Friday, July 3, 2015

Switchfoot - Nothing Is Sound (2005)

I can only conjecture that being close to the same age as Switchfoot bandleader Jon Foreman is perhaps one reason why I ended finding my own personal so journey intertwined with their musical one for their albums from their 2000 third album Learning to Breathe through their 2005 fifth album, Nothing Is Sound. From finding comfort and hope in a place of pain to inspiration in a place of existential confusion, their third and fourth album spoke to me lyrically. Their fifth album continued that trajectory, finding post-inspiration that the world was not what I thought it would be moving from college to the working world. Yet just as my own inner idealist wouldn't stop believing despite my growing cynacism, Switchfoot too doesn't give up hope in their discontent on Nothing Is Sound.

It's this balance of criticism and hopefulness that marks the tracklist. From the cry for help of the opening track, "Lonely Nation", Jon Foreman and company musically delve into darker musical themes that were previously hinted at in tracks like "Ammunition" from The Beautiful Letdown, musically taking the album into the more muscular places hinted at in that past album, from the thundering drum hits from Chad Butler, to the harder hitting chorus of guitars and Jon Foreman's howling and screaming. In some ways, Switchfoot takes the themes of awareness of the fallen state of our society and discontent with the way things are and finds a musical companion for it in grunge music, getting almost Nirvana-like with the mantra-chanting and howling of discontent in "Happy Is a Yuppie Word".

Of course, they also don't lose hope altogether, which is marked in trading track positions with "Stars" getting the kind of infusion of positivity in the face of troubles that I think played a role in the band building their fanbase with The Beautiful Letdown. It's a clear single, taking in catchy driving guitar runs and massively crunchy guitar crashes all the same. "The Shadow Proves the Sunshine" comes from a similar place lyrically, but musically starts quite and builds to its immense anthem finale. A couple of Nothing Is Sound's better moments include the questioning "The Blues", which despite its name isn't the musical form, but captures the emotional place when you're finding yourself disillusioned and broken and honestly doesn't answer its own questions in itself. There's another anthem in "We Are One Tonight" as the penultimate track that works pretty well as a single in the way of "Stars", finding hope in togetherness again in the face of a broken world.

And it's striking that balance between disillusionment and continued hope that the album both lyrically and musically succeeds. The crashing, thundering, and screaming performed acts as the cry of the pain of disillusionment and discontent, but the album also finds shimmering guitars and choruses with backing vocals that connects with more hopeful themes and colliding them together, sometimes in the same song provides an internally dynamic tension that sells the honesty of it all. On Nothing Is Sound, Switchfoot displays the bite of adulthood on youthful idealism and I found it utterly empathetic. And perhaps because it resonated with me so back then, and even now, I can't help but find it to be, back to back with The Beautiful Letdown, one of the band's best albums, the darker, but just as idealistic, twin to its predecessor. 9/10

Note: It's really disappointing that the original release of the album was marred by some truly heinous copyright protection on the part of Sony BMG and EMI. I think that played a role in sinking the album after a promising start. Anyway, although Sony theoretically pulled most of the copies with the illegal rootkit-based copyright protection, there might still be some floating around. The less illegal but just as broken Cactus Data Shield versions peddled by EMI were not recalled so be wary of which CD you buy, if you choose to go the CD route.

Tracklist:

  1. Lonely Nation
  2. Stars
  3. Happy Is a Yuppie Word
  4. The Shadow Proves the Sunshine
  5. Easier Than Love
  6. The Blues
  7. The Setting Sun
  8. Politicians
  9. Golden
  10. The Fatal Wound
  11. We Are One Tonight
  12. Daisy

Links:

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Kim Sa Rang - Human Complex Part. 1 (2013)

It took four more years out of the limelight for Kim Sa Rang to return with his latest releases after the quasi-compilation release of Behind the Melody, but this time there is no radically different shift in sound. While it seems like Kim cut ties with his previous label to set up his own personal label, the modern rock sound that drove U Turn arrives without considerable adjustments in Human Complex Part. 1, which is a half-album, preceding Human Complex Part. 2. And while Kim works pretty much within the same basic sound he performed on U Turn, rather than being stale, he keeps the music pretty enjoyable on Part. 1.

It all opens with the title track, an electronica instrumental with plenty of modern electro-pop hooks, polishing up what Kim does regularly for at least one instrumental on each album. Then he goes into his first single from this pair of half-albums, "ICU", which is a straightfoward modern rock track with a driving rock band sound built on steady kick. There is a keyboard present, adding some shimmer to the proceedings and contrasting Kim's rock vocals, but this is refined, but unchallenging, radio friendly modern rock. The same can be said for the follow-up song, "Stalker", which does contain a scream, but a much more standard rock accent scream than his previous antics from Nanotime.

"너란 놈" turns down to mid-tempo for a radio friendly rock ballad and it gets a reprise in acoustic form at the half-album's end. The only real change of pace is the ethereal "Reborn", which is the penultimate track on the album. Placed within dense production, it doesn't really reach the intensity of the other tracks for half of its time until it starts an instrumental build-up around the halfway mark and then Kim unleashes his vocals amidst the clamoring of guitars and finally throws out the kind of emotional howling scream that you weren't otherwise expecting to show up on this polished album.

Ending in twenty-two minutes, it does feel scant, but it's also a half-album, so that's not a surprise. And despite Kim's embracing of more typical modern rock sounds, his songcraft, arrangement, production, and performance are all still quite strong here, making Human Complex's first part a decent listen for fans of Kim and of Korean modern rock. 7/10

Tracklist:

  1. Human Complex
  2. ICU
  3. Stalker
  4. 너란 놈
  5. Reborn
  6. 너란 놈 (acoustic version)

Links:

Friday, June 26, 2015

Switchfoot - The Beautiful Letdown (2003)

There is a very definitely thematic progression from Switchfoot's 2000 album Learning to Breathe to their 2003 follow-up, The Beautiful Letdown. Between these two albums, Switchfoot managed to get signed to a bigger label, Sony BMG, and with the release of The Beautiful Letdown, scored one of the biggest hits of their careers, "Meant to Live", which got massive radio airplay in the United States and brought the band into the mainstream spotlight. Part of the success might be because of the band's new label flexing their muscle, but The Beautiful Letdown also earns it success with a strong, consistent set of alternative rock songs that, like the album's predecessor, captures a specific perspective.

In many ways Learning to Breathe was about hurt and healing. The Beautiful Letdown asks the question: what now and takes a musical trip into examining the existential question of what to do with the life that we have. This is obvious from the moment the album opens with "Meant to Live" and the pivot and transition in themes between albums comes from the inclusion of another rendition of "Dare You to Move" from Learning to Breathe on this album, suggesting that this album explores the step after "pick[ing] yourself off the floor". The two tracks following the big single, "This Is Your Life" and "More Than Fine" are similarly driven to reflect on purpose and the desire to step beyond the present.

Musically, the band becomes even more directly alternative rock, discarding much the quirkier production craft from their earlier albums, with only "Gone"'s pop rock meditation on the ephemeral nature of life managing to bend towards the goofier past sound with its bouncy basslines, guitar hits, and quirky pop-culture referencing lyrics. At times, Switchfoot gets even more aggressive and cynical than before like on "Ammunition", where Jon Foreman even reaches a few moments of screaming as the band winds up to the final chorus recognizing humanity's self-destructiveness, a hint perhaps of things to come.

However, these two moments are the only real exceptions to the general inspirational, even if aggressively so, tone that Switchfoot sets and keeps to for the whole album. The album's most poignant moments come towards its close, with the gorgeous love song "On Fire" and the birthday reflection of "Twenty-Four". The second half of the album cools down from the high intensity soul searching of the former, and these closing moments are especially lovely, with the piano accompanied "On Fire" delivered with great passion and the introspective "Twenty-Four" recapturing the inspirational theme, but dressed up with acoustic guitar and orchestral arrangement.

While the penultimate track, "Adding to the Noise" is a slight stumble in sequencing as it's a bit anticlimactic and even suggests to turn off the song, the rest of the album is quite strong, ranging from solid album tracks like the title and "Redemption" to the winning singles. The Beautiful Letdown played a major role in keeping me inspired and asking the questions of what I wanted to make of each day for the better part of a day--and what I wanted to make of my life. And all that delivered through inspiring and enjoyable alternative rock. Which makes it a highly significant album to me personally, but also remaining one of Switchfoot's best albums to date. 9/10.

Tracklist:

  1. Meant to Live
  2. This Is Your Life
  3. More Than Fine
  4. Ammunition
  5. Dare You to Move
  6. Redemption
  7. The Beautiful Letdown
  8. Gone
  9. On Fire
  10. Adding to the Noise
  11. Twenty-four

Links:

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Kim Sarang - U Turn (2007)

After his second album, Nanotime, rocker Kim Sarang took a break from releasing new music for six years. I'm not sure if that was in part to complete compulsory military service, but is quite a long time and when he did return, he released an album called U Turn, which is a relatively apt title for the album as it reverses the course set by Nanotime, trading in the screaming rap metal for modern rock. But as this is not a sound he was unfamiliar with, U Turn turns out to be a decent listen.

Of course, it's not like Kim Sarang isn't already versed in writing and performing modern rock as it composed the second half of his debut album, I Am 18 Years Old, but it's apparent from the opening guitar rings of the first full length track on U Turn, "괜찮아", that Kim would be taking this album in a different direction. There's no screaming or aggressive guitars here, instead the song is led by Kim's soaring vocals against a field of ringing guitars and rock band basics. This basics with emotional vocal delivery approach is continued through most of the album, including on the album's main single, "위로", and it works pretty well thanks to good songwriting from Kim.

Unlike his first two albums, there isn't an abundance of instrumental tracks breaking up the music, only the titular intro track and the production heavy "Mad AI". Sometimes the music edges slightly heavier like the slashing guitars and thundering drums of "Mud Candy", but it's nothing as aggressive as his earlier albums, although there is an enjoyable little scream in the background of that song as well as a more direct and cathartic one on constantly shifting anthem "히스테리". Other times, the music gets just a little softer, appropriately on the closing track, "바오는 날", driven by acoustic guitar.

Granted, this is all kind of muting of genre that made Kim's Nanotime so interesting to me so losing screaming, aggression, and rapping almost entirely does make U Turn feel a little less distinct, especially considering the proliferation of modern rockers in Korean music at the time of U Turn's release and since. Kim again does basically everything on the album and in such still displays a good level of raw talent, but while U Turn is a good rock album and Kim's voice is pretty strong, it's simply nothing more than that. 7/10

Tracklist:

  1. U-Turn
  2. 괜찮아
  3. 히스테리
  4. 위로
  5. 하루살이
  6. 2등
  7. Yellow Planet
  8. Mad AI
  9. Mud Candy
  10. 바오는 날

Links:

Friday, June 19, 2015

Switchfoot - Learning to Breathe (2000)

You know how I mentioned that Switchfoot's New Way to Be Human played a significant role in consoling me through some tough emotional times in college? It was only the beginning. With New Way to Be Human having such a significant impact on me then, I of course had to get their third album, Learning to Breathe and it, even more than New Way to Be Human provided me both comfort and hope in a way that I've only experienced once more musically since, with Switchfoot's very own follow-up, The Beautiful Letdown. But Learning to Breathe is where it started and part of why it worked so well for me was that it was both more thematically and musically coherent than its predecessor as bandleader Jon Foreman's songwriting became even more personal, introspective, comforting, and hopeful.

This is evident from the very first track, "I Dare You to Move", which is as inspirational and hopeful a song as Switchfoot has ever made, asking us to pick ourselves up and live. So resonant was this song for the group that they remade it for their following album with the modified name "Dare You to Move". This theme of choosing to life and getting over hurt or despair continues with "Learning to Breathe", which is perhaps one of the most empathetic and comforting songs I've ever heard. The former gathers its soaring inspiration from Jon Foreman's soaring chorus and the latter its comfort from his drawn out verses expressing his great hurt into the chorus where he sings "I'm learning to breathe / I'm learning to crawl / I'm finding that you / and you alone can break my fall / I'm living again / Awake and alive / I'm dying to breathe in these abundant skies". And it's not just the lyrics that drives home this point, but down to the arrangement and the production, with its softer guitar and flanger creating the sound of wind.

This theme comprises about half the album, even as the songs change tone and mood, like the more bouncy "The Loser" harkening back to the Switchfoot of The Legend of Chin and the quieter reflection of "The Economy of Mercy". These songs, as well as the hopefully idealistic anthem "Love Is the Movement" and the surrendering "Erosion" all come together to deliver a kind of musical experience revealing Foreman's inspiring perspective and the band's sonic interpretation of it. And it's a wonderfully golden experience from start to finish.

Even in the diversions from the primary theme of the album, like on the more goofy "Poparazzi" and its focus on earworms standing in for an examination of the deep messages that pop culture instills in us about who we are, Learning to Breathe is more coherent and confident than Switchfoot's previous albums, sounding more in place with the other tracks, even though they worked with two different producers for the album.

And I think all this makes Learning to Breathe Switchfoot's first great album. One that manages to deliver both musically and lyrically a consistent overall theme and perspective through their surf and punk San Diego rock sound. And although my perspective on this album might be quite skewed by the tremendous role it played in my emotional life through a very trying point in it, I still think that Learning to Breathe is a great album for everyone, since everyone goes through hardships and can use some inspiration and hope. 10/10

Tracklist:

  1. I Dare You to Move
  2. Learning to Breathe
  3. You Already Take Me There
  4. Love Is the Movement
  5. Poparazzi
  6. Innocence Again
  7. Playing for Keeps
  8. The Loser
  9. The Economy of Mercy
  10. Erosion
  11. Living Is Simple

Links:

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Kim Sa Rang - Nanotime (2001)

Where Kim Sa Rang's debut album, I Am 18 Years Old displayed a great variety of rock sounds, ranging from harder rap metal to more standard radio friendly rock, Kim opts to give his followup album, Nanotime, a more focused approach, leading to a largely consistent album that only stumbles once.

Most of Nanotime follows in a rap metal mode, which is how Kim opens the album with "무죄" with thundering guitars before coming in with his likely Seo Taiji influenced sometimes nasal rap interchanged with bursts of monster screaming. Granted, Kim's rapping isn't entirely nasal--his voice swapping between the nasal tone, shouting, and a more straightforward delivery. It's all quite exhilarating, the machine gun of the guitars and the especially the intensity Kim brings to his vocals. It's a promising start that the album continues to deliver on, even the more cooler sung bridge has echoes later in the album.

The promise of the opening track is fulfilled in the second full song, "신의 이름으로", where Kim screams his heart out. In between is a brief interlude track, "웃어", that actually works to bridge the other songs together and is a pretty decent listen in itself, for what it is. Kim employs several interlude tracks throughout the album in a similar manner that he used the instrumentals in I Am 18 Years Old and they work well to their expected ends, sometimes acting as their own full songs, like the techno rock of "m-u=600x(d)".

In terms of the album's primary songs, Kim does keep the screaming rap metal going throughout the album, but there are a handful of diversions too, with a more straightfoward rock song in "떠나", and electronically affected rock pieces in "Never" and the appropriately titled album closer "Good Night". The one and only egregious departure from the album's core sound comes with "2", which is almost a house track and its pulsing four-to-the-floor sound alongside Kim's more pop-oriented singing and the somewhat cheesy '90's dance melody in the chorus strikes a rather sharp contrast with the push and pull of intensity and release of the rest of the album, almost deflating it in its middle.

Fortunately, most of the album works pretty well together and is otherwise quite enjoyable. And it's not that "2" is even all that bad of a song, just an ill fit for an otherwise rocking album. And it's Kim's ability to narrow down and focus on a particularly cathartic specialization of his music that makes Nanotime a solid listen. Recommended for fans of screaming rap metal with a radio-friendly side. 8/10

Tracklist:

  1. 무죄
  2. 웃어
  3. 신의 이름으로
  4. Wack
  5. 떠나
  6. D.M.A
  7. m-u=600x(d)
  8. Snob
  9. A.D 10601
  10. 2
  11. 왜?
  12. Run
  13. Never
  14. 이룰 수 없는 꿈
  15. Good Night

Links:

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Switchfoot - New Way to Be Human (1999)

Switchfoot actually played a very significant role in my emotional life through college and for a couple years immediately after college. You see, I suffered from depression for most of my childhood and it got especially bad in college and one of the few things that could salve the pain from depression, at least for a time, was music. But it wasn't just any music that would work--I specifically needed hopeful, inspirational, and introspective music--and while that wasn't quite what Switchfoot's first album, The Legend of Chin, aimed for, I picked up a copy of New Way to Be Human during my first year in college and it helped get me through some tough times and helped reinforce a thoughtful perspective on life.

New Way to Be Human is admittedly a CCM album, frequently introspecting on matters of life in relationship to God on many of its tracks, but it's lyrically that the band approaches these topics. Musically, New Way to Be Human is basically a kind of whimsical alternative rock, gaining a brightness in the production likely due to the influence of producer Charlie Peacock. This is most noticeable on the arrangement of the opening title track, with its literal bells and whistles, which adds a contrast to the trio's penchant for heavily distorted fuzzy guitars.

The moments on New Way to Be Human that manage to continue to resonate with me includes "Sooner or Later (Soren's Song)", with its hooked guitars and introspective exploration of Søren Kierkegaard ruminations on faith, a philosopher whose works had a deep impact on me in high school even through today. The points where Jonathan Foreman sings "I'm a believe / help me believe" and "give me a motive / swallow me whole" echoed deeply with my struggle with believing in both my faith and believing that my life was worth living. This is thematically echoed on "Something More (Augustine's Confession)", which ruminates on some of the works of major Christian theologian Saint Augustine, but the lyrical cry looking for the song's title was what I was looking for then as well.

I think I have listened to those two songs on the album as much as I've listened to any music even now, but those aren't the only noteworthy moments on this ten track album. "Company Car" cuts deep against falling into materialism through the voice of the one who's fallen in making excuses for it, an ironic blast music of music set against bouncy guitars and then there's "Only Hope", which got the band some mainstream attention when it was featured in the film A Walk to Remember and then covered by the film's star, Mandy Moore. It's a stirring declaration of desire for God, wrapped in a beautiful string arrangement.

Admittedly, my personal experience with the album does bias me, but the album does struggle at times with cohesion--especially in tying the contrasting sounds together in a harmonious way--sometimes I think their straightforward style is fighting against Peacock's snappy pop production, like on the title track and the followup rocker, "Incomplete", where the production effects and clean pop sound cuts against some of the authenticity of the lyrics. But part of that is also the relative immaturity of the band, which is still clearly working to solidify their sound.

But because of how significant the album was to me and still continues to speak to me today, I still think that it's a hugely successful work of music that transcends its CCM roots, especially thanks to Foreman's introspective lyrical approach. It's with New Way to Be Human that it was clear that Switchfoot actually had a shot at greater than niche genre success. And New Way to Be Human remains an excellent listen for those that like thoughtful, philosophical, and meaningful lyrics tied to expressive alternative rock. 8/10

Tracklist:

  1. New Way to Be Human
  2. Incomplete
  3. Sooner or Later (Soren's Song)
  4. Company Car
  5. Let That Be Enough
  6. Something More (Augustine's Confession)
  7. Only Hope
  8. Amy's Song
  9. I Turn Everything Over
  10. Under the Floor

Links: