Album Review — The War on Drugs’ ‘LIVE DRUGS’

In the latest edition of the The Endless Music Odyssey, I covered a great live album from Cody Jinks. But it wasn’t quite a perfect live album as I lamented. It simply put lacked “it.” I’ll touch on that in a second.

There are many artists and bands I have yet to see live in concert. After all, there’s only so much time and money and tours can’t hit every city. So you do your best to hit as many as you can. One band that’s near the top of my bucket list is The War on Drugs. They are one of my favorite modern rock groups, as there’s a relaxing feel about their music that is instantly compelling to my ears. I remember the first time I listened to them on Lost in the Dream that this was a band I would be listening to for a while. That album proved to be one of my favorites of the 2010s and their last album A Deeper Understand was pretty damn good too. Their music has a surrealistic quality about it, in both sound and in the lyrics. It creates a sort of snow globe effect when you listen to it. Yet it feels like it goes to an even higher level when heard in the live setting.

Before we dive into the actual album, I want to point out something about live music. There’s a special, magical quality about it that’s hard to put into words. Anyone who’s been to a great concert knows what I’m talking about: you basically feel like you enter another world for a couple hours. You become engulfed by the music. Your eyes and ears are glued to that stage and you forget about everything that was happening before the show. It’s a relaxing escapism. Even someone like myself who thankfully has a great, happy life and is quite content with where I’m at, I find great comfort in the ability to explore another world essentially. I think that goes beyond escapism: it’s that innate human yearning for discovery beyond your horizons. That is what music truly is. It’s the ability to see and experience beyond your own experiences and wisdom, yet finding a way to tie it into them all the same.

This new live album from The War on Drugs taps into that magic of live music. These are songs I’ve all heard before, yet it feels like the first time I’ve heard them with this album. You see concerts where the artist does a different take on their music makes for the best shows. They experiment with them and therefore they have a completely different feel. That’s what The War on Drugs do on LIVE DRUGS. They play a little looser in the bridge and outro on “Strangest Thing,” letting that soaring melody breathe and completely capture your attention. They linger over “Red Eyes” a little bit longer and lead singer Adam Granduciel let’s his passion get carried away. Little things like this make a live performance stand out.

On “Eyes to the Wind,” you get to hear Granduciel introduce the band, which is always a nice moment in the show where you get to know the names behind the faces who are delivering this great show. This gives way to a hauntingly beautiful piano-driven intro. The crowd is so quiet and clearly mesmerized; you could hear a pin drop. Everybody in that moment is sharing the same feeling. Later there’s a kickass saxophone solo that really puts an exclamation on the performance.

This whole album is a special listen, but the 12-minute performance of “Under the Pressure” is my favorite moment. The band stretches out and milks every bit of the song they can, sort of putting a drawn-out hypnotism over the listener. It starts with the introduction, which wanders on and on before finally giving way to the song. This creates a swelling effect, a great buildup of anticipation as you the listener wonder when the song will begin. Then later in the song when the band is jamming out, you can hear the crowd and feel the ambience of it. Listening with headphones on and your eyes closed, for a second you think you’re at the show. You know that magic ability to suck you into a whole other world? Well this song and performance exemplifies this.

One of the biggest things I miss in the midst of this ongoing pandemic is live music. There’s simply nothing like it. It’s coming up on a year since I went to my last show, but it feels even longer. One day though it will return and after this pandemic experience, I know now I will have an even deeper and greater appreciation for the power of live music. The War on Drugs capture that power on LIVE DRUGS and make me more excited to one day be back in that crowd of people, singing along and basking in the joy of an awesome concert.

Buy It

Album Review — Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit’s ‘Reunions’

Jason Isbell has clearly established at this point that he’s one of the greatest songwriters of this generation. Album after album of lyrical excellency has solidified his spot in the history books as an artist who will be remembered by many for years to come. But his last album The Nashville Sound felt like a bit of a “let down” and for him a let down is an album that is a strong 8 to light 9 (while also earning two Grammys). While “If We Were Vampires” and “Anxiety” were standouts and in my opinion some of his best songs ever, there were also well intentioned, but clunky in execution songs like “White Man’s World” and “Hope The High Road.” I can’t deny I was worried he would have more songs like this one. And again I have zero issues with message songs like this one. But like many modern day message songs, they often focus too much on the message and not enough on the song being good too. You can have the best messages in the world in your songs, but if the songs aren’t good, nobody is listening and nobody hears the message (which defeats the whole purpose).

The first two singles for Reunions were wrongly misinterpreted by a few as being in this vein. But after hearing “What’ve I Done to Help” and “Be Afraid,” these songs clearly aren’t clunky like the aforementioned songs on Isbell and the 400 Unit’s previous album. It’s even more clear when hearing them with the rest of the album. They’re actually great and catchy songs with heartfelt messages about lending a helping hand and taking a stand for things you believe in. And there’s no inherent political messages being conveyed (the listener of course is welcome to interpret this to be political if they wish to do so). These songs also feel even more appropriate within these trying times in our country, serving as inspirational anthems.

These singles were definitely a great indication of the sound of this album, which is a very guitar-driven, straight-ahead rock sound that Isbell said was inspired by 80s rock like Dire Straits. While upon first listens it feels like this album lacks the vibrancy of previous albums, it grows more and more upon repeat listens. Particularly the guitar work on this is really given a pedestal and drives the songs, a credit to Isbell, the 400 unit and his now regular producer Dave Cobb. It really shines on “Overseas,” where the guitar work is just simmering with heat and emotion. The song serves as a great reminder that you don’t need a lot of bells and whistles with this level of guitar playing.

Speaking of “Overseas,” if there’s one weaker spot on this album, it’s when Isbell evokes allegorical, more abstract lyricism. The aforementioned song, “River” and “St. Peter’s Autograph” are all great songs. But they’re definitely not immediately accessible and fall in the same vein of my thoughts on Cody Jinks’ “William and Wanda.” This is kind of ironic in comparison to the rest of the album, as it feels like some of Isbell’s most accessible work yet. It can make for a jarring listen until the album really sinks in. It’s a minor nitpick, but a nitpick nonetheless.

“Dreamsicle” is about a child watching his parents’ marriage fall apart and watching the dreams of his youth disappearing. At first I didn’t like Isbell stretching his vocals so much, but I came to appreciate it with more listens (much like with Eric Church’s “Higher Wire”). “Only Children” and “Running with Our Eyes Closed” are two more great love songs from Isbell. While acts like Tennis and Carly Rae Jepsen do such a great job of showing the sunnier sides of love, Isbell nails the darker, more dour moments. “Running with Our Eyes Closed” in particular feels like the after of “If We Were Vampires,” stripping away the romanticism and showing the “worts” of being in a relationship.

The best two songs on this album for me though are without a doubt the final two. While I enjoy the brawnier guitar moments a lot, it’s these starkly honest final tracks that grab me the most. “It Gets Easier” is a raw and confessional song about Isbell coming to grips with where he’s at in his commitment to sobriety. While the fight never ends and never gets easy, Isbell realizes it gets easier with age, despite the fears that he will relapse in the back of his mind. Emotionally, honest-driven lyrics like these are why Isbell is one of the best, as he flawlessly conveys the drive and struggle behind a complex issue.

Isbell shows his softest side with “Letting You Go,” where he as a father comes to the hard realization of one day having to let go of his daughter. It’s such a beautiful look at the relationship of father and daughter, and how the former has to learn how to shed his naturally protective nature and let his daughter live her life without him by her side at all times. The chorus in particular just tugs so hard at the heart strings, with “The roses just know how to grow” line being one of Isbell’s best. It says so much with so much heart and I imagine any fathers listening to this probably melt when hearing it.

While I wouldn’t put this amongst the very best of Jason Isbell’s work, it’s yet another fantastic album from the singer-songwriter and his talented band. Reunions more than anything is a testament to Isbell’s relentless pursuit of his craft and how he constantly pushes himself to do better than he’s done before (which is quite difficult considering how high he sets the bar). Of course as always there are lots of sad songs too. But it’s hard to argue anyone writes sad songs better than Isbell. Every generation has their own Dylan and Lennon. I feel it’s safe to say Isbell is that level of songwriter for this generation.

Grade: Solid 9/10

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i3Up1uKhcPA

EP Review — Khruangbin & Leon Bridges’ ‘Texas Sun’

Khruangbin and Leon Bridges are not exactly two acts on paper you would picture teaming up together to make music. The former is a modern instrumental trio who really don’t fit into a particular genre or sound, while the latter is a soulful artist who sits comfortably within throwback R&B. But they both hail from Texas and through touring came to know each other, leading to the EP Texas Sun. And I’m just going to throw out my biggest complaint right up front: why is there only four songs? I want to hear more!

The opening title track instantly puts you in mind of driving idly down a hot Texas highway in the middle of summer with it’s warm guitars, rhythmic drums and the subtle chimes floating in the background. Of course I also love the introduction of the pedal steel guitar mid-way through, as you can’t forget country influences when it comes to Texas. Bridges proves too that his voice can easily shine beyond soulful sounds, as he can pretty much fit his dynamic voice into any sound.

“Midnight” is about Bridges recalling a passionate romance of days past and I love all the little details of the relationship that Bridges packs into the song. The chorus in particular is just fantastic, not just for all the details (the midnight black of the car, the leather seats, the passion), but the way Bridges delivers the lines so smoothly that matches both the mood and lyrics. Throw in the swanky guitar tones of Khruangbin and I feel like I’m right there watching the scenes of this song play out. This is the first song of 2020 that has “wowed” me.

“C-Side” is another love song oozing with passion and charisma in both the lyrics and instrumentation. In particular I enjoy how the instrumentation in this song has this sweaty, swaggering, jungle-like vibe. Being an instrumental band, it’s not surprising how great Khruangbin is at creating a particular atmosphere for the listener. Bridges always nails the vibe on these type of love songs in his delivery with an almost flawless sense (listen to his latest album Good Thing to hear it for yourself).

The EP closes with “Conversion,” an indie rock meets gospel song about a man having a come to Jesus moment with a woman in their relationship. It’s about seeking forgiveness and learning the errors of your ways to appreciate the love you have. After the Saturday night feel of the previous two songs, this is the Sunday morning response and these two nail the other side of the coin too. The reflective nature, appropriately driven by the organ, tugs at the heartstrings and creates this genuine sense of remorse and redemption within as you listen. It’s what truly great gospel songs do.

Texas Sun is a truly brilliant little collection of music. As I said in the beginning, man I wish this was a full album instead of an EP. Khruangbin and Leon Bridges go together so well and come together to create a vibrant and colorful set of songs. It’s a true homage to the many sounds of Texas music that is fresh and invigorating. Do yourself a favor and listen to this exciting EP.

Grade: 10/10

Album Review — Marcus King’s ‘El Dorado’

If you’re expecting the same rocking sounds of The Marcus King Band in Marcus King’s debut solo album, you’re going to be a little disappointed. After all when an artist steps away from their band to release a solo record, I think it would be unrealistic to expect the same sound. Otherwise what’s the point of going solo? And while different can sometimes be bad (see Zac Brown with Sir Rosevelt), in this case it actually turns out quite good with Marcus King’s El Dorado.

The album doesn’t get off to the best start with “Young Man’s Dream” as the opener. Choosing such a mellow song to open the album doesn’t exactly invite you in to want to hear more. The theme makes sense with King looking back on the dream he set out to conquer when he left home years ago and realizing he’s still chasing it. But I’m a big believer in a higher tempo song as an opener. So I would have switched the second song “The Well” into the opening spot with it’s loud, guitar-driven sound, which is also more familiar to listeners who have followed The Marcus King Band. The bluesy and smooth rifts are instantly infectious and pair perfectly with the dynamic voice of King’s.

King really pours the soul on in “Wildflowers & Wine.” The heavy soul influence on this album is really what makes this album shine in my eyes, as King is just as comfortable with soul as he is with rock. The lyrics in this song, written by King, producer Dan Auerbach and Ronnie Bowman, do a fantastic job of describing the love and passion in a relationship and King delivers them with the kind of fire needed to really drive them across to the listener.

“One Day She’s Here” is about ruminating over an on and off love. Lyrically this is fine, albeit one of the weaker moments on the album regarding this aspect. It’s just a bit too repetitive for my liking. “Sweet Mariona” sounds like something The Eagles would cut with it’s easy-going country rock sound. The instrumentation is what makes this really shine with the shimmering pedal steel guitar and light acoustic touch, as it gives the song an appropriate reflecting feeling.

One of my favorite moments on the album is “Beautiful Stranger,” as it shows off King’s great falsetto voice. The lyrics sets the scene well of a man approaching a woman in a bar and wondering of the possibilities they could have if they’re no longer strangers. The secret sauce though of this song and really this album is the subtle country sensibilities that permeate it. This song after all was written by King, Auberbach and longtime country writer Paul Overstreet. While this isn’t a country album of course, El Dorado does take a lot of influence from the genre, as it’s molded with the sounds of rock, soul and blues throughout.

“Break” reminds me of the Michael McDonald era of The Doobie Brothers with it’s theme of heartbreak combined with it’s smooth sound and King’s falsetto. I’m glad that this song doesn’t go overboard with the production though (it avoids over-polishing the sound), instead allowing King’s voice to be more front and center. “Say You Will” is this album’s only other guitar-driven rock sound that is more in line with The Marcus King Band and of course it sounds great. While I enjoy the more soulful, bluesy detour of this solo album, King really does thrive within the more rock driven sound on songs like this one.

“Turn It Up” is great driving music. It helps of course with it’s chorus (“Driving 90 miles an hour down a dead end street/Cold steel under my feet” and “Testing my nerves, taking the curves”), but most importantly it’s swanky, swaggering funk-influenced sound makes me picture myself driving down the highway. I guess when it comes to driving music you know it when you hear it would be the best way to describe it. I said before this album has subtle country sensibilities. Well it’s not so subtle on “Too Much Whiskey,” with it’s honkytonk sound and name-dropping Willie Nelson’s iconic album Shotgun Willie (and the “Whiskey River” reference). King nails the classic country drinking song and I love the harmonica that pops up throughout.

I feel like “Love Song” is very much a love it or hate it type song, as I can see why some might find this song to be too saccharine for their taste. But I fall in the enjoy it camp, as I feel the lyrics have genuine heart behind them. And I think it’s King’s passionate delivery that makes this song work for me. The album closes out strong with another high point in “No Pain.” Written by King, Auerbach and Pat McLaughlin, it’s a short and simple song about what I perceive to be about acceptance in the face of death. It’s possible it was at the hands of alcohol addiction as the lines “I fall off of that wagon/Won’t be no last call” allude to. There’s not that many lyrics, yet it’s able to get across a clear and impactful story to the listener. It’s excellent songwriting and shows less is more can be a highly effective approach to storytelling.

El Dorado may not be the album you expected from Marcus King, but it’s without a doubt a great album. It shows another side of King and the range he has as an artist, being able to draw so effectively from a wide variety of genres. King and Auerbach not only craft this intriguing mix of sounds, but the songwriting is quite solid too. El Dorado is an album that can be appreciated by fans of several genres and most importantly shows Marcus King is a promising young artist who is poised to become even better with time.

Grade: 8/10

Album Review – Harry Styles’ ‘Fine Line’

Harry Styles made a promising debut with his self-titled album, showing at times he has the ear and vision to pull off classic sounds of rock past. But the biggest criticism I had for his first album was that the songwriting needed to get better, as it was completely forgettable at times. Two years later he’s back with the follow-up album, Fine Line. And unfortunately I find myself uttering the same criticism as I listen to it.

Opening song “Golden” sounds very pretty and fun, like something you would hear from Fleetwood Mac in their heyday of the 70s. But then you listen to the lyrics and they couldn’t be more basic and paint-by-the-numbers. For crying out loud the hook is Styles dryly singing “You’re so golden.” There’s just no creativity, true emotion and weight behind these lyrics. This is basically the running theme of a lot of songs on this album: great sound, ho-hum lyrics. “Watermelon Sugar” is easily the worst song on this album from a songwriting viewpoint, as the lyrics are so saccharine I want to gag as I listen to them. What the hell is watermelon sugar high? It sounds like something a 12-year-old would come up with.

“Adore You” is a solid song about begging for someone to let them love you. It does a good job of describing the sights and sounds of the woman Styles is pining for and getting across how much he wants her. The sound is bouncy and fun too with the electric slide guitars. “Lights Up” would work much better if it had more energy in the production and from Styles’ vocals. It comes off boring as it is, making it easy to skip over. “Cherry” sees Styles confronting his selfish attitude toward his ex and their breakup, struggling to accept she’s better now while trying to suppress his feelings of wanting her to come back to him. It’s a good song because the songwriting tells a relatable and interesting story, which I wish was more present on this album. The twangy, folk pop sound compliments the lyrics and mood of the song well too.

“Falling” continues the theme of Styles doubting himself and questioning his words and actions towards his ex. Once again, when Styles digs deep and incorporates emotion into his lyrics, he does a great job. Styles does especially good on piano ballads like this, as it suits his throwback style and voice. But he just can’t maintain a consistent level of high quality songwriting throughout an entire album, as “To Be So Lonely” and “She” go back to the bland and unmemorable songwriting that kicks off this album. The former is run-of-the-mill coffee shop pop, while the latter just rambles and rambles without anything to say.

“Sunflower, Vol. 6” is fantastic sound-wise, melding classic and modern to create a trippy and fun beat. Credit to producer Greg Kurstin. But these lyrics would fall under the category of what John Lennon would call Paul McCartney “granny shit.” Just like “Golden,” these are meandering mediocre lyrics that would fit nicely in a commercial for Tide. “Canyon Moon” perfects that 70s, Laurel Canyon sound and I hope Styles continues to pursue this sound. I also enjoy the lyrics, as a man recalls the times he spent with his love under a canyon moon. It’s light, fun and one of my favorites on Fine Line.

“Treat People With Kindness” is another highlight on the album. I love how the song opens with a backing choir and how they continue to interlude throughout. While the theme is a bit heavy handed in it’s delivery, it doesn’t cross the line and most importantly lets the piano and backing choir drive the rhythm and mood of the song. And unlike a lot of dance songs today, it doesn’t smack you over the head with overproduction. It’s smooth, easy-going music that’s quite likable. The album’s title track closes out the album, as Styles concludes there’s a fine line in his emotions towards his ex, even though he seems to be leaning more towards moving on from her. I wish this song would be fleshed out a bit more, as there’s a lot of repetition of “We’ll be a fine line.” But I guess it’s fitting the album closes like this.

Harry Styles’ sophomore album Fine Line is such a frustrating listen because you can hear the glimpses of greatness, but they get muddled by sub-par songwriting and half-built ideas. Styles clear has a knack for finding great sounds, but the songwriting still leaves something to be desired. I really wanted to like this album more, as I believe it’s going to take an artist like Styles to re-birth rock into the mainstream realm. This is certainly not a bad album. But it’s definitely a discontenting decent album, as I just can’t help but wonder how this album could have turned out if it was more complete.

Grade: 6/10