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Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Nicsperiment's Top Nine Albums of 2013

9. Twenty One Pilots -- Vessel
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Vessel is about as assured and confident a debut album as you're going to hear, and that is about as lazy a description as you are going to read.  Twenty One Pilots are a very modern sounding, high energy duo of drummer and vocalist/mostly keyboardist, Josh Dun and Tyler Joseph. Most pop rock albums, especially debuts, feature three singles surrounded by filler. On Vessel, every song is the single. Joseph's pop instincts are perfect, and his lyrics are shockingly clever and introspective considering how catchy the music is. Also, he raps half the time. On paper, this should be horrible, but on first, second, and thirtieth listen, Vessel had me saying, "Man, this is good." Earlier this year, I predicted this band would be huge, and since I am not so humbly composing a list of things for other people to read and assuming they will listen to me, I'll toot my own horn and mention that Twenty One Pilots first four videos have amassed over ten million combined views this year, and they are now touring with Fall Out Boy. You're welcome, dudes. Yet another band made by the Nicsperiment.

8. Hillsong United -- Zion
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I'm as shocked as anyone that this is on my list, but for the first time ever, Hillsong United are ahead of the trends instead of following them. The spiritual content is still there for those of us who want it, but for once, the music, forward-thinking, electronic driven work with traditional instruments around the perimeter, should be enough to keep everyone else happy, too. If you are new to The Nicsperiment, thanks for visiting, and enjoy the run-on sentences.

7. Basick Records 2013 Output (Various Artists)
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In a near decade of Nicsperiment lists, here's the first top album of the year that isn't an album. I couldn't decide on which of Basick Records excellent 2013 output to include, so I'm just going to praise the whole label in this spot. Basick's stable consists mostly of heavy bands, and since Solid State records fell from glory over the last decade, Basick has become my go to for good heavy music. Much like with turn of the century Solid State, one can pick any new Basick release blindly, and almost always be satisfied with the purchase. 2013 has been a particularly banner year for the label. Personally, I have really enjoyed Circle's Infinitas (Some strange alchemy of djent and nu-metal that somehow works awesomely), Bear's Noumenon (Just a mean, dirty little album), No Consequence's Io (a humanistic concept album I don't quite agree with in theory, but wholeheartedly endorse musically. Plus, the album closing, chill-inducing outro of "Break out these chains/We are one" is the most powerful moment of any music I've heard this year), and Uneven Structure's (short, sweet, and terrifying) re-recording of their 8 EP.

6. Five Iron Frenzy -- Engine of a Million Pilots
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Over the last few years, I've enjoyed "comeback" albums from Further Seems Forever, The Dismemberment Plan, Face to Face, and several other bands to varying degrees, but Five Iron Frenzy's Engine of a Million Pilots is the first to make me think that's why they got back together! Engine of a Million Pilots provides all of the passion of Five Iron's previous music with a maturity and wisdom that only age can bring. If you can't enjoy this album because it's "rock with horns" instead of ska, maybe you need to throw away your Doc Martens, and chunk out all those cases of Surge you've been hoarding since 1997.

6. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds -- Push the Sky Away
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I have thought of ways to articulate the mood of this album more eloquently than this. I'm sorry, but I can't think of a more apt description. Push the Sky Away is the sound of walking through the apocalypse with a boner. Nick Cave has lost 0% of his edge, sounding more sophisticated, alien, and...sexually observant than ever. I think, in many ways, this is his most minimalist album, and while it isn't as spare as The Boatman's Call, it somehow sounds more restrained than anything he has done. That said, he gets more done here with a little than he did back when he was wailing like a banshee with a chainsaw at his back.

I just realized I have two number "6"'s. Instead of breaking tradition and calling this a "top ten" list, let's leave that to Letterman, and just call number six a tie.

5. Norma Jean -- Wrongdoers
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Norma Jean have been in existence under a variety of different monikers for the last sixteen years. One original member remains. Vocalist, Cory Brandan Putman, and guitarist, Chris Day, have been the only constant members during the band's last four albums of output. The duo have enlisted three new members for Wrongdoers, and that fresh blood energizes Norma Jean to such an extent, they sound like a new to rival the incarnation that performed on their landmark debut, Bless the Martyr, Kiss the Child. Wrongdoers is the culmination and perfection of everything Putman has brought to the band since his 2005 succession of Josh Scogin. I've waited eleven years to say that Norma Jean have matched their debut. I've enjoyed, but also been critical of the work they've released since then. There is nothing to criticize here. Wrongdoers is a beautiful, beastly, thought-provoking, space-shuttle crashing into the sun of an album. Here's to many more.

4. Polyenso -- One Big Particular Loop
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I've been waiting for this album since the band posted the first song...almost three years ago. After a loooong wait and a Kickstarter, Polyenso released One Big Particular Loop against my one big particular expectation...and they are number four on my favorite albums of the year list, so they obviously met them. One Big Particular Loop is tough to describe. I'll just do it abstractly. One Big Particular Loop sounds as if someone took the vibe from early '90s adult contemporary music, then added a drummer who could keep rhythm under heavy mortar fire with both hands behind his back, a singer who grew up listening to a lot of Radiohead and Tracy Chapman, a bassist who likes Dredg only less than he likes getting funky, a trumpet player who likes to stand on top of tall buildings, and a guitar player who sounds like he really, really likes to paint. All of this in a complete package that literally loops back into itself. What's not to like?

3. Jars of Clay -- Inland
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I published a review for Inland a few weeks ago. This band just gets better with age. I am scared about the music they are going to be making in their 50's. Future listeners will have to place some kind of awesome funnel into their cochleas to ensure that their brains do not explode from too much awesomeness at once.

2. Everything In Slow Motion -- Phoenix
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In this cynical age where irony seems to be valued more than honest emotion, and bloggers vent about good old days that most likely never existed, Shane Ochsner's music stands alone. Well, not really alone, but in the company of few. "Stands alone" just sounds cooler. Anyway, Ochsner's new one-man project, Everything in Slow Motion, picks up where Hands, his previous project, left off. Hard rock music with a lot of atmosphere, and even more real, honest, difficult emotion. While Phoenix's more specified topic of addiction is not quite as universal as the bigger picture themes of Hands' 2011 opus, Give Me Rest, it is still identifiable to anyone with a pulse and working ears. Plus, the album jams.

1. Sadistik -- Flowers For My Father
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I'm not going to lie. This was, mentally, quite a dark year for me. I'd go so far as to say, outside of one moment of extreme darkness shortly after my 18th birthday, several moments I had earlier this year were the darkest I've ever had. With that said, I firmly believe the best music is that which does the greatest job of helping you to not kill yourself. By that rule, my favorite album this year was Sadistik's Flowers For My Father. The album deals with the rapper's dark feelings after the death of the titular figure, as well as that of his mentor, Michael Larsen. As Sadistik struggles through bad relationships, loneliness, substance abuse, and depression, he creates some excellent poetry, employing literary references, dark imagery, and some all out beautiful wordplay. He also finds real hope, and reasons to go on, and he expresses those in a way that makes them more appealing than the darkness. I can't tell you how much I appreciate that. Of course, a dude just saying a bunch of awesome stuff is only one half of a great album, but thankfully, Flowers For My Father's musical backdrops are just as deep and enveloping. The mix of producers Sadistik pooled together tapestry an, sentence failure...start over. The mix of producers Sadistik pooled together for this album do an excellent job of meshing synths and strings into a cinematically cohesive whole. The beats get the job done and never overpower Sadistik's voice. Special credit needs to go to the myriad of female vocalists who lent their talents to Flowers for My Father, as well, particularly, Lotte Kestner. Her melancholy vocals only serve to increase the album's already impressive scope.

Man, I can't believe I'm saying this, but I really loved Skillet and Paramore's new albums, respectively. In Skillet's case, they had gone so far down the generic radio rock rabbit hole, I never thought I would see them again. Instead, they've returned with their best work in a decade. Granted, it's radio rock for teens, but it's an incredibly well done representation of leaving loneliness and fear for peace in faith. Most importantly, they sound like they mean it, which puts them leagues ahead of their genre peers. Also, I've never liked a Paramore album, despite the facts that I love a handful of their songs and Hayley Williams' brings me to tears. Their new self-titled album fuses 80's sounds with modern trends in a complete, 17-song package that I haven't been able to get enough of. Hope for the Dying's Aletheia was also quite good.
Finally, though I missed it in 2012, I've really enjoyed Katatonia's Dead End Kings this year. It served a similar function to Sadistik's album for me, just on a slightly smaller scale. Oh, and Decortica's 11811. Awesome!
And that's it! I tried to keep it brief this time!

Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Nicsperiment's Top Nine Songs of 2013 (Not Found on The Nicsperiment's Top Nine Albums of 2013)

9. Love and Death -- Whip It
My wife used to be a huge fan of Korn. She quickly scooped up Brian Head Welch's new band's album and made me listen to it a lot. You know what else I used to have to listen to a lot? Devo's "Whip It." False River Academy played that song at every single pep-rally for my entire 12-year stay. In fact, one of the reason's I scheduled a half-day for my senior year was to miss pep-rally's so I wouldn't have to hear Devo's "Whip It." Love and Death's ridiculously heavy cover of "Whip It" rights all wrongs.

8. The Dismemberment Plan -- Invisible
I may be alone in this, but I always thought The Plan were at their best when they sang about the lonely, isolated, and socially rejected. "Invisible," track three on The Plan's comeback album, Uncanny Valley, continues this legacy. "Snow on the window of the taxi back home/I just sit back and I turn off my phone/The streets are glittering without a care/And I just vanish into thin air"

7. Rosetta -- Hara/The Center
Rosetta's A Determinism of Morality is one of my favorite albums of the last two decades. Its follow-up, The Anaesthete, seems as if it was purposely written to be difficult, and had me struggling for aural landmarks. Fittingly, my favorite Anaesthete song by far is the crushing and beautiful "Hara/The Center," which sounds like it could have come directly from A Determinism of Morality.

6. The Civil Wars -- Disarm (Smashing Pumpkins Cover)
A band in a genre I don't like covering one of my favorite songs from my favorite genre. It's magic. I don't know what these two people were going through when they recorded this song, but you can feel it, and it is intense.

5. Night Verses -- Parasomnia
After last year's debut EP, I had some really high hopes for Night Verses debut LP. It is a good album, but it is also the musical equivalent of eating 600 chocolate bars. The awesomeness just keeps going and going until you want to throw up. Because of that, my favorite track is a respite from the rest of the album's raucous cacophony. "Parasomnia" is a mesmerizing conjuring of its title.

4. Nine Inch Nails -- Various Methods of Escape
I'll be honest. I didn't think a clean, happy, well-adjusted Trent Reznor could make a good album. I was very wrong. Hesitation Marks was one album away from making my end of the year list. It's proof that despite having a life lacking in drama, Reznor has lost none of his musical curiosity. Just because you kill your demons doesn't mean you aren't still haunted by them.

3. Alice In Chains - Stone
Score another one for bands I loved in the '90s. Jerry Cantrell sang on far more Alice In Chains' songs than most people realize, and his voice and sludgy riff take "Stone" to heights few younger bands could reach.

2. Chvrches -- Night Sky
At the age of 17, upon hearing Kelly Macdonald ask Ewan McGregor "What's wrong, boy? Cat got your tongue?," I decided that the Scottish accent was the greatest of all female accents. I then promptly married an Iranian woman with a Southern accent, so maybe I am fickle. Alas, I still have Chvrches, singing lines like, "And I want you, now and for all time," while using vowel sounds I've not only never heard before, but am not sure I actually am hearing. I don't even care if that sentence made sense.

1. Karnivool -- We Are
Few songs have fired me up like "We Are." I am not sure why. It has that strange fortune of subconscious power behind it. Something about the broken, yet driving rhythm of the song, Ian Kenny's vague, yet inspiring lyrics, and the beautiful, yet harsh bursts of guitar come together to create the kind of song one can listen to over and over again, yet never fail to feel better afterward.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Joanna Newsom -- Have One on Me

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It is hard enough to sustain a listener's attention across an entire album, especially if every song has a similar sound. A double album is even tougher, but the rare triple album is nearly impossible to pull off well. For some reason, after releasing one of the best albums of this now not quite as new century, Joanna Newsom decided it was time to try her hand at the triple album. Have One on Me is at once an admirable attempt and a maddening one. These 18 songs, despite more diverse instrumentation, are by far the least dynamic Newsom has ever recorded. They are slow, quiet, and somehow both meticulous and unlabored. Most of the lyrics read like a section from Finnegan's Wake, and just reading through them all in the provided booklet takes quite an investment. This lyrical opacity lends the more sparse songs (about half are only Newsom's voice accompanied by harp or piano) an even more aloof and distant quality, which is ironic, considering the warmth the album title and artwork invoke.
I've had three years to make up my mind about Have One On Me, but my initial response has not changed. Listening to Have One on Me is like taking a two-hour nature-cruise down a labyrinthian river, banked with few landmarks, where all you see is a couple of birds. There might be more beyond the brush, but whatever is there, it isn't clear. Those landmarks I mentioned are a handful of great songs, "Good Intentions Paving Company" chief among them.

There are 18 songs here, though, and these great ones should have been culled into a concise, at least translucent statement. They don't mean much stuffed into this opaque mass. The apocalyptic noises at the end of album closer, "Does Not Suffice," seem to signify the death of something hugely important, but when the CD rolls back to track one, and the songs play through again, nothing has been illuminated.

Yet, this is still the work of a hugely talented artist--perhaps that of a genius. I think this is her worst work, but I also think it is far better than many other artists' attempts. Better to be lost in a brilliant mind, than to be familiar with a dullard's? I am optimistic that whatever Ms. Newsom (soon to be Mrs.) follows Have One on Me with will be well worth the time.

2010 Drag City

Disc One
1. Easy 6:04
2. Have One On Me 11:02
3. '81 3:51
4. Good Intentions Paving Company 7:02
5. No Provenance 6:25
6. Baby Birch 9:30

Disc 2
1. On a Good Day 1:48
2. You and Me, Bess 7:12
3. In California 8:41
4. Jackrabbits 4:23
5. Go Long 8:02
6. Occident 5:37

Disc 3
1. Soft as Chalk 6:29
2. Esme 7:56
3. Autumn 8:01
4. Ribbon Bows 6:10
5. Kingfisher 9:11
6. Does Not Suffice 6:44

Monday, December 23, 2013

Joanna Newsom -- Ys

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I've gone on at length about my need for a Björk successor. Many artists have tricked me into thinking they are the chosen one, only to later show themselves as something only...ordinary. I need an unconventionally beautiful weirdo with an unconventionally beautiful voice and unconventionally beautiful music and lyrics to take up the mantle. Björk is old enough to be a grandmother now, and someone has to follow her. I have been listening to Joanna Newsom for nearly a decade, and yet I have somehow failed to notice that she has been carrying the torch for the last seven years.
Newsom is a harpist and pianist with a squeeky, scratchy, yet intensely emotional voice. On her debut album, The Milk-Eyed Mender, she showed a knack for lyrical excellence few posses. The Milk-Eyed Mender was a pretty minimalist album, with Newsom and her harp or piano very rarely backed by anything or anyone over the course of its 12 three-minute-ish tracks. If The Milk-Eyed Mender is analogous to dipping one's feet in the water, its follow-up, Ys, is jumping off a cliff in California and surfacing off a moonlit beach in Japan.
Ys' five songs average eleven minutes a piece. For four out of five, Newsom is backed by a full orchestra, among other instruments. The lyric sheets are so long, the CD booklet looks like a novella. Most importantly, Newsom's skills as a songwriter have gone from good to unparalleled.
I find it far more difficult to review an album I love dearly than one I don't. What do I say to convince the reader that this album really is worth their investment? After all, Newsom's voice is an acquired taste, harp-playing isn't exactly in-vogue, and the average 2013 person's attention-span lasts less than five minutes, let alone fifty-five.
Instead of attempting to convince, I will let Joanna speak for herself. If you think you would enjoy a song that climaxes with the lyrics:
We could stand for a century,
with our heads cocked,
in the broad daylight, at this thing:
landlocked in bodies that don’t keep —
dumbstruck with the sweetness of being,
till we don’t be.

...if you think you would enjoy something like that, give Ys a listen.

2006 Drag City
1. Emily 12:07
2. Monkey & Bear 9:29
3. Sawdust & Diamonds 9:54
4. Only Skin 16:53
5. Cosmia 7:15

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Joanna Newsom -- The Milk-Eyed Mender

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Near the end of 2004, shortly before my first college graduation, I was making my nightly commute home from Baton Rouge. The radio station I DJ'ed for played Joanna Newsom's "Peach, Plum, Pear," and for some reason it made me think of my wife. The next night, we were in the DJ booth together, and I played the song for her on a break. Of course, she wasn't my wife then, and she had a boyfriend at the time, but that's the way I roll. Joanna Newsom's debut album, Milk-Eyed Mender also does whatever it wants, rules be damned.
First off, Joanna Newsom's singing voice sounds like this person. Secondly, her chief instrument is the harp, with the piano and harpsichord functioning as her secondary tools. A friend shows up to sing and play acoustic guitar on a couple of tracks. That's it. That's all you get.
For most of the album, the only sounds are Newsom's beautifully unique, at times abrasive, singing voice, and a harp. Somehow, the combination of these elements creates a strangely personal and comforting album. Newsom has great wit and humor as a lyricist. Wikipedia shows she was born only a month after me, and was 22 when this album was released, but she was a lot wiser at 22 then I was. You should never say the word "was" in a sentence four times.
Before this review, I hadn't listened to The Milk-Eyed Mender in a while, and I had mixed recollections of how I initially received it. After a rough day last week, a late night drive home to The Milk-Eyed Mentor was quite the calming experience. There are two or three jarring moments where Newsom pushes her voice a bit too far (the opening word of "Sadie," for instance), but overall, The Milk-Eyed Mender is a remarkably assured and enjoyable debut.

2004 Drag City
1. Bridges and Balloons 3:42
2. Sprout and the Bean 4:32
3. The Book of Right-On 4:29
4. Sadie 6:02
5. Inflammatory Writ 2:50
6. This Side of the Blue 5:21
7. 'En Gallop' 5:07
8. Cassiopeia 3:20
9. Peach, Plum, Pear 3:34
10. Swansea 5:05
11. Three Little Babes (traditional) 3:42
12. Clam, Crab, Cockle, Cowrie 4:21

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Jesse Eubanks -- Meditation, Contemplation, and Prayer

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My music collection contains several wild-cards, and Jesse Eubanks Meditation, Contemplation, and Prayer is certainly one of the most prominent. By "wild-card," I mean a rare album that hardly anyone has ever heard of (If it was all "wild cards," I guess I would be a hipster). I came across Meditation, Contemplation, and Prayer about a decade ago, after reaching a worship music wall. I wasn't enjoying any of the worship songs I heard in church, nor on the radio, or...anywhere. At the time, just about everything was either too adult contemporary sounding to me, or too "wannabe U2." The thing is, if I want to listen to good U2, I am going to listen to my good U2 albums, not other bands' poor knock offs. I need something different. Well, Meditation, Contemplation, and Prayer is something different. It's drone worship.
Drone is sort of like a guitar-based equivalent to Eastern meditation music. It is often one greatly distorted note, held out for the entirety of the song. Eubanks combines this with ambient noise (rain falling, distant conversations), Eastern percussion, and at times, his pleasant, small, singing voice. It's safe to say, if you are looking for an album that sounds like this AND is directed toward worshiping Jesus Christ, this is about your only bet. Thankfully, it is an excellent effort. This dude not only knows what he is doing, but is also clearly passionate about this project. He also had some friends help out quite a bit, and that kind, collaborative spirit is clear throughout the album. I recommend that anyone with an interest outside of CCM check this out. Even if you don't care about the worship aspect, there's still a lot to like here, and most of the songs are instrumental, anyway.
Now that Hillsong isn't trying to be Bono: Australia Edition anymore, good worship music is a lot less difficult to find, but to find something this different, you'd have to search the world over. BUT WAIT--THE FUTURE IS HERE! I had to special order this from Eubanks himself back in the day (the packaging is printed on paper from India), but all you future people can download it in seconds and name your own price at Eubanks' Bandcamp page. You lucky astronauts!

2002 Self-Released
1. Creation Cries Out 06:47
2. Rain 06:37
3. In Praise of God 05:13
4. Matthew 11:28 05:27
5. Obscurity 03:48
6. Consolation 05:01
7. Nothing Can Separate Us 05:19
8. A Certain Part of the Soul 04:51
9. Alleluia 02:01
10. Natural 03:40
11. Even to the End of the Age 06:05

Thursday, December 12, 2013

I Just Can't Study Anymore

So this instead.

In exactly that order.

Jeff Buckley -- Grace

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Jeff Buckley died at the age of 30, three years after releasing Grace, his first album. Buckley was rightly heralded for having the voice of an angel, and the skill to do pretty much anything on the guitar he wanted. Grace features these two strongest elements of his craft in spades. It's important to mention, though, that Grace is a debut album. It isn't perfectly formed, and in some places, Buckley's songwriting leaves a little to be desired. "So Real" and "Lover, You Should've Come Over" both have their moments, but not much direction. The album's weakest moments sound like college jam-band material. Still, the mix of 90's alternative rock with some pretty dreamy tones hits far more than misses. Considering this and the posthumously released, incomplete Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk are all we have of Buckley's once-burgeoning creative output, Grace should be regarded as a flawed classic.

I originally picked up Grace some time around (my first trip through) college because a friend assured me it was what "adults listened to." She cracked me up with that one, but I'm glad she made me buy this. Also, a Grace CD booklet photo featuring one of the band members drinking coffee like it is the coolest activity ever conceived by humans makes me miss the 90's more than any of the 90's nostalgia stuff marketing experts have been coming up with lately.

1994 Columbia
1. Mojo Pin 5:42
2. Grace 5:22
3. Last Goodbye 4:35
4. Lilac Wine 4:32
5. So Real 4:43
6. Hallelujah 6:53
7. Lover, You Should've Come Over 6:43
8. Corpus Christi Carol 2:56
9. Eternal Life 4:52
10. Dream Brother 5:26

Friday, December 06, 2013

Jars of Clay -- Inland

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They don't believe in oceans; you, you were a sailor
who burned your ship and walked on, far away you walked on;
you keep turning inland, where no man is an island-
it's where you're supposed to be.

You keep heading inland, where no man is an island -
come on home to me.

Afraid of your convictions, they said the land will change you;
steady your confession, your course make no corrections.
When you are a stranger, hold your tongue and wager
that love will set you free...
until it sets you free.

You keep walking inland, where no man is an island - come on home to me

Jars of Clay keep moving forward, while any of their peers who have managed to somehow stay standing lumber about like zombies. Jars' commitment to progression against sedentation continues to pay off transcendentally. They keep moving inland. Their competition is sunburned and stuck on the beach.
It's time for you to listen to Jars of Clay.

2013 Gray Matters
1. After the Fight 4:32
2. Age of Immature Mistakes 3:53
3. Reckless Forgiver 3:52
4. Human Race 3:57
5. Love in Hard Times 4:31
6. Pennsylvania 4:33
7. Loneliness & Alcohol 4:45
8. I Don't Want You to Forget 3:49
9. Fall Asleep 4:41
10. Skin & Bones 3:52
11. Left Undone 3:58
12. Inland 4:13

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Jars of Clay -- The Shelter

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Striking again when the iron was hot, Jars of Clay released The Shelter barely a year after their previous release, The Long Fall Back to Earth. Never content to do the same thing twice, The Shelter marks another first in Jars of Clay's impressive, extensive catalogue. The Shelter is Jars of Clay's first album to be written directly toward and for The Church. The songs explore the Body of Christ's parts' relationship with each other, while uniting those parts in worship. It's another stunning achievement in a catalogue full of stunning achievements.
Jars of Clay again fuse their excellent songwriting with a new style. The biggest influence on this album sounds like Arcade Fire, with all the group singing and focus on community. There are two slight departures which serve as improvements here, though, and I don't mean to knock Arcade Fire, a pretty good band in their own right. The first departure is that everyone featured on this album can sing. Anyone who has ever listened to an Arcade Fire album knows that singing isn't that band's strong suit, no matter how many people are standing at the mic. Jars of Clay somehow assembled a massive who's who in the Christian music industry to sing along on this album, and every guest leaves their mark. Even tobyMac, who's solo work has not exactly been my cup of tea, wanders through the title track to drop a line, and comes off sounding a bit like Bambi's father. You know, he doesn't come around often, but when he does, he seems so wizened and powerful, you have to listen to him. The Prince of the Forest.
The second departure is that Jars of Clay actually have a cause to rally around. I'm not knocking generalized unity, togetherness, and whatever it is Arcade Fire are yelling about into megaphones, but in the end, I find that to be a bit empty. With a stated common goal of worship, The Shelter is more cohesive and focused than anything put out by the band I've been comparing to this album.
At this point, though, 20 years into their career, Jars of Clay need be compared to no one. They've created nine unique and wonderful albums (well, expect for that one I don't like very much), and they're as high on the music mountain as anyone making it these days.

2010 Gray Matters/Essential Records
1. Small Rebellions (featuring Brandon Heath) 4:48
2. Call My Name (featuring Thad Cockrell, Audrey Assad) 4:08
3. We Will Follow (featuring Gungor) 4:09
4. Eyes Wide Open (featuring Mac Powell (of Third Day), Derek Webb, Burlap to Cashmere) 4:28
5. Shelter (featuring Brandon Heath, Audrey Assad, tobyMac) 4:50
6. Out of My Hands (featuring Leigh Nash, Mike Donehey (of Tenth Avenue North)) 4:14
7. No Greater Love 4:07
8. Run In The Night (Psalm 27) (featuring Thad Cockrell) 5:25
9. Lay It Down (featuring David Crowder, Dawn Michele (of Fireflight)) 4:03
10. Love Will Find Us (featuring Sara Groves, Matt Maher) 5:45
11. Benediction (featuring Amy Grant) 2:52

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Jars of Clay -- The Long Fall Back to Earth

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Where Jars of Clay's Good Monsters dealt with the macro of the biggest issues in life, The Long Fall Back to Earth deals with the micro realm of relationships. The former deals with man's relation to the universe and the Almighty, but The Long Fall Back to Earth deals with our relationships with each other. Jars of Clay incorporate more of an electronic, slight 80's flavor into their sound while doing their usual stellar job of holding on to their own identity. The good news is that the band further the level of excellence they reached with the preceding album. The bad news is that if you like bad music, you won't find any here.
Actually, I don't have much more to say. Jars of Clay, at this point in their career, are at the top of the songwriting chain. In any genre of music they attempt, they find wild success. Remember the last Coldplay album? Coldplay tried and mostly failed to successfully blend their sound with quirky electronics. Jars of Clay attempted the same thing on The Long Fall Back to Earth, and was wildly successful...two years before that Coldplay album was even released. "Scenic Route" essentially does everything Coldplay tried to do on that album in one song, except it's excellent.

Maybe that's just because Dan Haseltine is a far better lyricist than Chris Martin. The unique perspectives he finds song to song from people yearning for connection with others strike gold again and again. Maybe Jars of Clay are just a far more talented band than Coldplay. Why am I still talking about Coldplay? Jars of Clay are one of the best, and certainly one of the more underrated bands on the planet today. If you miss out on the work they've released in the last decade, you are doing yourself a disservice. You can't say you haven't been told.

2009 Gray Matters/Essential Records
1. The Long Fall 2:19
2. Weapons 3:28
3. Two Hands 4:26
4. Heaven 3:18
5. Closer 3:56
6. Safe to Land 4:47
7. Headphones 4:54
8. Don't Stop 3:44
9. Boys (Lesson One) 4:01
10. Hero 4:52
11. Scenic Route 5:41
12. There Might Be a Light 3:56
13. Forgive Me 3:53
14. Heart 5:50

Monday, November 18, 2013

Jars of Clay -- Good Monsters

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If you want to skip the decade of experimentation Jars of Clay went through between releasing their first album, and absolutely perfecting their craft, you can go straight to Good Monsters. You shouldn't do that, because you would be missing out on several very good albums, but Good Monsterssees the band reaching the rare mountaintop of "great band."
Where to start describing it, though?
Good Monsters mixes together every sound Jars of Clay have ever explored with a wash of something new. The result is something the band had to refer to as "our first rock record" simply because they couldn't say, "Our first record that blows everything else our peers are recording out of the water." All this to say, you could tag this with a genre, "rock,"indie-rock," "rock with a sometimes gospel flavor," but you wouldn't be doing the album justice. Good Monsters is something altogether new, and this is Jars of Clay.
The album begins with "Work," perhaps the most conventional song, and a great jumping off point. The song combines a driving beat and fun sense of urgency with the power the band has wielded since its infancy. Also, the video.

"Work"'s chorus line, "I don't want to be alone," nicely sums up the themes of the album. This is the human condition in a nutshell. These first songs show a bit of a Police influence (the band did tour with Sting in the late 90's), which is kind of ironic, as track seven, "Oh My God," works as a direct response to that band's song of the same name. Also, "Oh My God" is one of the best songs any band have ever recorded, if not just simply the best song ever recorded. Yes, I just typed that, and considering it's been a long time since I first heard the song, and I still feel that way, I have to be correct, and you have to agree. If that line I highlighted from the first song is the human condition in a nutshell, "Oh My God" is the human condition in six soul-wrenching minutes.

The final line, "this is our greatest offense," has a double-meaning that opens up a million possibilities, and the fact that this song makes even early favorites like "World's Apart" nearly seem pedestrian is a miracle. The song is incredible, and as a centerpiece to an album, you can't ask for better. The following song, "Surprise," begins with the opening line "Shoot a dream in your arm, and sleep away," which only serves to make "Oh My God," even more powerful. That's how an album is supposed to work, and Good Monsters is an incredible achievement. It takes the band's exploration of their Christian faith to a depth and complexity no other band is even touching upon, and places it atop the most creative and enjoyable mix of music the band have composed to date. This album and this band should be consistently going platinum instead of just being spoken of with awe and hushed tones by dorky bloggers. It's time for Jars of Clay to get their due.

2006 Essential Records
1. Work 3:53
2. Dead Man (Carry Me) 3:20
3. All My Tears 3:45
4. Even Angels Cry 4:22
5. There Is a River 3:51
6. Good Monsters 4:05
7. Oh My God 6:06
8. Surprise 3:50
9. Take Me Higher 4:40
10. Mirrors & Smoke 3:58
11. Light Gives Heat 4:42
12. Water Under The Bridge 3:58

Friday, November 15, 2013

Jars of Clay -- Redemption Songs

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While it may not have sold a million copies, Jars of Clay's fifth album, Who We Are Instead, was quite well received. The band decided to explore the sound and themes of that album even further by taking the next logical step: releasing an album entirely composed of re-envisioned hymns. However, Jars of Clay are wise enough not to attempt to breathe new life into these songs--they understand they have to let these songs breathe new life into them.
The joy the band is experiencing by simply playing these songs is infectious and powerful. Nothing here sounds like it was written hundreds of years ago, yet the collection feels ancient all the same. Redemption Songs takes the gospel and country flavors of Who We Are Instead and infuses into them a touch of what, in 2005, would have been called "indie quirk." In other words, there's a twinkle and a bounce to these songs that sets the collection apart from other Jars of Clay albums. Though it is a natural progression from its predecessor, Redemption Songs continues the tradition of no Jars of Clay album sounding like another. Going back to the second sentence in this paragraph, despite the constant hops in genre, there's an underlying timeless identity to every Jars of Clay release, and Redemption Songs is no different. And let us not forget how powerful this band can sound.

2005 Essential
1. God Be Merciful to Me (Psalm 51) 4:31
2. I Need Thee Every Hour 3:47
3. God Will Lift Up Your Head 4:22
4. I'll Fly Away (featuring Sarah Kelly) 4:42
5. Nothing But the Blood (featuring The Blind Boys of Alabama) 4:13
6. Let Us Love and Sing and Wonder 4:23
7. O Come and Mourn With Me Awhile (featuring Martin Smith) 4:04
8. Hiding Place 4:06
9. Jesus, I Lift My Eyes 3:28
10. It Is Well With My Soul 3:54
11. On Jordan's Stormy Banks I Stand (featuring The Blind Boys of Alabama) 4:32
12. Thou Lovely Source of True Delight 4:31
13. They'll Know We Are Christians By Our Love 3:02

Monday, November 11, 2013

Jars of Clay -- Who We Are Instead

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As several great bands have done for their fifth album, Jars of Clay looked west. Who We Are Instead incorporates a country-gospel feel into the band's sound. But just as U2 sounds only like U2 on The Joshua Tree, Who We Are Instead sounds only like Jars of Clay. This isn't a country album, this is a Jars of Clay album with alt-country flavors.
Jars also decided to take a page from the humble themes of Johnny Cash, who's work inspired much of this album. Who We Are Instead wrestles with grace, throughout, in a meditative,thoughtful, and sometimes difficult fashion.
The song, "Jealous Kind," does so most explicitly
"Trying to jump away from rock that keeps on spreading/For solace in the shift of the sinking sand/I'd rather feel the pain all too familar/than be broken by a lover I don't understand." If you aren't following my U2 logic, this song is Jars of Clay's "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For."
Who We Are Instead is also a lot of fun. All that pedal steel isn't there to depress--there's as much foot-stomping as contemplation. The only flaw is the inclusion of Jars of Clay's cover of "Lonely People." I'm a big fan of America's original, and I even like Jars of Clay's interpretation. It just doesn't fit on the album, and as track three, it takes a little bit away from Who We Are Instead's building momentum. Without that minor gaff, Who We Are Instead is a near perfect album from a bunch of desert-walking Southerners, working out their salvation in fear and trembling. Or if you're not into that, from a bunch of talented, smart dudes who harness emotion really well. Either way, it's brilliant.

2003 Essential Records
1. Sunny Days 3:30
2. Amazing Grace (featuring Ashley Cleveland) 5:18
3. Lonely People (America cover) 2:45
4. Only Alive 4:04
5. Trouble Is 3:50
6. Faith Enough 5:24
7. Show You Love 3:33
8. Lesser Things 4:36
9. I'm In The Way 2:33
10. Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet (Gavin Bryars cover) 3:39
11. Jealous Kind (featuring Ashley Cleveland) 4:10
12. Sing 4:11
13. My Heavenly 3:29

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Jars of Clay -- The Eleventh Hour

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It's safe to say I might never completely understand the way I feel about Jars of Clay's third album, If I Left the Zoo. I don't hate it, but it's very far from my favorite. Compared to the rest of the band's work, it is a little short on power. There aren't many moments on If I Left the Zoo that come close to the power of a "World's Apart" or a "Frail." Also, with the band attempting to explore new directions, If I Left the Zoo is short on focus, as well. Fourth album, The Eleventh Hour, rectifies these problems. That sentence was meant to be serious, but rectify just sounds too much like rectum.
The Eleventh Hour has a clear focus musically and lyrically. Soundwise, The Eleventh Hour explores an expansive, Euro-rock style. Does that make any sense? The songs sound big, the drums go back and and forth between...
Crap. Here's the problem I always have promoting Jars of Clay:
No one wants to listen to the band's work past their debut. Obviously, that was a great album, and none of the rest of their work sounds like it, but Jars of Clay got out from under the weight of it, and anyone who appreciates good music needs to do the same.
The Eleventh Hour doesn't sound like the self-titled album. It uses electric guitars much more, and the bottom end is far more driving and rockish, and far less hip-hop sounding than the debut's. The songs focus on "need" as the centerpiece, and lead single "I Need You" spells out the theme. "I Need You" is a very simple song with the chorus simply those words repeated as nearly a mantra. The simplicity actually becomes mystical, and the song takes on a power the band would prove they could wield for the next decade, and possibly for the next ten years and the next until they are just a bunch of superhuman skeletons, holding guitars.

If you didn't like that, I'm going to review six more albums by this band, and they all sound different. I'm not going to bring up their debut again, and I am just going to act like Jars of Clay are the great band they are.
Showing great depth, the song immediately after "I Need You" is "Silence," which follows the cry of "I need You" with the question "Where are you?" It's a difficult song, but if you've been through anything, you can empathize. Bringing up the rear, the title track maturely explores the idea of "need" to its conclusion, with a dogged hope and resolve that is tear-inducing if you have feelings. If you do have feelings but can't get into the band's faith, someone made a video for the song with the Doctor as Jesus, and Amy as the attractive ginger you pretend to be in the mirror when no one is around. Since I enjoy Jesus, Doctor Who, and Jars of Clay, this video gets triple points. This review also gets triple points for using the words "rectum," "crap," "bottom, and "rear."

I'm gonna go redeem those points right now and get a sandwich. What, did you think I was gonna say fish fingers and custard?

2002 Essential
1. Disappear 3:56
2. Something Beautiful 3:46
3. Revolution 3:42
4. Fly 3:20
5. I Need You 3:40
6. Silence 5:17
7. Scarlet 3:32
8. Whatever She Wants 3:43
9. The Eleventh Hour 4:27
10. These Ordinary Days 3:04
11. The Edge of Water 3:54

Monday, November 04, 2013

Jars of Clay -- If I Left the Zoo

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Man, I haaated this album when it was first released! If I Left the Zoo is the point where a lot of people deserted the Jars of Clay bandwagon. Those who did ended up missing the seven excellent albums that followed, but I can't really blame them for leaving. I almost did myself. Thankfully, I'm stubborn, and I don't quickly leave a band I like behind. With that said, If I Left the Zoo definitely isn't what anyone signed up for.
Some publicist recognized this before If I Left the Zoo was released, panicked, and tried to push the album as "returning to the sound of the band's debut." This is true in the fact that Jars of Clay use a lot of acoustic guitar on both albums...and that's about it.
Where Jars of Clay's debut sounded deep and full, If I Left the Zoo is really bare-bones, unadorned pop-rock at its core. That's about my least favorite genre in the world, and I think most of the band's ex-fans felt the same way. Of course, this band meets that genre with the same level of excellence that they've met any sound they've attempted in their illustrious career, but I can only see that with fourteen years of retrospection. Even with that personal growth, and the knowledge that Jars of Clay would one day make a lot more albums that were much more my thing, If I Left the Zoo is still a little hard for me to digest.
These songs are extremely unadorned. They only use what they absolutely need, and that's a tough thing to accept in a band that has shown they can do so much with more. All of the evocative atmosphere of the band's previous work is gone. When strings pop up, they are more whimsical than powerful. Also, the fact that the band dialed up the pop-aspect of their melodies still pains my ears a little. They can be so much more subtle than this, and the stripped down aspect of the music only highlights the poppiness. The lead single, "Unforgetful You," might as well be the shiny poster-boy for this aspect of the album.
It would be a disservice to If I Left the Zoo to pretend like the whole thing is a poppy mess, though (this sentence was a prepositional mess). The only messiness is found in the fact that the band were searching for a sound here. "Grace" hints at the more alt-country flavor the band would pursue with high payoff a few years down the line. "No One Loves Me Like You" shows that Jars of Clay can turn bare-bones into an asset, expressing aching emotion as well as any other song in their catalog. The songs are here--even at their weakest, Jars of Clay still write great ones. The most powerful is album closer, "River Constantine," which displays the kind of atmosphere fans expected from the band.

So overall, If I Left the Zoo isn't a wash. It contains a handful of great songs, and if anything, the rest is interesting, if not ideal. If I Left the Zoo is the bridge between the early conception of Jars of Clay, and what the band could truly be. Bridges are cool, right?

1999 Essential
1. Goodbye, Goodnight 2:53
2. Unforgetful You 3:20
3. Collide 4:46
4. No One Loves Me Like You 3:48
5. Famous Last Words 3:26
6. Sad Clown 4:27
7. Hand 3:36
8. I'm Alright 3:40
9. Grace 4:31
10. Can't Erase It 3:35
11. River Constantine 4:48

Friday, November 01, 2013

Jars of Clay -- Much Afraid

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And now we have the Jars of Clay story. Their first album went multi-platinum, beloved by millions. It caught so many people off-guard, it established new expectations for what a debut should sound like. Unfortunately, it also set higher expectations on the band itself. With fans set on the band's acoustic rock sound, Jars of Clay could have simply delivered a sequel. That they didn't is much to their credit, but by not attempting to duplicate the sound of their debut, Jars of Clay altered the path of their career forever. This meant that Much Afraid, this very different sophomore album, was the last by Jars of Clay to go platinum. But this means that those who have stuck with the band til now have found themselves much rewarded. I am getting ahead of myself. Let's talk about Much Afraid.
From the start, it is clear Jars of Clay aren't content to retread their steps. Opener, "Overjoyed," features just as much electric guitar as acoustic, more keys, and real drums. These three elements stick around for much of the album. The band use drum loops from time to time, most notably on the intro to "Fade to Grey," but for the most part, there's a real guy pounding away in the back. Maybe "pounding away" isn't the best description. Much Afraid is far less aggressive and urgent than Jars of Clay's debut. Also, remember those strings that I blabbed on and on about in the last review? They pop up here like a leaping short guy's head over a tall brick wall, and that's about it. The ornamental nature of the band's sound is completely stripped away.
For the most part, Much Afraid features four major players, one singing, one playing electric guitar, one playing acoustic, one playing keys, and a couple of guys filling in for a rhythm section. While I wouldn't go so far as to say this is coffee house music, Much Afraid certainly resembles lighter, 90's style contemporary rock. It could probably play in a coffee house.
Fortunately, in that genre, Much Afraid is, song for song, a really, really good album. It's not like there are no landmarks to their previous album, either. "Frail," an old demo track re-done here, is one of the best things the band have ever recorded. The strings are allowed a moment to return, and the song builds to an excellent climax behind some of Dan Haseltine's most vulnerable lyrics to date. I've heard this song can make people cry...

While it is certainly different, Much Afraid hosts its own special magic. It fits its title. It is a bold move, but one done with a recognition of its cost. It speaks to a feeling of courage, coupled with nervous reluctance--the bravery to take a plunge, while fearing the landing the entirety of the fall. It is the work of a band talented and brave enough to re-invent itself, but smart enough to understand the consequences.
Also, 90's FOREVER!!!

1997 Essential Records
1. Overjoyed 2:58
2. Fade to Grey 3:34
3. Tea and Sympathy 4:51
4. Crazy Times 3:34
5. Frail 6:57
6. Five Candles (You Were There) 3:48
7. Weighed Down 3:39
8. Portrait of an Apology5:43
9. Truce 3:11
10. Much Afraid 3:53
11. Hymn 3:53

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Jars of Clay -- Jars of Clay

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Jars of Clay's self-titled album is one of the most beloved, hyped debut's of the last twenty years. As good as it is, the band have probably released a couple of albums in the last two decades that are better. That doesn't diminish the magic of Jars of Clay, though. In lieu of writing a normal old review or retrospective, how about I just do a song by song breakdown, isolating the magical moments in each? No? Well, I'm gonna do it anyway. Sonic has Pretzel Dogs now, so pop out and grab one of those and come back when I'm finished.
1. Liquid: The urgency of the opening strings and acoustic guitar really set the tone for this album. Then those Gregorian chants hint. Overall, there is maybe ten seconds of Gregorian chanting on this song, but it automatically gives Jars of Clay an epic frame. Acoustic rock isn't really a genre that's been fleshed out this way before. Also, the subliminal aggression of the bass line in the verses means the intensity never bleeds out of the song for a second.
2. Sinking:Here's where the beauty of the album is really simple, yet again subliminal: The background sound of bugs calling throughout the song brings to mind the charm of a warm, Southern night, though many listeners may not even notice. The fiddle-ish violin does the same, while the reverb of the harmonies calls to mind a bit of a medieval feeling. It's down home and ancient at the same time.
3. Love Song for a Savior: The flute (actually a recorder) after the choruses, coupled with a generous amount of mandolin, add a Celtic feeling to the whimsical country mood, but the drum loops (used for much of the album) and really, the sentiments, are modern.
4. Like a Child The violin and recorder again give a Celtic tone, while retaining the album's country (as in "out in the country," not country as a genre) flavor. This rural, Southern feeling, melded with a modern edge, never leaves throughout the entirety of the album.:
5. Art in Me:There's some kind of 90's coffee-house vibe underneath this song that blends perfectly with the rest of Jars of Clay. The earnestness of this song brings out the earnestness in the rest of the album. Actually, only a young band could be this earnest, and anyone looking for that in later albums, even the ones that are probably better than this one, aren't going to find it.
6. He:The more depressed tone of this song brings a sort of balance to the album. Life can't all be happily running through fields. Sometimes life is incredibly painful. I think, while this isn't the strongest track on the album, it's the cornerstone that holds the whole thing together.
7. Boy on a String:This song also contains a pretty major 90's vibe. The quick tempo and the, by this point, magical strings, add a lot to the song, but I'll tell you the secret mojo of this song. It's Stephen Mason's backup vocal of the line "Crowds will go away," that sounds like it is coming from the deck of a passing Dartmouth University Boys Club yacht.
8. Flood: Their biggest hit by far. The urgency of the song is a big reason, as well as the chord progression. Acoustic guitars rarely sound this dangerous. What makes the song, in my opinion, is the sudden drop into the Gothic string chamber of the bridge. It's beautiful and puts the song, which really does evoke its title, into slow-motion. The radio-single version that was missing the bridge was severely lacking.
9. Worlds Apart:Well, where to start. How about how this is the best song Peter Gabriel never wrote. How about the rustling wind-chimes that begin the song, which could be superfluous, but actually serve to announce an oncoming emotional storm in a way that again matches the rural tone of the album. How about that Gabriel-esque drum pattern, so slow and deep and heavy. Speaking of Gabriel, how about the low, intense, steady cadence Dan Haseltine uses throughout the sing. How about the female vocals that come out of nowhere, but feel like they've been there throughout the album. How about the intensity of that ad-libbed bridge (reportedly, Dan Haseltine broke into tears during its recording) with the building tom-tom hits that would catch Peter Gabriel's ear, even in a crowded, buzzing subway. How about I just said Peter Gabriel's name four times, yet this song still manages to hold on to the same tone and flavor as the rest of Jars of Clay.

10. Blind:Since the strings have been the secret star of the album, how fitting to let them carry Jars of Clay away. "Blind" gives the feeling of a camera panning through dusty barns on an August evening, over hillsides, and into the forest. Then there's that secret track that only serves to build anticipation for the next release. And then afterward there's the hidden twenty minutes of the string section rehearsing "Blind" as a gift to all the nerds who have been gushing about the string section for the last forty-five minutes.

1995 Essential
1. Liquid 3:31
2. Sinking 3:47
3. Love Song for a Savior 4:46
4. Like a Child 4:35
5. Art in Me 3:58
6. He 5:19
7. Boy on a String 3:31
8. Flood 3:31
9. Worlds Apart 5:18
10. Blind 27:16

Monday, October 28, 2013

The Nicsperiment Changes Its Song. Also, The Nicsperiment Hates the expression, "Changes Its Song."

I have run out of room. My CD shelf is crammed far past overloaded, and my car looks like an FYE bargain bin. I literally have nowhere left to put new, physical copies of music. This means, if I am going to continue to purchase music, I have to pretty much disregard that four years ago, I wrote this. Lame.
Life is conspiring against me. I have had no time to write any reviews over the past few weeks. I don't see much time opening in the future. I don't think I'll discount The Nicsperiment's future again, though. I did that once, and that was stupid. I'm still going to blog and I'm still going to review stuff. I already have thirty reviews completed and saved as drafts. In recent years, I've had enough time to stockpile them. Though my course load will only be increasing over the next three years, I intend to keep the "Every Album I Own" series alive. I can't leave it uncompleted. My drafts ended in the middle of John Williams'oeuvre, and I really want to throw my Chemistry textbook on the floor and get to them. At some point, I will. I'll probably start leaking out more reviews over the next few weeks, too. Also, I registered some new blogger domains to do some classic video game reviews because I don't feel like I am alive unless I am biting off more than I can chew. I'll get it all down someday, though. Also, I'll still bunny-trail. All that to get back to my original topic.
I have a personal rule that if I stream a band's album at least four times, I owe it to them to purchase it. Otherwise, I feel like a thief. I have really been enjoying Bear's Noumenon over the last few weeks. It is a really aggressive album, and in a year where I've probably skewed far softer in my musical tastes than usual, I could really use something heavy. I could just buy the MP3 album off Amazon for $8.99
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BUT LOOK AT THAT ARTWORK! It looks so cool! I want to actually hold it in my hands. Holding my monitor just feels weird, and the heat it gives off makes me feel like my hand is going to grow extra fingers. I want a physical copy of this. After shipping, though, a physical copy costs almost twice as much as the MP3. If I buy it, where will I put it? This is far less important than, how am I going to parent my child correctly, how will I make sure my wife knows that she is loved, how will my family get its next meal, how will we keep a roof over our head, how will I pass my next Physics test, and what kind of life do I really want to live, but IT'S STILL BUGGING ME!!!

ADDENDUM: I have made my decision. After viewing the full packaging for this, I have no choice. I must buy a physical copy. Three days til payday. I'll hang it from the ceiling or something.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Finally Figured Out What Song We've Been Playing At Football Games

LSU has been playing this song during every kickoff and...
Of course we have.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Wednesday Mid-Term Non-Sequitur

The other day, me and my boy were taking a walk down the bayou. We crossed the railroad bridge and noticed a pickup crashed in the bank a little down the way. We walked down to the wreck. The tracks were dry in the mud.
 My kid says, "Daddy, what are those shiny things?"
 I look into the bed at a thick blossom of empty cans around an empty cardboard case.
"Bud Light. Straw-Ber-Rita."

Monday, October 14, 2013

James Newton Howard -- The Sixth Sense (Original Score)

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I just criticized a James Newton Howard soundtrack album heavily. I may have given the impression that I dislike The Fugitive (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) because it does not contain enough music, but the fact is that I dislike it because it does not contain the right music. The Sixth Sense (Original Score) is exactly the opposite.  It clocks in at only 30 minutes (ten minutes shorter than The Fugitive's soundtrack), yet embodies the spirit of its entire film.
This is no small feat. The Sixth Sense is one of the most beloved films of all time (and was released during the greatest year in human history). The Sixth Sense also contains a certain creepiness that has caused certain viewers to swear off ever watching the film a second time. Howard's score captures this creepiness in a sort of Halloween kaleidoscope with strings, subtle, haunting vocal cues, and an all out sense of menace. Beside all this creepiness and atmosphere, though, is the goodness of the relationship between the main characters, and indeed, of all humanity. That Howard is able to capture this so strongly as well is a testament to his skills as a composer. His work is inseparable from the film as only the best scores are, and this album gives his music the treatment it deserves.
All but completionists should be happy with this listening experience. The Sixth Sense (Original Score) may not contain every musical cue from the film, but I've never heard another soundtrack that boils down the essence of its movie in such a short and enjoyable span. Every major event in the film gets its due, and the more quiet moments in between segue like the best albums should. This soundtrack feels as complete as possible, and in the time it takes to watch an episode of Seinfeld.
If you like The Sixth Sense, and you like listening to music, you should own this.
It's also all on Youtube, but the embedding has been disabled, and just go buy it.

1999 Varèse Sarabande
1. Run to the Church 1:21
2. De Profundis 2:23
3. Mind Reading 2:45
4. Photographs 0:55
5. Suicide Ghost 1:34
6. Malcolms Story/Coles Secret 4:01
7. Hanging Ghosts 2:31
8. Tape of Vincent 3:30
9. Help the Ghosts/Kyras Ghost 4:29
10. Kyras Tape 2:02
11. Malcolm Is Dead 4:44

Friday, October 11, 2013

James Newton Howard -- The Fugitive (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)

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Let me make something clear: the actual score that James Newton Howard composed for the now twenty-year old classic film, The Fugitive, is excellent. I love that film, and I love its music. You won't find a lot of it on Elektra's 1993 soundtrack release for the film, though. Portions of this album's paltry 40-minute run-time aren't even found in the film...I'm not even sure why they are included here. The weary theme that runs throughout the film? It gets briefly teased in track three, "Kimble Dyes His Hair," and then doesn't play in its entirety until the final track. Never mind the fact that variations of it run throughout the majority of the film. This disc does include some of the awesome saxophone and percussion work found in the film, but it is greatly condensed and without any context. I'm getting angry just typing about it.
Thankfully, La-La Land Records released a new version of the soundtrack that includes ALL of the music found in the film, properly sequenced. Unfortunately, though, it looks like a lot of people agreed with my assessment of this 1993 Elektra release--the newer soundtrack is already out of print. Bummer.
Harrison Ford deserves better!

1993 Elektra
1. The Fugitive (Main Title) 3:48
2. The Storm Drain 4:23
3. Kimble Dyes His Hair 4:21
4. Helicopter Chase 4:48
5. The Fugitive Theme 3:03
6. Subway Fight 2:27
7. Kimble Returns 3:08
8. No Press 4:56
9. Stairway Chase 2:29
10. Sykes' Apt. 4:17
11. It's Over 3:40

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

James Horner -- Clear and Present Danger (Music from the Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)


What is more American than a scowling Harrison Ford, draped in an American flag?
Clear and Present Danger comes from the top of a very underrated pool of mid-90's action-adventure films. It includes one of the greatest, most-emulated set-pieces of all time, and here is a moment of it.

Now I know what some film score nerds are saying right now: "Out of every James Horner soundtrack, the one you are reviewing is Clear and Present Danger?!"
Well, nerds, the reason is that Clear and Present Danger (Music from the Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) has pretty much everything I could ever want in a score. It's got that stirring, awesome, Harrison Ford wrapped in an American flag, "Sorry Mr. President, I don't dance" theme, it is fittingly bombastic when it needs to be, suspenseful when it needs to be, and enhances the film's scenes of intrigue, as well. Horner expertly combines a martial, modern drum sound at times to give the action scenes a more contemporary feel. He also incorporates a lot of 90's synthesizer sounds into the score, which I am an absolute sucker for (being timeless and of your time is one of the best things you can aspire to). Most importantly, as I review soundtracks as albums, Clear and Present Danger's flows like one. The track-listing isn't quite chronological, but it excellently follows the emotional flow of the film. Someone should be keeping a running adverb count for this review.
On a final note, a large portion of the film takes place in South America. The pan flute is one of the most maligned instruments in modern history, but Horner finds some unconventional ways to use it. Who ever imagined a pan flute could heighten suspense? Well, I guess James Horner did, as apparently that is what I am trying to tell you. Jeez, that sentence was awful. How about a song link...yeah, let's do that.
Here is the score for the full ambush scene. Try not to chew your fingers off.

Long live the 90's!!!
Also, the fact that I reviewed this and wrote an obituary for Tom Clancy in the same week is some crazy happenstance.

1994 Milan
1. Main Title/A Clear and Present Danger 5:24
2. Operation Reciprocity 3:25
3. Ambush 9:50
4. Laser-Guided Missile 3:50
5. Looking for Clues 3:31
6. Deleting the Evidence 4:41
7. Greer's Funeral/Betrayal 6:21
8. Escobedo's New Friend 5:27
9. Second Hand Copter 2:15
10. Truth Needs a Soldier/End Title 5:48

I'm Having Problems

There are bands whose music for the most part is not my thing, but who somehow put out four or five songs I can't stop listening to. I just linked to a Civil Wars song a few days ago, but I am locked in some sort of Joy Williams and John Paul White whirlwind right now where I am just listening to the same three songs over and over again and I can't stop and I'm doing Physics and it's after midnight.
This is their cover of one of my favorite songs of all time, and tell me it isn't like freebasing cocaine into your ears.

Monday, October 07, 2013

RIP Tom Clancy

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In shocking news, best-selling author Tom Clancy passed away last week at 66. Well, I guess, as everyone dies, someone dying shouldn't be shocking, but it often is. I was really hoping Clancy had another sole-authored book in him, as his last few books all had co-authors. But let's back up.
I first came across Tom Clancy's work through my now deceased uncle James. Out in the country (and swamp country at that), witnessing a grown man reading a book is more rare than witnessing an alligator trudging across your driveway. However, my uncle James, who lived next door, always had an in-progress read on the coffee table. Often, that book was written by Tom Clancy. As I knew no other male readers, Uncle James was my sole reading influence, and I snagged any book he had finished. That meant plowing through the Hunt for Red October in the sixth grade, and so on, all the way to Clancy's Clear and Present Danger, and skipping ahead to Rainbow Six. I say "plow," but it took me forever to finish a Clancy-penned book. Months and months. I could knock out a Michael Crichton novel in a night, but Clancy's books were so dense and detail-oriented and grown up. I think Clear and Present Danger had a ten-page aside about how a minor character installed a mini-fridge in his garage.
As college began, and I selected English as my major, I became "too good" for Clancy books. They weren't "literature," written with "artistic integrity" as the goal, and I had better things to read--"critically (English Professorly) lauded over time" things to read. The trend continued into the heady, confusing years after college. As I slowly became bitter about my life choices, though, I began to notice Clancy's Debt of Honor nestled on my "unread" shelf. Christmas of 1995, my dear cousin gifted me the 900-page tome, and I had never gotten around to reading it. Finally, in the spring of 2012, I said, "Why not, Tom Clancy? Let's do this again." That spring, I really did plow through Debt of Honor. It was an incredibly fun read. I understood the political and military maneuverings far more clearly. I loved every second of it. I enjoyed it as much as any "classic" I had lately read. And my goodness, Debt of Honor predicted 9/11 seven years before it actually happened. Clancy's speculative powers bordered on genius. Why had I denied myself this Clancy goodness for so long?
Clancy's Debt of Honor ends on a cliffhanger, and now I'm reading its successor, Executive Orders, in the spare seconds I currently have to read. It is so much fun. I wish I could pull a couple junior-high style all-nighters and finish it quickly. At some point, I'll probably go back and read The Sum of All Fears, the novel I skipped so long ago, as well. But now, Clancy's works have a definite beginning and end. There will be no more Clancy-penned Jack Ryan and John Clark tales. Dangit, Clancy, I was just starting to comprehend what you meant to me. Rest in peace.

Sunday, October 06, 2013

Good and Uncomfortable

This isn't anywhere close to my favorite style of music, but every time I see a Civil Wars video, I get a funny feeling. Now that the two of them aren't even on speaking terms, their newest video makes me the most Civil Wars-induced uncomfortable I've been yet. The 2:29 mark also gives me some pretty beautiful chills. Good job, I guess, weirdos.

Friday, October 04, 2013

James Blake -- Overgrown

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James Blake's self-titled debut album was a rigid exercise. It seemed like Blake had imposed limits on himself--I can only sing this loud; I can only use these sounds. He seems absolutely liberated on his sophomore outing, Overgrown, unbound by genre or rules.
Overgrown's first noticeable upgrade is its more expansive soundscape. Compared to Blake's tiny-sounding, self-titled debut, Overgrown sounds huge, even as it continues to espouse Blake's trademarked subtlety. He has described his work lately as "melodic bass music." That's pretty apt. This music is often centered around a strong beat, filled in with electronic milieu of Blake's imagining. What is refreshing here is that Blake diversifies his sound on Overgrown, yet is also able to make it more accessible. There's a pop skeleton giving direction to almost every sound here, which actually liberates Blake, as opposed to limiting him. This leads to the second upgrade to Blake's sound: his voice.
Blake's singing is far looser and more enjoyable here. He still distorts his voice from time to time, but seems far more confident to let it stand as a counterpart to the music. On the debut, his vocals were often just another wave of noise.
With these steps forward, Blake proves he isn't just some weightless image to be floated by tastemakers. He is a talent to watch.

2013 ATLAS/A&M/Polydor
1. Overgrown 5:00
2. I Am Sold 4:04
3. Life Round Here 3:37
4. Take a Fall for Me (featuring RZA) 3:33
5. Retrograde 3:43
6. DLM 2:25
7. Digital Lion (featuring Brian Eno) 4:45
8. Voyeur 4:17
9. To the Last 4:19
10. Our Love Comes Back 3:39

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

I Think I Could Lose Myself In Here

Walter White Is Not the Devil

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One of my biggest pet peeves in a review:
Colons. Just kidding.
It's when the reviewer brings his own narrative to the review, and judges what he is reviewing through the lens of that narrative, instead of judging the work on  its own merits..
If you've read my reviews here, you know that I often bring my life experiences into my reviews. I do this so that any bias I have is clear to the reader, and to, hopefully, make my reviews more interesting. I try to review whatever the work is on its own quality, without bringing my own ideas too much into play. I try to be objective.
That said, I read something about Breaking Bad on the Onion's AV Club that really irritated me. There are several reviewers on that website who approach their work like an eight grade writing an English paper. They feel that they have to come up with some sort of thesis, and use the episode to defend that thesis. This trivializes the work being reviewed because it strips some of its intended (and unintended) scope and feeling, while adding themes that may not even be in the work in the first place. On the lighter side, this makes really cool things seem really uncool. I know the phrase "AV Club" conjures some very nerdy images: Dorks with coke-bottle glasses fumbling around with a projector, for one. Even so, was turning Cowboy Bebop, the coolest show of all time, into a lame, humorless college gender studies class really necessary? Just review the show: say what it's about, say whether you think it's good or bad, and explain why. Spice it up with some personal details, but try your best not to let your personal biases get in the way.
While there are some AV Club reviewers whose work I enjoy (Will Harris, for instance), I particularly have disliked the work of their Breaking Bad reviewer, to the point that I quit following their coverage of that show altogether. I felt like that reviewer not only often missed the point, but tacked on themes important to herself that the show wasn't really broaching upon. Following that reviewer's dissection of the finale, AV Club allowed another of the website's reviewers to tackle the show as a whole. This particular reviewer is easily my least favorite of the entire website, but as I seem to often loathe myself quite a bit, I read his "Breaking Bad Ended the Anti-Hero Genre By Introducing Good and Evil" editorial in a sort of self-hate-fest. Just kidding, the hate wasn't directed at myself at all. It was directed at his lumbering piece, which provides the flammable thesis "He (Walter White) is, for lack of a better word, Satan."
My goodness, you could have said a lot of wrong things, but that is the wrongest thing you could have possibly put to Internet.
Breaking Bad is a great show because Walter White, its lead character, is not Satan. He is frustratingly human. He makes bad decisions for good reasons, then refuses to turn from those bad decisions because he is a slave to his enormous pride. That is about as human as it gets.
The Sopranos, the show that is proposed to have begun this television anti-hero wave, features a lead character many wanted to see redeemed. In the end, it is revealed that this character is simply a sociopath, and that any time he showed empathy or positive human emotion, he was only crying crocodile tears. Tony Soprano was not truly one of us. He was the enemy. Walter White is one of us. When he cries near the end of the series, it is because he is heartbroken, not because he feels it would look best if he cries. No one can see him. Most importantly, he can admit that the cause of all his problems is himself. What happens throughout the series is no one else's fault. Walter White, though at times evil, at times sacrificially loving, stays human throughout the program.
There. Gotta stop reading things just to piss myself off. I already have the news for that.

Monday, September 30, 2013

James Blake -- James Blake

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I can't remember any debut album in recent memory with as much pre-release hype as this one. Google the phrase "pitchfork james blake wunderkind" and look at how many links you get. I love Pitchfork so very, very much. Anyway, you'd think James Blake was releasing thirty-eight minutes of musical tones that could raise the dead. Actually, his self-titled debut is just a decent album.
James Blake is really quiet stuff. Despite his reputation as some type of electronic pop person, this album features an equal amount of Blake sitting and singing alone at a keyboard in Chris Martin piano-recital mode. Otherwise, he's making a bunch of quiet bloops and bleeps and digitally altering and layering his voice over them. When this came out, there was supposed to be some kind of "quiet revolution" going on in music that this guy was at the forefront of. I don't know if that revolution ever panned out or even existed, unless you count Justin Timberlake making fun of Bon Iver's snoozeworthy performance on SNL. With all that said, the best parts of James Blake certainly don't stem from the quiet monotony that can sometimes plague the album. They come from the moments Blake actually turns up the volume a little, as on his rumbly cover of Feist's "Limit to Your Love," the sweeping fog of "The Wilhelm Scream," or the giddy build up and seismic shift of "I Never Learnt to Share." Those are the album's most enjoyable and lasting moments, and here's to more of them.

2011 ATLAS/A&M/Polydor
1. Unluck 3:00
2. The Wilhelm Scream 4:37
3. I Never Learnt to Share 4:51
4. Lindisfarne I 2:42
5. Lindisfarne II 3:01
6. Limit to Your Love 4:36
7. Give Me My Month 1:56
8. To Care (Like You) 3:52
9. Why Don't You Call Me + 1:35
10. I Mind 3:31
11. Measurements 4:19

Friday, September 27, 2013

So Much For I

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Well, that's it for "I." Ever heard of synaesthesia? Words that start with "I" seem small and mean to me for some reason. I'm not saying I have synaethesia, just that words that start with "I" make me feel funny for some reason. They seem foreboding and nasty and cold. That's weird. "J" starting words seem really inconsequential and minor to me. That's not fair, because a lot of artists I really respect start with "J." So does "jackanape," though. Do you really want your band to start with the same letter as "jackanape?" Also, "junk" starts with "j." You know, like, "That Jackanape just kicked you in the junk!"
Man, these upcoming albums I'm reviewing have everything going against them!

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Why I'm Glad How I Met Your Mother Lasted this Long, Even If the Ending Doesn't Satisfy (And I Think It Will)

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For the last few years, I have heard the same thing from How I Met Your Mother ex-fans:
"That stupid show should have ended a long time ago."
I will not deny that at points after the fourth season, the show has gone through some uneven stretches. Few shows that have run for nine seasons have not. But is this proof that this show should have not gone on this long? Nope. If HIMYM had not gone on this long, we would have missed out on the mostly excellent, penultimate eighth season. As the show begins its ninth and final season this weak, it has been placed into perfect position by this previous season, which found series scoundrel, Barney, finally settling down and getting his life in order, while Ted, the series protagonist, found himself emotionally hitting rock bottom. I found Ted's depression and loneliness to be surprisingly resonating for a half-hour sitcom. I don't think these moments from late in the season would have been so powerful, if the viewers hadn't been on this very long ride with Ted.
In the eighth season, the Ted character is essentially placed in the same position as the viewer--after all this time, all these experiences, and all these relationships, what was the point of all this? All his friends now have satisfying lives and are happy, but Ted hasn't found any of the fulfillment he has been looking for. The show fully recognizes the toll that the length of finding the titular mother has taken on Ted. If it had ignored this, I would jump on the anti-HIMYM bandwagon, but it hasn't, and in embracing this, it has created some of the show's most powerful moments. I don't think any episode has done this better than season eight's "The Time Travelers."
This episode is essentially one big feint. It presents itself as just another night of wacky hijinks at the main characters' favorite bar. As the night goes on, things get more and more ridiculous and convoluted. The show has often embraced off-kilter humor, but in "The Time Travelers," things seem to be going off the rails. In the last five minutes, the episode reveals itself like a slap in the face. Everything that is happening only exists in Ted's imagination. The majority of events in the episode actually happened five years ago. This whole time, Ted has been sitting in the bar, drinking alone. He is so lonely and lost, he has deluded himself into thinking he is having a great night with friends, when in fact his friends are all doing something else without him.
The moment Ted realizes what is actually happening is brutal. This point in the episode had already drawn tears from me. I've watched this show from the beginning, and at the time of its premiere in 2005, I was exactly where Ted is at the end of "The Time Travelers." As series-hero, Bob Saget, narrates Ted's next thoughts, the viewer's tears go from trickle to flood, as HIMYM pulls off a trick it's done better than any other show: authentically presenting an emotional experience most other shows would fail at by becoming overly sentimental. Future Ted reveals that instead of moping alone, he wishes he would have visited his friends and spent quality time with them. But even more than that, he wishes he could have gone to visit his future wife that night--it turns out she was only a few blocks away (though he admits he will meet her in only 45 days)--and spent the time with her. Ted then imagines this moment, which showcases some virtuosic acting from series star, Josh Radnor. If you Youtube search this scene further, you will find reaction videos of people watching and crying, but without eight seasons of the show behind it, the moment loses some of its power. It works so much because those of us who have watched this show for nearly a decade have experienced all of the hurt and pain and hope behind it. Bravo, show. May your ending be equally powerful.