I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a new music week as big and beautiful as the one we’ve just been through.
I’m grateful for it because it means I’m spoiled for choice this week. That also means I can take more time with the one release I was most looking forward to: The Dear Hunter’s magnificent Act V: Hymns with the Devil in Confessional. I’ve heard it twice, and I’m beyond impressed with it, both as a follow-up to the fantastic Act IV and as a culmination point in the Acts series. But it’s so big and so intricate that I need more time to digest it. I’ll have a lot to say about Act V next week.
But luckily I have a dozen or so albums to choose from to fill this week’s column. And I suppose I’ll start with the one every other critic but me is going to go nuts over. At least I’ll get it over with.
It’s been a long time since Wilco gave me anything I’ve loved. That used to be a regular occurrence, back when Jeff Tweedy and the late Jay Bennett sparked off of each other, driving the band to new heights again and again. The stretch from Being There to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (including the Mermaid Avenue collaborations) remains not only Wilco’s best, but some of the best rock music made in the late ‘90s and early 2000s. The intervening 15 years have not been kind to the band, though, as Tweedy took sole control and decided to stop trying. There were signs of life on 2009’s Wilco (The Album), and I liked much of 2011’s The Whole Love, but nothing Tweedy has done since then has managed to stick in my brain.
So it goes for Schmilco, Wilco’s Nilsson-referencing 10th album. Recorded at the same time as last year’s godawful Star Wars, this record contains the quieter songs, the yang to its predecessor’s noisy yin. But the songs are no better, alas, and stripped of distortion and energy, Schmilco is just boring. Tweedy sounds like he couldn’t be bothered to wake up for most of this album. He’s cranky on “Normal American Kids,” but it’s a sleepy kind of cranky, like he’s angry with his alarm clock for rousing him on a Monday morning. He can’t even muster up the energy to be sad on weepy numbers like “Cry All Day” and “Just Say Goodbye.” It’s a performance worth forgetting, which should be pretty easy, given the lack of anything else interesting happening.
Tweedy does stumble upon some nice turns of phrase here and there. “Happiness” opens with Tweedy croaking “My mother says I’m great and it always makes me sad, I don’t think she’s being nice, I really think she believes that” and revolves around the phrase “happiness depends on who you blame.” “We Aren’t the World” is about clinging to someone else in the face of a crumbling future: “We aren’t the world, we aren’t the children, but you’re my safety, girl.” You want to like songs with lines like these, but Tweedy makes it difficult. The wobbly bass line in “Someone to Lose” is literally the most interesting musical thing happening. (That song is the most energetic here, too, with its piercing lead guitar lines. Tweedy almost has an expression in his voice.)
If I’m going to remember Schmilco for anything, it’s for including a song I almost turned off halfway through. The last time Tweedy inspired such a violent reaction, he appended 12 minutes of headache-inducing noise to the end of “Less Than You Think.” I won’t say “Common Sense” is that annoying – it’s a quarter as long, for starters – but the song’s pointless dissonance and ugliness is hard to sit through. It’s certainly jarring in context with the rest of this snoozy little record. The bottom line here is, if you like the direction Tweedy has taken the band (and you were particularly taken with his solo album with his son Spencer, who plays on Schmilco), you’ll like this. If you remember how great Wilco used to be and you long for those days, you’ll find this remarkably depressing. And then you’ll forget it ever happened.
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On to better things. Specifically, two bands who made disappointing second albums and have now returned with their third efforts. How did they do?
First up is Local Natives, a Los Angeles collective that I tried out on a whim six years ago. I quite liked their first album, Gorilla Manor, for its kinetic folksy charm. They made the fatal mistake of teaming up with Aaron Dessner of the National for their second, the dour Hummingbird, which trudged in place for most of its running time. This is a band that deserved a killer second album, and they simply didn’t deliver. So now here is their third, Sunlit Youth, which wisely excludes any and all members of the National. But is it good enough to make up for a sophomore stumble?
Kind of. Sunlit Youth is certainly lighter and sprightlier, but it trades the nimble folk of the band’s early years for a more solid, unmoving electronic foundation. This album contains lots of sustained synths, some electronic drum beats, and more of a modern indie-pop sheen. I like the feel of “Dark Days,” with its shaft-of-light keyboards and quick, clean guitar licks supporting high harmonies (and a guest turn by Nina Persson of the Cardigans), but the song is no great shakes. The band worked most closely here with Brian Joseph, known for engineering some great records over the past decade, and this album sounds nice and shiny. But it all feels a bit anonymous.
The back half of the album is better, and it does liven up as it goes along. I’m fond of Little Dragon’s turn in the producer’s chair on “Jellyfish,” and I like the segue into the more bluesy and straightforward “Coins.” The final third is more organic, with the sweet “Ellie Alice” hearkening back to the band’s roots. My favorite here is probably “Everything All at Once,” which brings together the band’s electronic and soulful sides with a lovely string arrangement. Overall, though, Sunlit Youth tends to fade into the background, just another anthemic pop record with electronic sprinkles, and that’s unfortunate. I like it more than their last effort, but I’m afraid it’s a more forgettable piece of work than I was hoping.
The same fate thankfully does not befall The Head and the Heart, a winsome six-piece from Seattle. They’ve always been uncomplicated and direct, and I adored their first album, particularly the sweeping “Rivers and Roads.” Second album Let’s Be Still should have been the same as the first, only more so. Sadly, though, what sounded light and full of heart on the debut came off as leaden on the second, like the band was so concerned with staying in touch with their roots that they forgot to evolve.
Which is why their third album, Signs of Light, is such a welcome event. Their choice of producer was worrying: Jay Joyce has worked with the likes of Carrie Underwood and the Zac Brown Band. But it turns out that while Joyce brought a more modern feel to the record, he also seems to have inspired some of their best, most alive material. Everything I loved about the debut is here. These are songs about simple moments and lovely sentiments, wrapped up in easy melodies and the harmonies of the band’s three singers. It’s just bigger, it steps out a little more, it twirls in the sunlight a little longer.
And it suits this band. These simple songs shine in this context, and the voice of Josiah Johnson has never sounded better. Opener “All We Ever Knew” would be the closing song on a lesser album – it’s an anthem about leaving a destructive cycle and finding something better, and it has a delightful open-road feel to it. You’ll be humming “City of Angels” for days, and their cover of Matt Hopper’s “False Alarm” sounds like a long-lost Fleetwood Mac tune. Even a simple little tune like “Dreamer” benefits from the new sense of dynamics, instruments popping in and out at just the right times, Charity Rose Thielen getting to belt out some of those high harmonies.
As Signs of Light unspooled, I found myself waiting for it to flag, and it never did. The final tracks, in fact, are my favorites – the soaring “I Don’t Mind,” the absolutely heart-rending “Your Mother’s Eyes” and the dark-into-dawn title track make for the best ending this band has given us. The whole record has a sun-dappled feel, which belies the turmoil happening behind the scenes. (They took time off before recording this, and since March Johnson has been recovering from his drug addiction while the other five tour.) Those Fleetwood Mac comparisons are starting to feel even more apt – this is a delightful, optimistic record drawn from pain, and it’s so sunny and so easy to listen to that it will make its way into your heart before you know it. I love every minute of it. You might say, as some have, that they’ve gone pop here, but what they’ve really done is moved forward into the spotlight while retaining everything that made them such a joy their first time out. Signs of Light is simply wonderful.
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Of course, that’s not the whole story of September 9. In addition to the above, there were a bunch of new releases that might not deserve a full review, but deserve your time and attention.
Start with the new Teenage Fanclub, a quieter yet no less superb collection of tunes from this revered Scottish band, and then hear the debut from soulful rockers St. Paul and the Broken Bones. KT Tunstall embraced electro-pop on her new one, Kin, while Jack White collected his acoustic pieces together in one place on Acoustic Recordings 1998-2016. Nick Cave has a new one, Joshua Redman and Brad Mehldau ran through a stunning jazz workout together, and Devin Townsend delivered the seventh of his Project albums, Transcendence. (I will probably review that one eventually.)
Add to that remasters of the Beatles’ Live at the Hollywood Bowl and two underrated Faith no More albums and you have a great, great week. I’ll be listening to this bounty for a while. And it’s not like it’s going to let up – the next few weeks will see the most intense concentration of new music this year, with expected highlights including Marillion’s new epic, the third part of Gungor’s One Wild Life trilogy, and new things from Bon Iver, Dawes, Opeth, the Pixies, Rachael Yamagata, Regina Spektor, Glen Phillips, Green Day, Tom Chaplin, and the list goes on and on. It’s a great time to be alive.
Next time, Act V. Get ready. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook here.
See you in line Tuesday morning.