It’s a good time to be alive.
Last Sunday, thanks to the generosity of some terrific friends, I got to see John Williams conduct the Chicago Symphony Orchestra through a program of his work. I’m saying this very matter-of-factly, belying the fact that I was jumping out of my skin with excitement and overcome with emotion throughout. I was 30 feet from John Freakin’ Williams as he led a collection of astounding musicians through music I have loved for nearly 40 years.
The Star Wars material was a definite highlight (especially “Rey’s Theme,” a great example of Williams writing new themes that slot into the canon brilliantly), but the tears welled up for “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial,” a score I have loved since I was eight years old. I vividly recall seeing this movie in the theater, and owning the score on cassette, and riding my bike up and down the driveway, pretending to be Elliott while the beautiful strains of Williams’ music blared from my little boom box. For about ten minutes I was back there again. The entire show was a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing.
And then, two days ago, I had the pleasure of seeing Dweezil Zappa and his top-shelf band absolutely demolish a nearly four-hour set of Frank Zappa’s music. This is my fourth time seeing the Zappa Plays Zappa project, which is dedicated to preserving Frank’s work through live performance. It’s not as easy as it sounds – there aren’t a lot of people who can play this stuff with precision. Dweezil and his band don’t shy away from the more complex pieces, and seeing, for instance, “Drowning Witch” or “Dog Breath/Uncle Meat” played with such care and skill is always a treat. And of course, since we were in Illinois, we were treated to “The Illinois Enema Bandit.” Because of course we were.
If all that weren’t enough, it’s entirely possible that by the time you read this we’ll have the new Choir album, Bloodshot, and I get to go to Nashville later this year to see the Choir open up for the Prayer Chain, a legendary band in my house. The Prayer Chain is reuniting for two nights only to play all of Shawl, the album that made me a fan. It is such a great time to be alive, I can’t even tell you.
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Of course, I’m being relentlessly sunny for effect. Life since November of 2016 has been markedly more difficult, and thus little escapes from it (like the musical wonderment of the past two weeks) much more crucial. Like many people, I have found myself surveying a new landscape lately, and having serious trouble dealing with it in an open-hearted way. It’s been a rough year and a half for someone who wants to think the best of everyone.
The rising tide of hatred has obviously changed Frank Turner as well. The English troubadour is best known for his punky-folky songs of self-determination, the apex of which was his 2015 album Positive Songs for Negative People. That record was such a perfect mix of fist-pumping exuberance and gentle encouragement that it served as a pre-balm for the events of the following year. If Turner spent the whole of his solo career refining his therapeutic shout-along style, then Positive Songs was the record on which he perfected it.
So naturally, it’s time to do something else. It’s a softer, wiser Frank Turner who appears on his seventh album, Be More Kind, and he’s turned his lens outward. If Positive Songs was an accidental balm, Be More Kind is an intentional one, an extended letter to people who feel hopeless and angry about the world situation. His most direct advice gives the record its title. Over an instantly appealing acoustic pulse, he sings this: “In a world that has decided that it’s going to lose its mind, be more kind, my friends, try to be more kind.” He laments that we’ve stopped talking to each other, and plants himself as a lighthouse: “Like a beacon reaching out to you and yours from me and mine, be more kind…”
This is the tone of the whole record. It’s also the most polished and pop-oriented work he has made, full of hooks and production tricks and keyboards, and it suits him well. “Little Changes” is a pop hit if I’ve ever heard one, with its indie clichés (there’s a chiming keyboard sound that accents the guitars, there’s a “whoa-oh” refrain, there’s a plucked violin, etc.), and it’s about altering small things to affect the bigger picture.
The deliriously pop “Blackout” shimmies and shakes, telling the tale of a neighborhood suddenly without electricity, and the uneasy interactions that happen. When he sings “meet me in the middle, bring a burning candle with you,” it’s warm and delightful. Songs like “Brave Face” and “Common Ground” are exactly what you think they are, and the record ends with “Get It Right,” a spare plea to stop assuming and start listening: “Take a breath, try these for size: I don’t know, I’ve changed my mind…”
It’s a strong message, delivered with love. But…
(You knew there had to be a but.)
It’s probably a coincidence that Turner’s album landed just a week after Janelle Monae’s masterpiece, but the timing certainly underscores the chief problem with Be More Kind: it’s a privileged white guy positing that the lack of civil discourse is the biggest problem facing us. He’s not wrong, but someone like Monae would say she is fighting for her very life, and the gentleness of Be More Kind has the unfortunate effect of minimizing the struggle of people like her.
And I know that is not Turner’s intention. He straddles the line of resistance a couple times here – one of the few pieces of concrete advice in the oddly toothless “Make America Great Again” is “making racists ashamed again,” and “1933” is the most pointed thing here, painting a picture of America and Britain slipping back in time: “If I was of the greatest generation, I’d be pissed, surveying the world that I built slipping back into this, I’d be screaming at my grandkids, ‘we already did this!’” In the face of all this, the sweet exhortation of “Common Ground” to “meet on the bridge and forgive” is simultaneously too easy and the hardest thing we could do. And Turner knows the hardest things are often the best things.
For everything else here, I think the masterpiece of this album is “The Lifeboat,” a story of leaving the old world behind as it burns. It’s a haunting piece, with subtle strings and brass adding atmosphere, and parts of it sound like setting out to sea, the destination unknown. “There is hope now, in the wind, in the millions who are marching demanding we be kind, in the new lands the lifeboats might find…” Turner has very slowly been inching toward a song like this, and it’s a joy to hear him finally write it.
The social justice concerns weigh heavily over this record, but if Be More Kind helps just one person feel less hopeless, then I think Turner would call it a success. It’s an album full of messages I need to hear, most potent among them the idea that while we cannot affect massive changes on our own, we can improve our little worlds with the way we talk to people, the way we treat them, the way we help them. While there is no way they planned it this way, Dirty Computer and this show two ways of responding to the horror our world has become, and if we can do both things – if we can fight for everyone’s right to exist while also being as kind as possible – I think we’ll have it right.
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Just enough time left this week to talk a bit about Leon Bridges, the man with the most buttery soul voice I’ve heard in many years.
Bridges is a mere 28 years old, which is remarkable given the oceans of feeling he pours out with that voice. It’s also remarkable because he writes old soul songs, numbers that sound right out of the ‘50s and ‘60s. His first album, 2015’s Coming Home, sounded vintage, like Bridges fired up his own Wayback Machine and swiped ten soul sides from the Motown offices, calling them his own. I liked the record, but I found Bridges’ songwriting a little weak, and the record more focused on its sound than on its melodies.
But that voice. That voice! I’m in for anything that features that voice. And I’m thrilled to report that Bridges’ second album, Good Thing, is superior in every important way. Fans of Coming Home might be upset that he’s updated his sound – this record feels a lot more ‘70s and a lot more modern at the same time, with samples and electronic drums making their debuts. But I think it works beautifully – it’s a testament to the richness of his voice that Bridges can take whatever his producers throw at him and make it sound old-school.
Bridges also decided to collaborate with a whole slew of co-writers and record makers, most prominently Ricky Reed, who has worked on hits for Meghan Trainor and Phantogram. Reed co-wrote and co-produced every song here, bringing Bridges into the late 20th century with aplomb. Justin Tranter co-wrote “Beyond.” Dan Wilson co-wrote the wonderful “Shy.” It’s really a dream team.
And this team has delivered at least one absolute, stone-cold classic. It’s called “Bad Bad News,” and it’s the single, so you may have heard it already. If it’s on the radio, I swear, there’s no way they could overplay it enough to make me sick of it. The song has a killer bass line and organ groove right out of classic soul hip-hop, some tasty horns and a hook big enough to reel in Moby Dick. There are plenty of good songs on here, from the sun-is-rising piano-pop of “Forgive You” to the killer funk of “If It Feels Good (Then It Must Be)” to the jazzy finale “Georgia to Texas,” but over all of these, “Bad Bad News” stands tall.
Before Good Thing, I didn’t imagine that leaving his carefully curated sound behind would be the key to longevity for Leon Bridges. But here it is, a second record far better than the first, capturing more of what makes him special. Most artists don’t get one classic their whole careers. Bridges has one now, and nine other songs that prove he’s in this for the long haul. I’m excited to see where he goes.
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That’ll do it for this week. Next week, the Choir. The Choir! Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.