Sylvan Esso – What Now: All you’ll hear is sound. (Wait, isn’t that how music normally works?)

2017_SylvanEsso_WhatNowArtist: Sylvan Esso
Album: What Now
Year: 2017
Grade: B-

In Brief: The duo’s second album features some clever sonic experimentation and the occasional brave lyric. But it too often falls back on the old cliche of making music about making music. And the highlights generally aren’t as strong as they were on the first album.

Continue reading


What Am I Listening To? – May 2017

2017_FatherJohnMisty_PureComedyFather John Misty – Pure Comedy
I really try to listen to a record at least twice before even offering an initial reaction to it in this monthly column. But sometimes working up the courage to go back for that second listen can be a real challenge. I knew enough about Father John Misty (aka Joshua Tillman, former drummer for Fleet Foxes and a solo artist in his own right even before that) to realize that his third album under this name probably wouldn’t be my cup of tea, but there was so much discussion surrounding this record, making it clear that he was discussing subjects that interested me, even if I didn’t necessary agree with his conclusions, that I felt like I had to hear for myself what folks were talking about. I can’t recall a time when I’ve ever had as strongly favorable a response to an artist’s lyrical prowess and yet as negative a response to the style of music they perform. Tillman seems to be a “three chords and the truth” kind of guy, maintaining a very simple light folk/rock backdrop on most of these tracks, centered around non-flashy piano or acoustic guitar, with maybe some background ambiance or other instrumentation, but with every song designed to put the lyrics front and center. I admire this in theory, but in practice, it takes otherwise fascinatingly written songs and makes them dull as dirt to listen to. Tillman has a strong, emotionally compelling voice, and he pretty clearly wants to get his point across – whether it be on the subject of religion viewed through the lens of mankind’s innate greed, or the charades of the music industry he’s become disillusioned with, or the impending doom of the planet due to the our greed and inability to coexist peacefully – without the instrumentation getting in the way. At times I feel like I’m getting lectured for being selfish enough to expect the music to actually entertain me – and the irony is that I’d be fine with this subject matter in a non-musical form, such as poetry or a podcast. Most of the tracks are just so long and slow that it takes a lot out of me to listen to more than a few of them at a time. He’s clearly made a statement with this one, but it gets to the point where the bold statement is diluted by the sheer length of time (ten or thirteen minutes on a few tracks, mostly repeating the same simple chord structure over and over again) that it takes to make it. There’s no doubt that the man has talent, but I feel like he’s making the assumption that anything more interesting in the performance department will cause listeners to ignore the lyrics – and I’ve personally got more than enough room in my brain to pay close attention to both when an artist tries not to compromise on either side of that equation.

2017_SylvanEsso_WhatNowSylvan Esso – What Now
I’m struggling to figure out whether the evolution of this electronic duo’s sound from their debut makes them truly next-level (as the sounds and samples used are often surprising), or this is a step down from their debut because the song structures get so repetitive and the lyrics are largely stuck on self-referential “singing about making dance music and dancing to that music”. There’s definitely some catchy and occasionally edgy stuff here. But song-for-song, I think I prefer the band’s self-titled debut. Nothing here is hitting me quite as hard as “Hey Mami”, “Play it Right”, etc. did after the first several listens.

2017_Feist_PleasureFeist – Pleasure
It’s interesting that Feist and Sylvan Esso both put out new albums on the same day in late April, with cover images where I can’t quite tell what the character pictured is doing. Leslie Feist and Amelia Meath from Sylvan Esso have a fair amount of vocal similarities and have even toured together in the past, though musically they couldn’t be more different. Feist is nominally “indie rock”, with a very bare-bones approach that often accentuates her delicate vocals and makes it surprising when the few louder moments leap out of nowhere. I tend to appreciate specific moments in her songs more so than the full songs, and that trend might be even more pronounced on this album, which I certainly didn’t expect to have anything as immediate as her breakout hit “1234” on it, but there aren’t even songs that grab me like “The Bad in Each Other” or “A Commotion” did on Metals. This is a very sparse record for the most part, with some interesting background sounds and stylistic choices here and there, but honestly, listening all the way through it is proving to be a bit of a chore for me. I just don’t think I’m really part of the target audience for this one.

2017_LinkinPark_OneMoreLightLinkin Park – One More Light
I’ll happily defend Linkin Park’s right to change their sound on every album. They can’t keep repeating their old sound, despite how much their old-school fans might diss them for not being as good nowadays. All of their albums from Minutes to Midnight onward, despite how uneven a few of them may have been, have had really interesting experiments that stand among their best work precisely because they sound nothing like my old favorites from Meteora and Hybrid Theory. There have also been some ill-conceived experiments that didn’t work, but at least you couldn’t accuse the band of simply resting on their laurels. This album, though? It’s a change in sound, but the largely electronic, pop radio-oriented balladry found throughout its 10 tracks gets old fast. I feel like they’ve cut and pasted a lot of sounds that were popular on the radio 3-4 years ago – very generic beats, vaguely uplifting but cliched pop melodies, and really not a whole lot that shows the strengths of either of the band’s two vocalists. Mike Shinoda only gets to rap on one track, and while the tracks he sings on tend to be a little better written then Chester Bennington’s, musically they’re among the blandest of the bunch. They insist that guitarist Brad Delson is all over the thing with new and interesting guitar sounds, but if you’re manipulating the sound of the guitar so much that it may as well be another synthesized sound generated on a laptop (and ditto for your drummer, bassist, etc.), then I don’t know why you should even bother calling yourself a band any more. Linkin Park’s done very synthesized things in the past that I enjoyed because they had some energy, or some interesting ambiance, or were different from their surroundings. Here, the music is largely wallpaper. I expect this band to make a few wrong turns per album that really turn me off and force my attention to the genuine highlights elsewhere on the record, but I never expected them to be so consistently boring and middle-of-the-road.

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.)

Continue reading

Obsessive Year-End List Fest 2015: Compilations, EPs, and Last Year’s Leftovers

The next order of business as I relive some of my favorite music from the past year is to give credit to the odds and ends that I really enjoyed, but considered categorically ineligible for my “Top Albums” list, either because they aren’t full-length albums, they were re-releases of older material, or they were released in 2014 and I just didn’t catch up to them in time to put them on last year’s list.

Continue reading

Obsessive Year-End List Fest 2015: Favorite Songs

The first order of business as 2015 comes to a close is to sift through all of my favorite songs that I first heard this year (or perhaps late last year, and it just took me a little longer to appreciate them) and attempt to put them in order, which as usual starts to get a bit silly below the top 30 or so. Music videos and some live performances are embedded for that first chunk of the list. As I’ve done in previous years, I’ve also got a Spotify playlist that covers a lot of these, limited to a song per artist and more in chronological order of when I discovered them.

Continue reading

Sylvan Esso: She don’t know the gravity she holds.

2014_SylvanEsso_SylvanEssoArtist: Sylvan Esso
Album: Sylvan Esso
Year: 2014
Grade: B

In Brief: It’s amazing what two people can accomplish with little more than a voice, some synths and drum pads, and a bit of ingenuity when it comes to live looping. Not every experiment works, but when it does, it’s an intoxicating example of synthpop/IDM at its best.

Continue reading

What Am I Listening To? – November 2015

2014_SylvanEsso_SylvanEssoSylvan Esso – Sylvan Esso
I would have assumed from the name that Sylvan Esso was some sort of a Scandiniavian synthpop outfit. Turns out I was half right. They’re definitely a synthpop/electronic type of band, but they’re actually from North Carolina. Mountain Man singer Amelia Meath and producer Nick Sanborn struck up an unlikely partnership when he was asked to remix a Mountain Man song, which shows up on this album as the addictive “Play It Right”, surprisingly not too far of a cry from the old-timey acapella arrangement of the original. SE’s real triumph is when they explore the limits of live looping, sampling, and just how low those synths can go, which oughta lead to some interesting surprises if you’ve cranked up the bass while you’re bumping “Could I Be” in your car. The lyrics don’t shy away from sexuality and social commentary, as evidenced most clearly into the call for men to own up to their objectification of woman and then promptly cut it out in “Hey Mami”, and honestly I have no idea what the innuendos in “Dreamy Bruises”, “Dress”, and “Coffee” are all about. This record gets a bit hit-and-miss toward the end, but for the most part I think this offbeat duo really has something good going.

2015_FallingUp_FallingUpFalling Up – Falling Up
So this is it… our final trip into the weird and wonderful storybook (okay, more like door-stopper novel) land of Falling Up. The group purposefully designed this to be their farewell album, and at first glance it’s nothing remarkably different from what they’ve done before, but a typical album of theirs is so immediate with effervescent melodies and yet so byzantine with interconnecting themes and stream-of-consciousness lyrics that it’s perfect for someone like me who loves a killer hook as much as he loved a complicated rhythm or an oblique turn of phrase to puzzle over. While there are some minor issues in the production department, I think the band did an excellent job of showing off their fun, rockin’ side and their dreamy, artistic side without compromising either one. I love the heavy guitar riffs and the intricate musicbox themes alike, and drummer Josh Shroy may well be the MVP of this album, even if at times he overplays hos hand a bit. Jessy Ribordy’s vocals have also never been better. He’s come along way from the feisty and sort of scratchy early twentysomething all those youth group kids first heard on Crashings. And yet despite how far they’ve come, I never get the feeling that they’re embarrassed about, nor have they completely abandoned, their old sound. It echoes in the hallways of a mazelike mansion that just happens to have had a lot more rooms added on to it in the intervening years.

2015_FallingUp_HouseFullofCavernsEPFalling Up – House Full of Caverns
The companion piece to Falling Up’s final album was released earlier this summer, but for whatever reason those of us who backed the album financially didn’t get our promised download of the EP until now. I’m not sure if this set of sparse instrumental tracks was part of the sessions from the final album (if so, they made a very good call in trimming the fat) or meant to be a stand-alone all along. Either way, it’s an even farther cry from Falling Up’s expected sound than the mellow, easygoing Midnight on Earthship, which means you shouldn’t expect any big guitar riffs or fascinating drum fills here. Even for those who enjoyed The River Empires, this is gonna take a lot of patience. I’m also not sure what’s up with the final track actually having vocals, whether that was just a cut song from the self-titled or from some other project, but it gives the record a strange, soundtrack-like sort of quality. Maybe someday I’ll get deeper into this thing, but at the moment I’m so preoccupied with the self-titled that it’s really all the Falling Up I need for now.

2015_MuteMath_VitalsMuteMath – Vitals
Record #4 for MuteMath was an apparent attempt to consolidate their sound, to strip away some of the excess overthinking that plagues their earlier studio sessions and just stick to only what felt necessary to make a song work. The result is a set of their most uncluttered and optimistic songs since their self-titled debut. Honestly, though, I liked some of the clutter and the weird left turns that they took on Odd Soul I’m the rare fan who considers that their best album, so to go back to something more straightforward, even if it’s still got that fiery MuteMath energy to it, does feel like a slight step down. The best tracks on this record, especially “Joy Rides” and “Monument”, feel like a futuristic reimagining of old soul/R&B melodies I never even knew I had stuck in my head all these years, while the worst of it comes in the one-two punch of “Composed” and “Used To”, which scales a bit too much back in the hopes of minimalism making some sort of a statement. Ultimately this might still be better than Armistice, and there’s certainly a lot of solid hooks here, but it’s not their strongest statement, artistically speaking.

2015_GuyGarvey_CourtingtheSquallGuy Garvey – Courting the Squall
The Elbow frontman has finally stepped out on his own, and he’s come up with a solo record that’s either a slow, immersive, good-for-the-soul winter album frequently interrupted by blasts of jazzy percussive breakdowns… or vice versa. I like both sides, but the two sides don’t gel as well as they might on an Elbow record. Consider it Garvey’s chance to explore the extremes, the stuff that might have been too loud or too soft or too out-of-genre to keep an Elbow record flowing along as pristinely as they typically do. Garvey’s love of the slow burn and his fondness for horn and drum breakdowns come together quite effectively on the standout track “Harder Edges”, but the winsome ballad “Unwind” is also an early favorite of mine, something that could have easily closed out an Elbow record within the past few years. This isn’t too radical a departure if you’re a fan of the band, and Garvey’s lyrics and vocal delivery are like fine wine as always, so I definitely recommend checking it out if you enjoy even the occasional odd track from his band.