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First Impressions
Published on September 27, 2011 by guest author: Eric J.Perkins

Generally, I'm a big proponent of listening to an album at least 2 or 3 times before deciding whether I really like it or not. Some albums are just not designed to be absorbed and appreciated immediately. But for many artistic mediums, you have to rely on first impressions. I wouldn't read a book 2 or 3 times before reviewing it; I wouldn't see a play multiple times before deciding whether I liked it or not. First impressions are not necessarily as important in music, but they're a jumping off point.

I usually think about first impressions when a Big Release Date rolls around. On any given Tuesday of the year, there are often at least one or two albums coming out that I want to hear. A few weeks ago, there were 7 albums that I wanted to hear. If an album comes out on a day like that, it has to do a little more to prove itself. I'll eventually listen to these albums multiple times, but for the first week or so after I get them, it's pretty stiff competition for play time. It is very, very rare for me to listen to an album for the first time and really like the whole thing. Of the many hundreds of albums I've listened to over the years, that has happened maybe 4 times.

What's more likely to happen on a first listen is that a few tracks will jump out as singles. Sometimes they're the "real" singles, sometimes I like them for my own personal reasons. If it's an artist with whom I'm familiar (and I'm familiar with all the artists below to some extent), then I might mentally rank the album relative to the discography. That's pretty much what you'll find below. My opinion of these albums will likely fluctuate after more listens, but these are my thoughts after the first hand shake.

Blind PilotWe Are The Tide

Of the many albums released on 9/13, Blind Pilot’s sophomore effort was the only one I pre-ordered. I loved 2009’s 3 Rounds and a Sound, so I was looking forward to the follow-up. What I forgot about their debut album was that though I grew to love it, it was a bit of a slow burn. More importantly, I didn’t really fall for this band until I saw them live. None of the tracks off We Are The Tide jumped out at me after the first listen, but I suspect that if I manage to see them on tour, the better songs would begin to resolve themselves. The album is pretty mellow rock, and frontman Israel Nebeker’s voice is soft and soothing…almost too soothing at times. Blind Pilot is starting to remind me of the New England-based band Guster. Guster always put on great live shows, but they were rarely able to capture that energy in the studio. Blind Pilot definitely has some song-writing chops, but there’s a big enough gap between their live show and their studio work that casual listeners might miss their potential.

Mason JenningsMinnesota

There’s a reasonably good chance that I will check out Mason Jennings albums indefinitely based solely on how much I enjoyed 2004’s Use Your Voice. That was a rare album in which I liked nearly every song. Albums released since then have been a little spottier, but I always like at least a few of the songs. Based on the first listen of Minnesota, this album will be no different. Jennings’ music has grown increasingly darker over the past few years—some of the songs on 2009’s Blood of Man were downright scary. With the opening track of Minnesota titled “Bitter Heart," you know you’re not about to pay a visit to Happy Land. That said, two songs did jump out at me after the first listen that could end up on my own personal Mason Jennings Greatest Hits list. “Wake Up” is a poignant look at alcoholism, devastating but very much worth a listen or ten. That song is weirdly followed by the brightest song on the album, “Well of Love.” With a catchy chorus, a broad range of instruments (including horns!), and better production than any other track on the album, “Well of Love” sticks out like a sore thumb from the other songs presented here. Or maybe all the other songs are sore fingers, and this track is the thumb that actually feels good.

St. VincentStrange Mercy

The music of Annie Clark--the voice, writer, and pretty much everything behind St. Vincent--is difficult to classify. It’s beautiful and jarring at the same time. A song can drift along for a few minutes and sound almost ambient in its quietness, then a wall of sound comes crashing down and Clark’s voice goes from sweet to borderline harsh in an instant. It’s not for everybody, and with the possible exception of the single “Cruel," there’s certainly nothing particularly radio friendly on Strange Mercy.

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That said, I enjoyed my first listen a lot. Some songs feel a little over-produced, making Clark’s voice a bit fuzzy, and I occasionally found myself distracted by wondering what sounds were being made by real instruments and what were purely electronic. But I think once I get past that distraction, this album will only get better. It might not be quite as good as 2007’s Marry Me, but it’s an improvement over 2009’s Actor. After a single listen, I’m already debating whether I should go see her live this fall. I’d really like to see how she pulls these songs off in front of an audience.

Wild FlagWild Flag

Here’s the thing about Wild Flag. Though a good chunk of America probably has no idea who Carrie Brownstein is, within the world of indie rock she’s almost overexposed. After Sleater-Kinney disbanded years ago, Brownstein didn’t exactly go into hiding. She wrote an excellent music blog for NPR Music and she participated in a number of comedy sketch shows, including Portlandia. So for a few years, she’s been this funny hipster chick, and I had a hard time getting that image out of my mind as I listened to her assail the microphone on this album. But she’s back in Sleater-Kinney mode now, and make no mistake, the songs rock. One of my favorite producers, Tucker Martine, produced the tracks “Glass Tambourine” and “Racehorse," and you can tell they’re a bit more nuanced than some of the other songs. Still, “Endless Talk” was probably my favorite after the first listen. It’s almost got a fun 80s vibe to it (yes, some music from the 80s was actually fun). My biggest regret about this album is its release date. If it had been released in early summer, I could see driving around with my windows down, blasting it gleefully and pissing off the neighbors. Now it’s September, and I have a much shorter window of time to do that.

Laura MarlingA Creature I Don’t Know

This album is Marling’s third. She is 21 years old. Her songs and voice sound as if they could come from someone twice that age. I almost wish I didn’t know how old she was, because as I listened to this album, I couldn’t help but wonder: If this is what she sounds like as she’s still trying to find herself as an artist, what is she going to be producing 10 years from now? I won’t say I fell for this album on the first listen (as opposed to her debut album, Alas I Cannot Swim, which I loved immediately). A Creature I Don’t Know starts off slowly with some ballads simmering at the beginning of the album, then works up to a rolling boil with the last tracks “Sophia” and “All My Rage”. Marling has yet to top the song “Ghosts” from AICS, but “All My Rage” could easily be amongst her best songs. But all of these songs are powerful in their own right, and I’m looking forward to giving this album another listen.

Blitzen TrapperAmerican Goldwing

It’s appropriate that the word "American" appears in the title of this album, because this album sounds like America. Comparisons to Creedence Clearwater Revival and Lynyrd Skynyrd are really pretty much inevitable, and though I miss some of the more indie rock-type songs from their previous albums (“Furr” is and will probably always be my favorite Blitzen Trapper song), there’s something to be said for the consistency of the songs on American Goldwing. My only regret is that I listened to this album for the first time at work, because it immediately made me want to grab a beer from the fridge. Preferably a cheap American beer. And if I had any hair, this album might convince me to grow a mullet. But I don’t, so I can’t. Luckily, I can still listen to Blitzen Trapper and dream.

Me First & the Gimme GimmesSing in Japanese

Me First & the Gimme Gimmes are essentially a novelty band, singing punk covers of popular hits from yesteryear. They have albums of punk rock show tunes and country songs and possibly one of the most awesomely bizarre live albums ever released, Me First & the Gimme Gimmes Ruin Jonny’s Bar Mitzvah (seriously, you haven’t lived until you’ve heard their punk version of “Hava Nagila”). But they kind of shot themselves in the foot with Sing in Japanese. The obvious appeal of their covers is that it’s amusing to listen to fast, punk versions of decidedly non-punk songs that you know by heart. I do not know any of the Japanese songs on this EP by heart. Or at all, for that matter. This album could have been by a genuine Japanese punk band and I really would not have known the difference. I’m sure there are some Japanese people out there who would find this album hilarious, but instead of the knowing smile and chuckle that a Me First & the Gimme Gimmes usually elicits from me, this one only received a baffled shrug.

Eric J. Perkins is a molecular biologist and father of two. He lives in the Boston 'burbs, and what little free time he has is spent listening to music, reading, and writing about music and reading.

User Comments
Beka | September 27, 2011 16:01

I'd vote yes on seeing St. Vincent live. I saw her at Sasquatch a couple of years ago and she was amazing.

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