My musical mind is always racing.
It’s involuntary at this point. I’ve heard so much music, and learned to play so much music, that my brain automatically dissects every song I listen to. I’m hearing each instrument separately and listening for how they connect together. I’m counting out any odd time signatures or missed beats. I’m reflexively predicting the next chords, and hopefully ending up surprised by where the song goes. And I’m listening to the lyrics, but that’s still a secondary thing for me – it often takes two or three listens, after I’ve drawn the whole musical map in my head, for me to pay attention to the meaning of a song.
The point is, I can’t turn it off. Every time I listen to music, my brain is on overdrive. This is why I need my dose of prog-rock and metal on top of all of the other kinds of music I love. It’s why I appreciate it when bands take that extra effort and throw in musical curve balls, little moments that make my synapses take notice. I like surprises, and I’m also excited by music that feels like a math equation, every disparate element working in tandem.
Which is why I love Everything Everything. These boys from Manchester make music that sounds like clockwork. It’s rare that any two instruments are playing the same thing, and singer Jonathan Higgs never takes the easy melody, draping that gloriously weird falsetto over some of the oddest and densest songs you’d expect to hear on alt-rock radio. Lately they’ve been incorporating more electronic elements, more stop-start arrangements, and even stranger melodies. Their last album, 2015’s Get to Heaven, was awesome, a constant stream of ideas.
EvEv’s just-released fourth album, A Fever Dream, is surprisingly streamlined in comparison. Some of it is straight-up dance music, particulary the two hip-shaking singles, “Can’t Do” and “Desire.” These are the most blatant bids for mainstream love this band has given us, and they’re still amazing. “Can’t Do” strides forward on a synthesizer pulse and Michael Spearman’s elaborate drums, and the little guitar flourishes just make it. And “Desire” is a stunner, Paul Simon-style guitars sharing space with big, abrasive keyboards, gorgeous harmonies and a slam-dunk of a straight-ahead chorus. In the universe where I am king, this is an enormous hit.
The inventiveness never lets up. In some ways, EvEv has always sounded the same, but they keep coming up with new ways to refract that sound and twist it around. “Run the Numbers” is classic EvEv for most of its running time, but the huge guitars in the chorus are a shock. The title track is a beautiful six-minute round robin, Higgs’ vocals and piano hitting at odd meters and rubbing shoulders with the electronic elements. And “Ivory Tower” is fantastic, an unrelenting four minutes of freight-train intensity that builds to an almost absurd degree.
A Fever Dream is probably the most accessible Everything Everything album, for all that. It may also be their best. The band has refined its gears-and-pulleys sound into something vibrant and, yes, fun. A Fever Dream is a great time, a musical playground for your brain that will get your feet moving too.
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The downside of my active musical mind is that I find it harder to enjoy simplicity.
I do try. Every year or so I make another effort to get into Bob Dylan, to no avail. I do my best with Bruce Springsteen and his acolytes. I don’t mind simple arrangements – some of my favorite songs have little more than a piano or an acoustic guitar accompanying them. Simple songs, though, I have trouble with, and have to work to enjoy. I will never be a blues fan. My brain just gets bored.
So it is with The War on Drugs, a band I wish I could like more than I do. I’ve been hearing about how epic and expansive their new album, A Deeper Understanding, is for months. And it sure feels like a big deal record. Its ten songs stretch out to 66 minutes, only one song is less than five minutes long and most are epics, with the big one, “Thinking of a Place,” clocking in over 11 minutes. The physical sound of this record is massive, too. Leader and mastermind Adam Granduciel (he even has the word “grand” in his name) piles on guitars and pianos and keyboards and thumping bass and then slices through it all with one of the most arresting, piercing lead guitar tones I’ve heard in ages.
On paper, The War on Drugs seems to have every “epic” box ticked. But throughout this long record, Granduciel demonstrates just how important it is to have strong, solid songs beneath all the glittering accoutrements. Mostly, these songs are weak and repetitive things, content to ride one groove for six or seven minutes, taking no detours and building no melodic structures. The physical sound is the only thing carrying it, and it often feels like the towers of sound are there to distract from the lack of interesting songwriting.
The upshot is that my brain gets bored by most of this. There are exceptions. “Holding On” is pretty swell, convincingly building its upbeat vibe. I like the massive, repetitive, reach-for-the-sky orchestrations on “Strangest Thing,” a song that actually had me excited for the guitar solo. (It does go on too long, though, like most of these tracks.) But by the time we’re halfway through “Thinking of a Place,” my mind’s about ready to doze off. It’s only the rising tide of the sound that keeps me interested.
I’ll keep listening to A Deeper Understanding, trying to, well, understand it more deeply. From my first few listens, it sounds to me like pretty typical Springsteen-style encouraging lyrics sung over massive arrangements meant to hide how little is actually happening in these songs. There may be more to it, but I’m having trouble staying focused long enough to hear it.
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Of course, there is some music that is designed to soothe the manic musical brain, to gently shut it down and allow it to just be submerged in sound. The War on Drugs’ tunes contain too much that is meant to grab your attention, too much that follows the usual formula of pop music to allow for that submersion. You need a certain kind of ambience for that. You need music specifically created to allow someone like me to relax and drift away.
Basically, you need Hammock. The duo of Marc Byrd and Andrew Thompson has created some of the most ethereal, otherworldly ambient music you’ll ever hear. For twelve years now, Byrd and Thompson have harnessed some kind of spiritual magic to weave extraordinary guitar skyscapes together with other elements (piano, voice, cello) to create music that rarely feels like it was made by humans.
Hammock’s tenth album, Mysterium, is, in its own way, just as expansive as A Deeper Understanding. Its sound includes a full choir and the Nashville Recording Orchestra, along with the usual clouds of guitar and keyboards. It’s a darker, more mournful record than they’ve made before – it’s dedicated to a longtime friend who died last year – and its ebbs and flows hide great reserves of feeling. I don’t know how Hammock always makes such emotional music, but they do, and they’ve done it again on Mysterium.
In fact, so much of this record moves me nearly to tears. Byrd sings the elegiac “I Would Give My Breath Away,” his prayerful words (“If I could give my breath away, I would, so I could hold you one more day, I would…”) barely audible beneath the waves of shimmering beauty. The gently flowing orchestra on tracks like “Remember Our Bewildered Son” is breathtaking. “For My Sister” is astonishing, its elegiac piano breaking into heart-rending guitar and deep strings. Hammock has rarely been prettier or sadder.
Mysterium ends with its most traditional song, an epilogue titled “This is Not Enough.” It features drums by Ken Lewis and plaintive vocals from Byrd, and it serves to bring us back to earth after the previous 53 minutes. “Time fades away, we float away, this is not enough,” Byrd sings, and its sentiment is echoed in the swirling, lovely, heartbreaking music his band conjures. All Hammock albums are amazing, but some are truly special. Mysterium is one of those.
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Next week, Neil Finn’s live-on-the-internet experiment Out of Silence, along with one or two others. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.