Steven Wilson – The Future Bites
When Steven Wilson released his EP The B-Sides Collection late last year ahead of this new LP, The Future Bites, for me it was easily among the best of the year. My review in Copper Issue 127 was nothing short of a flat-out rave, and I’ve been waiting in rapt anticipation for the full album to arrive. If the finished project proved to be anywhere nearly as exhilarating a listen as the B-Sides proved to be, it would definitely be on my early short list for best of 2021. The wait is now over!
The B-Sides Collection included four non-album tracks that highlighted the same musical brilliance that Steven Wilson has shown in all his past endeavors; the songwriting and instrumentation offered a surprisingly entertaining blend of electronic pop, rock, and prog. Only one of the four songs from the EP, “King Ghost,” actually appears on the new album, albeit in a much truncated version compared to the nine-plus-minute remix featured on the EP. That said, The Future Bites is maybe a bit disappointing to me in that most of the tracks clock in at anywhere from three to four-or-so minutes in length – being an old-school progger at heart, I’m generally not at all unhappy with tunes that spread across an entire album side. And the shortened song lengths give the album much more of a poppy feel – yeah, it’s a Steven Wilson album, but it just doesn’t have the extended grooves of, say a Porcupine Tree album, or even The B-Sides Collection, for that matter. The only song of any length is “Personal Shopper” at over nine minutes, and it’s more typical of what one has come to expect from SW. The album only clocks in at a shade over 41 minutes, which is kind of brief in terms of what I was expecting to see (and hear!) based on the EP – its shortest song was six minutes.
Regardless, the songs here are good, if not generally great, in spite of the pop-ish musical direction and the lack of extended instrumental embellishment. This would probably be a great record to hear live in concert. And the album has the deepest bass you’ll hear outside of anything other than maybe a Kraftwerk disc – my whole house shook like never before while The Future Bites was playing. And, of course, if you spring for the Blu-ray disc, I’m hoping you’d get all the extended remixes as part of the package, though I haven’t been able to confirm that. At the very least, if you have a streaming account, you can always hear the accompanying tracks from the EP to help supplement what is regrettably a pretty short album experience. The Future Bites is definitely Steven Wilson lite.
The album has been released in probably the largest selection of format variants I’ve ever seen for a recent release; you can take your pick of CD, standard 180-gram LP, limited-edition red vinyl LP, Blu-ray Pure Audio disc, or cassette. And there are a variety of bundles available that combine either/or the LP version with the CD and/or cassette and/or Blu-ray. If that’s not enough, there’s also a limited-edition box set that combines everything in deluxe packaging. Steven Wilson definitely gives you lots of choices! I did all my listening with the 24/96 digital stream from Qobuz, and the sound quality was beyond superb, so unless you’re obsessed with beautiful objects (like LPs!), what else could you ask for? In spite of my misgivings about the album with regard to its thematic content and its relative brevity, The Future Bites (especially when in combination with the EP material) is nonetheless recommended.
Arts & Crafts Productions, CD/LP/limited-edition LP/Blu-ray/cassette/limited-edition box set, various bundles (download/streaming [24/96] from Qobuz, Tidal, Amazon, Google Play Music, Pandora, Deezer, Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube, TuneIn)
The Staves – Good Woman
The Staves are an English trio of sisters, Emily, Jessica, and Camilla Stavely-Taylor; they originally toured as folk trio the Stavely-Taylors, and about a decade ago shortened the name to simply the Staves. Renowned for their angelic vocal harmonies, they’ve been in constant demand for a bevy of mainstream artists, and have provided background vocals for the likes of Tom Jones (yes, that Tom Jones!), Leonard Cohen, Lucy Rose, and Bruce Hornsby. Good Woman is the group’s fifth studio album, and is a significant departure from the folkish and even somewhat jazzy presentations that have populated much of their body of work. Originally designated to be self-produced by the Staves, somewhat late in the process they brought on John Congleton (St. Vincent, Sharon Van Etten) to take over the production chores. He’s crafted a record that’s nothing like anything else in their album catalog; if they wanted to break the mold with a bold move into a more pop/rock-oriented direction, Good Woman definitely accomplishes that.
Apparently, there was some personal turmoil prior to the recording process: first their mom’s tragic death, then sister Emily gave birth and needed to take a year off, and another sister was going through the end of a five-year relationship. The sisters had already started to take a more adventurous approach to their pure folk stylings with the 2017 album The Way is Read, which featured some almost avant-garde jazz and classically-influenced musical accompaniment. They wanted the new record to express how they were dealing with the emotional baggage they were facing from controlling exes, gender inequality, and the travails of motherhood. And perhaps a more abrupt shift in their musical direction – and a new producer – might help them accomplish that.
Unfortunately, I don’t think bringing John Congleton aboard was the correct decision for the group. His over-the-top production style, with almost unbearably ultra-deep bass and cavernous drums mixed to near-confrontational levels, just doesn’t mesh well with the Staves’ incredible vocal harmonies. Those harmonies are still there, they’re just almost completely drowned out by the accompaniment, which is often excessive. This album came highly recommended to me, but based on my impressions of them from the past – like the live album, Pine Hollow (2018), which is a showcase of the group’s incredible vocal talents – I’m having a tough time getting on board. YMMV, and the 24/44.1 digital stream was decent quality, but the overproduced music completely got in the way of my enjoyment of the album.
Atlantic Records, CD/LP (download/streaming [24/44.1] from Qobuz, Tidal, Amazon, Google Play Music, Deezer, Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube, TuneIn)
Hayley Williams – Flowers For Vases/descanos
Hayley Williams is mostly well known for her sometimes over-the-top vocal histrionics with the band Paramore; they’ve been on hiatus since 2019, but the band members have made statements online that they’ll return when the time is right. And, of course, there’s the pandemic that’s throwing a monkey wrench into the existence of just about every band and performer out there. Hayley Williams hasn’t been satisfied to sit around during the pandemic; she released an excellent EP late last year, Petals For Armor, and this new release, Flowers For Vases/descanos, is something of an extension of that effort. It's also an unannounced, almost complete surprise to her (and Paramore’s) fans.
Like just about everyone else, Hayley Williams has been holed up in her (Nashville) residence, where she has a fully-equipped home studio. The time has given her an opportunity to chill and reflect on the nature of her (and our) existence, and on recording the new record, and she recently released a statement regarding that process: “For me, there’s no better way to tackle these individual subjects other than holistically. The ways I’ve been given time (forcibly, really) to stew on certain pains long enough to understand that they in fact, need to be released…indefinitely. I may never have been offered such a kindness; an opportunity to tend to the seeds I’d planted, to harvest, and to weed or prune what is no longer alive, in order to make space for the living. I wrote and performed this album in its entirety. That’s a career first for me. I recorded it at my home in Nashville, the home at which I’ve resided since Paramore released After Laughter. 2020 was really hard but I’m alive and so my job is to keep living and help others to do the same.”
Flowers For Vases/descanos was produced in Hayley’s home studio by Daniel James (Miley Cyrus, Britney Spears, Selena Gomez, Nicky Minaj, The Veronicas). The album reflects her process of basically dealing with the isolation of quarantine, and all the free time one has to work through all the personal stuff that one rarely has time to confront in a more normal reality. The album’s subtext, descanos, is the Spanish word for “a break,” or “rest,” or it can also refer to a cross that’s been placed at the site of an unanticipated death. And it’s intended here as a metaphor with regard not only to her relationship with Paramore, but also with the extended break imposed on everyone by the pandemic.
Impressively, Hayley Williams wrote all the songs here, and played all the instruments. This is an amazingly great-sounding album, and her skill as both a vocalist and musician is on full display here. The record is much more laid back and introspective than the typical fare from Paramore, but everything works perfectly, and, more surprisingly, she’s a really great singer, even in the much more intimate setting offered by Flowers For Vases/descanos. She takes on the mantle of plaintive, confessional songwriter, and makes it work — she completely owns it here, and makes no apologies. The opening of “HYD” is perhaps one of the most impressively realistic representations of a singer accompanied by an acoustic guitar I’ve ever heard on my home stereo — this is a really great sounding album!
The 24/96 digital stream via Qobuz was impressively musical and dynamic; Flowers For Vases/descanos may not be particularly typical of anything from Hayley Williams or Paramore, but it's a very well-recorded album, and the digital stream from Qobuz presents it in its full glory. Although there’s no current information available regarding a CD or LP, her last EP from late last year, Petals For Armor, was made available in most formats, including cassette, so I expect the same for this excellent release. Highly recommended.
Atlantic Records, (download/streaming [24/96] from Qobuz, Tidal, Amazon, Google Play Music, Deezer, Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube, TuneIn)
Header image of The Staves courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Justin Higuchi, cropped to fit format.