I’m going to start this week with my friend Greg Boerner.
I usually make my friends in the local Aurora, Illinois music scene scroll past the more widely anticipated reviews to get to their own, but this is sort of a special case, as you’ll see. I’ve known Greg for about 10 years now – he was one of the first local musicians I met, and he’s still the only one I know who makes his living by playing gigs and selling CDs. I wrote a profile piece about Greg for the local paper on the occasion of the release of his third album, World So Blue, and we’ve been friends ever since.
That’s not to say we always agree, especially about music. Greg likes what he likes – mainly guitar-driven blues, rock and soul from the early days of rock ‘n’ roll. My efforts to get him to listen to modern music without those roots have largely been in vain. If he likes something I recommend, it’s usually because it draws from the same well of inspiration he does. The man has an encyclopedic knowledge of the formative years of blues and rock, and you can hear that in his own music, which wears its influences proudly.
Over four previous records, Boerner has delivered foot-stomping (literally, if you see him live) acoustic music that hearkens back to the blues, folk and rock he loves, with his own original twist. His fourth, 2011’s Prophetstown, was a lot like his third, which was a lot like his second, etc. Greg’s such a fixture around here that I fully expected I’d keep buying similar-sounding records from him and palling around at Kiss the Sky, our favorite record store, for the next several decades.
I love it when people surprise me, and Greg threw two surprises at me recently. The first is that he’s moving to Nashville in January – he’s found love, and he’s going after it with all he has. The second is his fifth record, Solid Sender, which rips up his formula and finds new ground to stand on. It’s still a loving tribute to the roots music he holds dear, but this time he’s opened the production wide, welcoming drums and electric piano and upright bass and lots of studio magic, and strapping on an electric guitar for most of the running time. Even with all this, Solid Sender is still a Greg Boerner record, only more so.
This new effort was produced with Patrick Moynihan at his local studio, Waveform, and you can hear Moynihan’s influence right away. That’s him on the Fender Rhodes on the opening title track, with Boerner laying down a slinky electric vibe. “Price You Pay” is a blues song at its core, but the production is marvelous – Boerner plays an electric with heavy tremolo over Ed Breckenfeld’s drums and Moynihan’s bass and electric piano, while he duets with Mary Lou O’Brien, one of the finest singers in the Aurora area. Their voices intertwine beautifully on this traditional, yet thoroughly enjoyable tune.
Already he’s flipped his own script, which is why “Faith,” a classic-Coke Boerner solo acoustic tune, is a welcome addition early in the record. The rest of Solid Sender revels in its own diversity, and in the new possibilities of its full-band studio setting. I’m a fan of “Restless Sleep,” a minor-key shuffle on which Boerner lists off all the things that keep him up at night, in a slightly unsettling doubled vocal. The interplay between his guitar and Moynihan’s piano light up the instrumental passages on this record, and it’s clear that great thought went into how to catch the listener’s ear every few seconds.
O’Brien shines on the country-swing ballad “Don’t Do This to Me,” and on the whimsical cover of “Two to Tango.” But that’s not the cover that will make you take notice. Boerner’s spare, haunting rendition of Muddy Waters’ “Sick and Die” might be the best thing here. He sticks to minimal acoustic and voice for the first part of the tune, so when an army of mouth percussion and O’Brien’s soulful vocals come in, it’s a full-on wide-grin moment.
Another comes with the next track, a genuine surprise. “Allman Joy” is an instrumental, and as the title suggests, it is a tribute to the twin-guitar jams of the Allman Brothers Band. It’s unlike anything I’ve heard from Boerner, and it makes me smile. As does the final track, a love song called “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” that was written for a family wedding, but took on new significance as Boerner reconnected with the woman he’s about to move across the country for. It’s a sweet, emotional way to close out a record that is all about taking chances, changing things up, rolling the dice and seeing where they land.
Solid Sender feels like a new chapter, both in Greg’s music and his life. As much as I would have enjoyed running into Greg and seeing him play locally for the next however many years, I’m thrilled that he’s going after whatever lies ahead for him. And I’m thrilled that he made my favorite of his records before he did, and I got to tell him to his face how much I liked it. Solid Sender is the work of a confident man willing to take a risk and hope it pays off. I’ve no doubt that it will, as much as the risks he took on this record have paid off.
I’ll miss you around here, Greg. Here’s to your next chapter.
You can check out Greg Boerner’s work at his new website: https://www.gregboerner.com.
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What else do I have to talk about? Oh, yeah, only one of the year’s most anticipated albums, and one of its biggest letdowns.
I’ve listed U2’s Songs of Experience in no fewer than three of my looking-ahead-to-the-new-year columns. It’s taken them an unbelievable three years to finish off the companion album to 2014’s Songs of Innocence, not counting the amount of time they worked on these songs before Innocence came out. For a band with a tendency to overcook their records, this was not a good sign.
Still, I held out hope, for a couple different reasons. First, there was Songs of Innocence, easily the band’s best collection in 20 years. I know it’s trendy to dislike this record, mainly because of its spontaneous appearance in iTunes accounts across the world, an act of generosity that was met with such hostility you’d think the band had personally punched people in the face. I appreciated the gesture, and even went on to buy a copy when it was officially released, because this album recaptured a fire they had forgotten. (You see what I did there?)
And second, I’m a U2 fan. It hasn’t always been easy – this is a band that tries to shoot itself in the foot over and over again, as a challenge. But I love their earnest openness, which was even evident during their ironic Zoo TV years. Bono takes a lot of grief for using his platform as one of the world’s most recognizable rock stars to improve the world, and I don’t really understand that. U2 has always tried to be a force for good, putting both their fame and their money where their mouths are. It would be hard for me not to support a band like that.
So please know that when I say Songs of Experience is perhaps their worst album, and whole songs here make me want to throw the CD in the trash, I’m saying these things as a U2 fan. I wanted to like this, more than I can tell you. I feel the motivation behind it, and I understand why Bono and company would want to create something so nakedly positive and hopeful during these turbulent times. I know that Bono approached these songs as letters to his loved ones, paring down his thoughts to only the essential things he needed to say. I get all that.
I just wish the record were better. The hopefulness that suffuses it ends up sounding as deep as a motivational poster, or a Chicken Soup for the Soul book. Some of these lyrics are downright embarrassing. You’ve heard some of the worst offenders already – “Get Out Of Your Own Way,” “You’re the Best Thing About Me” – but some of the deeper cuts are just as mortifying. “Love is Bigger Than Anything in its Way” is a real song title here. And it’s not that I don’t agree. Love really is bigger than anything in its way. As art, though, it’s a surface-deep observation, not worth building a U2 song around.
Honestly, none of this would bother me as much as it does if the music were as tight and powerful as I know this band can still be. But it isn’t. Songs of Experience somehow required nine producers, and on sheer musical grounds, I would probably have junked all but three or four of these songs. Instead, they over-baked them, aiming for radio play and worldwide hits. The impulse to remain the most famous band in the world has been ever-present in their work since The Joshua Tree, but here it takes over, leaving us with quite a few lame stabs at relevance that aren’t worthy of the band.
I’d really prefer to focus on what I like about Songs of Experience, rather than spend time ripping apart a goofy waste of time like “The Showman,” so I will. There are two tremendous songs here – so good, they sound like holdovers from the Songs of Innocence sessions. “Summer of Love” is a shimmering stunner, The Edge spinning beautiful webs of clean guitar while Bono sings about the plight of refugees. And “Red Flag Day” could have fit on War, so insistent and captivating is its classic U2 vibe. When Bono hits the “no, no, no” part of the bridge, it makes my heart soar. Here is the band I love, in full glory. Also, Adam Clayton really steps out on this album, and never more than on this song. This one’s alive, amazing, powerful. It’s everything I love about U2.
There are a few others I enjoy, too. “The Blackout” has ridiculous lyrics (“Earthquakes always happen when you’re in bed, Fred, the house shakes, maybe it was something I said, Ned…”), but musically it’s a knockout, hampered only by a production that mutes its force. “Lights of Home” features Haim on backing vocals, and it’s winsome. I’m more fond of the strings version included as a bonus track. I was dreading “The Little Things that Give You Away” after its live debut, but the version here is a slow build, kind of like a lesser “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses.”
I’m conflicted on the band’s decision to reuse material from Innocence, which they do liberally here. “American Soul” might be the worst offender – it began as a tiny bit from “Volcano,” morphed into parts of “XXX,” their collaboration with Kendrick Lamar, and now they have tried to stretch it into its own song. (Lamar shows up here as well, intoning a quick monologue that could have been delivered by anyone.) But on the other hand, I do like “13 (There Is a Light),” a rewrite of “Song for Someone” that doubles down on its spare beauty. The recycling does unite the two albums, but it also diminishes Experience as a set of songs.
Over all of this is Bono, singing his little heart out, and I want to love his work this time, but I just don’t. I’m conflicted here too, because the world does need more hope and straight-up love, but I find myself cringing more often than not when Bono voices these things. He’s right about so much here – love is all we have left, we’re in our own way, there is a light, we are rock ‘n’ roll. (Well, maybe not that last one.) I get that he wanted to be heard this time, not puzzled out. But had these words been penned by Chris Martin of Coldplay, you wouldn’t be seeing so many five-star reviews. I expect this kind of thing from Martin. Bono has proven to be deeper and more interesting, so his work this time feels surface level.
This whole record feels surface level, and that’s a shame. Songs of Innocence felt to me like a burst of energy, an explosion of ideas that hearkened back to their early days. Songs of Experience feels tired. It feels like one of the world’s best bands grasping for relevance, instead of just being who they are. I’ve been looking forward to it for three years. I wanted to like it so badly. It hurts me that I don’t.
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A couple quick takes before I put this very long column to bed.
If you’ve been reading for a couple years now, you know how much I love The Dear Hunter. Casey Crescenzo’s project is like nothing else I know of, particularly its centerpiece experiment, a six-act story in progress. But the band has also done sterling work outside of the Acts, including the nine-EP Color Spectrum collection and their one non-Acts album, Migrant.
So now here is All Is as All Should Be, a new six-song EP that caps off an incredible run of music from Crescenzo over the last three years. As with most things he does, this one has a concept: he connected with six Dear Hunter fans, asked them what they wanted to hear him write songs about, and then decamped to each of those fans’ homes to record those songs. It’s an above-and-beyond bit of fan service that resulted in a typically excellent record.
In fact, if you’re new to the Dear Hunter, I’d recommend checking this bite-sized morsel out first. The opening two tracks (“The Right Wrong” and “Blame Paradise”) will give you a good idea of them in full-throttle mode, while the rest of the songs show off their diversity. I’m particularly fond of the deliriously poppy “Shake Me (Awake),” which rhymes “ordinary” with “mortuary,” and the grand title track. If you enjoy the scale and scope of these tunes, you will find innumerable pleasures in the Acts. Check it out.
As a final grace note, I will recommend the new four-song EP from the Innocence Mission. This long-running husband-and-wife combo has been plying their delicate, beautiful trade since the 1980s, and The Snow on Pi Day is merely the latest. These four songs are almost inhumanly pretty, with the gossamer voice of Karin Peris floating above them, and the chiming guitars of her husband Don wrapping them in snowy winds. If you know the Innocence Mission, nothing here will be a surprise. If you don’t, well, you really should.
That will definitely do it. Next week, Christmas music. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.