Henry Jamison’s Sophomore Effort is Lyrically Strong but Musically Weak

Gloria Duplex is extremely well written, but a lack of care on the instrumental and production side leaves it feeling like just a catchy poetry collection and robs it of enormous potential.

Henry Jamison is a folk singer songwriter from Vermont. Jamison comes from a very long line of storytellers, his father a successful classical composer and his mother an English Professor. Even further back, his lineage can be traced to people like George Fredrick Root, the successful Civil War Era songwriter. It’s a family tree of which Henry is rightfully proud, and he considers himself yet another in this long line of story tellers. He debuted with his breakout EP, The Rains in 2016, but really hit his stride with 2017’s The Wilds.

His blend of acoustic instrumentation and vivid lyricism is not uncommon in the folk world, though Jamison is especially good at it. The Wilds touches on several interesting topics and his brand of visual lyrics brings these ideas to life with a pleasing sound. Though his songwriting is excellent, his melodies and instrumentation tends to suffer from a lack of attention which is mostly given to the lyrics. Because of this, his earlier work strikes something of a niche market of lyrically focused folk fans and lacks some of the wide-ranging appeal that can be found in the best of the genre. With Gloria Duplex, however, he aims to rectify this while continuing to build on what made his earlier work great. For the most part, he succeeds.

First and foremost, Henry’s lyricism is still the key focus for his music, and for good reason. Tracks like “Boys,” and “Ether Garden,” tell fantastic stories with clever turns of phrase and some beautiful, descriptive poetry. This is, by far, the highlight of what the album does and for lyrically focussed folk fans, this an excellent project.

His vocals, while not overly impressive, get the job done just fine for a folk record. The closer, “Darkly,” actually features a very emotive performance and some strong harmonies and “Reading Days,” is decorated with a few thoughtful melodies. The majority of his vocals are just well done enough so as not to be distracting, but he does show a few hints of putting more effort into these leads.

Additionally, there are moments of strong production here and there. The vocal effects on the “Beauty Sleep,” interview, for example, is exciting and creative and the atmospheric decorations of “True North,” add a lot to an otherwise uneventful track

There’s even the stray moment of instrumental brilliance. The warm violins on the album’s best track, “Florence Nightingale,” the playful guitar of “The Magic Lantern,” or the unique chord progression of “Stars,” are proof that Jamison has the ability to arrange some excellent instrumentation when he puts in the effort. Unfortunately, it’s also in here where I find the majority of my complaints.

A large portion of this album is drug down by cheesy and uninventive instrumentals. The very cliched guitars of the opener, “Gloria,” set the record off on a bad note that it struggles to recover from until a strong run in the middle. In the final third, however, we’re thrown into the weakest track on the album, “American Babes,” which sounds like a stock folk track completely buries its admittedly strong lyrics. This leads us straight onto “In March,” which, while a bit more daring, never seems to bring any of the ideas it contains to any kind of satisfying fruition. Aside from a few notable exceptions, nearly all of this album suffers from this same weak link and isn’t helped by fairly run-of-the-mill mixing.

All in all, this is a solid sophomore effort. Henry’s poetic writing style will be a hit with a lot of folk fans, as it should be. He clearly puts a lot of time and effort into his lyricism. One can only wish, however, that he put the same time and care into the other facets of his music, namely the instrumentation and production.

  Gloria Duplex is extremely well written, but a lack of care on the instrumental and production side leaves it feeling like just a catchy poetry collection and robs it of enormous potential.

5/10

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Mumford and Sons Branch Out With Fourth LP

Delta isn’t the best album of the year, it isn’t even the best album in the growing Mumford and Sons catalog, but it is a powerful and decisive step from a once niche band toward branching out and finding new footing. For that, it deserves respect.

     Mumford and Sons is a folk/indie rock act from London. They burst onto the underground scene in 2009, at the hight of the hipster movement, with their debut LP, Sigh No More. The record has since sold more than five million copies and is absolutely essential to understanding the musical landscape of this decade. Their follow up, 2012’s Babel charted at number one in the US and catapulted Mumford into super stardom, birthing the trend of Irish-Irish-inspired folk which would include the likes of Ed Sheeran and Phillip Phillips. 2015’s Wilder Mind was a bit of a misstep, though it still went platinum, seeing the group add a drummer and experiment with truer rock influences.

   Mumford and Sons’ sound has evolved over the years, but a few tendencies remain constant. There are thick, obvious ties to Irish folk music throughout, particularly in indulgent harmonies and driving time signatures. They also sport a unique instrumental pallet which includes a banjo, upright bass, and the occasional mandolin or pair of spoons. Their latest release flirted with blues and rock and roll, but with Delta, Mumford seems to have found a new home in the world of arena rock.

   Let it not go without mentioning, though, how sharp the band’s folk roots are in cutting through the spacious instrumentals. The opener, “42” features a gorgeous set of harmonies throughout, and “Beloved,” is driven by a heavily effected banjo. It’s here that longtime Mumford fans will find enjoyment. I myself could feel the high school freshmen in me soaking in every second, but this album doesn’t stop here.

   Tracks like the lead single, “Guiding Light” and “Woman,” dive headlong into the stadium rock aesthetic which is meant to characterize this project. The reverb-heavy mix, looping guitars, and catchy hooks make for a fun foray into this new territory, which will likely leave something to enjoy for fans and casual listeners alike.

   This album is most effective, however, in its final third as the group crafts a long string of intimate but singable tracks to close out the rather long runtime. “If I Say,” and “Wild Heart,” are genuinely quite moving, “Forever,” is a strong piano ballad, even the very experimental “Darkness Visible,” is unique and intriguing, and though the closing title track leaves a bit to be desired in the creativity department, Marcus Mumford’s lead vocals make it infinitely listenable.

   This brings us to Delta’s most noticeable quality, that being Marcus’ excellent effort on every second of the album. Both lyrically and vocally, the band’s frontman is perfectly on his game at all times. Tracks like “Slip Away,” and “Rose of Sharon,” which fall in the middle of the record and feature the weakest instrumentals of the bunch, are more than rescued Mumford’s total commitment and heartfelt delivery. On the other hand, an already well made track like “The Wild,” is made all the better by his touch as the centerpiece.

   The best song on the record, by a mile, is “October Skies,” which is able to sum up the best parts of Delta without falling victim to any of its shortcomings. The organic instrumentation and howling vocals are perfectly evocative of vintage Mumford, yet the drum kit adds an enjoyable groove. Beyond this, the track is beautifully produced, as is much of this album, building a cozy sonic space upon which to view closely the stark beauty of the louder, more powerful moments. The choir, as with the wide pallet on the project as a whole, is simply a brilliant touch.

   This album isn’t perfect. Several of the anthemic staples the band touches on feel somewhat stale and done to death, and you’ll find more than a fair share of cliched lyricism. However, it’s a step that is much appreciated. There is a clear and palpable passion that comes along with this album and it is hard to deny, especially when the wide pallet, good production, and talented performances gel smoothly.

   Delta isn’t the best album of the year, it isn’t even the best album in the growing Mumford and Sons catalog, but it is a powerful and decisive step from a once niche band toward branching out and finding new footing. For that, it deserves respect.

6/10

HEAR DELTA:  HTTPS://OPEN.SPOTIFY.COM/ALBUM/3THBKS5IJZ41MABAOAT7WC

Sun Kil Moon Delivers on Aesthetic but Skimps on Substance in New Release

This Is My Dinner is a slog with very little reward for sticking it out till the end.

     Sun Kil Moon is a folk rock artist from San Francisco, California. Originating as a continuation of the defunct indie rock band, Red House Painters and sporting a long list of past members, Sun Kil Moon is now the primary moniker of Mark Kozelek, the group’s original lead singer. He’s amassed quite a discography over the past fifteen years, never reaching meaningful commercial success, but becoming a certified critical darling thanks to multiple excellent reviews. His latest record, Common as Light and Love are Red Rivers of Blood, was widely regarded as one of the best albums of 2017.

   His sound is quite unique and far from accessible. Over slow, smooth instrumentals, Kozelek rambles on, writing in a sort of stream of consciousness, touching on personal, political, and mental issues. He blurs the lines between music and spoken word poetry, rarely, if ever, breaking into choruses or hooks, and often boring more casual music listeners. On the other hand, if you listen closely, you’ll hear one of the better lyricists in modern music, writing fearlessly. Now, just a year after one of his best projects to date, Sun Kil Moon has returned with This is My Dinner, which is, in a word, disappointing.

   To start with the good, these instrumentals are very enjoyable. While mostly unassuming and often repetitive, “Linda Blair,” benefits tremendously from hectic, jazz guitar while the title track features more active drum work and a smooth melody on keys. The closer and best track on the album, “Chapter 87 of He,” is highlighted by excellent jazz sensibilities from every member of the band and features a jarring, chaotic passage in the bridge that makes the song what it is. The entire album is full of extremely listenable instrumentals, which saves the record, in many ways.

   On the vocal side, I will say that the album feels very heartfelt, particularly on “David Cassidy,” the shortest and best written song on the album, and the quick cover of “Come On Get Happy,” which follows. Even “Rock n’ Roll Singer,” which is, ostensibly, a comedy, Mark gives a good performance and the exaggerated, long notes, are absolutely hilarious.

   Two of the ten tracks come in over 13 minutes, adding to the runtime of nearly an hour. The better of the two is “Soap for Joyful Hands,” which is a short peak at what this record could’ve been. The music is simple, the story is simple, and yet every second colored with dark humor, an extended soliloquy on the value of life, and sharp anger, which is accented well by the subtle dynamics of the band.

   The other and longest of the two, “Candles,” exemplifies everything wrong with this album. While the stream of consciousness is a unique writing technique, it falls down on tracks like these, when it just has nothing to say. The story is boring, holding no metaphorical or emotional weight, the comedy is missing all the sharpness that makes Sun Kil Moon who he is, and I’m left, almost 14 minutes later, having gained nothing.

   This issue persists throughout the project as well. Tracks like the opener, “This Is Not Possible,” or “Copenhagen,” say absolutely nothing, and badly overstay their welcome. Where his earlier records strung listeners along, investing them in his mental state, only to deliver biting satire and a unique outlook, this album fails miserably and commits the fatal sin of being just plain boring. While the album had a ton of potential, especially considering it’s talented cast, it simply doesn’t deliver.

   This Is My Dinner is a slog with very little reward for sticking it out till the end.

4/10

HEAR THIS IS MY DINNER: https://open.spotify.com/album/1OCE83C2l4g7kRxTrkSfND

Hozier Breaks Long Silence With Beautiful EP

The four track EP leaves me extremely excited for the forthcoming record and with a few new additions to my regular rotation, and for that reason, it is an absolute success.

     Hozier is an Irish blues singer/songwriter who is most known for his smash hit 2013 single, “Take Me to Church.” He hit the international scene in 2013 with the back to back release of the “Take Me to Church” and “From Eden” EP’s, which were eventually compiled into his self titled 2014 LP. His music is atmospheric and hard-hitting, often dealing in weighty topics, and consistency writing with almost unparalleled lyrical skill and vocal ability. This excellent debut effort was then met, however, with a deafening four year silence, which was finally broken last week with the release of the “Nina Cried Power,” EP.

   The four track collection opens with the title track and immediately one notices a distinct shift for Hozier. The atmospheric blues and melodic guitar riffs are replaced by a grooving drum beat, and thick choir backup. Toss soulful vocal performances from Hozier himself and legendary R&B songstress, Mavis Staples on top of unique and beautifully articulate lyrics on the topic protest, glorifying the legacy of protest music born in the 20th century, and this EP is off to a roaring start.

   This roar proceeds through the second track, “NFWMB.” This is, essentially a song focussed on love and sex, though this comes through quite beautifully thanks to Hozier’s fantastic lyrical ability. His sultry performance is rather uncharacteristic, but adds a brand new layer to the already interesting track and simplistic instrumental simply gets out of the way and lets the man work his magic, though the piano heavy lead was notable.

   It’s the second half of the EP, beginning with “Moment’s Silence,” where things really start to kick in gear. This track is fun, focusing again on sex and love, but this time in contradiction to today’s popular religious teaching, and benefitting from the powerful wail of a vocal, which had been absent for the first half of the project. Beyond this, the guitar riffs are very well mixed, and carry unique melodies throughout the song.

   The closer, “Shrike,” is certainly the highlight of the twenty minute run time. This is the softest of the four tracks, building on a simple acoustic guitar and a few faint chair shots. The centerpiece of the song is the wonderful vocal work from Hozier, and heartfelt lyricism which deals with themes of love lost and broken hearts.

   The EP, as a whole, continues a trend of nothing but top notch releases from the young artist. The vocals are once again powerful and lyrics are characteristically thoughtful and moving. The instrumentals, on the other hand, are extremely unique in Hozier’s catalog, far more atmospheric than melodic and sporting an eclectic array of instruments and styles.

   The four track EP leaves me extremely excited for the forthcoming record and with a few new additions to my regular rotation, and for that reason, it is an absolute success.

5/5

HEAR NINA CRIED POWER: https://open.spotify.com/album/78o6vcPIRwoph8a3StqaTU

Jason Mraz Drops Sixth Studio Album for the Fans

     Jason Mraz is a folk/coffeehouse artist from San Diego. He rose to prominence in the early 2000’s college scene and pioneered the hip-hop infused brand of singer-songwriter music which would later be expounded upon by the likes of Ed Sheeran and James Bay.

   His debut record, Waiting for My Rocket to Come and its follow up, Mr. A-Z brought him incredible fame and success and after a couple of well received live albums, he was very obviously on the precipice of a career defining project, which Mraz delivered in 2008 with We Sing. We Dance. We Steal Things. Not only did this album not disappoint, but it remains his best selling album to date, certified triple platinum and peaking at number three on the billboard chart. He followed up four years later with the platinum album, Love is a Four Letter Word, and again with 2015’s Yes! Today, he is certainly in the post-prime stage of his career, but his influence can’t be ignored, and his recent singles were quite impressive, leaving me excited for this year’s release, Know. Once again, he doesn’t disappoint.

   On this record, Jason is very clearly aiming simply to have fun, a luxury which he enjoys at this stage in his career, and indulges in quite a bit on this project. Tracks like “Makin’ It Up,” and his best pre-album single, “Have It All,” find him in his much more laid back form, dancing over fast tempos with clever turns of phrase, and goofy jokes.

   He even branches out with the reggae-inspired “Might as Well Dance,” which see’s a bouncing rhythm adorned with interesting organ work, a surprisingly engaging guitar solo, groovy bass, and lyrics which, while generally shallow, should pull a few chuckles from long-time fans. With a chorus refrain of “we got nothin to loose, might as well take off our pants,” the song serves as nice wallpaper for summer cookouts, which seems to be its ultimate goal.

   Listeners are also given the treat of hearing Jason return to his earliest coffeehouse roots on tracks like “No Plans,” or the opener, “Let’s See What the Night Can Do,” both tremendously enjoyable, with Mraz’ heartfelt vocal performance and endearing lyrics leading the way over simplistic instrumentals and a few very well placed choral swells. He’s generally at his best here, though this doesn’t ring true for the final track, “Love is Still the Answer.”

   On this closer, the tawdry lyricism weighs like a cinder block on a relatively inoffensive instrumental, accented by a few very well timed violins. Similarly, it’s the generally uninspired writing on “Unlonely,” which plays wet blanket to yet another solid track, this time one which is quite danceable and fun, making this offense all the more irritating.

   However, it’s “More than Friends,” which stands as the least redeemable song on the entire project. The lyrics are barely ankle deep, the track is mostly boring, and Megan Trainor’s feature only serves to further water down whatever uniqueness this track had. The mercifully short three minutes is easily the lowest point in the 40 minute runtime.

   Thankfully, this is offset by the simply striking beauty of “Sleeping to Dream.” This is a fairly old track, appearing as early as 2004 on live releases, but this version is much more mature. The vocal performance is soft and sweet, the lyrics are clever, and the slide guitar work of Drew Taubenfeld gently flavors an excellent instrumental track. It’s good to hear this song finally find a home on a studio project where it can serve as a reminder as to what a talent Jason Mraz truly is as a songwriter.

   This album certainly isn’t all hits, but that doesn’t matter. The misses aren’t nearly egregious enough to be unenjoyable for longtime fans, and when he’s on, he’s on. Know. Doesn’t quite hit the bar set by Mraz’ early work, but he knows his audience, and this album serves as one more present to longtime fans.

   Who could ask for more?

5/10

HEAR KNOW.:                              https://open.spotify.com/album/7dwIWyB2jdJgL3P2JEgRKm

Shannon McNeal Drops Impressive Debut

     Shannon McNeal is a folksy singer/songwriter based out of the Nashville area. Her earliest, available work is her Places EP, released in 2017, a project that was fun, heartfelt, and certainly worth a quick listen before diving into the new record, but her first true LP released this weekend to be followed by a couple exciting release shows.

   The record itself is impressive, particularly in its production, which simply must be mentioned first, considering the relatively small budget for the album. What WFBD’s production lacks in polish, it more than reimburses in creative, thoughtful decisions on everything from stereo-imagery to vocal mixing. It’s very nearly impossible to imagine that this album was recorded completely by students, but Adam Bock and Janaye Roberson seriously put in the effort to give this album quite an advantage from the beginning. Tracks like “Cash You In,” and “Morning Light” showcase this well.

   Shannon’s voice is also quite a pleasure throughout. Her lower registered tone is rich and above all unique in the genre. She rarely reaches for the distracting higher notes that often plague an other wise wonderfully simple performance. Her performance on “Blue,” for example, is dynamic and emotional, while the record’s lead single and opener, “Share My Reality,” is up tempo and features Shannon’s lead as a quirky highlight.

   The record features some excellent chord progressions on almost every song. She sprinkles sevenths and open chords well, and this is able to string a common tonal theme through the project as a whole.

   McNeal’s lyricism is also quite impressive. Tracks like “Traded in Your Love,” and “Me With You,” tell cohesive stories while the closer, and my favorite track “Ghost Town,” and others like it play on consistent themes throughout.

   Certainly the best tool in Shannon’s box, however, is her ability to write one ear-worm vocal melody after another. “Boxes,” “Forever Valentine,” and “Morning Light,” stand out for this reason, with choruses that will leave listeners humming for days to come. Its not only choruses, though. The bridge on “Another,” is incredibly singable. Even a track like “Google,” which contains some of the strangest lyrics on the project, is normalized by perfectly written chorus.

   The album isn’t perfect. The relatively narrow instrumental pallet leads to rare but noticeable pacing issues and the tight rhyme schemes have a tendency to sound a bit jingly. The album is so full of heart, however, that these slight issues can be easily ignored.

   Ultimately, McNeal’s thoughtful writing, unique melodies, and talented vocal work, wielded well by Bock and Roberson’s production approach, create a debut LP that punches well above it’s weight. An excellent start to what will likely be an exciting discography.

7/10

HEAR THE ALBUM: https://open.spotify.com/album/3LQCdiOHX5yAgCe1ZnNnRr

Father John Misty Returns Barely a Year Later With Yet Another Classic

     Father John Misty, also known as Josh Tillman, has been a staple in the indie, singer/songwriter scene  since as early as 2003. For the first seven years and eight albums of his illustrious career, Tillman published music under his own name as well as two albums with Saxon Shore, before joining with Fleet Foxes for their 2011 release, Helplessness Blues. In 2012, however, Tillman took on the moniker of Father John Misty to release his Fear Fun album to success and much critical acclaim. Three years later, Misty returned with I Love You, Honeybear, which was, again, well received with a small group of followers and fans.

   His career took an important leap in 2017 with his sharp-witted, heavily conceptual opus of an album, Pure Comedy. In it, Tillman masterfully picked apart difficult topics like the human condition, American politics, technology addiction, and much more with his signature dark humor and soft rock instrumentation. The albums was a smash hit with critics and fans alike, finally bringing Josh the kind of mainstream success which he has deserved for so long, and almost in response to this, he followed up with uncharacteristic quickness, dropping God’s Favorite Customer just over a year after Pure Comedy.

   Surprisingly, God’s Favorite Customer is wholly unique in Misty’s discography. The lightheartedness which characterized much of his early work is nowhere to be found on this album. Lyrics, while holding to some of his classic wittiness, focus heavily on themes of death, mental instability, and desperation.

   This album can be very accurately described as the second half to Pure Comedy, because where it was an outward look at the absurdities of the modern wold, God’s Favorite Customer functions as the self-examination which should follow any such criticisms of the outside world.

   Tracks like my personal favorite, “Mr. Tillman,” and the title track dig deeply into Father John Misty’s psyche while still telling compelling narratives along the way. His lyrical abilities really shine here as he plays with points of view, one sided conversations, and mixes complex imagery with simple descriptions.

   Instrumentally, this album is a bit of a departure from its predecessors. While tracks like “Hangout at the Gallows,” and “Just Dumb Enough to Try” are built on familiar, orchestral swelling and piano driven melodies, the darker tone seems to have bled over into the music as the arrangement is far more bass-heavy and generally less sweet and whimsical than past projects.

   This album reaches its peak in its simplicity, though. Tracks like “Please Don’t Die,” “The Palace,” and “The Songwriter,” feature a very uncharacteristically stripped back set up. Relying mainly on rhythmic drum and piano work, these tracks serve to remind us all just what a treat we have in Tillman, truly one of the best writers in modern music, who is still in the prime of his career.

   Another highlight comes in the production. The vocal mix is simply fantastic. A quick listen to “Disappointing Diamonds are the Rarest of All,” or “Date Night,” would blow any careful listener away with the way that Tillman’s voice is stereo-imaged and doused in delay and reverb to create an almost ethereal sense about him. This plays especially well in these rare moments which feature much quicker tempos.

   If there are any complaints to be made here, there is a slight lack of catchy hooks to be found here. While I praise Misty for his ability to find unique vocal melodies which dance along half steps and often clash before resolving, this does bring with it a lack of catchiness. There isn’t much you’ll be singing around the house.

   Overall, though, this albums is simply inspired. Father John Misty pulls from a wide array of inspirations-a few obvious ones being The Beatles, Elton John, and Neil Diamond- to bring us an album that can somehow simultaneously feel removed from time, and yet so topical and relatable. The massive instrumentation pallet is played down and remains almost unnoticed, as each instrument has its part to play, and does it well. The lyricism is, predictably, fantastic, taking on dark themes and difficult topics with the delicate care and razor-tongued wit which only Josh Tillman has. Put simply, this record, like its predecessor, is not only one of the best albums of the year, but will likely be remembered as a bench-mark for this era.

9/10

HEAR THE ALBUM: https://open.spotify.com/album/0hMPUtgjezv7gUsmhztvPv