In Pieces
Reading Great New Records a Chapter at a Time

Last week Marillion came within walking distance of my hometown. So of course I went to see them.

It was my ninth Marillion show, counting the three performances at the 2016 Montreal Weekend separately, and I’m still not tired of seeing this band do what they do. This show was at the small-ish Arcada Theatre in St. Charles, a venue that books a lot of specialty prog acts, and I guess that’s what Marillion is. But to me they’re so much more than that.

To me, they’re one of the most emotional bands I’ve ever heard. Where prog-rock is often full of soulless instrumental acrobatics, Marillion music takes its time, unfolds patiently, lingers on beauty. Steve Hogarth has one of the best, most impassioned voices I know of, and when he lets loose, as he does on powerful epics like “The Invisible Man,” it sends chills.

Last time the band toured the U.S., we elected Donald Trump president. (Seriously, they played New York City on election night.) This time, they opened with “El Dorado,” a stunning piece about how money makes us all worse, with a section about how letting in refugees is the most human and humane thing we could do; followed it up with “Living in FEAR,” about melting all our guns down; and followed that up with “Seasons End,” a sad piece about climate change. It was like their letter to America, much like their brilliant 18th album, Fuck Everyone and Run, was their warning to the world.

And we also got “The Leavers” for the first time, and this performance solidified it as one of my very favorite Marillion songs. Nearly 20 minutes long, constantly changing, unfailingly emotional, it’s basically the best life-on-the-road song ever written, and a real showcase for the entire band. I brought my long-suffering girlfriend to this show, and she enjoyed it. I’m not sure I could have asked for a better setlist for her first show, and even though I found the crowd subdued in comparison with other Marillion gigs I have been to, she remarked on how appreciative the audience was, clapping for individual parts of songs and offering three standing ovations.

That’s all part of being a member of this family. It’s not a large family over here, although I’m told that a pre-show meet-up that I wasn’t in time to attend attracted 60 people. But it is a dedicated one. We love having this secret between us, this band who clearly isn’t for everyone, but is absolutely for us. I’m already looking forward to Montreal next year. Thanks for a great show, guys.

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Back in 1996, Stephen King decided to release The Green Mile in monthly installments.

This was nothing new for literature – Dickens wrote almost all of his novels this way, in pieces delivered one by one through magazines and newspapers. But for me, a high school kid with a definite fascination for King, it was (please forgive the pun) novel. I played his game: I bought each part of The Green Mile as it came out, and though I have since read the whole thing as a single work, the experience of following along, of hitting King’s cliffhangers and not being able to turn the page, was pretty exciting.

I’m a sucker for anything released in pieces. I love trilogies, a fascination I can trace right back to Star Wars. I read comics, which are long stories released in monthly chunks. And so it’s no surprise that I am always interested in music that comes at me in puzzle pieces, waiting to be connected. The best example I can give you is The Dear Hunter’s extraordinary Acts series, a six-album story that only needs its final installment to be completed. Hearing the climax of the plot in Act V, after living with the story for years, was an astonishing experience.

I’d never suggest that Belle and Sebastian’s new album is anything like that, but they did issue it in three pieces, one a month since December. And it’s been fun trying to figure out how it would sound as a whole. Naturally, I did not buy it in installments – it was released only on vinyl and download – but I did buy the compilation CD, which connects all 15 songs in the order in which they first appeared. And I have no doubt that this collection of songs was originally conceived as an album, and broken up into chunks only for marketing reasons.

Which is fine, but it works so much better as a whole. The album, the long-running Scottish outfit’s 10th, is a long and flowing thing, but it still feels tightly controlled. It’s the band’s most consistent set of songs since probably Dear Catastrophe Waitress, all of 15 years ago, and has so many pleasures it’s almost hard to count them. I’ve liked a lot of their work over the last decade or so, but I’ve felt like they’ve been running in place, turning out pleasantly twee, danceable tunes without really trying.

How to Solve Our Human Problems (for that is the name of the record) breaks them out of that rut, and if the process of recording and releasing these tunes five at a time helped them get here, then I’m all for it. Leader Stuart Murdoch, who will be 50 this year, hasn’t sounded this energized in a while, and the multitude of producers and guest musicians seems to have pumped new blood into this enterprise. I mean, just listen to “We Were Beautiful,” which starts off sounding like Pet Shop Boys hitting the drum-and-bass club (with a lap steel), but then explodes into a chorus so awesome that I haven’t stopped singing it.

What I can say about the decision to break this album up into thirds is that each of the first two thirds made me want to hear the rest. The first installment includes not only “We Were Beautiful” but the delightful “The Girl Doesn’t Get It,” a full-on synth-y dance tune, and “Everything Is Now,” a big, expansive showcase that sounds like the sun rising over the cliffs. The second volume opens with a bracing “na-na-na-na-na” that introduces the very ‘60s “Show Me the Sun,” which for long stretches is as minimalist as this band has been in ages. (Admittedly, there is an insistent, awesome drum beat that runs for the duration.) We also get the terrific, sweet, oboe-driven “I’ll Be Your Pilot,” the odd yet compelling “Cornflakes” and closing ballad “A Plague on Other Boys,” another one that sounds right out of the Summer of Love.

And if all that made you want to hear the third part, it won’t disappoint. “Poor Boy” slinks in on a funky bass line, Sarah Martin’s voice dripping down over it beautifully. There’s a second part to “Everything is Now,” one that is just as lovely, and there is “There Is an Everlasting Song,” possibly the prettiest thing here. Closer “Best Friend” is goofy and sugary, ending in joy. In pieces, these three EPs are swell slices of Belle and Sebastian in their prime. Collected together as their 10th album, it’s their best in more than a decade. While I think it holds up better as a single work, if you’re a fan of this band, you should hear this in any form you can.

I expect the new Oh Hellos project will hold up nicely as a complete work as well, once it’s done. But we’re in that sweet spot, following along as they give us their new songs in smaller pieces, and we’re only halfway through. Last year the Texas ensemble gave us Notos, the first of four 20-minute EPs full of new songs. It was classic Oh Hellos, folk music as played by what sounds like 300 people, rising as one to sing the heavens down, and just as enamored with moments of quiet beauty as with rousing anthems.

Now we have Eurus, the second EP, and it’s just as good. Like Notos, it plays like a single piece, a suite connected by short instrumentals. The songs held together by those instrumentals are wonderful. Opener “O Sleeper” is wider than the ocean, huge and all-encompassing. “Grow” is amazing, morphing from a boom-bam beat into a massive anthem, and it slides right into the down-home acoustic title track. You’ll fly right through that, and before you know it, you’ll be on the superb closer, “Passerine.” And three minutes later, you’ll be hungry for more.

I’m very much looking forward to having all 80 or so minutes of this new Oh Hellos project, but I am very much enjoying hearing it in chapters. I have no idea when the next one will be available, either, so I keep looking out. If you’ve never heard the Oh Hellos, you need to. Bonus: this new EP contains a track called “A Convocation of Fauns (A Faunvocation, If You Will).” How can you not love that?

Hear and buy the Oh Hellos here:

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See you in line Tuesday morning.