Travis – 10 Songs (BMG)
As most bands that have been around for several decades, Scotland’s Travis’s has changed their sound quite a bit over the years. Or, to put it more appropriately, they have added to their various sounds. From their debut album, Good Feeling, to this release, 10 Songs, you can hear additional layers along the way. You’ll remember Travis from their big singles, “Why Does It Always Rain On Me?” and “Sing”, but they have far more wrinkles than that – both literally and figuratively. If 10 Songs marked their final album, it would be a fitting culmination of all that they have learned and tried throughout the years.
You have noisy 90s-esque track “Valentine”, early-00’s piano rock tracks “A Million Hearts” and “No Love Lost”, and late-00’s indie jams “A Ghost” and “Kissing in the Wind”. It’s a pretty wide swath to cut through an album, but it works – thanks to an undeniable chemistry. Travis’s composition has remained unchanged since 1996, and it shows.
The four-piece has an effortless sound. They shine vocally, with Fran Healy leading the charge. The harmonies are few and far between, but perfect every time. As far as specific tracks, I was very fond of “A Ghost”, a track about seeing the spirit of what you once were, and how to get back to that. The ending track, “No Love Lost”, speaks on feeling like shit, but still getting after it nonetheless. Both songs – as well as several others – touch on that concept, getting through life even when life throws up roadblocks. In that way, it’s a very inspirational listen. And 10 Songs is a very, very good listen to boot.
10 Songs is the perfect pandemic record, which is amazing considering that most of it was written before the pandemic. Travis has proven that they can still strike a perfect chord with their music, some 23 years and change after their debut. Well done, Travis.
FFO: Coldplay, Keane, The Fray, Semisonic
SKÁLD – Vikings Memories (Decca France)
If I were to try and summarize this majestic outfit in one word, it would have to be, well, Nordic. But the next word would be hypnotic.
The brainchild of French composer and producer, Christophe Voisin-Boisvinet (no clue how that’s pronounced) is a tribute to the Old North and the spirit of adventure and poetry engendered therein. The use of ancient traditional instruments like shamanic drums, talharpa (tail-harp), jouhikko (tail-harp, but played with a bow), and more obscure things that I can’t pronounce brings the mythology of Norse culture to life. The sky and the water are themes throughout the record. At least musically.
Lyrically, I couldn’t tell you anything about it because it is one-hundred percent in Old Norse. Which is a beautifully ornate, but nearly impossible language. Singers Justine Galmiche and Pierrick Valence emphasize the astonishing depth of sound that come from the back of the tongue.
I can’t even tell you which songs to check out first, because the characters don’t exist on my pathetic modern American keyboard/word processor.
If the group had been put together a few years sooner, they would have been a perfect fit for the Game of Thrones soundtrack. Forget what was used (Ramin Djawadi), this is better.
FFO: ships with dragon figureheads, beards, chants, rolling r’s
Smith & Myers – Smith & Myers, volume 1 (Atlantic)
I’ve long thought that Brent Smith had a voice that was more suited to bold pop music than it was to the louder radio rock that Shinedown is pumping out. And having spent tour and stage time with his multi-talented, long-time friend and the other half of this duo, Zach Myers, I can personally vouch for his character and ability. They showed that in 2014’s Acoustic Sessions.
But even with that history, I wasn’t quite prepared for what Volume 1 delivers. The release contains five new original tracks as well as five cover tracks that range from bizarrely fun to uncomfortably poignant, to just sort of…uncomfortable.
Let’s start there. The closing track is a cover of “Unchained Melody” that sounds so close to the Righteous Brothers version it feels wrong. Does that make it a bad cover? In my mind, kind of. They sound fine, but this talented pair becomes completely dissolved into what is inarguably the most popular rendition of one of the most covered songs of the last 65 years.
…and there’s Swayze [mental image]. Right on cue.
With that out of the way, we can talk about the good stuff.
The record opens with a one-two punch. “NOT MAD ENOUGH” is an original tune that espouses disgust with the inaction and lack of justice for the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a grossly overzealous police officer. That is immediately followed by “Rockin’ In the Free World” by Neil Young, a song whose lyrics rally against the social ignorance of the Reagan and H.W. Bush presidencies. Thirty years later, those lyrics are intolerably accurate. Still.
Thankfully, the remainder of the songs lighten the mood a bit. The other four originals display the versatility of the performers. Especially, “PANIC!”, which could be pitted against any modern pop-rock and hold its ground, if not blow it away. The other covers are a bit left field for members of a modern rock powerhouse act. Mark Ronson’s “Valerie” is serviceable, but easily the weakest track on the record. Their reimaginings of both “Better Now”, by Post Malone, and “Never Tear Us Apart”, by INXS, mark true highlights of 2020. They may not be the best covers of all time, or even make that list, but they are sure to bring a smile to your face.
FFO: Shinedown, Candlebox, The Righteous Brothers
Laraaji – Moon Piano (All Saints Records)
I’m not shouting out long-time multi-instrument master Laraaji because of how good his 54th release Moon Piano is. But with that said, let’s get two things clear before we continue:
1) That’s not a typo; according to Wikipedia, Laraaji has put out 54 releases since 1978, including Moon Piano. That’s a clip of well over a release per year, for 42 years. If I do something for 42 days in a row, I feel like I should get knighted. Incredible.
2) Even though I’m not pointing it out because of how good it is, that’s not to say that it’s not good. Because it is VERY good. For those who truly love and appreciate the nuances of music, I feel that his expertise shines through. For simps like me who just like when the people hit those shiny keys durrrr, it sounds phenomenal.
Besides all that, though, I’m giving this album love because it’s an entire piano album, in 2020. This sort of release has truly never had an era, but especially not when the roost is firmly ruled by pop, indie and rap – with a side dish of country. And yet, Laraaji will not be deterred.
Sound-wise, Moon Piano is heavenly. Like literally, if Heaven is above us, I expect (read: hope) that it sounds like this. Laraaji does a great job of mixing things up, which is hard to do on any single-instrument release. “Bathed In a Glow” is my favorite track, as well as one of the most balanced. “Feeling Lovely” is also, appropriately, lovely. The pacing varies throughout the album, but the instrument stays status quo… this is all piano, all the time.
If you’re down with the single instrument, then Moon Piano is your huckleberry. If you prefer more instruments in your life, make sure to check out Laraavi’s 2017 release, Bring On the Sun, as well. And after knocking those two out, go ahead and clear out your schedule for the next few weeks to cover the other 52 tracks.
FFO: Yiruma (for Moon Piano), Brian and Roger Eno (for Bring On the Sun); leave a comment to let us know about the FFO’s for the other 52 releases
Alexander Zonjic – Playing It Forward (Hi-Falutin’ Music)
According to FluteToday.com, “a ‘musician who plays the flute’ can be referred to as a flute player, flautist, flutist, fluter, or flutenist”. That’s a lot of terms, so I will be sticking with the silliest-sounding one: flutenist. (I would’ve bet money that a “flutenist” was someone who studied infectious disease, and I would’ve owed someone money as a result.)
Playing It Forward is a jazz album, and Alexander Zonjic is a jazz flutenist. And that’s all fine! It’s fine. The album sounds good-ish! “Hipster” especially is a highlight.
The problem is that it lacks – and this is gonna sound incredibly douchey, but bear with me – but it lacks character. Playing It Forward is Bachelor Chow before they added flavor to it. It’s a nice sound, and the flutenizing is on-point – as is the rest of the band. But it sounds like the motions were gone through, instead of creating something unique and beautiful.
In fact, this is the type of jazz that plays in the background while you’re on your cable or satellite guide channel, when you’re trying to figure out whether reruns of Supermarket Sweep or Ancient Aliens will suit your fancy on this particular day, or – if you want to hear more of the same – the “Local on the 8’s” Weather Channel forecast.
This is the type of jazz that plays when you walk into a nice lobby because you’re there for a job interview that you will bomb horribly, or because you had to take some sort of exam there for your actual butt-ass job, or because you got lost and needed directions. Let’s face it – no one writing or reading this belongs in that fancy of a lobby.
This is the type of jazz that plays when some young HR professional decides that the default hold music for their company’s phone line isn’t individual enough, and spends the next 31 hours figuring out how to program this in instead.
This is the type of jazz that plays at the performance venue, as you’re out getting your $20 beer or wine before seeing Rent or Avenue Q or whatever it is that people actually see at those places that no one actually wants to be at.
This is the type of jazz that would be considered “The Jeff Fisher of Jazz”.
I’ve got like 20 more, but I’ll spare you. Instead, go listen to Alexander Zonjic’s Playing It Forward, and celebrate bland mediocrity!
FFO: True Neutral, ennui, corn flakes
Emmy the Great – April / 月音 (Bella Union)
Born in Hong Kong. Moved to London at age 12 with her Chinese mother and her English father. Fiance left her while writing her second of four albums, due to a religious conversion from atheism to Christianity, going instead to serve as a missionary.
With so many rich life experiences, you would expect the music of singer-songwriter Emmy the Great to be just as rich on April / 月音. And you would be correct.
From the title track, “Mid-Autumn / 月音” (in Cantonese but who cares? It still sounds great), to the fantastic “Writer” and “Mary”, Emmy the Great presents a soothing folk-esque sound. I say “folk-esque” because there are definitely pop elements, but used to great effect.
For an artist that I wasn’t familiar with, Emmy the Great’s April / 月音 was an excellent listen. I’m looking forward to listening to that one again in the very near future.
FFO: Laura Veirs, Laura Marling, I guess Lauras in general