Conor Oberst, Ruminations
by Mac Gushanas
Conor Oberst, he of the prolific, does-he-ever-stop-working class of folk-rock, has now reached seven solo albums to go along with countless others in groups like Bright Eyes and Desaparecidos. With Ruminations, Oberst goes bare and simple: a dude, his guitar, a piano, and a harmonica. That harmonica quickly becomes Oberst’s best friend. Typically, it takes the place of a traditional chorus and adds so much pained beauty to every track it features on. In fact, it’s on nine of the ten songs, only absent on the plaintive “Counting Sheep”. For other tracks like “Barbary Coast (Later)” and “The Rain Follows the Plow”, the harmonica imbues much needed folky soulfulness to the slower, melancholic atmosphere.
The album is mostly sad, reflective tales about everyday people. From those with anxiety issues (“Gossamer Thin”) to general depression (nearly all), Oberst traffics in downtrodden and tired feelings. It’s not a surprise that, with a title like Ruminations, there are some heavy, world-weary subjects. But the best moments come when Oberst finds some levity amongst the somber moods. On “A Little Uncanny”, he uses a jangly guitar and erratic harmonic playing to create a fun track that name-drops both “Ronnie” Reagan, Jane Fonda, and Sylvia Plath. Oberst can even make heart afflictions lively on the piano-heavy opener “Tachycardia”.
Ruminations is ultimately a lamenting, low-key record. It’s sobering but never elevates higher than just a sparse collection of gloomy acoustic songs. It took just two days to finish and, for better or worse, that makes a lot of sense. B MINUS
Hiss Golden Messenger, Heart Like a Levee
by Marshall Gu
In the statement of Heart Like a Levee’s creation, M.C. Taylor writes that he felt “wrenched apart by my responsibilities to my family and to my music” and that, “Driven by monthly bills and pure fear—I left for another tour, carrying a load of guilt that I could barely lift.” The opening song’s refrain channels all of that: “It’s hard, Lord / Lord, it’s hard”, but it’s delivered with a smile across the Southern drawl and the hand-percussion understands to push on despite the difficulties. The nasally vocals and acoustic folk sound have always gotten Taylor compared to Dylan, so here’s one: the onward push of “Biloxi” recalls the same motion of “Tangled Up in Blue”. Other inspired moments throughout this album include how the horns thicken the groove in the finale of “Tell Her I’m Just Dancing”; the female vocal bolstering the hook of the title track; the psychedelic tinge of “As the Crow Flies”; the finale of “Ace Of Cups Hung Low Band”, which brings out some big guns (blustery saxophones over underpinning strings) in the cinematic bombast of its conclusion. But overall, there is an unfortunate, unintended fatigue that permeates the rest of this album, likely due to the reliance of syncopated guitars to carry most of these songs: the verses of “Tell Her I’m Just Dancing” are mostly placeholders until the choruses or until that finale. Likewise, “Like a Mirror Loves a Hammer” trudges through its 4 minute runtime — perhaps a stronger melody would’ve helped. (Fans who spend a bit of extra money get their hands on a disc of unreleased extra stripped-down ballads, written around the same time: some of these songs strangely have more bounce to them than the full band ones.) B MINUS
Jagwar Ma, Every Now and Then
by Marshall Gu
It’s obvious why Noel Gallagher considers these guys to be the “future of the galaxy”: as a Britpopper, he’s a revivalist, and these guys make music like it’s the fractured late-80s music scene of Manchester — music that eventually paved the way for Britpop. But I also never got the impression that Noel Gallagher was anything more than a revivalist; nor these guys. Yes, there’s a headiness to the psychedelic swirl and insistent beat that’s sure to sound good in an outdoor festival; the way everything clears out for the impassioned delivery of “She would be saying that you were a liar” on lead single “O B 1” is a nice moment. And yes, the arpeggios underpinning “Say What You Feel” are nice, ditto the really odd drum sound of “Loose Ends” (which brings in some horns halfway through) and the bass of “Ordinary”. But stuff like the mid-tempo “Batter Up” (which reminds me of Foster the People’s “Pumped Up Kicks” in its inane lyrics) and the last two songs are pure filled, and there’s a disconnect between the screech-throb of “High Rotations” and the attempt at vocal melody (“betweeeeee-een”). Overall, no risks are taken: all of the lyrics want to be mantras but end up as little nothings instead; practically all of the songs reveal their hands way before their often too-long song lengths; they mistake reverb as a songwriting tool. Personally? I blame Tame Impala. And Oasis. C PLUS