We seem to be losing music legends at the rate of one a week lately. This week we bid farewell to the amazing, enigmatic Scott Walker.
In my eulogy for Mark Hollis, I mentioned that he perfectly executed one of the most radical left turns, musically speaking, I had ever heard, evolving from pure pop to meditative and beautiful sonic landscapes. Scott Walker is another textbook example. Walker hit it big in the ‘60s as the frontman of the Walker Brothers. (None of them were actually brothers, and none were named Walker – Scott’s given name was Noel Scott Engel.)
With Scott’s deep baritone up front, the Walker Brothers scored with some traditional pop ballads, and when he went solo, Walker stayed in the same vein, eventually indulging a fascination with the songwriting of Jacques Brel. Walker even had his own late-‘60s TV show on the BBC. He probably could have remained in that mode forever, but in the ‘80s he decided to move in a darker, more idiosyncratic direction.
The resulting run of solo albums contain some of the strangest and most compelling material you’re likely to encounter anywhere. Climate of Hunter and Tilt set the stage for 2006’s The Drift, a stunning off-kilter masterwork. These records paired Walker’s dramatic voice with nightmarish soundscapes and bleak, progressive compositions that could not have been further away from his matinee idol past. He remained an uncompromising artist until his death – 2012’s Bisch Bosch, 2014’s collaboration with Sunn O))) and his subsequent film scores are among his strangest works.
Along the way, Walker served as an inspiration to many artists, including David Bowie (whose final album, Blackstar, is basically Bowie does Walker), Radiohead, Leonard Cohen, Steven Wilson, Jarvis Cocker, and the list goes on. Walker died on Friday, March 22, at age 76. For lovers of music without boundaries, he will be sorely missed.
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I love sinking into a lengthy double album. But lately I feel like I’m probably alone in this feeling, since it seems to be the in thing to split up double-length projects into two separate releases. The only reasons I can think of to do this are financial – you get to charge two single-disc prices instead of one double-disc price, which certainly brings in more cash. If there’s an artistic reason for dividing a single project into two releases, and then separating those releases by months, I haven’t thought of it.
But to be fair, I’ve only heard the first half of the latest project to do so, Foals’ Everything Not Saved Will be Lost. And if there’s a band I trust to have an artistic reason to split up their new songs onto two separate volumes, it’s this one. Since first emerging in 2007, this Oxford quartet has been on an upward trajectory, finding equal space for their math-rock and dance-groove sides. 2015’s What Went Down was a clear victory point for the band, especially the shout-along single “Mountain at My Gates,” and tackling a double album seems like the next logical step.
The band has been clear that while the two volumes of Everything Not Saved are companion pieces, they will be very different. The first volume, which came out on March 8, is the keyboard-y one, with the second containing more guitar-heavy material. At least, that’s what the band says. This first volume certainly seems to have more synthesizers than I am used to hearing in Foals music, but there’s a lot of superb guitar work as well, and when this record locks in, the band is as organically danceable as they have ever been.
While this entire first set is excellent, especially big-beat winners like “White Onions” and “Exits,” it reaches its zenith with “On the Luna,” perhaps the band’s best ever single. It’s head-spinning – the guitar part is in 9/4, everything else is in 4/4, and it’s seamless, stomping from one end to the other with determination and purpose. “Luna” is where the record begins to lose energy, and it slows down dramatically for the lovely final two tracks, closing with the lament “I’m Done with the World (and It’s Done with Me).”
At 39 minutes, the first volume of Everything Not Saved Will be Lost feels complete in itself, and so I am left to wonder if its second half will seem like a separate album. Would combining these two efforts into a single thought have proven detrimental to either one? We’ll see in September. For now, I can say that this first volume is everything I wanted it to be. It’s so good that even if there were not a second volume on the way, I’d be satisfied.
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It’s taken Jenny Lewis’ swell solo career to make me realize why I never quite liked Rilo Kiley.
Lewis has a crystal clear, Patsy Cline-like voice that worked fine in her indie-rock band, but works wonders on her more traditional folk-pop solo material. In retrospect, Rilo Kiley was an exercise in finding the right vehicle for that voice, and the band never really hit upon it. In contrast, I have adored everything Lewis has done on her own, from the pure folk of her debut with the Watson Twins to 2014’s beautifully crafted The Voyager.
And now she’s made what is probably my favorite of her records, On the Line. Its cover art mirrors that of its predecessor, letting you know right up front that this one will be in the same vein. It’s certainly a refinement of a sound that went down a treat last time – this one is also largely produced by Ryan Adams, a fact that Warner Bros. would probably have made more of a few months ago, and includes contributions from Beck, Ringo Starr, Benmont Tench, Don Was, Jim Keltner and other country-tinged folk-pop royalty.
Together, this dream team has fashioned a perfect setting for Lewis’ voice, which remains her strongest asset. Right behind it, though, are her songs, and these are without a doubt among her best. Hopefully you’ve heard “Wasted Youth” and “Red Bull and Hennessy,” two of the strongest singles she’s ever released. The album doesn’t falter from there, sticking with its simple, elegant melodicism. Beck produces three of these songs (with the great Jason Falkner on guitar), and they fit right in, so consistent is the writing.
This is also Lewis’ most personal work, dredging up relationships (she just ended a 12-year one with former songwriting partner Jonathan Rice) and addictions, and dedicating one song (the lovely “Little White Dove”) to her always-strained relationship with her late mother. “Party Clown” is worthy of Aimee Mann – it’s so detailed in its despair. (“I took a weightless bath until my own laugh gave me the creeps.”) Only the final track, “Rabbit Hole,” finds Lewis asserting control again: “I’m not gonna go down the rabbit hole with you again,” she sings, putting paid to at least one of the spiraling relationships she discusses here.
If nothing else, On the Line should cement Jenny Lewis’ reputation as a songwriter and an artist. She’s left her band far behind on this one, standing on her own and plumbing the depths of her heartache to emerge with her strongest set of tunes. Here’s hoping she can keep this streak going, because as a solo artist, she’s something to behold.
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I’m still not sure what to make of Jonathan Coulton’s new album, Some Guys.
Don’t get me wrong, I love it, even if I don’t understand the impetus behind it. Coulton, you may remember, is a self-styled internet superstar who made his name writing wonderful songs about geeky things. Robots, vampires, zombies and aliens all made appearances in Coulton tunes, and he often wrung gorgeous emotions from his fanciful subjects. (“I Crush Everything” is a cry of anguish from a self-loathing giant squid, for instance, while “I’m Your Moon” is a euphoric love song to Pluto from one of its moons, consoling it on the loss of its status as a planet.)
Coulton has been on an upward trajectory for years, writing more and more earnest material, and 2017’s incredible Solid State is his finest – it’s a concept record about the internet of the future, with some of his sharpest and most melodic songs. For his follow-up, Coulton has decided to ditch that trajectory, at least temporarily, and take a sharp left turn. But he’s done so with all the charm and energy and wonder he injects into everything.
Some Guys finds Coulton covering 14 soft-rock hits of the 1970s, from Bread’s “Make It With You” to the Bee Gees’ “How Deep Is Your Love” to Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street.” Even weirder, these tracks have been perfectly aped – Coulton not only does nothing to change the songs, he goes to great pains to make sure these new recordings sound exactly like the originals, save for his voice.
He’s framed this as a statement on masculinity – when he was growing up, he said, these softer, more emotional songs gave him a framework for how to be a tender and considerate man. That’s laudable, and I love it. But I’m not sure anyone listening to this record will enjoy it as much as Coulton enjoyed making it. I really like all of these songs, from America’s “Sister Golden Hair” to Dan Fogelberg’s “Same Old Lang Syne,” and I enjoyed hearing Coulton sing them. But these are such perfect carbon copies that I feel like I have already wrung all of the joy out of them that I am going to.
But hey, I love supporting Jonathan Coulton, and thankfully, I’m not alone – the Some Guys Kickstarter asked for $20,000 and raised more than $150,000, all of which goes to JoCo. I hope people like this record enough to support his next one, whatever it may be. Coulton’s independence, both financial and artistic, means that he can do anything he wants. Sometimes what he wants to do is create an astonishingly original piece of work like Solid State, and sometimes what he wants to do is smash the patriarchy with soft rock. I’m on board for everything he’s done, and anything he chooses to do next.
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Hey, it’s the end of March, which means it’s time for the First Quarter Report. This year is flying by already. If you’re new to these quarterly reports, they are basically my year-end top 10 list in progress. Below is what that list would look like if I were forced to publish it right now. This is guaranteed to change dramatically in the next nine months, so don’t read a lot into it. But here is the list as it stands:
10. Copeland, Blushing.
9. All Hail the Silence, Daggers.
8. Jenny Lewis, On the Line.
7. Joe Jackson, Fool.
6. Foals, Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost Part 1.
5. Over the Rhine, Love and Revelation.
4. Pedro the Lion, Phoenix.
3. David Mead, Cobra Pumps.
2. Peter Mulvey, There Is Another World.
1. Amanda Palmer, There Will Be No Intermission.
Honestly, looking at it now, that’s a really good list. I hope the year continues as it began.
Next week, something that I’m sure will shake up the list above: Devin Townsend’s Empath. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.