If I needed any further indication that ending Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. this year is a good decision, this month did it for me. I just haven’t felt like writing one of these for the past four weeks, and as I watched the days ticking by, I felt less and less like catching up. When I started this thing I couldn’t imagine going seven days without wanting to write about music. But lately I’ve had more important things on my mind.
One of them is my health, which has been an interesting roller coaster for the past few months. Suffice it to say that the doctors looked for cancer and didn’t find any, which was a huge relief. So now we have to figure out what is causing the symptoms I do have. I’m all right, I feel good, nobody worry. But it’s been on my mind a lot.
Another, of course, is the fact that the world is on fire. I’ve written and erased a couple columns about the murder of George Floyd and the protests that ensued, but decided in the end to listen rather than speak. I hope no one is turning to a silly music column to hear that Black Lives Matter. Similarly, I hope that no one who knows me would expect me to say anything else. I’ve been quiet here but not on my personal page, and not with people I know. I’ve also been donating to the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, and I’d certainly recommend giving to them or to the racial justice organization of your choice.
I also made my own album, which took some of my attention away from other projects. It’s a strange, homemade set of songs about living in quarantine. It’s called A Dream of Outside, I’m pretty proud of it, and you can have it for free if you want it.
And I’ve been listening to music. It’s been strangely freeing to hear a new album and not think about what I want to say about it. (Yet another indication that it’s time to let this column go.) There have been so many good records in the past 30 days, and I’ve been trying to soak them in. Just this week I added a ton to my to-listen pile, including Elbow’s acoustic live album, Ray Lamontagne’s one-man Monovision and a four-CD box set of Frank Zappa’s 1970 iteration of the Mothers. I hope to pick up my weekly schedule after this and straight on to the end, so I’m listening.
I thought what I would do this week is give a brief rundown of some of the records I have enjoyed, and then cap it off with my traditional Second Quarter Report. (Truth be told, it’s the report that brought me back – I didn’t want to miss my last opportunity to compile one of these at mid-year.)
I guess we can start with Bob Dylan, since everyone’s talking about Rough and Rowdy Ways, his 39th album. I’ve never been the Dylan fan that a lot of my friends are, and the gushing over this thing leaves me a little mystified. I do like it – Dylan returns to the bluesy rock and slower-paced shuffles of Tempest, his last album of originals. (He’s since made three records of Sinatra covers, of all things. One of them a triple album. Gah.) I know people like to pore over Dylan’s lyrics for the secrets to the universe. I found the poetry on Rough and Rowdy to be, you know, fine, and the music adequate. I still can’t quite make it through the 17-minute “Murder Most Foul,” his eulogy for John F. Kennedy – it sounds like the Muppets teaching history to me. Thankfully, that song is on its own disc, so it’s easy to skip.
Stephin Merritt is a much less celebrated songwriter, but I’ve always liked him. In his guise as The Magnetic Fields he has made some undeniable gems, including his two multi-disc endeavors, 1999’s 69 Love Songs and 2017’s 50-Song Memoir. His latest is called Quickies, and it’s fun once, maybe twice. It’s 28 short songs – the longest is 2:35, the shortest 17 seconds – and it goes for cheap and easy laughs more often than not. These feel like sketches instead of the full-blooded pop songs Merritt usually gives us.
Another one everyone seemed to talk about for five minutes this month is Lady Gaga’s Chromatica. I liked it. It’s shorter than her average, and its pure synth-pop feels like what Madonna should have been giving us for the past 20 or so years. Nothing here stands out, but nothing feels out of place either, and it moves like a rocket. If we’re talking about short records made up of short songs, I vastly prefer this one to Merritt’s effort, and I’m surprised to hear myself say that.
But ah, now we’re into the music I have loved, that has sustained me for the past few weeks. Start with Look Long, the delightful 15th album from the Indigo Girls. It’s hard to believe they’ve been at it this long – their self-titled record, the first one I heard, came out 31 years ago – and even harder to believe that they still sound this good. Their voices have aged, but still blend beautifully, and their songwriting styles still push and pull against each other perfectly. It’s Emily Saliers who takes this one for me. She’s just on fire here, from “When We Were Writers” to “Feel This Way Again” to the gorgeous picture postcard of “Country Radio.” They’re so good, still.
It’s been a while since Norah Jones knocked me out, but her eighth album, the fittingly titled Pick Me Up Off the Floor, is superb. It is dark and full-bodied and atmospheric, and not even two duets with Jeff Tweedy can deter my love for it. I have similar feelings about Teddy Thompson’s sweet Heartbreaker Please, an old-school country-pop record of great songs sung in his rich tenor. Thompson hasn’t sounded this focused in a while. Sarah Jarosz made a swell little return with World on the Ground, too. It’s not as life-changing as her earlier material, but I like it.
The biggest surprise (well, until last week, but we will get to that) has been Phoebe Bridgers’ new one, Punisher. I’ve been aware of her work in boygenius and Better Oblivion Community Center, but nothing on those records quite prepared me for the dark dream that is her second album. This one deserves a full review at some point, because it heralds the arrival of a major new talent. The songs are nicely written, but it’s the production, the sheer sound of the thing, that really makes this one. It’s a headphone folk album, and a beautiful one.
I’ve also been loving the new ones from instrumental collectives Unwed Sailor and Gogo Penguin, and I thought I’d have to rely on them to scratch my big-weird-music itch. That is, until last week, when Hum – Hum, of all bands! – returned out of nowhere with a masterpiece of a new album called Inlet. I don’t know if you remember Hum, but they made two albums in the ‘90s that combined stoner metal, alt-rock and My Bloody Valentine shoegaze in a way no one had quite done before. Downward is Heavenward remains one of the finest records from that era, up there with OK Computer. No, I’m not kidding.
Inlet doesn’t do anything different, despite the 23-year absence, but it doesn’t have to. No one else sounds like this. Its eight songs stretch to almost an hour, with half of them topping eight minutes each, and it’s clear the band felt free to dig into their sound, to build on it without changing its essence. It still sounds like the loudest thing you’ve ever heard, and still feels almost impossibly fragile at times too. I’ve been used to saying that Hum was a great band. Now I get to say that Hum is a great band, still. Listen here.
And a couple days ago Semisonic made a surprise return as well with their first song in 19 years, “You’re Not Alone.” It’s from a new EP out in September. I can’t get enough of this song. Classic Dan Wilson.
OK, let’s do the Second Quarter Report. It’s changed drastically from the first quarter, as you’ll see, and a lot of the names from the paragraphs above found their way onto the list. Here’s my top 10 as it stands right now:
10. Indigo Girls, Look Long.
9. Vanessa Carlton, Love is an Art.
8. Derek Webb, Targets.
7. Watkins Family Hour, Brother Sister.
6. Sarah Jarosz, World on the Ground.
5. Nada Surf, Never Not Together.
4. Phoebe Bridgers, Punisher.
3. Matt Wilson and his Orchestra, When I Was a Writer.
2. Hum, Inlet.
1. Fiona Apple, Fetch the Bolt Cutters.
I cannot even picture in my head the album amazing enough to knock Fiona off the top spot this year. But I’ve been surprised before.
Anyway, hope to be back and riding this train to the final station. Next week, more music. We’ll see what strikes my fancy.
See you in line Tuesday morning.