I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but we’re a few weeks into the new global release date system.
For my entire life, new albums have hit stores on Tuesdays. I vividly remember lining up late on Monday nights to get the new albums at midnight in the ‘90s. In fact, I named this column after that very experience – at its best, I think, this column feels like the excited ramblings of an obsessive music fan who has just returned from a midnight sale, spun his new albums and typed up his thoughts just in time for 3 a.m. I’m happy to say I did this more than once during my college and post-college years.
It really should seem like the end of an era, then, as this month saw the global release date for new albums move to Friday. The idea, as I understand it, is to cut down on international piracy – if an album comes out in the U.K. on a Monday, but doesn’t come out in the U.S. until Tuesday, that’s a full 24 hours during which fans in London can upload the music to the internet and fans in Detroit can download it for free. Or so the thinking goes, and I guess if I were a record executive, that might make sense to me. But I’m not, so it doesn’t.
Let’s say all the other issues are beside the point, including that those who would buy the album anyway don’t mind waiting another day to do so. Let’s also ignore the fact that it’s not the extra day that would lead me to download an album from the U.K., it’s the fact that records sometimes come out there more than a year before they come out here. (The excellent new Everything Everything album is a great example.) No, the real problem with this way of thinking is that it assumes that corporate-dictated release dates mean a damn thing anymore.
The internet has turned everything into a free-for all. Not only do albums routinely show up online weeks before their intended release date, but bands can choose to ignore the Friday release date entirely and get their music into the hands of their fans directly, if they so choose. (The losers in this case, as in most cases, are brick-and-mortar record stores, and their continuing demise is a tragedy.) Radiohead has been working on a self-release-online model for more than a decade now, and fans rarely know more than a week in advance when that band issues an album. D’Angelo’s Black Messiah just kind of… showed up at the end of last year, on a Monday at midnight.
And just last week, Wilco joined the club, giving us their ninth studio album as a free download through their website. (That was on a Thursday.) The new Wilco was all anyone could talk about last week – it overshadowed more traditional releases by the likes of Tame Impala and Jason Isbell. It’s an attention-grabbing strategy: 11 new songs in exchange for an email address. The fact that the album is called Star Wars and its cover image is a curious painting of a cat only served to fuel interest in this move. This is how albums are going to be released in the future. Not all of them, and certainly not for free, but this will become more and more frequent.
It’s too bad, then, that Star Wars is awful. I’m not a Wilco fan in general – I’ve flat-out loved only one of their albums, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and admired a few others, including the most recent, The Whole Love. Mostly, though, Jeff Tweedy’s mumbly, melody-deficient songwriting leaves me cold. This new one revs up the volume – it’s the most rocking record they’ve made in some time – but dials back all the interesting leaps forward Tweedy made with The Whole Love. This sounds like a more raucous version of his solo record from last year, and even though I’ve heard that four times, I couldn’t hum a single song for you.
Same with Star Wars. Most of these songs are two-chord jams with muttered lyrics that go nowhere in particular. It starts with an ungodly long 76-second noisy fumble that masquerades as track one, then slides into song after song of forgettable nothing. “You Satellite” captured my attention by dragging on for five minutes, and my ear was tickled every once in a while by some stabbing guitar line or another. But the songs are just boring – “Cold Slope” and “King of You,” right next to each other, are even the exact same kind of boring. I’ve heard it multiple times and the best I can say about it, still, is that it’s only 34 minutes long. It might be a grower, but I doubt it.
Naturally, critics across the country are praising Star Wars as a little masterpiece, and as usual, I am wishing I could hear in Wilco what others do. To me, this sounds like something the band threw together in about 45 minutes to pump up their mailing list. The clickbait title and album cover (It’s a cat picture! The internet loves cat pictures!) only add to the sense that we’re not supposed to be taking this thing very seriously. Star Wars will, however, see release on CD and vinyl (on a Friday, naturally), so it will soon become a thing they want money for. Suffice it to say that right now, it’s priced pretty fairly.
A global release date also fails to take into account the phenomenon of crowdfunding, which is how many artists are choosing to create and release their music. In 2015 so far, I have contributed to more Kickstarter and Pledgemusic campaigns than in any other year, and I expect that will keep on growing. Crowdfunded albums come out when they’re ready, regardless of what record companies want – I’ve received download emails from artists on every day of the week, and it’s always a nice surprise.
Crowdfunding also allows bands that might not otherwise be able to afford the expense of making a record to do so and get it directly into the hands of their fans. Record companies need not apply – it’s a new world. In many ways, even though the technology is new, these bands are doing things the old-fashioned way: they’re playing live, recording and releasing their own material. Case in point – last year, I saw Marah in the Mainsail play at the AudioFeed Festival, and their set was so good that I immediately bought their self-issued EP. And when the band asked me to pony up months in advance through Kickstarter for their first full-length, I did without hesitation.
That album, Thaumatrope, fulfills all of their promise and then some. Marah is a six-piece playing what they call “cinematic indie,” and what I call dramatic acoustic rock. At their best, they are what I wish Mumford and Sons could be – they’re wildly energetic folksters with a powerful sense of arrangement and scope. Their sound includes a little Decemberists, a little Levellers, but it’s mainly their own. Put it this way – when Charon welcomes you to his boat and ferries you across the river Styx, these guys will be the ship’s band.
These 10 songs show off everything great about this band. It opens with 30 seconds of haunting trumpet, which leads into the dazzling “The Traveling Man” – a skittery drum beat supports a dark choir pulling back the curtain before the guitars and horns kick in. Austin Durry has a growly, gravelly voice that he uses to tremendous effect, and Cassandra Sabol counterpoints it nicely with her angelic tones. That push-pull works wonders on the single, “Your Ghost,” propelled by a massive low horn part that will jump up and grab you.
Many of these songs are about haunted people, wanderers lost and at the end of their tethers. I heard “Wendigo” live last year, and its first lines still make me stop short and listen: “I keep my pistol under my pillow and a rifle beside my bed, don’t keep it loaded for self-defense, just one bullet for my own head…” The song’s narrator is terrified of the monster within, and his desperation comes through in Durry’s voice. Your first real chance to catch your breath is “See No Evil,” a lilting acoustic number led by Sabol, but its tone is the same: “I see no evil, I’ve been the problem all along, darling I was wrong…” The spooky “Graveyard” finds the two singers floating above an ever-building acoustic dirge, praying for rest for their troubled souls. The drunken waltz that finishes this song off is magnificent.
“Holy Water” is the noisiest and scariest thing here, like Nick Cave after a particularly bad dream. Less abrasive but no less powerful is “Clockmaker.” Over five minutes, Marah inexorably builds this strummy wonder, carrying it through wave after cresting wave. When it finally breaks, it leads into the carnival-esque closer “Your Work Isn’t Done,” and the band chooses to leave you with perhaps its most riveting and evocative song, the tale of a beaten and bloodied man hoping in vain for a rest. “Though you think your time has come, the wheels of fate have spun, death has declared your work isn’t done…” It’s dark and riveting stuff.
A thaumatrope is a toy that plays with persistence of vision – a two-sided piece of cardboard with a picture on each side. When you spin the cardboard, the two pictures blend into one before your eyes. The cover art of Marah in the Mainsail’s album is a working thaumatrope, showing a bird and its cage. It’s a really nice touch housing an album full of them. I’m quite glad that I supported this album, and quite pleased with the finished product. You can hear it here, and buy it directly from the band. Whether or not it’s Friday.
Next week, three new electro-pop records. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook here.
See you in line Tuesday morning.