Gather round, kids. Let me tell you a story about the good old days.
The way it used to be, an artist would record an album, and then it would take months to put that album through the label process to get it ready for release. There was the manufacturing process (particularly for vinyl) and the publicity run-up, then the first single would drop weeks in advance, and then finally, when you just couldn’t wait anymore, the album would arrive in stores. Yes, actual stores that you had to go to, where you would buy physical things that contained the music you wanted.
I hesitate to say “that’s all changed,” since for the majority of artists I follow, the process hasn’t really evolved. One of the biggest album releases of the month is Humanz, by Gorillaz, and despite the social media-ness of the entire project, it followed the traditional path – album announcement, advance singles, album to drop on April 28. But for an increasing number of artists, that path has proven a little too… well, traditional.
We’re living in the age of the surprise release, which takes the traditional release cycle and eliminates all of the buzz-building that seemed so essential when I was growing up. Artists of a certain stature these days know that the buzz will be created organically by fans – all they need to do is generate excitement by putting the music out there, and the audience will do the rest.
Kendrick Lamar is the latest to drop an album with little advance warning – his Damn was released on Friday, at least digitally – and while advance word has been good, I’m old, so I’m waiting for my local record store to receive a shipment of the shiny plastic discs. So I haven’t heard this yet, but I’m looking forward to it, despite my initial reaction to the unimaginative title, shoddy cover art and underwhelming first single (“Humble”). Lamar made one of the best albums of the last 10 years with To Pimp a Butterfly, so he gets my attention, always and forever. But I’m still not going to buy his record twice just to hear it on the release date. (Next week, I swear.)
For bands and artists not at that level, though, it’s hard to generate the excitement you’d need to justify spending months on an album and dropping it without warning. In fact, it’s often hard to generate the excitement you’d need to justify spending months on an album, full stop. Austin band Quiet Company has decided on a way around that – they’re working on their fifth album, but they’re releasing it in chapters, Celldweller-style, as they complete it. This means we get Taylor Muse’s new songs in bite-sized chunks, and then get to see how they fit together into a full album statement.
The first of these chunks is called It’s Not Attractive and it Changes Nothing, and the title might be longer than the three-song EP itself. But short as it is, it’s so, so worth it. The three songs show off Muse’s range, easing in with the middle-tempo “Celebrity Teeth Poacher” before sucker-punching you with the best rock song of the year so far, “Get Beside Me, Satan.” This thing moves like a high-speed train, Muse spitting out more of his honest wranglings with faith and religion (“We were promised something better, but when it couldn’t be named, we scorched a bit of earth and did it all for the fame, and a comfortable position when eternity came…”) before sliding into a darker, slower section near the end.
The EP concludes with “On Single Moms,” which finds Muse reaching out for love for the first time in a song since the churning breakup music of 2015’s Transgressor. This song is sweet the way QuietCo songs used to be, with ringing horns and lovely lyrics: “And you’ll be free to lean on me, because I am twice as strong as I need to be, and I’ll be true, I’ll be good to you, but only if you really want me to…” Near the song’s end, he repeats “You don’t scare me at all,” and I nearly teared up, so powerful is the moment. (Especially if you’ve been following Muse’s story.)
If you’re only going to give us three songs at a time, those three songs better be very good. It’s Not Attractive and it Changes Nothing is very good, and absolutely justifies purchasing it now, instead of waiting. Listen to it and buy it at QuietCo’s Bandcamp site, and tune in sometime this summer for the second installment.
* * * * *
John Mayer doesn’t need to parcel out his recording budgets, but he’s taken the same approach with his new album, The Search for Everything. He released eight of these 12 songs in smaller portions – four-song EPs, called Wave One and Wave Two – before compiling the record onto a single CD. Why he did this I have no idea, especially since hearing this music would convince anyone not to buy it. But he did.
Naturally, I waited and bought the full 12-song monstrosity, so my listen was more of a marathon than a sprint. After two albums of acoustic-based music that at least felt more honest, The Search for Everything is Mayer’s return to cheesy, wimpy pop. Here’s the thing that hurts the most: this album is the one on which he finally brought his trio (bass god Pino Palladino and drumming legend Steve Jordan, previously only captured on fiery live records) into the studio with him. And this is the material he gives them.
I have long since given up defending John Mayer from his own work. Live, he’s a monster – he’s a tremendous guitar player, and with Palladino and Jordan backing him up, his shows are often blistering jam sessions. But put him in a studio and all that fire goes away. There are two songs on The Search for Everything with a pulse. One is the opener, the pseudo-soul “Still Feel Like Your Man,” and the other is track three, “Helpless,” which actually features a pretty grand guitar solo. “Still Feel” gives you some idea of the talent Mayer is wasting here. Just listen to Palladino knock himself out on the bass lines. They’re like butter.
The rest of the album – seriously, every other song – is the aural equivalent of drinking milk with a well-balanced dinner. There’s a song called “Emoji of a Wave,” and while that’s ridiculous, you at least expect that it might be interesting. Nope. Total boredom. “Love on the Weekend” is just as bad as it sounds. “Changing” promises that its singer is evolving, but the typical chords and sing-song-y melody put lie to that. It’s “Daughters” redux. There’s an instrumental that isn’t bad, and “Rosie” and “Roll It On Home” take stabs at jazz-pop and country, respectively, and pull them off. But it’s too little too late, and then the sickly string-laden closer “You’re Gonna Live Forever in Me” completes the dive into the ditch.
It’s my fault, I know, for continuing to buy Mayer’s records. I was heartened by 2012’s Born and Raised, hoping that it had signified a newfound sense of purpose. But he’s squandered all of that with this overcooked and underbaked collection. He’s right back where he was ten years ago, when I was still saying things like “One day he’ll make a great record” and “Listen to him live.” I don’t even have the energy to say that anymore.
* * * * *
So far we’ve talked about two artists who made sure we could hear their songs early, before the albums were finished. If you want a good example of the opposite tack, of really making us wait for it, there’s Eric Matthews.
You may remember Matthews from “Fanfare,” his 1995 hit and the leadoff track from his debut album, It’s Heavy in Here. “Fanfare” stood out in the ‘90s for its orchestral influence – Matthews’ trumpet led the charge – and that first album followed suit, essentially consisting of a series of chamber music pieces posing as pop songs. He kept that up for three more records and an EP, his songwriting taking on baroque overtones while his instrumentation focused more on bass and guitar. 2006’s Foundation Sounds remains a favorite, Matthews playing nearly every instrument in search of a singular vision.
There’s been a Wikipedia listing for Too Much World, his fifth album, since at least 2010. Matthews announced it in the immediate wake of his fourth, The Imagination Stage, in 2008, and since then, nothing. A couple side projects, including a reunion of his duo Cardinal (with Richard Davies of the Moles), but no news about the album. I expect it’s been sitting in a vault since then, untouched.
But now, thanks to Jeffrey Kotthoff at Lo-Fidelity Records, Too Much World is here. And I have virtually no doubt that this record has been sitting completed for seven or eight years. It’s very much of a piece with Foundation Sounds and The Imagination Stage. Matthews played all the instruments, and wrote a cycle of unfailingly tricky and surprising songs. None of these tracks have easy choruses or follow the usual rules of pop. But if you’re willing to follow Matthews down his particular rabbit hole, they’re fun to puzzle out. The Bowie-esque “Exactly Like Them” is the single for a reason – it’s the only one that shimmies and struts. The rest of these songs are content to unfold in their own time, winding down pathways no one but their author saw coming.
As you might guess, this is up my alley. I’ve always enjoyed Matthews, oblique as he can be, and these 12 tunes do nothing to keep me away. Some of them are downright wonderful, particularly at album’s end: the nightmarish “Your Mom’s at Midnight” gives way to the sweet instrumental “A Quiet Place We Can Go,” and then slides into the piano-driven title track, which ends the record on a surprisingly upbeat note. I’m not sure I can say Too Much World was worth the wait, since it sounds so much like the records he made right before it, and is so obviously part of the same burst of creativity. But as a missing piece of the Eric Matthews story, it fits right in and makes its case nicely. Check it out at his Bandcamp site.
Just a quick plug for Lo-Fidelity, since I’ve been buying from Jeffrey for something like a decade now. This is what he does – he shines a spotlight on albums that would have been lost to the ravages of time, giving them new leases on life. Most recently he remastered and re-released Adam Again’s fantastic Homeboys, a record almost nobody heard on its initial release in 1990, and he’s currently taking pledges for a new remaster of the 77s’ dark and heavy monster Drowning with Land in Sight. Show him some love, if you have some to spare.
Next week, Kendrick, I promise. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.