A couple weeks ago I shared an old-man rant in this space about downloads and how I still prefer CDs.
So it’s only fair that I spend an equal amount of time this week talking about how amazing this brave new world can be, and exploring one of the many miracles of our instantaneous culture. (Of course, in the process, I’m going to be praising a 59-year-old man, so don’t think I’m suddenly down with the youth or anything.)
My case in point: I am right now listening to Out of Silence, the fourth solo album by Neil Finn, he of Split Enz and Crowded House fame. Eleven days ago, not a single note of this record existed. On Friday, August 25, Finn and an expansive band (including a choir and a small orchestra) recorded all ten of these songs live in a studio, and simulcast the sessions on the internet. Anyone who wanted to follow along and watch the process could do so. The whole session took four and a half hours.
And one week later, the finished, mixed and mastered album was on sale. This meets my definition of a miracle. In eight days, Out of Silence went from an idea in Finn’s head to a commercially available piece of music, from something only one man could fully enjoy to something that can enrich all our lives. And that’s only possible because of the internet. (The album is available to download, with hard copy versions coming over the next two months.)
The beauty of the live recording session was that it brought Finn’s worldwide audience together over a moment in time. Those who watched it unfold were part of the magic. In the three weeks leading up to the Out of Silence session, Finn went live on the internet to broadcast rehearsals and jam sessions, inviting his audience in ever closer, building a small community around these glimpses into his space and his songwriting. It was a clever and touching way to build excitement for the album, and to express something profound: this technology that is supposed to bring us closer rarely does, but here’s a way it can live up to that promise.
Here’s the thing that knocks me out about this record, though: it’s not something you’d expect to be captured live. It’s not a three-chord guitar-rock jam session, not something simple that can be banged out in four hours easily. Out of Silence is Finn’s most beautiful record, a complex set of chamber-pop songs with gorgeous, delicate arrangements. It sounds labored over, elaborately put together. This took a lot of rehearsal, of course, for these 30-some musicians to learn this material and perform it so immaculately.
This album completes Finn’s evolution from guitar-slinging rock troubadour to orchestral pop composer – there are only two songs with drums, and only one of those sounds like the skipping singalongs Finn made with his former bands. Finn’s primary instrument here is the piano, and his songs are slow and meditative, concerned with moments of transcendence rather than immediacy. These songs take time to work their way in, but once you know the map of them, they’re phenomenal. In retrospect, this is the road Finn has been on at least since Crowded House’s Time on Earth, and this album puts a lot of his more recent work into perspective.
I have no qualms about calling Neil Finn one of the world’s best living songwriters. Just listen to the extraordinary piano-strings ballad “More Than One of You.” Its melody is surprising, uplifting, perfectly arranged for the choir. That tiny bridge with the single ethereal violin part? Perfection. “Chameleon Days” is one of the most propulsive, its xylophone melody complementing the drums and tympani and low brass. It’s dark – “Anyone can tell you that it’s out of our hands, God is rolling numbers while we’re making our plans” – but its moments of light are well-timed and gorgeous.
“Independence Day” is amazing, its gossamer acoustic picking supporting surges of strings before the simple, beautiful refrain steps in. It’s a song about storms rolling in, and then rolling away, and the music follows suit. Even a tiny reverie like “Alone” sounds like strolling down a city street after the rain, so wonderful is its arrangement. And when Finn bites off a true masterwork like “Widow’s Peak,” possibly the most epic song about walking a dog ever written, it’s a wonder to behold.
There’s no doubt why the big-deal pop song “Second Nature” is the single. It sounds like little else here, with its marching drum beat and catchy chorus, but I’m glad it’s here. It’s a great, great little song. (The lyrics to “Second Nature” changed between the rehearsal and the recording session, which shows how close to the bone Finn was playing this.) The record’s one speed bump is a noble one: “The Law is Always On Your Side” is a Lennon-esque lament for a man wrongly killed by police, and its lyric is a little too obvious. On the other hand, this is the first time I’ve ever criticized a Neil Finn lyric for being too obvious, so I’m sure it’s exactly what he wanted.
More true to form is the gorgeous closer, “I Know Different.” A song about healing a relationship, “I Know Different” ebbs and flows like the sea, and concludes with a stunning, rising coda that ends with a sharp moment of hope. It’s perfect, one of my favorite Neil Finn songs. It was also the last one recorded, and seriously, just go to about four hours and 25 minutes into the video and watch Finn’s face as the song concludes. He knows he nailed it, he knows he’s just finished an emotional journey and come out the other side with one of his best records. And we all get to share in that moment.
Aside from how it was created, Out of Silence is a beautiful little record, one that is content to bloom in small, subtle ways. The best word to describe it is “intimate,” which makes the process of its birth even more fitting. It’s small, but seismic, and it fills me with hope that even now, at 59, Finn is just getting started.
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In my world, Neil Finn’s gorgeous little album is a big event. In the world outside my world, though, the biggest thing happening in music this week is the return of LCD Soundsystem.
To be honest, I’ve never understood the big deal about James Murphy and his project. It’s good stuff – the three original LCD Soundsystem albums are fun, sarcastic, danceable things about the anxieties of growing old and out of touch, and I definitely enjoyed all of them. But when Murphy decided in 2011 to break up the band, I can’t say I was overly sad. And when, last year, he decided to reunite the band, I wasn’t too surprised.
But lots of people were, and called Murphy a sellout and a traitor for reigniting his most successful project. I guess phony farewell tours and subsequent reunions are only for ‘70s bands with no integrity, not for paragons of indie earnestness like Murphy? I dunno. From the first news of the band’s massive goodbye concert in New York, I knew they’d probably be back. This is just how these things usually go.
The question is, does the reunion album justify its own existence? And the answer is, sure. It’s hard to say that LCD Soundsystem is a band in the traditional sense anyway – Murphy is its only constant member, and is clearly the mastermind. So if he has a new batch of songs, why not call them LCD Soundsystem songs? And why expect that these new ones would be somehow worse than the older ones?
The new album, American Dream, is a bit different, but not much. It’s still Murphy and all his neuroses, set to banging club drums and synth-driven dance-punk. This one feels a little more like a single thought, rather than a set of singles, and it’s darker and more desperate in places. But it still sounds like LCD Soundsystem, a mix of David Bowie and David Byrne with a little Prince thrown in. Murphy’s arrangements are as weird as always – “Other Voices” feels like it might fall apart as you’re listening to it, its insistent beat the only thing keeping it together, and the falling-off-a-cliff guitar of “Change Yr Mind” is delightfully off-kilter.
The first four songs of this album are pretty good, yet pretty standard. It’s the fifth, “How Do You Sleep,” that really takes flight, though. Over nine minutes, Murphy channels the Peter Gabriel of “The Rhythm of the Heat,” building a menacing drum pattern into a scathing powerhouse rant. There’s a hint of Echo and the Bunnymen to this one. It’s something special. The album’s second half builds on this energy, bursting out of the gate with the jittery, self-aware “Tonite” and the galloping “Call the Police.” It was here that I realized that LCD Soundsystem is everything Arcade Fire has been trying and failing to be for the past few years.
The album concludes with the 12-minute “Black Screen,” which is unlike anything Murphy has done – it’s quiet, and resists the urge to get louder, remaining funereal for its entire running time. (As this is Murphy’s tribute to David Bowie, that’s fitting.) The final minutes feature just piano over a synth pulse, a coda that sends the album out on a more meditative note.
So does American Dream justify the return of LCD Soundsystem? I’d say yes, even if I cared about Murphy’s bait-and-switch breakup and reunion. It fits nicely into the Soundsystem catalog, while adding a few new twists on it, and continues Murphy’s story nicely. It’s also a good record in its own right, driving forward confidently into the band’s second act. I wish all big-deal events in the wider music world were this good.
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We lost Walter Becker, one half of Steely Dan, this week. I won’t pretend to be a fan, but Becker’s mark on the world is significant. You can read his partner in crime Donald Fagen’s remembrance here. Becker was 67.
Next week, Tori Amos, Mutemath and a couple others. It’s a big release week, kicking off a big release month. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.