The year is almost half over and, musically speaking, I don’t have a whole lot to show for it. Here come a bunch of new records from artists I already like, so let’s see if things are picking up.
Shannon Wright — Division
Friend to (and collaborator with) the likes of Steve Albini, Yann Tiersen, Low, and Rachel’s, Shannon Wright’s guitar and Wurlitzer and sorrowful voice are unmistakeable. Her last two records, In Film Sound and Secret Blood, were both great, and seeing her live again made me really hopeful for this record. Unfortunately, Division is sparser and more off-the-cuff than anything Wright has released since her collaboration with Tiersen, and the record ends up feeling like a first draft. Tracks like “The Thirst” suggest that this could have been a great, moody record with some additional time in the creative stages, but instead we’re left with sketches of songs, vocal performances that seem too much like a first take, and overall a short, not very memorable listening experience. Bummer. But you know what? She’s put out something like six or seven other very good records, including the basically perfect Over the Sun, so I’m not going to complain too much about this one.
Feist — Pleasure
Yeah, yeah, I know. My illustrious colleague covered this a couple weeks ago. But since he didn’t make it past track five, I thought I should say a little more. While I was only a casual fan of her earlier work, her last record (Metals) felt like the album of an artist who was satisfied with her earlier successes and was now interested instead in making whatever she damned well felt like. Metals was good. And Pleasure certainly continues that trend of interesting self-indulgence; there are no clear radio songs on this record, and the production is almost aggressively lo-fi at points. It reminded me of a story in the Canadian short fiction collection called Darwin’s Bastards, where a fictional, older Feist in the far-flung future is making strange soundscapes in anonymity and having a good time with it. But my colleague’s intuitions were remarkably on point; the record falls off the rails at track five and never quite rights itself again. If the off-key choral refrains don’t get you, or the Songs for the Deaf-esque interlude (party sounds, walking, a car driving by playing a Feist song), or the heavy-metal outro, then Jarvis Cocker certainly will. The Pulp frontman’s cameo, a lengthy spoken word finale to the song “Century”, undercuts the mood and feeling of the song and makes the sincerity of the album feel like a joke. It also makes me want to listen to “Common People“. Still, there are some really beautiful moments on Pleasure, in particular the track above (“I Wish I Didn’t Miss You”).
Land of Talk — Life After Youth
I’m a sucker for albums about being an adult with adult emotions. Or maybe I’m just sick of emotionally stunted grown-ups singing about teenaged problems. Life After Youth comes seven years after Cloak and Cipher, a really great guitar pop/rock record, but it’s not such a musical departure from where Elizabeth Powell (the only permanent member of Land of Talk) was in 2010. At the forefront once again is Powell’s voice, clearer and more confident than the mumbly vocals on her early records. These songs could play a lot plainer and be competent, but her approach to guitar chording and arrangement makes the tracks stand out from other bands. As before, it’s hard to glean anything concrete from her lyrics, but the most of the songs have a sentimental and adult (i.e. contemplative, patient) quality to them. There are few standout tracks like Cloak and Cipher or the record before that, Some Are Lakes, but it’s a pleasant record that flows well and conveys a mood.
Big Thief — Capacity
I’ve written at length about Big Thief’s incredible debut record, Masterpiece. Suffice it to say here that I was very excited about the follow-up. Big Thief went from solo acoustic guitar musings to a duo and then to a full band on Masterpiece, and then they toured extensively. This isn’t a new pattern for bands, and typically what happens is the next record reflects the influences and energy of a touring a live band. But Big Thief eschews this standard progression and instead tries to blend their earlier subdued, acoustic arrangements with a reined in rhythm section. The results are mixed. As always, the vocals are beautiful and free of cynicism or pose. The songwriting and guitar work is often pretty. But there’s something lifeless, or maybe not fully grown, about Capacity. The band never stretches out and fills the space, the songs don’t particularly grow or move, and ultimately the album is missing some of the personality that made Masterpiece so brilliant. It’s a bold sophomore attempt for Big Thief, but I suspect this record will only get a fraction of the playtime that their debut did for me. It’s also hard to imagine touring this record, or wanting to see the band play these songs live; these songs and arrangements would almost be better suited to a solo or duo tour. Oh well. There is still a lot of beauty to Capacity, but I’ll mostly be waiting for the next record and listening to Masterpiece instead.