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february 2016

Islands have announced two new records that will be released simulatneously later this year, and they have shared a song from each album. First up is "Back Into It" from Should I Remain Here at Sea:

I like this song pretty well, but I'm very wary of buying Islands records at this point. Aside from their first album, Return to the Sea, I haven't liked any other album as a whole, but they always have 2-3 songs that I like, and those are the ones they share beforehand which convince me to buy the album, and I'm concerned that this same thing would happen with these two records. So while this song is the kind of song I like from the band, I would like to hear more before deciding whether to invest in the whole record.

The second album from Islands is called Taste, and the song they shared from that record is called "Charm Offensive":

The band has stated that this is not a double ablum, but two distinct albums each with its own style and approach, and that's pretty clear by comparing the two tracks from each album. This song is pretty heavy on electronic instruments and a cooler, more robotic tone, whereas the track from Should I Remain Here at Sea? focused much more on their traditional indie pop guitar sound.

I might like this track even more than "Back Into It", and it's possible that both albums could end up being good although very different. Bright Eyes pulled this off with a very similar approach when it released I'm Wide Awake It's Morning (indie guitar pop/folk) and Digital Ash in a Digital Urn (electronic influenced)——two very different albums released simultaneously that were both worthwhile additions to the Bright Eyes catalog.

My main playlist that I listen to at home is comprised of albums I've recently purchase and older ones that have popped into my brain that I want to listen to again. Since I tend to listen to these in alphabetically order by album title, some very different records can end up next to each other, and the transition can be a little jarring (since I usually listen to whole albums, so the shift is from one artist to a complete different artist as I finish one album and start another).

But every now and then, two artists who seem very different on paper/in my mind will sit next to one another and the transition between their records is so smooth that sometimes it takes a couple of songs before I realize that I've switched to a different artist/album. Case in point: two recent purchases, Jim O'Rourke's Simple Songs and Bauhaus' The Sky's Gone Out.

Simple Songs ends with a 6 minute long, minor key inflected, midtempo blues rocker called "All Your Love", which then segues into the opening track of The Sky's Gone Out, "Third Uncle", which is an uptempo, tense, krautrock-driven song with processed, atmospheric guitar sounds.

Nothing about these two songs/albums should blend together in any way——they were made at different times with completely different approaches to production and completely different genres of rock. But somehow, I don't take notice that we've shifted to new album until Peter Murphy's vocals finally kick in aabout 90s seconds into "Third Uncle".

Animal Collective shared another song from their upcoming album Painting With, this one called "Lying in the Grass":

The first track they shared from this record, "FloriDada", was a bright little romp, but this one feels like the one that should have Dada in its title, or maybe Cubist. For a pop song, it's pretty absurd, and it's also sliced and diced (especially some of the vocals) in a way that I connect with the fragmented perspectives of the Cubists.

It's not nearly as hooky or engaging as "FloriDada", but I could definitely see how this could fit into a larger album context from this band.

I'm starting to wonder if Janelle Monae or Chance the Rapper are ever going to release another actual album or if they're just going to do one-off songs and appear on other people's records. It's not like their in musical hibernation where you don't hear a lot of new material from them in any context (like Frank Ocean), but they also don't seem to be interested in putting out another work that they can call entirely their own either.

Sometimes when I have a new obsession with a band I've been listening to for years, I'll go back through the rest of their catalog to see if there are any undiscovered gems that will resonate with me now in a way that they didn't when I was first heard them. I've been really into Stars' No One Is Lost for the past year, so I engaged it that effort with their older albums recently.

I was really hoping I'd find some new songs to love on a couple of their records that I never got that into——In Our Bedroom After the War and The North——and while a couple of tracks got a small upgrade in my ratings, I didn't really find anything new that connected with me in a way it didn't before.

No One Is Lost joins Set Yourself on Fire as their best work, and it's not surprise that they both focus on inevitable loss (of life, love, and happiness) and persevering anyway. No One Is Lost has had special relevance over the past year as I've had several friends fighting (and two losing) battles with cancer, but whatever it is in those songs that resonates within me just doesn't seem to be there with a lot of their other work, even though these themes are pretty constant for Stars.

Good god this year is off to a slow start. It's not just the lack of new material (I've bought one record since January 1 that was actually released in 2016), but the lack of announcements of new material. Typically March is a huge month for releases from bands I like leading up to the summer touring schedule, but this year there's almost nothing——I may well only purchase one new album per month for the first quarter of the year.

Not sure what's behind this——an odd statistical aberration where most of the active bands I follow just happen to be on a non-album cycle this year, or maybe I'm aging out of the fan demographic for the kinds of artists that labels promote earlier in the year——but given the relative drought of new material to end 2015, this is shaping up to be the worst six months for new music that I can remember.

I've recently gotten re-obsessed with Brian Eno's Before and After Science. I couldn't possibly justify this opinion in any rational way, but there are days when I feel like this might be the best ablum made in the 1970s. But there's definitely a legit argument that "By This River" is one of the best songs from that decade.

We're going to see Wilco tonight for the second of two shows they're playing in Atlanta (normally we would have gone to both——or at least I would have——but last night was my wife's birthday and she wanted to have a birthday dinner that included our son), and although my enthusiasm for the band has waned a little over the years (although Star Wars has restored my faith a bit), I'm really looking forward to this show——they're always a great live act, and it's been far too long since we've seen them play.

This is probably the band my wife and I have seen together more than any other group besides the Decemberists (tellingly, when the Decemberists played back to back dates in Atlanta last year, my wife did want to see both shows)——I think the only time we missed them when they played in the DC area when we lived near Baltimore was after our son was born and we weren't yet ready to leave him with a babysitter for an evening (and I couldn't talk my wife into bringing him with us to the show, which was at Merriweather Post Pavillion where we could have sat on a blanket on the grass far enough away from the speakers that we wouldn't have to worry about the noise being too loud).

This show will be at the Tabernacle, where we've seen a lot of good shows in the past couple of years, but unlike most Tabernacle shows, this one has reserved seats. In one way, that's nice because we don't have to get there right as the doors are opening to fight for seats, but since I was in a meeting the morning the tickets went on sale, I had to get them through a ticket reseller, so not only did I pay more, but I wasn't able to get seats on the second level where we usually sit.

Still, we're in the second row of the that level, and we should have a pretty good view of the stage (we've sat up there a couple of times before, and it's not bad if you're near the front of one of the sections).

So, Kanye West was supposed to release his album yesterday (most recently titled The Life of Pablo)as part of a big Madison Square Garden event, and now he's saying he'll release it today...maybe.

He's always been one of those artists whose music I've loved but whose public persona is hard to tolerate, and that's been especially true in the lead up to this album, first with the endless delays (along with several title canges and an ever-shifting tracklist) and recently with his resurgence on Twitter in the past couple of weeks.

I'm still looking forward to this record and I'm expecting it to be one of the best albums released this year even though I haven't heard a note of it yet, but I think I'm done reading anything else about him or from him or I might lose the ability to hear the songs free from the context of his antics——whenever it is that he actually decides to release them.

The Wilco concert was pretty good, although Jeff Tweedy is aging noticeably (while drummer Glenn Kotche seems to have some sort of Dorian Gray thing going on). As usual, it was a pretty long show. Here's the setlist:

    1. More...
    2. Random Name Generator
    3. The Joke Explained
    4. You Satellite
    5. Taste the Ceiling
    6. Pickled Ginger
    7. Where Do I Begin
    8. Cold Slope
    9. King of You
    10. Magnetized
    11. Spiders (Kidsmoke)
    12. I Am Trying to Break Your Heart
    13. Art of Almost
    14. Sunken Treasure
    15. Hummingbird
    16. Heavy Metal Drummer
    17. I'm the Man Who Loves You
    18. Jesus, Etc.
    19. Born Alone
    20. Impossible Germany
    21. Red-Eyed and Blue
    22. I Got You (At the End of the Century)
    23. Outtasite (Outta Mind)


    24. Encore (acoustic): Misunderstood
    25. Hate It Here
    26. Casino Queen
    27. Passenger Side
    28. California Stars (Billy Bragg & Wilco cover)
    29. A Shot in the Arm
    30. Space Oddity

It was unlike any other Wilco show I've seen before in that it was organized into three distinct sections: their new album Star Wars, played in order in its entirety (the opening track, "EKG", was played on tape before they took the stage); a selection of songs from across the rest of their catalog, played with the full band on their normal instruments; and an encore played entirely acoustically by the whole band.

I've already grown pretty fond of Star Wars, but seeing it performed live gave me new apprecition for some of the tracks——the tracks that sound weaker when I listen to the recordings stood up just fine during the performance, and looking at them from the band's perspective (where the whole point for a band like this is to make the recordings so they can go out and play them on the road), I understood why every one of those tracks belongs on that record.

The second phase was my favorite, in no small part thanks to the fact that it led off with "Spiders (Kidsmoke)", "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart", and "The Art of Almost", three extended tracks (each clocking in at 7 minutes or more) that are some of my favorite songs of theirs (especially "Break Your Heart", which I think might be the best song this century so far).

When I've seen the band before, they usually do two or three encores, and although they mix in some acoustic tracks, it's usually not the whole band the way they did here, when everyone came back out to the center of the stage with the acoustic version of their main instrument and huddled near each other to do very intimate performances of the songs in the encore. And it was also clear that there were going to be no further encores after this one——which was fine, because it was a great way to end.

For some of the encore songs, it was just nice to hear them again, even in a stripped down context (I don't know if I've ever heard them perform "Misunderstood" before, and it's one of my favorite songs). It was also great to hear them play "California Stars" from the Woody Guthrie album they made with Billy Bragg——that one worked especially well in the acoustic format. And closing with a melancholy but celebratory cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity" was just perfect——I couldn't have asked for a better ending to the show.

It looks like they did a very similar show the night before——some different songs in the second section and in the encore, but otherwise a very similar setlist——so I don't know how much I would have enjoyed seeing them two nights in a row given that they didn't mix it up as other times when I've seen a band play to the same venue two nights in a row (knowing that there's going to be a lot of overlap in the audience for those two nights). But I certainly would have done it if I could have, and I won't hesitate to do it if the opportunity ever arises again.

I went on a little purchasing spree in this week's/month's selection of $5 MP3 albums from Amazon (I don't actually know how often they refresh this list anymore), ending up with what I think are some pretty good records: XTC's Drums and Wires, Black Sea, and English Settlement; Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark's Architecture and Morality; Elliott Smith's New Moon; and Apples in Stereo's Travellers in Space and Time.

Architecture and Morality was the one I was most interested in, as I've never properly acquainted myself with the band's early work, and this album is generally considered to be their masterpiece. Given that, I was a bit disappointed——there are a lot more fragments of ideas here, and it felt a lot more experimental and self-indulgent than I was expecting. Of course, I'm coming at this from the perspective of someone who really fell in love with them during their poppier mid-career period (Crush was the first album I heard from them, and it's still my favorite, and I was pretty fond of The Pacific Age when it was released as well).

There are still some great songs on here, and it's a bargain at $5, but I thought this might be one of those records that I could get obsessed with for a few weeks (especially given my weakness for 80s New Wave stuff over the past couple of years), and I don't see that happening after the first three or four listens.

Elliott Smith's New Moon and Apples in Stereo's Travellers in Space and Time are two records that I probably wouldn't have purchased if they hadn't been on sale for $5——not because I don't like these artists, but because I don't quite like them enough to buy these albums, which I sort of view as being on the margins of their best work.

New Moon is leftovers and previously unreleased tracks from earlier in his career (1994-1997) that were compiled and released posthumously back in 2007. I preferred his later career when he was working with a full band——the bones of his songs were always good, but I just have limited tolerance for the lack of sonic variety you get from the solo folk singer accompanied only by his guitar.

This collection is pretty much exactly what I expected——few less-than-decent songs, and some very good songs, all in the same vein as the material on Either/Or, the earliest work of Smith's that I own. Well worth it for $5 (it's a double-album's worth of songs), and probably worth it at full price as well, especially if you like Smith's work.

I'm still deciding what I think of Apples in Stereo's Travellers in Space and Time, but I think I like it. I'm mostly sure. I'm almost positive I do.

Even for the Apples, it's a very quirky record, and although it has no shortage of the Beatles-inspired hooks the band is known for, the songs are couched in a new sonic palette that I'm much more open to know than I might have been back in 2010 when this album was originally released——at that point, the band had been steadily moving towards a stripped down, fuzzed out guitar sound, but this album is replete with the various sounds of the 70s——funky disco guitars, prog synths and vocal effects, and even some yacht rock horn sections.

Again, this is more appealing to me than it would have been a few years ago, but it's such a big depature in sound that I almost wish bandleader Robert Schneider had chosen to release it under a different band name.

But again: I like it. I'm pretty sure.

Skylarking was the first XTC album I ever heard, and it's still probably my favorite. I bought everything they released after that, but it's taken me a while to go back and get to know their earlier material, which has some distinct differences from that record——there seems to have been a real sea change in their approach to production and instrumentation in between 1984's The Big Express and 1986's Skylarking.

So it was nice to find a trio of records from this earlier period all on sale for $5: 1979's Drums and Wires, 1980's Black Sea, and 1982's English Settlement. They all feel very much along the same continuum as The Big Express, but I also haven't gotten to know them very well yet, so I'm sure some further distinctiveness will emerge over time. And while there are some great, classic XTC tracks on these albums, there's also a much higher percentage of misfires that I'm used to from their later work——songs that either go on for a bit too long or don't really have a fully developed musical idea at their center (or both).

Happy to have them in my collection, of course, and happy to have all the good to great songs that they include, but these albums aren't necessarily making me regret not owning them sooner. Each of them probably could have been pruned of 3-5 songs and been stronger for it (because each of these albums has at least 14 songs on it, which was pretty unusual for the pre-CD era).

So it's been more than a week since Kanye West's long-awaited The Life of Pablo was supposed to have been released, and so far all I've heard are the two songs he performed (although it's more like he coordinated the other people performing them) on SNL.

This is because, after days of teasing that the album release was imminent, he changed his mind and said that the only way anyone would ever be able to hear the album was by signing up for the subscription music service Tidal (not coincidentally owned by his musical and business partner Jay-Z). That's right: no physical version, no downloadable digital version, and not even available for streaming on other streaming services like Spotify or Apple Music.

Not only is this incredibly irritating, it's also stupid, because it's going to lead to a couple of things happening: fewer people will hear his music, greatly decreasing his cultural relevancy as an artist (similar to what happened when Howard Stern moved to satellite radio——yes, he made a lot more money personally, but he ceased to be part of the national entertainment conversation until he became a judge on a television talent show), and this thing will be pirated to death.

It may well lead to a spike in Tidal subscriptions, but there are going to be plenty of people out there who might otherwise pay to own a physical or digital copy of the album who aren't going to pay an annual subscription fee forever just to be able to hear it and who will instead turn to the torrent sites, which will certainly have dozens of high-quality versions of the album available for download.

Combine this with all his other recent antics in the lead up to the "release" of this record, and I might finally have had enough of him, no matter how much I've appreciated his work over the years. If Tidal is going to be the only legal way to hear this album, I'm not sure if I ever will.

I hadn't thought about Lush in a long, long time, despite being a pretty big fan (I owned all their releases and listened to them pretty constantly in the early to mid 90s)——after all, it had been 20 years since they had last released an album, 1996's Lovelife, and they had essentially disbanded after the suicide of founding drummer Chris Acland.

But then out of nowhere they announced not only a box set which would reissue their formal releases along with outtakes, demos, etc., but also a tour and a new EP called Blind Spot, from which they shared a new track called "Out of Control":

They're clearly not going for anything new here——this is the arctic underwater shoegaze sound that they were known for, and if you told me this was one of the outtakes from the 90s that never made the cut for inclusion on an album instead of a newly composed song in 2016, I wouldn't have any reason to question you.

So I'm expecting more of the same from the new EP, and that's pretty okay with me——they were always a band who never got to finish telling their story, and even if they've taken a two decade break to mourn the death of their bandmate, I'm still excited to hear more new music from them, even if it's music that isn't on a demonstrably different path than the seam they'd worked so diligently before.

Even though it's been a long time since Islands released a record that was compelling as a whole (although there are always a few good songs on their albums), I decided to preorder both of their new records (which are being released simultaneously) after they offered them in a bundle on PledgeMusic for only $15 total.

If there turn out to be only 3-4 songs on here that I like, this could still end up being a bad deal, but hope springs eternal. If between the two records I can cobble together a tracklist of 10 good Islands songs, I'll consider that a real win.

I am eternally in search of a band that sounds like Modest Mouse from their This Is a Long Drive for Someone with Nothing to Think About and Lonesome Crowded West years, and the latest band that I'm hoping might fit the bill is Sioux Falls, who just released their debut album Rot Forever.

There are definitely some Mouse-y moments on here, both in the sound/style of the guitarwork and the vocals, and while I generally like the album after a few listens, I have a feeling that they are going to fall short in terms completely scratching the early Modest Mouse itch. I know, I know, it's not fair for me to approach a band and hope that they'll sound just like another band (especially when that original band hasn't sounded that way in nearly 20 years), but on the other hand, they're making some pretty clear references in their songwriting to that band, so...

Still, if you like early Modest Mouse and you're always on the lookout for a band that's working in that same vein, you might want to give Rot Forever a shot——although the comparisons are impossible to avoid, likely purposefully so, this record does stand on its own and has some really great tracks on it.

Sufjan Stevens is preparing to release a 10th anniversary edition of his Illinois album, and he shared a demo of "Chicago" that will be part of that package:

One of my favorite Sufjan tracks ever is the demo version of "Vito's Ordination Song" from Michigan, so I had high hopes for this track. And while there's really nothing wrong with it——it's a great song, so it can be great in multiple arrangements——there's nothing revelatory about the demo version like there was for "Vito's Ordination Song".

So it's exactly what it's supposed to be——a nice little bonus for people who love the Illinois album——but I'm not sure if it would be worth purchasing on its own outside of that context.

I've become a little bit of a sucker for female-led pop-punk bands, and Bully's Feels Like is the latest in that genre that I've picked up. The goes back to my love for Sarge, particularly their album The Glass Intact, which, after nearly 20 years, remains one of smartest, hookiest bits of punk I've ever heard.

I tried Hop Along's Painted Shut with the same thought in mind, and I have a feeling Bully's Feels Like is going to get essentially the same assessment from me: sometimes the singer is not quite as in control of her voice as she seems to think she is; the songs aren't quite catchy or distinctive enough for you to love all of them when you listen to them in the album context; and the lyrics aren't anywhere near as smart as Elizabeth Elmore's were.

Still, I'm not ready to write off the record after only a couple of listens——just because something's not as great as The Glass Intact doesn't mean it can't also be great, or at least pretty good.