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

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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

Richard Edwards Releases Excellent Sophomore Project

     Richard Edwards has one of the most fascinating career trajectories in modern music. Getting his start in 2005 with Margot and the Nuclear So & So’s, Edwards was immediately the front man of an indie darling of a band. The group would go on to release seven records, ending with my personal favorite, “Tell Me More About Evil” in 2014. The also released a massive box set of B sides and live recordings in 2015 which sold well.

   Edwards, however, had gone off the grid. Aside from a few posts on his social media pages, the once charismatic leader of the soft rock outfit had all but disappeared. This changed, of course, in late 2016,  when he made a massive announcement through his Instagram page. Fans first learned that Edwards had been suffering from a debilitating stomach issue, and thus had been rendered unable to perform, or even leave his home for almost the entire three years.

   More importantly, though, he announced that he would release his first ever solo project in the March of 2017, leaving fans scratching heads as to how his sound would vary without the larger group. Luckily, 2017’s Lemon Cotton Candy Sunset was one of the best albums of the year, boasting a successful critical reception with the added bonus of excellent sells to fans. He went on to give a moving performance at the Gas, Feed, & Seed festival in Iowa as well as several excellent showings on various radio and tv in order to promote LCSS as well as another mystery record which would “Probably be out soon.” That record was Verdugo and it was worth the wait.

   The lyricism is, as one would expect, on full display here. Edwards has become infamous for his ability to write lyrics which may not tell a full story on paper, but that allow listeners to feel the emotions which Edwards himself must’ve felt while writing them. Tracks like “Howlin’ Heart” and “Something Wicked,” are masterpieces in this form of emotional writing.

Verdugo-Extra

   Sonically, highlights include “Minefield,” “Beekeeper,” and “A Woman Who Can’t Say No.” On each of these, as well as throughout the entire track list, Richard pulls from a myriad of genre’s and an obviously extensive knowledge of music to create one of the most eclectic collections of songs I’ve ever heard. The instrumentation is able to capture the sparse acoustic focusses of singer/songwriter music, while still finding time for overwhelming orchestral swells and vocal phrasing which bounces from obvious country influences to even pop and R&B.

   While we’re on the topic, let’s talk about the vocal performance. He showcases the abilities of his full-bodied, chest voice on the opener, “Gene” while bringing out his wispy falsetto towards the end on “Strange.” Throughout, there is so much emotion in his voice that listeners can really feel every ounce of pain, victory, and reminiscence which coats this album.

   Even the production is impressive. While the more subtle examples can be found in each track by listening to the guitar work and endless, excellent vocal mixes. There are, however, a few more obvious examples of producer, Bob Schnapf’s abilities exist in his massive changes to “Pornographic Teens” from its single version, or even on the short but spacey, “Tornado Dreams” interlude.

   Above all, my favorite track is “Olive Oil,” as it perfectly incapsulates everything that is so amazing about this album. The lyrics are beautiful and emotional, Edwards’ vocal is varied, but always at the forefront. That is, until a fantastic acoustic guitar solo which makes up the bridge. The track even ends well, making it the best track on an already great record.

   In the end, this album checks every box for me. The writing is amazing, its aesthetically consistent and pleasing, and everyone involved really gave it their all. From the smallest bit of production to Edwards’ leading role and everything in between, this album is just incredible. Then again, I never expected anything less.

9/10

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