It’s becoming increasingly clear that Elbow is incapable of making a bad record.
In fact, they somehow seem to be getting better in their old age. I say that somewhat facetiously – lead singer Guy Garvey and I are the same age – but also with admiration. Since appearing with a whisper in 2001, Elbow has made seven fantastic albums, and now an eighth, and with each one they’ve shifted their patient, meditative style into new territory. With each one, they’ve been getting a little quieter, a little more varied, and with their eighth, Little Fictions, they’ve pushed forward even more. The arc of Elbow’s career is long, to bastardize a phrase, but it bends toward beauty, and Little Fictions is absolutely beautiful.
Let’s not kid ourselves: the main not-so-secret weapon in Elbow’s arsenal is Garvey’s voice, rich and silky and deep. I’ve sometimes chided him for sounding like he just woke up, but over time Garvey has honed that voice into a stunning thing, gliding atop his band’s musical landscapes. In 2015 Garvey issued his first solo album, Courting the Squall, and it contained some of the most aggressive material he’d ever sung over, and it suited him just fine. Little Fictions, on the other hand, is some of the richest, grandest Elbow music, and Garvey again rises to the occasion.
If you want a good example of how full Garvey’s voice can be, just listen to standout track “Gentle Storm.” It consists of nothing but a drum pattern, simple and spare piano chords, and Garvey’s voice. And it’s extraordinary. When he draws back for the big chorus (“Fall in love with me…”), it fills the room, even if the room is the size of Grand Central Station. I don’t know if there are other versions of this song with guitars and strings and other instruments, but even if there are, the band had the good sense to realize that the song needed nothing else.
That’s not to say that tracks here like the opener, “Magnificent (She Says),” are overstuffed. The pulsing strings do wonders for that arrangement, and the larger feel of sweeping songs like “All Disco” and “Head for Supplies” works perfectly. The title track is another highlight, stretching to eight minutes and packing an album’s worth of spine-tingles into that time. Elbow’s music always feels like it’s moving forward, albeit slowly, but “Little Fictions” feels like it truly takes you somewhere. That’s largely due to the varied sounds the band brings in – this is their most sonically adventurous album, yet the experimentation never overshadows the songs, and never dilutes the essential Elbow-ness of the whole thing.
In fact, my favorite here is “Trust the Sun,” which may be the most Elbow track of all. It’s remarkably still, like much of their best work, all but training you to wait for and appreciate the smallest of changes. Its chorus is a little thing – an extended note, some prime piano chords – but in the context of what Elbow is doing here, it’s hard to imagine anything more gorgeous. Little Fictions is a sublime record, one that unfolds slowly and subtly, and by the end, it takes its place among the band’s best work. Which is, frankly, just about all of their work.
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The Flaming Lips are certainly capable of making bad records. And boy howdy, have they made a few.
I’m never certain what the Lips are going to sound like when they finally descend from their candy-colored mountain with new music. Lately it’s been even harder to guess. Just in the last 10 years they’ve covered Dark Side of the Moon and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, made a song that lasts six hours and followed it up with a song that lasts 24 hours, sold one-offs in gummy skulls and actual skulls, and backed up Miley Cyrus on an incredibly strange record. But in between all of that, they gave us a proper (and properly creepy) Flaming Lips album in 2013, called The Terror.
And now they’ve made another, and naturally, I had no idea what I’d be getting when I bought it. It’s called Oczy Mlody, which is a Polish phrase that translates to “the eyes of the young.” And if you can imagine an equal marriage between The Terror and The Soft Bulletin, that’s this. It often traffics more in soundscapes than in songs, but those soundscapes are pretty terrific. And when it does hit upon a melody, as it does throughout the back half, it soars. It doesn’t quite hit the heights we came to expect from this band in the ‘90s and 2000s – the hope, and there is plenty, is tempered by experience and gnawing uncertainty. But it still gets off the ground.
Before you get to the melodic denouement, though, Oczy Mlody hands you a heaping helping of weird. Just the six-minute “One Night While Hunting for Faeries and Witches and Wizards to Kill” would be enough, with its burbling synths and lyrics about force fields and severed eyes, but this album serves up plenty more. The seven-minute “Listening to the Frogs with Demon Eyes,” for instance, is a trip in more ways than one.
But the final three tracks make it all worth it. “The Castle” is classic Lips – strangely encouraging and brightly colored lyrics set to music that sounds like stars exploding in the sky. “Almost Home” follows suit, and the final track, the lovely “We a Family,” might be the most giddy and joyous tune the Lips have given us in more than a decade. Yes, this is the track that Cyrus features on, but she fits in perfectly, and the simple romanticism of the song bursts out of the speakers. It is, I hope, indicative of where their heads are now, because we could use more joyous Flaming Lips music.
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I know what you’re thinking. What about the rock? When am I going to write about something that rocks?
If that’s what you’re looking for, I have two albums for you, and they illustrate two sides of the same question: what happens to rock and roll when you scrub it clean? Guitar-drums duo Japandroids have, for two albums, been the poster children for raw, scrappy rock, fierce and furious and optimistic. For their third, Near to the Wild Heart of Life, they opted for a slicker sound, one that feels immediate and close instead of half a mile of tunnel away.
The result lays bare just how simple and repetitive their songs are, and how indebted to Springsteen they’ve always been. “North East South West” could be a Gaslight Anthem tune, as could the epic “Arc of Bar.” The songs are rough and tumble, but in this shiny form, they just don’t do enough to keep my attention. The band’s energy is still in top form. That energy just seems to work better when it’s dirty and distant. All that said, my favorite thing here is the slowest – the heart-on-sleeve “I’m Sorry (For Not Finding You Sooner).” It’s a delightful respite among the clatter.
Speaking of clatter, there’s Cloud Nothings, the scrappy band of noisemakers led by screamer Dylan Baldi. The band captured attention with their second album, Attack on Memory, a much louder and more fiery piece of work than their debut. There isn’t much to Attack besides fury, but it has plenty of that, and the barely-there production (by Steve Albini, of course) only added to it.
Their fourth album, Life Without Sound, is considerably cleaner-sounding, but no less furious, and it still works. Part of the success of this record is Baldi’s songwriting, which has grown in leaps and bounds. The intricacy of the songs matches the production, and the band is tight and powerful. Baldi’s singing has grown more complex as well. I don’t want to oversell this – it’s a rock record, not Close to the Edge – but Cloud Nothings is a band clearly intent on growing without losing any of its sheer reckless force.
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All right, enough rock. Let’s end with some jazz and bluegrass.
I’ve been a fan of Chris Thile and Brad Mehldau separately for years now, so the thought of them joining forces on an album had me salivating. And it’s very good, but first, on behalf of everyone who still buys physical music, a gripe. There’s no reason this 64-minute record should be on two CDs and should cost twice as much as a standard album. There’s no discernible difference between the two discs – had the vocal tracks been sequestered on one CD and the instrumentals on another, I could have almost understood. But as it is, it’s just a ripoff.
That said, it’s a glorious ripoff. Thile is the mandolin player at the heart of Punch Brothers and Nickel Creek. He’s a once-in-a-generation kind of musician, and has reinvented the mandolin as a rock, bluegrass and classical instrument. Mehldau is at the forefront of a wave of new jazz players drawing from a contemporary songbook. His piano interpretations of modern songs, along with his own compositions and a healthy respect for the classics, have made him an important figure in jazz over the last two decades. It was without question that their collaboration – titled after both their names – would be good.
And it very much is. Thile and Mehldau pick up each other’s groove particularly well. “The Old Shade Tree” is the only composition they wrote together, and it sounds like Punch Brothers to me, Thile wailing on vocals while Mehldau fills in for the rest of the band. Mehldau’s “Tallahassee Junction” is classic Mehldau jazz, and Thile’s strums fit in nicely. You can almost tell who suggested which covers: Thile leads on Gillian Welch’s “Scarlet Town” and Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” while Mehldau does his thing on Elliott Smith’s “Independence Day.”
If I have a criticism of this collaboration, it’s that the two musicians spend so much time fitting into one another’s styles that they never really develop one together. But that’s OK. It’s their first stab at it, and for a meet-and-greet, this record is lovely. I’m hoping for more, but if this is all we get, it’ll do nicely.
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Look at that, a good old-fashioned new release roundup. Next week, the new one from Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness, among others. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.