04.21.2017
The New Pornographers
Whiteout Conditions

The New Pornographers put out a new album, and look, it's not too great. It's good and competent like their last 3 or 4, but just doesn't have the highs of their best stuff. But more importantly, I finally managed to see them live! And even more importantly than that, I saw them live with Neko Case on the tour! Dan Bejar wasn't on this tour, but that's okay. To be honest, they all seemed a little bit tired and sleepy, looking a lot like a band that's been doing this for 18 years. But they still played great, they played the hits, and holy crap can Neko Case seriously sing. She's unbelievable. I'd follow her into battle.

04.09.2017
Future Islands
The Far Field

I'm super impressed by Future Islands' ability to stay the course. They easily could've gone the obnoxious route after 2015's "breakthrough", hiring big-name producers (Danger Mouse?) or bringing in bigger sounds (Danger Mouse and an orchestra?) or—mercy—partnering with Young Thug or something. But what they did is make another Future Islands album. And while part of me is curious about what exactly "next level Future Islands" might've sounded like, I'm perfectly happy just taking 12 more songs of Sam Herring—possibly the best voice in all popular music right now—singing over some steely driving indie new wave.


(1)
04.08.2017
Mastodon
Emperor of Sand

Over the last 15 years, every Mastodon album has been something. Remission was the brutal and concise debut. Leviathan was the transformation from concision to confidence. Blood Mountain was the big weird bold step into 'anything goes and we can do it all.' Crack The Skye was the mellowed out prog concept album. The Hunter was an all-out refinement down to songwriting basics. Once More Round the Sun was seemingly an appeal to mainstream popular metal. Things were going so well until those last two. So I was a little nervous for the state of Mastodon leading up to Emperor of Sand... and I'm still a little nervous. I'm really not sure what this album is, how it fits in. If anything, Emperor of Sand is every Mastodon album at once—there's some Remission/Leviathan rage, there's some Blood Mountain weirdness, there's a lot of Skye vocal trading and layering, and there's unfortunately still plenty of Hunter/Once More 3-minute tunes potentially ready for hard rock radio. I don't know what to do with it. Luckily, Mastodon happens to be really, really good. So even if I'm confused by its mission, I still enjoy the hell out of this album.


(1)
04.07.2017
Mount Eerie
A Crow Looked at Me

A Crow Looked at Me is such a personal record that I hesitate to even call it a 'record.' I hesitate even more to attempt to write a review of it—or at least I would if I wrote reviews professionally for some critical venue or another. It's probably the best Phil Elverum record since The Glow Pt. 2, and I wouldn't be surprised if I hear people say it's his best work ever, but even that praise feels imprudent. The situation is that is the man's wife died, and he wrote these songs to try to bear it. Some of them are journalistic records of post-loss minutiae, some are memories of the days and months previous, and some are urgent pleas to the universe to make sense of it all. It's all deeply moving and deeply personal, but written beautifully and honestly, prose poetry just barely formed into songs—and it's all written specifically to her, rather than to the listener or some omniscient third party. I'm not using hyperbole when I say that it's somewhat uncomfortable to listen to, as if these are private recordings not meant to be heard by anyone else. But Elverum released it because he wants to share, so I'm okay with it (although, in honesty, I haven't even turned the record to Side B yet. It's just too painful to engage with all in one sitting). Musically it's very pretty, free of nearly all of the instrumental obfuscation that he's practiced over the last decade, generally acoustic guitar and some assorted droning keys and basses. But lyrically, I think there's no question that it's the best work of his career, although again, even raising the question or placing these words in the same canon as his previous work feels entirely beside the point. The whole collection is wonderful, really, and while I'm sure Phil might appreciate hearing that, he almost certainly doesn't care. This isn't a record of music, it's a record of a man who is trying to cope by doing the one thing he knows best how to do: making a record.

04.03.2017
Cameron Avery
Ripe Dreams, Pipe Dreams

Here's a funny one. I bought the wrong album!

What I thought I was buying was the new compositionally-rich and vocal-centered solo album from the bass player of The War On Drugs, which I'd listened to recently and found intriguing. What I actually bought was the new compositionally-rich and vocal-centered solo album from the bass player from Tame Impala, which I'd listened to recently and found intriguing. Imagine my surprise.

So what happened is that, yeah, both of those albums exist. And I think I listened to songs from both just a few days before. But instead of hearing the spooky and psychedelic choral swirls of the War On Drugs guy (Dave Hartly), I heard Cameron Avery's American-songbook inspired throwback crooning. But I don't mind, because it's good! And perhaps better than being "good," it's interesting.

The thing about this album is that it's a little gross. Whether he's writing these songs to be tongue-in-cheek, or ironic, or even experimental, there's a palpable machismo to the whole thing. Songs about lovin' and leavin' and sayin' "sorry babe" when you have to hit the road with your band, telling your girl to get her hair nice and pretty so you can take a drive with the top down—hell, just referring to her as "your girl". This is all stuff that was probably in music in some times and places, and you could probably hear far worse in any random hip hop album of the last couple decades, but there is something jarring about even hearing someone referring to "my girl" on what's ostensibly an indie rock record. But looking past the lyrics—which yeah, are interesting and impactful in their shamelessness, if a little bit blunt at times—the music here is very much inspired by classic American songbook fare, and not in some corny, Pat Boone kind of way—they're beautifully constructed tunes, and recorded with the earnest grit of a National or Walkmen album, not an ironic horn section to be heard. And what keeps this all from becoming just too much is that, shit, this dude can fucking sing. I'm not saying he'd win American Idol or anything, but he'd at least make it to Hollywood. Although beyond a couple tracks, he actually handles most of the vocals more in the Leonard Cohen (late 80s Leonard Cohen) vein. Really, the short version of this review is "Leonard Cohen performing A Little Touch Of Schmilsson In The Night with The National as the backing band". I can see a point six months from now when I'm sick of this album and never want to hear it again, but for now I'm absolutely fascinated by it.

04.03.2017
Aimee Mann
Mental Health

Hey this Aimee Mann album is real good! I feel like it's been a long time since I've been able to say that; not that there's anything bad about her last three (or four), but they've all just felt a little uninspired. This one is a nice little 'reset,' very calm and understated, primarily just Aimee and a guitar, with some minimal extra arrangement every now and then. Just lovely. But, I will say, a long-time issue I've had with her writing really makes itself known here: Lyrically, she has a tendency to write in couplets. Very simple and predictable A-B-A-B-C-D-C-D rhyme schemes. I've noticed it over the years with her, but this time around I was about to yell half the time, just thinking "If the ends the next line by rhyming 'down' with 'gown,' I'm going to lose it." And then she rhymes down with gown. Still, it's a really nice record, with better songs than she's written in years, and it's mellow and goes down smooth. I'll take it.

04.03.2017
Spoon
Hot Thoughts

I don't think Hot Thoughts is too great. Probably definitely in the lower rungs of the Spoon discography. However, buried down in the dregs of side B is "Tear It Down," which I think—maybe, just maybe—might be the best Spoon song ever recorded. Yes. I mean, "The Underdog" and "Inside Out" might have an argument, but at the very least it's the most Spoon song ever (apologies of course to "The Way We Get By"). It's a pure extraction of everything Spoon does, laser focused and perfectly composed. The rest of the album, whatever.

03.22.2017
Laura Marling
Semper Femina

Laura Marling is very, very good. Her album is produced by Blake Mills, who is also very very good. But I worry that Blake Mills turned this Laura Marling album a little too much into a Blake Mills album. Kind of like what he did with the Alabama Shakes. Except I ended up really enjoying that Alabama Shakes album, and I'm already starting to really enjoy this Laura Marling album, because Laura Marling is very, very good.

03.12.2017
Steve Lacy
Steve Lacy's Demo

Music is so weird in 2017. Here's this guy, Steve Lacy. He's 19 years old. 19. Just out of high school. He apparently has some tangential connections to the eminently respectable Los Angeles jazz collective that centers around Thundercat and Flying Lotus and Kamasi Washington (the collective who, as I see it, are one of the few music communities in the country right now who are really truly really doing something new and vital and real). He apparently also has connections to this group The Internet who I've mostly ignored since they appeared a few years ago. And this kid (he is nineteen) records a demo, supposedly entirely on his iPhone, and puts it up on SoundCloud. Within a week or two, Pitchfork has reviewed it (and gave it a realistically respectable 7.2), and it has received thousands and thousands of listens. And then I went on iTunes and paid $3.99 for it and am writing about it on my own music blog. This is the 15-minute demo tape of a 19 year old recorded on an iPhone. Nothing makes sense.

Except what does make sense is this dude's music. And it's not what I expected. This is not some 19 year old making trendy synthy electronic sampled GarageBand junk on his iPhone. This is fully live-instrumented, cleverly constructed pop-soul music. And it is very good. One track in particular, "Dark Red," is outstanding, and I can hardly believe a 19 year old wrote it. A nice cycling, walking chord progression, understated but confident vocal melodies, good but not flashy instrumental work. If this reminds me of anything, it's Cody Chesnutt's Headphone Masterpiece, an equally rough-but-exciting piece of bedroom recorded poppy soul music. But where that was a 2-disc batshit journey through the mind of a hermit genius, this is really nothing more or less than what its title implies: Steve Lacy's Demo. It's 15 minutes, 6 tracks, a couple under 2 minutes long, 1 of them almost unlistenably bad, 1 of them transcendently good, and the rest absolutely respectable enough for me to get really, really excited about what this Steve Lacey kid might do when he records with something other than a goddamn iPhone.

03.12.2017
The Shins
Heartworms

I don't know what to do with this new Shins album, and I don't know what to do with the Shins. I keep waiting for them to release something that even approaches Oh Inverted World, and I just keep waiting, and then I realize I've been waiting for 16 years. It's not going to happen. And yet they've managed not to go full-Weezer (aka full-Simpsons) and release a bunch of embarrassing garbage. Everything they've done has had an air of quality. But I just do... not... care... anymore. But I'll go out and buy their next one anyway and go through this all again.

03.05.2017
Grandaddy
Last Place

This is probably Grandaddy's least great album. But I've still listened to it about 6 times since Friday.

03.05.2017
Xiu Xiu
Forget

Xiu Xiu has been in a state of diminishing returns for damn near 8 years now. Women as Lovers was their last great album in my opinion, and since then it feels like they had that point that bands hit where they're just too good at doing the thing they do. The surprise disappears, the wonder disappears, they rely too much on what works. At first I was excited about Forget being a fresh exciting return to form, but the more I listen to it, it's more like, "Yep, sounds like Xiu Xiu." Which is a bummer, but also, I don't know. They've been around for a long time now. They've released some amazing music. And in between these official albums, they're definitely doing some interesting, cool projects. So, basically, I do like this one better than Always and Dear God I Hate Myself and whatever that other one was called. But still, certainly seems like they peaked.

02.27.2017
Ryan Adams
Prisoner

I generally haven't been a big fan of Ryan Adams' music. I definitely haven't been a big fan of Ryan Adams' personality. But I have to say I'm really, really into this new one. It's big but it's personal, tongue-in-cheek maybe, but no more than nearly everything he does is tongue-in-cheek in one way or another. But it does lead me—along with some of the later-era Fleetwood Mac I've been listening to lately—to one major conclusion about the state of today's music trends (as if I hadn't already come to enough conclusions on those). It's that everybody in the last couple years has been digging into the 80s, grabbing the synth sounds and the wet drums and the gauche of it all, but they're missing the romanticism of it, the grace. But that's what Prisoner seems to get right. There are subtleties to the arrangements, and Adams seems to know when it's about to go too far into parody or irony and pulls it back. But on top of it all, it's still a Ryan Adams album, with admittedly great Ryan Adams songwriting and vocals (I've never liked the guy, but I have to admit he knows what he's doing), that pulls all of the right 80s influences off the record shelf. Granted, unlike most everyone else going for this sort of sound, Adams probably actually listened to this stuff growing up and actually has the right records to pull.

03.20.2017 - by Steve
PiadaBloomington
Steak piada

I don't remember what my exact thoughts were about Piada, since I ate there a few weeks ago and forgot to Music & Food it, but I do remember this: For a Mall of America food court restaurant offering "Italian street food" (which basically amounted to an Italian burrito), this was way more tasty than it had any right to be. I can't speak for their pastas or anything else, but these "piadas" easily get my "well if you're in a food court you certainly could do worse" recommendation.