On May 11, Quiet Company will release a six-song EP called Songs for Staying In. I’m not big on recommending records that, technically speaking, aren’t out yet – when magazines like Rolling Stone do this, it bugs me, because I want to hear what they’re talking about RIGHT NOW. I’m making an exception in this case for two reasons. One, the band is offering a free download of the EP immediately upon purchase, so you can, in fact, hear it now.
And two, it’s pretty damn great.
I’m running out of superlatives for QuietCo leader Taylor Muse, one of the best new songwriters to emerge in ages. Last year, the band’s second album Everyone You Love Will Be Happy Soon came within inches of the #1 spot on my top 10 list, on the strength of Muse’s unfailingly smart and melodic songs. On that album, Muse tackled faith and family and the state of the world with thoughtful and graceful lyrics, and the music… well, I still find these songs getting stuck in my head.
On Songs for Staying In, Muse puts aside all those weighty concerns, and composes a series of simple and beautiful love letters. It’s striking how contented he sounds here. Opener “How Do You Do It” is about the unending wonder of waking up next to the one you love. “Oh, you never leave my head, so let’s never leave the bed, at least for a while…,” Muse coos, and with one notable exception, that sets the tone for the EP. The music is joyous and grand, the horns coming in at just the right time, the guitars ringing out a Beatlesque romp.
Three of these six songs are rejects from the Everyone You Love sessions, but you’d never know it. They stand up proudly next to the new ones here. “Things You Already Know,” especially, is wonderful, orchestrated with horns and oboes – it’s like a missing Wings track. (Although the line “Life is always better when you’re fairly obscene” probably wouldn’t make it into a Macca song. Still…) The tune ends with a kazoo chorus that’ll make you grin for an hour.
For all the pomp and circumstance in these 28 minutes, my favorite thing here is “Hold My Head Above the Water,” a romantic acoustic ditty that features the singing debut of Muse’s wife, Leah. “Do you want to love me forever,” Taylor asks, and Leah responds, “I do, I do.” I know how it sounds, but it’s simply lovely. The heartwarming tone extends to the six-minute “If You Want,” which recalls the “nation of two” motif from Everyone You Love, and the epic closer, “The Biblical Sense of the Word.” I love that title, because it leads you to expect something sexual, and delivers a message of undying, unconditional adoration: “We make our lives worth living when we love each other…”
All of which makes the inclusion of “Jezebel” curious to me. It’s the oldest song here, and it has quite the subtitle: “A Song for My Friend About that Whore He Dated.” It’s a bitter, biting piece of music, its main character wishing he was dead, and imagining his girlfriend having sex with someone else. It ends with a plaintive, despairing “Come back to me,” and I can only think that this song is here for contrast. It’s a cautionary tale in the middle of a honeymoon, and it’s jarring. But the song is great.
Muse has said these songs are not his best work, and I can’t argue with him. This is the simplest and slightest QuietCo effort yet. But second-tier Taylor Muse songs still outdo most of what you can pick up in the record store on any given day. As a breather between main projects, Songs for Staying In is marvelous. Unabashedly romantic, in love with life, and as usual, chock full of some of the most delightful melodies anywhere.
With all that, you’d think Quiet Company would be more famous, and Songs for Staying In would be everywhere on its release date. It is, however, a self-distributed affair, and the best place to get it is the band’s website. There’s nothing wrong with self-releasing and building up a fanbase – it’s how some of my favorite artists, like Aimee Mann and Marillion, do it. But my secret wish is for millions of people to hear Quiet Company’s work, and fall in love with it, like I have. I guess that has to happen slowly, one new fan at a time.
And that, by the way, is your cue.
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I know I promised a look at three live albums this week, and believe me, that was the original plan. But a funny thing happened while I was listening and taking notes: I found I only really wanted to talk about one of them. So that’s what I’m going to do. You can find smaller reviews of the other two, from the Weakerthans and the Pet Shop Boys, on my blog.
The one that’s truly captured my attention, though, is Dan Wilson’s Live at the Pantages.
Chances are you probably only know Dan Wilson as the leader of Semisonic. That band scored two massive hits with “Closing Time” and “Singing in My Sleep” in 1998, and the album those songs call home, Feeling Strangely Fine, was a mainstay of college and alternative radio at the time. It was also very good, and even though most had never heard of him before, it was a long-awaited moment in the sun for Wilson, a hard-working and very talented songwriter.
Before Semisonic, Wilson and his brother Matt were in a band called Trip Shakespeare, and they made four increasingly great records together. With Semisonic, Wilson made three, and an EP. All of them are worth hearing, even the last one, 2001’s bloated-yet-underrated All About Chemistry. And three years ago, Wilson released his first solo album, Free Life. Point is, the man’s been around for a long time, plying his trade.
Live at the Pantages is where it all comes together. Recorded in Minneapolis in 2008, this double-disc set makes the case for Dan Wilson, Awesome Songwriter. He digs deep into his catalog, resurrecting songs from both his prior bands, and playing collaborative tunes he’s composed with other writers through the years. But he mainly focuses on Free Life, and those songs are a revelation. Freed from their fussy studio arrangements, they come alive, and they sound amazing.
The album is divided into a solo acoustic set and a full band set, with longtime bassist John Munson (who was in Trip Shakespeare and Semisonic) along for the ride. The solo set gets right to the heart of the songs, and Wilson comes across as funny, charming and self-effacing. When he slips a bit from “Tangled Up in Blue” into opener “Hand on My Heart,” you know you’re in for something fun.
He then takes you on a trip through three related tunes, from three different phases of his career – it’s amazing that I never saw these connections before. One of these songs is “California,” a Semisonic number that has taken up permanent residence in my heart for more than 10 years. Wilson brings out the piano for “One True Love,” a sweet song he co-wrote with Carole King, and “Honey Please,” one of the highlights of Free Life. On that record, the song was obscured behind strings and vibes, but here, the soul of it is bared, and it’s lovely. I laughed out loud at his comment on the signature piano riff – of course he couldn’t stop playing it. It’s a great, circular thing.
The band set is louder, but just as intimate, if that makes sense. It concentrates on Free Life songs like “Against History” and “Baby Doll,” but these tunes sound resurrected, like they’ve crawled out of their tombs and brushed the dirt off. I can’t emphasize enough just how much better these loose, lively arrangements are than the ones on the proper record. Wilson makes his second Dylan reference of the night, covering “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight,” and whips out a new original, “Everything Green.”
The set closes with “All Kinds,” the opening song of Free Life, and Wilson gets the audience to sing along. Now, I’m a sucker for audience participation anyway, but I was left with a wide, wide grin after the last crowd choir chorus faded. It was just the perfect way to end this. I’ve been singing Dan Wilson’s praises for a long, long time, and with Live at the Pantages, he’s made it easy for me. If you want to hear an underrated songwriter at the top of his game, and listen to a master charm an audience at the same time, you couldn’t do much better than this. Go here and give it a try.
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You know the drill by now. Here’s the next installment in my top 20 of the 2000s. I’m sure to get letters for this one…
#8. Joanna Newsom, Ys (2006).
I know a number of people who still think I was kidding when I named this the best album of 2006. Hopefully, this will put an end to that rumor. I love this album, completely and unreservedly.
I can see why many don’t take to Newsom, though. I have yet to find a way to describe what she does and make it sound appealing. Here goes one more try: Newsom plays the harp like an angel, sings like a drunken 10-year-old, writes long and twisty songs about stuffed animals and astronomy, and doesn’t seem to care if you get it or not. On this album, she worked with both Steve Albini and Van Dyke Parks, two names I never thought I’d see together, and she brings their styles together with her own beautifully.
Ys is five lengthy songs, most of them hovering around the 10-minute mark, and the ravishing “Only Skin” stretching to 17. It is performed entirely on harp and orchestra – none of the drums, guitars and pianos that cropped up on her subsequent record, Have One on Me. And yet, there isn’t one boring second here. The songs are long and winding odes, ducking down detours only to meet up with their main motifs later. Each one is perfectly composed, melodic and dramatic, and each takes its time unfolding.
If that weren’t enough to turn away the casual listener, there is Newsom’s voice. On Have One on Me, she refined her vocal instrument, wielding it like a well-forged sword. Here, though, it is a chirpy, unbridled thing, squeaking and yelping and slipping off notes. But somehow, that only adds to the inexplicable wonder of this album. Newsom sounds alien somehow, like an ambassador from another realm where everyday music sounds like this.
Van Dyke Parks contributes string arrangements to four of these five songs, and they’re amazing. The scary storybook “Monkey and Bear” benefits immensely from the power of the orchestra, and “Only Skin” slips from beautiful to explosive in heartbeats, thanks to the arrangements. Even the raw-throated plea of “Cosmia” (“And I miss your precious heart”) takes on even more force with the surging strings behind Newsom’s breaking voice.
But it’s “Sawdust and Diamonds” that takes the prize for me, and that one’s just 10 minutes of Newsom and her harp, alone. An almost crushingly beautiful piece, it builds and breaks magnificently, the ever-moving harp trills cascading into rushing waterfalls, then backing off again. It’s proof that the magic here is all Newsom, not her collaborators, and bodes well for what I hope is a long career. In fact, Have One on Me currently sits atop my 2010 top 10 list, and though it’s a touch too long, it’s still extraordinary music.
But it doesn’t quite top Ys. In 50 minutes here, Joanna Newsom proved herself a visionary talent, a writer and player of remarkable skill. She’s all alone on her own island, making the music she wants to hear, and though I’m sure she’s hoping we want to hear it too, our reactions to it don’t matter. It will be as strange and beautiful as she wants it to be, without compromise. That’s the mark of a great artist, one who will be around for decades to come. And I’ll be right there with her, aching to hear more.
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I know the column’s already pretty long, but I wanted to share a few thoughts about The Eleventh Hour before I go.
It is perhaps no coincidence that I spent Easter morning watching the resurrection of one of my favorite television shows. Doctor Who entered its 31st season over the weekend with two new lead actors and a new head writer and producer. It was, in every way, a rebirth for a show that had grown somewhat predictable and stale over the past year. As much as I love the 10th Doctor, David Tennant, by the end of his time, his performance – and the writing of showrunner Russell T. Davies – had revealed its last facet. It was time for new blood.
And man oh man, did we get it. The 11th Doctor is Matt Smith. He’s 27 years old, making him the first Doctor younger than the show, in season terms. (In actual year-to-year terms, both Christopher Eccleston and Tennant are younger than the 47-year-old program.) I was worried about this gangly, awkward-looking kid taking on the part, but from the first moment, he simply was the Doctor. He has the old-man-in-a-young-man’s body thing down, and his physical goofiness contrasted nicely with his inner confidence.
And he sported suspenders, a tweed jacket and a bow tie! You can’t get more Doctor-ish than that.
Seriously, within 10 minutes, all my fears went out the window. New showrunner Steven Moffat, who has been the best Who writer since the show came back in 2005, played to his own strengths: The Eleventh Hour found him using time travel to create an instantly deep relationship with Karen Gillan’s Amy Pond, and casting a dangerous light on another common everyday thing, a crack in the wall. But it worked marvelously. Gillan acquitted herself well too, although I’m not likely to complain about the presence of a lovely Scottish redhead, am I?
Regeneration stories are, in a sense, all the same. The plot is lightweight, just an excuse to introduce the new Doctor to the audience. The Eleventh Hour followed this formula, but rose above it at the same time – the story was interesting enough, but the characters and the dialogue were fantastic. And I couldn’t take my eyes off of Matt Smith. Some have already compared Smith’s debut to Tom Baker taking over for Jon Pertwee in 1974 – a beloved and long-running Doctor being replaced by an unknown, who quickly eclipses his predecessor and redefines the role. We could be watching Who history.
Above all, though, The Eleventh Hour was boatloads of fun. I even broke into applause at one point. It was the strongest start for a new Doctor in… well, probably ever, and the next 12 weeks look like quite a ride. After months of worry, it’s clear my show is in safe hands. Matt Smith is the Doctor, and he is brilliant.
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Next week, a smorgasbord, with Jonsi (of Sigur Ros), Evelyn Evelyn, MGMT, and maybe Black Prairie. Who? What? Tune in next week to find out. Leave a comment on my blog at tm3am.blogspot.com. Follow my infrequent twitterings at www.twitter.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.