Well look at me, I’m forty-three.
I actually took a week off for my birthday this year. I never do that. I’ve promised both you and myself that I will do that every year for at least the last ten, but I don’t think I ever have. I may call it a tradition from now on, because it was surprisingly refreshing and revitalizing. If the day ever comes when I end this column, whether from exhaustion or simply running out of time to write it each week, I may look back on this delightful week off as the beginning of the end.
Don’t worry, though. I still feel like I have plenty to say, and lord knows the torrent of new music is not slowing down. I’m going to try the same experiment I tried in October of last year – a month of columns full of shorter, more to-the-point reviews. June is full to bursting with new tunes, and just out of necessity I have to start with a couple that came out last month, so I’m going to try to say fewer words about each of these records and make the words I do say count more. We’ll see how I do.
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My birthday has, of course, brought with it the usual reflection on my life, accompanied by the usual wish to be 17 again. Don’t get me wrong – if offered, I probably wouldn’t go back and live my twenties again. They weren’t my favorite years, and I’m actually quite happy in my forties. But what I miss sometimes is that fire I used to have, that ability to pursue projects until they were a reality. I miss the way I could once get through an entire week without feeling tired at the end.
I do think some of my teenage drive came from the music I listened to. And when I put that music on now, I feel the same optimism and idealism that defined my best days as a teen. Sure, I was a metalhead in those years, with a long curly mullet and a firm belief that Megadeth’s Rust in Peace was the pinnacle of artistic achievement, but it was during that phase that I also discovered some of my most enduring favorites. And perhaps the most enduring of them all has been the Alarm.
Let’s just get this out of the way: I am never going to hate the Alarm. They mean too much to me. My friend Chris Callaway, who very kindly mentioned me more than once in his book of interviews with rock stars, got me into the Welsh foursome by lending me Eye of the Hurricane when we were both 14, and it shone new light on my world. It was everything I loved about U2 with a more pop sensibility, and even then I appreciated a great melody more than anything else.
The original Alarm released five studio albums and a bunch of other material, and I love all of it. They morphed from an acoustic punk band to a melodic rock band and then headed in a bluesier, crunchier direction before calling it quits in 1991. Nine years later, frontman Mike Peters reformed the band with new musicians and started its second chapter, and the Alarm been a powerhouse since.
It was in this later incarnation that the Alarm broke free from the U2-isms that had always dogged them. Mike Peters still sings like Bono, with all the passion and fire he can muster each time out, but he started bringing in louder punk influences, and with 2008’s tremendous Counter Attack (an 8-CD box set of new material), captured the spirit of one of U2’s earliest inspirations, the Clash. They sounded alive, vital, hungry, ready for anything.
Which is why it’s somewhat disheartening that Peters has gone back to U2-land with Blood Red, the Alarm’s first record of new material in nine years. Blood Red is the first of at least two new records coming down the pike, and while it’s good, it doesn’t quite rise up to the bar they’ve set for themselves, and it doesn’t make me particularly jazzed for the second installment.
Now look, I’m never going to hate the Alarm, and these ten anthems still stir the soul. Peters sounds older, which of course he is, but given his fight (and his wife’s fight) against cancer in recent years, he doesn’t sound nearly as beaten down by life as you might expect. “Coming Backwards” includes every Alarm cliché, including Peters’ wailing harmonica, and it all still works. “There Must Be a Way” is a low-key fist pump, a song that could have been written in the band’s early days, recorded a bit slower than younger Peters would have done it, with a few more synthesizers and a bit less energy. But it still sounds like the Alarm.
And if that’s all you need, Blood Red is going to do it for you. The best stuff comes in the middle – “Time” is a deep, dark excursion, “Love and Understanding” basically rewrites “Strength” for 2017, and “Brighter Than the Sun” is a minor-key mid-tempo thing, reminiscent of “Scarlet” from 1989’s Change. Outside those three and the classic Bono-style ballad “No Greater Love,” Peters struggles for inspiration, but he always sounds like Mike Peters – older but unbowed, and still itching for a fight. For most of this album, that’s enough.
Find the Alarm online here: www.thealarm.com
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I’ve bought a lot of music recently, but one thing I haven’t bought is the new mix of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. I feel like I ought to, but I’ve bought Sgt. Pepper four times now in various formats, and even though it’s one of my very favorite records, I’m not sure I need to buy it again, particularly with all the potentially fantastic new records coming out. But that doesn’t mean I can’t celebrate its birthday. I’m just more than seven years younger than Sgt. Pepper – the album turned 50 on May 26. The magic of Sgt. Pepper is that in many ways, we’re still catching up with it.
I discovered the Beatles in junior high, which I think is about the same time everyone discovers them. There’s a short list of bands that everyone finds out about in junior high or high school – Led Zeppelin, for instance, or Simon and Garfunkel. The big one, though, seems to be Pink Floyd. I play in the band at my church, and our guitarist is a 15-year-old kid who loves Floyd. He plays “Money” and “Wish You Were Here” like they were new songs, and it always makes me nostalgic, because I discovered them around the same time.
Of course, by the time I got there, they were the David Gilmour Band, soloing their way through A Momentary Lapse of Reason. I remember the first time I heard Roger Waters sing – I jumped right into The Wall next on a recommendation – and I wasn’t impressed. Who was this shouty guy? Where was the far more melodious Gilmour? What about the guitar solos? It didn’t take long for me to come around. By the time I’d delved into his solo work, I was a Roger Waters fan.
So when Amused to Death hit during my freshman year of college, I was ready for it. Basically a rant in album form, Amused is the one where all of Waters’ sonic and social interests collided, painting a dark picture of a world addicted to digital experiences and devoid of human ones. It was basically the ultimate Roger Waters album. Amused was so good that I thought we’d never see another one out of him. He’d basically said what he came here to say.
Thankfully, I was wrong. Twenty-five years after Amused to Death, here is Waters’ fourth solo album, Is This the Life We Really Want. In most ways, this is a sequel to Amused – Waters worked with Nigel Godrich here, the man behind every Radiohead album for the last 20 years, and he creates a very Roger Waters atmosphere, full of ambient interludes and big string arrangements and stabbing guitar accents and Pink Floyd-style keyboards. It’s a patient album, a slow one, but in its best moments, it’s a remarkably powerful one.
Lyrically, this record is mainly what you’d expect, if not more so. Waters is 73 years old now, and this is even more of a cranky old man rant than Amused was. Much of this was either written very recently, or tied in retroactively with Trump’s election – “A leader with no fucking brains,” Waters sings on “Picture That,” lyrics that are transposed over a photo of Dear Leader in the liner notes. “Every time a young girl’s life is casually spent, and every time a nincompoop becomes the president,” he spits out on the title track, essentially a litany of society’s ills.
I am all about Roger Waters ripping modern life to shreds, so I enjoyed every second of his venomous invective. But he does something even more interesting here, something that sets this record above all of his other solo work to me: he juxtaposes his descriptions of the crumbling world with an examination of a crumbling relationship. Waters’ emotional vulnerability, his genuine regret, give these songs (and by extension, the album) a weight that they might not have had otherwise.
Nowhere is that more apparent than in the final three songs, which together form a gorgeous little suite. “Wait for Her” and “Oceans Apart” are poetic love songs, and the finale, “Part of Me Died,” shows how much he has grown. “When I laid eyes on her, a part of me died,” he sings, listing off the qualities he no longer wants to feel: cold-hearted, devious, greedy, mischievous, global, colonial, bloodthirsty and blind. The message, of course, is that love is the answer, love is the way out of the mess we’re in, the way to find the life we really want. But Waters delivers that message with such delicate honesty that it lands. It’s my favorite moment of his career.
Is This the Life We Really Want is an event. It may very well be the last record of Roger Waters’ life, and if so, he’s gone out with a stunner. There are so many moments throughout this work that brought a smile to my face and a tear to my eye. It’s another rant in album form, make no mistake, but it’s probably his best rant, and there’s a twist in the tale that takes it to another level. I’m not sure what I was expecting 25 years later, but Waters delivered.
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Shorter and to the point, huh? Wow, do I suck at this. Regardless, I have one more record to tell you about, and as it’s one of my favorites of the year, I need to tell you about it now. It also illustrates that while I’m always excited to hear from artists I’ve loved for years, I’m equally excited to find new acts that thrill me.
Husky thrills me. I have my friend Rob Hale to thank for turning me on to this Australian band. They’re exactly the kind of melodic folksy rock band I adore, and namesake Husky Gawenda’s songs are unfailingly terrific, twisting and turning while remaining as catchy and infectious as possible. Their first two albums were revelations, and their just-released third, Punchbuzz, is easily as good, and better in a lot of ways. One day, Husky is going to make a bad record. This is not that day.
Punchbuzz is a different kind of Husky album, but one that nudges its evolution forward without forgetting what brought them to the dance. It’s a more plugged-in work, with programmed drums and keyboards and chiming, ringing electric guitar all over the place. A song like “Shark Fin” barrels forward with remarkable confidence, the band taking on this propulsive new sound like it’s second nature. “Late Night Store” is a stunner, shrouded in shadow, making full use of the new, fuller production.
But they don’t sound like a totally different band, and there are two reasons for that – Gawenda’s distinctive, even voice and his songs. The songs are uniformly excellent here, a little darker than they’ve been before but still rippling with melody, still tight and beautiful. The band indulges in an atmospheric jam at the end of the grand “Cut the Air,” and it is the first moment on a Husky album that sounds like it wasn’t mapped out in its entirety. Their trademark sure-footedness is all over this album.
They even save some surprises for the end. “Flower Drum” is as far-out as they’ve gone, sonically speaking – it takes the new wave dive, the way Keane did on Perfect Symmetry. And it’s awesome, zipping through its insidious chorus at a trot. Closer “Space Between Heartbeats,” similarly, pulls out the spacey keyboard drones and Phil Collins electronic pitter-patter, then augments them with pedal steel guitars. It shouldn’t work, but it does, wonderfully.
From the first time I heard them, Husky has been one of those tell-everyone bands for me. Punchbuzz has only solidified their stature. They’ll make a bad record someday, although I can’t imagine it. For now, though, they’ve made three great ones, and I cannot recommend all of them highly enough.
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Next week, I’ll try my best to actually write short reviews. I’ll have a ton to choose from, including Fleet Foxes, Ani DiFranco, Jason Isbell, Phoenix and Sufjan Stevens’ Planetarium project. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.