Last week I enumerated 14 different potential pop culture landmarks coming our way this year. But I forgot a big one, and I’m ashamed. Let me correct that mistake now.
This week, Quiet Company hit record for the first time on their fourth studio album, which frontman Taylor Muse says will be called Transgressor. If you’ve been reading this column for any length of time, you know of my love for Quiet Company, and Muse’s songs. Their second album, Everyone You Love Will Be Happy Soon, contained some of the best pop tunes of 2009, and their third, the absolutely astonishing We Are All Where We Belong, was my favorite record of 2011, and still awes me and scares me in equal measure.
QuietCo is a band that has not put a foot wrong yet, so I’m very much anticipating this fourth go-round. (They’ve also released a pair of terrific EPs and, last year, they reinvented their debut album Shine Honesty as A Dead Man On My Back.) You should hear everything they’ve ever done, and you can, right here. But certainly listen to We Are All Where We Belong, a searching, scathing, heartfelt breakup album with God. Once you do, you’ll understand why I’m looking forward to Transgressor.
While we’re at it, a few other things I didn’t mention last week, mainly because I didn’t know about them: Foster the People has just announced their second album, Supermodel, which will be out on March 18. The great Elbow will release their sixth, The Takeoff and Landing of Everything, one week earlier. I’m looking forward to trip-hoppers Phantogram’s second album, Voices, on Feb. 18, which will also bring us the first new album in way too long from Suzanne Vega. And there’s that self-titled St. Vincent album on Feb. 25.
Gonna be a good one, folks.
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This year, I made what to some of you is going to sound like a weird New Year’s resolution. I vowed to listen to every album I buy in 2014.
I am, right now, looking over my pile of unheard music from last year. It’s fairly extensive, and if the pile of music I heard weren’t four times its size, I would feel bad about even compiling a 2013 top 10 list. I buy a lot of music, and like everyone else, I only have 24 hours in each day. I do try, but I usually find by March or April that my purchasing has outpaced my listening. I know this seems like the epitome of a first world problem, but there you go.
So I’ve resolved to hear them all this year. Every album I buy. I’m doing pretty well with that so far. I’ve picked up four new releases, and heard three. I’m going to talk about two of them today, but the third one I heard – Until the Colours Run, the debut from Lanterns on the Lake – is pretty cool. Kind of ethereal shoegaze music with some nice textures and a sweet singer. (The fourth disc I bought is the self-titled record from De La Tierra, a Portuguese-language side project of Sepultura’s Andreas Kisser, and I’ll hear that one tomorrow.)
I’m not sure if I’ll keep listing all the records I buy here, but I hope to stick to this. With that in mind, here are my first two reviews of 2014.
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I think people are surprised when I tell them I like Switchfoot.
I’ve actually been something of a fan for more than 10 years. Their early works are convincingly spunky, their middle ones much better than their reputation, particularly Oh, Gravity. Jon Foreman has a way with a fist-pumping lyric, and when the band is on, they write some catchy yet interesting pop-rock songs. They’re not innovators by any stretch, but they do what they do very well.
Or at least, they used to. Lately, I’m not sure Switchfoot themselves know what they’re up to. I enjoyed Hello Hurricane, despite its lack of ambition, but I just can’t get behind the abrasive and tuneless Vice Verses. And now they’ve gone running in the other direction with their ninth album, Fading West. This is the glossiest, poppiest, most radio-hungry album they have ever made. Everything their blinkered detractors think they have been for the past decade is in evidence here. And it’s a shame.
I’ve been referring to Fading West as Switchfoot’s Coldplay album, and it’s not far from the mark. Most of these songs are simple things, blown far out of proportion by the production. Here are electronic drums and synthesizers underpinning most everything, huge sticky wads of backing vocals, and an excess of sonic frippery. It’s the furthest from their stripped-back beginnings they’ve traveled, and there’s a definite sense that they’ve gone too far. The record starts with a pair of fairly bland tunes – opener “Love Alone Is Worth the Fight” and single “Who We Are” – overproduced within an inch of their meager lives.
For a while after that, it sounds like Switchfoot will right the ship. “When We Come Alive” is the most soaring anthem here, even if it’s the one that sounds the most like Coldplay. It features a simply huge “whoah-oh” chorus, backed up by massive guitar chords, scaling heights the album never reaches again. “Say It Like You Mean It” is the most impressively live-sounding thing on this record, all Larry Mullen drums and Adam Clayton bass, while ballad “The World You Want” is a little overdone, but still effective. “Who you love is your religion, how you love is your religion,” Jon Foreman sings, further evolving a theme that has permeated his work.
The next two songs, the boring “Slipping Away” and the odd “BA55,” are unremarkable. But then the album plunges right off the rails, concluding with a quartet of buzzy pop songs so outside the band’s normal purview that it’s almost jaw-dropping. When I first heard the sub-Sugar Ray “Let It Out,” I nearly choked. The synth bass, the insipid melody, the effects on Foreman’s voice, everything. I get the same feeling from this that I got from Weezer’s “Beverly Hills” – it’s the sound of sellout. And it doesn’t get a lot better before the record grinds to a halt with “Back to the Beginning Again.”
I like to give credit when bands try new things, and Fading West certainly treads new ground for Switchfoot. But most of that ground is terrible, leaving only a handful of decent songs in its wake. This whole album smells of money, and that’s a stink that doesn’t come off. I prefer honest mediocrity to something this shiny and empty.
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Eight months ago, the great Sharon Jones and her band, the Dap-Kings, announced the imminent release of their sixth album, Give the People What They Want. And then tragedy struck – Jones was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She postponed the album indefinitely, and started treatment. And her fans around the world prayed that we’d get to see the stunning soul giant take the stage again.
In many ways, the release of Give the People What They Want is cause for celebration. Jones is well enough to play out again – and given the sweaty, kinetic shows she puts on, that’s well indeed. And the album itself was worth waiting for. It gives us 10 more reasons to adore the vintage-sounding funk that the Dap-Kings lay down, and even better, the band sounds re-energized after their more subdued recent platters. This is a really great Dap-Kings album, and makes the case in 33 short minutes for Jones’ place in the pantheon of soul singers.
Seriously, if you can hear the powerhouse opener, “Retreat,” and not dance, you may be dead. It’s just a superb slice of swinging soul, and Jones gives a lung-busting vocal performance. The saxophones of Neal Sugarman and Cochemea Gastelum give “Stranger to My Happiness” a real kick, playing off Binky Griptite’s guitar work. “Now I See” is just wonderful, dripping with killer horn lines and exploding into a tremendous chorus. “Making Up and Breaking Up (And Making Up And Breaking Up Over Again)” somehow spins its title into a silky hook, and the fantastic “People Don’t Get What They Deserve” just smokes, Jones harmonizing with the Dapettes on the kickass refrain.
Every cut on this album is great, like it was plucked from the heyday of funky soul with a time machine. It’s a fitting celebration, welcoming Jones back to health with a foot-stomping, trumpet-blaring party. This could easily be your first Dap-Kings record, if needed, and when it’s over, you, too, will be elated that she survived her bout with cancer, and has come out swinging. And swinging hard.
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See you in line Tuesday morning.