What Am I Listening To? – June 2018

Wow, June was a crazy month for new music. Probably because there were five Fridays. A bunch of stuff I was looking forward to dropped on June 1, and then again just yesterday on June 29. Because I prefer to have listened to something a bare minimum of twice before mentioning it here, and just for the sake of my overall sanity, I’ve decided to punt a few of those June 29 releases to July, so that I can focus more on the few that I did manage to get to thus far.

Sucré – In Pieces EP
I’ll admit to being somewhat miffed when, after the hype leading up to it on social media, this turned out to be just a 10-minute EP, really more of a glorified single with a couple B-sides, that didn’t even include the earlier stand-alone single “Inside”. See, in the absence of any concrete explanation for why drummer Darren King left MuteMath so abruptly last year, I can only assume he wanted to make Sucré, his project with his wife and former Eisley member Stacy Dupree-King, a full-time gig. To have new material coming out piecemeal like this is better than nothing, but still they haven’t done a full-length album since 2012. The thing is, “In Pieces” is a nice, gooey, string-drenched plea in the vein of their debut album, while those B-sides I mentioned are actually even better than the title track, taking the band’s sound in even more of a percussive and electronic direction with some next-level production. I really hope an album is forthcoming that gives these scattered tracks (and maybe even some of the ones from 2015’s Loner EP) a final home.

Owl City – Cinematic
Owl City’s fifth album is every bit as garish and all over the place as its hastily Photoshopped together movie poster of an album cover. We already knew from the numerous Reel EPs leading up to this album what nine of the fifteen songs were gonna sound like, and a few of those were downright embarrassing, and make no better of a case for themselves in the context of the album, which is mostly a series of personal anecdotes about Adam Young’s Midwestern upbringing and his familial roots in the area. This is the sort of stuff that, if more artfully expressed, would make great little folksy vignettes on a Sufjan Stevens record, but when I listen to Owl City, I tend to expect silly, surreal, synth-laden flights of fancy, and I get relatively few of those here. “Lucid Dream” is a legit highlight that would have stood out from the pack even on the now-classic Ocean Eyes, and “Be Brave” makes a solid case for Young’s ability to succeed outside of synthpop, going for more of a Ben Folds-esque piano rock feel (minus the wit, but believable nonetheless). The rest of it runs the gamut from passable but unremarkable synthpop to some really inadvised forays into bro-country and inspirational pop balladry. 15 tracks of it is a lot to stomach, but it might actually be stronger song-for-song than the disastrous Mobile Orchestra, I suppose.

Neko Case – Hell-On
I love Neko Case’s voice, and her role as the most prominent female voice in The New Pornographers, but her solo material tends to be a tough sell for me. She’s a unique singer/songwriter due to how she structures songs, often eschewing the typical verse/chorus layout in favor of taking a song in a completely different direction to avoid repeating herself, a tactic used on even some of the catchiest, poppiest of the country-rock numbers heard here. She also tends to prefer more garish subject matter, making a few of her lyrics downright uncomfortable, although there’s no denying she approaches them with some serious songcraft. The clear talent that I have to acknowledge is on display exceeds the raw enjoyment I tend to get from listening to her, is what I guess I’m saying. But Hell-On is definitely a stronger record than either of her last two, in terms of both the songwriting and the genre-hopping. The opening run of four songs, from the mystifyingly weird title track up through the addictive single “Bad Luck”, are the clear highlights for me.

Father John Misty – God’s Favorite Customer
Around this time last year, I wrote an excessively long paragraph defending my lack of an ability to properly rate Father John Misty’s landmark recording Pure Comedy. I was long-winded in my attempts to say I admired his songwriting skills, but not so much his long-windedness. I see the irony in that now. Thankfully, this more concise fourth album from Josh Tillman trims a lot of the fat, keeping the lightly psychedelic folk/pop style but avoiding most of the excesses and dirge-like arrangements that made Pure Comedy a test of wills to listen to. A Father John Misty song doesn’t need to be long to provoke profound thinking in the listener, and from his darkly humorous third-person analysis of his own celebrity to some unflinching, uncomfortable vignettes into his own self-destructive habits, I can definitely say that each of these ten tracks is worth dissecting in its own right, even if the music doesn’t always excite me. So far it’s the melancholy ballad “Just Dumb Enough to Try” and the snarky rocker “Date Night” that grab my attention the most, but even the most plodding tracks here have their merits. I look forward to actually being able to rate this one soon.

The Flaming Lips – Greatest Hits, Vol. 1
It’s patently ridiculous for a band that’s been around since the 80s to only now have a “Volume 1” of their greatest hits released, especially when this isn’t even the first such compilation of their work that’s been put out. Still, I guess I have to admire the attempt to split this release into two versions – a single-disc collection of their grabbiest indie pop gems for listeners who are only just beginning to scratch the surface, and a four disc deep-dive for the dieheards who probably already have each and every album, EP, gummy skull, and other bizarro collectible. I’ve just been listening to the one-disc version, which skips their 80s material altogether and starts with early 90s highlights such as “They Don’t Use Jelly”, aruably the song that first put the Lips on the map. I was actually unfamiliar with anything from before The Soft Bulletin, so it’s nice to hear a little taste of what they were like in the 90s, even if my favorite material from the band is still the trio of dream pop albums from Bulletin up through At War with the Mystics. (I’m one of the few dissenters where Embryonic is concerned, but I must say it’s nice to hear “Silver Trembling Hands” again after all these years, without having to wade through 2 discs of jarring weirdness to get to it.) Of their conventional albums from the time period covered, Zaireeka and The Terror are skipped entirely, while a few other nagging exclusions such as “Fight Test” sorta bug me, but I can’t deny that if they had to whittle it down to a single disc, this is a pretty convincing collection of songs. I might check out the 4-disc version at some point, mostly to hear what some of their 80s material was like and to actually go through some more of the highlights from their discography in chronological order, but I can’t say I’m all that enthused to hear 2 discs’ worth of B-sides from a group already known for testing my patience on close to half of their album cuts.

Dave Matthews Band – Come Tomorrow
First I was really looking forward to this one, because it had been almost six years since the DMB’s last studio album. Then I heard the first few singles and I was indifferent. Then I found out Boyd Tinsley was on hiatus from the band and I was truly worried. Then I listened to the album and gradually got over my fears. First of all, Boyd’s been such a minor presence on the last few albums anyway that he may as well have been relegated to a few guest appearances – the band’s core sound is simply no longer dependent on the violin. Second, the lead single “Samurai Cop (Oh Joy Begin)” may seem like a pedestrian radio tune at first, but once you get past the stupid title, it turns out to be a genuinely uplifting song worthy of its parenthetical subtitle. Third, while Dave’s voice has certainly seen better days (as evidenced on the painfully off-key falsetto he whips out in “That Girl Is You”), the album is actually better off due to his willingness to lean into his role as father and elder. it informs the album with a certain sense of maturity… once you get past the handful of songs that are just about horndog Dave wanting to do the one thing that’s always on his mind, at least. There are some subtle intricacies to a few of the deep cuts on this album that make it more rewarding the deeper into it you get. I can’t say it’s gonna win the band a ton of new fans at this juncture, but give ’em credit for still being somewhat exploratory instead of just resting on their laurels after nearly three decades together. As long as nothing happens to drummer Carter Beauford (or, to state the obvious, Dave Matthews himself), the DMB can keep reconfiguring itself all it wants and I’ll probably be cool with it.

Arthur Buck – Arthur Buck
The hook for this newly formed alt-rock duo is pretty simple: Singer/songwriter Joseph Arthur got together with former R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck, and they actually followed through on the age-old “Hey, we should make an album together!” cliche. I’ve been a fan of Arthur’s on and off over the years, more so when he varies his work between the more delicate acoustic stuff and the more acidic, beat-driven indie rock stuff, to keep his creaky voice from getting too grating over the course of an album. Here, it’s almost entirely the latter, meaning that while the array of beats and melodies he and Buck throw together on this record are admirable, Arthur is the dominant force most of the time, with comparatively little room for Buck’s unique guitar style to come to the forefront. When Buck stands out with a solid riff, it easily brings back memories of all those classic R.E.M. records I’ve been going back through over the last few months, and occasionally there’s even a pretty solid solo. But this is really Arthur’s record at the end of the day, with Buck mostly following the lead of the song structures Arthur has put together. The synthesis of the two musicians’ styles is mildly interesting, but it’s also a nagging reminder that Arthur is no Michael Stipe, either lyrically or vocally, and his incessant drum programming is certainly no Bill Berry.

Kevin Max – AWOL
Kevin Max’s solo career has run the gamut from straightforward genre exercises honoring some of his favorite rock musicians, to out-there expressions of the “freak show” persona he brought to dc Talk, unshackled by the trappings of the Christian music industry, to bizarre and ill-advised cover albums, to his more tragically ill-advised stint with a reformed Audio Adrenaline. It’s hit and miss, to the point where I haven’t truly been excited to listen to a new KMax release since 2005’s The Impostor. I was pleasantly surprised to hear an 80s vibe running throughout this album, and while I suppose the obvious homages to The Cure, early U2, and the incessant synthpop acts popular back in those days are nothing groundbreaking, this ends up being the most immediately likeable record Max has done in a long time. Some of the lyrics are still quite strange, but there are also quite a few of them where he cuts the pretense and just straight-up confesses love for his wife, his Irish heritage, and yes, even Jesus. The result is a hell of a fun record that feels more genuine and less gimmicky than any of his previous solo releases.

Mike Shinoda – Post Traumatic
The short, blunt documentary of how Mike Shinoda was personally dealing with the death of Linkin Park frontman and close friend Chester Bennington that came out earlier this year, bearing the same name as this full length album, appropriately became its opening three tracks, with the smattering of singles released since then slotted into a rather generous track listing. This set of songs is unflinching and at times harrowing as Shinoda shares his continued journey of picking up the pieces and not letting one of the worst kinds of adversity get him down, but it’s also melodic and steeped in electropop and rock influences just enough to change things up. For the most part this is still a rap record, and Shinoda aptly demonstrates how much he’s grown as an emcee since the early days, but he also makes a case that Linkin Park could well have come up with more intriguing and cerebral pop music than what they had to offer on One More Light last year. “Crossing a Line” is currently stuck in my head; I’m sure others will follow.

Florence + The Machine – High as Hope
The next set of releases literally came out yesterday, so I’ve been lucky to squeeze in two listens and to even barely start to form an opinion. Keep that in mind when I say that I wish this record was more “Machine” without being any less “Florence”. The fiery-haired frontwoman is at the top of her game vocally and lyrically here, but the baroque rock arrangements of her band seem scaled back, afraid to really burst out of the speakers with the sort of power heard on a “What Kind of Man” or a “Shake It Out”. Early singles “Sky Full of Song” and even the upbeat “Hunger” didn’t bode well from my standpoint – the latter was sort of upbeat but lacked the musical masterstroke needed to really drive its message home. There are several delicate songs on this album that I would say need delicate arrangements to get their point across, but there are also several moments where Florence is going full steam and her band seems too timid to keep up. Some lamented on How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful that the band was already starting to feel more like a solo project, with the band only there to support the vocalist, and I didn’t quite hear it at the time, but now it’s a huge fear of mine. Despite that, I’m sure I’ll find more personal connections with these ten songs as I listen more deeply.

Jim James – Uniform Distortion
Two Jim James solo album in the space of about a year and a half, and yet no news on the follow-up to The Waterfall that My Morning Jacket supposedly already had some good momentum on when that record came out in 2015? That’s… not a good sign. Still, the MMJ frontman is a bit more engaging here than he was on the rather sleepy and confounding Eternally Even, going for more upbeat, offbeat arrangements in a set of nostalgic and sometimes goofy songs designed with the apparent purpose of showing off as many vintage guitar sounds as he can cram into a single album. It’s one of those records that is deliberated produced in a fuzzy sort of way that makes a few of the arrangements not kick as much ass as it feels like they should, but as always, James knows how to make a simple chord progression really sing when he takes his axe to it. This album feels very loose and unrehearsed, like he just got some dudes together in the studio and banged out these eleven tracks without too much fussing around in the studio after the fact. At several points, he straight up breaks out laughing in the middle of a song, giving it that “I just barely know what I’m doing” sort of charm that, oddly enough, works in his favor. I seem to enjoy James’s nostalgic and metaphysical musings the most when I can tell he’s not taking his own platitudes terribly seriously. They’re just a starting point for some sweet retro rock jams.

Katie Herzig – Delicate EP
This six-song set re-imagines, with an appropriately light acoustic touch, the first three tracks from Moment of Bliss, plus two tracks that are “oldies” by Katie’s own admission: “Lost and Found” and “Wish You Well”, and finally a cover of James Blake’s “The Wilhelm Scream”. I was looking forward to this project after hearing how surprisingly well “Beat of Your Own” worked as a softly hummed ballad, but thus far the other arrangements feel a bit empty – even the remake of “Lost and Found” featuring Sleeping at Last, a nice returned favor from when she helped out on his “Noble Aim” all those years ago. Even with the softer songs on Katie’s albums, there’s usually some sort of intricacy to even the quieter tracks that is being deliberately avoided here, so songs that were already on the mellower side simply didn’t have as far to go, hence my lack of a strong reaction here.


Obsessive Year-End List Fest 2017: Favorite Songs

It’s that time of year again where I run through the list of songs that inspired me, entertained me, or just plain got stuck in my head for amusing reasons, more than any other songs in the last 12 months. Most of these were released in 2017. Some came out in 2016 and I either didn’t hear them until this year or didn’t come to fully appreciate them in time for last year’s list. I’ve given brief explanations and YouTube links for the Top 30. For the rest… just check the reviews where they’re linked, if you’re curious.

And as always, many of these songs (limit one per artist) are collected in my 2017 in a Nutshell playlist over on Spotify.

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The Flaming Lips – Oczy Mlody: Hey, it beats Slimy Miley.

2017_theflaminglips_oczymlodyArtist: The Flaming Lips
Album: Oczy Mlody
Year: 2017
Grade: C+

In Brief: This album is to The Flaming Lips what Hail to the Thief was to Radiohead. It’s a summation of past sounds, perhaps a bit of a breather after two of their most experimental and alienating albums, but a record whose overall flow and concept suffers due to the attempt to paste together sounds and styles that have worked for them in the past.

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What Am I Listening To? – January 2017

2016_phantogram_threePhantogram – Three
You know I’m a sucker for female-fronted electronic acts, right? This duo sometimes reminds me of Metric, if they made more club-friendly bangers and more oddball experimental songs. The beat-heavy singles “You Don’t Get Me High Anymore” and “Same Old Blues” will likely grab most of the attention here, but the exploratory opening track “Funeral Pyre” might just barely edge them both out as my favorite, and I’m also drawn to some of the sample-heavy downtempo moments later in the album. The male vocals come as a bit of a surprise later in the album, bringing to mind Peter Gabriel of all people on the string-heavy “Barking Dog”, and then the next several tracks feature both vocalists, playing them off of each other in interesting ways. The album stays fresh throughout, and really the only thing I can find to complain about here is the total trashiness of the closing track “Calling All”, which is a bit too blunt for its own good.

2016_lisahannigan_atswimLisa Hannigan – At Swim
This Irish singer-songwriter got her start working with Damien Rice before embarking on a solo career. I’d never heard of her until this record, which is a largely down-tempo and intimate acoustic affair, with a hint of a Celtic lilt on a few of the more uptempo tracks, but also a bit of earthiness and smokiness that emerges in her vocals from time-to-time, while at other times she’s as clear and pristine as the still surface of a lake. This combination makes a few of the ballads real hidden gems. I have to be in the right mood to listen to this one all the way through, but when the timing’s right, it’s a thing of sublime beauty.

2016_tomhummer_dystopianbluesTom Hummer – Dystopian Blues
The above two albums were year-end recommendations from the Velocities in Music podcast, which I’ve been following on YouTube for a few years now. Just a couple guys from Iowa who listen to a ton of music and whose personal tastes constantly surprise me. Tom Hummer is one of those two guys, and he’s a recording artist in his own right, now on his fourth album. While his past stuff was already pretty experimental, this album is particularly out there, taking his music in a post-rock direction with almost no lyrics, and only 5 tracks, most of them on the long-ish side. The sound of it ranges from semi-doomy drones to tranquil piano and acoustic guitar pieces, and sometimes one morphs uncomfortably into the other, all of it in deliberate defiance of conventional song structure. (There’s even a recording of Tom as a child talking to his dad that comes up in one track, which brings an odd feeling of innocence and nostalgia to the otherwise challenging musical landscape.) It’s interesting listening to something like this when you know so much about an artist’s personal likes and dislikes, and you can hear bits and pieces of his influences creeping into the music, while at the same time he tries to resist taking those influences in any predictable direction.

2016_timbetold_friendsandfoesTim Be Told – Friends and Foes
Tim Ouyang pretty much is Tim Be Told at this point. I’ve known of the band for a while – piano-heavy sound, smooth R&B-style crooner for a frontman, that sorta thing – but I’ve never listened to one of their albums until now. My church’s senior pastor has been a big fan for a while now, and recently interviewed Tim for the Asian America Podcast, which is what piqued my interest in this particular record. He’s sort of a double minority, since you don’t see a lot of Asian-Americans in this genre, and he’s also a Christian whose music doesn’t fit neatly into the CCM market. On this record, as he deals with the topic of relationships that went sour and his attempts to reconcile some of them, a little bit of brave commentary on the topic of sexuality and gender identity emerges in a few songs, and since these are questions a lot of Christian artists are afraid to ask in their songwriting, I find myself wanting to support him just on principle. Plus the guy’s a really solid vocalist. Having said that, the instrumentation seems a bit sterile and polite given the conflict apparent in some of these songs. That happens a lot with singers in this genre working on an indie budget, unfortunately – but I hope one day Tim hooks up with a producer who can emphasize the balance between pretty and painful that is apparent in a lot of his lyrics.

2017_theflaminglips_oczymlodyThe Flaming Lips – Oczy Mlody
No, that’s not a typo. It’s not Cozy Moldy. Those are Polish words. The Flaming Lips are sort of back to doing dream pop like they were when I first got turned on to them in the early 2000s, but there’s something a bit more aloof and experimental about this album that sets it apart from a classic record like The Soft Bulletin. There are a lot more electronic drums and synths, for example, and the track lengths are more drawn out, not quite to the alienating level that they were on The Terror, but I guess it’s somewhere in between that, their more accessible stuff, and Embryonic. That is to say, it’s a mixed bag with a lot of oddball lyrics on apparently whatever subject matter came to mind. (And Reggie Watts speaking sexily about unicorns… because why the hell not?) I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with the band due to the sense of whiplash I can get as they switch from dreamy to trashy to downright horrifying without warning, and hanging out with Miley Cyrus for a few years seems to have ramped up that tendency (she even makes an appearance on the closing track, “We a Famly”, which surprisingly isn’t as obnoxious as I was expecting). I could probably dig a few melodic gems out of this weird wasteland of words and sounds and call them favorites, but it’s likely not an album I’ll go back to nearly as often as Yoshimi or Mystics.

2017_colonyhouse_onlythelonelyColony House – Only the Lonely
The adult sons of Steven Curtis Chapman front this four-man band whose main goal seems to be rocking out and having a blast without as much of a deliberate agenda as you might expect, given their lineage. Sure, I can hear echoes of the overly peppy, youth-group friendly anthems SCC used to hook me with at the beginning of nearly all of his albums, but Colony House doesn’t just play rock music to try on a different hat every now and then. They’ve got some pretty good chops, and they aren’t afraid to flex their muscles on occasion by changing up the tempo mid-song and going into a heavy, garage-bluesy sort of breakdown that sounds kinda like what Band of Skulls might do in similar circumstances. A few of their songs are still kinda goofy, but I’m impressed at how consistently they manage to keep the energy level up and the songs genuinely engaging, to the point where my favorite tracks actually show up near the end, which is where you’d expect the filler to go on most albums in this genre. It’s the most addictive thing I’ve heard in 2017 thus far.

2016_variousartists_hiddenfiguresthealbumVarious Artists – Hidden Figures: The Album
I don’t normally get into movie soundtracks. But I saw Hidden Figures a few weeks ago and loved it, and I was impressed at how well Pharrell Williams’ original compositions fit into the backdrop of segregated 1960s Virginia. Listening to the songs on their own reveals that the lyrics wander a great deal from the actual plot of the movie, but the songs that were paired with the most iconic scenes in the movie still prove to be memorable when listened to on their own. It has a bit of a “mixtape” feel to it, since Pharrell sings lead on four songs and hands the other six off to prominent female African-American entertainers such as Alicia Keys and Mary J. Blige. (And of course Janelle Monaé. She was actually in the film, so she gets two songs.) My only real complaint here is that some of the odd melodic choices in a few songs can fall a bit flat, and I don’t know that I needed to hear pretty much every style of music from classic soul to Gospel updated with 808 drums all over the place. Besides that, it’s one hell of an uplifting listen.

The Best of the Ought Nots, Part III: 41-60

We’ve reached the midpoint of my personal hit list now – at some point in the 40’s is where we cross the threshold from the material bubbling just under the “5 star” barrier, to the material that I feel fully earned the highest marks in each glowing review that I wrote. The higher up we go, the more unbridled my joy in going back and revisiting the great music that the 2000’s had to offer.
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The Best of 2009: Now Departing for Stockholm, Hawaii, New Orleans, and Points Inland

The end of 2009 is upon us, friends. It was a year that many of us didn’t look forward to, already knowing to expect financial woes and potential job losses (if not already realized ones) going into it – a year where the unexpected road ahead seemed to promise more hardship than exciting new possibilities to explore. but a poor year for the world was a rich year for music – either because artists channelled their angst into some of the best songs they’d ever written, or because more and more of them were jumping ship on the big labels and finding freedom to go where their imaginations would take them even if the audiences weren’t as big as a result. Some found artful ways to downsize while others played it as over-the-top as they could in defiance of expectations. In the end, it was a more exciting year than I could have anticipated, one that has left me with a lot to look forward to.

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