This week’s obituary belongs to Charles Bradley. (It seems like we get one of these a week now, doesn’t it?)
Despite singing and performing from an early age, Bradley didn’t make his name until he was discovered in the 2000s by Bosco Mann of Daptone Records. (Daptone is famous for giving us Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings.) He released his first album, No Time for Dreaming, on Daptone at the age of 62. And you could hear the weight of those years in his rich, raw voice. He served up two more albums, both swell, before succumbing to stomach cancer on Sept. 23. He was 68.
And when I finish writing this, I’m going to watch Soul of America, and let him sing to me one more time. Rest in peace, Charles.
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Under the gun this week, and I didn’t listen to much, so I think I’m going to do one review and my Third Quarter Report and call it a day. On Saturday my laboratory held our largest public event in 20 years, and it was a bear to plan – it took more than a year – and execute. I’m pretty worn out.
But let me tell you about what’s been exciting me this week. It’s the new record from Marah in the Mainsail, and it’s out next week, but those of us who supported it on Kickstarter have it now. And it’s awesome.
Marah in the Mainsail is one of my favorite AudioFeed discoveries. They played the festival in 2014, ripping through songs from their debut EP and premiering a couple numbers from their in-progress first album, Thaumatrope. I’m not even sure how to explain Marah. They’re dark and cinematic, pulling from centuries-old folk traditions, but updating them with a tidal-wave force, like the Decemberists turned up to 11. During the band’s best moments, singer Austin Durry’s howl is barely in check, the drums are flailing and the horns blaring.
Marah uses instruments like horns to paint pictures and conjure atmospheres, usually bleak ones. Their music is about struggle, internal and external, and often uses mythical beasts as metaphors. One of their best, “Wendigo,” is about a character negotiating with the monster within, but preparing to lose. It’s fantastic stuff.
Given their widescreen sound, it’s no surprise to me that their second album, Bone Crown, is exponentially more ambitious than their first. It’s a concept record, telling a dark fairy tale over 11 songs, a story about a forest ruled by a duplicitous fox who stole the crown from the rightful king, a noble white stag, and the efforts of an all-seeing owl and a prodigal bear to restore justice. Each song is accompanied by a short chapter of the story, read by Dan Smith of Listener, and it’s packaged in some gorgeous artwork. It’s quite a package.
And the music? It’s next-level Marah. Every song here sounds like them, but it’s all bigger and more intricately arranged, and it all works together to spin this tale. Every song works in tandem, and stands alone. The powerhouse drums and horns on “Everybody Knows” stand out – hell, they kick you in the face – and the killer chorus of “Fisticuffs” is an early highlight. On “Leviathan” the band achieves something they’ve been aiming for since their first EP: a crescendo that carries the song to another plane entirely by the end. It concludes the opening salvo of this record, as strong a one-two-three-four punch as I’ve heard in some time.
The middle section of Bone Crown is lighter musically, if not lyrically – it depicts a flashback showing the violent steps the fox took to get his crown. Mariah Mercedes takes lead vocals here, and her airy voice adds an ethereal feel to the proceedings. “The Great Beyond” is a stunner, a waltz about death that plays like some strange mix of Kate Bush and Tom Waits. The horns here are mesmerizing, and the skipping coda is a black delight.
The band roars back in for the third act, in which the vicious fox burns down the forest. The title track is a killer, Durry spitting out “burn the woods, burn them slow, burn the trees down, burn the bones” as the band makes an almighty racket behind him. The bloodcurdling scream near the end will stay with you. “Black Mamba” is awesome, slithering through its catchy chorus on a great bass line. The story ends, fittingly, with “The End,” in which the bear, the sole survivor of the fire, commits himself to rebuilding. In the end, it’s a story about how we never choose the disasters around us, but we can choose to help fix them.
Seriously, it’s awesome. Bone Crown is 40 minutes long, and every time I’ve heard it, it buzzes by in what feels like half that time. But it also contains multitudes – I’m hearing new things each time through, and it feels like three albums’ worth of work went into it. I’m impressed and amazed, and grateful to have found this band. You can be grateful too, by following this link. You won’t regret it. Bone Crown is one of my favorite things in an already fantastic year, and is sure to rate highly come December.
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Speaking of, it’s time for the Third Quarter Report. This list was more difficult than any I can remember. This year has brought so much good stuff, and everything you see below could change based on how I feel in a couple months. For now, though, here’s what my top 10 list looks like, nine months in
10. Husky, Punchbuzz.
9. Marah in the Mainsail, Bone Crown.
7. Kesha, Rainbow.
6. Neil Finn, Out of Silence.
5. Brand New, Science Fiction.
4. Manchester Orchestra, A Black Mile to the Surface.
2. Jonathan Coulton, Solid State.
1. Aimee Mann, Mental Illness.
Leaving Jason Isbell off this list hurts, especially since The Nashville Sound may be his best record. But these are the ten I have listened to most, and loved the most completely. As you can probably tell, I listened to the top three again, moving Planetarium down below the Mann/Coulton songwriting showcase. Nobody does it like Aimee Mann, but Coulton came awfully close.
Next week, I’m sure I will have to revise this list again when Derek Webb’s Fingers Crossed comes out. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.