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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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.

Aural Impressions: Muse, Simulation Theory

I have not been paying attention — Muse, one of my all-time favorite bands, and common musical topic on this very blog, just released their eighth studio album, Simulation Theory on Friday, and I had no idea until after it happened.  Sure, I listened to “Dig Down” when it came out last year, but after that… just nothing, even as the band posted video after video on YouTube.  I’m not sure how I didn’t notice, or why I never kept up.  Heck, I thought Drones was decent, if inconsistent.  Well, now we’ve got another ambitious release from the art rock trio, and if the ridiculous cover art is anything to go off of, this will be chock full of synths, electronic drums, and dystopian lyrics straight out of 1984, literally.  As always, I’m intrigued to hear what these three come up with, especially nineteen years into a storied musical career.  Let’s have a listen:

  1. Algorithm:  Thump thump.  A very electronic start, as expected.  The deep pounding synth gives us that trademark unease, while also sounding a bit like the soundtrack to a retro sci-fi movie trailer.  A morphing synth riff briefly reminds of Doom 2; at the very least, a MIDI file.  We’re in very different territory here.  But suddenly: classical piano, flowing like a river up the keyboard — it’s officially Muse time.  We’ve got strings too, and all of this before the vocals even show up.  As always, Matt Bellamy’s lyrics are a Dystopian, paranoid, conspiratorial salad, but at least his voice is as sharp as ever.  This song is an extremely slow burn, an epic dirge on the back of a solid foundation of bass, chugging along with musical aplomb.  The last minute is especially wonderful as the soaring I-iv-II-V progression takes center stage.  It’s a tone-setting opener, engaging and unique, albeit somewhat short and anti-climactic.  I like where this is going.  I’m a bit concerned about the near-lack of interesting drums, though.  Where is Dom?
  2. The Dark Side:  Here he is, kicking off this next wild one with a count off. Something something something, steady kick, dance-able hats and a swirling synthesized guitar and/or bass combination continue the trek back into the 80s.  With another progression that evokes the Muse of old, we’re somewhere between Absolution and The 2nd Law.  So far, we’ve not have a lot a lot of dynamic shifts as this song has held mainly steadily driving forward.  Muse is really pushing those synths on this album; they slightly overwhelm what traditional instruments are present.  For a genre shift though, this is a pretty good fit.  After a reserved guitar solo that sounds vaguely sitar-esque, the chorus returns with thundering drum fills ala “Resistance,” and closes with blasts of simulated strings.  It’s a tight little song — catchy and well-produced.
  3. Pressure:  Okay, it seems on their past few albums, the band has used the third track spot to try something new (see: “Undisclosed Desires” and “Panic Station”).  In this one, we’ve got hand claps, brass, a stuttering guitar riff and a post-emo rock feeling falsetto vocal.  It’s not at all like the previous synth 80s vibe; to me this feels almost at home in the mid-00s with a band like The Killers or The Strokes.  That said, it’s got energy for days, as subtle synths flutter beneath and the drums carry on with myriad toms.  However, it goes a bit longer than it should.  An extra chorus repeat isn’t really necessary, in my opinion — it would have been more solid as a compact three-minute rocker.  The last minute doesn’t add anything new.
  4. Propaganda:  Chunky!  Fret noise?  A collage of different percussive sounds in concert?  It feels un-mastered.  There’s a bluesy guitar hidden below the falsetto, mimicking along.  The vocals are somewhat unintelligible.   The verses are kicked off with blasts of distortion and chopped vocals, but their content is minimalist.  Only occasional bluesy pops and overdubs really interrupt the space.  In the bridge a twangy pedal-steel guitar wails?  That’s new and extremely welcome!  In fact, this song is so short and subtle, that that is easily the most memorable part of it.  That said, it’s not my favorite and I’m not even sure it has much potential to grow on me.
  5. Break It To Me:  These drop-detuned, palm muted guitars are awesome.  Off the bat, with the stop and go rhythm, it’s Nine Inch Nails, somewhere between The Fragile and Hesitation Marks.  But, the shift to a rapid, Eastern-tinged vocal melody accompanied by strings and a flat, yet tight drum track makes this something else completely.   There aren’t really synths here and vocals are heavily processed.  The spastic “guitar solo” is just scratches and loops subbed in lieu of anything truly melodic; naturally, there’s a creepy whistling immediately following up to the end of the track.  It’s Muse at its weirdest — not because they’re changing genres and experimenting, but because they’re combining a whole host of dissonant styles into one bizarre mixture.  This is a good one.
  6. Something Human:  Hollow synth pipes are joyously joined by acoustic Travis-picking in another bizarre combo.  It’s a laid-back and upbeat song, which is obviously very unlike the paranoid musings of earlier on.  It’s almost groovy, as the acoustic guitar plays a toe-tapping George Michael-style shuffle in the latter verses.  This summery romp is inevitably Muse-ified with arpeggios and fuzzy bass punctuation, but they also include a Rhodes piano, organ, and the aforementioned pipes that sound almost like a steel drum.  It’s weird, insofar as is kind of a normal ballad.  It doesn’t seem to fit onto this album at all, and I’m struggling to think of anything like it within Muse’s repertoire.
  7. Thought Contagion This song debuted in a video way back in February, and as I mentioned above, I completely missed it.  I love a good bass riff driven song — Muse has a knack for coming up with earworm riffs and this is no exception.  This one’s also got either a theremin or some facsimile on the guitar to play an alien hook.  To keep things weird, a speak singing verse with a hip hop hi-hat breaks into an enormous, chanted chorus of woahs straight out of latter-day U2 (?).  I don’t get it either.  Amidst heavy drums in the pre-chorus, we finally have another appearance by the piano.  It’s been only a few songs but its absence was noted.  Synths are reserved here, with a fuzzy bass doing most of the heavy lifting.  Aside from the stylistic departures in verse and chorus (ie, the majority of the song), the instrumentation here is fairly traditional.
  8. Get Up and Fight:  There hadn’t been a female vocal on a Muse album before, neither live nor sampled — here, without warning, they’re treading perilously near EDM territory with Tove Lo, to say nothing of the quick, simple drums.  The bouncy bass leads steadily, undulating along a narrow chord sequence; it turns Muse-y at the chorus with a few upturns.  The booming, fuzzy, major-key chorus with a layered vocal calls to my mind 30 Seconds to Mars, so I guess in a way we’re moving the musical genres forward an era every track or so.  There’s eventually some more piano here, but it’s still not enough for me, even if the romantically flaired transition back to the chorus is awesome.  Overall, I’m not a super fan of this song.  It’s another one of those upbeat anthem attempts that falls rather flat.  Muse is best in riffs and minor keys.
  9. Blockades:  Speaking of, this song is exactly what I’m looking for.  Kind of a hybrid of “Map of the Problematique” and “MK Ultra,” we have a spacey and twisted progression, with clashing electronic drum sounds, galloping bass, and endless guitars.  There’s a chorus that takes its time, supplemented by a swirling maelstrom of arpeggios and I’m hooked.  It shifts from chaos to peace and back.  The alarming progression, featuring a hair-raising major key insertion, along with these dynamic and rhythmic changes make this song instantly one of the more memorable of the record.  It faithfully carries the “Bliss” feeling forward as the solos play nicely against the arpeggios.  An abrupt end has me wanting more; upon first impression, this is easily my favorite song of the album.
  10. Dig Down:  Again, this song was released well over a year ago, but I never really caught on to it.  It’s a thickly padded affair, a definite “Madness” sequel feeling with stammering synths forming the base here.  Matt’s vocals are crystal clear and undisturbed floating on this wubbing sea.  The choruses feature blasts of Queen-esque self-harmonized vocals, of the sort we’ve heard from Muse for years now.  Lyrically and melodically, it’s exceptionally optimistic, which would be rare in Muse’s catalog, however it’s not even the first song of the sort we’ve had on this album.  Another catchy sing-along outro of woahs leads us out, done before it’s got a chance to go anywhere crazy.   It’s definitely a strong song; not too grandiose or up its own ass.  I didn’t like it at first, given the complete divergence from Drones, but it absolutely fits on this record.
  11. The Void:  We close with an emotionally distant song potted with a light choppy synth and, soon enough, darkly hammered electronic keys.  Weepy strings bring us down into the second verse — I really like the orchestral arrangement here.  The choruses are dark, pessimistic, and foreboding.  Thick morphing synths in the bridge bring back the Doom 2 feel from “Algorithm,” establishing a subtle book-end.  Unfortunately, this song takes a brief turn toward major key.  It’s unwelcome at this point, when I’d rather be swallowed in the dark soundscape of the awesome first half.  Thankfully, that’s exactly what happens in the form of a mournful piano and vocal solo.  Chillingly, this motif is augmented by a throbbing claustrophobic synth.  It makes me feel uneasy, but just like that it’s over.  Damn, that’s a frightening way to end.

As is usually the case, I’m not quite sure what to make of this new Muse album.  Simulation Theory is a concept album, loosely tied together lyrically, but less so musically.  Overall, there are definite common threads between songs — the ubiquity of synths is the most obvious.  Strangely, it’s almost as though Muse just kind of skipped past Drones…  This record has tons of clear influence from The Resistance and The 2nd Law, but its stripped-back predecessor is neglected.  I miss the chaotic riffs and shredding that made Muse such a treat back in the day; indeed, the piano is relegated to a frustrating degree here as well.  That said, it’s overall a pretty decent album and an enjoyable listen.  There are far fewer filler tracks than Drones, and its 42 minute run-time is just enough, though that also makes it their shortest album.  I don’t think this yet breaks into the top half of Muse’s discography for me, but we’ll see.  Several songs have already started to grow on me after only a couple listens — I can see the potential of this album soon eclipsing The 2nd Law, possibly even Black Holes & Revelations.  Its lows aren’t that low, but it’s highs aren’t that high.  Overall, it’s just solid.