A little hurried and shortened this month…apologies.
Drive-By Truckers, English Oceans: From 2001 to 2008, Drive-By Truckers released a string of five great albums that both celebrate and deprecate Southern culture, beginning with the peerless Southern Rock Opera and peaking in 2008 with their best album, Brighter Than Creation’s Dark. The 2010’s haven’t been as kind to them. They’ve seen three integral members leave, not all of them amicably. The two albums they released at the beginning of the decade, 2010’s The Big To-Do and 2011’s Go-Go Boots, were underwhelming, as if they were marking time. But English Oceans has them back on the right track. Too much has changed to tackle the same epic subjects they took on back in the aughts; instead, main songwriters Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley turn to specific songs with smaller stories and characters, like the ambivalent lover in “When He’s Gone” and the nostalgic old man in “Primer Coat”. The band seems more cohesive as a whole, different riffs working together to create subtle hooks that support the introspective lyrics. It all builds to the indisputable climax of “Grand Canyon”, a tribute to the band’s dear friend, Craig Lieske, an instrumental part of the Athens music scene. The Truckers have never made an album so personal, so emotional.
John Mark McMillan, Borderland: This is a supremely weird worship album. There’s the requisite children’s choir in “Holy Ghost”, but something sounds…off about them, as if McMillan and his producer stuck them underwater for their take. There’s the big, sweeping chorus to end the main track (“Future / Past”), followed by…ambient droning noises? But weirdness for weirdness’s sake, while fun in other contexts, would be out of place on an album of (mostly) praise music. McMillan has always held a mystical outsider status, and on Borderland he parlays his unconventional voice and his love for complex musical arrangements into a transcendant, worshipful experience. These songs don’t get old after several plays; they expand into their own Christ-reflecting worlds.
The War on Drugs, Lost in the Dream: The War on Drugs doesn’t seem like a band that’s lost so much as a band that’s content with taking the scenic route. You could hear the roots of this propensity for dwelling on ideas on their last album, Sleep Ambient. Each song felt like it could last forever, the guitars jangling and Adam Granduciel whooping off into the horizon of some hazy world. Lost in the Dream is that feeling magnified. Granduciel has sharpened the lyrics, focusing each song’s themes like a magnifying glass, but the music has broadened, grown in size and strength. If you liked Sleep Ambient, you’ll like Lost in the Dream.
Foster the People, Supermodel: It pains me to even write about an album like this. Foster the People’s hit “Pumped Up Kicks” was a terrible, terrible song. Of course, it’s not Mark Foster’s fault that it became popular. But even so, did he think it was insightful? Or poignant? Or profound? Even if it hadn’t been a hit, it still would have been a misguided, uncreative attempt to get inside a school shooter’s head. Supermodel is less offensive to the ears and to morality, but it’s no less offensive to the brain. Stupid, stupid, stupid.
Pharrell Williams, G I R L: No one appreciated Pharrell more than me last year. Despite his participation in the abomination that was “Blurred Lines”, Pharrell’s voice was the catalyst for (maybe) the best song of the year in “Get Lucky”. It’s hard to imagine him doing wrong; but it’s also hard to imagine him sustaining such brilliance across an entire album. Truthfully, G I R L isn’t a bad album. But it’s just not very good. The addictive quality of Pharrell’s voice applies across the board, but none of these songs is really worthy of it. The one exception is “Happy”, but even that tune feels like an outlier, belonging more to the Despicable Me 2 soundtrack than this album.
Rend Collective, The Art of Celebration: It hurts to place this one in the miss column. Rend Collective’s first album was entitled Homemade Worship for Handmade People, and it sounded like it. The worship group from Northern Ireland crafted songs that sounded improvised and spontaneous. The Art of Celebration sounds like studiomade worship for businessmade people. It’ll fit right in on Christian radio.