June 12th, 2020

Note: The post is uncharacteristically light on material this week. We would apologize for that, but we don’t produce the banality that got released on June 12th. When an artist does something of note, we’ll comment. Feel free to argue for your favorite artist that we slighted this week. Or any week for that matter.

Chloe x Halle – Ungodly Hour (Parkwood Entertainment)

Sisters Chloe and Halle Bailey have both lived a full life in the entertainment world, despite being only 21 and 20 years old, respectively.  From acting credits including The Fighting Temptations, Meet the Browns and Let It Shine, to being discovered from covers performed on YouTube; following all that up with a mixtape, two EPs, and now their 2nd studio album, Ungodly Hour – and their first charting single on the Billboard R&B Songs chart.  At this point, you’ve already got a pretty good career.  Or, in the case of Chloe x Halle, a pretty good start.

The superstar that discovered the Chloe x Halle duo on YouTube was none other than Beyoncé, who sought them out after listening to their cover of Bey’s “Pretty Hurts”.  The influence is palpable; all three women are strong, sensual, introspective and unapologetic.  The production is at the perfect level, enough so that it doesn’t just fade into the background, but not so much that it overshadows the work of the two songstresses.

The best song on Ungodly Hour, in my opinion, is also the charting single. “Do It” is a legit earworm through and through, with a great beat and fun lyrics (“He say, ‘Where you from?’ Tell ’em, ‘Outer space’/’Cause a bag the only thing I’m tryna chase”).  “Overwhelemed” is a short track that highlights the more emotional side of the duo, while closing tune “ROYL” (short for “Rest Of Your Life”) is a nice nod for doing your thing in the limited Earth time you have left.  In all tracks, the sisters are balanced, both within themselves and together as a single entity.

Even with all the success they’ve had already, the future remains bright for the pair.  Halle will be starring as Princess Ariel in the live-action version of The Little Mermaid soon, with Chloe nabbing a role alongside Russell Crowe in upcoming horror flick The Georgetown Project.  I’m sure it won’t be long before the two get back in the studio to start work on album #3 – and if I had to guess, we’ll be talking about how they just keep improving a few years from now.  Beyoncé better watch out, lest the students become the teachers.

FFO: Beyoncé, Solange, Teyana Taylor

Bibio – Sleep on the Wing (Warp Records)

Bibio is one of those acts that you are convinced is a band, before realizing that, nope, it’s just English multi-talented entertainer Stephen Wilkinson.  The album’s title, Sleep On The Wing, refers to the common swift bird, which spends most of its life in the air – more than any other bird.  Swifts cover thousands of miles, while still feeding, mating, and, yes, sleeping.  It’s the perfect title for a lofty, calm, mostly-instrumental album that effortlessly jumps from one cloud to the next.

Is this a folk album?  Yes.  Is this an ambient, chill album?  Also yes, in a weird way.  The genres don’t typically intersect, but Bibio marries them perfectly.  The violin features prominently, with percussion taking a backseat.  With the exception of the slightly lower and darker “Crocus”, the tracks all sound very similar – but like less recycling and more continuing.  The title track, “Sleep On The Wing”, is the star of the show here, setting the stage for the album as well as being a great listen in its own right.  “Miss Blennerhasset” and “The Milky Way Over Ratlinghope”  are also great tracks, but really, if you enjoy this style, you’ll enjoy all of it.

Bibio has definitely not stuck to a script: listen to “Pretty Ribbons And Lovely Flowers” off of the album Ribbons, and “Feeling” off of A Mineral Love, and tell me that those two songs – plus anything from Sleep On The Wing – were all performed by the same artist.  The same, singular artist.  I wouldn’t believe it if not for my own two ears.  Sleep On The Wing is Bibio’s 11th studio album, and I can’t even venture a guess as to what #12 will be like… and I think that’s a good thing, overall.

FFO: The Innocence Mission, Shira Kammen

Built To Spill – Built To Spill Plays the Songs of Daniel Johnston (Ernest Jenning Record Co)

There are 2 entities at play here, obviously. The first is the presence and style of indie-rock geniuses, Built to Spill. The second is the effervescent, child-like brilliance of the late Daniel Johnston, who passed away last September. Let’s start with the recording artist for this project.

Built to Spill was part of the early 90s Seattle rock movement, with similarities to Pavement and Dinosaur Jr. They were never heralded as the next big thing to the mainstream for several reasons. Primarily, the guitar work was so complicated that many people found it irritating, and the songs were not structured in an immediately pleasing way. Their style still found them the object of adoration from college radio DJs  well into the 2000’s (*ahem*). 

Daniel Johnston became a poster child for mentally ill artists, for better or worse. He started by handing out homemade cassette recordings while working at a McDonald’s in Austin, Texas. He was an incredibly prolific songwriter, recording approximately 20 albums over the course of 30 years. This was in spite of his diagnosed schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and manic depression causing psychotic breaks and landing him in extended stays in psychiatric institutions. He sang beautifully rendered melodies about his personal demons and his own view of life. 

So why did Built to Spill, a band formed around the intricacy of music, decide to perform a tribute album dedicated to an artist who embodied simplicity and honesty? Simple. They liked him. 

And they are the perfect outfit to represent the purity of Daniel’s songwriting. They brought out the rock elements of the original music, emphasizing the melodies that garnered his music the attention of so many other talented artists. 

FFO: Guided By Voices, Grandaddy, Archers of Loaf

The Explorers Club – The Explorers Club (Goldstar)

A conversation that must have happened:

Dude 1: “Dude, you know what’s missing from today’s music scene?”

Dude 2: “Talent, creativity, and a genuine love of the craft?”

Dude 1: “Ummmm…yes. But ALSO, yesterday’s music scene!”

Thus The Explorers Club was born. Named after a sign hanging in a bar in a scene of Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic, this act is an homage to the roots of white-people music. Flowing and pleasant, every song is filled with romantic ideals and polyphonic harmonies. Nothing is grand or innovative, yet it feels new and fresh because no one has sounded like this for 40+ years. 

I’m truly not trying to sound negative in this review, but I can see how all of my words could be taken that way. The truth of the matter is that I enjoyed this album way more than I probably should have. The songs are fun and easy to listen to, with no effort on my end. It’s also true that I will probably have forgotten about it by the time I’m finished writing this, but at the moment, it gets a thumbs up.

FFO: The Turtles, Barry Manilow

Mondo Cozmo – New Medicine (Last Gang Records)

If we had to put a label on New Medicine, we would call it mostly “heartland rock”.  Americana, but with a more mainstream bent.  Less Dylan, more SegerJosh Ostrander, known better by his stage name, Mondo Cozmo, does well to revitalize the genre, in as much as it’s a genre to begin with; really, this is just music.  Really good music.

The opening track, “Black Cadillac”, could easily be a Rolling Stones cover (“I’m the son of a god tonight, I am/Stealing spoons from the Kennedy room”); “Kicks (Positively Montauk)” is a modern love song with fun lyrics (“I found religion (yeah)/Scratching lottery tickets/It was a pleasure just to meet ya”), and “Drown In Love” is a deeper listen (“Pullin out the mattress and finding your way in the dark/God loves forgiveness like I love falling apart”).

But the star of the show is a track that is a bit of an outlier, compared to the rest of the album: the funky, dancey “Upside Down”.  It’s unfortunate that this is track 2, as it will stay stuck in your head as you listen to the remainder of the album.  Most tracks are quite a bit more subdued; not slow or boring at all, thanks to the delightful songwriting, but definitely not terribly upbeat.

New Medicine doesn’t have the variability that as Mondo Cozmo’s debut, 2017’s Plastic Soul, had.  Nor will it likely enjoy the same level of success (with three tracks charting on the Billboard Adult Alternative Songs chart from that release)  Regardless, New Medicine is still well worth a spin.

FFO: The Hold Steady, Barns Courtney

Gone West – Canyons (Triple Tigers)

The concept of the “country group” is a tough bag.  It’s difficult to break out of the expected mold in the genre in and of itself; layer in two or three more artists, and you’re pretty much pigeonholed from the start.  One way to stave that off?  Pull in a poppy, beachy singer from Malibu.  Gone West was formed of husband-wife duo Nelly Joy (formerly with the JaneDear girls) and Jason Reeves, as well as fiancés Justin Young and the aforementioned Malibu singer, Colbie Caillat.  The resulting debut album, Canyons, is not revolutionary, but is much more solid and entertaining than the usual country group output.

All the usual hallmarks of a country song are here: banjo, steel guitar… dobro?  Is that dobro I hear?  But without the blah vocals, or the blah lyrics.  This album is more akin to pop with a country filter applied, as opposed to straight country (“Knew You” could have been the same exact song, only performed by MAGIC!, and I wouldn’t have batted an eyelash) and I think that it’s better for it.  There’s even a piano ballad, “I’m Never Getting Over You”, to continue setting Gone West apart from the field.  The band-titled track, “Gone West”, is fantastic as well.

The harmonies are stellar throughout, which is an area where many country groups fall flat.  The sound is bright, with the sum of the parts being much better than the individual vocalists.  The vocal balance is perfect between the artists – something especially difficult with both men and women in the group.  Colbie sounds great, as she always has, but so does the rest of the group.

Look: is Canyons Album of the Year material?  Nah.  It’s in that larger-but-still-small category of stuff that sounds great, but that you may forget about shortly after consuming.  If we’re equating music to food – which is something we should do far more often than we do – then this album is Chinese take-out.  And with that, it’s time to eat, both metaphorically and literally.

FFO: Lady Antebellum, Kacey Musgraves

Protest the Hero – Palimpsest (independent)

From Wikipedia: “In textual studies, a palimpsest is a manuscript page, either from a scroll or a book, from which the text has been scraped or washed off so that the page can be reused for another document. […] In colloquial usage, the term palimpsest is also used in architecture, archaeology, and geomorphology to denote an object made or worked upon for one purpose and later reused for another, for example a monumental brass the reverse blank side of which has been re-engraved.”

From Wikipedia: “A monumental brass is a type of engraved sepulchral…” – okay yeah, this could go on for a while, let’s talk about music instead.

Canadian outfit Protest the Hero has been at it since their first EP, Search for the Truth, dropped in 2002.  Since then, they’ve put out four studio albums, with Palimpsest marking #5.  Interestingly, their previous album, Volition, was entirely funded on Indiegogo – to the tune of $341,000.  Not too bad for not being beholden to a label.

Musically, Palimpsest is a lovely metalcore experience, with mathcore elements littered in to good effect.  The lead singer, Rody Walker, has a nearly falsetto vocal range, which evoked images of Claudio Sanchez from Coheed and Cambria, or to go back a bit farther, Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden.  The drums are plentiful, and the guitar is driving, with very few chords to speak of.  Which is all well and good, because there’s no time for chords with the tempo that these tracks deliver.

“The Fireside” is my favorite track on the album, mainly because it showcases each component of the band so well, perhaps better than any other track.  The closing track, “Rivet”, is one of the more melodic tracks, and is also great.  There’s a random trio of piano pieces with orchestral accents: “Harborside”, “Mountainside” and “Hillside” don’t really fit at all with the rest of the album, but they sounded pretty.

Overall, Protest the Hero delivered in a big way with Palimpsest.  It will make an excellent playlist addition, and if their previous albums are of the same caliber, then I would give them the same high marks.

FFO: Coheed and Cambria, Wolfmother, At The Drive-In

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