If all goes to plan, this should be the final set of record reviews published as part of the weekly Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. I’m not sure what I’m going to do going forward – I love writing about music so much that I might pop in here every once in a while, but of course I haven’t really thought about it. So I’m thinking of these as the last ones.
And as befits my end-of-TM3AM philosophy, they’re nothing special. Just another five CDs I wanted to talk about. This column was initially intended as a chronicle of the life of a new music fanatic, and its raison d’etre for all these years has been to discuss new music. So here’s my last stab at doing just that.
Smashing Pumpkins, Cyr.
I couldn’t resist one last barely-listened-to-it seat-of-my-pants new album review in this spot, and Cyr is the biggest thing to come out last week. I bought it on Friday, so I’ve barely made it through this beast once. I’m somewhat embarrassed by how many TM3AM reviews were done this way, barely scratching the surface of some pretty involved records. I publicly reversed course on one of those once (Mutemath’s Vitals), but trust me that my appreciation for some of the albums I wrote about too quickly has grown over time.
I don’t know if that will happen with Cyr, though. I have a complex relationship with Billy Corgan, who is still one of the most ambitious and excessive musicians to come out of the ambitious, excessive 1990s. I’m still a big fan of the peak Pumpkins work, which includes Siamese Dream, Mellon Collie, Adore and its attendant b-sides collections. Even the castoffs from this period were pretty great. But with Machina in 2000, something broke, and Corgan has yet to fix it.
That’s not to say that he hasn’t turned out good work since then. I enjoyed albums like Oceania and Monuments to an Elegy, though I cannot for the life of me remember anything about them now. And I like Cyr, the second Pumpkins album since their three-fourths reunion in 2018. But man, there’s just nothing memorable about this. It’s a 20-song, 72-minute monster loaded with enough synths that Corgan sounds like he’s auditioning to soundtrack the next Stranger Things season, but none of those songs really connect.
Some of them are fine. “The Colour of Love” kicks things off in decent fashion. The title track has an appealing synth line. Corgan’s voice works well with this style, and Jimmy Chamberlain is still a powerhouse behind the drum kit (when Corgan remembers to use him). But this album goes on and on and on, with almost nothing rising above the tide of mediocrity. “Wyttch” is memorable, but mainly because it’s bad, Corgan shouting “Samhain” like a deranged Danzig fan. But with “Starrcraft” it’s back to pleasant synths and melodies that just kind of… are, with nonsense lyrics that fail to connect.
I don’t know if this synthpop direction is a permanent one, or just a long experiment released in full here. Either way, Cyr doesn’t pay back dividends for the time you will invest in it. It isn’t bad, but there’s so much of it that just sits there. The idea that Corgan might learn from this and rein things in next time is laughable – he’s working on a 30-plus-song sequel to Mellon Collie and Machina right now, as I understand it – but the best of his post-‘90s work has also been his most focused. This is the opposite of that, and even if his best songs lie in the final quarter of this thing – spoiler: they don’t – you’ll be too bored by the time you get there to appreciate them.
Beki Hemingway, Earth and Asphalt.
I don’t know Beki Hemingway, but I know lots of people who do. She belongs to a special group of artists in my mind: those I discovered at Cornerstone. The annual Cornerstone Festival was one of my favorite sojourns, a week of great music from a largely unheralded pocket of the music world with some of my favorite people. On my first day at my first Cornerstone I saw Beki Hemingway play, and I bought her album Words for Loss for Words right away. I’ve been following her work ever since.
I once said that Beki has two gimmicks: great songs and a great voice. Her latest, which I helped Kickstart, hasn’t changed my thinking on that at all. Earth and Asphalt was recorded in Ireland, where Hemingway and her husband/musical partner Randy Kerkman live now, but it still sounds like it sprouted from American soil. There’s some country, some folk and some rock and roll here, and Hemingway delivers all of them with conviction, her voice solid and strong.
The whole album is a highlight, but I’m particularly fond of “Lay Your Burdens Down,” with its crunchy riff and big chorus; the anthemic “We’re Not Going Anywhere”; and the layered, lovely waltz “Hurricane.” I’m also a fan of “Cost Me Everything,” a darker yet hopeful ballad that stands with Hemingway’s best writing. But really, Earth and Asphalt is all very good, and more evidence that Beki Hemingway should be a household name, especially in alt-country circles. Check it out here. (Hey, it’s Bandcamp Friday again in a couple days, so maybe check it out then, too.)
Chris Taylor is another songwriter from this spiritual-minded corner of the music universe, but he’s one I missed completely at the time. I first heard of him through his extensive solo career, and then only because my friends Jeff Elbel and Jeffrey Kotthoff worked with him. I’ve caught on more now, and though he’ll never be my favorite Taylor, he’s a prolific and interesting musician.
Also, he had a band in the ‘90s that flew totally under my radar. Love Coma apparently released two albums, one in 1993 and the other in 1996, before disbanding. Even more interesting, Love Coma’s guitar player was Matt Slocum, who you might know better for his work in Sixpence None the Richer. Well, color me intrigued, so when Taylor and Slocum reunited with the rest of the band and made a new Love Coma album this year, I snapped it up.
And it’s pretty good. Taylor and Slocum have a push-pull dynamic – Taylor’s a rough and tumble three-chord rock guy and Slocum more of a spinner of atmospheres – that works well throughout this record. Slocum works his magic over the simple grooves that make up these songs, and Taylor’s cigarettes-and-coffee voice grounds everything. The jangle-pop “Boomerang” is probably my favorite song here, but it all works for me, especially as a whole. Check it out, and try some of Taylor’s solo work while you’re at it.
Lauren Mann, Memory and Desire.
Completing the Cornerstone trifecta, we have Lauren Mann. I discovered this Canadian songwriter at the Gallery Stage of the Cornerstone Festival back in 2010, and I’ve been a fan ever since. Mann writes emotionally resonant, piano-led songs with a touch of Carole King, which is a huge compliment from me. She’s made several increasingly excellent albums, and now, fresh off a divorce and a period of reconstruction, she’s made what might be her very best.
It’s also her most intimate, full of straightforward diary entries about loss and love. “Forgiveness” is superb, a lament and an anthem in one, while “Waves” rides some gorgeous guitar atmospheres to tell a tale of perseverance. “Where do we go from here” might be something of a cliché, but it’s clear she’s singing that line from a deeply felt place. “Galaxies” is a wonder, a song of separation that uses its metaphor perfectly. Through it all her songwriting and singing voices are in fine form, and the production is dreamy and beautiful.
Memory and Desire is largely muted in comparison to Mann’s previous work, but this feels like an important album for her to have made. And there are moments of cathartic hope, like “Sing It Out Loud” and the delightful closer “Circus in the Sky.” In all, I think it’s the most complete piece of work Mann has given us, accomplished and confident and unafraid. I’ve recommended a few purchases here for Bandcamp Friday, but if you’re looking for an artist worthy of your support, Lauren Mann is worth a listen.
BT, The Lost Art of Longing.
Honestly, it’s just luck of the draw that put this new BT album in the final position here, but I’m happy that this will be the final review of this incarnation of TM3AM. I first discovered Brian Transeau’s work while interning at Face Magazine in Portland, where this column got its start, and I reviewed Ima and Movement in Still Life in those pages. I was drawn in by collaborations with Tori Amos and Mike Doughty, but I thought he was a genius then, and I still think so.
BT’s music has soundtracked my journey from that moment to this one. I was three years into the online TM3AM when Emotional Technology knocked me for a loop. A lot of Transeau’s innovations on that record are more commonplace now, but it still sounds like an extraordinarily detailed, beautifully written electro-pop album. These Hopeful Machines gave me songs to sing as I left my newspaper job, and A Song Across Wires was a perfect backdrop for my jump into science communication.
All of which is to say that Transeau was here at the start of this column, and he’s here at the end of it too. The Lost Art of Longing is his 13th, and at 93 minutes, it’s just as ambitious as anything he’s done. It is one of 2020’s most perfect pop albums, song after song here achieving a kind of transcendence that BT seems to traffic in as a matter of course. Longtime vocal partner Christian Burns joins him here, along with a host of new voices, including Nation of One and Iriana Mancini.
At the heart of it all is a kind of uplift, a spirit of hope that elevates this music. A song like “Walk Into the Water,” which extends past 10 minutes, is one beautiful high point after another, all of them designed to fill you with joy. Transeau made his name as a producer of unfathomable complexity, stutter-cutting his way through his first few albums. The Lost Art of Longing smooths a lot of that out – it’s more open, spacious, pure. “The Light is Always On” is a favorite here, the richness of Mangal Suvarnan’s voice bringing this ode to togetherness alive.
Man, every single track here is wonderful, and I’m so glad I get to write about another brilliant BT album before I sign off. It’s nice to know that even after 20 years, Transeau is still using his gift to improve the world. His music has gotten me through a lot these past two decades, and as I wrap up this final column of reviews, it’s good to have him here, enriching my life once again.
And that’s it. My last set of reviews. Next up it’s Christmas music, then honorable mentions, then the top 10 list, and a farewell column. That’s the roadmap to the end of TM3AM. I’m certain to say this again and again over the next month, but thank you all for reading, and for coming along on this journey. Four left. Let’s do this.
See you in line Tuesday morning.