I don’t really need to review the Derek Smalls album, do I?
I mean, it’s pretty self-explanatory. Harry Shearer, one of the three actors who portrayed fictional band Spinal Tap in the amazing mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap, has resurrected his character, Derek Smalls, to release what is billed as Smalls’ first solo album. It’s called Smalls Change: Meditations Upon Ageing, and it’s a parody of every middle-aged rock star’s self-indulgent string-laden odes to growing old.
And it’s great. Of course it is. Shearer somehow gets us to care about Smalls while never betraying an ounce of emotion. It’s even better that he can’t really sing – Smalls’ worn-out croak is exactly what these tunes need. The title track is a sweeping anthem about Spinal Tap breaking up. “Memo to Willie” is exactly what you think it is, if you think it is about Smalls trying to talk his penis out of erectile dysfunction. “MRI” is a horror-rock tune about getting an MRI. “Gummin’ the Gash” should need no explanation. Neither should “Hell Toupee.”
As Spinal Tap did on their last album, Break Like the Wind, Shearer gathered an insanely prodigious group of musicians together to make this thing, including Joe Satriani, Rick Wakeman, Steve Vai, Richard Thompson, Dweezil Zappa, Taylor Hawkins and, in a cameo that will have you choking with laughter, Donald Fagen. The final track is a nine-minute epic called “When Men Did Rock” that looks back fondly on the days of long hair and loud guitars, and cements Derek Smalls as a man stuck in time, unable or unwilling to move on, squeezing himself into leather pants and trying to relive his glory years. There’s a sadness to this, as there often is to Shearer’s work, behind all the hilarity.
“When Men Did Rock” is a sharp satire in another way, too: it looks back on a time when women musicians were a lot more rare. It was the men who did the rocking in Derek Smalls’ nostalgic reverie, and I’m glad the world has moved on from then, because it’s the women who are going to save 2018, musically speaking. Janelle Monae’s Dirty Computer comes out in two weeks, and everything I’ve heard from that has been intense. There’s a new Belly album coming, and new things from Beach House, Courtney Barnett, Chvrches, Neko Case, Lykke Li and the Innocence Mission. And that’s what we know about right now.
You can tide yourself over with the three terrific records by female artists I have on tap this week, too. Start with the new Wye Oak album, their sixth. I haven’t had a lot of time for Wye Oak in this space. I’ve always liked this duo, just not with the fervor their more ardent fans express. Jenn Wasner is a fine singer and a pretty good songwriter, and though I didn’t think their breakthrough record, Civilian, was quite as revelatory as many did, I enjoyed it and have kept up with the band since.
While some might consider Civiliantheir masterpiece, I’m going to present the counter-argument: The Louder I Call, the Faster It Runs is the best album Wye Oak has made. This one takes the more tentative experiments with keyboards and synthesizers that marked 2014’s Shriek and fully brings them on board. During the best parts of The Louder I Call, it’s almost hard to remember that the band hasn’t always sounded like this, hasn’t always had one foot in the realm of Kate Bush. It’s a transformation so complete at this point that their more guitar-heavy work of just 10 years ago feels like a centuries-old memory.
That wouldn’t mean a lot if Wasner and Andy Stack had not delivered possibly their best set of songs. But here they are, and I almost couldn’t believe how much I liked The Louder I Call as it unspooled. I often find Wye Oak songs forgettable, but I’ve been humming some of these for a while now. The title track is a rapid-fire bit of keyboard-y goodness. “Lifer” is a lovely little lament, and “Over and Over” tumbles me with its tricky beat and its ethereal harmonies. “You of All People” has the makings of an ‘80s ballad, all ringing guitars and Wasner’s clear, strong voice, and I’ve had the “oh-oh” chorus stuck in my skull for days.
All of that pales next to “It Was Not Natural,” the best song on this record and one of the best songs of 2018. It’s a melodic piano-led wonder, the kind that singer-songwriters the world over would kill to conjure from the air. “Only human hands could give us something so unforgiving,” Wasner sings over big synth chords, and I’m in, completely. Most of this record is a proof of concept of this new Wye Oak sound, and “It Was Not Natural” is its flying-colors flagship. The Louder I Call, the Faster It Runs is the best kind of surprise, the sound of a band completing a risky metamorphosis into something better than they’ve been.
Laura Veirs doesn’t undergo any such change on The Lookout, her tenth album. Two years after joining Neko Case and k.d. lang in a delightful supergroup, she’s returned with another in a long line of gorgeous, low-key, atmospheric records in her usual style. Luckily it’s a style I am nowhere near getting sick of. The Lookout’s 12 songs weave a magical spell, akin to Beth Orton’s best material, and continue the hot streak she has been on since at least July Flame.
Veirs writes moody and sweet acoustic pieces and performs them with a tremendous band that includes her husband, producer Tucker Martine. This album includes guest vocals from Karl Blau, Jim James and Sufjan Stevens, but as usual, her voice and her songs are the star. “Everybody Needs You” is an early standout, its electronic drum beat underpinning a murky web of acoustic strums and chiming electric notes, violins shimmering their way through the clouds. “Seven Falls” works in that breezy California sun-strummed sound, complete with lap steel, while “Mountains of the Moon” sounds like an old folk song dusted off and sung with deep feeling.
Stevens shows up on “Watch Fire,” repeating the title line in the verses of one of the more upbeat songs on the record. The title track is a wispy love song that pivots on the simple yet satisfying line “man alive, I’m glad that I have you.” The strings on that track and on “The Meadow” are terrific. “When It Grows Darkest” sashays along on a 5/8 beat and a lovely sentiment: “When it grows darkest the stars come out.”
Really, I could spend the next eight paragraphs talking highlights from this record. I’m hopeful that her work with Case and lang has widened her audience, because The Lookout is another swell little record, one that easily puts Laura Veirs on the same footing as her more celebrated contemporaries. Here’s hoping more people hear it, and she gets to keep making records like this one.
So that’s two great options for you, but if I’m being honest, I haven’t enjoyed anything quite as much lately as I am enjoying Juliana Hatfield’s tribute album to Olivia Newton-John. Yes, you read that right, the woman who made the angry, scrappy Pussycat last year has just returned with 14 loving renditions of songs made famous by Sandra Dee from the Grease film. And she’s done this completely without irony.
Granted, Newton-John’s discography is quite a bit deeper than the soundtracks (Grease and Xanadu) she is best known for, and Hatfield pours her heart into this tour of her hits from the ‘70s and ‘80s. The best part of this record is that Hatfield never winks at you. These are just great songs, and she treats them as such, playing them the way she would any melodic power-pop tunes. She opens with “I Honestly Love You” and follows up with “Suspended in Time,” from the Xanadu soundtrack, and these songs set the tone. If you didn’t know their origins, you’d just think these are great Juliana Hatfield tunes.
I also love that Hatfield didn’t skip ‘80s material like “Physical” and “Totally Hot.” Both of these tunes are transformed into six-string-heavy rockers, and Hatfield performs them with conviction. She only dips into Grease once, but it’s the biggest of Newton-John’s hits: “Hopelessly Devoted to You.” Hatfield performs it straight, and it’s perfect. I’ve been anticipating this record ever since I heard about it, and it did not disappoint. The love Hatfield has for these songs is evident in every note, and she makes me love them too. You couldn’t ask for more than that.
Next week, it looks like a rough one. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.