I’m feeling lousy this week, so this will probably be a lot shorter than I want it to be.
I’ve been sick since Thursday (and hopefully I’m back at full strength by the time you read this), but I haven’t exactly been taking care of myself. I saw the Eels in Chicago (they were great), and waited outside in the cold and the rain for autographs. Then I attended a picnic party for two friends who were recently married, and went to the debut of Kevin Trudo’s new band Debbie Does Covers. (More on Kevin later in this column.) Lots of fun, but not much rest.
So first, let me tell you about something I’m doing in a couple of days.
I am not the world’s most adept Twitter user. For one thing, I hate the word “Twitter,” and I hate having to refer to my 140-character missives as “tweets,” so that revulsion keeps me away more often than not. But I am fascinated by the social media culture that’s grown up around this thing, and I think it’s an interesting tool. I’ve been trying to come up with ways to naturally work my Twitter page into what I do, and I think I’ve come up with something interesting: live first-listen reviews of records I just can’t wait to hear.
How does this work? Easy. At a pre-determined time, I will press play on a new album I’ve never heard. As it unspools, I’ll type up my immediate first reactions, and post them. It’s a little like a live performance, since I’m reviewing on the fly, and responding to tweets from those following along as well. It’s a great mental exercise, and I enjoy doing it. I’ve been told it’s fun to read, too, but I’ve been trying to come up with ways to make it more interactive and more interesting for those following along.
I have two of these live reviews scheduled for the coming days. On Friday, Oct. 8 at 8 p.m., I’ll be reviewing Sufjan Stevens’ The Age of Adz. This is my most anticipated album of 2010. I’ve steadfastly avoided listening to the stream of this album that NPR posted, but I’m glad it’s there, because that means anyone who wants to can listen along as I review it. But I expect this will be more like the live review events I’ve conducted in the past, with not a lot of interaction from my Twitter legion. (It is Friday night, after all.)
But on Wednesday, Oct. 13 at 8 p.m., I’ll live-review Belle and Sebastian Write About Love, the new one from (you guessed it) Belle and Sebastian. I’ve chosen Wednesday for a number of reasons. First, the album will be available in stores and online the day before, so anyone who wants to can certainly listen along with me. But second, more people are home on Wednesday nights, and I’m hoping for many more comments and questions. It’s my hope that Wednesday’s review will be exhausting for me, as I juggle the music, my own thoughts and yours.
So what do you think? I like this idea for a few reasons, but the big one is that it falls in line with the original mission statement of Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. I envisioned this site as a sort of running diary of musical obsession, and these first-listen reviews allow me to get my initial excitement (or disappointment) about music out there unfiltered. You’ll be reading pure emotional reaction, mainly because the format doesn’t allow me any time for anything else. My thoughts on the music I live-review will change over time, as I listen further and develop more considered opinions. But the live reviews are the closest I can offer to what it’s like to be inside my head as I’m hearing new stuff.
I hope you all can join me. Follow me at www.twitter.com/tm3am, and be there at 8 p.m. on the 8th and the 13th. And then please, let me know what you think of the experience.
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Okay, let me tell you a bit about Kevin Trudo.
I’ve only recently gotten to know Kevin, but I’m not sure I’ve ever met someone so obviously born to be a musician. He lives and breathes music. He teaches it, he plays it, he writes and records it, he’s in three bands, and when he’s not doing all that, he talks about music and how much he loves it. One part of his multimedia musical empire I love is The Tuesday Project. Every Tuesday, Kevin releases another song, normally written and recorded within the last seven days. They’re always free, and they’re up at tuesdays.thekevintrudo.com.
Kevin’s a guy who loves music as much as I do, if not more. But here’s the thing: we’re on nearly opposite sides of the spectrum. I like big, ornate, complex pieces that take my brain on unexpected journeys. Kevin likes simple, direct, emotional songs that aim for honesty above all. He’s very lyrically-driven, whereas it sometimes takes me four or five listens to a song before I pay much attention to the words. I like melodies above everything, he’s looking for imagery and tone, no matter if the chords never change.
You all know me, and you know I’m allergic to simplicity, most of the time. Talking with Kevin has given me the chance to understand what he hears in songs I dismiss for being too easy, too much like other songs I’ve heard before. This doesn’t mean I’ve turned over a new leaf – my preferences are pretty well ingrained – but it does offer me a new perspective. Kevin really likes music that bores me silly, and I really like music that strikes him as too cluttered, too pretentious. It’s made for some interesting discussions.
That said, I have a couple of records on tap this week that Kevin will like a lot more than I do.
First up is Guster, who hail from my home state of Massachusetts. I’ve liked this band since I first heard them, more than 10 years ago. Then, they had an appealing Toad the Wet Sprocket-style college rock feel to them, but augmented it with an array of hand percussion instead of traditional drums. Sure, it was a gimmick, but it was a good one, and their third album, Lost and Gone Forever, which features no drum kits at all, remains their best. I know Kevin digs them too, because I’ve heard his band Meathawk cover “Amsterdam,” which is to my mind the last extraordinary song they’ve written.
Now, look, I don’t want to come off as one of those people whining about the hand percussion. Yes, the band has dropped the thing that made them special, and replaced it with a more standard drum kit sound. But do I think bringing back the bongos would help at this point? I don’t. Guster’s last album, 2006’s Ganging Up on the Sun, was unremittingly boring, the quartet failing to write any spectacular songs. Only “Satellite” rises above the murk. It’s not a good album, and the lack of energy is obvious in every track.
Now, four years later, here’s Easy Wonderful, and while it’s a clear step up from the woeful Ganging, it’s still pretty boring to my ears. This new record is largely acoustic, mainly folksy, and maintains a breezy, almost side project feel for the whole running time. There are some interesting bits of instrumentation, and the hand percussion does make a comeback here and there, most notably on “This Is How it Feels to Have a Broken Heart.” But the songs are just as lackluster as they’ve been for some time.
I knew I was in for a rough ride when the first track, “Architects and Engineers,” ran out of ideas less than a minute in. A couple of these tunes spark – “Do You Love Me” has the record’s best chorus, Ryan Miller soaring into a sweet falsetto, while “Bad Bad World” ambles ahead briskly, its refrain a sort of singalong. I like the “hallelujah” bit on “Stay With Me Jesus,” and I dig all of the banjo-laden “Hercules,” but more for the atmosphere than the song itself. The other songs all slide by, leaving no sign of their passing.
I wish I liked this record more. Guster is still a really good band, and they perform these wispy little tunes with commitment. Easy Wonderful is an album they obviously cared about – the energy level here is ten times that of Ganging Up on the Sun. But it’s all in service of songs that do very little for me. I like the ukulele and the harmonies and the mariachi band on “What You Call Love,” for instance, but I don’t remember the song five minutes after it’s finished. Also, the synth-y “Do What You Want” is a fun closer, but fades from memory quickly.
This album makes me wonder whether the band has really changed, or I have. I’m almost scared to go back and listen to Lost and Gone Forever, an album I still hold dear, but haven’t heard in years. As for Easy Wonderful, though it’s certainly better and more engaging than the band’s last effort, it just doesn’t do it for me. It’s too simple, too traditional in its songwriting for me. But that’s why I’d bet Kevin Trudo will like it. I’m interested to hear his thoughts, and see whether they change my outlook. Because I really want to like this record, and as of now, I don’t.
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I’m pretty sure Kevin will like Easy Wonderful. I’m absolutely certain he will adore The Place We Ran From, the debut album from Tired Pony.
Why? Well, for starters, this is a supergroup, and I know he digs some of the musicians involved. Tired Pony includes Gary Lightbody of Snow Patrol, Peter Buck of R.E.M., Richard Colburn of Belle and Sebastian, Scott McCaughey of the Young Fresh Fellows, singer/songwriter Iain Archer and producer Jacknife Lee. Oh, and M. Ward and Zooey Deschanel pop up here and there too. That’s seriously quite a pedigree.
With all of that, though, Lightbody dominates. The Place We Ran From resembles a Snow Patrol album more than anything else, although it’s a more mellow ride this time. The songs have that insistent quarter-note repetition Lightbody loves, and they’re all very simple pieces, relying more on the spell they cast than anything particularly musical. The opening track, “Northwestern Skies,” is just three chords repeated over and over, with an uncomplicated melody that also repeats endlessly. Of all 10 songs, only “Dead American Writers” grabbed me on first listen. But then, I was listening for melody and complexity, two things Lightbody has never really offered.
So on second listen, I tried to hear this thing the way Kevin might. Because Kevin? He’s going to love this. He’s going to love everything about this.
My first step was to pay particular attention to the lyrics. They are uniformly wonderful, full of haunting imagery. Check out the first lines on the record: “It’s not like it was before, there’s a beauty in slamming doors, and the lightning plays in your eyes as it cracks through northwestern skies…” That’s just great, and it probably would have taken me three or four spins to even notice. “Get on the Road” is the kind of song I can imagine playing over that scene in the movie where the guy realizes what a jackass he’s been and comes back to the woman we all know he loves, and the lyrics match that idea perfectly: “Kiss like a fight that no one wins, a tender payment for our sins, you are the drug that I can’t quit, your perfect chaos a perfect fit, so I get on the road and ride to you…”
Really, everywhere you look on this lyric sheet, you’ll find a great line. Here, let me pull a few at random:
“In this light you are framed classically, just like a painting that hangs in my head, that I know like the back of my hand…”
“All the troubles that I know look to me like great and heavy stones, and all I want to do is slowly push and pull, ‘til they rock, ‘til they roll…”
“You were saved by the good book, I was saved by the half-full glass, so come on take a good look, ‘cause this party will be our last…”
Seriously, good stuff. So what kept me from realizing it at first? To me, a good melody emphasizes the words, but there are very few stick-in-your-head moments on The Place We Ran From. But I’ve come to realize that isn’t the point of this record. These songs are slow and easy, but heavy with emotion, and while my brain is screaming at me that they’re just repeating chords over and over, I’m missing the resonance.
“Held in the Arms of Your Words,” for example, is literally four chords repeated for its entire running time. But if I let it wash over me, I can hear what’s amazing about it. “You’re effortless, you know you are, and all I want to do is let you lead me off into the dust,” Lightbody sings, while M. Ward adds gorgeous guitar accents behind him, and pianist Troy Stewart does the bare minimum necessary to set the tone. Archer’s “I Am a Landslide” is just as simple as Lightbody’s songs, but his high, aching voice adds another dimension to it.
On repeat listens, my favorite thing here is the closer, “Pieces.” This song kind of drifted by me the first time, because I was internally criticizing its simplistic structure. But I missed what a remarkable web it weaves. There’s almost nothing to it, but it spins out over seven minutes, constantly building and never arriving. Buck and Archer paint guitar pictures in the background, Lee plays a dark, simple organ line. If you close your eyes and let go, it all works. Plus, it contains this line: “You’re married to her in your mind and she loves you like a son.” So much there.
This is not a record made for me, nor is it one I’m ever going to love. But I’m trying to hear it in new ways. and let it reveal itself to me. I’m listening for things I may have missed before, and I understand what Lightbody and company were aiming for a bit more now. Kevin’s definitely going to like this more than I do, but in trying to hear it the way I imagine he will, I’ve come to admire it more. I still like what I like – and the same trick hasn’t worked on Guster yet – but I feel like I’m learning a few things.
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Thanks to Kevin Trudo for being my literary device this week. Check him out at www.thekevintrudo.com. If you listen to nothing else on his site, hear “Gemini,” an absolute stunner of a tune, recorded for the Tuesday Project with nothing but Kevin and his acoustic guitar. That song is a compelling argument for simplicity and directness all by itself, and Kevin sings the hell out of it. Seriously, go and hear it.
See you in line Tuesday morning.