What Am I Listening To? – November 2016

2016_jimmyeatworld_integritybluesJimmy Eat World – Integrity Blues
I keep giving new Jimmy Eat World albums a chance, even though I haven’t truly connected with one of their records beyond a song or two in over a decade. This one may have finally broken the trend. It’s nothing groundbreaking for the band, but the songwriting and musicianship are more attention-grabbing right away and they keep that attention longer once a few of the initial surprises have worn off. The front half of the album is particularly strong.

2016_empireofthesun_twovinesEmpire of the Sun – Two Vines
I’m not sure if Empire of the Sun won me over in spite of their 80s-style campiness, or because of it. After their bizarre hodgepodge of a debut, they scaled back the weirdness for Ice on the Dune, and while that album had a number of strong songs and a more consistent sound throughout, I missed some of the quirkiness of their earlier stuff. Now the transformation seems complete on the third album, and there are so few surprises from song to song that I feel like they’re afraid to experiment much with their sound these days. Even when this thing is up-tempo (which is most of the record), it feels too laid-back and inclined to rely on cheesy, repetitive samples to propel the songs along. When you’re selling a highly stylized sound more than anything of real lyrical substance, that’s a bad place for a band to be.

2016_thedigitalage_galaxiesThe Digital Age – Galaxies
I’m so out of touch with contemporary worship music at this point that I honestly can’t tell how much of this album is self-composed, and how much is covers of currently trending worship songs. It’s mostly done in the high-octane, electronically-tinged rock style that these guys established when they were still members of the David Crowder Band. But the loose astronaut/space exploration theme bridging some of the tracks doesn’t add much to the experience, and musically these guys seem to be playing it pretty safe, unlike Crowder who still unapologetically mixes disparate genres in his solo work. I don’t even have a song I previously recognized like “All the Poor and Powerless” or “Oceans” as an inroad this time, so I’m finding it really hard to get into this album. Maybe when we start singing one or two of these songs in church, I’ll go back and see them with new eyes?

2016_norahjones_daybreaksNorah Jones – Day Breaks
Little Broken Hearts was a pretty daring album by Norah Jones standards. It makes sense that after taking listeners down her personal rabbit hole on that album, she’d want to throw some of her long-time fans a bone by going back to the more classic jazz and mellow pop hybrid that she first won the world over with on Come Away with Me. It’s the closest she’s sounded to that album in her entire career since. And it doesn’t blow me away, but I don’t mind it. I still need to listen more closely to figure out where the true highlights are.

2016_futureofforestry_awakenedtothesoundFuture of Forestry – Awakened to the Sound
I’m surprised that FoF managed to throw another full-length album together so quickly after Pages. Frankly I was so disappointed with Pages that I didn’t bother reviewing it, and the band had kind of fallen off my radar until the surprise release of this album right around Election Day. (I needed a good week to really get into the mood for it, but that’s not the band’s fault.) They’re slowly winning me back with this one. The days of FoF working from slow-burning baroque pop intros up to grandeur-filled modern rock climaxes are probably long gone, but I like the cinematic feel of a lot of these new songs and the way that several incorporate Eastern-style strings and backing vocals. Some of it is still a bit slow and ponderous for my tastes, but when listened to all in a row, it feels like a journey through the highs and lows of different landscapes, rather than the dull monotony of soft, middle-of-the-road, ballad after ballad that made most of Pages such a chore to get through.

2016_owel_dearmeOwel – Dear Me
I knew Owel must have had some really good things in store when I found out via Facebook that none of the excellent tracks heard on the Every Good Boy EP had even made the cut for the tracklisting on their second full-length album. Hearing it now, I can see why. A lot of these songs are sprawling, some even a bit challenging, in a way that’s definitely consistent with their self-titled album but that would have made most of the songs from that EP feel a bit out of place by comparison. This is an album that you really have to take your time with – it’s a slow-burner that owes a clear debt to the work of bands like Radiohead and Sigur Rós, but that also unfolds with the subtle grace of a band like Elbow. It’s an immersive indie rock experience that is in no hurry to impress the audience with pyrotechnics, but which instead is long on slow-building melancholy passages and intriguing songwriting. Owel is one of those bands where, even when the lyrics are esoteric and not easily interpreted, I always feel like I’m getting a glimpse into some intensely personal beliefs and experiences. Nothing here wows me quite as much as the first time I heard “Snowglobe”, but I’m actually glad the band isn’t so obviously repeating itself.


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? – December 2014

I decided to get this month’s “What Am I Listening To?” column out of the way early, since December is a slow month for new releases and I’m mostly busy reviewing my favorites from the year gone by, in order to get those all written up by December 31st. So here are all two of the new records I’ve managed to check out this month.

2013_FallingUp_SilverCityFalling Up – Silver City
This Christmas-themed release was one of THREE albums that Falling Up put out in 2013, but after the absolutely phenomenal Hours and the just-okay Midnight on Earthship, I didn’t want to oversaturate myself with their music, so I saved Silver City for this December. The band’s tendency to write sweeping, majestic melodies and weave obscure narratives into their cinematic brand of synth-rock is both a strength and a weakness as they strive to re-work old carols into their unique musical context. Sometimes the results are understated but beautiful, as heard on “Silent Night” and the first of their two takes on “O Holy Night”. Sometimes they’re brash and energetic, as heard on their robot-rock take on “Sugarplum Fairy” and their Mannheim Steamroller-inspired instrumental version of “Carol of the Bells”. And sometimes they’re just long-winded and too caught up in an unfortunate tendency to noodle about on their instruments without really going much of anywhere, which is most problematic on the seemingly interminable “Emanuel” and the unnecessary reprise of “O Holy Night”. (It takes a lot of effort to turn my favorite Christmas carol into my least favorite track on a holiday album; they should have quit while they were ahead with the first version.) The beauty and the bombast merge most effectively on their soaring version of “Song in the Air”, which has one of those melodies that rivals the deliciousness of my favorite tracks from Hours, as it quite heralds the arrival of a cosmic King from afar. Not even the ridiculously over-the-top panning from left to right speaker and back at the end of that one can kill the good mood it puts me in. The record closes with a suite of what I’m assuming are three original compositions by Falling Up – the instrumental, piano-driven title track and its quiet reprise, serving as bookends to a long and curious story song called “The Little Robot”, which I haven’t even begun to understand. All in all, about 50% of the material here is solid, so it’d be a strong Christmas EP if the band had edited down some of the more tedious passages in the other songs. Still worth a listen if you skip around those potholes, I suppose.

2014_TheDigitalAge_RehearsalsVol2The Digital Age – Rehearsals, Vol. 2
I guess this is round two of the former David Crowder Band members experimenting with whatever hymn and modern worship covers were inspiring them at the time, without worrying about what would fit into an album later on. The first Rehearsals EP back in 2012 was a good appetizer for their full-length debut Evening:Morning, and I was pleased that their cover of “All the Poor and Powerless” made the final cut for the album. Here, the big flavor-of-the-year praise song being highlighted is “Oceans (Feet May Fail)”, which is given a slight electronic makeover, but which otherwise doesn’t really grab me for the same reason it hasn’t grabbed me when I’ve heard it in church. It just isn’t nearly as strong of a song to begin with. Elsehwere, their takes on old hymns and more “liturgical” material flirt with both electronica and country sounds, though not at the same time like Crowder did on his solo debut. Their up-tempo, banjo-driven take on “Blessed Assurance” is probably my favorite of the bunch. And whoever’s doing their best Johnny Cash impression on the closing track “Take Me Home”, I have to admit they had me fooled into thinking that was a cover of some obscure song of his I didn’t know about at first (it’s actually an original). Overall this isn’t as strong as the first EP or their full-length, and I’m starting to wonder if I’m going to get diminishing returns as these guys put some distance between themselves and their years with Crowder. At least there’s enough stylistic diversity here to show that they haven’t quite devolved into “generic modern praise band” territory. But they’re getting uncomfortably close to it at times.

The Digital Age – Evening:Morning: Can we just call them “The * Band?”

2013_TheDigitalAge_EveningMonringArtist: The Digital Age
Album: Evening:Morning
Year: 2013
Grade: B

In Brief: Several members of the David Crowder Band have soldiered on without Crowder… and while the results aren’t terribly surprising or deep, this is still a pretty solid, rock-oriented worship album, and I say that at a point in my life where I’m not at all easily impressed by such things.

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Obsessive Year-End List Fest 2013: Favorite Albums and Honorable Mentions

For the third and final entry in this long-winded look back at the music that mattered to me this year, I present the cream of the crop – the albums that provided me with the most satisfying listening experience from beginning to end, which is a much more difficult feat than simply hooking me with a catchy song or two, and arguably a feat many artists have given up on in the age of digital music that can just as easily be released for bite-sized consumption on a sporadic schedule, rather than thought through as a fully-formed artistic statement. These albums don’t have that much in common with one another, but taken all together, they represent the weird snowball of influences that make up my musical tastes these days, ranging from old favorites who have resurfaced after lying dormant for many years, to buzz-gathering indie artists who have begun to break out of the blogosphere and into some version of “the mainstream”, to those who have given up entirely on mainstream fame and are content to Kickstarter and Indiegogo their way into fans’ hearts with no traditional support structure whatsoever. It’s all a very weird mix, but it’s all quite delicious.

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Obsessive Year-End List Fest 2013: Favorite Songs

It’s time to kick off my yearly obsession with counting things that it really makes no sense to put in order. More detailed write-ups on the full lengths albums that captivated me this year are to follow, but for now, here’s a haphazard list I’ve compiled of 100 songs that moved me this year… some physically, some emotionally, some both.

For those who’d like to follow along and listen to some of my picks, I’ve compiled a playlist (limited to one song per artist, because it’s crazy long enough already), that hits a lot of the year’s highlights, in roughly the order I came to discover them.
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