Four months ago, Frank Zappa’s Dance Me This was finally released.
Dance Me This was the final album Zappa completed before his death in 1993, and it’s been in the Zappa Family vault ever since, awaiting its moment in the sun. Its release in June made it the 100th new album to come out under Zappa’s name, and it was the perfect capper to more than 20 years of extraordinary vault releases – live shows from underrepresented lineups, audio documentaries on some of Frank’s earliest and best records, a completed guitar album called Trance-Fusion, and much more, all packaged with loving care. Combine those with a careful remaster and reissue campaign a couple years ago and the continued Zappa Plays Zappa tours, and I’d say Frank’s legacy has been in very good hands.
Since Frank’s death, those hands have belonged to his widow Gail, who runs the Zappa Family Trust with her children. And I have to wonder if Gail knew she was on death’s door when she gave us Dance Me This, if she knew it would be the last of Frank’s releases she would live to see. Gail Zappa (nee Sloatman) died on Oct. 7 following a long battle with lung cancer, and in that her legacy is interwoven with her husband’s, she leaves a very strong one. In fact, she’s not done – a longtime labor of love, Frank Zappa’s Roxy: The Movie, will be out at the end of the month, after years of work to complete and restore it.
Rest in peace, Gail, and thank you for keeping Frank’s music in the spotlight for all these years.
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If you’d conducted a poll in 1997, asking people to name the current pop star least likely to win a Tony award for best musical, I bet many would have said Duncan Sheik.
I probably would have voted for Sheik, too. Those who remember 1997 undoubtedly recall Sheik’s big hit, “Barely Breathing,” a middling pop trifle that is, to this day, the song he’s most known for. But he’s always been interested in grander things, and by sticking to his artistic guns, he’s managed to carve out two parallel careers. There’s an entire generation of theater kids who don’t even know that Duncan Sheik writes pop songs – they know him for his six (soon to be seven) musicals, and particularly Spring Awakening, the 2006 effort that won him and playwright Steven Sater eight Tony awards.
I suppose I could be upset that the soft-spoken Sheik has achieved success in two musical fields, and yet the fans of one have no idea about the other. (When I mentioned to my friends that I was excited for a new Duncan Sheik album, the majority of the responses I got were along the lines of, “He’s still alive?”) And yet, I find it pretty amusing. It’s like he’s a double agent, slipping back and forth between identities. The best thing about it, for my money, is that Sheik’s success in musical theater means there’s no pressure on him to deliver a hit pop record, so he can do whatever he wants.
Thankfully, Sheik has done whatever he wants for the vast majority of his career. He stopped chasing hits more than a decade ago, but let’s be honest – even his poppiest records, like 2002’s Daylight, are sophisticated affairs far beyond what you’d expect to hear on the radio. And albums like Phantom Moon and White Limousine are glorious, patient things, taking hold slowly and seeping under your skin. Legerdemain, Sheik’s first new record in six years, follows the same pattern – its songs are mainly low-key slow burners – while opening up new avenues of sound for him. It may be his best record, but then, they’re all pretty great.
Legerdemain is very long – 16 songs stretching over more than 70 minutes – but when a long album is as consistent as this one is, I don’t mind at all. Sheik’s songwriting is of the same high quality it always is, but this time, he’s cast it in a foundation of light electronica, accenting his folksy guitar with pitter-patter drums and lovely synth flourishes. It’s a new sound for him, one that he’s apparently been working on for his score to the American Psycho musical (out next year), and it fits what he does brilliantly.
The album front-loads its (relatively) uptempo songs, and opens with its angriest, “Selling Out.” Truth be told, Sheik doesn’t get angry very often – his velvety voice and penchant for moody, meditative tunes don’t lend themselves to rage. True to form, “Selling Out” is more clever than flat-out angry, but it does the trick: “You bought it all, even when I was selling out…” From there, though, Legerdemain concentrates on literate tales of love and loss and watching time go by. “Photograph” is probably the closest thing to a hit here, its throbbing beat and bass line bursting forth into a great chorus: “A moment now past, some beauty it had somehow still lasts, a photograph…”
The second half slows things down to tremendous effect. The dark “Brutalized,” complete with haunting trumpet from Jon Hassell, will stay with you like the best of Sheik’s more turbulent pieces. It’s followed directly by the album’s longest and best song, “Circling” – this six-minute wonder lives up to its name, built on an unfolding, hypnotic piano pattern. It takes its time, and deserves it. “Circling” sets the tone for the final third of the record, wafting out on hushed tones. “Summer Mourning” is a delicate winner, “No Happy End” brings Hassell back for another dark journey, and brief closer “So There” serves as a summation of the record’s prevailing mood and tone.
If you’ve lost track of Duncan Sheik, or forgotten that he’s still alive, Legerdemain is a good indicator of what you’ve missed. Sheik remains a terrific songwriter, in the same league as Nick Drake, and this new album paints his lovely songs in new colors. Like all of Sheik’s work, it’s simply delightful. There’s no one quite like him, and I’m grateful for such a generous helping of new material. I hope he wins another Tony next year, so he can continue to make whatever records he wants to make.
(As a quick coda, I wanted to mention that the cover of Legerdemain depicts Sheik’s silhouette in front of the CMS Detector, one of the big particle detectors on the Large Hadron Collider – and, coincidentally, the one my laboratory designed and built parts of and works closely with. This really means nothing, but I love it when my day job intersects with my hobby in fascinating ways.)
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Tori Amos has been making long albums for two decades now, despite the fact that her more concise efforts remain her more memorable ones. I used to look forward to new Amos albums like little else – even her b-sides used to be amazing – but 20 years of 70-plus-minute records that sport at least half a dozen more songs than are strictly necessary, I’m wary.
If you count it as a Tori album, the cast recording of her first musical, The Light Princess, is her longest studio effort. (Yes, like Sheik, Amos has decided to try her hand at musicals.) It will take you two hours to listen to this whole thing, to get through the surprisingly slight story of Princess Althea and Prince Digby and their respective kingdoms of Lagobel and Sealand. I’d be lying if I told you this would be two hours well spent.
I’m not sure why – I’m just programmed to be a Tori fan, I suppose – but I was looking forward to this. Amos spent six years working with well-known Australian playwright Samuel Adamson on this adaptation of George MacDonald’s fairy tale, and I was hopeful that after so much time refining it, the music of The Light Princess would thrill me. Here, I thought, would be all the sweeping melodies that have been missing from Amos’ work for years. Here would be all the magic and wonder of the original tale, in musical form. Surely. Surely.
Nope. The Light Princess is cluttered and earthbound, only occasionally stumbling upon a memorable passage and dispensing with it just as quickly. It opens with what feels like four hours of exposition, setting up the central plot with lots of yelping and speak-singing. The ten-minute “Queen Material” is a particular chore, drowning out the two interesting bits in the first hour – the central melody of “My Fairy Story” and the refrain of “My Own Land.” “My Fairy Story” is a Tori song through and through, but a latter-day one – it’s pretty, but doesn’t do much. But it will at least stick in your head a little bit. Whole songs in the first half, like “Highness in the Sky” and “Darkest Hour,” will pass by without leaving a mark. (The dreary “Althea,” meant to be a theme for the character, is especially dour and tuneless.)
The Light Princess is the story of Althea, a princess who loses her gravity when her mother dies, leaving her floating above the ground without a care. (During the play’s UK run, this was accomplished by employing teams of black-clad stunt actors to carry around actress Roaslie Craig, who – probably not coincidentally – looks like a young Amos.) Her kingdom of Lagobel is at war with its neighbor Sealand, and Sealand’s prince Digby has too much gravity – he’s solemn and serious all the time. You can probably see where this is going – the two meet, and after a series of circumstances, she gives him levity and he gives her gravity. And all is well, forever and ever.
The song in which that happens, “Gravity,” is the closest Amos comes to a breakout hit here, and it comes very near the end of the musical. But here’s the thing – “Gravity” is included here in a standalone version as a bonus track, because in the musical itself, it isn’t given the chance to shine. It’s cut off before it can truly take flight. It’s an unfortunate miscalculation, but one that makes sense with the rest of this meandering piece of work. Like a lot of Tori’s music, it takes several listens to even recall much of The Light Princess. And like a lot of Tori’s music, it’s not worth the time it takes. Six years of work, and The Light Princess sports the same weaknesses as nearly everything its author has done for more years than I’d like to remember. Shame.
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Proving that short records can be kind of lame too, here’s the Decemberists.
The revered Portland band’s new EP is called Florasongs, and its five tracks span a slight 20 minutes. Much like Long Live the King, Florasongs is comprised of outtakes from one of the band’s full-length records – in this case, the middling What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World, issued earlier this year. That album found the band trying all sorts of ways to climb out of the simplistic hole they’d dug for themselves, and at least partially succeeding. It’s not a tremendous effort, but it is a varied one, and there are some gems in there.
If you want to know how bad it could have been, remove any five tracks and replace them with the ones on Florasongs. There’s a reason these songs were left out of the running order, pleasant as they are. I find myself most enjoying the swaying “Why Would I Now,” its sweet sentiment and its lush strings buoying its simple chords. I also can find time for “The Harrowed and the Haunted,” the type of minor-key folk song the Decemberists could write in their sleep. Colin Meloy has a voice for songs like this, and he almost manages to overcome the weak chorus and sell me on it.
I’m much less impressed with the other three. “Riverswim” is like listening to a coma, the punk-ish “Fits and Starts” is an interesting experiment that didn’t quite work, and the spare “Stateside” barely even exists. My chief complaint with the Decemberists’ output of late has been a lack of ambition, of grandiosity. I know it’s probably not fair to expect that from a 20-minute EP of outtakes, but Florasongs is indicative of the problem, as I see it. There were glimmers of life on What a Terrible World, and I want to hear them move further in that direction, not spend time on the dead ends that didn’t lead them anywhere new.
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Wow, harsh. Next week, I’ll be a lot more positive about a lot more bands. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook here.
See you in line Tuesday morning.