There are some bands that evoke a place and time in your mind, and you can never quite separate them from those memories. For me, the Cranberries were one of those.
I went to a small college in Maine, and I worked at the radio station. B-91 was unlike any other college radio station I have ever seen – its format was top 40, and it was intended as a proving ground for people studying radio as a career. During regular hours (especially drive time hours), we were only allowed to play songs from a list provided by the station managers, a list that drew from the biggest hits of the day. And we’d play those songs repeatedly, like any other top 40 radio station.
And that’s how I came to hear “Linger” by the Cranberries 10 or 12 times a week for almost my entire second semester of freshman year. There’s nothing I can do now – that song automatically triggers thoughts of snowy treks to the cafeteria and long weekends reading comic books. Since that time, the Irish quartet has been in the back of my mind. I haven’t kept up as well as perhaps I should have – I didn’t know they had an album last year, for instance – but they’ve always been on my radar.
One thing I didn’t realize about them was that they were very close to my age when they hit it big. Dolores O’Riordan, she of the powerful and distinctive voice, was only three years older than me. I know this now because O’Riordan died suddenly a week ago, of causes that have still not been made public, and she was 46. For me it was a sobering reminder of how young 46 truly is, and how we should be grateful for every day.
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What a difference a couple weeks makes.
Back on Jan. 9, I published a column called 18 Reasons to Love 2018. I worked with the information that I had at the time, of course, and while I was happy with the result, I have two more weeks of album announcements to draw from now. So here are a bunch more reasons to love 2018.
Start with the return of the Breeders on March 2 with All Nerve. I hinted at this when talking about the Belly reunion – Tanya Donnelly has reignited both of her most famous bands, and we’re getting new records from both within a couple weeks of each other. Belly’s Dove is slated for April 6. March 2 will also give us new ones from ambitious punkers Titus Andronicus and the golden-voiced Tracey Thorn.
A week later, in addition to the Ministry release, we’ll get new things from David Byrne, Editors and Of Montreal, as well as the first of a two-part album called Automata from Between the Buried and Me. I need to catch up on BTBAM’s output, since the first Automata single is a nervy, complex beast, and they’re touring with the Dear Hunter this spring. Speaking of bands I love and will see live soon, Marillion will also give us a five-disc remastered re-release of their 1994 masterpiece Brave.
On March 16 the Decemberists return with I’ll Be Your Girl, and the single piles on the synths, which is an odd move for this folksy band. Yo La Tengo returns on that date as well. One week later we get Jack White’s new solo effort, Boarding House Reach, and believe it or not, the return of Squirrel Nut Zippers with Beasts of Burgundy. I always enjoyed their work, especially as they struggled with staying outside the swing revival in the ‘90s.
What else? The Eels return on April 6 with The Deconstruction. Juliana Hatfield has apparently made an album of Olivia Newton-John covers. Gaz Coombes of Supergrass will give us a solo album called World’s Strongest Man on May 4. And in the craziest news I have heard, Derek Smalls, the bassist for Spinal Tap, is readying a solo album called (get this) Smalls Change (Meditations Upon Ageing). This is really just Harry Shearer having a ball, and I’m excited to hear it.
In the meantime, if you want to hear something that will be available quite soon, check out the new single from the Oh Hellos. Yes, I did just review their new EP. Yes, this is from a newer one, out on Feb. 6. Life is good. It’s going to be a weird year, but by all indications, a strong one musically.
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And hey, I even have some new records to review this week. The 2018 release schedule has begun in earnest, and the pile of discs I have next to me will carry me through this week and next. We’re well and truly underway.
As I mentioned earlier, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club was first out of the gate with Wrong Creatures, their eighth album. If I say this one is of a piece with the other seven, I don’t want you to take that as a criticism. Because it is the sort of thing I am likely to say – BRMC staked out their territory early, drawing from The Jesus and Mary Chain as a primary influence, and haven’t moved too far away from it. But there’s still some gold in them thar hills, so they keep digging.
This time, they’ve focused a bit more on the dark atmosphere than on the blistering rock, and song after song in a creepy, slow tempo can feel weighty after a while. But they’re still the masters of that guitar-echoing-off-an-endless-tunnel sound, and when they bring the big noisy freak-outs, as they do at the end of “Ninth Configuration,” they really bring them.
Still, when the band shakes things up in the final third, they deliver the best stretch of the record. First they step up the rock on “Little Thing Gone Wild,” a no-brainer of a single. Then they take an odd detour to the big top on the oddly frightening waltz “Circus Bazooko,” dive deep into shoegaze on “Carried From the Start” and end things with a gigantic piano anthem called “All Rise.”
The material they fill the first two-thirds of Wrong Creatures with is their stock in trade, and it’s tough to begrudge them a slithering monster like “Haunt.” But I vastly preferred the songs here that stepped outside their comfort zone, and I admire them for taking those steps on their eighth record. BRMC have long made better Jesus and Mary Chain records than the actual Jesus and Mary Chain, and Wrong Creatures is another one. It’s worth hearing.
First out of the gate, though, doesn’t mean best. That honor is split among my next two entries, both of which hit stores this week. They couldn’t be more different, but they’re both excellent.
I say this every time, but it still bothers me that They Might Be Giants are dismissed as some kind of novelty act. John Linnell and John Flansburgh have been writing and playing songs together for more than 35 years, long after any novelty would have worn off, and the just-released I Like Fun is their 20th album. Twentieth. They’re a bona fide classic band at this point, having done only and exactly what they’ve wanted to do for more than three decades. Respect, is what I’m saying.
And if you still need convincing that TMBG is an extraordinary band, even this far into their long career, just spin I Like Fun. The title is ironic – this is one of the darkest TMBG albums ever, but as always, that darkness is wrapped up in devilishly melodic, even jaunty tunes, played with verve with their longtime bandmates, drummer Marty Beller, guitarist Dan Miller and bassist Danny Weinkauf. This is a classic TMBG rock record, with some quirky detours along the way.
Opening song “Let’s Get This Over With” is a classic, driving forward on a bouncing piano line and Linnell’s one-of-a-kind voice. The Johns have always been masters at memorable vocal melodies, and this one’s a doozy. It’s awesome. And of course it sets the tone: we’ll spend the next 45 minutes working through feelings of dread and loneliness and despair in the cleverest ways we can.
Some examples. “By the Time You Get This Note” is a missive from a past civilization to a future one, hoping that all the evils of the world have been taken care of by the time the note is read. Of course, we find out that it’s not our civilization writing the note. We’re reading it, and none of the listed evils are gone. The great “Mrs. Bluebeard” begins like this: “I want to say I learned something valuable today, alas, my murdered remains are incapable of learning anything.” “Push Back the Hands” is, of course, about slowing down time, and it starts this way: “You would give your right arm to go back to when you had a right arm.”
It’s an album in which “The Bright Side” blinds our eyes, we may or may not see the lights come on again, and, in the strange, funny and chilling interlude “The Greatest,” people are relentlessly cruel: “People call me the greatest because I’m not very good, and they’re being sarcastic.” It all leads to the apocalyptic “Last Wave,” perhaps the band’s finest ode to existential despair. The rousing chorus is a singalong, only these are the lyrics: “We die alone, we die afraid, we live in terror, we’re naked and alone.” Did I mention it rocks?
It’s hard to believe I Like Fun is the 20th They Might Be Giants album, especially since there isn’t an ounce of fatigue or sense of obligation to it. It’s another terrific set of songs only this band would write, and the result is among their finest efforts, music to play as the darkness encroaches and the world falls apart.
Swedish duo First Aid Kit hasn’t been around nearly as long – their new one, Ruins, is their fourth. But they’ve certainly made their mark in the ten years they’ve been working. First Aid Kit, a name that belies this group’s otherwise impeccable taste and judgment, consists of sisters Klara and Johanna Soderberg, but even the fact that they’re sisters doesn’t explain the magical way their voices sound together, as if they were born to harmonize with one another.
Every First Aid Kit album has centered those voices and made glorious use of them, and Ruins is no different. In fact, this one isn’t much different from their delightful 2014 effort Stay Gold. It’s a little bigger, and it makes a little more use of the studio (the album was produced by Tucker Martine, who has helmed swell records by the Decemberists, Beth Orton and Neko Case, among others), but for the most part, it’s ten more sad and lovely acoustic folk songs sung by angels.
The Soderbergs do embrace classic country more completely on this record, particularly on tracks like “Postcard,” and their voices bring out the sweet sadness. My favorites here are the more melodically surprising ones, like opener “Rebel Heart” and the superb “My Wild Sweet Love.” I adore the big, crashing choir that comes in at the end of the otherwise Patsy Cline-esque “Hem of Her Dress,” and the sisters end this album with a bona fide epic, the sweeping “Nothing Has to Be True.” It’s here that the classic country leanings perfectly balance out the studio ambitions.
But you won’t care about all that. If you choose to listen to Ruins – and you should – you’ll just be swept away by these lovely songs, and the unearthly beautiful voices singing them. I remain glad that I took a chance on a Swedish act with a funny name all those years ago. Ruins is another delight in what I hope will be a long, long line of them.
That’ll do for this week. Next week, more new stuff with Tune-Yards and the Shins. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.