This is the last straight-up review column of 2018.
I’m not sure where this year went either. It seems to have disappeared on me. In some ways, that’s good, since it’s been a difficult one for a lot of people I know. I have high hopes for 2019, though, and I’m very much looking forward to this year ticking over.
And if you’re marking that time in these columns, like I am, we’re into the special programming part of the year. Next week is my annual roundup of Christmas music, and then we’re into honorable mentions and the top 10 list and Fifty Second Week, and we’re done. I realize this leaves some important records, like Jeff Tweedy’s Warm, out in the cold, so to speak, and I plan to catch up with some of the late-year releases early in 2019.
But this is it for this year’s reviews of non-holiday albums. So I’m very glad that the first one I have on tap this week snuck in under the wire, because it’s truly great. It’s also another testament to the power of crowdfunding, as it likely would not exist without the contributions of a few hundred of us on PledgeMusic. Not every crowdfunded album turns out this well, but this is one of those instances in which the artistic freedom bought by eliminating financial concerns up front paid dividends to spare.
I’m talking about Donnie Vie, the former lead singer of Enuff Znuff, and I hope that you’re still listening, because just mentioning the fact that I have been an EZN fan for nearly 30 years makes some people question my taste. Even three decades in, people seem to lump Enuff Znuff in with the hair metal of the ‘80s, when they were never quite that. Even at their spandex-clad height, they were much more of a Beatlesque power-pop outfit, and that sensibility has only grown over the years.
Take a listen to an album like Ten, in which the Lennon/McCartney sense of craft comes to the fore, or even Paraphernalia, a louder record that never forgets the melodies. These guys have always sounded like Cheap Trick might have if they’d leaned into their Hard Day’s Night influences more heavily. Since the beginning, Donnie Vie and Chip Z’Nuff have been the songwriting team at the band’s heart, and together they’ve written some of my favorite power pop of the past few decades.
This year, the division between Donnie and the band was finally solidified. Vie has been an auxiliary member for a while, splitting after 2004’s ? and returning only to write and sing on 2009’s Dissonance. He hasn’t been a member of the live band for more than a decade now, and has been making terrific music on his own since 2003. But this year, Chip fully took control of Enuff Znuff as a recording act, issuing Diamond Boy, the first album to feature him as chief songwriter and vocalist.
And it was pretty good. I liked it very much. But I missed Donnie’s voice and his melodies something fierce, and I haven’t really revisited it as much as I normally would a new EZN album. If you want to hear with crystal clarity what I felt was missing on Diamond Boy, it’s here in full force on Donnie’s new album, Beautiful Things. It’s his sixth studio album, and his best by some distance, a glorious pop record full of gorgeous harmonies and songs that demonstrate the best of what he has to offer.
Seriously, I am so happy with this record. The sound is lush and full, in a way that Donnie’s more ramshackle solo work hasn’t been. This is, finally, the production that his songs have long deserved, and he’s stepped up with his best set of tunes… well, ever. I say that as a longtime fan of his work, as someone who absolutely adores not only the best of EZN, but Donnie’s own solo records. These ten songs are the best ten songs he’s ever given us.
I’m going to say this as plainly as I can: Beautiful Things is a classic power pop record, worthy of standing tall with the giants of the genre. Vie clearly worked for ages on these songs, and they all sport killer melodies and lovely twists and turns. Each one bears the mark of a master craftsman showing what he can do. Even a guitar ditty like “Plain Jane” takes a trip to the stratosphere in its chorus, refusing to just be a surface-level rocker. And when you get to a masterpiece like “I Could Save the World,” with its delightful harmonies and full-on Beatles homages, I dare you not to smile.
“I Could Save the World” was the first single from this album, and happily, it isn’t even the standout. Every song here rises to the challenge this song lays down. The title track is a bursting firework of positivity with an absolutely killer melody. “Fly” is one of the most beautiful piano ballads Donnie Vie has written, and he sings it with a tender touch. “Tender Lights” is a George Harrison-esque strummer, while “Whatever” is a double-time skip of a thing that brings a good mood with it wherever it goes. Closer “Back From the Blue” is another lovely slow tune, the kind of song that many people couldn’t imagine coming from Enuff Znuff (but which, in truth, Donnie wrote for them all the time.)
I can’t help but think that Beautiful Things is as good and as rich as it is because Donnie was given full freedom without having to worry about selling the end product. As of this writing, it isn’t even available for sale – the download has gone out to backers, those who believed and supported it, with a full release coming soon. Taking care of all those financial headaches up front clearly freed Donnie to do his best work as a writer and a record maker, and I’m so pleased with the results. Beautiful Things is a strong argument for this method of making music, and a deep reward for our faith.
It’s also just a really good little record. I wish I could point you to someplace where you could hear it and buy it, and I’ll be sure to update this when the full release happens. (Here’s “I Could Save the World” in the meantime.) If you’ve been reading my reviews of Donnie Vie and Enuff Znuff for years and never been convinced to give them a try, Beautiful Things is a great place to start. It ably demonstrates what I have been saying for 20+ years – Donnie Vie is a stunningly good songwriter and singer. If you like melodic rock of any stripe, you owe it to yourself to hear this.
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Just enough time and space to briefly talk about a few recent records that deserved full reviews, but just didn’t get them for some reason. They’re all significant, though, and I really should at least mention them.
First up is Smashing Pumpkins, or rather three-fourths of them, reuniting for a short record with a really long title: Shiny and Oh So Bright Vol. 1/LP: No Past, No Future, No Sun. From that nearly Fiona Apple-length moniker, you might expect something excessive, something that stretches to 70-plus minutes and emphasizes Billy Corgan’s prog-rock tendencies and self-aggrandizement. I certainly didn’t expect something that only runs 31:48 and contains some of Corgan’s laziest, least interesting songwriting ever.
I can hear Corgan straining (and not just vocally) to match the orchestrated heights of Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness on this thing, and the fact that it falls so far short for all that is just painful. Opener “Knights of Malta” sets the tone – four chords repeated slowly, some strings, a lame chorus. “Silvery Sometimes (Ghosts)” is better, in that it apes “1979” and actually goes somewhere, but it isn’t great. None of these songs are great. Even when the band kicks up the amperage on “Marchin’ On” and closer “Seek and You Shall Destroy,” it feels like it hasn’t locked in. And then it’s over.
If this had been released as a Corgan solo album, no one would bat an eye. But it’s not. It’s the Smashing Pumpkins reunion album, with Jimmy Chamberlain on drums and James Iha on guitar, and the fact that it plummets down to earth like this is almost tragic. It’s a classic case of “such terrible food, and in such small portions,” and since I don’t like what’s here very much, I can’t really complain about how short this is. Twice as much of this wouldn’t have made me happier. I really did expect better.
I think I expected more from Tom Odell’s whole career than he’s been willing to give us so far. I absolutely loved “Can’t Pretend,” one of his first singles, and enjoyed his first album, Long Way Down. Since then, Odell has decided that he’d very much like to be Elton John, which is fine, but not quite what I wanted from him. His third album, Jubilee Road, is his most Elton, and I like it quite a bit. But I have to separate my enjoyment of it from my expectations of Odell in general.
But seriously, if you like Elton John, you will love Tom Odell, especially this new record. It’s anchored by one of Odell’s best songs, “If You Wanna Love Somebody,” with its instantly memorable hook and gospel choir. There are others just about as good as this one, like “Half as Good As You” and “Go Tell Her Now,” and Odell has centered this organic-sounding album on his striking voice and piano playing, which is a good move.
Tunes like the title track and “Son of an Only Child” wear their Reginald Dwight on their sleeve, though. Jubilee Road reminds me of Joshua Kadison’s work from the ‘90s, and if you liked that kind of Elton worship, Odell is even better at it. He’s still only 28, and is already an accomplished songwriter – honestly, “If You Wanna Love Somebody” is very nearly as perfect as pop music gets – so I hope he finds a more original groove someday. I’ll definitely be listening.
Finally, there’s Twenty One Pilots, a band I’m not supposed to like. Well, the hell with that, because their new record, Trench, is really good. The two Pilots, Tyler Joseph and Josh Dun, are joined here by Paul Meany, the mastermind behind Mutemath, and Trench sounds like an equal mix of their styles. It’s a far fuller and richer experience than Blurryface, as well as being a more mature effort – there aren’t any trifles here, just 14 well-thought-out songs.
As a longtime Mutemath fan, I hear Paul Meany’s influence everywhere here, from the beats to the keyboard sounds to the bigger, fuller melodies. But I also hear Josh and Tyler keeping their identities intact – this isn’t a Mutemath record. The rap and dubstep moments are here in full force, and a tune like “Nico and the Niners” is full-on Twenty One Pilots. Meany’s production is fantastic, melding his own sound with the band’s on songs like “Bandito,” with their full participation. It’s a different Twenty One Pilots, but it still sounds like them, if that makes sense.
Trench has an ace in the hole, though, that all by itself sets this album above its predecessor. That ace is “My Blood,” one of the finest songs of this year. A paean to companionship and family, “My Blood” is exactly what I would want from a Twenty One Pilots produced by Meany. When it slides into that delightful falsetto chorus, it’s just magical. I don’t care if I’m not supposed to like this. I do. I very much do.
OK, next week, Christmas music. If you know me, you know I’m about to switch over to the holiday tunes full time, and there have been some winners this year. After that, we’re in the endgame for 2018. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.