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.

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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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Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool: Everything in its place, right?

2016_Radiohead_AMoonShapedPoolArtist: Radiohead
Album: A Moon Shaped Pool
Year: 2016
Grade: B-

In Brief: More surprising than its sudden release is the overall down-tempo, relaxed nature of the music throughout most of this record. At times the moods and sentiments are vintage Radiohead, but the heavy emphasis on acoustic instruments and string arrangements are definitely more understated territory than the band unusually inhabits. The King of Limbs may have had a more exciting sound, but this feels much more like a complete, fully thought-through album.

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What Am I Listening To? – May 2016

2016_SleepingatLast_AtlasSensesSleeping at Last – Atlas: Senses EP
This one actually should have been on my list for April, since that’s when the final song “Sight” was released. I forgot it then, so here it is now. Click the link above for the full review that I published earlier today, or if you just want a summary, it’s another solid entry in the Atlas series with the tender sound we’ve come to expect from SAL, and a few minor surprises along the way.

2016_Radiohead_AMoonShapedPoolRadiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool
Probably the most high-profile release of the month, at least out of the stuff you’d expect me to be listening to. Radiohead sure loves their sudden album releases – this is the third album they’ve dropped on us with little to no advance warning. I’m absolutely over the moon (pun!) for the lead single “Burn the Witch”, and my initial impression of the largely subdued and surprisingly acoustic/orchestral material throughout most of the album was positive, though with repeated listens I’m finding it to be a bit lacking. Is it a better album than The King of Limbs? Probably, because it feels more like a complete project with the songs all having a reason for being presented in a specific order, and given that, it flows incredibly well. But Limbs had more individual songs that got me really excited, so it’s hard to say for sure. It’s definitely different, and there are some real gems here that longtime fans have been appreciating (especially the release of “True Love Waits” as an album track after nearly 20 years of it showing up in their setlists), but it’s probably not the place those newly interested in Radiohead should start out.

2016_SamBeamJescaHoop_LoveLetterforFireSam Beam & Jesca Hoop – Love Letter for Fire
This is basically an album of lightly quirky, but largely subdued, Iron & Wine duets. I know very little about Jesca Hoop, but the girlish vocals and multi-instrumental flourishes she adds to these songs feel like a restrained presence, while Sam Beam is the dominating personality here (insofar as a man with such a hushed voice and humble demeanor can be “dominating”). I don’t mind that, as it superficially reads as a new Iron & Wine album, though with all the short track lengths and a lot of similar songs running into each other, it’s been harder to pick out highlights than it normally is on a true I&W release.

2016_Thrice_ToBeEverywhereIstoBeNowhereThrice – To Be Everywhere Is to Be Nowhere
Thrice’s comeback after a long hiatus (just about as long as Radiohead’s, now that I think about it) just came out on Friday and I’ve only had the chance to listen to it twice, so my first impressions probably won’t line up with my final impressions when I review it a few months down the line. But overall, I like it. No real shockers here – Thrice didn’t reinvent the wheel and I think this fits in snugly with the sound they had in the Vheissu era when I first got into the band, with only small hints of the stylistic experimentation from The Alchemy Index showing up later in the album. There’s the occasional odd time signature or bit of electronic manipulation, but for the most part this is straight-ahead, slightly heavy rock goodness that I think will go down well with all but perhaps their oldest fans for whom anything that isn’t hardcore punk/screamo isn’t heavy enough.

Divad’s Soundtrack #46: September-October 2003

The fall of 2003 was quite possibly the most turbulent couple of months I’d been through since the summer and fall of 2001. While there were enjoyable occasions – a bit of traveling here, a few concerts there, and lots of time spent with our new Sedaqah Group – I could tell that a difficult decision might be looming ahead of me.

In with the New:
Anberlin
Cool Hand Luke
Mat Kearney

Out with the Old:
Sandra McCracken

Listen on Spotify:

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