I’m keeping a list of all the new (released in 2014) albums I listen to this year. I started keeping track to make the process of picking my year-end top 10 easier, but it’s turned into this great motivator — how many can I get to by December 31? It’s shallow to view someone else’s art as an opportunity to drive up a personal statistic, but I’d guess (this is the first time I’ve kept track like this, so I can’t be sure) that I’ve already surpassed the number of new albums I listened to last year, so this whole list-keeping thing can’t be all bad.
My biggest ally in this effort has been NPR’s First Listen series. A fresh handful of albums becomes available for streaming each Sunday night/Monday morning, which tends to make the transition out of the weekend a little more pleasant. And NPR’s been on a roll — First Aid Kit, Hamilton Leithauser, Conor Oberst, Sylvan Esso, Sturgill Simpson… it’s been a gold mine lately. It’s grown into a vital wellspring, and the fact that I’ve never made it all the way through a week’s offerings gives it a bottomless feel (as does the stylistic diversity).
I was excited to see that NPR posted PHOX’s self-titled debut this week. I heard a little about the band during a recent episode of Sound Opinions, but not much, and I dove into the First Listen without reading the accompanying write-up, which makes what happened next so remarkable.
As I was listening (and enjoying a great deal), I was thinking about what I’d say if I wrote about PHOX. I mulled over how calm and assured Monica Martin’s voice sounded throughout. How even the songs with busier arrangements seemed studied and strategic. I came away thinking that this is a band with poise — a trait I usually only spend time considering when watching awards show performances or national anthems sung before sports events. But PHOX’s brand of poise has more to do with creativity. It’s subtle, but I can almost feel it — the confidence in decisions, the connection between ideas and execution. It’s not something you’d expect from a debut effort, that’s for sure.
For whatever reason, when I was done, I decided to look at NPR’s write-up, which was penned by Stephen Thompson. What I found was uncanny — Thompson used language like “approachably stylish calm” and “dazzles with maximum gentility” — I couldn’t believe how close to home his words hit. This first paragraph really nailed it:
The word “charisma” is often used to imply a certain kind of attention-grabbing showiness, or even neediness. But it can also suggest subtle ease; a simple gravitational pull that draws people in by making them feel comfortable and at home.
I just love that idea, and I love even more that you can develop this fuzzy, abstract impression from listening to a piece of music and find out later that someone else had the same experience with it. That kind of connection strikes me as so powerful. Not only does it suggest that we’re not as alone as it feels sometimes, it also suggests that there are forces (just like gravity or magnetism) acting on all music fans equally — an invisible field of objective truth flowing through us as we have these wonderfully subjective reactions to the songs and albums we hear. (Sorry, I’ve been watching Cosmos quite a bit lately, and all I can think about is space and how awesome Neil deGrasse Tyson is.)
Maybe you’ll have a totally different reaction — in fact, the song I’m posting below is a bit of an outlier, sounding much poppier than most of the other tracks, so you may not hear the same poise I hear. But that’s OK! As they say on Sound Opinions, “Everyone’s a critic.” That’s part of the fun, and every interpretation is worthwhile.