Album Reviews

Best of 2016: Music & TV

In the age of social media (read: barrier-less entry to digital publication), our end-of-year world is overran with a bevy of bovine best-of lists that subjectively say nothing about music or art. I have often considered forgoing the practice. But truth be told I am a man of traditions and patterns. Since 2010 I have been making such subjective lists and cannot turn back now.

But I do promise to simplify.

This year, I’m talking just music and TV. (If you find yourself curious about the books I’ve read this year, however, follow me on Goodreads (Goodreads is still a thing, right?)).

Top 5 Records

2016 was a weird year for mainstream music. Rock was fueled primarily by mega-bands from previous decades (Blink 182, Green Day, Metallica), hip-hop spent its social currency on Kanye West drama, and pop-music decided to just wait it out for a new Taylor Swift album. Beyonce, I suppose, did something interesting with pop music, but there isn’t much else to hear. Where mainstream music failed, indie-music (used here as a sweeping genre) and new independent artists (across all indie-music genres) soared.

Almost weekly, there was a new artist or band or group making waves. Car Seat Headrest, Big Thief, Julien Baker, Margaret Glaspy, Kevin Morby, Nice As Fuck, to name a few at top of mind.

With Apple Music and Spotify and Amazon Music and now Pandora Unlimited — streaming services becoming commonplace for the listener — there’s little excuse to miss out on all this great new music. But these tools don’t make keeping up any less overwhelming. In fact, having access to everything, I find, makes it worse. At the end of the day, you have to find what works for you — those albums that connect from start to finish and demand repeat listens — and fit in the other stuff when you can.

So what are my favorites from the year? There are many reasons that the following list of albums stood out to me as “favorites” (originality, longevity, boldness) but the best metric is this: I refused to delete their files from my phone. (more…)

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ALBUM REVIEW: Scott Ryan – Object Permanence

Spokane-based alt-rocker Scott Ryan is back with a new EP and a new perspective.

It goes without saying that 2016 has been the year of surprises — some good, mostly bad. Scott Ryan is a good surprise. His new EP, Object Permanence, carries a shape-shifting, retro sound that covers more ground in five songs than most LPs cover in ten.

What’s fresh about Object Permanence is that “retro” doesn’t mean “vintage.” It’s not The Strokes simply recreating the tones of The Stooges or Vampire Weekend channeling the vibrancy of the Talking Heads. It’s more complex than that. Here, Ryan takes pieces of various genres from the past — psychedelic, funk, blues, pop, and indie — and in an impressive, almost encyclopedic fashion, somehow makes these into sounds his own.

The opening track, “Spent” is a bright, vibrant tune that blends pop-rock with a little funk and you can’t help but move your body. Not my favorite song on the album, but that’s because it’s not really my style. I can still respect it, however, for Ryan is a musician’s musician. Instrumentally, the music on this song and throughout the album is savvy and unapologetically technical.

“Perfectly Good Explanation” is also ambitious, both vocally and instrumentally. Clocking in at just under eight minutes, the song manages well to keep your attention (hard to accomplish in today’s culturally-busy society). As a Radiohead fan I can’t help but make comparisons to the tonal atmosphere of Hail to the Thief, as an enigmatic drum track balances a delicate falsetto with a wandering guitar lead. Simply put, “Perfectly Good Explanation” is really cool. (more…)

ALBUM REVIEW: Jimmy Eat World – Integrity Blues

“It doesn’t have to hurt anymore,” sings Jimmy Eat World on the angelic, swelling new tune, “The End is Beautiful,” and my eyes are also swelling. I’m not crying, I wouldn’t do that. Not here, anyway, in this hipster coffee shop, where tears are strictly reserved for Bon Iver’s latest whatever. Throughout Integrity Blues but especially on “The End is Beautiful,” Jim Adkins’ lyrics fit familiar, like a decade-old pair of jeans that somehow managed to grow along with us.

“You said, ‘However you go, I’ll be cheering you on.
In the end, what’s the difference how it all went wrong?’
Hey, that’s something. The truth is what you believe it is.
It doesn’t have to hurt anymore”

Here’s how I’m choosing to interpret these lyrics:

It doesn’t have to hurt anymore, because Jimmy Eat World (i.e., America’s emo dads) have returned to pluck our heart strings and tell us all it’s not our fault. (more…)

ALBUM REVIEW: Kevin Devine -Instigator

Prolific songwriters are annoying. You hear about guys like Kevin Devine and you say, “Wow! Can’t wait to get into this,” and suddenly eight years go by and you’ve missed nine albums and two side-projects (see also, Ryan Adams).

Despite some familiarity with his catalogue (mostly the Bubblegum and Bulldozer albums), I fully admit that I should be a bigger fan of Kevin Devine than I am. Here’s my reasoning: 

My name is also Kevin. [√]

I happen to look like Kevin. [√]

I’m a long-time, bitter Brand New fan. [√]

I’ve seen Kevin live three times and he’s always amazing. [√ and √]

What happens is this: I see Kevin Devine in concert, I walk away in awe, and then I listen to his records and come away disappointed. Call it the “Curse of the Great Live Band,” but I find his studio stuff often fails to capture the spirit, energy and vulnerability of what I hear on stage.

There’s also the problem that his recordings sound like crap.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s talk Instigator (more…)

Album Review: Taking Back Sunday – Tidal Wave

The biggest myth about Taking Back Sunday is that Tell All Your Friends (2002) is their best record. The truth is that — now on to their seventh studio album — Taking Back Sunday’s best record is the one that you first discovered them with. In this way, they’re like the Batman of post-emo alt rock: Gen Xers prefer Michael Keaton, Millennials have Christian Bale, and Gen Ys have embraced Batfleck. (This Millennial, however, will always choose Keaton).

After the almost-unlistenable Happiness Is (2014), Taking Back Sunday (TBS) have returned with Tidal Wave — an almost-ambitious record. They wanted to do something different here, and good: it’s about time. When TBS dropped the title-track as the first single, fans were left scratching their heads. Is this the Dropkick Murphys or Rancid? Certainly not Taking Back Sunday!!!

The song’s sweaty swagger is absolutely polarizing. Love it or hate it, “Tidal Wave” is a refreshing change of pace from a band who is often lost in their own sound. There are no wrist-slitting break-up lyrics, no overlapping harmonies, no long bridges with massive build ups. Just a gritty, quick and dirty, two-and-a-half minute gut punch. And it’s great fun. Unfortunately, the song is also somewhat of a bait and switch, as Tidal Wave is not the “new-direction” Taking Back Sunday record that its title-track single promises.

Different in the midst of sameness

Instead, the album is one of noncommittal change that quickly succumbs to the bad habits and songwriting ruts that have haunted much of the band’s previous efforts. It’s a tension that influences too much of the record, coloring it mediocre and underdeveloped. (more…)

Album Review: Kevin Morby – Singing Saw

You’re sitting on the coastline of a small, uninhabited island in the middle of the South Pacific. Sand burrows in the creases of your eyes and the corners of your cracked lips. The wind smells of birds. Behind you lie the remains of a small, wooden lifeboat — splintered and upside down; the oar rests upon your lap. An empty 7-UP can visits your feet, rolling up, rolling down, pushed in by the tide and retreating back with it. In the distance is a storm and you wait for its slow arrival, like a train approaching. You smile because you know there is hope in its dark clouds.

This is what it’s like listening to Kevin Morby’s powerful new record, Singing Saw. Put another, perhaps simpler way: it’s good, okay? Really, really good.

The type of good that resonates in the chest and reverberates in the blood. The type of good that sends you searching. The type of good that strands you on an island in the South Pacific.

Before establishing his minimalist and intimate song signature, Kevin Morby first navigated through the busy streets of Los Angeles’ indie music scene (The Babies, Woods). I’m not sure when I first heard the guy, to be honest, but the singer-songwriter’s sophomore album, Still Life, made my 2014 Best-Of List (the song “All of my Life” remains one of my favorite tunes).

Today, Morby has sharpened his sound — Millennial folk to the beat of Beck’s Sea Change and with the drawl of early Dylan. Not to say there isn’t energy lurking behind them calm waves. The first single from Singing Saw, “I Have Been to the Mountain,” punches in with bass, drums, horns, strings, a gospel choir and a guitar effect that can only be described as 1960’s sci-fi. The song is basically a Tarantino film, or say, a Bloody Mary on a sultry day. Recently, it landed on a Pitchfork summer festival mixtape (on the much-coveted leadoff spot of number one). (more…)