October is not just one of my favorite U2 albums. It’s a month in which more music is released, on average, than any other. This year took a 30-day head start – we’ve just wrapped up one of the busiest Septembers I can recall, in which my current picks for the top two slots of the year took up a huge chunk of my listening and reviewing time.
The upshot of all this is that I have an enormous backlog of music waiting to be heard and dissected, and I’m expecting more, much more, each week of this month. I am planning to buy about a dozen new albums just this week, and I’m not counting the first Human Radio record in 25 years, which I have also ordered. It’s too much. I have too much already, and too much on the way, and I can’t possibly hear and deliver a considered review on each of them.
Hence, The October Project.
This is my attempt at burning through as many new albums as I can, in an abbreviated format. Not quite as abbreviated as my annual Fifty Second Week feature, but certainly trimmed down from my usual bloat. If you’re someone for whom the long-form discussion of an album is the reason you read this column, first, God bless you, because it’s my favorite thing too. But second, you may find this month frustrating, as it’s going to focus on quantity and pithiness. Heck, I might find it frustrating too, so we’ll see how well I do keeping things short.
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And already I’ve run into trouble, because the first thing I want to talk about deserves so much more space than I am about to give it.
Eighteen months ago, Michael and Lisa Gungor announced their intention to release a trilogy of new albums, one every half-year, under the banner One Wild Life. Their band Gungor began life as a worship-oriented art-pop collective, composing liturgies and church songs. Uncommonly beautiful liturgies and church songs, of course, but music designed for the devout. With 2013’s extraordinary I Am Mountain they broke out of that mold, traveling a more bizarre, thoughtful and, ultimately, rewarding path.
Most of One Wild Life continues that journey brilliantly. The first volume, Soul, is more airy pop, more traditionally Gungor in scope, but the second, Spirit, is a delightful explosion of ’80s-style keyboards with dissertations on faith and life. (I’m particularly fond of “Let Bad Religion Die,” which is just as pointed and critical of American Christianity as it sounds.) And the concluding installment, Body, is the best of the bunch, driving this ship home with style.
Body is an earthier piece of work, describing a human life from birth to death. It’s impossible to confine it to a single genre – it travels through as many styles as it needs to tell its story, from the gentle folk of “Birth” to the positively slamming dance-funk of “Alien Apes” to the swaying pop of “Walking With Our Eyes Closed” to the full-on gospel soul of “Free” (with a killer lead vocal performance by William Matthews) to the off-kilter epics “To Live in Love” and “Tree.” Body never falters. Not for the first time in this series, the Gungors’ creative vision takes them to some strange and initially off-putting places, and they follow that vision with perfect clarity.
Like I said, this album deserves a lot more space than I am giving it here. Sometime next month I would like to write a full review of the One Wild Life series, which has become a watershed project for Gungor. For now, let me say that the astonishing creativity they displayed on I Am Mountain is in full bloom here on Body, right through to “The End,” an eight-minute finale both to this album and the trilogy as a whole. It’s brilliant, and it’s one of the best things I’ve heard this year, and I’m looking forward to taking it apart in greater detail at a later date.
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I’m running into trouble again with my next contestant, not because I need more words to properly review it, but because I feel like I need another few weeks to keep listening to it.
I’ve never been a part of the cult of Bon Iver. Justin Vernon’s two previous albums (and one EP) under that name were, I thought, pretty good – the first a solid example of hipster-folk, the second a wildly incongruous chamber-rock album that left a lot of people scratching their heads. If you had any doubt that this state of confusion is how Vernon likes his listeners, one spin through the third Bon Iver album, 22, A Million, will remove it.
This record is, frankly, batshit, a collection of song fragments and noises that defiantly refuses to cohere. The song titles are numbers and symbols, the liner notes laughably pretentious, the lyrics diving from heart-on-sleeve insight to random nonsense (sometimes within the same stanza), and the whole thing feels more like a detached art project than a real statement. Plus, at the danger of making a terrible-food-small-portions joke, it’s remarkably brief – you’ll zip through the first three tracks before you even make your way back to your chair after pressing play.
And yet, pieces of this album are sticking with me, and I keep listening to it, almost compulsively. The songs are, no doubt, weak, and the production is intended to mask this, but there are some beautiful moments – the sad melody of “22 Over Soon,” the delicate “29 Stratford Apts” disrupted by distortion, the guitar part on “666,” the saxophones on “___45___.” These moments are not enough to make me love or even like this album yet, but they’re enough to keep me interested. I’ve seen many people call this the most compelling album of the year, and while I can’t agree, I can keep listening. And I will.
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In complete contrast, Rachael Yamagata has always been easy to love.
Though Yamagata has steadily delivered terrific new music since 2004, you don’t hear a lot about her. I think that’s a shame. She writes silky, dark songs and sings them with a rich, full, immediately recognizable voice. Fiona Apple got a lot more press for doing a similar thing, but Yamagata has staked out her own territory and has quietly built up a solid, impressive body of work.
Her new one, Tightrope Walker, doesn’t break with tradition – it’s another swell record in her style, another ten smoky songs that showcase her voice over slow, crawling grooves. “Nobody” could be the best Garbage single in a decade, easy. “EZ Target” builds its groove slowly, out of angles and odd-fitting shapes, but its chorus, complete with banjo flourishes, is a winner. “Let Me Be Your Girl” is a stunner, an old-school bluesy soul number, and she crushes it. “Break Apart is a high and lonesome lament that sounds as wide as the sky.
I’m not sure why more people don’t rave about Rachael Yamagata. She’s quietly and consistently made heartfelt and haunting music for 12 years, while working with (and standing proudly next to) some of the best in the business. And yet she still feels like a secret passed around by a select few. Tightrope Walker is one more reason to love her, one more reason that more people should be talking about her. It’s delightful.
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I know the saying about consistency and hobgoblins and all that. I’m all for shaking things up. But I’m not quite sure what Dawes was going for on their new album.
It’s called We’re All Gonna Die, and if that sounds like a particularly un-Dawes title, well, the incongruities don’t stop there. Much of this record sounds like the breezy California band’s attempt to be OK Go, with harsher edges and synthesizers on nearly every track. Opener “One Of Us” sets this tone, with its blatty, brassy synth bass line and Taylor Goldsmith’s normally sweet vocals distorted and processed. This is a song that contains nothing I like about Dawes, and it demands to be judged on its own merits.
And on those merits, the album is merely OK. I like “Roll With the Punches,” with its pulsing organ bass lines, and the shuffling “Picture of a Man” has its moments. “For No Good Reason” is probably the album’s best song, with its George Harrison guitar lines and its memorable chorus. But for the most part, this album’s attempts at sonic reinvention don’t stick as well as the band hopes they will. It’s hard to tell from just this album whether they’re on a journey or they’ve ducked down a blind alley – we’ll need to see where they go next for that. But We’re All Gonna Die is a strange effort that trades in the band’s easy appeal for something that turns out to be less interesting.
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By now you’ve all seen Stranger Things, yeah?
Netflix’s show of the summer was a fun mix of The Goonies and ‘80s Stephen King, with some fascinating theoretical physics thrown in. (Trust me, I work for a Department of Energy lab, and there was a lot of talk about the theoretical physics of the show.) To me, though, it wouldn’t have been what it was without the dark, synth-y music, and for that you can thank Austin band S U R V I V E. (Yes, that’s how they spell it, spaces and all.)
The band’s second album, the cryptically titled RR7349, is like getting a whole second soundtrack to Stranger Things. It’s all chilly synthesizers and old-school electronic drums, arranged into nine vast, wordless soundscapes. These nine tracks all blend together into a whole, but if I had to pick highlights, opener “A.H.B.” and the arcade-sounding “Dirt” would rank up there. The darkly dramatic “Wardenclyffe” does it for me too.
I know S U R V I V E is but one example of an entire genre of ‘80s-inspired instrumental outfits, and it’s an area I have not explored to any depth. But on the strength of RR7349, I might sample a few of this band’s contemporaries. This is nostalgic and yet sounds boldly relevant, a blast from the past that fits alongside some of the most interesting music being made today.
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That wasn’t so bad, was it? Another four or five albums next week, including a glorious new one by Regina Spektor. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook here.
See you in line Tuesday morning.