So I missed all of June.
I’m not complaining about it. It was the best thing for me, and I’m feeling better and more energized about my writing projects since taking an extended break. But the downside is that I missed the chance to talk about a ton of new music that hit shelves during that month. And it’s not like the flood of new releases has abated – I’ve had plenty to discuss since my return, and will be taking a listen to the new Thom Yorke and Flaming Lips records next week.
But I decided to take this week’s column and spend a few minutes with some of the best records that came out during my hiatus. These quick takes aren’t really going to be in any order – these are just some of the albums that I listened to during my weeks off, and have been listening to since. I have honestly not even taken the time to think about where any of these would rank among the year’s best, though one or two of them might end up in the list. These are all recommended to some degree, though, especially if you are a fan of any of the artists’ previous work.
OK, here we go.
Esperanza Spalding, 12 Little Spells.
I’ve heard this thing probably a dozen times and I still don’t know quite what to make of it. I love Esperanza Spalding – I rated her Emily’s D+Evolution the best album of 2016, and saw her live last year just before she released Exposure, her strange sixth album. The music she played on stage, some of which ended up on Spells, was totally out of this world. She uses jazz only as the foundation, the baseline, building off of jazz instrumentation to spin something wholly hers.
12 Little Spells is wholly hers. I honestly don’t know any other musician who could make this record, let alone would make this record. None of this is immediately accessible, the way “Unconditional Love” or “Rest in Pleasure” was. Every song here requires concentration just to follow Spalding’s wild melodies from place to place. Every song is meticulously arranged and complex, showing off just how wide and deep Spalding’s mind is. I love this record, but I don’t feel like I understand it yet.
And that’s OK. Sometimes brilliant music takes time to absorb, and this is absolutely brilliant stuff. Spalding’s bass playing is on point, her voice is vibrant and fully within her control, and her band follows her down each of these rabbit holes with exuberance. Each song is paired with a body part in the liner notes, and Spalding gives you something to ponder with each one, showing just how much thought went into this.
If you want to, you can hear most of this right now – the 12 main “spells” were released online one by one last year, and the four bonus tracks joined them after the album came out in June. I don’t know if there’s a more talented musician working right now, and I hope a few more spins of this record will help me appreciate the wonder I can already tell is there.
Collective Soul, Blood.
Hands up if you thought Collective Soul would still be going in 2019. My hand is down, for the record – I thought they would be a one-hit wonder and fade away quickly. Well, Ed Roland and his merry band showed me. Blood is their tenth album, not counting two live records and an acoustic project, and they show no signs of turning into the ‘90s nostalgia cliché I expected them to.
Far from fading, Blood sounds alive. There’s nothing here the band hasn’t done before – it’s another set of riff-rock with simple melodies – but this is a band that knows what they do, and here they deliver. “Now’s the Time” and “Over Me” bring a strong, crunchy vibe, and closer “Porch Swing” is convincingly folksy. In between these poles Collective Soul just kinda do Collective Soul, and if you like that sort of thing, you will like this.
The Alarm, Sigma.
What, like I’m gonna fail to recommend the Alarm? Never. Sigma is the second official album to come out of the Blood Red Viral Black sessions, and I think it’s the stronger of the two. About half of it is unreleased material (Mike Peters issued two previous collections of recordings from those sessions on the Alarm website), and it’s very good stuff. And the songs drawn from BRVB are excellent, especially “Brighter Than the Sun” and “Love and Understanding.”
Mostly, though, I continue to be surprised and elated at the level of energy Peters and his band still have. This is the new model Alarm – Peters is the only original member, and the band now includes Peters’ wife Jules and his longtime friend James Stevenson of the Cult. But rather than sounding like some in-name-only shadow of itself, this Alarm feels fresh, new, on fire. Peters’ songs are as rousing and raucous as ever, and he keeps trying to write the definitive anthem for our times. He gets close on Sigma, and it doesn’t sound like he’ll ever stop trying.
Baroness, Gold and Grey.
This is quite a thing. Baroness’ second double album will apparently be their final “color series” release, and if you listen to each of these, from Red Album to this one, the progression is simply breathtaking. Gold and Grey is more of a hard rock record than the pummeling metal they started off with, but the songwriting is no less exciting and interesting.
In fact, this might be the band’s most cohesive piece of work, which is remarkable since it is the first without longtime guitarist Pete Adams. Gina Gleason does a fine job as the band heads into more atmospheric territory, and the six instrumental tracks serve to unify the whole thing. I get that some people miss the more aggressive sound the band delivered in its earliest days, but the evolution has been a joy to watch, and Gold and Grey feels like an arrival point. Perfect time to end the series they’re best known for and move on to new creative pastures.
Buddy and Julie Miller, Breakdown on 20th Ave. South.
Husband and wife team Buddy and Julie Miller are legends in their home town of Nashville. Buddy has played with damn near everybody and produced most of them too, and as a songwriter he’s penned work for some of the brightest lights in the Americana scene. Julie is a highly respected singer-songwriter with six acclaimed solo albums to her credit. I love them both individually, but it’s a rare treat when they decide to record together.
And it has been a while – ten years since Written in Chalk, which Julie Miller spent struggling with health issues. You’d never know it listening to this record. It’s another dozen beautiful country-folk songs, all written or co-written by Julie, that find their voices entwining as well as they ever have. Some of these, like “Everything is Your Fault,” feel achingly personal, but all of them feel universal. It’s so nice to have these two back, and I hope we hear more from them in this vein soon.
The Divine Comedy, Office Politics.
I will admit to being a relative newbie to Neil Hannon’s work. I’d heard of his one-man project The Divine Comedy for years, but only recently started dipping into the catalog. So I don’t necessarily have the fullest context in which to place Office Politics, Hannon’s 12th record. But I do know what I like, and I enjoyed nearly every minute of this long, snarky, hilarious collection of songs.
Some of it is just straightforwardly funny, like the privilege anthem “Queuejumper” and the delightful “Norman and Norma.” Some of it is more obscure, like “Philip and Steve’s Furniture Removal Company,” which imagines an endlessly repetitive jingle in the style of Glass and Roach. All of Office Politics, though, feels like it comes from the same dry humor and melodic wellspring, and I am down for all of it. I’m still making my way through Hannon’s prodigious output, but this album is proof that whatever spark he has carried with him still burns brightly.
Titus Andronicus, An Obelisk.
I didn’t even bother to review A Productive Cough, Titus’ ponderous snooze of a fifth album. I barely got through it, and concluded that if the best thing on your record is a nine-minute cover of “Like a Rolling Stone,” something has gone terribly wrong. Well, it seems like the band agreed with me, because An Obelisk, recorded and released quickly, is something of a corrective.
Mastermind Patrick Stickles went and hired Bob Mould to produce and turned out a short, abrasive punk album. No experiments, no detours, no conceptual underpinning, just 38 minutes of focused, rapid-fire, guitar-fueled energy. As a Titus album, it’s not bad – the sameness of it does wear after a while, but it’s short enough to work, and Stickles and the band sound fully invested. As a course correction, this feels like exactly what Titus needed to do. It puts them back at zero, and I can’t wait to hear the next one, which will undoubtedly fire up the ambition machine once again.
And I can’t fail, here at the end, to mention this one. The second posthumous Prince album is a collection of the man’s versions of songs he wrote for others, and it’s revelatory. You expect some of the hits he wrote for Sheila E. and other proteges, and you get them, but I’m most glad to have Prince’s versions of “Jungle Love” and “Manic Monday,” along with “You’re My Love,” a Kenny Rogers song I had no idea he’d written.
But come on, the real gem here is right at the end. Here, finally, is Prince’s original take on “Nothing Compares 2 U,” a song that Sinead O’Connor stripped down and made her own. Prince’s take is bigger and bolder and full of saxophones, and it’s completely different from O’Connor’s, as of course it should be. I can’t say one is better than the other, but thankfully we now have both. The real lesson of this release is just how many well-known songs Prince has written behind the scenes. He truly was one of a kind.
All right, done. That doesn’t fully catch me up, but at least it puts me on record (heh) about eight of the most significant June releases. Next week, as I mentioned, Thom Yorke and the Flaming Lips try to weird us out. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.