Against Me!, Transgender Dysphoria Blues: Let me start off by saying that this blog is not the place I want to enumerate my beliefs on transsexualism. I would prefer that to be a face-to-face conversation. I will mention that I am a Christian, and I strive to let the Bible and the Holy Spirit inform all my beliefs about gender issues of all kind. But Transgender Dysphoria Blues isn’t about beliefs or politics or sociology. On the most basic level, this album is about learning empathy. Laura Jane Grace (fka Tom Gabel) puts forth remarkable effort and strain to take us inside her mind to see (and experience with her) her wants and desires and how much they are restricted. She and her bandmates have also made Against Me!’s best record, and one of the best rock records I’ve heard in a long while. [Disclaimer: This album contains profanity and deals with intense, sexual issues.]
Dum Dum Girls, Too True: These are the things I thought of when I listened to this record: Dancing with strangers. Stumbling over the threshold of the house, drunk. Letting the water run over your face in the shower for longer than is needed. Running for miles to burn off stress. Sitting on the couch across from a friend giving you the worst news possible. Letting out a whoop after hearing the best news possible, then realizing you have no one to share it with. Setting down your computer bag and backpack after your commute. Waking up, turning, only to realize your spouse is on a business trip. Realizing an old friend just avoided your eyes at the grocery store. Watching Say Anything… Opening a wedding invitation from an ex. Listening to a perfect pop record.
Hiss Golden Messenger, Bad Debt: The folk you hear on the radio isn’t real folk music, which is a statement that is just as pretentious as it is true. But true it is, and I can’t get over the fact that so many people will never experience the real folk music being made today, the kind of music that sounds as if it’s being radioed in from the past. M.C. Taylor may have once been in a hardcore-punk band, but his heart sounds at home in homemade folk. I use homemade literally, since Bad Debt was recorded in 2009 at Taylor’s house in North Carolina with his newborn asleep in the next room. It was never properly reduced after the copies of the CD were destroyed in a 2010 fire at his label. Released this year, it sounds no less immediate. These songs are quiet, but they manage to keep from being weak in their conviction that the questions of faith are difficult to answer.
Bruce Springsteen, High Hopes: I hate admitting this, since Bruce is my favorite musician ever, but his new album kind of sucks. It has a few songs that stand out (the opening title song and the closing “Dream Baby Dream”, a Suicide cover, come to mind), but overall, this compilation of B-sides and staples of the E Street Band’s live shows disappoints. Most of the tracks feel like they should have stayed on the discard pile where they originated. And if the complaint against Springsteen’s most recent albums is overproduction, he’s done nothing to help his case with this one.
Dave Barnes, Golden Days: Dave Barnes specializes in two kinds of music: buoyant frat-pop and lilting love songs. He’s been really, really good at both, but if you want a representative sample of what makes him great, his latest album isn’t a good place to start. Barnes fell into the trap so many of his peers have been falling into lately (Matt Wertz, Jimmy Needham, Ben Rector– though Rector’s most recent album is a return to form) of committing more resources to producing great production rather than producing great songs. Dave Barnes’s last album, Stories to Tell, is a much better introduction to his quality.
Switchfoot, Fading West: This was the biggest disappointment of the month. Switchfoot has been so consistent of late with turning out albums of rousing hard rock and contemplative power ballads that balance exciting instrumentation with thoughtful lyrics. Sure, Fading West isn’t exactly meant to be a proper album- it’s actually a soundtrack to a recent movie the band just made of the same name. But it’s been released as if it should be part of their canon, so I’m treating it that way. Fading West fits right alongside Relient K’s Collapsible Lung as an album that falls squarely on the pop side of pop-rock, and, in the process, both bands have lost something of their identity.
Under the Radar
Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, South: I could have easily put Doug Paisley’s soft country album Strong Feelings in this slot, but if I was going to spotlight one Americana album from January that didn’t receive enough attention, it was going to be South, partly because Paisley did get a little more love from the media, and partly because it’s a tad more exciting. Blackie and the Rodeo Kings is a roots rock supergroup of sorts from, of all places, Canada. South is full of songs that are unabashed country and western music with rock flavorings, boasting hummable melodies and blazing finger-pickin’. The song “I’d Have to Be a Stone” is a love song that would stand among the country greats.
Liz Vice, There’s a Light: There are certain artists that, when you hear them for the first time, make you feel as if you’ve finally found the sound you didn’t know you’d been wanting for years. Liz Vice was one of those artists for me last month. Her sound is full-on ‘60s R&B/soul, à la Aretha Franklin or The Staples Singers, and if those seem to be lofty comparisons, that’s exactly how I meant them. The twist for Liz Vice is that she returns soul to its roots by using the genre as a medium for worship. Each song on this album is full of the Gospel, without sacrificing the inventive spirit of the best old school R&B.
Kye Kye, Fantasize: Take the first two sentences of the previous paragraph and apply them here, replacing “Liz Vice” with “Kye Kye”. It’s rare that you find two Christian acts so devoted both to sharing Gospel truths and to creating exciting, unique music. Kye Kye’s brand of exciting music is synth-pop, and by synth-pop I don’t mean Owl City. Kye Kye is made entirely of siblings (well, two of them are married), born in Estonia, and fronted by the lone sister of the group, Olga. Their newest album isn’t as optimistic as their last one; Olga’s voice is farther back in the mix in the midst of the production, and she sings about a wider range of emotions this time, most of them closer to melancholy than happiness. It’s refreshing to listen to a band so in tune with the whole spectrum of the experience of being a Christian, rather than just delight. It comes across as more honest.
Off the Grid
The Gaslight Anthem, The B-Sides: I love The Gaslight Anthem. They fit just about all the things that I want in a rock band- they tell grand stories, they know how to get me singing along, and they take after Bruce Springsteen. But their new release, a collection of…well, B-sides, occasionally exposes their simple songwriting. And I’m not sure if the acoustic takes bring out the best in the band. I’ll have to give it another listen; for now, I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt.