Early Favorites for AOTY (Plus a mini announcement)

I’ve come to a realization during this first part of 2019 regarding music: for the last several years I’ve been trying to take in as much quantity as possible, and maybe I’ve been missing out on digging in as deeply as I could into the highest quality of music available to me. Some of this, admittedly, is self-inflicted by the existence of Apple Music and the fact that paying for the account allows me to listen to pretty much anything I want without consequence. So Friday mornings throughout the last few years have included swiping through the New Music lists, picking out potential new listens based on genre, record labels or simply based on the album cover. Not exactly scientific, and the result of which left me with a mixed bag of discoveries. Sometimes I would listen to an album once, sigh a little “well, that was an album,” and move on; other times I wouldn’t even make it all the way through, but it always ended up in an adventure. And, from time to time, I’d listen to something that I didn’t know about before hand, hadn’t been anticipating or pining over for months, but ended up enjoying and returning to throughout the year.

But here’s the thing: the new stuff didn’t get the benefit of the doubt that a known artist would. So if, say, the new album from a band I’ve been following for years didn’t quite hit the first time, I was more likely to give it several more listens before bowing out and deciding it wasn’t working for me. Bands or artists I didn’t know previously didn’t get that same opportunity, at least not most of the time, and so were left either getting deleted from my library or sitting there, lost amongst more listened to albums. Sure, it didn’t cost me anything, other than time, to try to see if the records would prove to connect with me, but it also feels like a crapshoot I don’t really want to invest that time in.

All this lead up is to say that I’m trying to do this less for 2019, and likely moving forward. This isn’t to say that I won’t sift through the new music lists each week, it just means I’m a little more reluctant to give up the time to listen to something I’m not familiar with at this point than just to give that time to listen to an album I’m really loving for the 10th, 15th, 20th time. I think I’ve just grown disappointed with the depth of knowing I’ve had with my favorite records over the last few years. I can still sing all the lyrics to my favorite albums from my college years, and I don’t feel connected to some of my recent favorites at the same level. This, to me, is an unfortunate shame; so I’m willing to sacrifice the possibility of fewer new musical discoveries to really dig into and connect with more music this year and beyond.

With that in mind, 2019 thus far has been focused on three albums more than most: Pedro the Lion’s Phoenix, Copeland’s Blushing and American Football’s American Football (LP3). Yes, there have been other albums that have come out this year that I’ve enjoyed and will likely revisit throughout the year (Switchfoot’s Native Tongue, Swervedriver’s Future Ruins and Alameda’s Time Hasn’t Changed You are all quality in their own way), but these three records, those top three, have just plastered themselves in my brain. Whenever I find myself needing something to listen to, one of the songs from one of these albums pops into my head on cue. To me, that’s the mark of a great record, but it’s also what I’m looking for. I want those songs burning in my ears, I want the lyrics bounding around in my head, to feel like they’ve become a little part of me. It’s true that all of these albums came from bands I’ve followed for a long time, and it’s actually interesting that each shares the similar story of being a band that disappeared for a while (or in the case of PtL and American Football, a long while), only to come back and restart the band in earnest years later (although, in fairness, that last statement isn’t necessarily true of Pedro yet, while both Copeland and American Football are on the second post-return records). Maybe there’s something to that, or maybe it’s a coincidence, but here’s what I know for sure: they all made excellent albums that came out in the first few months of 2019.

I’m not saying that my new method is going to be a foolproof way to avoid listening to bad music (have you heard Weezer’s Black Album?) or that my longtime connection to a band will make certain a connection will be generated with more of the music I consume each year, but I do know that focusing on the quality over quantity will grant me fewer (or more, depending which side you mean) opportunities on either side. And since this is the point, that will count as a win for me. I’m looking forward to seeing how well these albums hold up, not just throughout the year, but in years to come as well.

**^**

A side note that is mostly unrelated to the above information. I’ve decided to get back into podcasting. It’s been a few years since my buddy Ryan and I stopped doing episodes of our Brew With A View Podcast, mostly because it took a lot of time and required a great deal of effort to make it happen, but recently I’ve been searching for more ways to express my creativity. The blog is good, and I’ve got more writing projects in the pipeline and continue to consider ways to write and record more music, but this podcast idea just sort of flowed out of me once I really dug into it, so I figured I owe it to myself to try it out. The plan is release episodes twice a week, with varied topics of interest each month, since I couldn’t decide on one idea that piqued my interest more than any other. So look for the appropriately named (according to my wife) Things That Matter (To Me) podcast in the coming weeks. Who knows, I may enlist the help of you, person who is reading this blog right now. Be ever ready.

Weekend of Music

Every so often–not nearly as often as I used to, and in some cases not as often as I’d like–I still get the chance to see live music. When I was younger and only responsible for myself, I’d go probably once a month, more during the busier periods of the summer, but for various reasons, I’ve not seen as much in recent years as I did. In some ways this is okay. It’s an expensive night out, and to be honest there are times when it just doesn’t seem worth it anymore. So there has to be some combination of the right bands, a good night, great location or something along those lines to really pique my interest. This past weekend, however, I found myself attending not one, but two shows, and it was one of the better weekends I’ve had in a while.

On Saturday night, my wife, my dad and I drove to Atlanta to see Switchfoot, Colony House and Tyson Motsenbocker at the Tabernacle. Since I moved to the Charlotte area, I’ve driven to Atlanta maybe a half a dozen or so times to see shows, the most recent being when my wife and I went to see The Classic Crime on a rare trip to the East Coast a few years back. This latest trip was a Christmas present, and along with concert tickets, my wife secured the three of us access to The Room, a VIP lounge located on one of the Tabernacle’s five levels, complete with catered hors d’oeuvre, our own bar and a private restroom, a cool perk to what was a great show at an excellent venue.

Mostenbocker opened the show with a few solo acoustic numbers. I’ve now seen him three times in the last six months, and while he’s never played for very long, he’s always earnest and entertaining. More importantly, his sets always seem to have a sense of purpose and theme to them, something I appreciate a great deal. I will say that I am bummed that he ignores his fantastic debut LP, Letters to Lost Loves, but I also understand that he might be ready to move on from those songs by now.

He was followed by Colony House, who are probably one of my favorite working bands at the moment. I’ve seen them several times over the last few years, and their debut record, 2014’s When I Was Younger, is one of my favorite albums of all time. They also kill it live, and they’ve continued to build their skills as cohesive rock band over the last several years. There’s a feeling that exudes from a band that has it that together on stage, and Colony House, led by frontman Caleb Chapman and his drummer/brother Will (along with guitarist Scott Mills and bassist Parke Cottrell) have it in spades. Their music has energy and dynamics that is unlike many other bands around these days.

Switchfoot closed things out with a fairly expansive set. Like the others, I’ve seen them several times over the years, and even in those moments where I haven’t been following the band that closely or really been enthusiastic about their most recent album, I have to say I’ve never been disappointed in the quality of their live show. Sure, there are always songs I wished they’d played or entire albums they might have ignored, but when you’re eleven albums in, that’s bound to happen; but the band always gives it their all, and I respect that. While there was some emphasis on their latest record, Native Tongue, for the most part they managed to cover most of their more recent albums going back to their breakthrough, The Beautiful Letdown, which features hits “Meant to Live” and “Dare You To Me.” But as was the case with the artists before them, the most exciting thing about the show was that you could feel that the band felt there was a bigger purpose to their being there; and that while playing a great show as important, creating a sense of unity amongst the people there, doing good for the world and spreading a message of the power of love matter most. So for all the bombast of the night, I walked away feeling that good was done in that place.

Tyson Motsenbocker
Almira
Something in the Way
Kickball (I’m guessing, I couldn’t find this song anywhere, so maybe it’s unreleased)
Dreamers
Colony House
You & I
Silhouettes
Was It Me?
Learning How to Love
2:20
Lonely
Caught Me By Surprise
Moving Forward
Waiting for My Time to Come
Wipe Out
You Know It
Switchfoot 
Let It Happen
Meant To Live
Voices
Hello Hurricane
Love Alone is Worth the Fight
Live It Well
Won’t Let You Go
Take My Fire
If the House Burns Down Tonight
Learning to Breathe
Shadow Proves the Sunshine
All I Need
Float
Native Tongue
Where I Belong
Encore:
Needle & Haystack Life
Prodigal Soul into
Dare You to Move

On Sunday night I went with a friend of mine to see Copeland headline at the Visulite Theater in Charlotte. The show was originally supposed to take place at the newly revamped Amos’ Southend, but it seems like Amos’ wasn’t quite ready, so they had to move the show a few weeks before the date. I like the Visulite, it’s a smaller, intimate venue with plenty of different places for people who want to stand (as we did, right up next to the stage) or sit at tables or the bar. I waited outside for a little bit before the doors opened, a misty rain falling down, and waited for my friend to arrive with another friend of his whom I had yet to meet. Upon their arrival, she promptly made friends with the guy standing behind me in line (who was alone and had driven up from Greenville), setting up the rest of the night.

Many Rooms began the show with a female-fronted, serene, atmospheric alternative rock sound that leaned heavily into the melancholy and quiet. The singer told us she was used to playing shows alone, and while I liked their sound, it was pretty clear the band wasn’t something she was used to, as there were several pockets in the set where the drummer had nothing to do and, to be honest, seemed a little bored. She didn’t play a lot of songs, but she was honest and thoughtful, and I appreciated the songs. I would have probably bought a record if they’d had one, but sadly they were all out.

From Indian Lakes came on next, a band who I’ve listened to sporadically for a while now, and actually own several albums from, but I wouldn’t exactly call myself a big fan of theirs. They played a great set of energetic indie rock–the lead singer joked about how fun it was being the heaviest band on a tour for once–and I recognized several of the songs from listening to the records over the years. I tried to snap a shot of their set list from my vantage point, but just as I was about to, someone reached out and grabbed it, so I don’t have a full set list for them, but I’ve included what of theirs I can ascertain from what I can see.

Copeland finished the show, playing a nice mix of songs throughout their discography, touching each of their six albums at least once. The focus was split between their most recent albums, 2014’s Ixora and Blushing, which came out just a few days before the show. As they were playing newer songs, I was watching the bass player, who was situation right in front of us, who seemed to be reacting to many people knowing the words, and I wondered about how cool it would be to be on a tour just as a new album was coming out and watching in real-time how the fans were reacting to it. Based on his face, he seemed pleased.

All in all, the weekend of music was excellent, and while they were two very different types of shows, I appreciated the intense work that went into the making of each one, be it in creating the music in the first place or figuring out how to piece the whole thing together in a live setting. I usually walk away from good live shows with two thoughts in my head: 1) I miss playing for people and 2) I should go see more live music. But then I remember it has to be the right collection of great things, and I’m thankful for times like this weekend where it all comes together.

Many Rooms (in no particular order and missing a few)
Hollow Body
99 Proof
Danielle
From Indian Lakes
Happy Machines (?)
?
Dissonance (?)
Blank Tapes
Sleeping Limbs
Am I Alive?
Awful Things
Sunlight
Bed (?, missing a word)
?
Copeland
As Above, So Alone
I Can Make You Feel Young Again
Chin Up
Have I Always Loved You
Disjointed
Lay Here
Choose the One Who Loves You More
Safer On An Airplane
Not Allowed
Should You Return
Erase
Pope
Skywriter
Coffee
You Have My Attention

Recapping 2018

Goodness me, 2019 is here, and it feels like it came swiftly, hence the delay in getting some final thoughts together for the end of last year. The holidays went off mostly without a hitch, although my threshold for human interaction did hit me right in between Christmas and New Year’s, and there was a mild attempt on my part to disappear for a little while. I also learned why I shouldn’t consume too many Trenta, quad shot iced coffees in my life, as they can lead to my brain literally going haywire in the middle of a shopping trip to IKEA and causing a little bit of a nervous breakdown in the middle of the furniture bins. All in all, however, I’d say that I more than survived the holiday season of 2018 and smoothly transitioned into 2019, planting myself more or less unscathed back at work and ready to take on a new semester.

As I’ve mentioned here several times before, that move back into “normalcy” is a strange one in my house. Everyone just about starts to get used to not have to go anywhere everyday and that’s about the time the break is over and it’s time to go back to work. Add to that the fact that there are no breaks on the horizon for neither E nor myself (we both pretty much have school from here until Spring Break, which falls in between Palm Sunday and Easter this year, a cool 13 or so weeks away), and you’ve got a potential recipe for disaster. But I’m proud to say we’ve gotten back into the swing of things rather well, a bit of a first for us, and I’d like to think that feeling settled into the new house and it really beginning to feel familiar and like home is helping, or at least it is for me. There’s still work to be done, and I get this constant feeling that we always have something we could be doing, but overall, things are feeling content for the first time in a while.

I will say, however, that all the happenings of this year–and really of our life–don’t allow as much time for media consumption as I’d like, especially in terms of time to take in as many movies as I have in recent years. We watch the Golden Globes on Sunday, and I really didn’t have much to say about much of the field due to my not having seen as many of the nominees as I usually do. There just isn’t enough time in the day. I should figure out a way to get the studios to send me Academy screeners. That would help a bunch.

All that said, I’ve done a fair amount of listening to things (169 albums this year with at least one listen all the way through, and countless podcast episodes), as a good amount of time in the car coupled with lots of hours in my office has granted me the opportunity to take in a lot of good stuff. One thing I’ve not done nearly as much of this year is reading books, however–partially because I spend a lot of my work time reading student papers and other writing–so I think I want to make that a bigger priority this year, even if it means doing more of that over the summer. Anyway, as a means of recapping 2018, I’ll leave you with my top albums, movies, podcasts and some good things I read, and wrap it up with some things I hope to accomplish in 2019. Happy new year!

TOP 5 ALBUMS of 2018

  1. mewithoutYou – [Untitled]
  2. Dearest – Sonder
  3. Household – Everything A River Should Be
  4. Emery – Eve
  5. Foxing – Nearer My God

The rest, in no particular order:

Mae – Multisensory Aesthetic Experience

Thrice – Palms

Death Cab for Cutie – Thank You For Today

Wild Pink – Yolk in the Fur

Crowder – I Know A Ghost

Justin Hurwitz – First Man OST

Basement – Beside Myself

Author – lifoiic

Underoath – Erase Me

Cory Asbury – Reckless Love

Pianos Become the Teeth – Wait for Love

Weathered – Stranger Here

It Looks Sad. – Sky Lake

Biggest disappointments in music: Dashboard Confessional – Crooked Shadows; Arctic Monkeys – Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino; Saves the Day – 9

TOP 10 FILMS of 2018

Like I said, seeing new movies was harder this year than it has been. My total this year was less than 25, so narrowing this down wasn’t as difficult as it has been in recent years. I’ve also included my “need to see” list so you can see just how much this list could have changed.

  1. First Man
  2. A Quiet Place
  3. Mission: Impossible – Fallout
  4. Avengers: Infinity War
  5. A Star is Born
  6. Annihilation
  7. Incredibles 2
  8. Isle of Dogs
  9. Vice
  10. Black Panther

Definitely not the best picture of 2018 (drama, musical, comedy or otherwise): Bohemian Rhapsody

Other things I liked: Ocean’s 8, Ready Player One, Ant-Man and the Wasp and Venom

Disappointing or just plain no good: Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, Deadpool 2, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindlewald (Middle movie goes nowhere syndrome), and the aforementioned Bohemian Rhapsody

Everything else (or movies I saw because I live with a 4-year old): Peter Rabbit, The Grinch and Solo: A Star Wars Story (which I’m still unsure about, but think I like more than most)

Finally, a long list of movies I didn’t see but wanted to (and may still yet): Won’t You Be My Neighbor, Death of Stalin, You Were Never Really Here, Tully, Leave No Trace, Eighth Grade, Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot, Christopher Robin, BlacKkKlansman, First Reformed, Wildlife, Widows, Roma, The Favourite, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, The Mule, If Beale Street Could Talk, Mary Poppins Returns, Welcome to Marwen

TOP 5 PODCASTS of 2018

  1. Happy Rant Podcast
  2. Labeled: The Stories, Rumors and Legends of Tooth & Nail Records
  3. Niners Nation Better Rivals Podcast
  4. The Ringer NFL Show
  5. School of Science Radio

TOP THINGS I READ IN 2018

(Note: Obviously little of this was new in 2018, but it’s simply what I read this year)

  1. Feverland – Alex Lemon
  2. The Cubs Way: The Zen of Building the Best Team in Baseball and Breaking the Curse – Tom Verducci
  3. Basketball (And Other Things) – Shea Serrano
  4. Authority – Jeff Vandermeer
  5. Horrorstör – Grady Hendrix
  6. Acceptance – Jeff Vandermeer
  7. The Dark Tower series, books 1-4 – Stephen King

TOP THINGS I WANT TO ACCOMPLISH/DO MORE OF IN 2019

(Just don’t call them resolutions)

  1. Finish this pesky manuscript I’ve been working on for well over a year and a half now.
  2. Stick to my read the Bible in 365 days plan (I’m already 7 days behind because I thought of it too late!).
  3. Commit to a 3-day-a-week exercise plan and make better overall health choices.
  4. Having said that, ironically I want to brew at least one beer per quarter/season.
  5. Golf with some frequency (quarterly, at least, I’d say).
  6. Record some music, possible an entire new album.
  7. Write more on the blog, but also produce more material like more poems and maybe even some stories and essays.
  8. Remember it’s okay to make time to do things I love to do, and that doing those things doesn’t always mean I’m selfish or not giving my family what they need. So I can see more movies, go to shows and take time to accomplish these goals; in the end, this time can mean I’m taking care of myself, which can be better for everyone.

10 Year Recall: Copeland’s You Are My Sunshine

It’s been awhile since I delved into one of these, what with all the other things to write about, but as I was looking at my now-failed attempt at setting up a calendar for my writing for this year, this one jumped out at me. Maybe it was because the band in question–Copeland, of Lakeland, Florida–has recently popped back into the world with what appears to be a new album (teasing its fans with a random assortment of Instagram posts over the last few days). Or maybe it’s because the record stands out as one of the most intriguing albums I’ve ever heard and it feels right to revisit it more than others on my list.

Copeland is a bit of a strange entity. When I first discovered them, they were opening for Mae at The NorVa in Norfolk, VA, and lead singer Aaron Marsh looked like he’d rather be literally anywhere else, the level of his perceived introversion was so great. Still the band’s set was excellent, and I immediately sought out their debut record, Beneath Medicine Tree, which I probably purchased from my local Tower Records, because it was 2003, and this was a thing kids did back then. The album was guitar-driven rock with Marsh firmly displaying his heart on his sleeve on a record focused on his grandmother dying in the hospital and a relationship the singer was in at the time. For all its flaws, the album still has some standout tracks (“Testing the Strong Ones,” “There Cannot Be A Close Second” & “California” are the best), and drew attention to the band in the indie music scene of the time.

The band’s follow-up, 2005’s In Motion, leaned even more heavily into the rock sound, and even featured some tunes that felt like radio rock of the day, while maintaining Marsh’s signature lyricism and well-trained vocals. The band would never be considered a hard rock band, but their sophomore record is certainly their heaviest (although it also features some pretty significantly softer moments on tracks like piano-driven “Sleep” and  the moody “Kite”), even if that isn’t saying too much. Their third release started a 180 degree turn, as Eat, Sleep, Repeat is still very much a guitar album, but starts to see the band delving into new sounds, like xylophones, brass and more atmospheric sounds, along with time signatures that were a little non-traditional for bands in their genre. And by the time You Are My Sunshine came around in 2008, the movement away from traditional guitar rock had pretty much disappeared. This was a new version of the band, and is one of the reasons that the record stands out so much amongst their early catalog.

To be clear, there are guitars on Sunshine, but rather than being the focal point of the album’s sonic space, Marsh’s keyboard takes over as the primary instrument, with other keyboard sounds and more classical instruments like bassoon, oboe and clarinet joining a string section and more horns as staples of Copeland’s sound. There are even suggestions of electronics peppered throughout the record, something Marsh and Co would dive into even more for their next record, 2014’s Ixora. What results is a record almost entirely devoid of anything that sounds like anything from their first two records and only contains cursory connections to ESR which came before it. Sunshine is a tremendously quiet record that pushes Marsh more into his falsetto and other higher voice registers, as if the band needed you to know that this is art and these songs are difficult. Yet the songs are simple in structure, foregoing the more complicated elements of songs on the previous record, and giving into the truth that a simpler structure allowed the band to be more experimental with the instrumentation. This is a daring choice, and one that mostly works, even if there are times where the album can sometimes feel like it becomes part of your surroundings rather than standing out. It’s beautiful and never boring, in spite of how much it maintains its overall feel and mood.

For all its loveliness, Sunshine is not a perfect album. The inclusion of early-Copeland retread “Chin Up” is odd here, mostly because it doesn’t quite sound like the rest of the record, although the band does their best to not make it seem too far out of left field (partially by placing it early enough in the track listing, and deftly in between songs that really commit to the new sonic space). And as I said, there are times where the album doesn’t require much of you as a listener, as it is possible to not be an active listener for this one, which can, likely on purpose, sound dreamy and spacey throughout its run time. It should be noted, however, that really digging into what the album is doing is well worth it, as active, engaged listening is essential for really understanding this record.

It should also be noted that the packing for the CD version of this album is one of the last great CD’s I remember owning. The special edition that I owned back in 2008 came in a simple almost khaki colored box, labeled very elegantly:

Image result for copeland you are my sunshine special edition cd

Inside the CD was sleeved individually, along with a making-of DVD and an additional DVD with “music videos,” mostly made up of abstract visuals mostly befitting the tone of the record. While the quality or necessity of these extras might be in question, the care taken into creating something that people wanted to own in an age where digital ownership was beginning to take over music sales. Such was the beauty of the CD, I almost held onto it when I unloaded all my CDs a few years ago. Now I own it and the rest of the band’s discography on vinyl, and of all the earlier albums, this one sounds the best on that format. Among all things to say about this album, the care that clearly went into it stands out the most, no matter how you hear it.

The Great Catching Up

At the beginning of the year, I set up a calendar to help keep me on track with my writing throughout the entirety of 2018. For the first few months, this worked really well. I was able to effectively balance all my responsibilities–marriage, fatherhood, work, church–while maintaining a weekly balance of blogging, working on my book and songwriting, along with a little bit of other bits and pieces along the way. I didn’t always follow my ideas completely, but up through April, I was doing reasonably well.

Then came May.

As a college educator, the early part of May is tricky. Most of my final papers for my classes are due within the first 4-6 days of May, and grades are usually due within the week or so after that point, thereby making it difficult to keep up with extracurricular activities outside of grading and wrapping up the semester. The week after that is usually about decompression, hence why even now, I’m only just now getting back to focusing on following the calendar. The summer hopefully shouldn’t be too busy, but my plan is to continue working as best I can to stay on top of things here. We shall see.

So today I’m offering condensed versions of my two planned early-May posts, both new additions to my now-regular 10 Year Recall series. The first is Death Cab For Cutie’s Narrow Stairs, which was released on my birthday ten years ago.

Image result for narrow stairs

My twenty-fourth birthday fell on a Tuesday, which meant that the main thing I was looking forward to that year was to hope for the release of an album I’d like. On the whole it was pretty disappointing, with a new album from Jason Mraz (We Sing, We Dance, We Steal Things), along with new albums from 10 Years, Filter, Finger 11 and Whitesnake, among others, but the highlight for me was definitely Death Cab’s sixth full length album. I’d liked Plans, the band’s major label debut and 2005 follow-up to their massive indie hit Transatlanticism, but it hadn’t hit home for me the same way that the latter album had, so I was looking forward to what Narrow Stairs would have to offer. This was only heightened by the appearance of the album’s first single, the 8-minute, meandering slow burner “I Will Possess Your Heart,” which the band released in its entirety to radio two months prior to the album’s drop date. This was certainly very different from what I’d expected, and so I was looking forward to seeing what the rest of the album held.

The album’s opening track, “Bixby Canyon Bridge,” also serves as a bit of a thesis statement for the record, as the song tells the story of Ben Gibbard’s pilgrimage to Big Sur, the supposed site of Jack Kerouac’s release from his alcoholism and other demons. Gibbard, at least in the song, seems to not have found what he was looking for, and the rest of the record hones in on that feeling of loss and loneliness. In fact, Stairs features some of Gibbard’s saddest lyrical content, which is saying a great deal given some of the songs of Death Cab’s past.

There just really isn’t much hope here, but it doesn’t take away from the musicianship and, surprisingly, the enjoyment of the record. Other than the lead single, the songs are fairly jovial sounding, with a lot of Gibbard’s pop sensibilities shining through at various points on the record. It’s a strange and sometimes unsettling contrast, and it’s a testament to the talent of the songwriters that they manage to make it work at all.

It isn’t a perfect record, though, as tunes like “Cath…” and “Talking Bird” always feel like a bit of a drag to me, and don’t fit next to each other, especially so early in the album (strange, too, that the two songs in together are shorter than “I Will Possess Your Heart” and yet the latter feels like it has more urgency than the other two songs). Of two of the album’s best songs, “Grapevine Fires” and “Long Division,” only the former was a single, and the final one at that, even though they arguably encapsulate the lyrical threads and overall sonic feel of the album. And lastly, even though I like “I Will Possess Your Heart” a great deal, it could definitely have been trimmed a little and not lost any of the main feel and message of the song.

Overall, Narrow Stairs is one of the stronger album in Death Cab’s catalog, and is an album that has aged pretty well over the last decade.

With Arrows With Poise.jpg

The second album is the sophomore release from indie rockers The Myriad called With Arrows, With Poise, which was also released on May 13, 2008 (what a great year for my birthday!). Sonically this is one of my favorite albums of all time. It possesses a stirring sense of urgency from track one (“You Waste Time Like A Grandfather Clock”) to track 12 (“Stuck in a Glass Elevator”), as it appears to tell the story of some sort of post-apocalyptic society fleeing for its life from a great threat (possibly, as the cover alludes to, some sort of dragon-like creature).

The album itself sounds huge, with layer upon layer of guitars and, most especially, drums, feeding into the vastness both of the sonic space and the driving urgency of the record’s story. The signature of the band’s sound, however, was certainly the unique vocal stylings of frontman Jeremy Edwardson, whose tenor soars above all of the record’s various layers of sound. The band actually gained a good deal of notoriety with their single “A Clean Shot,” with a video featured on MTV2 and the band having won the 2007 “MTV2 Dew Circuit Breakout” award for the song, which was on a 5-track preview EP for With Arrows called “Prelude to Arrows” in late 2007. That song is a thumping example of the rest of the album’s giant sonic choices, making it a great choice for a first single.

The only thing I don’t like about this record is how overlooked it was. In spite of the MTV2 award, the album never really took off, and that, along with the tragic loss of drummer Randy Miller in late 2010, saw that the band never really took off to the heights they might have. Unfortunately it also meant that we never got a third album from The Myriad, and likely means the record will never be pressed to vinyl, a very sad thing indeed, as this album would sound spectacular on the format.

 

Okay, so now we’re all caught up for the early weeks of May. I’ll try to do better next time. Thanks for sticking with me.

Underoath’s “Erase Me” & Shifting of Life

My first interaction with Underoath was in college, and they terrified me a little bit. Why is that guy screaming? I can’t understand a word he’s saying! Fortunately, this initial listen was via the band’s 2004 album They’re Only Chasing Safety, a relatively pop-centric screamo album, featuring a lot of singing from drummer/clean vocalist Aaron Gillespie, although the bulk of the vocals came via Spencer Chamberlain’s guttural growls and piercing high screams. Over time, I came to appreciate the energy of the songs, the passion of the vocals–both sung and screamed–and the overall sensibilities of the music. The album rocked and popped at the same time, but the heaviness of the sound covered up the shifty ease of the song structures.

In the albums that followed–2006’s Define the Great Line and 2008’s Lost in the Sound of Separation–the pop sensibilities of the band’s third record faded more and more, as the sound got both heavier and more sprawling, taking major steps away from verses and choruses in favor of more classical structures, parts and sections, movements and motifs. Some time after Separation, Gillespie left the band, but they added a new drummer, with whom they recorded 2010’s  Ø (Disambiguation), the moodiest record in the band’s album since their early black metal days before Safety.

And then they disappeared, playing a short set of farewell tours in late 2012, and played their final show in January 2013. Two years later, they released a documentary about the tour–Tired Violence–that showed a band ending under not quite the best of circumstances, as some members, namely Spencer, wanted to continue, while others wanted to get off the road and spend more time with their families and take opportunities to do other things. Later that year, the unthinkable happened: the band announced a reunion tour, which would feature the playing of both Safety and Great Line in their entirety, a special vinyl release for both records and, perhaps most importantly, the return of Gillespie and the rest of the band who created those records. The announcement was a strange and unexpected occurrence, especially considering the depth of the relationship severing that felt apparent on Tired Violence, and yet there it was.

I went to see the Rebirth Tour at Amos’ Southend in Charlotte, and it was a wild, energetic show, albeit one I watched from the back because the mosh pit frightened me a little bit. I also assumed that was it. But as has often been the case with Underoath, I was wrong about that, too.

Earlier this year, the band suddenly dropped a video for a song called “On My Teeth,” and subsequently shared even bigger news: the band was really back now and was releasing Erase Me, its first album in nearly eight years, in April. Obviously when a band of its size goes away for a long time and then comes back, a lot of questions are asked: Is this a cash grab? What made them go away in the first place? What will new music sound like? Initial responses to “On My Teeth” were interesting, but the opinions of the general public aren’t really of major concern to me at this moment; instead, I’ll say that I was okay with the song at first, but was especially less enthusiastic about the single that followed, the very radio-friendly track “Rapture.” Still I tried to hold off full judgment until the album came out.

April 6 came during Spring Break, so E and I were in Charleston with her family, but on the Saturday morning that followed I found myself mostly alone in the big house we were all sharing. After watching Everton play rivals Liverpool to a 0-0 draw, I decided to get some writing done and throw on Erase Me for the first time. The record kicks off effectively, with “It Has to Start Somewhere” feeling a lot like pretty classic Underoath, especially the They’re Only Chasing Safety era of the band. The two singles–“Rapture” and then “On My Teeth”–followed, and the former continued to leave me at a loss, while the latter felt pretty comfortably mid-career Underoath to me. Then comes the middle of the record–roughly “Wake Me” to “ihateit”–where the radio friendliness, at least a first listen, began to make me feel uneasy. This was not the band that had left in 2010, it wasn’t even the band that released a giant album in 2004, although it did feel like some sort of strange hybrid of most of the band’s history, save for one thing: there were several songs without any screaming at all.

The record ends with a little more traditional Underoath turns, but closes with the moody, piano-led “I Gave Up,” which matches the melancholy and the pace of a song like “Some Will Seek Forgiveness, Others Escape,” although unlike the closer for Safety, the final punch of Erase Me sticks with its softness, ending the album on a dour note. My issue was that upon first listen, I didn’t feel the urge to listen again; I just felt disappointed.

Look, I know what a lot of you are thinking: bands are allowed to change, and should actually be encouraged to do so. And yes, I agree with this. But even for people like myself who consider themselves pretty advanced listeners, sometimes it’s true that emotions take over higher level thinking. The weirdest part about this particular instance is that there isn’t a singular sound I wanted from Underoath, because I like the string of Safety to Separation all a great deal, but for very different reasons ( Ø (Disambiguation) never did much for me, although in going back to it recently, I admit it’s got its charms). I don’t exactly what I expected of the band in 2018, but initially I knew that Erase Me wasn’t it.

A week or so after the release, I finally went back to the album, and soon the ear worms began to dig in. There was something undeniably catchy about songs like “Rapture,” “Bloodlust” and even the silly-titled “ihateit,” and as I began to take in more information about the record itself–like Matt Carter’s podcast with guitarist Tim McTague on the making of the record, or Spencer’s appearance on the Lead Singer Syndrome podcast–I felt compelled to go back to the record, to give it more than the chance my first listen suggested I should.

For various reasons, I don’t think I’ll ever get to a place where Erase Me rises above my three favorite Underoath records–there are just too many outside factors that are part of the reason I connect with those three so much and they’ve been part of my life for so long, I can’t imagine this new album having that much power–but I am willing to acknowledge that my first impression wasn’t completely accurate. It’s a good album, even if it’s not a spectacular one to my mind, full of interesting sonic choices and featuring a band that finally seems to be on the same page, as weird as that is to say this many albums in. The songs that sound more like alternative rock tunes are catchy, but still feel genuinely Underoath in a lot of ways, and are certainly better than most of what rock radio has to offer these days.

The point of all this is similar to something I considered after the release of the second Colony House album: music as art is tough, in part because of expectations of fans, but also because it’s one of the few mediums where the fan matters almost as much as the artist does. Maybe that means that Erase Me remains a mid-tier Underoath record in my mind, or maybe over the years I learn to love it more for whatever reason. Either way, my ability to grow with artists and to continue to let them do what they think is best is always going to be better.

10 Year Recall: Thrice’s “The Alchemy Index”

For this particular edition of 10 Year Recall, things get a little tricky. Technically, I’m looking back at half of a release, the other half of which came out a few months earlier, in the waning days of 2007. Thrice’s The Alchemy Index, no matter how you break it up, is a daring piece of work. Coming off the heels of their critically acclaimed record Vhiessu–which also happens to be the first Thrice album I ever cared about–the band decided to try something unorthodox: they recorded four EPs in different styles, each connected to the classical elements of life–fire, water, air and earth. Volumes 1 & 2 were Fire and Water, with the former sounding more like the Vhiessu, with its guttural vocals and chugging guitars, while the latter delved into more electronic sonic choices and softer arrangements, with some pieces of atmospheric samples, making the EP sound like it was being listened to under water. In many ways, these two parts didn’t deviate too much from Thrice’s sound, and it was especially smart to have the 4-part concept album kick-off with the part that most fans would most easily connect with.

But April 2008 brought on volumes 3 & 4 of the set–Air and Earth–which pushed the band in two very new directions. If Water was a slight departure, Air takes the ideas presented on Volume 2 and makes them sound even lighter and more, if you will, airy, although the band chose not to take things too far into that concept. So while a song like “Broken Lungs” might indulge that concept quite a bit, “Daedalus” is something in between the heavier side of Thrice and this new, exploring side. Still, the EP again doesn’t stray too far from what came before it, both in terms of the this record and previous Thrice albums. Part of this must have to do with the major turn that the Earth portion of the record is.

Thrice’s interpretation of earth is a raw, wooden sound, driven by more acoustic instruments and a more rustic vocal delivery from frontman Dustin Kensrue. The songs feel like they meander more than other Thrice tunes, but a cursory glance at the timestamps for the songs suggests that the EP is just as time efficient as the others in The Alchemy Index. It also works as the closer for the entire unit when listened to chronologically. While Fire is loud and often overwhelming, each consequent elemental group moves logically toward the conclusion of the album; furthermore, the way in which the volumes were set up also balance out the set, as well as prepare the listener for what’s to come. The fury of Volume 1 doesn’t completely dissipate for Volume 2, but it does lessen, and the electronic elements don’t go away for Volume 3, but they aren’t as prevalent, giving way to more organic sounds, a foreshadowing of Volume 4’s sonic space. All in all, the collection is a well-considered, lovely example of what a band can do when it allows itself to stretch and try new things.

Part of that is due to the make up of the band itself. Kensrue’s vocals can range from heavy screams to soft falsetto, making him the ideal singer for ever-changing stylistic choices. Lead guitarist Teppei Teranishi is not just a guitar player, but a multi-instrumentalist, capable of playing various keyboard instruments, glockenspiel, as well as saxophone and clarinet. The rhythm section, made up of brothers Eddie (bass) and Riley (drums) Breckenridge is wildly versatile, too, making the constant rhythmic, stylistic and time alterations much more attainable. And the band works well within itself, too, never attempting to stray too far from what it does well, even if that list of skills is longer than most. They may still be a rock band at their essence, but the various talents amongst the four members of the band allow them to be experimental with that sound, and The Alchemy Index, for any flaws it may have, is the beginning of the band giving itself permission to try new things.

And flaws do exist. The formatting works on a lot of levels, but the record ends up being quite long if you’re listening from the beginning of Volume 1 to the end of Volume 4, and the stylistic moves can sometimes feel too jumpy. There wouldn’t have been a better way to include all of the elements, however, as making one, shorter record with all these styles would have felt really disjointed and disconnected. Fire, while being the EP nearest to the band’s “normal” sound, is honestly a little too overdone; it tries too hard to be a fan favorite, but none of it is as good as the best parts of Vhiessu, so it suffers a little because of that. The other volumes are more interesting in that regard, as Thrice doesn’t look to use some of the tricks it learned on earlier records. Otherwise, it’s not hard to see that this is an important work for the band, as it gave them the opportunity to branch out and express themselves outside of what was expected of them.

Last thought on this one: the band re-released the album on vinyl to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the entire collection (the vinyl came out in early 2018, bridging the space between the two release dates), and it sounds really great, especially the Air and Earth volumes, which are perfectly mastered for the format. The 10-inch vinyl format is a little obnoxious (2-3 songs, then flip, 2-3 more songs, change discs), but the packaging is gorgeous and feels like my first real collectors item record purchase. This isn’t my favorite Thrice record, but I appreciate it the more I dig into it, and the growth they allowed themselves to make on it certainly makes the entire project worthwhile.

thrice1_original

 

Best Albums of the Year…So far

I’ll admit to be a little behind on my music listening this year, at least in terms of really latching onto multiple albums released so far in 2018. My running tally of albums listened to sits at 36, which isn’t bad for 2 1/2 months into the year, but quantity isn’t the issue so much as quality.

Part of that is due to not really having any albums released by bands I already count amongst my favorites, a problem that seems like it will continue as the years go by. Let’s face it, most of my favorite bands aren’t fully operational anymore, if they are at all, which means most of my musical consumption is new bands and artists, presenting me with a bit of a learning curve. First, I have to figure out what makes the band/artist tick, then, if I feel like continuing to figure the record out, I circle back to it, now having an understanding of what I’m getting into. I’ll be honest, fewer and fewer records are making it past the initial stage.

On top of that, bands I’m familiar with aren’t exactly delivering. Fall Out Boy, seminal artist of my early twenties, has fallen off to the point where I don’t care anymore. Their new album, MANIA, came out in mid-January and was the third record I listened to this year; it’s a substantial mess, as they seem to have given into every pop impulse they can, completely allowing their rock sensibilities to fall by the wayside (ironic for a band that wanted to save the latter genre just five years ago). I was underwhelmed by the new Tiny Moving Parts record, Swell, released the week after FOB’s album, mostly because it doesn’t seem like they’ve tried very hard to challenge themselves in the not-even-two-years since the band’s previous album came out. Dashboard Confessional’s first album in nine years is made up of one song for each year they were gone, and features almost no attempts to recreate the band’s sound; instead, it occupies the sonic spaces of other Dashboard albums, where each song could exist on another record in their discography without issue. That’s great for some sort of retrospective album, not so much if you’re trying to create something new almost a decade after your last attempt to do so.

I could go on listing albums that did nothing for me for various reasons, but the negativity isn’t the reason for this particular blog. Instead, I’m ready to share five records from the early part of 2018 that have stuck with me. If you’re interested, I’ll add places where you can check out the music, or, hopefully, go support the band with a purchase of a physical copy or some other merchandise.

5. LOYALS – S/T

450x450bb

LOYALS is one of the latest signings from Tooth & Nail Records, and a decade ago, they would have stood out amongst their label peers in a similar way that early-T&N bands like Joy Electric did. LOYALS actually borrow some of the electronic sensibilities of JoyE, although they’re supported by more driving guitars and other rock instruments. I had the opportunity to see LOYALS open for Emery late last year, and I was taken by their energy and the way they clearly loved the songs they played. The album captures that as well as a record can, with Dane Allen’s voice being the band’s trademark. His voice is powerful and energetic, matching the musical choices perfectly. It all adds up to a record that is pop music at its best.

4. Glen Hansard – Between Two Shores

Glen+Hansard+Between+Two+Shores

Hansard is one of those musicians that never seems to let his listeners down, and that continues with his latest record, Between Two Shores. Between his time as frontman for The Frames (a band, sadly, that I’ve not really listened to), as the mastermind behind most of the music for the movie Once, as part of duo The Swell Season or with his solo efforts, Hansard has always worked to create something that feels uniquely his. There’s a melancholy on this new album, as there often is when it comes to the Irishman’s music, but also a certain hopefulness. This isn’t likely to pull in new listeners, but for those who already love his music, Between Two Shores should be a nice addition to Hansard’s body of work.

3. Pianos Become the Teeth – Wait For Love

Wait for Love

This is a band that has managed to change itself from album to album in a way that feels organic and purposeful. PBtT used to be a much heavier band, predicated on more hardcore musical choices and screaming vocals. Over time, they band has mellowed, mostly because lead singer Kyle Durfey considered the change necessary for the starkness of his lyrical content on Keep You, the band’s last effort that came out in 2014. The singer needed to be heard, and so the band’s sound followed suit. Keep You is an emotionally draining record, and while Wait For Love is clearly its emotional sequel, there is a hopefulness present on the latter that the former either couldn’t or wouldn’t recognize. This is important, because it means that the band continues to stretch itself, not only sonically, but also lyrically as well. The emotive core of this record is one of the best I’ve heard so far this year.

2. Toy Cars – Paint Brain

Toy-Cars

My final two records both fall under the “new bands” concept I outlined above. Both are bands I knew nothing about prior to hearing these 2018 releases, but I am now glad I did in both cases. For the first couple of weeks of the year, I was sure that this record, the first full length from this New Jersey emo band, was going to sit atop my best of list through the whole year. It’s early January release date was perfect for this album, a moody, sometimes angry, but always thoughtful record that fit the weather of mid-winter in the Carolinas perfectly. Toy Cars fit nicely into the emo revival, but also don’t feel like a band whose sole purpose is to mimic an earlier musical era. Instead, they’ve made their own sound in the midst of expectations, with fewer punk influences and more opportunities for space within the songs. The album has flaws, sure, but its continuing to pull me to it is one of its great strengths.

  1. Household – Everything A River Should Be

103424-everything-a-river-should-be

My top record so far is also one of the newer releases by comparison, coming in as the 23rd on my list in chronological order for the year. Household is another band I knew nothing about coming into the album, but its an engaging, thought-provoking album from beginning to end. Most importantly, however, it appears to be a record that I’m trying to figure out how they did it, at least based on how I keep coming back to it over and over, having listened to it more than any other record so far this year. My desire to understand how it was done is a testament to the quality of the work, as I’m looking for ways to use what this band does so well and churn it into my own musical efforts. Surprisingly, it’s also pretty catchy as far as tunes of its genre go, and the little earworms of songs like “It’s Easy to Feel Rotten,” “Don’t Listen to Me” and “Bloom” are beginning to sneak out of my mouth when I least expect them to. This is a sign of quality songwriting; an album full of those, and you’ve got a pretty great record.

10 Year Recall: Starfield’s “I Will Go”

It’s quite appropriate that just before sitting down to re-listen to Starfield’s 2008 album I Will Go, the band’s third after a self titled debut in 2004 and 2006’s Beauty in the Broken, I gave another shot to U2’s latest album, 2017’s Songs of Experience. That particular album continues to be pretty post-All That You Can’t Leave Behind U2, but that’s not why it was an appropriate lead into I Will Go. The Christian music industry is often (and most of the time rightly) accused of latching onto the rest of the world’s musical trends, and for better or worse, the first several years of the 2000’s were the heyday of the particular trend rearing its head.

U2 is an easy target because the band’s signature sounds–delay heavy lead guitar, driving rhythm section and big, soaring choruses–have essentially become the defining musical characteristics of modern worship music (see: Chris Tomlin and Matt Redman’s records during that period and since then as proof, as well as scores of other worship leader/songwriters). Starfield fell nicely into that box, although an argument can (and will, right here) be made that the Canadian rock band fits better into the modern/alternative rock of the early 2000’s than the lazy U2 comparison.

Certainly there are elements of I Will Go that delve into The Edge’s guitar tones, but that isn’t necessarily because they are influenced directly by Bono and Co. Instead, it’s easy to forget that secular rock bands of that era were also borrowing pretty heavily from those sonic choices, so it makes more sense to say that Starfield were working to implement the most modern rock sounds they could rather than steal from a band whose best recent album came out a full four years before Starfield made its debut.

The point here isn’t to argue that Starfield weren’t trying to sound like U2, though, but instead to make a case for the quality of I Will Go ten years later. The album came out on March 25, 2008, a little less than two years after the band’s previous album, Beauty in the Broken, which was the album that first introduced me to the band. That album was essential for me in 2006, because at the time I was finding myself less and less enthusiastic about the Christian music scene, so it was important that I found a band that seemed to share both my musical sensibilities (albeit a little muted) and my faith. While I think both albums have incredible moments of rock songwriting, the band clearly finds itself of two minds when it comes to song selection and writing, as well as when considering how heavy they allow their sound to become. The album features some noticeably huge sonic choices, especially on the opening track “From the Corners of the Earth,” which features cranked-to-eleven guitars and some electronic textures, and the title track, which almost sounds like punk-rock lite.

On the other side of things, however, is a band that recognizes who its audience is. The lyrics of the record are unabashedly Christ-centered, leaving no room for the band to ever find itself on non-CCM radio stations, which causes Starfield’s sound to often feel like it’s been run through a Christian-radio-friendly filter. The guitars can chunk and chug-chug, just not too much; the vocals can soar, but they better stay clean. This leads to sonically diluted songs like “Reign In Us” and “Great In All The Earth,” which toe the line, but never jump into the modern rock musical space as much as they could. And of course there’s a Sunday morning friendly cover of Brooke Fraser of Hillsong’s “Hosanna,” which features a guitar solo, but a not too crazy one, the perfect compromise for a band that can’t seem to figure out what it wants most.

All that said, listening to the album again is definitely an enjoyable experience. The songs aren’t complex, and I find myself wishing the band had taken more musical risks at several point during the record, but to my mind, they band accomplishes what seems to be its ultimate goal: to write songs they felt connected themselves and others closer to God. The problem with that, though, is that the statement suggests that harder guitars or a different vocal delivery would have precluded someone from that goal, something I take issue with. I get that there is a time and place for different styles of music, but the audacity of people who believe that loud, heavy and even scream-y music can’t also connect the faithful to their creator is beyond me. And I think it often leads to stale, less daring artistic choices.

I want to be clear: this isn’t just a Starfield thing (in fact, amongst the ranks of Christian artists, they’ve done well to continue to at least make attempts to take some calculated risks, especially on their 2012 independent release The Kingdom, probably their most interesting album from start to finish). This is an issue that exists across the Christian music scene, and it’s a difficult argument to dive into, but the question comes down to this: if we’re creating to worship a God who is greater than all things and worthy of our best, why wouldn’t we want to challenge ourselves as artists and as those who experience the art created by others? It’s a wildly complicated issue that I’ve touched on before, and one that I don’t have a final answer on other than to say that I believe God deserves our best, even if it doesn’t fit into a prescribed formula or box.

This took an unexpected turn, but it feels appropriate given the topic at hand. To sum everything up, here’s this: I Will Go is a solid Christian rock album that I’d place in third place behind Beauty in the Broken and The Kingdom as far as Starfield’s albums are concerned (in fourth is 2010’s The Saving One; I’ve never listened to their debut). As far as finding the right balance of music that speaks to my faith and what I want my heart to cry and musical choices, Starfield is always going to be one of my top choices. In that regard, I Will Go is definitely an album worth revisiting.

10 Year Recall: Ivoryline’s “There Came A Lion”

Yes, folks, I’m bringing the 10 Year Recall series back in 2018, this time with (hopefully) more consistency and thoughtful planning. The goal is to tackle the records in the month they were released back in 2008, usually as close to the actual release date as possible.

I’ll be honest, compared to 2007 and its relative bevy of quality/impactful releases, 2008 is a bit of a wasteland. Still, I managed to find several records to cover throughout the year, and it’s especially important to note that my opinions on the records/artists in question will likely have changed over time in a way things didn’t for many of the 2007 releases.

This year’s 10 Year Recall kicks off with the debut record from Tyler, TX rock band Ivoryline, who released There Came A Lion on February 5, 2008 via Tooth & Nail Records. At the time, I was a few years removed from college (I graduated in the summer of 2005), and still leaning heavily on T&N for my musical choices. I liked that they released artists who were thoughtful, challenging and, to be fully honest, mostly safe to listen to with anyone around in terms of content, all the while allowing me to expand my listening interests. In the case of Ivoryline, they fell under the category of bands I listened to automatically because of the record label their record was released through, although upon listening, I was immediately drawn to their high energy rock music, featuring soaring vocals from frontman Jeremy Gray, who also penned the lyrics to the songs.

There Came A Lion was a fun, upbeat album pretty much from beginning to end, save for a small drop in energy and tempo to start off album closer “The Last Words,” the song on the album that best expresses Gray’s ability to emote effectively and write about said emotions. The record isn’t clearly Christian, but the subtext of Gray’s lyrics certainly present a central message, with suggestions about God rather than direct references to His existence in the life of the band’s members. This allowed the band to straddle the CCM/secular music line, even though its connection to Tooth & Nail meant they were seen, first and foremost, for better or worse, as a Christian band. Anyone who knows anything about T&N’s roster, both past and present, knows this is a complicated notion, but Ivoryline fit into the band’s mid-2000’s mold quite well. It wasn’t a remarkably challenging or thought-provoking record, but Ivoryline write catchy, upbeat music, and Gray’s lyrics were sincere and delivered deftly, making it impossible not to like them.

Listening back to the record the other day for the first time in a long time, I discovered two things. First, I still remembered a lot of the lyrics, in spite the fact that my go-to Ivoryline album tends to be their sophomore (and final) record, 2010’s Vessels, which came out with little fanfare in the middle of the summer, just before the band disappeared, seemingly forever. Secondly, I was struck by how simple the songwriting was. Most of the songs followed the same formula: kick off with a few lines from the chorus or some instantly catchy repeated line or two, straight into verse one, chorus, verse two, chorus, bridge, chorus(es), sometimes wrapping up with those opening lines again to give the song a “full circle” feel. While this song structure is nice at times–it keeps the album at an even keel, making the listening experience all the easier–it becomes overly repetitive, making the album’s 11 song run feel longer than that. The main reprieve from the formula doesn’t come until the aforementioned final track, and by then the band has lost all chances to impress further.

Gray’s lyrics sometimes suffer from a similar repetition, as there are various times throughout the album where two lines in a row are just the same lyrics repeated back to back; again, as an every-so-often idea, this is fine, but as a lyrical motif, it starts to feel a little less creative than Gray might have had in him. On top of that, Gray didn’t take the time to explore the range of his vocals, leaving most of the song’s verses in one lower timbre and most of the choruses in a higher one (he explores more range on Vessels, but not to an extreme effect). In the end, There Came A Lion feels like one long song with some breaks in the music and lyrical content, but mostly hanging around in the same tempo, keys and patterns.

This isn’t to say that the album is completely worthless. Like I said, it’s a fun, upbeat and energetic record that, due to its repetition, doesn’t require a listener to pay a great deal of attention to follow along. It is music that is great for the right atmosphere, like an upbeat party or while exercising, but doesn’t ebb nor flow enough to capture your full focus. The good news is that not all music needs to do that; we shouldn’t have to think hard about everything we consume, and as far as pop music goes, I’d prefer Ivoryline to most of the garbage playing on the radio these days. There Came A Lion deserves to be recognized for all the things it is, and that’s why I can still revisit it all these years later. It’s a shame the band didn’t make it past their second album, because they could have become a great pop/rock band if pushed properly. It just didn’t work out exactly as it might have.