Track Spotlight: Paradise Fears, “You to Believe In”

Full disclosure: Paradise Fears hail from my second hometown (Vermillion, SD), and their lead singer, Sam Miller, just happens to be the son of my pastor, mentor, and dear friend, whose influence on my life is probably the single biggest reason I’m at seminary right now. So my love for them might be construed as mere parochialism.

But while it’s true that I became aware of the band because of their “hometown hero” status back in Verm-Town U.S.A., I’ve come to love them on their own terms. Especially since Sam might be the best preacher I know, with the sole possible exception of his dad. He and Paradise Fears write, in their own words, “songs that matter.” They tackle big spiritual questions like “Who am I?” and “How do I/should I relate to others?” and “What is our purpose in life?” and “Why do I/others suffer?” and “What sustains me in times of sadness and doubt?” And (also not unlike his dad) he manages to address those questions without resorting to sloppy, all-too-often alienating God-language. I know Sam (albeit not as well as I know the rest of his family), and I don’t even know that he’d consider himself particularly religious. But he’s posing the very same questions that religion exists to address, and doing it more authentically and less cringe-inducing-ly than any contemporary “religious” musician I’m aware of.

“You to Believe In” could be mistaken for a Christian rock song if you weren’t paying attention. The bridge, where the protagonist refuses to “pray to celebrities” or “find faith in TV screens,” certainly seems like an implicit statement of faith in something else – the “you” of the title, the one who “grabbed my hand and pulled me up… poured my soul into a cup until it runneth over.” Sounds like the personal God of many a Christian radio staple, right down to the Biblical language. The Almighty even gets name-checked in the chorus: “When it feels like I’m nothing, you’re there, and, God, well, at least that’s something.” That would be to ignore the second verse, however:

Some people have their faith
I don’t what to think
‘Cause if there’s something guiding us,
Then why am I still drawing blanks?

Our protagonist may not be able to find meaning in the belief in a higher power (at least in any traditional sense). As the video makes even clearer, the “you” he can believe in isn’t God – it’s other people, maybe one specific person. It reminds me of something Joss Whedon said a couple years ago about humanism (over and against traditional notions of religion):

Faith is something we [humanists] have to embrace. Faith in God is believing absolutely in something with no proof whatsoever. Faith in humanity means believing absolutely in something with a huge amount of proof to the contrary. We are the true believers.

To quote another song that’s Very Important to me: “I believe in friends and laughter and the wonders love can do, I believe in songs and magic – and that’s why I believe in you.” That’s all the credo I need, really. Because, for all the proof to the contrary, there are plenty of reasons to believe in humanity too – and Paradise Fears help me do precisely that.

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Album Review: Foster the People, “Supermodel”

Foster the People - Supermodel

Caught in a materialistic economy we did not create, faced with a job market that still offers us primarily low-wage service-sector drudgery, many Millennials find themselves wondering if something more is not possible, whether our modern society has rather radically misplaced its priorities, and whether we can do anything about it. This quest for greater meaning has become so pervasive among Millennials that some are heralding the rise of a new “purpose economy.” I tend to think such utopians underplay the insidious power of mature global capitalism in shaping our values and our lives. Either way, though, the search for meaning in midst of a social order that prioritizes profit over purpose is a primary concern for much of my generation. It’s also a primary concern for Mark Foster as he seeks to establish himself as more than a mere popsmith on Foster the People’s sophomore effort, Supermodel (2014).

The record opens with a question many young people are asking of themselves these days: “Are You What You Want to Be?” With syncopated verses that recall Vampire Weekend and a high-octane, purpose-seeking chorus, it might even seem a little calculated, as if it were crafted specifically to appeal to those dissatisfied Millennials described above. If that’s the case though, you can hardly blame Ford – before Foster the People took off, he was writing commercial jingles in L.A. You don’t land a gig like that if you don’t have an ear for a hook. And calculated or not, it’s the gigantic, wordless hook that propels Supermodel‘s lead track into the stratosphere, offering a musical answer to its title: “Maybe not yet, but anything’s possible.”

“Are You What You Want to Be?” is followed by two tracks that rival it, and in some ways even surpass it, in their relevance and gripping immediacy. The existential angst becomes more explicit on “Ask Yourself”:

And you say that dreamers always get what they desire
Well I’ve found, the more I want the less I’ve got
Is this the life you’ve been waiting for?
Or are you hoping that you’ll be where you want with a little more?

You can imagine Mark Foster in his L.A. apartment circa 2009, writing 30-second snippets for Honey Bunches of Oats and Verizon and asking himself the same questions. The third track, “Coming of Age,” is perhaps the result of all that self-examination:

I seem to hurt the people that care the most
Just like an animal I protect my pride
When I’m too bruised to fight
And even when I’m wrong I tend to think I’m right
Well, I’m bored of the game
And too tired to rage

It does, indeed, feel like a “coming of age,” as Foster takes a look at his own behaviors and attitudes – and decides to leave behind the ones that are no longer helping him to be “who he wants to be.”

What makes these three songs so powerful is the way in which they marry big questions to big choruses – personal enough to invite introspection on the listener’s part, but still anthemic enough to get your fist pumping, cut from the same highly-produced, catchy cloth as the best songs from 2011’s Torches. (Those wordless falsetto hooks make for effortless sing-alongs too.) In other words, it’s perfect pop music for 20-somethings in 2014, and an important step forward for Foster – 2011’s Torches had much of the same musical energy, but lacked the thematic resonance.

However, as understandable, even necessary, as Foster’s maturation beyond mere popcraft may be to him as a musician and as a person, his songwriting loses its immediacy when he tries to get away from doing what he does best, i.e., popcraft. The thematic concerns of “The Truth” (“I’ve been searching for the directions, and I’m convinced the world doesn’t know what it needs”) and “A Beginner’s Guide to Destroying the Moon” (“Now I’m staring at the moon wondering why the bottom fell out – I’ve been searching for answers and there’s questions I’ve found”) are of piece with those of “Ask Yourself.” But set against a middle-of-the-road pop/rock backdrop, it doesn’t have the same oomph. Apart from the a cappella interlude “The Angelic Welcome of Mr. Jones” and the funky, brassed-up “Best Friend,” there’s just not a whole lot of musical interest beyond Track #3.

In the end, then, Supermodel has to give the same answer so many members of my generation do: no, I’m not what I want to be. Not quite, anyway. But for an album that finds its Millennial creator figuring out how to grow up, how to face up to his strengths as well as his limitations, that might only be appropriate. In the meantime, that opening trio should tide us over until Foster the People’s third album, and keep us asking those all-too-important questions.


Listen here. Buy it here.

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Album Review: The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger, “Midnight Sun”

Midnight Sun

Being a Beatle Kid is a decidedly double-edged sword. On the one hand, you start your musical career with name recognition the likes of which most artists—even the successful ones—can only dream of, giving you an instant audience. On the other hand, you stand perpetually in the shadow of the most popular, most influential, most beloved musicians of the twentieth century. Any success you achieve gets ascribed, prima facie, to your last name; and even then, you’re still not your dad, as every single reviewer is contractually obligated to point out.

When considering Sean Lennon’s band the Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger (GOASTT), then, it would be easy to just draw comparisons to his iconic father. After all, with its blend of dreamy psychedelia, garage rock, and ornate folk-pop, Midnight Sun (2014), the latest effort from Lennon and long-term partner Charlotte Kemp Muhl, plants itself firmly in the late 1960s – an era when the Beatles’ influence was omnipresent and inescapable. To the extent that Midnight Sun recalls John, however, it’s mostly in his son’s unmistakably Lennon-esque voice. But if Tame Impala or Temples had made this record, reviewers would be talking more about Syd Barrett than the Beatles, more about the classic Nuggets compilation than “Nowhere Man.”

What distinguishes GOASTT from Tame Impala and their ilk is that, rather than merely aping the past, they reinvigorate it. Lennon and Kemp Muhl trade the current obsession with self-consciously retro, lo-fi production for a rich analog sound, keeping the grainy warmth without sacrificing fidelity. The musical invention on display on Midnight Sun likewise eclipses that of GOASTT’s contemporaries. “Last Call” is perhaps the standout track, leaping from bouncy chamber pop to Floydian slide guitar space-outs in the space of a (rainbow) bridge. Only the even more Floydian “Moth to a Flame” (it sounds for all the world like a Meddle outtake) challenges it for the Album Highlight crown. But even shorter efforts such as the calliope-tinged “Don’t Look Back Orpheus” or the unsettlingly catchy “Great Expectations” are brimming with trippy flourishes and unexpected hooks.

It’s not hard to figure where Sean gets his knack for experimentation; after all, it’s not as if his parents recorded an album of avant-garde noise and plastered their naked selves all over its cover or anything. But while Yoko Ono was and remains a remarkable artist, in this reviewer’s opinion, her particular, peculiar brand of musical artistry never meshed all that well with John’s (see: Double Fantasy). Sean and Charlotte Kemp Muhl, on the other hand, are much more compatible on record. I’m tempted to attribute the crunchy psych passages to Sean and the airy chamber folk to Kemp Muhl, but that have more to do with their respective vocal timbres and preconceived gender roles than anything else. Either way, they gel remarkably well – far from Sean following in John’s footsteps (or Paul’s for that matter) and simply dragging his girlfriend into the studio to sing with him, it’s clear that GOASTT is a genuine creative partnership.

As you can see, like every other music writer on the planet—like a “Moth to a Flame,” if you will—I am inexorably drawn to comparisons with John. Perhaps it just comes with the territory, what with Sean being a Beatle Kid and all. But if he were a complete unknown, if GOASTT were just another New York band with an intriguing name, Midnight Sun would still deserve to be heard on its own merits as one of the better records to emerge from the recent psych revival.


Listen here. Buy it here.

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Album Review: Ian Anderson, “Homo Erraticus”

Homo Erraticus

When they go on tour these days, most artists of Ian Anderson’s age might slot in a couple of new songs into their act, but mostly keep to a standard-issue “greatest hits” setlist. Anderson, clever fellow that he is, however, got audiences on his most recent tour to sit through a full hour of new material, by the rather brilliant stratagem of writing an album-length sequel to Thick as a Brick (entitled, creatively, Thick as a Brick 2) and then performing the two records back-to-back. And you know what? It was a really good record – no match for the original, certainly, but without question some of the best music Anderson has made since the late 70s.

This year he’s at it again, offering a sequel to that sequel in the form of Homo Erraticus (2014) (and touring it, in toto, alongside a “Tull’s Greatest Hits” setlist, appropriately enough). The concept this time out—because there has to be a concept—is that these songs are based on a “dusty, unpublished manuscript, written by local amateur historian Ernest T. Parritt (1873-1928)” and “rediscovered” by none other than Gerald Bostock of Brick fame. It’s a pretty loose concept, but it does lend the album a sense of continuity and coherence, even as it affords Anderson the freedom to range across the entirety of British history, from pre-Roman times to the present and beyond.

Musically speaking, longtime JT devotees may bemoan Martin Barre’s absence; and it’s certainly true that even Homo Erraticus‘s rockers are decidedly more staid than the likes of “Aqualung” or “Locomotive Breath.” But the band does a bang-up job of recreating the sound and feel of classic Tull, handling pastoral British folk (“Heavy Metals”), syncopated 70s prog (“Tripudium Ad Bellum”), and riff-heavy hard rock (“Cold Dead Reckoning”) with equal aplomb. As concertgoers know, Anderson’s voice is pretty battered after decades of use and abuse, but he’s in good form here, trading vocals (as he does live) with his young counterpart Ryan O’Donnell. Moreover, his lyrics are as good or better than ever. For him, British history is not so much as an inevitable march of progress as a revue of human foibles and frailties – a fact altered little by future prospects of technological utopia and and interplanetary exploration.

As Anderson casts his eye back upon his homeland’s long and storied past, he invites his listeners to cast their eye upon his own musical history. Since the late 70s, he’s been something of a homo erraticus himself. But coming quick on the heels of the excellent Thick as a Brick 2, Homo Erraticus (the album that is) would seem to signal a late-career renaissance for Mr. Anderson. Let’s hope there are more old manuscripts collecting dust in his library – and that he’ll see fit to bring them into the light of day in the not-too-distant future.


Listen here. Buy it here.

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Track Spotlight: MIKA feat. Ariana Grande, “Popular Song”

I love Wicked (and get to see it a week from Saturday – YAY). I also love MIKA, though I haven’t really kept up with his career since “Grace Kelly” and Life in Cartoon Motion. But nobody told me that these two things had been combined in one sugar-sweet pop song. I mean, it’s a I-V-IV-I progression repeated over and over again – that’s about as basic as it gets. But with a title like “Popular Song,” there’s a sense that the simplicity is self-referential: “You were singing all the songs I don’t know/But now you’re in the front row/Because my song is popular.”

A song this infectious should’ve gotten higher than paltry 87 on the Billboard Hot 100. But hey, that’s popular music for you. Either way, I’ve probably played it 87 times today alone; because “All that you have to do/Is be true to you/And that’s all you really need to know.” Check it out.

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Album Review: The Family Crest, “Beneath the Brine”

Beneath the Brine

The first track on a record is terribly important. It can’t be so stunning that everything that follows seems like a disappointment in comparison, but it also has to be good enough that it pulls you into the album’s world, whets your appetite and leaves you wanting to spend the next forty-odd minutes with this artist. It’s not universally true, of course, but I’ve generally found that if an opener doesn’t grab me, the rest of the album isn’t likely to do much better.

The first thing we hear on the Family Crest’s Beneath the Brine (2014) is a sawing riff straight out Bach’s Cello Suites, cluing you in to the San Francisco collective’s symphonic aspirations. But things quickly go in a much more cinematic direction, as lush strings and angelic choirs surge up underneath singer Liam McCormick’s Nate Ruess-worthy vocal performance.

It’s a big, breathless introduction; and if the rest of the album does carve out some quiet space to breathe at times, the widescreen maximalism remains constant. Indeed,the Family Crest doesn’t really do “small scale” – it’s kind of hard when, in addition to drums, bass, guitar, and keys, your core ensemble features flute, tenor trombone, violin, and cello, not to speak of the more than 400 musical friends and collaborators who put in appearances on one track or another.

In short, there’s a lot going on here, in terms of scale and of style both, as the collective hops from Dave Brubeck jazz (“The Water’s Fine”) to 1930s swing (“Howl”) to high-stakes orchestral pop (“Love Don’t Go”). Thematically, oceanic imagery and relationship woes dominate the record, with much talk of being pulled under the waves and a preponderance of “I-You” dyads. As the record moves toward its conclusion, though, the mood lightens, so that by the time “Make Me a Boat” rolls around, McCormick can sing:

Make me a boat
And set me afloat
And carry me home
Find me a wave
That’s soft and safe
And made for me

Like most of the lyrics here, it’s painted in broad strokes; but anything more intimate or wordy wouldn’t work against such an expansive musical backdrop. Indeed, perhaps the highest compliment one can pay the Family Crest is that, even with a cast of literally hundreds, they never descend into self-indulgence. It’s big and bold and, yes, bombastic, but it’s hard to imagine these hugely melodic (and melodically huge) songs any other way. If the likes of the Divine Comedy or San Fermin set your heart a-flutter, you’ll find it well worth your time to dive Beneath the Brine for a while.


Listen here. Buy it here.

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Track Spotlight: Lady Gaga, “Applause”

This summer I’m head of the counseling staff at a church camp in the Black Hills, and part of my job is to design program for the high school camp. So this year I went with the theme “The Theology of Pop Music,” listening intentionally to pop music to uncover its spiritual themes (or lack thereof). Like, Top 40 pop music, the stuff “the kids are listening to these days.”

In order to make this project work, I’ve had to catch up a little on the charts over the past year or so. Which means that I’m a little late to the “Applause” train, seeing as how it was released last summer – I haven’t even heard “G.U.Y.” yet. And I don’t think “Applause” will necessarily make it into the Theology of Pop Music, though there are some interesting things going thematically. But still, I’m having a hard time arguing with that synth line on the chorus. Love her or hate her, the woman’s got a way with a hook.

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