Showing posts with label singer-songwriter. Show all posts
Showing posts with label singer-songwriter. Show all posts

Thursday, October 10, 2019

video review: 'all mirrors' by angel olsen

Yeah, this one was tough... really wanted to love this album too, I really did, but it just didn't pan out. Eh, it happens.

Anyway, next up is an album that absolutely panned out and that I'm really excited to talk about, so stay tuned!

album review: 'all mirrors' by angel olsen

It feels like I've been struggling to get onboard with Angel Olsen for years now.

And what's frustrating is that it always feels like there's just one or two elements that get in the way of things really clicking. She's a terrific singer, but sometimes she's stuck with production that doesn't flatter her unique timbre or style. The production can often swell with portentous presence and purpose... and wind up dragging if the climax doesn't connect. She's a strong songwriter, but I often run into quibbles of nuance and framing that just don't pay off as strongly as I hoped. And all of this is surrounded by the fact that in the lo-fi, alternative country-adjacent scene, she is surrounded by acts that might not have her unique pipes but can stick the landing a little more strongly.

But there were two things that prompted me to check this album out anyway, the first being that in 2017, she teamed up with Alex Cameron for the song 'Stranger's Kiss', which showed that with a potent groove beneath her and some punchy synths she could ride an absolutely terrific song, one of the best of that year. And I kept thinking about that song when for #2, I heard that her newest album All Mirrors was not just going to be a pivot towards baroque pop with huge, lush string arrangements, but also an embrace of synthesizers. Which... alright, I didn't love how she utilized them on MY WOMAN but maybe there'd be a little more focus and clarity this time, especially given how much the music press has slung critical acclaim at her this year - although given the recent avalanche of critical acclaim at baroque pop acts spanning from Lana Del Rey to Julia Holter to Weyes Blood in the past year, I do take that with a grain of salt. But fine, I still really wanted to like this, so what did we get with All Mirrors?

Friday, August 30, 2019

video review: 'no man's land' by frank turner

And here we go - honestly, I was preparing to bucket this with another review in a vacation review structure, but I honestly just had way too much to say - enjoy!

Anyway, next up... frankly, I've got no idea - stay tuned!

Thursday, August 29, 2019

album review: 'no man's land' by frank turner

Am I the only one who feels like Frank Turner can't really win these days to save his life?

And yes, I'm fully aware that a chunk of that statement comes from me being a fan of the guy - hell, I was actually kinder to his 2018 album Be More Kind than pretty much everyone, a project balanced on the precipice of hopepunk and existential emptiness that sadly didn't have nearly as much of an edge as it really needs to secure that balance - there was a wonky stiffness and cleanness to his production and delivery that really hampered that project as a whole. But throughout the majority of the 2010s it's been hard for me to shake the feeling that for as much as Turner is trying desperately to do the right thing artistically, he's either stuck chasing past glories or is facing an increasingly unpleasable audience with sky-high expectations - most of the time both. And while I've been feeling this to some extent since at least Tape Deck Heart, it really came to bear with the backlash to Be More Kind, where Turner was trying to provide hope both to his audience and himself and it didn't seem like he pleased either... mostly because with the exception of the furious and potent '1933', the songs themselves were not his strongest by a long shot.

So I had to hope that No Man's Land would click this time - but again, it did seem like Turner was setting himself up to fail. A folk rock project full of songs celebrating the famous and forgotten women of history on the surface seemed like a winning idea, especially in this climate with his recruitment of plenty of women behind the scenes, but a more cynical 'progressive' audience already seemed to have their pitchforks on standby for his audacity to tell those stories - hell, from what I can tell the backlash to this was even stronger than to Be More Kind, it's his worst-reviewed project to date! So yeah, I was expecting the worst with this... and yet how was No Man's Land?

Monday, June 17, 2019

video review: 'shepherd in a sheepskin vest' by bill callahan

Okay, so this was promising... long-winded both in the album and me talking about it, but I think this turned out alright enough.

Next up, Billboard BREAKDOWN for the week and then... hmm, not sure. Stay tuned!

album review: 'shepherd in a sheepskin vest' by bill callahan

So I'd like to continue off of something I brought up in the Weyes Blood review and it does come with a bit of self-awareness on my part. I opened up that conversation with the discussion surrounding the sudden critical convergence that can happen around indie acts for a single project that can leave just as quickly, but there's another category of acts in an adjacent lane: the indie acts who do get consistent critical acclaim, but never seem to reach the larger conversation. A lot of singer-songwriters and smaller-scale acts wind up in this group, the folks who will reliably make critics' year-end lists, but rarely at the top, and while they will have a persistent cult following, they tend to be artists that even critics forget to revisit - until, out of the blue, they decide on a lark to give the album a spin and are stuck wondering why they don't put it on more often. Which is not quite as bad of a situation as what happens to the one-album-critical-darling, but can be deflating for an artist who would probably wish their name came up in the conversation a bit more.

And for me, I can't think of many acts that fit the bill more than Bill Callahan, previously known as Smog for a string of good-to-spectacular albums throughout the 90s and 2000s - until he switched to using his own name in 2007 and the quality never seemed to stop. And I'll admit I was late to the party - I first heard some of his work with Apocalypse in 2011, but it was Dream River in 2013 that really sealed the deal, a stunningly subtle and potent album that featured one of my favourite songs of that year in 'Summer Painter' and brought a level of cohesion and laconic focus to his brand of writing and production. It's rare to confront a singer-songwriter who can say and imply so much with so few words - in the 2010s the only singer-songwriter who comes close to what Callahan delivers is Courtney Marie Andrews, and even then stylistically they're in different phases of their career and very different lanes, but there is a similar road-weary, textured atmosphere both can command that gives their words so much more. But it's been a while since we've heard from Callahan - he put out a dub album covering Dream River in 2014 and a live album in 2018, but it's been a while since we've gotten new material... and he's got a lot of it, a full double album with a renewed focus on his current domestic life. Now I'll admit I've had mixed results with these sorts of projects, just because of the phase of life I'm in - it was one of the reasons Lori McKenna's The Tree didn't quite hit as strongly for me last year, and there's someone else who deserves to be in this conversation - and twenty songs of Bill Callahan's style and cadence is a lot, but I figured I'd let this sink in, so what did we get out of Shepherd In A Sheepskin Vest?

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

video review: 'in league with dragons' by the mountain goats

So yeah, I've had this album on repeat for about the past week and a half... tough project to talk about, but I think I did it justice?

Eh, Billboard BREAKDOWN is up next, and then I have Resonators and entirely too many reviews up behind it... stay tuned!

album review: 'in league with dragons' by the mountain goats

...I mean, sometimes it's just too goddamn good to be true.

Granted, I think I would have been looking forward to this album regardless: when it comes to amazingly well-written singer-songwriter indie material, the Mountain Goats are long-running veterans, and seem to be taking this time in their careers to venture into the strange nooks and crannies that frontman John Darnielle finds interesting, not just as a fan but as someone looking to comment on those subcultures and eras. He did it in 2015 with pro wrestling and Beat The Champ, he elevated his game to a different dimension with Goths in 2017 - which, for the record, was my top album of that year - and in 2019, the new album was announced to be called In League With Dragons.

Look, I've said before that I'm a nerd, and by that I mean I've been playing Dungeons & Dragons for about fifteen years across multiple editions. I was a passing fan of wrestling at best, goth culture was something for which I've always felt a little on-the-outside-looking-in as much as I've appreciated it, but D&D and that brand of fantasy is formative for me, to the point where the stakes were raised before I even heard the album. Now I did trust that they'd do an excellent job - Darnielle is only growing as a writer and this is a band with the pedigree to do this justice - but I also knew that the reason Goths worked and was a little controversial was because of its subversive and deconstructionist side taken to the goth community, and given how close I've been to tabletop roleplaying, I wasn't sure I was ready for this. And I was also wary for the possibility that said dragons could well be a larger metaphor or idea - the track listing seemed to be placing at least chunks of the album in the modern era, which could mean anything. But regardless of those concerns... man, I was excited: so what did the Mountain Goats deliver on In League With Dragons?

Thursday, March 21, 2019

video review: 'traveling mercies' by emily scott robinson

Okay, so this was absolutely fantastic and you all need to hear it yesterday. Kind of out of nowhere surprise for me, but that's the wonderful thing about it!

Anyway, next up will probably be hip-hop (presuming it all comes through properly), so stay tuned!

album review: 'traveling mercies' by emily scott robinson

So I'll admit this came out of nowhere for me.

And I think that's somewhat important to call out, because everyone loves to say they're ahead of the curve and they found an act from the indie scene that nobody's ever heard of, and while you might get the occasional quote from more traditional outlets, you can quickly tell by traction in other lanes how much people really know about you. But I'll freely admit that wasn't really aware of North Carolina's Emily Scott Robinson from any outlet before recently: I saw the rave review for her newest project from Saving Country Music, I got curious knowing exactly rare said reviews are, and I figured I'd check out her debut to get some perspective...

And I was left blown away. Yes, 2016's Magnolia Queen is very much a spare and acoustic affair, a little rough around the edges both in playing and her vocal delivery - although she does have a great voice - what astonished me was the songwriting. In terms of structured poetry, detail, and nuance to craft vivid and often heartwrenching stories, the closest immediate comparison I made was Lori McKenna - and that's not a comparison I make lightly. And it's not a straightforward imitation either - Robinson's writing is rougher and a lot darker, not flinching away from the small town failures and vices that can consume both her protagonists and their hapless partners - age hasn't sanded back or refined her edges, and considering the dark, challenging moments have always what I've liked the most from McKenna, this spoke volumes. In other words, when I heard that the album this year was more refined and polished - handily making its Kickstarter goal, I should add - I had the feeling we could be in for one of the best country projects of 2019, so what did we get from Traveling Mercies?

Monday, January 21, 2019

video review: 'remind me tomorrow' by sharon van etten

Okay, bit of weirdness today getting this all together (and filming was a living hell - stupid sirens), but looks like I'm on track here.

Next up... alright, let's handle James Blake, shall we? Stay tuned!

album review: 'remind me tomorrow' by sharon van etten

Before this album, it's been close to five years since Sharon Van Etten put out Are We There which I reviewed way back in 2014, a really damn good album that I didn't quite love as much as I wanted despite some sterling cuts - maybe it's just me, but I thought epic was just a shade stronger and more consistent. And I'll admit that for as much as I liked those songs, I've only gone back to Sharon Van Etten sporadically - which is more than 'not at all', but for as powerful of a singer as she is, I've still been waiting for her potential to coalesce and for her to really drive it out of the park, at least for me, and it's not like she's short of more prolific competition either.

Granted, it's not like she hasn't been busy - she got married, she had a kid, she did some acting work, she went back to school, that's a lot to cram into five years as well as record what many have described as her most lush and expansive project to date. And while I wouldn't say I was incredibly excited to cover this - the hype has been a long, slow boil - I wasn't about to let it slip past me, so what did we get from Remind Me Tomorrow?

Sunday, June 10, 2018

video review: 'hell-on' by neko case

Well, this took WAY too damn long to finish... but again, when you have a record with this much going on, you kind of have to dig in deep.

Next up, we're going really underground, so stay tuned!

album review: 'hell-on' by neko case

I'm a little surprised in spite of myself that this is the first time I'm talking about a Neko Case solo record - I've talked about her with The New Pornographers and with case/lang/veirs, but Neko Case has had a distinctive and critically acclaimed presence outside of her other groups and side projects, and considering my fondness for sharp-as-hell songwriting married to vocals overflowing with charisma and production...

Well okay, this is where things get tricky, because when I took the time to revisit Neko Case's entire discography, I found myself naturally being drawn to the alternative country murder ballads that characterized her very early work like Blacklisted and Fox Confessor Brings The Flood - the jagged guitars working through interesting melodies with more ragged production, it just proved more distinctive and potent in comparison with her more refined and experimental but more mild work like her albums in 2009 and 2013. I'm not saying either record is bad - hell, you could make the argument that the writing and hooks were sharper than ever - but it couldn't help but feel like some of the greater edge had been tempered. What I was looking to hear was the return of some anger and firepower, or at the very least the production picking up some righteous fervor... and considering what I had heard surrounding Hell-On, we could be getting the best of both worlds, especially as she corralled a pretty impressive list of collaborators - spanning from perennial frustration of mine Mark Lanegan to her bandmates k.d. Lang and Laura Veirs, the latter who I covered on the Trailing Edge earlier this year. So hell yeah, I was looking forward to this kicking ass, especially with all the critical acclaim it's received, so how is Hell-On?

Monday, June 4, 2018

video review: 'god's favorite customer' by father john misty

And here's the first review of the night... but it's not over yet, stay tuned!

album review: 'god's favorite customer' by father john misty

So there comes two distinctive times in every singer-songwriter's life, especially if they've got a theatrical slant and even more especially if they've had any degree of crossover success. The first is the concept record: the overblown, overwrought 'statement of the human condition' record that often proves to be the point where even diehard fans start looking for the exits. These are the records that end careers, full stop... but if they don't, you get the second case: the inevitable comedown release, the one that might try to win back the fanbase but crystallizes more on the wide-eyed, panicked feeling that you have nothing else to say and thus are going to collapse inwards in spectacular fashion. They're often just as pretentious but considerably more uncomfortable, the artist ripping away any veneer in grotesque, self-destructive fashion to expose the humanity within, when the artist holes up in a mansion or hotel and truly starts to fly off the rails - and sometimes more rails than you might realize.

And I'm not remotely surprised that Josh Tillman aka Father John Misty took both of these steps, especially considering the narrow line he walks between biting self-aware satire and genuine earnestness which manifested most strongly on the breakthrough record I Love You Honeybear in 2015. And thus with Pure Comedy we got the overblown concept record and now... look, the seeds have been planted for years, Tillman knew he'd have to go down this rabbit hole in the same way Dylan and Beck and Berninger and Cave have, for as much as he has deconstructed his ego and artistic persona, it's still one he has yet to truly set on fire, and God's Favorite Customer looked like it would be that moment. And I'll admit records with these themes really get under my skin in a great way - beyond just the artistic deconstruction and raw humanity exposed, for an artist with such intense self-awareness of the artifice of his image and the crowd that has embraced it, ironically or otherwise, as Josh Tillman, he would know exactly what buttons to push, a You're The Worst-episode made flesh. In other words, this could be a total trainwreck and I'd be here for it, so what did we get on God's Favorite Customer?

Thursday, May 24, 2018

album review: 'tell me how you really feel' by courtney barnett

I feel like I've opened up a lot of my reviews in recent weeks with, 'when I covered this artist last time, it didn't go well'... and yet while I'll definitely question my presentation in those older reviews, the more I've gone back to the actual points I was making, the more I'm convinced that my opinions haven't really changed.

And yet if we're talking about one of my most contentious reviews, Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit by Courtney Barnett stands as one of the big ones - and what was all the more exasperating is that I definitely understood the appeal. The flat disaffection masking deeper wells of depression, the jagged garage rock tones, the well-framed self-deprecating passive aggression, it had a very stark mid-90s indie rock veneer that I could respect... to a point. And that was the frustrating thing - I kept expecting this project to actually cut more deeply in its content and production, but that would require a greater amount of investment and focus that it didn't seem like Barnett brought to the table in comparison with her sharper peers, and while she provided a firm rationale why caring wasn't on her menu, it also meant I didn't really have the same interest either. And that disaffection couldn't help but feed into her collaboration with Kurt Vile last year Lotta Sea Lice, which I may have liked more if it had felt like a cohesive or engaging project than an extended workshopping session.

And thus I had some serious concerns about the critical reception to this record, nearly all of which was pointing a finger at those Kurt Vile sessions as an indicator of what was to come in neutering any sense of direction or edge or deeper punch... most of which I'd question was on there in the first place, but hey, it's not like my expectations were going to get any lower: what did I find on Tell Me How You Really Feel?

Monday, October 23, 2017

video review: 'lotta sea lice' by courtney barnett & kurt vile

So this was a pretty chill listen. Not much more than that, and the sloppiness did wear a little thin on me, but overall, not bad.

Friday, October 20, 2017

album review: 'lotta sea lice' by courtney barnett & kurt vile

So I think I've said this in the past, but sometimes there are collaborations that just make too much sense, almost to the point where when you hear about them you wonder how on earth you didn't think of it first. These are artists that might have a very similar style or attitude or type of production, it's just an artistic choice that fits. And right from the start, when a lot of critics heard that Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile were teaming up, the collective response was, 'well, duh, of course they are'. 

But I was a little more reticent. I'll be the first to admit I haven't quite fallen head over heels for Kurt Vile the way a lot of critics have over the past few years, mostly due to a naturalistic style of songwriting and composition that was right on the borderline of sloppy. And if possible I was even harder on Courtney Barnett's debut in 2015, easily one of my most contentious reviews where I just was not able to buy into the self-contained millennial angst that seemed to add up to a fair bit less than the sum of its parts, all of Vile's detachment but none of the bemusement or wry humor that could temper an edge that was not matched in her production. But I understood how Barnett and Vile could compliment each other, with songwriting that would likely prove as tangled and meandering as ever - especially if they were looking to explore their own artistic process - but my curiosity was more on the sound of the album, because while Kurt Vile started off near lo-fi and garage rock, his material has gotten a fair bit more sedate over the past couple of years. So where were they going to take this sound?