Sleeping at Last – Atlas: Intelligence – We were designed to send mixed signals.

2017_SleepingatLast_AtlasIntelligenceArtist: Sleeping at Last
Album: Atlas: Intelligence EP
Year: 2017
Grade: B+

In Brief: Three songs about the body, heart, and mind, in Sleeping at Last’s expected baroque pop style. The electronic pulses and plethora of subtle sounds working in tandem on “Mind” are an excellent touch, but aside from that, there’s not much new here.

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What Am I Listening To? – April 2017

2016_EverythinginSlowMotion_LaidLowEPEverything in Slow Motion – Laid Low EP
This North Dakota band was a recommendation from the same brother who got me into Thrice all those years ago, and much like Thrice circa Vheissu, these guys seem to be in a transition period between post-hardcore and a more melodic, but still heavy, approach to modern rock music. While I think they’re still in search of a sound that truly sets them apart from some other bands in the genre, they do show potential on songs like “Coma”, which moves effortlessly from up-tempo anthem to heavy breakdown, or “Runaway”, which shows off some more progressive time signature and tempo shifts, particularly with its doom-y slowdown at the end. (Hey, the band has to live up to their name somewhere, right?) I’d like to see how this approach translates to a “full album” listen next time these guys put out an LP, but for now, this is an interesting first taste.

2017_TheNewPornographers_WhiteoutConditionsThe New Pornographers – Whiteout Conditions
The first New Pornos album without Dan Bejar streamlines their sound quite a bit. This is a lean & mean power pop record, much heavier on the keyboards than their past stuff, but still full of lively drums and guitars, that never really slows down to catch its breath aside from one or two mid-tempo tracks. It’s a lot of fun, and I love how well integrated the three remaining vocalists (A. C. Newman, Neko Case, and Kathryn Calder) are on pretty much every song, but I kind of miss the experiments and odd detours heard on some of Bejar’s material. Without that, and without any slower tracks to speak of, the album lacks highlights as strong as “The Bleeding Heart Show” or “Adventures in Solitude” or “My Shepherd”, which were some of my favorites on their past records. But this one’s still a fun romp.

2017_Tennis_YoursConditionallyTennis – Yours Conditionally
Tennis’s music might legitimately earn the term “yacht rock”, since the married duo that fronts the band has a love of sailing, which inspires many of their songs even if that’s not what the actual subject matter is about. The carefree, sunny tone of 70s and 80s soft rock colliding with modern-day indie pop is a good starting point for describing their sound, with female vocals that are reminiscent of Nina Gordon or Gwen Stefani in certain places. Think of a less gloomy, more upbeat Beach House and that might help. While the record settles into a bit of a lull of samey-sounding songs after a while, it definitely opens with its best material, and underneath the sugary-sweet vocals and laid-back instrumental work, a few of these songs actually offer a bit of subversive commentary on gender roles, while others are as straightforwardly lovey-dovey as they seem to be on the surface, reminding us that dissatisfaction with how the world defines husbands and wives doesn’t have to mean dissatisfaction in their own marriage.

2017_MichelleBranch_HopelessRomanticMichelle Branch – Hopeless Romantic
The 14 years in between Hotel Paper and Michelle’s latest solo album haven’t been entirely unproductive – I actually really enjoyed The Wreckers’ lone album, and her attempt at a similarly country-flavored solo career on the Everything Comes and Goes EP. But she probably wrote and then ended up having to scrap a good three albums’ worth of material between then and now, due to the extreme cycles of development hell she apparently went through with multiple record labels. She’s got a good arsenal of 14 songs now that she’s finally managed to put a record out, but the bad news is, they’re pretty boring. Her guitar-driven pop style in the old days wasn’t exactly innovative, but it was energetic and fun and occasionally had some real bite to it. A lot of these new songs are keyboard-driven, with weak hooks and limp drums. (That last bit’s extra-frustrating, given that she’s dating Black Keys drummer Patrick Carney, who played on the record.) The first few listens to this one were a real chore. It just seems designed to blend into the background, and that’s not a good look for a comeback album when you’re trying to reintroduce yourself to a fanbase that has probably almost doubled in age since they last heard from you.

2017_FlintEastwood_BrokeRoyaltyEPFlint Eastwood – Broke Royalty EP
The electropop sound I feel in love with on Small Victories has been further tweaked here, adding in hints of hip-hop and R&B influence, a bit of vocal distortion, and a generous helping of triumphant attitude. it’s a fun mixture, but the production gimmicks almost threaten to drown out the songwriting at several moments, making it harder for me to get into a lot of these new tracks, compared to how quickly her old material caught on. For some strange reason, “Glitches” and “Monster” from the previous EP show up again here, without much if anything changed from the original recordings. So you’re really only getting five new songs instead of 7… but those 5 are an intriguing attempt to expand on Flint’s sound.

2017_Incubus_8Incubus – 8
While it’s nice to hear these guys returning to an edgier sound after the extreme bore-fest that was If Not Now, When?, I still feel largely uninspired by this record after my first few times through it. A few of these songs sound like they could have fit on Make Yourself or A Crow Left of the Murder, but I’m not hearing the restless creative energy that was present on albums like Morning View or Light Grenades. I don’t need Incubus to return to an old sound, so much as I need them to continue thinking outside of the box in amusing and intriguing ways. I saw glimpses of that on the better tracks Trust Fall (Side A) a few years ago, which excited me far more than anything I’m hearing on this one.

2017_SleepingatLast_AtlasIntelligenceSleeping at Last – Atlas: Intelligence
The three light-as-a-feather tracks on SAL’s latest Atlas installment attempt to describe the roles that the body, heart and mind play in the human experience and in our decision-making process. As usual, it’s pretty stuff but I’m not hearing a lot of new ideas. The light electronic undertones of “Mind” probably make it the most interesting track; it contrasts nicely with the expected sentimentality heard on “Heart”. I guess at this point all Ryan O’Neal has left to finish is the 9-song Enneagram suite, and Atlas: Year Two might actually stand a chance of being wrapped up within the span of two years.


John Mayer – The Search For Everything

It’s been a full decade since I last considered a John Mayer album to be tolerable. I hated Battle Studies and was largely indifferent about the two laid-back acoustic records that followed. The Search For Everything feels like John’s acknowledgment that he can’t escape the mainstream; while there are some folksy tracks here and even a country influenced one, he mostly returns to the lightly bluesy pop of Continuum. The results aren’t terribly exciting, but they also aren’t terrible. The two things that make it hardest for me to engage John Mayer’s material these days are that his reputation as a guitarist far exceeds the actual talent displayed on his records, and his reputation as a womanizer with a big, stupid mouth makes it hard to sympathize with his songs of lost love and loneliness. That’s mostly true here, though a few moments of vulnerable soul-searching, most notably “In the Blood”, have managed to catch me off-guard.

Mew – Visuals

Mew cranked out a follow-up to 2015’s + – faster than they ever have to any of their previous albums, and superficially, it feels a lot like a companion to that album at first, to the point where I actually forgot that guitarist Bo Madsen had left after that one, because most of these songs could easily co-mingle with tracks from that album and a lot of us would be none the wiser. There’s nothing epically long here, which might be a first for Mew, but the surprisingly heavy opening riffs of “Candy Pieces All Smeared Out” and the uniquely tropical feel of “Twist Quest” serve as strong reminders that Mew is still very much in exploratory mode. This just came out a few days ago, and I’ll need a few more concentrated listens with headphones to really let its intricacies sink in, but I like what I’m hearing so far.

Obsessive Year-End List Fest 2016: EPs and Last Year’s Leftovers

I don’t like a lot of hodgepodge in my year-end lists of favorite albums. But sometimes the good songs don’t end up on full-length LPs, or else they do and I just don’t discover them in time to put them on that year’s list. This is where all of that stuff goes.

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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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Sleeping at Last – Atlas: Emotions – For in our great sorrow, we learn what joy means.

2016_sleepingatlast_atlasemotionsArtist: Sleeping at Last
Album: Atlas: Emotions EP
Year: 2016
Grade: A-

In Brief: While the lyrics do a great job of explaining the inner workings of each human emotion, the music doesn’t always live up to the emotion being expressed. It’s still a worthwhile and intriguing new entry in the Atlas series, but it’s more of a study than an actual experience of emotion.

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What Am I Listening To? – October 2016

2016_boniver_22amillionBon Iver – 22, A Million
Justin Vernon’s no longer obsessed with random places on maps. He’s obsessed with numbers now. Oh, and Autotune. Layers and layers of Autotune, to the point where I really have to question the limits to which that particular tool can be stretched. I get that it’s an artsy effect, not an attempt to correct mistakes. If anything, he seems fascinated with the imperfections that occur when the sound of his voice is warped beyond recognition. It’s amusing in small doses, but grating in larger ones. I can’t fault him for going full experimental with his previous baroque pop/folk sound, but several of these new songs feel like non-events as a result of it. This album’s an intentional mess, and getting a lot of praise for it, but to me it’s just OK.

2016_gungor_onewildlifebodyGungor – One Wild Life: Body
The final chapter of the One Wild Life saga has an intriguing concept behind it – following the thoughts and instincts of a person from life to death, and dealing with the various emotions, desires, and needs they have along the way. At this point I think I’m more excited by the high-concept ideas Gungor shoots for than the actual music – though this album seems a little more consistent than the last two in terms of its pacing (being generally more uptempo certainly helps, despite the purposefully slow beginning and end). I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a bit burned out on their occasional habit of sabotaging a good hook just to make a song sound more artsy-fartsy than it really needs to be. And the way the trilogy finally wraps up, while it’s a nice bookend to the way Soul started out, it a bit anti-climactic. Sometimes I think Michael and Lisa second-guess themselves to ridiculous extremes, but then I’m glad to have a Christian artist who is willing to think outside the box instead of recording rote worship songs over and over. Body isn’t perfect, but it might be the most consistent and fully realized of the three One Wild Life albums when all is said and done.

2016_trailsandways_ownitTrails and Ways – Own It
I should probably know by now that when I fall in love with a band due to the beautiful synergy shown by several equally important members, and especially, it seems, when their music is dependent on multiple vocalists to make the track listing diverse and the harmonies really soar, that band is in a precarious spot when key members choose to move on. Trails and Ways lost both of their female members between albums, and in addition to the loss of rich backing vocals, those two members were also their bassist and lead guitarist. They’ve been replaced by temporary touring members here, as far as I can tell, with the two guys being the only permanent members of the group remaining, and that reduces what was once a unique and diverse sound to a bit of a monotonous take on modern-day indie pop. The songwriting’s still intriguing, but the vocals just don’t pop like they used to, and the bits of foreign language that used to give so many of their songs character are gone, too. There are a few genuinely catchy songs in the mix, but most of this album runs together in my mind, and it feels like a rushed attempt to deliver a follow-up when some time to hang back and reinvent the band in more of a carefully planned way probably would have been a better approach.

2016_greenday_revolutionradioGreen Day – Revolution Radio
Wooing back their old-school pop-punk fans with their trilogy of albums released in 2012 kinda backfired, so it seems Green Day is back to making the sorts of politicized rock operas that gave them a second career with American Idiot and 21st Century Breakdown. This album doesn’t quite have the teeth or the sonic variation that those records did, but I still see it as a welcome course correction for the band. The songs are pretty sturdy, aside from one or two misfires, the commentary on violence and the media’s relationship with it are timely, even if the political approach seems old hat for Green Day at this point, and I like the little thematic nods that bring “Somewhere Now” (easily my favorite of the 12 new songs) full circle at the end of the epic rocker “Forever Now”. Nothing here breaks new ground for Green Day, but at least they’re well-aware of their strengths and generally playing to them.

2016_mutemath_changesMuteMath – Changes
A MuteMath remix album sounds like a really good idea on paper. They’re already well-known as a killer live band with a hefty dose of computerized sounds to sweeten the pot, so going full electronica doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch. And they’ve got friends in all the right places when it comes to potential remixers. Unfortunately, as with most remix albums, a lot of these tracks are borderline tedious, dragging down the tempos or repeating sections of well-loved songs from Vitals to the point where it becomes grating, not really improving on any of the source material. Getting through this thing was a real chore, despite (or perhaps because of) my positive feelings about the original versions. (Also: Why do we need two versions of “Monument”, but they couldn’t be bothered to remix “Bulletproof”? Grrr.) Adding female vocals to the title track “Vitals” was a good call, and I do really enjoy the brand-new song “Changes”, which fits alongside the remixes sonically, but doesn’t make the mistake of mucking up something I previously enjoyed, and doesn’t let its weird sonic detours get in the way of actual song structure. This feels like a “Keep our merch on the shelves after our last album didn’t sell so well” type of project, sadly.

2016_reginaspektor_rememberustolifeRegina Spektor – Remember Us to Life
Regina Spektor seems to be known first and foremost for her quirkiness, but there’s some real substance beneath the cutesiness. She’s a very thoughtful songwriter, and sometimes the musical roulette game she plays doesn’t show that off as well as it could in the form of a full-length album. This new one seems to shore up some of the pacing problems her last few had, and I feel like both the ideas behind each song and the actual execution work for me more often than they used. If I’m honest with myself, I’m more drawn to the sinister and sassy up-tempo tracks than the quieter ballads, but this record’s got a fair amount of both to digest. Definitely one I’ll be coming back to a lot in the closing months of 2016.

2016_alterbridge_thelastheroAlter Bridge – The Last Hero
My weariness with a band’s overall sound getting repetitive, and my tendency to tune out partway through an album, have come back with a vengeance here. Green Day got off easy. Alter Bridge seems to be so hell-bent on proving they can rock hard for the duration of an album that it just plain gets tiring to listen to. And this sucker is over an hour long! Yikes. I love that they’re still willing to merge alt-rock, grunge, and old-school metal techniques in a day and age where none of those things are trendy. But their better records, particularly Blackbird, had some amount of calm before the storm, maybe a few poppier or more acoustic tracks (sacrilege, I know) to make the onslaught hit harder when they would dive back into heavier material. The social commentary seems to get cornier and cornier as the years go by, too – they’re tiptoeing into Dream Theater territory at this point, and that’s not the way in which I’d want a band to be like Dream Theater.

2016_sleepingatlast_atlasemotionsSleeping at Last – Atlas: Emotions
You’d almost expect this to be Inside Out: The Song Cycle, except for the absence of Disgust, I guess. And Ryan O’Neal is certainly a huge fan of the film, and all things Pixar. But here, the core emotions of Joy, Sorrow, Anger and Fear that he explores don’t so much aim to express those emotions directly through the music as they do to describe the psychological impact on each of them as we learn to define the world around us based on our experiences. Ryan’s delicate voice and generally bright instrumental palette make it especially tricky for him to fully capture Anger and Fear, especially with the latter being an instrumental (which contains some surprising sonic twists compared to his usual work, though nothing overtly terrifying), but as always, reading the stories behind the songs makes his approach a lot easier to understand, and the more up-tempo/aggressive approach of both Joy and Anger helps to ensure that those in particular will probably find their way into my pantheon of favorite SAL songs.

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.