This is my 500th Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. column.
Well, not really. I’m not counting the first iteration, which appeared bi-weekly in Face Magazine in 1999 and 2000. I did 50 or so of those. And I’m not counting several extra columns, like the Lost essay, that I’ve done for this site. But I’ve been keeping count of the regular weekly missives, and between November 29, 2000, and August 18, 2010, I’ve written 500 of them.
Yeah, I know. It kind of amazes me, too.
Sometimes it feels like an entire lifetime has passed – I feel like a completely different person than the one who first bitched about the quality of 2000’s music and gave big ups to Everclear, and my life has changed in ways both small and significant since then. But sometimes I feel like the same eccentric music nerd I’ve always been, spending huge amounts of money and time on this thing that makes me happier than anything else. I started the first Face Magazine edition of this column by quoting Frank Zappa: “Music is the best.” It’s still true for me.
I still get excited over new songs like a three-year-old at Christmas. I’m not sure how the people in my life put up with me – I know my exuberance can be annoying. But hearing a song in which everything comes together, and my spine tingles and that big, goofy grin spreads across my face, well, there’s just nothing better. I own probably 200,000 songs at this point, and the good ones still make me smile, make me dance, make me love life. The ones that really stick, the songs I’ve carried with me through years and states and jobs and relationships, those are the ones I treasure most.
A 500th column is one of those “look back on your life” kind of occasions, and I’ve been thinking a lot, not only about the music I love, but about the people I’ve met through that love. There are so many amazing people in my life that I never would have met if not for my fascination with all things musical. One who immediately springs to mind is Dr. Tony Shore, who runs ObviousPop. I’ve met the good Doctor in person only twice, and stayed at his house once, but I hang on his every recommendation, and when we get to talk music, I cherish those conversations.
I started thinking about the first person I met through music, and it was probably Chris Callaway.
Granted, we probably would have met each other anyway. Our parents went to the same church, and we were in all the same Sunday school classes. But Chris and I bonded over our shared love of incredibly crappy Christian music. Well, sort of – he was into bands like Jerusalem, and I, as a socially-inept sixth-grader, really liked Petra. I made fun of some of Chris’ favorites, but without him, I might not have discovered one of my favorite bands of all time, the Alarm. Chris loaned me his cassette copy of Eye of the Hurricane when we were both 13, and I never looked back. I had to have everything this band had ever done.
Chris and I were in an amazingly awful Christian band together in junior high school. It was called M.D., which sometimes stood for Ministry of Deliverance and sometimes Missing a Drummer, since we used my crappy keyboard’s programmed drum patterns. (To our detractors, we were Masturbating Dickheads, a much better suggestion than any I’ve come up with.) Chris played bass, I played keys, we both sang. If I recall correctly, Chris was our original lead singer, and he took up bass as a secondary thing.
But he stuck with it. Last time I saw Chris was five years ago, when we journeyed to Cornerstone together. He lives in Colorado now, and he’s in a new band called Able Archer, named (I presume) after the code for war games NATO played in the ‘80s. Chris never fails to send me the latest Able Archer product, and I never fail to put off listening to it, because I’m a lazy prick. But I’ve been spinning the latest, a four-song EP called Arc 01, pretty regularly for the past couple of weeks, and I think it’s marvelous.
One thing in its favor – none of these four songs sound alike. Opener “In Support of the Steady State Theory” is a madcap, groove-laden romp, the twin guitars of Matt Huseman and Chad Lindberg zipping through a killer little riff. It’s a first-rate production, too, with something to catch your ear every few seconds. Best of all is a section where everything drops out except Huseman’s voice, singing the melody before la-da-da-ing the main riff. The lyrics appear to outdo Andy Partridge’s “We’re All Light,” using scientific theory as pickup lines. The chorus is remarkably straightforward: “I want to make it with you.”
“Mouthful of Knives” is my favorite, an electric-piano lullaby that cribs its sound and scope from OK Computer, while “Currency” brings things down to earth with an appealing college-rock vibe. Closer “A List of My Demands” brings in more of an electronic element, balanced off by more quirky guitar work and a nice falsetto melody. These four songs are apparently the first taster of a full-length called Today We Are Faster Than Technology, and I’m looking forward to hearing the whole thing.
And if I hadn’t met Chris Callaway in Sunday school, and formed two bands with him (oh, yes, didn’t I mention side project Obliterator? It was at least as bad as it sounds…), I might never have heard Able Archer at all. Chris became a top-notch bass player, by the way, and I’m hoping he hits it big, so I can blackmail him with old recordings from his formative years. I never would, though, since my own contributions to those specimens are embarrassing in the extreme.
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I all but gave up making my own music some time ago, although I did stick with it for a while. I was in a vulgar band called Replacement Harry and the Losers’ Club in high school, I wrote a musical in college, and I made hours upon hours of instrumental electronic frippery after that. No, you can’t hear any of it. I wrote songs for both of my parents’ weddings, and new songs keep threatening to come out every once in a while, but I’ve discovered I’m most comfortable as an appreciator and commenter.
My first (and so far, only) full-time paying gig as a music reviewer was with Face Magazine in Portland, Maine, from 1996 to 2000. Face was like a whole new world opening up in front of me. The Portland music scene was the first one I really got to know, and I found it to be remarkably rich and varied. If there’s a type of music you can name, someone in Portland is doing it, and doing it very well. I’m not sure what the scene is like now, but when I was there, we had some incredible bands: Twisted Roots, Rustic Overtones, Twitchboy, the Troubles, Cerberus Shoal, Tarpigh, Gouds Thumb (and later 6gig). Just an awesome bunch.
Through Face, I met two others I’m glad to consider friends today. One is Shane Kinney, drummer extraordinaire (and owner of his own drum shop in Portsmouth now). He was in a hilarious band called Broken Clown at the time, but now he pounds skins for heavy pop group Lost on Liftoff. Their latest album is called The Brightside, and it’s pretty swell. If I know Kinney, he’s been doing the same thing I have this week: digging the new Iron Maiden album.
The other is Rob Korhonen, who was going by Rob Egbert when I met him. In the late ‘90s, he was the singer for a band called Colepitz, one of the most savage live acts I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing. Rob also wrote for us at Face – he crafted a two-part story about Portland’s hardcore scene, the first part of which came complete with a photo of dozens of those musicians, designed to replicate the famous Great Day in Harlem picture. It didn’t reproduce very well, but it was a fun thing to try.
When I left Portland, I lost touch with Rob. But thanks to the magic of Facebook, we’ve reconnected, and I got to hear the great news that Colepitz has reformed. They have a new album, called No Tomorrow Tonight, which Rob was kind enough to send me. This is another I might not have heard without that personal connection, which would be a shame, since No Tomorrow Tonight is the most consistently awesome heavy record I’ve heard in some time.
The musical force behind Colepitz is guitarist Ray Suhy. He was impressive on the first Colepitz album, and he’s gotten 10 years better. Every one of these songs slips time signatures willy-nilly and throws up ear-popping musical surprises like the band has an endless supply. And yet, it stays heavy as hell throughout. Opener “Voices of War” is like someone shooting a semi-automatic nail gun at you. The riffs are jackhammers, Brian Higgins’ drums are relentless, and Korhonen screams like Phil Anselmo. But it’s intelligently-constructed, and complex. It must be a bitch to play live.
“War” ends with a sitar-fueled acoustic coda that leads perfectly into the next song, “Sometimes It’s All You Have.” It starts slow, but soon it explodes into a King’s X-style tricky-time juggernaut. Korhonen has become more relaxed and confident since the first Colepitz album, and his work is more varied here. He has an appealing everyman singing voice, but can deliver jagged screams with the best of them, and when it’s called for (as on the quieter epic “Now the Lion Fades”), he takes it all down to a vulnerable, breathy whisper. And just listen to the extended high note he carries in “Sometimes.” That’s impressive.
If there’s a single here, it’s “Slow Climb,” the catchiest piece on the album. Another of Suhy’s dynamite riffs flows perfectly into a memorable chorus, then erupts again into one of the most fiery passages on the record. This is just a great little song. And on the next track, “In the Middle of the Square,” the Colepitz guys somehow get Morphine sax man Dana Colley to deliver a solo. But do they write a Morphine-esque section for Colley to jam over? The hell they do. Colley’s solo is atop one of the heaviest bits of the song. I can only imagine what he thought when he heard what they wanted, but it works wonderfully.
No Tomorrow Tonight ends with a seven-minute piece called “Break Like No One Else Does,” which dives effortlessly between clean-toned, spectral beauty and spine-crushing slow heaviness. The last movement is a reprise of the title track, bringing things full circle. This album is terrific, something I would buy and recommend even if I didn’t know the lead singer. I’m grateful I got the chance to hear it, and I hope it doesn’t take another decade for the next one.
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Even today, 10 years after I left my paying music journalism gig, I’m still meeting musicians, and hearing music I wouldn’t otherwise. My long and winding road has brought me to Aurora, Illinois, where I happily toil as a chronicler of everyday life. I work for the local newspaper, and even with all the annoyances, great and small, that come with such a job, I’m not sure I’ve ever enjoyed anything more. I get paid to tell stories, and to meet fascinating people.
And I’ve met a lot, many of whom are musicians. One of my first-year features here was about a singer/songwriter named Greg Boerner, who composed an entire album (World So Blue) about his divorce. Greg’s one of the few people I’ve met who makes his living playing music. Nothing else. He’s a great live performer, one who can captivate a crowd with just a guitar and his voice.
I got to meet Jeff Elbel, the man behind those Ping albums I’ve enjoyed for years, and found out that he’s one of the best people you’d ever want to know. I’ve been re-watching Lost with Jeff – we’re about to start season five – and he’s been my traveling companion on several musical adventures. Jeff owns a recording studio in Wheaton, and when he’s not playing live with one of his 35 different bands, he’s working on that new Ping record. The songs I’ve heard have been tremendous fun.
And I’ve just started getting to know Kevin Trudo. Kevin’s another one who’s making a go as a professional musician, full stop. He’s a gifted songwriter, one who strings together tough and complex and honest lyrics that make my jaw drop, and when he plays out with his band, The Kevin Trudo and Meathawk, I try not to miss it. Better than that, he’s a warm and funny and encouraging man, and he lets me play his piano. Kevin doesn’t have any records yet, but when he does, I’ll be at the front of the line, waiting to get one. Through Kevin I’ve met others, like Todd Kessler and Matt McCain and Chris Bauler, great guys all.
Central to a lot of these musical relationships is Benjie Hughes, owner of Back Third Audio, a recording studio in downtown A-Town. I tracked my dad’s wedding song at Benjie’s place, and couldn’t have been happier with the result. (Engineer Kyle Schmidt even made my voice sound passable.) Benjie sees his role as forging musical friendships, and he wants Back Third to be a hub around which the community can gather. I can only speak for myself, but I’ve met many great people and musicians through Benjie’s efforts.
People like Andrea Dawn and her husband, Zach Goforth. I first met them through Back Third’s annual Christmas concert, Tiny Candle, and was immediately taken with Andrea’s voice. It’s strong and sultry and full of character, and she’s able to belt out her melodies while playing tricky piano parts. She’s great, a star in the making, and Zach is the all-purpose backup man. He plays guitar and bass and anything else that makes melodic sounds – give him a few hours and he’d learn how to make beautiful music with your phone and your microwave.
Andrea’s latest project is a 30-minute live EP, recorded at Back Third as part of her prize for winning one of Benjie’s regular Songwriter Showcase events. Now, here is what I love about owning these small, limited-edition releases – Live at Back Third Audio comes in a homemade pouch, hand-sewn by Andrea herself, and labeled with one of those letter-stamp devices. It’s adorably homespun, an item I will treasure.
The music’s pretty grand, too. Backed up by Zach on bass, Dan Knighten on drums and Jeremy Junkin on clarinet, Andrea runs through six of her songs, some of which sound like old standards, some of which bring Fiona Apple to mind. Her voice is strong, her arrangements full and rich. I’ve been a big fan of “Spin the Bottle” for a while, and this version is superb – when Andrea hits the “let’s get a little jaded, let’s get animated” chorus, the song blossoms.
My other favorite is the closer, “Just Fine,” a sprightly yet dangerous tune with a great ascending melody. “I don’t think I need you around no more,” Andrea sings, before hitting some deep, throaty, soulful ad-libs, her voice in simply stunning form. Andrea Dawn is someone I think everyone in the world should know, and if she keeps on writing and playing like this, it may be only a matter of time until they all do.
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In addition to backing up his wife, Zach Goforth plays in fellow Auroran Jeremy Keen’s band, the False Starts. I think I met Jeremy once, at one of Benjie’s events, but neither of us can remember, so perhaps not. I know what I’ll say when I meet him again for the first time, though: nice job on that new record.
Keen’s new album is called Lock and Key, and it was recorded in more than half a dozen different locations in and around Aurora. Given that, it’s remarkably consistent – this is a fully-produced effort, not a collection of field recordings. Keen writes sturdy folk-pop with engaging melodies, and his songs are deceptively simple. They’ll sneak up on you and get stuck in your head.
Lock and Key is something of a concept record. It opens with weeping strings, leading into a song called “Sad,” and it stays in a realm of hopelessness for several tracks. The slowest ones are up front, including “Save Me,” the darkest of all: “No love fails me like this love fails me, and no one can save me now.” But as the album progresses, it gets brighter, and Keen saves his happiest tunes for the end. “Never Thought It’d Be You” is a danceable tale of love that catches you by surprise, while “Promise” is a song of commitment, its refrain a simple declaration: “I’ll stay and never leave, ‘cause I promised I would.”
Lock and Key closes with “Shine Your Light,” its most joyous, effervescent, and best song. Keen breaks out the electric guitars and cranks them up for only the second time on the album (the first is the fittingly titled “Barnburner”), and delivers his best chorus, a convincingly raucous six-string explosion. If the album was intended as a journey from dark to light, ending with this was the perfect choice. These songs are all about relationships, and by the end, we feel that all is right in our main character’s earthly and spiritual worlds.
Keen’s album comes in a homemade package as well, a recycled cardboard sleeve that has been hand-stenciled and die-cut. The design – a white heart with a keyhole punched out of the middle – is simple and effective, just like the album itself. Lock and Key is a smart little record with lots of promise, from an artist deserving of a wider audience. And I look forward to being able to tell him so in person.
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This isn’t every musician I’ve met through the years, of course. But it’s enough to make me eternally grateful for this life I’ve lived. Music, and the people who make it, and the people who love it, have brought me so much joy. I’ve done this column for nearly 10 years because of what music means to me, but also, because of what all of you reading this mean to me.
Benjie Hughes likes to say that music is people, and he’s absolutely right. My musical life has been all the more amazing because of all of you, the people I’ve met along the way. The people who have enriched my life are like my favorite songs – I’ll carry them with me forever, and when I’m feeling lonely, or used up, or worthless, I’ll think of them, like a lovely melody you sing to get through the day.
I’ve been so lucky. So very lucky. Thank you, all of you.
So here’s the part where I provide a bunch of links, and you all follow them and check out these people I know. It’s your chance to get to know them too. In alphabetical order:
Chris Callaway (Able Archer)
Jeff Elbel (Ping)
Benjie Hughes (Back Third Audio)
Shane Kinney (Lost on Liftoff)
Rob Korhonen (Colepitz)
Tony Shore (ObviousPop)
Again, this is by no means every musician I’ve met, just the ones mentioned in this column. If I forgot you, let me know and I’ll add you to the list.
That’s 500 down, and no end in sight. Next week, 501, with (deep breath) Iron Maiden, Brian Wilson, John Mellencamp, Ray LaMontagne, and the Eels. Until then, I am gratefully yours. 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.