Before we begin, a couple of album announcements that have made my February better.
Folk singer Peter Mulvey has been a favorite of mine since his first record label sent me a review copy of his dazzling third album, Rapture, back in 1996. I’ve followed him ever since – I was there that night at Raoul’s Roadside Attraction in 1999 when he wrote one of his signature songs, “The Trouble with Poets,” and I marveled at his delightful “Vlad the Astrophysicist” months before the internet got ahold of it. Now he’s made a new record called Are You Listening with none other than Ani DiFranco in the producer’s chair, and he’s crowdfunding it as we speak. Mulvey’s bar is very high, but with Ani on board I’m expecting it to be set even higher.
And this weekend, my favorite married couple band Over the Rhine announced that they have three new albums in the hopper – a full band record, an instrumental piano album by the male half of the duo, and a collection of old hymns and spirituals. I’m jazzed about all three. The preorder is happening now, and we should start seeing the new albums this fall. Over the Rhine has been a constant musical companion for so many years now, and I’m beyond delighted at this chance to be part of the next stage of their journey.
If there’s anything Mulvey and Over the Rhine have in common (besides a keen eye for beauty and an affinity for poetic lyrics), it’s that they’re survivors. Mulvey started out in the early 1990s busking in the subway stations in Boston (known as the T by those who live there). Now here he is, more than 25 years later, working with Ani DiFranco and prepping his 14th album. Over the Rhine formed in 1989, and Linford Detwiler and Karin Bergquist are still making beautiful music together after nearly three decades. These are artists who believe in slow and steady, who believe in pushing themselves into new territories, who see the long arc of their career as the important thing.
Andrew McMahon is a survivor, and not only in the sense of having a long and varied career. In 2005 – on the eve of launching his second band, Jack’s Mannequin – McMahon was diagnosed with leukemia. He persevered, and wrote songs about it – the second Jack’s Mannequin album, the splendid The Glass Passenger, touches on his illness. And he’s still here, in remission, still writing songs, still making records. Three years ago he unveiled his solo project, Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness, with a self-titled album performed largely by himself in isolation. It’s my favorite of his records, embracing synth-pop and exposing his raw feelings about parenthood, love and life.
I wondered if there would be a second In the Wilderness album, or if McMahon would resign that name to one-off status. He’s answered that question with Zombies on Broadway, a much bigger, fuller and more impressive In the Wilderness record. In contrast to the debut, this one was crafted with a cast of musicians and programmers – it’s the poppiest thing McMahon has ever released, diving deep into danceable synth grooves yet retaining his I-wrote-this-on-piano pop sensibility. The latter quality hasn’t changed at all since his time with emo guitar-rockers Something Corporate, and has always been his biggest strength.
If you’re a fan of McMahon’s hook-filled writing, you won’t be disappointed with Zombies. The album was recorded in part in New York, McMahon’s former home from the Jack’s Mannequin days, and he references both the state and the illness he was diagnosed with there on clang-and-clatter opener “Brooklyn, You’re Killing Me.” McMahon speaks the rapid-fire verses, coming within inches of rap, and it works very well: “My heart is a troubled captain in poisoned television waters, I had this air-conditioned nightmare like that book you gave to me last summer…”
The hits keep coming and they never stop. “So Close” should be a worldwide smash, so irrepressible are its groove and its multiple hooks. (I notice with relish that it was co-written with the Click Five’s Ben Romans. My Click Five love continues!) “Don’t Speak for Me” and “Fire Escape” follow suit, McMahon’s bouncy keyboards underpinning some of his strongest melodies. “Shot Out of a Cannon” is a little wonder, its swaying beat dropping in out of nowhere, its chorus (and that little widdly keyboard thing that follows its chorus) unstoppable. And then there is “Walking in My Sleep,” one of McMahon’s very best. “I keep going back there to the crowded street where I could see you walking in my sleep,” he sings over an electro-pop powerhouse that will move your feet, whether you want it to or not.
Yeah, Zombies on Broadway is bigger, and it’s stacked with crowd-pleasers, but McMahon’s lyrics still pulse with the same charm they always have. This is an album of love songs right out of his diary, McMahon describing his love as his rock, his grounding influence, his reason for being. It’s an album about persevering, together. “Let’s hang an anchor from the sun, there’s a million city lights but you’re number one, you’re the reason I’m still up at dawn, just to see your face,” he sings on “Fire Escape,” and follows it up with this from “Shot Out of a Cannon”: “I’m defying gravity and you’re the drug that’s keeping me from landing, we could fall or we could fly or we could borrow wings, I’m tired of standing…” “Don’t Speak for Me” is the album’s only bitter tune, and it’s about looking for the love he seems to have found in nearly all the other songs.
Zombies ends with its two most heartfelt numbers, and I don’t think it’s any coincidence that they’re the only two he wrote alone. “Love and Great Buildings” is a classic pop-punk ballad performed on keyboards, an anthem to survivors: “Love and great buildings will survive, strong hearts and concrete stay alive, through great depressions the best things are designed to stand the test of time…” And “Birthday Song” is a miniature epic about unremarkable life, about getting up and going to work on the most average of weekdays. It’s lovely, a paean to everyday courage.
Zombies on Broadway has clearly been crafted to expand Andrew McMahon’s reach. It’s a big, bright pop record full of supernaturally catchy tunes, yet as grounded and real as anything he’s done. I wouldn’t mind at all if this album took him to new levels of popularity. He’s deserved it for ages, and here he’s delivered some of his strongest and best songs. Getting to make a record like this one takes everything you’ve learned along the way, and it’s why you persevere.
Ace Enders is a survivor too, and to my mind, an unlikely one. I’m constantly thrilled by the fact that he’s still making music, both on his own and with his longtime band, The Early November. TEN had their moment in the sun in the early 2000s, as one of many sound-alike emotional rock bands on Drive-Thru Records. But in 2006, Enders proved his ambition with a triple-disc concept album called The Mother, The Mechanic and the Path. He was only 24 at the time, and it definitely feels like a product of youthful exuberance and confidence. The band broke up shortly after.
But Enders has kept on keeping on. He’s made eight solo albums and counting, and in 2012 he reunited the Early November, and they’re still going strong. If you want to hear how strong, pick up Fifteen Years, their new acoustic record. It’s a victory lap, recasting songs from all four of the band’s albums in quieter, more grown-up settings. Enders shows off what a good singer he’s become here, and the subtle touches of electric guitar and percussion set a meditative mood.
The album begins with “Narrow Mouth,” from the most recent Early November album, 2015’s Imbue. But it isn’t long before the band is catapulting back through time, rewriting some of their loudest and rawest tunes as hushed lullabies. “Outside,” from the first disc of The Mother, sticks to the bouncy tempo of the original, but feels more melancholy, more moody. “The Mountain Range in My Living Room” hails from the band’s 2003 debut, and it’s both unrecognizable and immediately familiar.
And of course, Fifteen Years ends with “Ever So Sweet,” the signature song from their earliest days. Only a young man would write these lyrics (“Ever so sweet that you baked it in cakes for me, what you left behind, it hurts my teeth”), but the older man singing them does so with honesty and affection. “Ever So Sweet” was always acoustic, so this new rendering is the clearest comparison – the only difference is that Enders is now 34, and is looking back instead of forward. It’s a lovely reminder of where he’s been, as he keeps pushing forward to new places. Persevering.
Next week, Ryan Adams and a couple others. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.