Today is election day, and I’m so anxious about it I could chew my own arm off.
I long ago swore off being political in this space. But this election – the most important of my lifetime, easily – goes beyond politics to me. It’s a question of which America we want to live in, one governed by fear or one striving for unity and hope. The idea that we might, with one vote, choose to rocket backwards into a darker age has kept me up at night, shaking. As a certain late-night host said, I feel like I’m waiting for the x-rays to come back, dreading the news. I’ll be very happy when this dread-inducing cloud of unknown is gone, whatever the outcome.
As for that outcome, I’m going to take my cue from my good friend Mike Ferrier. Here is Hillary Clinton’s speech at the Democratic National Convention. Here is Donald Trump’s speech from the Republican National Convention. If you ignore all the nasty rhetoric, the scandals (trumped-up and otherwise), the sinking sense that our national discourse has tunneled straight through rock bottom, and just focus on the two candidates (also ignoring third-party candidates, since they cannot win) and their visions of and for the country, the choice is stark and clear. Which of these speeches reflects the America you see around you? Which one reflects the America you want to live in?
In closing, please vote. It’s so, so important, this time more than ever. Voting is your voice. Please use it.
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I had this whole segue here about voices, tying my voting plea into the two albums I have this week, each led by an instantly recognizable voice. But that’s weak and flimsy and I know it. Really, I just don’t want to talk or think about the election anymore, and would rather talk about two records I like. Hope you will indulge me, and you won’t in any way think I’m trivializing or minimizing this election. This is a silly music column, after all, so let’s talk about music.
It will be hard for me not to discuss voices, though, especially in this first case. Tom Chaplin is the voice of Keane, and is still, for my money, one of the most underrated singers working. I’ve seen Keane live half a dozen times, and each time I’m blown away by Chaplin’s power and control. He’s able to sing any melody thrown at him, even ones that demand incredible range and contain tricky intervals, with seeming ease. Dismiss a song like “Love Is the End” as fluff if you must, but that sucker is hard to sing, and Chaplin makes it sound natural.
Keane in general is often ignored as an artistic force, simply because they write straightforward songs with plain-spoken lyrics. Their hearts are always on their sleeves, and always wide open, and this has led to many writing them off as a Coldplay knockoff, or a lightweight pop act. I’ve always heard them in a different way. Keane’s songs are melodically astonishing, making full use of Chaplin’s voice, and beneath that plain language lies genuine emotion. Their high water mark, 2006’s Under the Iron Sea, is basically their Rumours, a series of songs written by pianist Tim Rice-Oxley about Chaplin – his drug problems, his unreliability as a friend and bandmate – and then sung by Chaplin as if that were the most common thing in the world.
Turns out Chaplin’s addictions only got worse, to the point where he nearly died in early 2015, following the start of the band’s current hiatus. He sought help, and slowly put his life back together, writing songs as he did. He then joined up with Aqualung himself, Matt Hales, to record those songs, newly sober and with a new outlook on life. The result is The Wave, a record of inspirational anthems and beautiful laments, one that traffics in that same simple language to deliver a sweeping, soaring, hard-won optimism.
By themselves, the lyrics on this album won’t win any awards. “It’s such a beautiful world, so why do I feel so down,” he asks on first single “Hardened Heart.” “Hurting everyone I know, bringing everybody down so low, stuck along a road of sadness with nowhere to go.” Two songs later he’s dealing with his pain: “The undercurrent is stronger today, this time it’s different I’ll keep it at bay.” He lets it all go on “Bring the Rain”: “Spring, spring, a new beginning, till the earth is fit to burst and springing into life.” He repairs his bridges on “Solid Gold” (“You’ll never be lonely, never lonely, not again, I’m letting you in”) and reaches out to others, secure in himself, on “Quicksand”: “If you crash land in the quicksand, I will pick you up, I will pull you out.”
But you can tell, in every line, that Chaplin means these words from the bottom of everything he is. These are simpler songs than he gets to sing with Keane, but he sings them as if his life depends on it. Just listen to his performance on the great “I Remember You,” one of the more guitar-driven, upbeat pieces here. He just nails it, taking that melody to school while the bass and guitars dance behind him. I’ll be forever grateful that Chaplin and Hales found each other, because that pristine Aqualung production keeps the voice front and center and builds gleaming structures beneath it. Hales brings his electronic edge to a couple of these songs, most notably “The River,” but for the most part he keeps it grounded in piano and guitar. Just listen to “Bring the Rain.” That thing is pretty much perfect, and Chaplin takes his best swing and connects.
Throughout The Wave, Chaplin sounds refreshed, renewed, clear-eyed and hopeful. I’m overjoyed by that, and not just because he owns one of my favorite voices. This year has given us plenty of reason to despair, and The Wave is an album-length reason to celebrate. Its tales of healing and redemption are sorely needed – or, at least, I sorely needed them, and I’m so very glad to have them. Chaplin could have ended up yet another casualty of the bloody 2016, but he didn’t. He crawled back, he forced open the door and walked out into the sunlight, and he’s written down his tale, and then sung it to the skies. The Wave is a liberating album, and I’m glad that it exists.
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Speaking of voices I will never tire of, there’s Hope Sandoval.
I don’t know about you, but I certainly didn’t predict the return of Mazzy Star three years ago, or how good their reunion album, Seasons of Your Day, would be. It captured their unique style – part southern drawl, part shoegaze-y ambience – perfectly, in a way that no other band has been able to imitate. A big part of that style is Sandoval, whose shy-girl voice is the perfect complement to the band’s Patsy Cline-meets-Slowdive sound.
Sandoval’s solo work is always closer to Cline, but her third album with her band the Warm Inventions, Until the Hunter, strikes that balance nicely. Once again, Sandoval works with My Bloody Valentine drummer Colm O Ciosoig, and for the first time as a solo artist she lets these songs breathe and stretch out. Opener “Into the Trees” is a nine-minute dirge, floating on menacing, droning organ notes while Sandoval’s breathy voice floats out and around them. “Let Me Get There” is a sloppy two-chord bar band number that Sandoval sings with Kurt Vile, and the band rides that loping groove for seven and a half minutes.
Around these experiments we get more of what Sandoval does best – pretty acoustic pieces. “Day Disguise” is a sparse meander, her guitar delicately pirouetting beneath her while her voice draws you in. It’s absolutely gorgeous. “Treasure” brings the full band in behind her, but barely makes any more noise. Tender strings caress “The Hiking Song.” The album never really rises above a whisper, but it’s a sun-through-the-trees-in-autumn kind of whisper. It is an album of details, of tiny moments instead of sweeping gestures. It’s a finger to the lips, a quiet walk through the trees, and even the full-band blues of the closing song, “Liquid Lady,” doesn’t break the spell.
Hope Sandoval is unlike anyone else I know, and she makes albums of uncommon patience and reverence. Listening to one of her works is like stepping into another universe, like listening to some strange intersection of Twin Peaks and the Cowboy Junkies. Whether or not Mazzy Star continues, I hope Sandoval (see what I did there?) keeps making these strange, sprawling, lovely little records for many years to come.
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That’s it for this week. Again, please vote. Next week, a new president-elect, and a couple new records. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook here.
See you in line Tuesday morning.