Aural Impressions: Sara Bareilles, Amidst the Chaos

Hallelujah, she’s back!  After a nearly four year hiatus; six if you count non-Broadway albums, Sara Bareilles has released another album of original studio material entitled Amidst the Chaos.  Since the fall, she’d been releasing occasional singles for the record, yet I forced myself to avoid listening to them until the album was released.  I’m not sure why.

Now, something incredible happened between then and now — Sara announced a sudden four-city tour, which included a stop in San Francisco.  The tour was announced just two days before tickets went on sale, and the shows were to take place starting only a week after that.  I’ve always grappled with the thought that seeing Sara again would never live up to the magic that was her solo tour, but good grief, she’s incredible no matter what.  On that Friday, I lurked on the ticket site for hours, sniping a pair the moment they went on sale.  Click, boom, done.  The tour sold out in seconds.  The day of the show, I arrived at the venue three hours early — there was already a line at least 20 people deep at the door.  Securing a spot off to the edge of the stage in front, we stood for another two hours before it even began.  My vantage point allowed me a view of the set list on the floor; I didn’t recognize most of the song titled.  That is, she was going to play this whole album.

It was awesome.  She was flanked by a five person band — two guitarists, an upright bass, a minimal drum set, and a keyboardist, with backup vocals spread amongst the group.  It was not what I was expecting — more jazz and soul than pop and rock, but wonderful nonetheless.

I didn’t plan it this way, yet I’m thankful I waited to listen to these songs.  They’re automatically tied to the memory of this incredible, hilarious, moving show.  The big question that remains is: does the studio album live up to the hype generated by her show?  Spoilers — my first impression is, not quite — but, there’s definitely room to grow into it.  It was produced by T Bone Burnett, who injects a healthy dose of Americana and organic acoustics into the whole production, as well as a perspective heretofore unseen within her catalog.  Intrigued?  Let’s go through these songs one after another, shall we?

  1. Fire: Oh, is it great to hear her voice on record again!  Especially an a Capella harmony featuring two multi-tracked Saras.  Suddenly, things take a turn in a new direction: jangly acoustic guitar and/or mandolin strumming is the only accompaniment, joined later by only a light galloping, dance-able rhythm.  The lush, yet simple instrumentation allows the layers of Sara’s vocals to shine, especially in a restrained, catchy chorus.  My favorite bit is the short sequence of descending, intertwined harmonies concluding the choruses with an elongated “Fire”, punctuated by a short refrain.  While this opener has a totally different feel than her past albums, there’s something extremely familiar about it — probably the harmonizing, which is ubiquitous throughout this song and draws upon her deep history in a Capella music.  A curious choice for an opener, but I like it!
  2. No Such Thing: I wrote that song about the Obamas.  I’m not even joking.” Heavy bass contrasts sharply with extremely high piano arpeggios and harps.  The acoustic feel continues; drums are played with brushes, the bass is an upright, and moody strings round out another vibrant, yet chill musical environment.  It’s so slow, almost tense.  A longing wail fills the pre-chorus, while the aria within quickly showcases Sara’s vocal range and precision; later, the bridge adds an extended falsetto.  Aside from some overdubbed strings, instrumentation remains minimal throughout.
  3. Armor:  Here’s the kick-ass song the first two were warming us up for.  “Armor” is driven by a groovy, bassy piano lick you can’t help but nod along to.  Feminist lyrics, dripping with sarcasm and biting commentary are a welcome sound — it feels like it’s been since Little Voice that we’ve had such pointed and aggressive, but simultaneously joyous and uplifting, lyrics from Sara.  Of course, it’s been a hell of a three years since the last album and this feels like a song we need right now.  The choruses are instant earworms, something I’ll surely wake up with in my head on a daily basis over the next month or so.  I’d consider it a companion to “Brave.”  A sister song, if you will.  This was an excellent choice for lead single.
  4. If I Can’t Have You:  Funky!  There’s a lot of soul influence in this song — groovy electric guitar, a shuffling drum beat, and the ever-present upright bass.  A blast of backing “oohs” in the later verses and choruses shifts the mood in a gospel-y direction.  It’s not Sara doing the harmonies either; these outside voices add a dimension and texture to supplement Sara’s consistently smooth vocals.  And of course there’s a classic modulation after the bridge, furthering the push into Sara’s upper range.  She’s sounding better than ever.
  5. Eyes on You:  An enveloping muted guitar pushes us forward, while the vocals start and stop, portraying vignettes of everyday folks and their anxieties.  As the chorus breaks, this one takes a decidedly Traveling Wilburys feel; the stuttering muted guitars combine with a steady drum to create locomotion.  There’s a feeling throughout this song of reluctance, where the vocals resist, but give in at the persistent urge of the guitar, which is ultimately representing time’s unrelenting march.  I really like the steady descending chords of the bridge — there hadn’t been much movement in the chord progression to that point, with only a melancholy-twinged pre-chorus hope spot to break it open.  This is a completely unique-feeling song among Sara’s repertoire — a feeling that hits several times across this record.
  6. Miss Simone:  Sara on the guitar — it’s been a minute.  This is an absolutely lovely ballad; strong but soft vocals soar over the jazzily-acoustic backing band, front and center.  Throughout the narrative, she makes it feel like there’s nobody else around but her and the subject of her desires.  The four-chord I-V-ii-IV progression is perfect — I adore the minor second.  In fact, there is a smattering of atypical chord switches, keeping the listener on their toes.  It’s heart-wrenching, comforting, but uneasy at the same time.  You could say it sounds exactly like falling in love feels.  Or, at least the romantic ideal of falling in love.  This is the kind of song Sara absolutely excels at, yet has only done less than a handful of times.  It reminds me heavily of “I Just Want You,” and unreleased ukelele song she performed on her 2013 solo tour, albeit warmer and more lively.  I have a feeling I’ll be listening to this one a lot.
  7. Wicked Love:  Reluctant staccato piano tangles with uncertain vocals as happy drums and bass bounce behind.  The conversational tone and spacey accompaniment remind me a lot of The Blessed Unrest while the layered vocal crescendos in the second half of the verses recalls the songs of Waitress.  I bet it would fit pretty seamlessly into the musical or, at the very least, What’s Inside.  All that said, this might yet be the most Kaleidoscope Heart song on the album.  Something about it just feels like it belongs in 2010, despite the complete shifts among most of the other songs so far on this record.  It’s good, if not especially memorable, though I adore the closing bars.
  8. Orpheus:  A relaxing, warm song based around swirling guitars and plodding upright.  I picture a fireplace crackling away at night, even before Sara sings “come by the fire.”  Her lower register here is like a blanket; comforting and cozy.  It’s another something new, yet so basic I’m shocked she hasn’t really done a lot of contralto singing before.  It mingles nicely with her typical alto vocals throughout the choruses as the two guitars also interweave their parts.  It reminds me a lot of Joshua Radin, which actually makes me think he could do an awesome cover of this.  I only wish this had been released in the late fall or winter.  It’s that kind of song.
  9. Poetry By Dead Men:  There’s finally piano again.  Sort of.  It’s chipper and bright, but distorted and very slightly moving in and out of pitch — very Arcade Fire, though that comparison is short lived.  Curiously, the vocal phrasing — quickly sung in stretches of monotone and often overshooting the bars — reminds me a lot of HAIM.  I wonder what that’s all about?  Overall, I’m not sure this one really has any sticking power.  It’s alright, but it’s a definite lull in the late middle of an otherwise stellar run of songs.
  10. Someone Who Loves Me:  This is the only song off this record that Sara did not play at the concert.  It was supposed to be the first encore, but she swapped it out for “Gravity.”  Honestly, I’m not sure if she should have done that — this song is really good.  It’s atmospheric, moody, and tender, with excellent deployment of tri-tones in the verses and choruses.  A male accompaniment comes in during the second chorus, which is new (if you ignore Jason Mraz on What’s Inside).  No idea who it is, though it sounds a lot like him, actually. (Edit: It’s Joey Ryan from Milk Carton Kids)  Like “Orpheus,” this is a song that would be awesome to listen to on a dark winter’s night.
  11.  Saint Honesty:  At the show, Sara told us the story of how this song was recorded in a single take — and god damn is it a magical one.  It’s Sara at the piano; reserved brushes, bass and guitar stay well behind her.  Her vocals effortlessly slide between powerful and delicate, smooth as velvet and pitch perfect.  There are similarities to “Stay,” from Once Upon Another Time, but this lands heavier, with more confidence and maturity.  As it evolves, Sara is slowly unleashed, letting her outstanding vocal prowess shine ever stronger — the bridge and its transition into the final chorus is truly a standout moment on a Sara Bareilles album, perhaps one of my favorite single stretches in a song in years.  She closed her show with this song, and yeah, we all went home happy that night.
  12. A Safe Place To Land:  To finish, Sara duets with John Legend in a moving ode inspired by the suffering of migrants in recent years.  Strong piano chords bolster words softer than clouds, while the music shifts between stable and uncertain in a major/major/minor sequence.  During an uplifting bridge, Sara’s vocals are high and gentle as John’s are strained and loud below — piano steady as strings crescendo and a plucked mandolin arcs.  It closes on a hopeful note amidst a gently chaotic swirl of tremolo strings.

I’m going to need a minute.  There’s so much here and it ends so strongly that I’ve actually kind of already forgotten the first half.  Overall, it’s a very different album — there are far more acoustic guitars than pianos, and the band’s equipment remains largely consistent throughout.   Burnett’s production keeps is stripped back and simple, while also bringing in influences across several genres past and present.  There are so many phenomenal self-harmonies, but also a handful of random, unexpected vocal accompaniments.  There are several immediately gripping standout tracks (“Armor,” “Miss Simone,” “Saint Honesty”) and a bunch that I know will grow on me.  I have to credit Sara immensely for indulging in these varying styles.  I may just skip “If I Can’t Have You” more than I listen to it, but then again, it might result in me expanding my own tastes.  Lyrically, it’s heavily influenced by the current political climate, which is an omnipresent source of anxiety and dread these days.  During her show, Sara often noted how she dealt with these anxieties through her music, and perhaps this album will help me cope as well.  Amongst her previous work, I really can’t say where this lands for me.  It’s a really good album; I just need some time for it to sink in and take me over.  The concert in March was an excellent start — let’s see where it goes from here.

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.

Aural Impressions: Dispatch, Location 13

It’s been a short year and four months since Dispatch released their previous album, America, Location 12, and they’ve spent what feels like the entirety of that time on tour.  In fact, shortly before the release of Location 12, bassist Pete Francis took leave from the band to tend to his mental health, placing his notable contributions to the trio’s sound in the hands of guest musicians on tour.  Nevertheless, the juggernauts of independent music have put out another collection of music recorded in part during the previous album’s sessions, entitled Location 13, to supplement 2017’s release.  These ten songs were uploaded one at a time every few weeks across 2018, finishing up at the end of September, and with the physical release of the full album finally occurring today.  I promised myself I would not listen to any of them until the entire collection was put out into the world, and I held true to that promise: what follows is my first impression of every track, just as I typically write.  Without further commentary, let’s get on with it.

  1. Cross the World:  A slow, rounded start to this album, we have a reggae-styled, funky, yet plodding and heavy narrative ballad.  It’s subdued and minimal for the most part, with sporadic hits of brass and bells, and it’s extremely cheery.  The meandering bass-line does most of the work here, with the squishy guitar upstrokes performing a more rhythmic duty; the drums here are rather conventional, until becoming slightly unleashed toward the end.  To me this feels like a song more becoming of the middle of an album, but if this is a tone-setting opener, it’s certainly creating one that’s different from Location 12.
  2. Daft Alchemist:  Chad and Brad rapidly sing verses together over a fast plucked guitar and/or banjo.  For these, it has sort of a drinking song feel.  The verse rhythm is janky and toe-tapping, especially as the drums truly enter later on.  For the choruses, there’s a dramatic shift to tremolo vocals and chill bass; there’s also clean electric guitar and dulcimer, a combination flirted with on the last album.  These are very spacey choruses, completely lacking percussion, which contrasts heavily with very grounded and earthy verses.  A bridge/outro features an extension of the floating feeling, adding a rising progression and continuously building percussion bridge.  Overally, this definitely feels like a B-side.  It’s not my favorite, but I like their ventures into more experimental sounds.
  3. London Daughters:  Our first song with a full lead vocal from Brad Corrigan since 2012, this is an early candidate for favorite on the album.  A light finger-picked guitar, restrained atmospheric electric guitar, supplemented with light tapping and deep bass make this a treat to the ears.  It’s absolutely lovely.  As the song moves on, there’s an extraordinary bass and guitar synergy, weaving between each other deftly.  An Elliott Smith-esque guitar solo fills the bridge, along with hammering low piano chords.  Instrumentally, this feels far more like a recent Braddigan solo effort than Dispatch, which might be why I like it so much.  I’m very glad to hear this sound on a Dispatch record finally.  Now, if only there was some Pete Francis later on too…
  4. So Good:  Solo guitar with a start-stop rhythm, we’re back in Chad territory.  He sings a short narrative with Brad on harmony for a verse.  Then the song explodes in the chorus, crashing with guitars, drums, distorted background vocals and a marked tempo increase.  This lasts only the choruses before reverting back to the solo guitar verse.  The bridge shifts between these two styles, incorporating drums to the solo guitar and giving bursts of the loud chorus, as well as forging its own third way, with high guitars, soaring vocals, and calm bass.  The hard dynamics make this a gripping song, one that demands attention and despite the nearly five-minute length, feels almost like it ends just as its building.  Definitely another standout.
  5. Black Land Prairie:  It’s hard to describe the feeling that I get when the crystal clear guitar strums a dark chord over the arpeggiated banjo — it reminds me of Alice in Chains at their peak.  Slowly harmonized vocals wash above the sea of guitars.  It’s warm in a foggy way, like being wrapped in a gray cloud.  It’s steady, yet throws twists in its simple progression between minor and major.  A chaotic swirl of electric guitars and feedback grow over the outro, the vocals slowly emerging from inside.  Damn, this song hits me in a place I didn’t expect.  I don’t know that it’s my favorite — I do know I’ll be returning to it often.
  6. Came for the Fire:  Wildly picked acoustic anchors a tight song, featuring shifts between full band with distorted guitar and quiet verses surrounded in bassy goodness.  That bass is on full display in the falsetto-laden choruses as it bounces and pops nearly above the vocals.  After alternating motion and calm, this one turns fully atmospheric later on, with countering vocal overdubs and layered sounds, closing out with a quick riff characteristic of a few on Location 12.  It’s through-and-through a Chad song, which again has been frustrating as one who prefers balance among this trio; the lack of Pete has once again stood out sorely.
  7. Letter to Lady J:  This one is a stomper.  Led by energetic acoustic guitars, it’s a rousing sing-a-long.  Anthemic vocals shared between Chad and Brad, an irresistible infectiousness, and motivating lyrics surely have this one destined to get stadium crowds on their feet, hands in the air.  It’s simple, and sometimes that’s all you need.
  8. Don Juan Tango:  The instant downturn of acoustic guitars foreshadows something different here.  A crispy electric keyboard follows along as overtly political lyrics describe modern life with a frantic pessimism.  It breaks between a catchy rhythm and a somewhat trippy, ever-slowing bridge that makes one feel uneasy.  Of course, describing the messy state of the world poetically will do that by itself.  To put it all together makes a darkly humorous, but fatalistic combination.  I’m not sure this one will take hold on me; it’s all a bit too literal.
  9. Follow I the River:  An autumnal melancholy fills this one, as guitars float through an airy minor-key vocal, as the lyrical leaves describe.  It turns loud for a chorus of full rock instrumentals, which at this point is more expected than surprising — though this one is less explosive and slower paced, it sort of mimics the dynamic profile of “So Good.”  The vocals inside this choruses are messy and rough, interrupting the clean guitar peace of the verses.  A crashing build of guitars and heavy drums leads to an abrupt end, repeating another common style on this album.  There are a lot of pieces I like here, mainly the bits just before the choruses with the bass.  The issue to me is it simply doesn’t stand out among the other songs.
  10. Prisoner’s VisitorFinally, we’re treated to another Chad narrative song, featuring chiming guitars, loads of brass, and a funky groove.  There’s a row of piano chords, lifting the song above brief turns toward the gloom.  Before a final bright chorus, there’s a short bridge featuring some dominant chords, neat turns, and a very weird few bars with echoing piano and harpsichord.  This is a great song to end on; it’s compact in its runtime, not too big, and even closes on a nifty minor chord transition.

For a glorified collection of B-sides, Location 13 is fairly solid.  Like its predecessor, it features a host of standout tracks that showcase the abilities of the band’s members quite well.  It does, however, have a lower floor.  While each song can be good in its own way, it feels slightly more empty, at least creatively.  Several songs here are similar to each other — as mentioned there are a few that use a repetitive quiet verse/loud chorus structure as well as some crescendoing conclusions.  The apparent reliance on Chad Urmston as principle songwriter chokes off some of the potential that made older Dispatch albums so great.  There are moments where you can hear the band thriving together as they did at times on Location 12, such as on standouts “So Good” and “Letter to Lady J.”  Whenever I can distinctly hear the members of Dispatch singing together in harmony, I will be happiest, and thankfully they do occur on this record.  That said, I think the absence of Pete Francis really takes its toll here.  Dispatch may have come back for Location 12, but going forward, the band truly isn’t back together unless the whole trio is present and contributing to the fullest.