By: The Busted Amp Staff
Here's a quick summary of a few albums that we missed in the last few months. The rest of the year has some highly anticipated releases, so we wanted to make sure these didn't get lost in the hype. Hope you find a good listen or two (or four) in these. Cheers to new music.
By: Derek Jung
Ryley Walker's 2015 sophomore album Primrose Green was an eye opener for me in so many ways. The jazzy, acoustic folk was unfamiliar territory for me, and I welcomed it with open arms and eager ears. The title track even made my 2015 list of Favorite Songs. The Chicago native returned again last week with his third full length, and a noticeable bump in production and songwriting has only solidified him as an artist worth paying attention to.
Walker's ability to create immersive songs through complex, multi-part song structures is fantastic, and his skillful guitar playing only adds to this fact. Lead single "The Halfwit in Me" immediately showcases the progressive folk that has endeared him to so many fans around the world. Later on, "Sullen Mind" explodes midway into an expansive masterpiece of sonic genius. This song in particular is the full band performance that I've been waiting for from Walker. The drumming, additional guitar, and what sounds like a vibraphone build wave after wave until the finale. On a more subdued note, "The Roundabout" is one of the best lyrical showcases on the album, I loved the verse "And I'd buy you a drink / My credit is quite shit / We can all laugh / And have tap water". It's funny, clever, and a little self-deprecating all at the same time.
There's no denying that Walker is a skilled songwriter. His wordplay and storytelling are top notch, but one of the weak spots on the album is Walker's vocal performance, which gets a bit monotonous. While his singing style has never been stellar, I really enjoyed songs like "Summer Dress" on Primrose Green that really pushed his singing to the limits. On this album, however, I don't hear him taking the same vocal risks.
If you're looking for a musically and lyrically complex album to enjoy on a lazy Sunday afternoon, this album would be a great place to start.
By: Derek Jung
Derek: For a band that started in Seattle, Washington, I've always thought that Band of Horses' sound would be more at home in the southern back country, rolling over the calm Appalachian mountains. The band burst on the scene in 2006 with their debut album Everything All The Time which included the indie Pandora Station staple "The Funeral". And while at the time I thought the band would ride the reverb-infused, folk-rock wave like My Morning Jacket, to whom they've frequently been compared, Ben Bridwell and gang have trail-blazed their own path during the last decade. Their previous two albums saw an attempt at writing more straightforward, accessible indie rock, but for the most part they weren't been able to repeat the blockbuster level of success that they saw on their first two albums, including my personal favorite, 2007's Cease To Begin.
Their new album, Why Are You OK, sees a return to form for the band, with over half of the album harking back to the band's earlier distinctive style of grandiose, dreamy, full-sounding indie folk songs. Album opener "Dull Times/The Moon" begins like a foggy dream, gliding over its first four minutes and lulling us to sleep while Bridwell softly sings "Home is where the heart/ home is where you are" as if this was what he was dreaming about. The second half of the song explodes into one of the strongest hooks on the album, as if Bridwell finally woke up from his stupor. This balance of old and new is critical to the flow of the album. Lead single "Casual Party" is a good example of a song that stylistically is more like their recent albums, yet works because it fits into the overarching sound of the album.
I think I'm one of the only people who disliked the cameo by Dinosaur Jr.'s J. Mascis on "In A Drawer", whose backing vocal doesn't blend well with the song, but I can understand what they were going for (nostalgia, etc.). Generally, I think the song as a whole just fell flat.
If this is the balance that we're going to see from Band of Horses, I think they've hit the best medium that they possibly can.
By: Derek Jung
Just as Spring has kicked into full gear, so have the lives of The Busted Amp staff. While Joseph and I have been increasingly busy with our day jobs, that doesn't mean we haven't been listening to great new music. Instead of giving full overviews for these albums, I've decided to provide some quick thoughts on the ones that peaked my interests.
By: Derek Jung
The Decemberists have been one of the most consistent bands of the past decade. From folk rock focused albums like their previous LP The King is Dead to their rock opera classic Hazards of Love, Colin Meloy and company have released solid album after solid album. I've always admired Meloy's literary approach to songwriting, making references that even the English majors in the crowd might miss if they aren't paying attention. I had the pleasure of seeing them this summer at Bunbury Music Festival in Cincinnati and Meloy did not waste the opportunity to ask the crowd if the festival's name was a reference to Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest.
On What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World, the group takes a more straightforward approach to songwriting. Gone are many of the deep literary allusions, and this certainly isn't the Hazards of Love Part 2. Instead, I would argue that this is the most pop influenced album from the group to date, a middle ground from The King is Dead, Picaresque, and Hazards of Love. Meloy doesn't depart completely from his distinctive songwriting style, in fact, his style is still firmly in place, but it's taken in a different direction. From some of the first lines of the album opener, "The Singer Addresses His Audience," he sings "We know you threw your arms around us/In the hopes we wouldn't change/But we had to change some/ You know, to belong to you." Instead of blown up narratives, Meloy takes things introspective lyrically and the mood of the album follows.
The first single "Make You Better" is a perfect example of Meloy's approach on the album. In the past, instead of writing about how love cannot solve your own problems within, he'd have masked it in an epic tale of mythological monsters and maidens in distress. But here, Meloy is laid bare, and it's a great change. The song starts with just electric guitar and Meloy before slowly building to a powerful refrain. By the time the final refrain reaches its peak, the song is epic not because of its lyrical subject matter, but in and of itself.
But where "Make You Better" was successful, some of the other songs on the album drag under Meloy's new-found approach. There's something to be said for songs like "The Mariner's Revenge Song" or "16 Military Wives" from albums past, that bombastic attitude and fascination for the literary and the nerdy, and that something is missed on the latter half of this album. "Better Not Wake The Baby" gives a quick glimpse of the sea shanty styling of old, but there's an X-factor on the rest of the album that leaves me unsatisfied and yearning for more. The lone bright spot is the final song on the album, ironically titled "A Beginning Song".
It will be interesting to see if Meloy and the band decide to stay the course for the next album or if we see a "revival" of his old songwriting habits. For now, I'll have to read a few books to be prepared to understand them.
My Number: 6/10
Joseph: We pretty much agree on this album 100%. The only thing I want to add is an emphasis on "Better Not Wake The Baby." For me, as I was listening to this album it was really starting to drag at that point, with the single "Make You Better" long over, but I was completely reinvigorated by this song. Now one of my favorite songs of the year, "Better Not Wake The Baby" is exactly what I was hoping for on every song when I started this album. Which makes it all the worse because it's only 1:45 long. This song is a return to old, and so I really hope in the future that's what we return to. The album does feel like a Decemberists album, but at best it is a hollow feeling. Go out and get 'em next time, boys.
My Number: 6/10
PS-I know this is an album review, but check out that video for "Make You Better." It is easily one of the best music videos I've seen all year.
By: The Busted Amp Staff
DEREK: Iceland’s darlings, Of Monsters and Men, roared onto the global stage in late 2011 with the release of their debut album, My Head Is an Animal. With radio friendly singles like “Dirty Paws” and “Little Talks”, the album peaked at #1 on both the Rock and Alternative US charts and garnered a platinum certification in the US 2 years later.
OMAM’s sophomore release Beneath the Skin harkens back to many of the elements present in their debut -- Swelling, sing-along choruses, many “whoa” and “oh” vocals (but less of their distinctive “heys” like on “Little Talks”), and similar lyrical themes of animals and nature. But instead of having multiple catchy singles as MHIAA did, the band chose a more nuanced approach, including darker, ominous, and even urgent aspects to songs. The opening track, “Crystals”, thunders into focus with a rumbling drum rhythm that frames the first verse and slowly builds to a crescendo before being released during the chorus. It’s those furious drums that set the pace for the album, using electric guitar effects to amplify the swells and builds that accompany many of its songs. There’s no doubt as to why this was released as the first single; it's easily the catchiest song on the album.
The beginning of the third track, “Hunger”, could have easily been put together by the band the xx, with minimalist vocals from Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir, atmospheric effects, and single strummed guitar. Co-vocalist Ragnar Þórhallsson even joins her in singing “I’m drowning/I’m drowning” in their best Jamie xx/Romy Madley Croft styling before the song finally breaks away and takes on the tried and true Of Monsters and Men sound that we’ve become accustomed to from the last album.
This tried and true sound becomes a recurring pattern throughout the album. Many of the songs, save for the more melancholy feel, could have easily been on MHIAA and vice versa . While this isn’t a bad thing necessarily, for a band that I was looking forward to hearing a new direction from, all I really heard was My Head Is an Animal 2.0. On the surface, nothing on this album makes it any better or worse than their first release; there are no surprises or notable changes in their sound, and there’s nothing of note that signifies the band taking a large step forward in their sound. In short, this is a passable, and otherwise safe release.
My Number: 7/10
JOSEPH: Well, I agree with you, Derek, that this is My Head is an Animal 2.0. Most of the time, I would not be ok with this, however in this day and age where we just had Mumford & Sons make a big deal about “going electric” and then dropping a very underwhelming The National rip-off, I’m glad these guys did more of the same. Their shout choruses have always been great for me to sing-along to in the car, even if their lyrics are rather shallow. After all, one of the albums more recent singles, Empire, has a refrain that simply says, “An empire for you/An empire for two.” Wow. That is some deep stuff right there.
However, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. To me, Of Monsters and Men have always just been a very pleasant band to listen to, and this continues with Beneath the Skin. Even if this pleasantry is superficial. That said, there are elements of the band advancing their sound on the album’s bonus tracks. In Backyard, the band experiments with electronic drums. While this song can be considered a bit of a miss, the other bonus track, Winter Mind, is what Mumford & Sons electronic experiment Wilder Mind should have sounded like. If Of Monsters and Men take their third album in this direction, I would be very excited. And they would’ve done a better job than Mumford & Sons! No I’m not still upset about that album at all why do you ask?
Anyway, my favorite song on this album has got to be Human. The song opens with a beautiful background vocal from Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir and a very whimsical guitar line, and the song builds to the refrain, which just might be my favorite refrain of any Of Monsters and Men song. The kick drum keeps the pace going, and Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir's background vocals really make the album soar. Oh, and there’s an unusual guitar solo too, so that’s awesome.
In conclusion, most of the time, I wouldn’t like more of the same, but I do feel like it was welcome in this rare case. It may make their live shows a little boring, with a lot of their music sounding the same, but this album is still catchy and fun to listen to. The instrument/vocal hooks are definitely more refined than the first time around, and Human/Crystals have been stuck in my head for a while now. Also, to build on your point from earlier, kudos to them for getting rid of the “Heys” and just going with “Oooohs” in their songs this time around. The Lumineers definitively killed that in 2012.
My Number: 8/10
Our Final Verdict: 7.5/10
Who are we?
Derek Jung and Joseph Kathmann -- Just two ordinary guys that love talking about music. You can read more about us here.