For some people Conor Oberst and his primary music project Bright Eyes are synonymous. However, like many before him, Oberst felt the urge to venture out on his own, and has been doing so since 2008. A raw, stripped-down piano and acoustic guitar affair that conjures Springsteen and Dylan (hear the harmonica), Ruminations (Nonesuch) is a serious and emotional effort, beginning with the gut-wrenching “Tachycardia.” To get a real sense of where Oberst is coming from, he sings “the modern world is a sight to see/It’s a stimulant, it’s pornography/It takes all my will not to turn it off” in “Barbary Coast (Later).” “Counting Sheep” is so brutal, it’s almost hard to listen to until the end. “The Rain Follows the Plow” is a devastating love song and “A Little Uncanny,” which name-checks Christopher Hitchens, Oliver Sacks, Robin Williams, Sylvia Plath and Jane Fonda and berates “Ronnie Reagan,” lives up to its name, especially in the age of Trump. Far from being a mood elevator, Ruminations is nevertheless a necessary means of expression.
Like Oberst, Andrew McMahon waited a few years into the 21st century to release music under his own name. Well, sort of. After his time in the pop/punk band Something Corporate, followed by the music McMahon made as Jack’s Mannequin, we now have Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness. Expanding on the electronic vibe of 2014’s eponymous album, Zombies on Broadway (Vanguard / Crush), the second disc by Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness is dance-club ready. Beginning with “Brooklyn, You’re Killing Me,” and continuing through the big and bouncy beats of “So Close,” “Shot Out of a Cannon,” and “Island Radio,” McMahon expertly navigates the wilderness of the dance floor.
Josh Ritter’s aptly named Sermon on the Rocks (Pytheas) sounds like a man testifying at a secular tent meeting. ressing Moses (“Young Moses”), the devil (“Henrietta, Indiana”), bible college (“Getting Ready to Get Down”), prophecy and ecstasy (“Birds in the Meadow”), Eden (“Homecoming”), a cathedral (“Lighthouse Fire”), surviving heartache (“Seeing Me Round”), and channeling vintage Steve Forbert (“Where The Night Goes”), this sermon rocks!
If you didn’t know better, you might think you were listening to Maroon 5 when you hear “She Sets the City on Fire.” You’d be wrong. The song is the opening track on Something Worth Saving (RCA), the new album by Gavin DeGraw. That could be good or bad, depending on how you feel about Maroon 5 (or DeGraw, for that matter). Working with a few different producers and songwriting collaborators, DeGraw still manages to stand out, especially on songs such as “Harder To Believe” (the strongest track on the album), “Kite Like Girl,” “Say I Am,” and the retro-pop tune “Annalee”.
Illuminate (Island) is only the second album by 18-year-old Canadian singer/songwriter Shawn Mendes. But he sounds like he’s been at it longer than his age belies. A more mature and fully-realized set of tunes than Mendes’ 2015 debut Handwritten, Illuminate glows with experience and confidence. Even with the music growth exhibited, Mendes is still aware of the necessity not to drift too far from current trends, as you can hear on “No Promises,” “Lights On,” and “Understand.”
Passenger (a.k.a. Mike Rosenberg) sounds like he could be a distant musical cousin of Ed Sheeran’s, right down to the accent. Young As the Morning Old as the Sea (Nettwerk) is a lovely set of ten emotive tunes full of romantic insights such as “nothing’s ever something/until you give everything” (“Everything”), and “when I start feeling sick of it all / it helps to remember I’m a brick in the wall” (“Home”). Even when he kicks things up a notch as he does on “Anywhere”, he never loses the focus of his musical intentions. The soaring duet with Birdy on “Beautiful Birds” is not to be missed.