I love old-fashioned brick-and-mortar record stores.
There is literally nothing I don’t love about them. Browsing for hidden treasures, talking about music with the proprietors and customers, seeing musicians play in-store events, supporting local businesses. All of it is wonderful. We’ve been in this brave new digital world for some time now, but I’m still one of those people who likes to hold the CD or record in his hands and read the liner notes and put new acquisitions on the shelf. Hence, record stores.
I wanted to say all that up front because the albums I have been most excited about lately are not available in those record stores. (At least, not yet.) I have been buying more and more albums online in recent years, paying my money directly to the music makers themselves, and while I feel good about supporting them without any middlemen, I do miss the record store experience every time I do it.
And yet, I also have not found an analogous feeling to the one I get when an album I have pre-ordered shows up in my inbox. The last few Marillion albums have been pre-order affairs, and I have gladly given the band my money a year or more in advance each time. And when the download link is emailed to pledgers like me, long before anyone else gets to hear it, there’s a certain undeniable thrill that comes along with it.
That was certainly the case for Bryan Scary’s wonderful new album Birds. Some background: Bryan Scary is one of our most underrated and undervalued pop maestros. His work is extraordinary, intricate and endlessly inventive, while never being anything less than stuck-in-your-head tuneful. He makes amazing records, manic masterpieces of piano-pounding rock, and his last one, the delightfully goofy Daffy’s Elixir, was mind-blowingly complex in all the best ways. (Will also put in a plug for his band Evil Arrows, which released five pretty excellent EPs.)
So of course when Scary asked me, back in 2015, to pony up for a new album, I did it immediately. I knew nothing about it except the title (Birds) and Scary’s brief description of his plan: a more orchestral and consciously beautiful piece of work. I didn’t need anything else. (I’m basically in for anything Scary wants to do, from now until one of us dies.) What I didn’t know – and what Scary didn’t know either – is that it would take him four years to finish Birds and get it into our hands. The last of those years was marked by near-total silence on Scary’s part, and I nearly forgot all about this record, and that I’d already paid for it.
And then, on June 26, it just… showed up. I think even the neighbors heard my delighted gasp when I read the email, and I may have broken one or two laws of physics to download that thing as quickly as possible. It’s been a couple weeks now and I still can’t get enough of it. Birds is stunning, pitched somewhere between pastoral folk and prog rock with some Supertramp thrown in and a healthy helping of orchestral grandeur. It’s absolutely a Bryan Scary album, but it’s like his Apple Venus Vol. 1, bringing his signature intricate melodicism down new avenues of sound.
This is an album on which every song is a highlight, so singling out individual tracks for praise is difficult. I have no doubt, given the depth and complexity of the production, that he worked on this for the entire four years. I can imagine spending months on “Wendy, Wake the Sparrow” alone, with its fluttering string lines, its leaps from strummy folk to monolithic soundtrack music and its abrupt shifts in sound. It’s followed here by a minute-long instrumental that sounds like Frank Zappa writing for an old west saloon band, and I bet even that took ages to get right.
As you might have guessed from the title, these songs are about birds, at least in a metaphorical sense. The album is bookended by a sprightly thing called “I Saw Birds Flocking,” and the songs have titles like “Seagull,” “Birdy” and “Universal Crane.” “Seagull” is one of my favorites, its tone pure Brian Wilson, its melody indelible. The folksy “Royal Soil” is instantly memorable, its shimmering acoustic guitars constantly moving. I particularly love the stompy midsection that turns it into a jig.
But if you forced me, gun to my head, to pick a favorite here, it would probably be “Loon on the Lake.” It’s the most manic thing here, starting with an insistent beat and the title phrase repeated like a mantra, but then it shifts every few seconds, from raw orchestral craziness to a building piano crescendo to more Brian Wilson-esque prettiness. It finally brings everything home in a dazzling instrumental explosion. I’m gonna study this track over and over to figure out how he did it, and I probably never will.
Birds is incredible, a concentrated burst of melodic pop genius that proves once again that Bryan Scary is playing on a whole different level than most other musicians. I have no doubt that it took all four years to make this thing, and I can’t say it feels like he wasted a day. I honestly don’t know when or how you all will get to hear this – Scary is still working out a wide release – but you should jump at the chance. In the meantime, try out Scary’s previous work. It’s all amazing stuff, and if he asks me to pledge again for another record, I won’t even hesitate.
* * * * *
I didn’t wait nearly as long for the new Appleseed Cast album – just the standard pre-order period – but like Scary’s record, I haven’t been able to stop listening to it since it arrived. The Appleseed Cast is a post-rock-y band from Kansas, of all places, and has been plying its trade since 1996. I like everything they’ve done, but I have a particular affinity for 2001’s double album Low Level Owl, which fully broke them out of their emo roots and into a more sonically fascinating area.
Since then, the band has been walking that line, never quite delving into the ambient beauty of Low Level Owl again, but forging ahead with an aggressive yet dreamy sound. Their ninth album, and their first in six years, sports the gloriously self-serious title The Fleeting Light of Impermanence, but the vast, sweeping music within earns it. Half of these eight songs reach or exceed six minutes, and an epic like “Time the Destroyer” earns every second. That song thunders along on a pulsing synthesizer line and swooping strings, with chiming, crashing guitars breaking like waves all over it.
There isn’t a bad song here, and the whole thing flows, one song into another, like a suite. It’s an intense piece of work, one that demands concentration, but it’s a marvelously rewarding one. My favorite thing here comes late – “Reaching the Forest” is a snowy landscape of synthesizers that explodes at the two minute mark into a Cure-like web of guitars circling galloping drums. It’s just amazing from there, sporting one of the record’s best melodies.
But that’s just one bright spot of many on an album that sweeps me away each time I hear it. I’ve enjoyed the last few Appleseed Cast albums, but this one seems to take a step up somehow. It’s a confident and fully formed thing. There’s been some speculation, given the title of the album and the last song (“Last Words and Final Celebrations”), that this may be the last Appleseed Cast album. I hope this is not the case, but if they choose to go out on this one, I wouldn’t blame them. It’s their best in some time, and record store or no, I’m glad to own it.
Next week, some rock and roll, maybe? Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.