I’m just barely over a nasty stomach flu as I write this, so please forgive any lapses in logic and grammar in what follows. (Sure, you say, but what excuse do you have for the other 160-odd columns? Har de har…)
Regular readers can expect to get sick of references to Marillion and their new album in the coming weeks, but Tuesday Morning is intended as a document of one music fan’s excitement regarding new tunes, and this music fan is more excited by the impending arrival of Marbles than by anything else on the horizon at the moment. The pre-release version of the album, specially made for those who pre-ordered last year, is being packaged right now (like, right now), and a copy should be in my greedy little hands in two or three weeks, if luck holds. It’s a double album, two hours long, packaged in a 128-page hardcover book with my name in it (as well as that of everyone who pre-ordered). So, yay for me!
I had to go to a Dutch radio station online to track down the first broadcast of the single, as well, but I did it. “You’re Gone” is a classic – it sounds just like Pop-era U2 should have, with a neat breakbeat, some atmospheric keyboards, supple guitar work by Steve Rothery and a typically emotional vocal from Steve Hogarth. There’s a massive campaign going on at marillion.com to get this single into the UK charts, and I think the band has made a superb choice. This is a song that plays to non-fans while still retaining almost everything that’s great about Marillion’s shorter works.
Since the band seems intent on not posting soundclips until the single comes out on April 19, you’ll have to either find it online or take my word for it. But this song, I think, will sell this record, and that fills me with absurd joy. Marillion has been too good for too long to languish in obscurity, and if the rest of Marbles lives up to what I’ve heard so far, it’s going to be magic. Stay tuned.
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Just by coincidence, I have three new albums by three men who write acoustic-based folk-pop this week. First up is Peter Mulvey.
I’m fond of saying that Mulvey is the best-kept secret in New England, but since he moved back to Milwaukee last year, that’s no longer true. He is, however, still a very well-kept secret, a condition that really should have changed by now. And if any album should have done it for him, it should have been The Trouble With Poets, his excellent 2000 release. There was nothing at all wrong with that album – in fact, it represented a culmination point for Mulvey’s melodic songwriting, a combination of acoustic guitar heroics, lovely atmospheres and his commanding baritone voice.
Poets also presented a newfound focus for Mulvey. Whereas previous albums like Rapture and Deep Blue found him experimenting with styles and tones, Poets felt consistent, like a single thought. Going back and listening again, I found that it’s not any less stylistically diverse – sweet ballads like “Tender Blindspot” sit next to spoken rants like “Bright Idea” – but it feels more complete, somehow. Poets is a wonderful, mature record that announced an arrival after years of searching.
Mulvey seems to feel the same way. Since Poets came out, he’s been searching again, releasing Ten Thousand Mornings, a covers album recorded in the Boston subway stations, and collaborating on Redbird, a folksy collection of covers and originals, with Kris Delmhorst and Jeffrey Foucault. That restless spirit is in evidence on Kitchen Radio, Mulvey’s first all-new album in four years. Once again, he’s all over the map.
Kitchen Radio is a softer, lighter collection than Poets, one that rocks only occasionally, preferring to shuffle or waft along amiably. In many ways, it’s a deeper record, but it feels like a breezy ride on first few listens. Opener “Road to Mallow” is an airy travelogue with lovely understated guitars by Mulvey and longtime collaborator David Goodrich. The drums kick in on “Shirt,” the first single, but they don’t raise a ruckus until “29 Cent Head,” the third track. It’s a nicely cresting wave of an opening trilogy, one that doesn’t immediately grab but sinks in slowly.
Elsewhere Mulvey brings the moody (“Falling,” “You”), takes his lovely American melodic folk voice out for a spin (“Charlie”), and even delivers his first instrumental since the early days (“Bloomington”). He’s constantly shifting gears here, putting Radio more in line with a quieter take on Rapture than any other of his previous records. This is not a bad thing by any means, and in fact it just confirms that we’re in phase two of Mulvey’s journey. And so far, phase two is off to a much less rocky start than phase one.
Kitchen Radio is a grower, no question. Pieces of it, like the sprightly closer “Sad, Sad, Sad, Sad and Faraway From Home,” are immediately delightful, but as a whole, it needs a few listens. Those who jumped aboard with Poets and expect more witty, folksy rock from Mulvey might be surprised at the sparseness and depth of this album, but given time, it makes its case beautifully. The album is not without its spot-on observations of the stupidity of modern life, either – “Shops are full of nothing and the streets are full of fear, and if we’re all so connected why can’t we just get near,” he sings on “29 Cent Head.” It’s just that this time around he’s more about sweetness and simplicity.
Bottom line – Mulvey’s turned in another winner here, and while it sounds much less likely to bring him the attention he deserves, it’s a more open and natural portrait of where he is now. Mulvey is often about places, and about putting the listener there, but he’s just as often about opening his life and putting the listener in there as well. In many ways, Kitchen Radio is the most honest, homespun, natural album he has made, and while these songs may take a bit longer to get to know, they’re worth the time.
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Grant-Lee Phillips has a voice that can best be described as incontrovertible.
Everything this man sings sounds more true than truth, more honest than honesty. It’s a powerful weapon, no doubt, and for more than a decade Phillips has been wielding it with grace and respect. He first came to prominence as the frontman for Grant Lee Buffalo, whose 1993 debut Fuzzy is still considered by many to be one of the best records of the ‘90s. I am fonder of Mighty Joe Moon and the band’s buzzing swan song, Jubilee, but GLB had a great run.
Since then, Phillips has quietly kept the fires burning with his own albums. Last year’s Mobilize was a feast for the ears, production-wise, but Phillips’ voice always seems better suited to stripped-down arrangements. Hence Virginia Creeper, his third solo disc, and by far the best of the bunch. Here Phillips employs a scattered group of folk musicians to make a sparse, loose, live-sounding acoustic album that matches his older-than-his-40-years voice perfectly.
Opener “Mona Lisa” even sounds like a classic folk song. I first heard it on a recent episode of Gilmore Girls, and if not for Phillips’ unmistakable voice, I’d have sworn it was some grand old chestnut that I’d somehow overlooked. That’s just how his songs work – they feel instantly reverential, like something passed down through generations, something that taps into the very roots of folk and rock music. There are very few modern musicians with this ability – only Bill Mallonee and Gillian Welch come to mind, really – and to Phillips’ credit, he’s never wasted it.
Virginia Creeper is yet another fine group of songs. No one-off novelty tunes or experiments for Phillips – he’s always been about getting to the heart of the song. The 10 originals here are more subdued than normal, but each sounds drawn from some carefully-guarded well of American music, the same bottomless reservoir that has fed everyone from Bob Dylan to Wilco. Just check out the timeless lilt of “Always Friends,” or the simple yet effective strum of “Calamity Jane.” Dig the banjos and slide guitar all over “Josephine of the Swamps.” And while you’re at it, listen to Phillips’ flawless falsetto on “Waking Memory” and try not to be moved.
This is exactly the sort of album someone with the voice of Grant-Lee Phillips should be making. It wears its allegiance to earthy, honest music on its sleeve, and makes its way with no pretensions. It even concludes with a winning rendition of Gram Parsons’ “Hickory Wind,” which sounds all the classier for its inclusion. I don’t want to oversell this – at its core, Virginia Creeper is an album of simple songs, simply delivered. But really, that’s what makes it so special. If it were this easy to make songs like these breathe and ring with conviction, then more people would be doing it. Since it’s not, I’m thankful that at least Grant-Lee Phillips is still making records like this one.
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Of all the frontmen of all the grunge-pop bands of the ‘90s, I think it’s safe to say that Brian Vander Ark ranks pretty near the bottom of those expected to launch a successful solo career.
Yet here he is, with a decent little album called Resurrection. You may remember Vander Ark (or you may not) as the voice of the Verve Pipe, who hit huge with “The Freshman” in 1996, then drifted away. Well, they didn’t drift – they wrote and recorded two more albums, both better than the one that spawned their hit. The 20 or so people who heard Underneath, their 2002 album, will tell you that there’s a reason Vander Ark’s fans consider him vastly underrated.
Resurrection is surprising – it’s almost entirely acoustic-based, it only cranks up the tempos a few times, and its melodies are clever and winding. It’s a remarkably hushed album, made up primarily of sad, sweet ballads, delivered in Vander Ark’s atypical voice. The focus here is on the songwriting, which is quite strong – no surprise to Verve Pipe fans, especially of the latter albums. What’s interesting is how little of his former band’s sound he brought with him. Only the title track really screams Verve Pipe.
Specifically, the strongest area of Vander Ark’s writing is his vocal melodies. Listen as the melody line weaves in and out of the simple chords on “And Then You Went Away.” Vander Ark knows how to avoid cliché even when working within typical structures, the mark of any good pop songsmith. Lyrically, he’s grown significantly here – “Written and Erased” is a rueful glance back at his pop stardom, “When I’m Gone” is a plaintive plea for loved ones to remember him, and “Someone Like You” is that rarest of love songs that finds a new way to say the same old thing: “Heaven help the world when you’re no longer for our eyes, heaven rain the colors down to form another prize, she better be someone like you…”
Resurrection is a solid first stab from Brian Vander Ark, one that hopefully will lead to a fruitful solo career. This guy has always been more than “The Freshman,” and while he may never escape the curse of the one-hit wonder, if he keeps making albums like this one he can leave his past behind.
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Next week, the Cure, I think.
See you in line Tuesday morning.