists are just plain exhausted from all the epic-length records that they used to make, and only half trying at this point. Not everything on this record is awful, but enough of it ranges from mildly disappointing to downright irritating that I end up in a bad mood pretty much every time I listen to it.
Artist: Esperanza Spalding
Album: Emily’s D+Evolution
In Brief: Is it jazz? Funk? Rock? R&B? Prog rock? Folk? YES! (Sort of.) However you label this bizarre mishmash of styles, it’s a jubilant celebration of a woman letting her mischievous alter ego come out to play. For me as a listener, it’s horizon-stretching in all the right ways.
Artist: The Decemberists
Album: What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World
In Brief: Abandoning the heavy-duty concept album premises of their previous efforts and throwing a lot of different musical ideas at the wall over the course of a sprawling, diverse record seems to have worked well for The Decemberists. I honestly can’t recall what I disliked about them before, but their latest record has seriously brightened my spring, and I probably owe it to them to revisit some of their older stuff as well.
Album: No Cities to Love
In Brief: Sometimes you just need a fun, noisy, in-your-face, no-nonsense blast of rock & roll. Sleater-Kinney’s comeback record passes that test easily. I may not know much else about their history, but hey, I had to start somewhere.
Artist: Kye Kye
In Brief: Kye Kye makes dreamy electronic music that can be captivating, but also a bit diffuse when examined more closely. Fantasize comes across as more coherent than its predecessor Young Love, but it still seems to be more about mood than meaning.
Occasionally I cross paths with a band whose sound is intriguing but a bit undercooked, and I figure they still have a bit of a refinement process to go through before they’re fully ready for the spotlight. This was definitely the case for Kye Kye, an electronic rock act from the Portland, Oregon area, with three of its four members all hailing from the same Estonian-born family. Olga Yagolnikov has one of those soothing, vaguely exotic kinds of voices that is perfect for the laid-back vibe that Kye Kye’s music gives off, while her brothers and her husband support her capably enough with a blend of sometimes energetic, but mostly ambient synth, guitar, and percussion sounds. I first heard the band as an opening act on Future of Forestry‘s Christmas tour in 2010, and while they sounded good enough in a live setting that tends to emphasize vibe and volume over lyrical clarity, I just couldn’t get into their album when I checked it out shortly thereafter. Young Love was plagued by the same problems that nagged me on a few of FoF’s records at the times, which is fitting since it was produced by FOF lead singer Eric Owyoung, who I tend to appreciate more as a performer and a songwriter than I do as a sound engineer. I forgot about the band after that point until they resurfaced, again as a promising opening act, on Gungor‘s I Am Mountain tour this January, dropping a completely fan-funded album right in the midst of that tour. Now boasting a production credit from Chad Howat of Paper Route, they’ve once again managed to pair themselves off with a like-minded electronic indie artist, but with stronger results this time around. Their sophomore record Fantasize is an effort that shows a band still in need of some work, but for the most part ready to enchant a wider audience with their strangely intoxicating sound.
Artist: Jars of Clay
In Brief: Jars of Clay is a band trapped between audiences. Their dedication to not speaking “Christian-ese” and not offering easy answers can cause a bit of a disconnect with listeners raised on CCM. But their quirky, folk/rock sound with light electronic overtones ain’t exactly mainstream, either. Inland succeeds despite those challenges, coming across as a more organic take on The Long Fall Back to Earth.
Album: To Know that You’re Alive
In Brief: Kutless shows marked improvement, mostly in the music department, but not quite enough for me to recommend this puppy. Still, I admire the attempt.