It’s true what they say: you wait 20 years for a new Steve Taylor record and then two come along at once.
Taylor is becoming the ultimate comeback kid. I’ve loved his work since I was a teenager – his three early albums for the Christian market are more like smart bombs, blowing up the very idea of what can be done inside that box, and his incredible one-off band Chagall Guevara made one of the best and least appreciated albums of the ‘90s. After gifting us one last incendiary device with Squint in 1993, Taylor left music entirely to make movies and run a record label. (You may have heard of one of his signees: Sixpence None the Richer, whose big hit “Kiss Me” Taylor produced.)
And lo, there was much lamentation among his fans (myself included), much crying into the wilderness for Taylor’s return. And just when it seemed all hope would run out, return he did – in 2014 he teamed up with three top-notch musicians to form Steve Taylor and the Perfect Foil, and with the help of Kickstarter, they made the fantastic, raucous, biting Goliath. This record, in all honesty, is tremendous, a rocket ride of riffage that found Taylor charging back to the front in top form.
If that had been it, I still would have been happy. But Taylor and the Foil had to go and team up with Daniel Smith (of Danielson fame) for 15 more minutes of crunchy, melodic goodness. The new EP is called Wow to the Deadness, and like Goliath, it was funded through an extremely successful Kickstarter. I supported it, of course, despite my reservations – I’ve never liked Danielson, and Smith’s yelping voice gives me hives. It took me a while to get used to that voice sitting alongside Taylor’s rasp on Deadness, but if you can do that, this is a strong miniature whirlwind of a record, a quick blast that still manages to provide an amalgam of the Perfect Foil’s power and Danielson’s whimsy.
Wow to the Deadness was recorded in Chicago by Steve Albini, and if you recognize the name, you already know how this sounds – raw and tough. Jimmy Abegg’s guitar playing has never felt this sloppy before. It splashes all over everything here, all but drowning out the subtleties in a song like “Wait Up Downstep.” “The Dust Patrol” is the perfect example of the two styles colliding in Albini’s accelerator. It begins and ends as a propulsive punk song, but Smith sandwiches in an interlude straight out of the Danielson handbook, complete with flugelhorn. The song is two minutes long, even with all that, and it works surprisingly well.
“Nonchalant” is my favorite, which may be because it is the most obviously Steve Taylor song here, a mid-tempo, melodic delight. “A Muse” is the rougher cousin of Taylor’s “Moonshot,” and it visits several interesting back alleys in 2:17. Albini draws volcanic vocal performances from Taylor, and the band sounds like they did when I saw them live – invigorated, powerful and loud. Even Smith’s unchained howl can’t ruin this completely for me, although I could have done without his grating contribution to “Drats,” the most Danielson song here.
I’m in this for Taylor and the Foil, and on that score, thankfully, Wow to the Deadness does not disappoint. What looked a year ago like a great capper to a legendary career now feels like an opening salvo, and I hope this means that Taylor is back for good. My world can always use more of what he’s offering.
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It’s hard to say Anthrax was in need of a comeback, since they never really went away.
But I think people have forgotten what a top-notch metal band they are. They were one of the Big Four in the ‘80s, alongside Metallica, Megadeth and Slayer, and their run of albums from 1985 to 1990 (including the I’m the Man EP) is one of the most solid in metal history. Yes, they’ve stuck around, but the five albums they made with John Bush in the 1990s and 2000s failed to connect, partially because metal went out of style, but also because they weren’t quite as heavy-hitting as Anthrax can be.
But reuniting with original singer Joey Belladonna has done this band a world of good. For All Kings is the second album with Belladonna back behind the mic, and it’s a flat-out ballsy piece of work. Gone are the flirtations with acoustic folk and grunge that marked the John Bush years, and in their place are 11 slabs of furious awesome. The album opens with a brief fanfare, one that sounds a little out of place given what follows, but when the six-minute “You Gotta Believe” kicks in, there’s no doubt you are listening to a classic metal band at the height of its powers.
The thrashy vibe prevails over most of For All Kings, and even the somewhat slower ones (like the powerhouse “Monster at the End”) take energy from that vibe. “Breathing Lightning” is one of the few respites, starting slow but building into an epic anthem with a light, folky coda. But don’t get comfortable – “Suzerain” and “Evil Twin” will bowl you over with double-time drums and thick guitars. Belladonna sounds fantastic here, proving he can carry a band this forceful even at 55. The eight-minute “Blood Eagle Wings” slows things down without losing an ounce of that force, and from there it’s a race to the end, burning through killers like “All Of Them Thieves” and what promises to be a new signature song for the band, “This Battle Chose Us.”
And just as they used to do in the ‘80s, they save the loudest and fastest song for last. “Zero Tolerance” may seem on the surface like your typical hate-the-world stomper, but it’s a feint – the verses are meant to contrast with the chorus, which hides a message that resonates these days: “Zero tolerance for extremism in the name of religion, zero tolerance for racial hate… and on the day you meet your god what will he say?” It’s a shock-and-awe capper to what is one of the most solid Anthrax albums ever, one that makes me feel like I’m fourteen again, listening with headphones in my room and headbanging.
It’s also another piece of what is shaping up to be a Big Four renaissance, with Slayer’s Repentless and Megadeth’s Dystopia. Now we just need Metallica to put out something respectable again and all will be well with the world.
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Anthrax may not have needed a comeback album too badly, but Ray Lamontagne sure did.
I’ve been a fan of Maine’s own wonderful warbler since his first record in 2004. His voice is a stunning instrument, haunting and unforgettable, and over four swell efforts he married that voice to a lovely and spare style of folk and low-key rock. For 10 years, he hit whatever he swung at, from the gorgeous ambience of “Be Here Now” to the horn-driven wedding song that is “You Are the Best Thing.”
And while it would be an exaggeration to suggest that 2014’s Supernova derailed his career, it certainly dampened my enthusiasm for it. Supernova was an attempt at mass appeal – Lamontagne enlisted Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys to produce, and they created a short record of short songs infused with blues and ‘60s psychedelia. It was, at best, underwhelming, and it never once played to Lamontagne’s strengths. I like it more now than when I first heard it, but it still sounds more like Auerbach, like the producer decided more of what the record would be than the artist.
Which is why Ouroboros, Lamontagne’s just-released sixth effort, is such a pleasant surprise. It should be another Supernova – he hired another famous singer from a blues-rock band (Jim James of My Morning Jacket) to produce this one, and he amped up the psych influences, leaving his past even further behind. But it’s captivating, mesmerizing, convincing in a way that its predecessor wasn’t. One reason for that is its structure – this is two side-long suites, Pink Floyd style, with segues and a sense of working for the whole. There aren’t any radio singles in sight, and Lamontagne sounds committed to making something unlike anything he’s done.
Most importantly, Ouroboros (a symbol depicting a snake eating its own tail) brings back the atmosphere, an essential element of Lamontagne’s work. Opener “Homecoming” is a cousin to “Be Here Now,” its pianos and acoustic guitars buoying a journey into space, led by Lamontagne’s sweet, breathy voice. When the guitars kick in on “Hey No Pressure,” it’s jarring, especially since the tone is so thick and tactile – Lamontagne has never played with sounds like this before. “Hey No Pressure” is exactly the kind of bluesy song Auerbach would have ruined, but here it sounds alive, spacey and sloppy and real.
Ouroboros was recorded in a mere 15 days, which gives it a more spontaneous feel, even when it gets enormous, as on “The Changing Man,” which slides so beautifully into “While It Still Beats” that you won’t even notice. The second side is even more connected and even more Floyd – the lilting “In My Own Way” gives way to the Syd Barrett-like “Another Day,” with “A Murmuration of Starlings” an instrumental bridge to delightful closer “Wouldn’t It Make a Lovely Photograph.” Lamontagne sounds in control of all of this, and excited to bring it to fruition. It’s a marked difference from the static Supernova.
Ouroboros is vibrant, alive and awake, and even though it sounds nothing like anything he’s done, it feels familiar. “When I am with you, I am right where I belong,” Lamontagne sings on that closing song, and I couldn’t agree more. Welcome back, sir.
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This is a column about comeback records, but one of these things is not like the others.
That thing is Nada Surf, a band that has been remarkably consistent for about 15 years, ever since leaving the notion of stardom behind and signing up with Barsuk Records. Despite a run of records since then that would be the envy of most power-pop bands, Nada Surf is still somehow living in the shadow of their one hit, the acerbic “Popular,” from two decades ago. In that sense, I guess, every album they make is a comeback album, because people are surprised at how good it is when they hear it.
At this point, though, they shouldn’t be. Album eight, You Know Who You Are, is another gem, a brief yet impressive trip through ten jangly, swaying, upbeat guitar-pop songs played with no frills and no distractions. Former Guided by Voices guitarist Doug Gillard is now officially in the band, and he and frontman Matthew Caws gel perfectly, their twin tones dancing around each other. Everything is in service to the song, and these songs are as hummable and memorable as anything this band has done.
Opener “Cold to See Clear” is probably the best, or at least the most immediate – its chorus was stuck in my head the first time I heard it. But subsequent listens have revealed the beauty of less punchy songs like “Believe You’re Mine” and “Rushing.” The latter is a particular delight, an acoustic strummer with glittering accents and a sweet chorus (“You come rushing at me, and I forget my worries…”). This album is relentlessly positive, in love with the world, and yet never corny or syrupy. Nada Surf music puts a big, un-ironic smile on my face every time.
The title track reminds me of the Replacements, with its rollicking electric guitar and shout-along chorus. “Gold Sounds” feels like driving down a highway into the sunset, wind rushing by. And closer “Victory’s Yours” is as triumphant as its title, Gillard’s chiming guitars pushing it over the finish line. Like all Nada Surf albums, my main complaint with You Know Who You Are is that it’s too short – I could use another ten songs as tight and infectious as these. But knowing Nada Surf, if I wait another couple years, I’ll get them.
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Next week, Esperanza Spalding, who has just made my favorite record of 2016 so far. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook here.
See you in line Tuesday morning.