I’m going to spend this Independence Day talking about how much I depend on my friends.
If you know anything about me, you know that I connect with people most directly over music. “What are you listening to” isn’t just an idle question for me, it’s a way of seeking out kindred spirits, of finding connection points with people and then reveling in them. Discovering that other people love the same music I love, as deeply as I love it, is one of my life’s greatest joys.
Another of them is when those people hear new music they love and think of me. I’ve discovered so many new bands and songs and albums through kind recommendations. Quite often those recommendations come from folks I have never met in person. Those hold a special place in my heart. Knowing that people I’ve never even shared a meal with think enough of me to want to enrich my life with music, well, it makes my heart grow several sizes.
I’ve never met Adam Baker, though it feels like I’ve known him forever. We connected in a Facebook group for fans of Christian music from the ‘90s (yes, that’s a real thing), but as he lives in North Carolina and I’m stuck in the vast expanse of the Midwest, we’ve never even shaken hands. But we have talked about music, a lot. I know he likes a diverse array of hardcore, which for a Methodist pastor is absolutely fantastic, and he knows what I’m into as well.
Which is probably why he knew I would like Algiers. I can’t remember the circumstances that led Adam to recommending this Georgia band to me, but I’m glad he did. My first exposure to them was the title track of their just-released second album, The Underside of Power. The song is, frankly, amazing. It’s like soul music from a dark, dystopian future. Franklin James Fisher has a powerful, rich voice, and the band creates a fury around him that feels like Motown meets the Death Star. It somehow manages to be portentous and important while maintaining the shuffling soul sound of a Leon Bridges at its core.
Frankly, I’d never heard anything quite like it, so I ran to the record store that day to buy the album. And while it never ascends those heights again, The Underside of Power is pretty awesome. It’s all together darker than the single would indicate, taking you through a wounded and wrecked world while gently nudging you toward revolution. “Dystopian soul” is, it turns out, a fine way to describe the entire thing. Fisher’s voice remains a beacon throughout, able to express great misery (check out his tortured performance on “A Murmur a Sign”) while still embodying glimmers of hope.
Long stretches of this record wallow in murky atmosphere, the clattering of electronic drums breaking the surface here and there. “Cleveland” brings the tempo up a little for a call and response over pitter-patter percussion, Fisher screaming and moaning while name-checking African-Americans like Sandra Bland whose suspicious deaths were ruled suicides. “The hand that brings the gavel down is the hand that ties the noose… but that hand is gonna fold, the day is coming soon…” “Animals,” right after that, is the loudest and punkiest track here, slashing and burning everything in its way for two and a half minutes.
The final third of The Underside of Power is the darkest, full of oppressive instrumentals and the unsettling lament of “Hymn for an Average Man,” with its refrain of “deny it, deny it.” (At one point, a barely-audible voice sings out “Ignore their screaming, you got away with it.” Chilling.) But the final track is a hell of a way to go out. “The Cycle/The Spiral: Time to Go Down Slowly” earns its multi-part title, Fisher’s soulful “we are the cycle that begins, we are the spiral to the end” stretching out over flitting piano and drums. The band creates an almighty racket before fading away, leaving its revolution in your hands.
Adam was right. I think this is pretty great, even if it never gets quite as good as my first exposure to the band. The title song rises head and shoulders above everything else here, of course, but as an experience, The Underside of Power is a tough and uncompromising one, making use of the band’s unique elements in unexpected yet powerful ways. As a walk through a difficult future, this is something else. I’ll be buying whatever Algiers decide to do next.
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Of course, this doesn’t mean that I don’t appreciate recommendations from my longtime friends.
Case in point: I’ve known the irascible Javi Terrazzas for years now. He’s one of the most supportive people I’ve ever met, even if he likes to project an air of grumpiness and misanthropy. He’s also ahead of the curve in so many areas of music, and I’ve learned a lot from him. I’m sure during the time I’ve known him that he’s tried to get me into Gossip, a band I’ve never quite investigated. But my delayed reaction didn’t stop him from enthusiastically recommending Fake Sugar, the first solo album from Gossip frontwoman Beth Ditto.
And good lord, is this record fantastic, and I may never have heard it without Javi. Just from spinning this album over and over, Ditto is quickly climbing my list of favorite singers. She has a big, strong, malleable voice that carries every song here, caressing when the song calls for it and letting loose with a forceful wail when it’s needed. One of those times is on the refrain of the first song and first single, “Fire.” This thing is a delight. It comes on like a shimmering old-school shuffle, but with her siren-call “Fiiiiiiiiyer,” it erupts. The song still shimmies, but in a more volcanic way. It’s just great.
The rest of Fake Sugar is sweeter and softer, Ditto delivering one great showcase for that voice after another. “In and Out” may be one of my favorite pure pop songs of the year, but there’s more than one contender for that crown here. The title track is a lovely, sparse gallop, Ditto subtly singing the solo-guitar opening before the song blossoms into something out of Paul Simon. Ditto co-wrote most of these songs with her producer, Jennifer Decilveo, who also played bass and other instruments, and it’s clearly a partnership that sings. I cannot stop listening to “Savoir Faire,” particularly its vivacious chorus. These two know how to write a song.
The whole record is delightful, even if it gets a bit samey-sounding by the end. Ditto and Decilveo set a template of spare guitars and subtle drums, leaving plenty of room for the voice to fill in the corners. (One exception is “We Could Run,” on which Ditto fully opens up those vocal chords, and the production matches her. “Love in Real Life” gets a fuller treatment too, and it benefits.) I’m kind of in love with this record, and I’m grateful to Javi for letting me know about it.
And I’m grateful to anyone who has ever let me know about music they love. It keeps me going, but more than that, it keeps me connected to you all, and I’m thankful for that.
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Okay, one week late, but here is the Second Quarter Report. I’m not sure I have seen a more complete rewriting of the First Quarter Report since I started writing them. The last three months have seen an avalanche of excellent new records, and it doesn’t look like it’s going to let up. If most of the ten records listed below end up being also-rans in December, it will have been an extraordinary year.
Here is what the top 10 list would look like if I were forced under pain of death to publish it right now:
10. Mount Eerie, A Crow Looked at Me
9. Fleet Foxes, Crack-Up.
8. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, The Nashville Sound.
7. Roger Waters, Is This the Life We Really Want.
6. Husky, Punchbuzz.
5. Elbow, Little Fictions.
3. Jonathan Coulton, Solid State.
2. Aimee Mann, Mental Illness.
Next week, AudioFeed 2017. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.