Aural Impressions: Andrew McMahon In The Wilderness, Upside Down Flowers

It feels like not that long ago there was a new Andrew McMahon album out.  In truth, it’s been an absolute roller coaster of a year and a half — I’ve even seen him perform live twice since then.  As I noted during my review of his band’s last album Zombies on Broadway, I thought that latest work was mostly sub-par for him.  The youthful energy that blew our minds on Everything In Transit and the new paths forged by his self-titled Wilderness debut, for example, were lacking on major swaths of Zombies, replaced by boilerplate filler and hollow attempts at soaring arena anthems.  Now, just one calendar year later, we have another full-length release from Andrew and company.  Should I be worried that this album is rushed, unpolished, or otherwise coming from an depleted creativity reserve, or does it rectify the things I didn’t like about Zombies, whilst building on its most excellent aspects?  Well, I liked the previously released single “Ohio” quite a bit, as I’ll go into below, so that’s a good sign.  How does the rest of the album fare?  Let’s find out:

  1. Teenage Rockstars:  Thick, slow piano chords make one heck of an entrance.  To add a sonar-like bleep and acoustic guitar on top makes this an immediately attention-grabbing ballad.  Production is done in part in a lo-fi style, enhancing the throwback feel of the autobiographical lyrics.  It feels a lot like old Something Corporate — like, pre-major label debut old.  Add in a few nifty effects, like a sonic reversal for good measure and it’s a perfect fusion of the old and new.  I have a good feeling about this record.
  2. OhioI first heard this song performed live this past May, on a stage full of furniture, books, and windowed walls.  Building off the solo piano + electronics feel of “Canyon Moon,” this one is an emotional journey from Ohio to California, featuring a distorted, echoed piano hook and a half-melancholic, half-hopeful progression, all building to an improbable singalong of the titular state’s name.  Instrumentation is reserved, relying on a variety of synths and guitar flavors for texture, but keeping focus on the clean vocals.  As a lead single, it certainly hits the mark — the question remains, how does the record as a whole compare?  As an evolution of this sound, it really could fit in well on either of Wilderness’s first two albums.  Safe, but good.
  3. Blue Vacation:  Airy and light, the pendulum has swung to the other side as we’ve got electronic drum effects and a bit of Lennon-style reverb on the vocals.  The contrast between an active bassline and high treble piano chords puts this nearly in electropop territory.  Strings in the bridge only make this feeling stronger, and a quick guitar solo pulls us from Hooverphonic to Ratatat.  This is a very catchy song, keeping its hooks from getting too big, but also producing an aural palette that doesn’t sound at all like Andrew McMahon.  It’s new and it works.
  4. Monday Flowers:  The energy is replaced with a contemplative solo piano sequence and sorrowful vocal line, leading into a full band song.  The bass rides high up the neck, and a mandolin flutters in the background.  Strings augment the sadness, as the piano stays in a minor key, despite efforts to break out.  The chord progression reminds a bit of the last album, but with a few refined twists and turns added in; an appreciated evolution.  As it closes, I’m reminded of Death Cab for Cutie — now there’s a connection I’ve never made before.
  5. Paper Rain:  The treble-heavy piano sound is a staple of the Wilderness sound — the progression that stutters and bounces here is very much akin to “Cecilia and the Satellite” or “Dead Man’s Dollar.”  The feel here is different though, with a steady snare shuffle and a laid back chorus.  Andrew’s vocals soar, but the band holds back, maintaining forward motion with a sense of purpose and inevitability, very much like “High Dive.”  I really really like this song.  There’s an emotion here that I felt was largely missing on Zombies, and so far this album is overflowing with a grounded earnestness, the likes of which I almost haven’t heard since The Glass Passenger.  “Paper Rain” is an instant classic.
  6. This Wild Ride:  A lullabye, this one cranks the vocal reverb up and puts the piano into the compactor.  Gentle guitars and percussion fill the space on the wider sides of the ears.  With a waltz rhythm and frequent falsetto, I’m flashing back to a song like “Walking By.”  It’s short and sweet.
  7. Goodnight, Rock and Roll:  Immediately, it feels like a song off of Magical Mystery Tour.  Unexpected chords, a chunky, ever shifting bass, consistent echoed piano, synth strings and processed vocals make this a near-perfect facsimile of 1967-68 era Beatles.  There are also tributes to David Bowie, Tom Petty, and Prince, to name a few, buried within the nostalgia-laden lyrics.  A chorus blown wide open and a hook-filled bridge elevate this from mere stylistic tribute to something unique and special; there’s nothing even close to this in Andrew’s extensive repertoire.  On first listen, this is easily my favorite of the album.
  8. House in the Trees:  Warm bass and an undulating piano riff, flanked by acoustic guitars, make this a track with a feel reminiscent of “Black and White Movies;” one that paints a sonic picture of a beach at sunset, a song to drive down the Pacific Coast Highway to.  Of all of the songs on this record so far, this is easily the closest to the old self-titled Wilderness-style.  It might even be the worst on the album; no, it’s not bad at all — the bar is just suddenly that high.
  9. Penelope:  “Rainy Girl” part two, we’ve got a somber piano ballad driven by heavy chords and supplemented with a string quartet and bass.  It too is Beatles-esque, again with heavy reverb on the vocals, and strings that scream of “Yesterday.”  I’m liking this a whole lot.  Andrew’s talked of their influence on his music, but I don’t think it’s been made so explicit as it has here.
  10. Careless:  Half time! A cut rhythm driven by toms, a melody lead by a harmonium, and a vacant plunked piano line make this one of the more strikingly different sounds out of this band, while also marking a line straight back to Everything In Transit.  There’s oodles warmth, to be sure, but also moments of spine-tingling transitions, most notably in the second half of the chorus and the bridge, the latter of which rides on the back of a crunch guitar riff and reeks of “La La Lie.”  You can’t go wrong referencing Transit, even as the sound continues to evolve.
  11. Everything Must Go:  We’ve got a slow heartbeat around which a song blossoms wonderfully.  From solo piano arpeggios, we add cheery pads, acoustic percussion, steady guitar, and ultimately, a deep atmosphere of rumbling bass and thick synth.  There are moments of dissonance, infecting the climax with a slight unease, as unfamiliar dulcimers and bass effects fill the room.  It presses on to conclusion nonetheless, with a repeated refrain of the title and layers upon layers of backing vocals before it lets the piano take us out by itself.  

I’m going to make an irresponsibly wild statement, one that I might regret after only a couple listens to this album — this is my second favorite Andrew McMahon album, behind only Everything in Transit.  Crazy, I know!  But seriously, there isn’t a bad song on here, and the good ones are really good.  I’m amazed by the sheer scope of styles Andrew toys with on this record, from dips back into his bands of yore, to other classic rock, pop, electronic influences, to say nothing of the heartfelt and sincere stories each song tells.  The Wilderness has finally flourished into their own here with their third record.  After a mixed but good debut and a mediocre follow-up with notable high points, I can finally say that this is record I’ve been waiting for from them.  And not even two years after the last one, I’m absolutely stunned.  Where did all of this awesomeness come from?  Upside Down Flowers is an absolute joy, and I’ll be listening to it for years to come.

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Shots in the Dark

A new day is upon us.  Again.  Hope springs eternal in Buffalo (at least until the seasons begin), but this year feels different.  I don’t know if it’s the luck of the lottery balls, or the shedding of a few old pieces, or the rise of the kids — something is going to break in favor of the Sabres this year.  It’s about time, dontcha think?

Then again, I feel like I say this every year, so my expectations are low.  Indeed, the point of this post is to make another set of wildly inaccurate predictions for the final standings of the 2018-19 NHL season.  I wasn’t particularly close last year, but that never stops me from trying again.  At least this year, I waited until the preseason was finished — many a game-changing performance or injury is “accounted for” here, so these should be closer to right, right?  Without further ado or opining, here they are:

Like last year, I reset the teams to normal by inverting their PDO number, and a rough estimate of the point effects of man-games lost to injury.  From there, I added a coefficient based on my impression of their offseason moves, and finally a gut fudge factor, wherein I basically ignored everything that came before it and set the team’s points based on how close or far off I thought the previous output point total was.  It’s an extremely effective method, and is sure to be fool proof.

Obviously, hockey is just about entirely random.  Injuries can affect the same team twice in a row; PDO can also remain sky high for just about no reason.  And of course, unproven players can have a massive effect on a team’s fortunes.  When you’ve got a whole roster of unproven guys, you just might go to the Stanley Cup Final against literally all odds.

 

Now, how to justify this?  Let’s go down the list, starting in the East.

I don’t know that the Maple Leafs are truly the best team in the Eastern Conference, but that offensive firepower is scary.  The Lightning follow up closely, and it’s sure to be these two fighting for tops in the Atlantic all year.  The Panthers are a team on the rise, and the efforts of last year’s second half showed they can compete when needed; I have them surpassing an aging Bruins team that didn’t do much this offseason.  Also I want that intra-Florida first round series so bad.  In the Metro, I am going with a dark horse Philadelphia team to win the division.  Praise be to our lord Gritty.  The Capitals’ Stanley Cup hangover will follow them a bit, but they’ll finish second ahead of a Pittsburgh team that, like Boston, seemed to get worse this offseason.  Finally, I’ve heard (and seen) nothing but good things about the Hurricanes’ youngsters this year.  With a new coach and a new outlook, they might just make it into the playoffs after a nine season absence.  I know, I said that last year too…

The non-playoff teams in the East weren’t so tough.  Columbus squeaks out of the picture as UFA troubles cause too much distraction.  The Sabres take a giant leap forward (you know, like I predicted last season), but it’s still not quite enough to get into the wild card.  The Devils don’t have much depth outside of Taylor Hall, so they don’t quite pull off the miracle run again.  The Islanders are a shock to be this high, to be honest, given what they’ve lost, but they’ve also gained a rock solid coach and have the reigning Calder Trophy winner.  The Habs, Rangers, and Red Wings are all rebuilding and have shed some serious talent this summer, so into the basement you go.

And then there’s Ottawa, in a relegation league of their own.  Yikes.

In the West, we’ve got old favorites the Winnipeg Jets taking the conference and the Presidents’ Trophy, followed closely in the race for the latter by the aging but dynamic San Jose Sharks, now featuring Erik Karlsson.  Nashville continues to stay near the top of the league with a wide open Cup window, as does Vegas.  The Golden Knights’ luck wears off a little and they slip a healthy amount, but it’s still enough to finish second in a relatively weak Pacific.  St. Louis roars back into the playoffs after an offseason overhaul, while the Ducks trend backwards due to age and injuries already sustained this preseason.  In the wildcards are two possible surprises: Dallas, whom I’d incorrectly picked to win the west last season, sneaks in on the backs of a new coach and returning Russian talent, and the strengthened Arizona Coyotes break a six year playoff drought by continuing the scoring pace they finished with last year.

By default, the Los Angeles Kings barely miss out, as do the resurgent Avalanche.  Last year was pretty much a miracle for Colorado, and they didn’t do a ton this offseason to make me believe that they’re built to stay.  The Wild never impress me much, so I think their streak is over, out-competed by the Central juggernauts.  Calgary and Edmonton are hard to pin down — they could make it easily in this division, but I just don’t have faith.  Even with Connor McDavid, something is amiss in Oil Country.  Chicago doesn’t look any better on paper than they did during last year’s disastrous season, and Vancouver is missing so many key pieces now with the Sedins retired that it’s not hard to see them finishing last in the West this year.

From a numbers perspective, the average points remain exactly the same (91.548) and the median decreases due to lack of outliers — I don’t think there will be so many <70 and >110 point teams this year, but who knows.  I’ve kept the playoff turnover low this time, with only five new teams making it.  Last year was weird; it should be much more normal this time around.  Maybe.

No matter what happens, it’s sure to be exciting.  Here’s hoping my predictions are once again wrong!  Let’s go Buffalo!

Aural Impressions: Nine Inch Nails, Bad Witch

At long last, the trilogy is complete.  Nine Inch Nails, whose return to releases after a several year hiatus back in late 2016 has seen two EPs out in that time, have released the third.  Or, at least, it would appear that way if this latest record Bad Witch were an EP; instead, this 30-minute, 6-track collection is being called an actual album, the first since 2013’s excellent (and long) Hesitation Marks.  A quick glance at the track list, and it appears were in for some profane, angsty music.  We’ll see how well these tracks tie back to the preceding EPs, which had loose ties of their own to each other.  Is this the wrapping up of a true concept trilogy, or the start of something else entirely?  Let’s find out:

  1. Shit Mirror:  Quickly pulsing, noisy bass leads us off here.  The vocals are sunken in the mix.  As the chorus hits, the song widens with the right amount of hair-raising synth and a stomach-churning chord progression, yet the vocals fall even deeper.  For all of its messy charms, this song is fairly smooth through its first half, flowing easily from one extremely different section to another.  A sudden cut into a full second of silence leads to a percussive, chanted bridge, ending the aforementioned smoothness rather abruptly.  As the guitar re-enters, we shift around to a heavy, new riff in a totally different key.  Then the mix starts to swirl and overwhelm in a disorienting conclusion.  Bizarre, but interesting at least.  I really like the first half of this song.  The ending will take some getting used to — it’s not the musicality, but the production that makes me feel slightly physically uncomfortable.  For a three-minute song, it feels awfully short.
  2. Ahead of Ourselves:  This sounds so familiar.  The tight, rapid drum beat combined with the scratches of noise and throbbing bass recall in my mind some video game soundtrack.  Add another distorted, staccato vocal, and I’m thinking about robots.  Blasts of loud noise, screaming vocals, and quick shifts of two bars totalling 12/8 bring us straight back into The Downward Spiral territory, as has been flirted with across each of these latest EPs.  Post-chorus there’s a two note guitar riff to add to the otherwise non-melodic environs.  Like last song, this one also features some production tricks in the second half, as the sounds start to clip and the stereo is widened even further.  And as before, this swiftly paced song ends before it feels like it’s even getting started.
  3. Play the Goddamned Part:  I love bass riffage, and amidst the cacophony of endlessly reverberating percussion, this is awesome.  With droning, wailing synth and a crescendo of brass, this feels almost Radiohead-esque — “The National Anthem,” specifically.  Of course, what Nine Inch Nails instrumental would leave out a creepy, detuned piano?  Not this one.  It goes on like this for awhile, dropping instruments, adding new ones, all to add to this swirling vortex of awesomeness.  There’s a circular piano riff, drum rattles that remind me of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo soundtrack, and even occasional bloops.  It’s a beautiful mess, and by far my favorite of the first three, which is an absolute shock considering it’s an instrumental.  More of this, please.
  4. God Break Down the Door:  More brass and a breakbeat kicking off this song has me immediately in a trip-hop mindset.  The bass continues to wub a la Radiohead (thinking very much of “Ful Stop” this time), but the vocals are floaty and rich with an uncharacteristic vibrato — they’re delivered camly and slowly in contrast to the frantic pace beneath.  It’s very weird.   One continuing feature of this record seems to be a consistent lack of typical song structure, as each track has numerous divergent sections instead of anything resembling a verse/chorus/bridge structure.  This one just blasts along at high speed, carried along by the aforementioned breakbeat.  Twinges of electronics, distortion, and feedback fill out the crowded sonic space above.  As earlier, the low chanted vocals at the song’s climax are widened and brought loud to the point that it sounds like there’s a Trent Reznor on either side of me.  I dig this one, even though it, like a few earlier, feels like it could have kept going for awhile.
  5. I’m Not From This World:  Slow and light, low and pulsing.  Subtle scratching weaves in and out, with a creeping sense of dread.  A brief crescendo cedes into the void, but it just starts back up again after a short lull.  In the distance, a machine shudders to life.  The environment is mechanically lush, a screaming field of cyborgs under a dark grey sky.  There is again quiet before the storm, but again the electronic pulsing is unstoppable.  It grows and multiplies, getting closer and more threatening.  An unnatural trill sends shivers down my spine.  Staccato, crunchy strings signal the end for us, as they fade down with a low pass.  Apologies for the flowery prose, but this is honestly what the song evoked for me.  It’s an instrumental rush, full of edges and turns — a dynamic six-minute epic, to be interpreted as one sees fit.  It’s a curious choice to put a second lengthy instrumental on a six-track “album” and I can’t help but feel there must be more to come soon after Bad Witch.
  6. Over and Out:  But not before we get this, a dance-able, almost funky piece.  The brass is back, joined by a xylophone and an incredible, jaunty bass line.  For the first two minutes, this feels like it could have been the best song on Ghosts I-IV.  Like previous entries on this record, it has its phases and distinct parts.  As it slows down and enters a aura of softly-affected chimes, Trent’s vocals reappear after a long absence, in the same vibrato-laden style as earlier.  And again, it’s weird.  Hiding behind the bass, electronic drums, and bloops, is a steadily wavering feedback, the same kind we’ve heard on probably every Nine Inch Nails record for the last 10 years.  So it’s not entirely foreign.  Once the vocals end, the third act of the song brings us back to the soft chimes, albeit surrounded in a haze of clean synth, where it converges to a single note.  It lingers until it dies out, almost a full minute later.

I’m not sure exactly what I think about Bad Witch.  It’s super short and feels even more so with its uptempo pacing and oddly structured songs.  There are of course numerous stylistic and musical ties to previous Nine Inch Nails records, but the most striking aspect of Bad Witch is how much outside influence there is.  There are infusions of brass, funk, and soul totally unlike the NIN of old.  While the influence of the two preceding EPs is omnipresent, it feels so much different.  Underneath the wail and maelstrom of the industrial distortion and feedback is a lush palette of new sounds, well integrated and manipulated.  I can’t get enough of the instrumentals — they are perhaps among the best Trent Reznor has created.  That said, and as I mentioned above, this record feels like it’s missing something.  Thirty minutes of music does barely a record make.  After two EPs with not-much-shorter runtimes, I feel obligated to consider this new music a third EP.  I hope there’s more here — I like where these new sounds could take Nine Inch Nails moving forward.