All posts by Andre Salles

Pledging for Beauty
Robert Deeble and Sara Groves Deliver

This week I was going to talk about the avalanche of live albums and remasters and box sets that pummel your local record store at this time every year. It’s a topic I revisit seemingly every fall, and I never have anything new to say about it. The record companies like money, they want your money, so they offer lavish sets to commemorate records they know, through market research, that you will want to buy or give as gifts.

It’s really that simple, and yet each year I devote lots of words to these sets, many of which I buy just to buy. Last week, for instance, I picked up multi-disc remasters of Metallica’s Master of Puppets and R.E.M.’s phenomenal Automatic for the People. But there isn’t much I haven’t already said about these records. I could talk about the first time I heard them – Master at 14 as I was truly launching my teenage metalhead phase, Automatic my freshman year in college – and what they mean to me. That would certainly fill my quota for the week.

But I’m not listening to either one of them. I think it’s partially because I have them memoried. Master of Puppets is carved onto my soul – it’s possibly the best metal album ever made, dark and progressive and socially relevant. And Automatic for the People might be my favorite album from the Athens superstars, the culmination of their search for beauty in the ‘90s. (Have they ever written a prettier song than “Find the River”?) I love these records, and I’m very happy to have them in shiny new versions. But I’m not eager to listen to them right away.

Similarly, I’ve not really dug into the live albums I’ve picked up recently. Spock’s Beard reunited to perform all of Snow, their final album with Neal Morse, and I had to have it, and I’m sure it’s great. But it hasn’t captured my attention. Same with live documents from Pearl Jam, the Pineapple Thief and Kansas. I’m sure it will be the same for Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden and ELO, which I will buy this week. I’ll get to them, but I’m not in any hurry. The one that has inched up my list is A-Ha’s new unplugged effort, but it hasn’t broken through yet.

So what have I been listening to? Well, in addition to my Doctor Who audio stories (I’m years behind) and Chopin’s complete Nocturnes (a long story involving work), my attention has been consumed with a pair of albums I paid for months ago, but just received. I talk a lot about Kickstarter here, but it’s not the only crowdfunding platform bands and artists use, and I supported both of these new albums on PledgeMusic, which basically provides a storefront for a project and manages pre-orders. In concept, it’s similar to Kickstarter, and it offers the same service – it helps bring into the world works of art that may not see the light of day otherwise.

Many of the artists who use PledgeMusic are under the radar, connecting with a small-ish audience to create personal works that probably wouldn’t thrive in the mainstream, but that hit the spot for the people who pony up. Robert Deeble certainly fits that bill. I discovered Deeble at AudioFeed a couple years ago – he played a set on his own, and then one with Choir drummer Steve Hindalong. He’s an unconventional guitar player who writes in an ambient folk style – stripped back yet lush, sparse and airy yet as full as it needs to be. He’s been making records since the late ‘90s, but I jumped aboard with 2013’s delightful Heart Like Feathers.

Beloved is Deeble’s first album since then. A hundred forty-nine of us pledged to bring it to life, and it’s everything I hoped it would be. Beloved is a deeply intimate record, telling the story of his journey as a new father, first fostering his daughter and then fully adopting her. As you might guess, it’s a very pretty set of songs, led by Deeble’s whisper of a voice. It opens with a sweet arrangement of “You Are My Sunshine,” and moves in that vein from there. It’s 38 minutes of a father’s love, which he felt from the first moment he met her (as he details in “Coal Miner”), and it’s guaranteed to leave you with a warm glow.

Deeble enlisted a pretty large number of collaborators for this record, including singers and string players, but he’s retained that open, airy feel of his previous work. “Uncertain” and “Coal Miner” are bigger tunes, the latter ending with a singalong refrain of “it’s gonna be all right” that might be the most massive thing Deeble’s ever done. But still, this feels small and intimate, like reading his diary. The fragile lullaby “To Find You” details his reunion with his daughter after a year apart (she was in the care of her birth mother), determined to come to some arrangement that would protect this little girl he had come to love. “And I’ll take all I can get to give all I can for you,” he sings, and you know he means it.

“Even Now” crackles, even though the instruments in it are barely moving. Somehow the drums on Deeble’s records tend to snap in a way few others I’ve heard manage, especially when the rest of the instrumentation is so subtle. It’s a song of sorrow, but as he says, sorrow that bonded him and his wife together with his daughter’s birth parents, so there is hope.

The final few songs of Beloved are guaranteed to move you. The title track relates the night he and his wife picked up their daughter and drove home as a family for the first time: “And we’ve cried, and we’ve cried for such a long time, and it feels like for the first time it’s going to be all right…” “Sleep” is truly lovely – you can imagine him rocking his baby girl back and forth as you listen – and the closing coda uses her actual voice, singing “doo doo doo” along with a fun beat. It’s the perfect, sorta goofy but totally heartfelt way to end.

Without AudioFeed, I don’t know that I would ever have found Robert Deeble. Without PledgeMusic, I don’t know if Beloved would have been made. My musical life would have been poorer for it. I’m enamored with this little record, this love letter in song. In a world that makes me want to hang my head daily, it’s a joy to have something this precious, this full of heart. Beloved makes me want to keep going. I’m glad it exists. You can check it out at Robert’s Bandcamp page.

Sara Groves is more well-known than Deeble is, but her new record is similarly personal. Groves has made her home in the Christian marketplace, but has always been more thoughtful and artful than most of her contemporaries. She tells stories of life through the prism of faith, admitting that sometimes life is harder than she knows how to deal with, and it is that faith that gets her through. Two years ago she made a great record called Floodplain that dealt with depression and day-to-day hardship with poetry and grace.

In some ways, it’s a bit of a shame that her new album, Abide with Me, is entirely arrangements of old hymns, but only in that I always want to hear more Sara Groves songs. There is no doubt, listening to it, that these songs mean so much to Groves. As an artist, she always makes me feel what she feels, even if I don’t always believe what she believes. That’s all I ask of anyone. These songs, she says, were with her during the hard times that informed Floodplain, and as a companion piece, it’s a beautiful thing.

And I love old hymns. Some of the most beautiful melodies ever composed were written in the service of prayer and worship. I grew up in a church that sang nothing but these often centuries-old pieces, and I always respond to them. I knew about half of the songs on Abide with Me, and grew up singing several of them. This album was recorded in a church in Minnesota that Groves and her husband have adapted into a performance venue and community center (the original building is on the cover), and just as they updated the space with reverence, they do the same for the songs.

The arrangements here are breathtakingly beautiful. Groves has, without fail, chosen songs of comfort here, songs that believers hold close in their darkest hours. The instrumentation is similarly comforting – pianos, guitars, some subtle embellishments, extremely subtle percussion. She sings these songs like an angel, but more than that, like someone who holds them dear. I mentioned in my Derek Webb review that the music I tend to respond to most is about the ways we connect with whatever is beyond us. Abide with Me is, at its core, about how Groves connects with the divine, and is drawn closer to it.

I’ll probably have a tough time mentioning highlights, because I love it all so much. “What a Friend” is a song I used to sing in church, but I’ve never felt anything like I feel for it now, in Groves’ hands. The brief “Song of Blessing” is glorious, as is the title song. I love what she’s done with “To the Dawn,” a re-working of “There’s a Light Upon the Mountains.” “And the hearts of man are stirring,” she sings, and stirs mine.

But I will make special mention of the closing song, “He’s Always Been Faithful,” because it’s my favorite. Oddly enough, it’s the only original song here – it first appeared on Groves’ album Conversations, from 2001. Performed just on piano, with a smattering of upright bass and clarinet, it’s a song about God being with us in our pain, in our sorrow, on our worst days. Songs like this have always, always gotten to me, particularly if they’re so clearly personal and honest, and Groves, as she always does, makes me feel what she feels. I like that she added one of her own songs to this, and that it fits right in. Hymns are being written all the time, as people work through and wrestle with their connection with the infinite.

I’m still working through and wrestling with mine, and music has been one of the most helpful ways I do that. Sara Groves has been with me through much of that journey, and her authenticity and genuine artistry has been deeply valuable. Abide with Me is a record of solace in a world of turmoil, and even though its songs are hundreds of years old, documenting hundreds of years of man’s yearning for comfort from above, they feel brand new in the hands of Sara Groves. I can’t stop listening to this. Once again, I am glad it exists.

Next week, who knows. Be here and find out. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

The Year Goes Down
A January Album Lights a Dark Winter

Dudley Simpson died on Saturday at the age of 95.

I’m sure most of you reading this right now have no idea who I’m talking about, but the music of Dudley Simpson has been imprinted on my life since I was six years old. As the resident composer for Doctor Who throughout the ‘70s, Simpson created the music that accompanied pretty much all of my favorite Tom Baker stories.

Music has always been a gateway to my soul, and it’s usually what I remember first about any film or television show. I know this has always been the case, because I vividly remember watching The Brain of Morbius and The Deadly Assassin and The Robots of Death and the whole Key to Time season when I was young, and I can still remember the music that goes along with those stories. Simpson’s orchestral scores were oddly reassuring at times, brighter than the stories they accompanied, but they still scared me as a kid. Tom Baker-era Doctor Who to me is splashy horns and lumbering percussion and, of course, that incredible walking-around-Paris theme from City of Death.

Of course, he did a lot more than just score Doctor Who in his long life. His list of television credits is enormous. But I hope he forgives me for remembering him most fondly for helping to open the door of imagination for a wide-eyed kid entranced by his work on his favorite goofy sci-fi show. Thanks, Dudley, for everything. Rest in peace.

* * * * *

I’m coming around to the sad realization that the new U2 album is going to suck.

We’ve heard three songs now, and of them, only “The Blackout” moves with any conviction. “You’re the Best Thing About Me” is embarrassing, and it sounds like they just went with Bono’s first draft of the lyrics, too: “The best thing to ever happen a boy” isn’t even English. And now they’ve given us “Get Out of Your Own Way,” a sappy, repetitive bore-fest that proves that they can’t even take their own advice.

This is disheartening, since I loved (LOVED) Songs of Innocence. Its counterpart, Songs of Experience, was one of the few records I was holding out hope for in the waning months of this year, but it sounds like it’s going to be dismal. That leaves the new Dear Hunter EP, All Is as All Should Be, as the main bright light for the rest of the year, and because it’s an EP, it’s ineligible for my top 10 list. I feel like I could write up that list right now and nothing coming out over the next seven weeks will change it.

That’s not to say that music hasn’t been or won’t be coming out regularly. It sure will. My big score this week was the first album by Lost Horizons, the new project of Cocteau Twin Simon Raymonde. It features vocals by the likes of Karen Peris (of the Innocence Mission), Marissa Nadler and Tim Smith (of Midlake), and it’s sweet and pretty and full of atmosphere and I just don’t have much to say about it. I also bought the new Blitzen Trapper and the new Lunatic Soul, but haven’t found time or ambition to listen to them.

‘Tis the season for live albums and box sets, too, and I’ll certainly be talking about a few of them next week, including the anniversary reissue of R.E.M.’s Automatic for the People. For new records in November, though, we have Quicksand and the Corrs and Four Tet and, um… Thankfully Bjork just announced her new one, Utoipa, for Nov. 24 or it would be a vast wasteland. (I welcome your suggestions for upcoming records I’ve missed. And don’t say Barenaked Ladies, because everything I’ve heard from that one has been miserable.)

Luckily, I do have something that has been capturing my musical attention this week. It’s new, as in it came out this year, but it’s not new in that it hit in January and I completely missed it. I don’t know how, but it fell through the cracks for me. I absolutely love Brian Transeau, better known as BT, and yet somehow he gave us a 92-minute record of glorious ambience and I completely spaced on it.

I have it now, though, and it’s magnificent. Transeau has charted a unique path through the world of electronic music, moving from the danceable trance of his first releases to an intricate, skittering hybrid of EDM and pop on the still-great Emotional Technology. From there he’s jumped from the soundscapes of This Binary Universe to the quiet atmospheres of If the Stars Are Eternal Then So Are You and I to the explosive guitar-driven pop of These Hopeful Machines to the all-out dance party of A Song Across Wires. Each album feels extraordinarily involved – each one clearly took years of work hunched over a console, editing sounds and sections – and yet each feels deeply emotional at the same time.

That certainly applies to his untitled new monstrosity. I say untitled – it officially has no title, but many streaming services don’t allow untitled albums, so he’s given it the unofficial designation _. That’s right, the underscore symbol. The lack of title adds to the air of mystery around this thing, which apparently shipped in a limited edition box with a USB stick containing all nine songs with nine corresponding videos. I will never get this box, and that’s OK. I’ve downloaded the album (yes, I paid for air) and that’s enough.

It’s more than enough, actually, because _ is massive. It’s a lot to absorb on first (or even tenth) listen. This is an instrumental electronic album, one more concerned with setting moods and feelings than entrancing with melodies. In a lot of ways, it’s similar to This Binary Universe – long soundscapes give way to stuttering beats that feel like taking off in fog and floating over technicolor vistas below. It has an interesting structure – four short songs, three multi-part suites and two long pieces – but it all works as a whole, and leaves you feeling like you’ve been somewhere special.

The three suites are the centerpiece of this record, and each flows so seamlessly that you’d be forgiven for thinking they’re not subdivided at all. They’re intricate, clockwork things, particularly “Omega,” the final one – it shifts restlessly for its first five minutes, then settles into a gorgeous and subtle groove. “Artifacture” develops its individual pieces more thoroughly, but again gives us the most complete bit last, a morphing synthetic cloud that drifts up and up. The final two tracks make up the last half-hour of the album, and they are among the most beautiful 3-D ambient music BT has made. “Chromatophore” ends with whole minutes of rain sounds, and “Five Hundred and Eighty Two” is based on tightly controlled feedback that feels otherworldly. It’s so easy to get lost in this.

I’m not sure how I missed _ when it first came out, but I’m overjoyed to have it now. I’ll take anything from BT, but my favorite things in his catalog are these deeply felt instrumental records, and _ may well be the best one. I won’t be able to adequately describe the experience of listening to it, but I recommend it highly. Once again he has spun magic, bottled it and delivered it as music.

Next week, probably some of those box sets and live records I’ve been picking up lately. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Look Around, Leaves Are Brown
From Summer to Winter with Weezer and Julien Baker

Today is Halloween, and the weather is appropriately cold and grey.

There are hints of rain, and enough of a chill in the air that stepping outside without a coat is a guaranteed one-way ticket to sniffleville. Two weeks ago the weather was scorching – between 90 and 100 degrees, sun beating down oppressively, making the case for climate change all by itself. But now it’s the dead of winter, weather that could justifiably be called miserable.

We didn’t get an autumn this year, is what I’m saying. We jumped straight from a summer that lasted through mid-October into a shivery winter, its icy tendrils already prophesying the coming snow. (In fact, some reports say we’re getting snow next week.) It’s been a shock to the system, and I know I’m not alone in feeling cheated. I grew up in New England, where fall lasts two months or so. Two months of lovely red and yellow and brown leaves decorating the trees, of pumpkin patches and apple cider. It may be my favorite season, and we’ve been robbed of it.

If we’d been granted an autumn, Weezer’s new album might not seem so strange. But it is into this frigid wasteland of an early winter that Rivers Cuomo has seen fit to release Pacific Daydream, the band’s twelfth album (if you count Death to False Metal, which I certainly do). As you can probably tell from the title, this record takes the summery vibe of last year’s White Album even further. This is 30 minutes of cruising-with-the-top-down pop, more appropriate for palm trees and beach parties than the scarf-and-mittens weather into which it’s been dropped.

Let’s be real, though: this doesn’t even crack the top ten weirdest choices Weezer has made. I love that we’re 23 years into their career and they remain not only prolific, but unpredictable. For Pacific Daydream the band worked with Butch Walker, who also produced their silly yet wonderful Raditude. The tone here is not dissimilar – if you’re one of those people who remains emotionally invested in Pinkerton and hates it when Cuomo lets his ridiculous pop instincts take center stage, well, sorry. You’re gonna hate this.

I love it. Weezer’s been on a hot streak for a while with me, and Pacific Daydream is their third album in a row that I would rank among my favorites. It’s glossier than the White Album, more intricately produced, more crafted for immediate pleasure. The lyrics are all effervescent and lighter than air. The first song, “Mexican Fender,” hangs on the line “my summer love, oo-ee-oo,” and the third song is called “Feels Like Summer.” It is exactly the kind of record you think it is. It goes down smooth and easy, and is only interested in making you feel good for half an hour.

Which sounds like something I’d hate, but for the fact that Cuomo is so very, very good at this kind of thing. These songs are so hummable, so delightful that I can’t help singing along, and even doing little dances. Cuomo’s ode to the “Beach Boys” is a lovely thing, incorporating some Wilson-esque harmonies. “Turn it up, it’s the Beach Boys, singing out in a sweet voice…” “Weekend Woman” is a sweet tale of love with “no time for poetry” but plenty of time for a wonderful bridge, and “Happy Hour” is encouraging and sweet: “I need happy hour on sad days.” The band is typically anonymous, disappearing behind these bite-sized morsels, playing exactly what Cuomo’s tunes need.

Sure, if you grew up with “The Sweater Song” and “Tired of Sex,” these tunes might seem lightweight. But they’re lightweight on purpose, and beautifully so. I would love it if Brian Wilson’s modern music sounded this much like Brian Wilson at his best – I can totally see his band killing “QB Blitz,” a harmony-drenched bit of sun-dappled yearning, and “Sweet Mary” takes on that Jeff Lynne quality. I just love these classic pop songs, and I love what Weezer and Walker have done with them. Pacific Daydream is another little winner, and a fun reminder of the summer we just bid farewell.

But there’s no denying that the blissful feel of Pacific Daydream doesn’t match the world outside our window. The sudden winter is a much more appropriate backdrop for Turn Out the Lights, the second album by songwriter Julien Baker. This 22-year-old is everywhere right now, playing her desperately sad songs on CBS Sunday Morning and A Prairie Home Companion. They fit the lonely chill of nights to come perfectly – in fact, they might be too sad to listen to alone.

Baker seemingly appeared out of nowhere two years ago, releasing one of the most critically acclaimed albums I can remember, Sprained Ankle. Containing literally nothing but Baker’s guitar and voice, the record ached like a living thing, laying bare its author’s pain and promise. Turn Out the Lights, blessedly, is almost the same – the jump to Matador Records has only resulted in a slightly wider palette, a slightly more ambitious scope. The new songs are just as devastating, and perhaps more, since they crescendo more effectively, ebb and flow more convincingly.

Baker is only 22, which seems impossible, given the depth of feeling in every minute of this album. Its opening piano and strings quickly give way to her signature electric guitar and her forlorn, aching voice on “Appointments,” and within moments, you’re wrapped up in Baker’s spell. It’s almost oppressive – for 40 minutes, no light gets in, no joy. “Maybe it’s all gonna turn out all right, and I know that it’s not, but I have to believe that it is,” she sings, a sentiment that sets the tone for the record.

But it’s amazing that someone so young can weave a spell this effective, and sustain it. Her lyrics will resonate with anyone battling loneliness and trying to quiet the voice that tells them they’re no good, not worth it. The title track brings that battle to the fore: “I’d never do it, but it’s not a joke, I can’t tell the difference when I’m all alone… when I turn out the lights, there’s no one left between myself and me.” Her passionate shouts come from the depths of her soul.

Baker has said that while some of Turn Out the Lights is autobiographical, some of it relates the stories of people she knows. “Sour Breath” takes on mental illness and how difficult it is to remain afloat: “The harder I swim the faster I sink,” she repeats. Several songs, like “Televangelist,” find her playing piano, but not sacrificing an ounce of emotion to do so. “Televangelist” is one of several songs to address Baker’s complex thoughts about religion and guilt: “Am I a masochist, screaming televangelist clutching my crucifix of white noise and static, all my prayers are apologies, hold out a flare until you come for me…”

The stunning “Everything to Help You Sleep” opens up that box even more, Baker singing about the Holy Ghost speaking in Morse code and blaming herself for God’s silence: “If I scream a little louder I know you would have heard.” The chorus is amazing: “Lord, Lord, Lord is there some way to make it stop, nothing that I do has ever helped to turn it off, and everything supposed to help me sleep at night doesn’t help me sleep at night anymore…” She dreams of rewiring her brain and wonders if God made a mistake on “Happy to Be Here,” and when she sings “I heard there’s a fix for everything, then why not me,” it breaks my heart.

But the album doesn’t kill me until “Hurt Less,” my vote for the best song Baker has yet written. It’s the one song on which she makes progress – she begins by singing about why she doesn’t wear seatbelts: she hopes to feel her body and soul float through the air after crashing through the windshield. And then she finds someone to talk to, someone to share with, and goddamn, I cry each time she gets to the concluding verse: “This year I started wearing safety belts when I’m driving, because when I’m with you I don’t have to think about myself, and it hurts less…” (And just when your heart can’t hold anymore, the strings. The strings!)

No other record so far this year hurts like this one hurts, and that emotional connection is Baker’s greatest strength. As I mentioned, she’s only 22, so she’ll only get better – her songs have a sameness to them that I hope she’ll outgrow. But when it comes to capturing true feeling, few do it as well as she does. As someone who has lived with depression for his entire life, a song like “Claws in Your Back” gets it down on tape with surprising accuracy, and heart-rending candor. Turn Out the Lights is a tough listen, and a powerful one, and a necessary one. In sharing her darkest hours, she helps us talk about ours, and that’s an incredible gift. I’m in awe of the way she uses it here, and how from the depths of winter she assures us that summer is possible.

That’s it for this week. Next week, who knows? Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Where’s Our Rocket Packs?
Scandroid Makes a Return Trip to the '80s

We lost Gord Downie this week.

I can’t pretend to be the greatest fan of the Tragically Hip. I first heard them in college, intrigued by a poster for their third album, Fully Completely. I bought Day for Night and Trouble at the Henhouse and Phantom Power and enjoyed them all, but didn’t carry them in my heart the way so many other people did. I found out only years later how legendary the band was in their native Canada, and how revered Downie was in his home country.

And to be fair, he’s revered here, by many, many people. When he announced in May of last year that he had been diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor, the outpouring of support and love was extraordinary. The band’s farewell tour and final show were events, even bringing out Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, himself a devoted fan of the Hip. It was something to see.

Downie kept working straight to the end. His final album, a double-CD song cycle called Introduce Yerself, will be released this week. Sadly, Downie did not live to see it. He died last Tuesday at age 53. If you want some idea of how important his passing was to Canadians, consider this: Prime Minister Trudeau issued a statement eulogizing him. “When he spoke, he gave us goosebumps and made us proud to be Canadian,” it reads, in part. “Our identity and culture are richer because of his music, which was always raw and honest – like Gord himself.”

Rest in peace, Gord.

* * * * *

Stranger Things is back this weekend, and I am absurdly excited.

If you somehow missed Netflix’s runaway hit last year, just know that it’s a perfect pastiche of Stephen King and ‘80s movies, like if The Goonies were about not only a plucky band of kids but also about a telekinetic teenager who could kill at a moment’s notice. It’s a perfect nostalgic cocktail – it isn’t particularly deep, but it is a lot of fun, and decidedly creepy in all the right places. I’m very much looking forward to the second season, which lands on Friday.

One element that sets Stranger Things apart is its music. In addition to a bevy of ‘80s hits, the score is crafted by members of the band S U R V I V E, who create synthwave instrumentals on vintage instruments. Their work is a little bit Vangelis, a little bit Wendy Carlos, and all neon-dappled dispatches from the Me Decade. It’s exactly right for a slice of Spielbergian cinema like Stranger Things.

Now, one might think it cynical to note that multi-talented musician Klayton scheduled his second album as Scandroid, his ‘80s-inspired synthwave project, to land one week before Stranger Things 2. But I don’t think it is. Klayton’s a shrewd marketer, and he knows people will be in the mood this weekend for what Scandroid has to offer. He couldn’t have timed it better, actually.

Who the hell is Klayton and what the hell is Scandroid, you ask? Klayton is the mastermind behind the electro-rock-metal-whatever project Celldweller, the industrial metal outfit Circle of Dust, the synth-driven soundscape machine FreqGen, and Scandroid, his love letter to the retro-futurism of the 1980s. Klayton has been producing his own work for his own label FiXT since 1999, and lately has been releasing two or three albums under various names each year.

You’d think, given the rate of his output, that he would start to suck, but he hasn’t yet. Monochrome, the new Scandroid album, is his third new thing of the year, including the Scandroid remix album and the surprisingly gentle new Celldweller, Offworld. It’s clear, though, that a lot of his work this year has gone into Monochrome. Like its predecessor, it’s a perfect recreation of that 1980s sound, from the drum fills to the blipping bass lines to the vocal effects. And like its predecessor, it’s more than a pastiche. It’s clearly a labor of love, a sincere valentine to a sound he grew up with and still cherishes.

There’s a lot to love about Monochrome, from the songs that were released early (the great “A Thousand Years,” “Afterglow,” “Rendezvous”) to the deep cuts (the title track, the epic “The Veil”). Throughout, Klayton keeps that vintage sound fresh, and if you enjoyed the first Scandroid album, there isn’t a lot that would keep you from loving this one.

But there are a few things, mainly the disjointed nature of the whole thing. Start with the fact that there are four instrumentals and a remix padding out the runtime. Then consider the two covers – one of the instrumentals is a re-working of John Williams’ “The Force Theme” from Star Wars, which really feels out of place here, and the other is a full-on dive into Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” that somehow manages to be audacious without quite going far enough. That leaves only six new Scandroid songs with vocals, not counting the intro “2518.”

The effect is a pretty bumpy ride, as an album. Where the first Scandroid album flowed beautifully, even incorporating a cover of Tears for Fears’ “Shout” into its mix, this one feels like Klayton had enough tracks on his hard drive to fill an album and just shoved them all onto the same CD. On a song-by-song basis, these are all pretty cool tracks – the instrumental “Oblivia” works in a very ‘80s sax sound and still manages to be expansive, “On the Face of the Deep” is similarly widescreen, and while I don’t think it belongs, I enjoy “The Force Theme” more than I expected to.

This is an album that raises the question of whether albums are meant to be complete journeys or a series of individual tracks on a disc. I’m always a fan of the former, but even with its cohesion problems, Monochrome is an enjoyable second effort from a project I remain excited about. I’m down for anything Klayton wants to do, and he hasn’t disappointed me yet. It might be time to slow down a little, though, and work on creating something that holds up as a complete journey next time out. I’m happy to hear as much music as Klayton wants to throw at me, but some more gestation time could have transformed Monochrome from an enjoyable hodgepodge to a fully formed statement.

* * * * *

Gonna call it early this week. Next week, Weezer and Julien Baker, and maybe one or two others. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Sensational Shape Shifters
Beck, Clark, Plant and the Value of Constant Change

I confess that it took me a while to get Beck.

If you were alive in 1994, you could not possibly have escaped “Loser,” Beck’s signature hit. A bluesy acoustic shuffle over electronic boom-boom drums with lyrics in Spanish and a lackadaisical half-rap vocal style, “Loser” was like nothing else. It was like a weird novelty record from the future. It was also the only song like it on Mellow Gold, which remains one of the strangest major-label debuts in history.

I heard Mellow Gold a couple times, then filed it away, expecting it would be the last I would hear of Beck. Maybe, I thought, he’d eke out a couple more bizarre records, but no one would pay any attention to them. Happily, he’s gone on to surprise me (and everyone else) again and again. No one expected the sophisticated cut-and-paste pop chemistry of Odelay, nor the gentle Mutations, nor the Prince-tastic joke-a-thon Midnite Vultures, nor the beautiful and ethereal Sea Change. For the next 20-some years, Beck became one of our most nimble sonic chameleons, to the point where you never quite knew where he was going to land next.

Three years ago, Beck dropped Morning Phase, a spiritual sequel to Sea Change that found him treading old ground for the first time. That’s not to say that the album wasn’t wonderful, because it was. But where the erstwhile Mr. Hansen used to pull the rug out with each new record, now we find ourselves switching between two modes: Somber Beck and Party Beck. This isn’t necessarily a complaint, since both modes have produced great work. It’s just more predictable.

Colors, Beck’s newly released 13th album, is Party Beck, which isn’t a surprise. But if he were that boring, this would be the end of the review. The truth is, Colors is great, well worth the three-year wait. It’s the most low-key and mature record Party Beck has made – he’s 47 years old now, too much of a grown-up for the jump-cut hysteria of Odelay. With one glaring exception, Colors is straight-ahead melodic bliss, the work of a confident elder statesman who still likes to dance.

For this record, Beck worked mainly with Greg Kurstin, whose stock in trade is this flavor of pop – sweet and melody-driven, but far from the realm of your Taylor Swifts and Justin Biebers. These songs are classic pop, simple and driving and hummable, and all dressed up in their finest clothes. There’s a hint of Beck’s ‘90s roots on “I’m So Free,” and a nice nod to the happier end of Elliott Smith’s oeuvre on “Dear Life.” “No Distraction” sounds like a lost Police hit from 1983 with a dance-floor update.

There’s a danger that Beck’s electro-dance-pop will not age as well as he does, and Colors should put that to rest. It all feels graceful and agile, never dipping into embarrassment. Well, except once – the pre-release single, “Wow,” which doesn’t fit this album at all. Reportedly included on Colors because of label pressure, “Wow” is everything the rest of the album isn’t: a labored attempt to be modern that flails desperately and falls flat. Luckily, it’s followed by “Up All Night,” one of the most delightful slices of fun here, so it’s a memory soon forgotten. But it shouldn’t be here at all.

Nine out of ten is a pretty good average, though, and Colors is mostly dynamite. While it’s not as whiplash-inducing as some of his previous shifts, it does stake out its own territory in his catalog – he’s never quite brought his party mode and his melodic instincts together as well as this. And if you listen to this and, say, The Information back to back, you’ll be surprised at how far he’s come, and how different this is. I’m quite pleased with this record, and if Party Beck wants to continue in this vein, I’m all for it. But knowing him, I’m sure another tonal shift is around the corner.

* * * * *

Speaking of shapeshifters, here’s Annie Clark, better known as St. Vincent. And it’s probably about time that I admit something pretty weird.

While I think Clark is terrifically talented, and I have enjoyed every St. Vincent album, I honestly can’t remember them. I’m looking now at the track listings for Marry Me and Actor and Strange Mercy, albums I swear I heard and enjoy, and I can’t recall a note from any of them. It’s hard for me to think of this as Clark’s fault – she’s a mix of Kate Bush and Prince, a multi-instrumentalist with a flair for the dramatic and a coy sensuality, all things I enjoy. But man, I can’t even remember how “Cheerleader” goes, and I know people who have covered it.

So it’s a good thing that I’m re-listening to her fifth album, Masseduction, as I write this. The album even looks like a departure – the cover is a view of Clark’s backside, lit in red, the most sexualized image she has used. The record is her most mainstream-sounding, full of electronic beats and synthesized noises, and I’m inclined to credit her collaboration with Jack Antonoff (one half of fun. and the sole member of Bleachers) with this shift, but mostly I think it’s just Clark trying on new tones like new outfits, as she always has.

It’s a lot to take initially, though. The title track finds her purring “I can’t turn off what turns me on,” in a tone both sexy and menacing. “Sugarboy” is a blippy synth nightmare on overdrive with freaky shouted gang vocals and an interlude that sounds like a video game. “Los Ageless” is a pretty simple pop song dressed up in a stomping beat and a squirrely electro bass sound that gets more abrasive as it goes, and it ends with a spoken word coda. “Savior” is a strange detour into fetish-land, and it leads into “New York,” a genuinely pretty tune with the hook line “you’re the only motherfucker in the city who can stand me.” “Fear the Future” is a jittery, skittering thing with a big Tori Amos-style chorus.

It’s a lot to process, and I’m normally excited by records that throw this much at me. Weirdly, though, Masseduction glides right by me, leaving no lasting mark. It’s good – in fact, the closer, “Smoking Section,” flirts with brilliance – and I admire Clark for being this individualistic, for creating albums that could come from no one else. I like it while it’s playing, much like I have enjoyed all of her work while I’m listening to it. But I can already tell it isn’t going to stick with me, no matter how many times I listen. I’m not sure why that is, but it’s probably not Masseduction’s fault. Take that as you will.

* * * * *

Finally, we have the legendary Robert Plant, who definitely qualifies as a shape shifter, and whose current band is called the Sensational Space Shifters.

Plant is 69 years old now, and what a career he’s carved out for himself. His decade fronting Led Zeppelin guaranteed him the freedom to do whatever he wanted from then on, and he’s used that freedom to explore every kind of music he can grace with that velvet voice. From his brief stint with the Honeydrippers to his electro-metal Now and Zen period to his subtle and beautiful work with Strange Sensation to his career-highlight collaboration with Alison Krauss, Plant has done everything imaginable.

So what’s left? His 11th solo album, Carry Fire, is his second with the Space Shifters, and it finds him harnessing this spectacular band to create the most beautiful music he can. Over time Plant’s voice has weathered and aged into a creaky yet wizened thing – he’s still capable of hitting those higher notes and belting it out when he chooses to, but these days he’s more interested in whispering to us, in singing with restraint and reserve. He knows he has nothing more to prove.

To that end, quite a lot of Carry Fire stands with the prettiest work he’s done. “Season’s Song” is a gentle acoustic hymn that builds in intensity, sung with an airy grace. “Dance with You Tonight” takes its rolling rhythm and sculpts it into a gorgeous bit of sunlight. “A Way With Words” is almost too intimate, the microphone picking up every breathy sound from Plant’s mouth, but it works with the sparse, swaying music. Even an uptempo piece like opener “The May Queen” concentrates on being as beautiful as possible.

All of this is not to say that the Space Shifters don’t crank up the amps here and there. “New World” and “Bones of Saints” are stompers, while “Carving Up the World Again… A Wall and Not a Fence” is a bluesy state of the union address that kicks. And the title track is a stunning bit of Middle Eastern dance music. Plant has assembled one of his very best bands, and they knock it out of the park again and again here.

If there’s anyone who doesn’t need to keep creating new music, it’s Robert Plant. He doesn’t need the money, and he’s already immortal. But I’m beyond glad that he does. Each new album is an exploration of tone, mood and style unlike any Plant has made before. After nearly 50 years as a recording artist, Plant is still charting new territory, taking that voice new places. It’s more than we deserve.

* * * * *

That’s it for this week. Next week, probably Scandroid. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Staring Into the Void with Fingers Crossed
Derek Webb's searing, powerful, painful new record

I’ve recently started going to church again, after a 25-year absence.

The reasons are many and varied, but they come down to the fact that I have finally found a church where I feel at home. Churches, in my experience, can be toxic places, full of judgment and exclusion and moral superiority. If I’m going to go to church, that church needs to be a place where I can have as many doubts and as much disbelief as I have, without feeling like that leaves me on the outside. Or even that there is an outside – church should be welcoming to everyone who wants to be there, I think, wherever they are on whatever journey they’re on.

I grew up in a church, but as I got older, I realized I had more questions than the church had answers for me, and I moved away from it. Faith has never come easy for me, and being around people who seem to breeze through it makes it even more difficult. I’ve never really left it alone during that time – or, as Steve Hindalong would say, somebody out there won’t leave me alone, which is more accurate. But for a quarter-century, really the only thing faith-related that I kept up with was the music.

If you’ve been reading this column for any length of time, you know I love a lot of music that falls under the Christian banner. The truth is, I have always been interested in any art that honestly responds to the infinite. Call it God, call it the Force, whatever. The art that moves me most is the art that discusses our relationship to whatever it is that is beyond us, and to my mind, all responses are valid. This includes anger and fear and bewilderment and rejection, as well as faith and love. It’s a messy, complicated thing, and I’m always on board for honest, emotional outpourings to the heavens.

So that’s how I know who Derek Webb is. He’s been on my radar for nearly two decades, first as one half of Caedmon’s Call and then as a solo artist. If Webb is known for anything, it’s for being a provocateur – his work points fingers in a lot of directions, including back at himself, and has been staunchly Christian in nature, yet still piercingly honest. The first Webb song I fell in love with was “Wedding Dress,” on his 2003 solo debut She Must and Shall Go Free. It’s a powerful examination of his tendency to parade his own righteousness around: “I am a whore, I do confess, put you on just like a wedding dress and I run down the aisle…”

Webb has never been your average songwriter. He’s wrestled with the implications of faith for his whole career, perhaps most pointedly on 2009’s Stockholm Syndrome, a difficult yet danceable deconstruction of both church and state. That one caused some controversy – Christian audiences don’t tend to like it when you take them uncomfortable places, and Stockholm Syndrome was partially about confronting the church’s homophobia and racism head-on. It’s a great little record, but a prickly one.

So the church was primed and ready to throw stones at Webb as soon as he stumbled, and he sure did. He was caught in an affair that led to the very public end of his marriage to fellow songwriter Sandra McCracken, and in the ensuing years, he’s lost that sure-fire faith he held on to throughout his career. Webb calls his new album, Fingers Crossed, a tale of two divorces – from his wife and from God and the church. It’s his first in four years, following the more traditionally church-y I Was Wrong, I’m Sorry and I Love You, and it’s clear that these four years have been the most painful of his life.

And because he is Derek Webb, he has examined these years with the same soul-baring honesty he has brought to everything he’s done. Even if I had not started orbiting the church world again, Fingers Crossed would be a difficult and powerful listen. Every time I spin it, it lays me low. It hurts. It’s meant to hurt. To be truthful, I’m not done processing this record, and I don’t know if I ever will be. This is a record about feeling abandoned by people, about making a terrible mistake and watching as the ones who said they would stand by you left you alone in it. Worse, this is a record about feeling abandoned by God, about the incredibly empty feeling of losing faith.

He addresses the people right up front, on the striking opener “Stop Listening.” Over what will become the framework for this album – gently picked acoustic guitars atop uncomfortable, off-kilter electronic percussion – Webb exhorts those who are grieving his separation from the faith to either come at this work with an open mind, or tune out: “If you stop listening now, we can still be friends, if your eyes can see what’s killing me, I’ll need you by the end, but I’ll understand if you stop listening…” He takes on the voices of the church in the second verse: “We’re with you all the way, no matter what the cost, I mean unless you climb down from the cross…”

For those who keep listening, Webb lays himself bare. The most gut-wrenching moments of the album paint him as a wretched, lonely soul, drinking alone and crying out in anguish, yearning for his lost love and his lost faith, hoping to repair his severed connections, but not sure how. “A Tempest in a Teacup” is a searing portrait of deconstruction, of a man with nothing left: “Something deep down in my heart, something that made me who I was, invisible, I guess it just didn’t pan out, I guess it’s just another heart I broke, another dream I woke up…”

I can barely listen to “Love is Not a Choice,” a song in which Webb admits that he sometimes wakes up and doesn’t remember where his wife and children have gone. “I’ve chosen not to love you anymore,” he sings, but he knows that he has no control over it. “And deep down the only one you want is the one who you betray, the one you can’t have, who’ll never take you back, who you think you never loved and who never loved you too, sometimes you need the lie to be the truth…” (This is absolutely a one-sided record, by the way, and I do wonder how McCracken feels hearing these songs.)

Similarly, “I Will” is devastating: “Oh God, take us back to the place where this all began, where I’m holding her hand with no shame and no damn regret…” Webb’s albums have been one-man shows for some time now, but he’s never sounded this alone before.

The heartbreak of divorce is one thing, but when he digs down into his feelings of abandonment about God, it’s quite another. He can point to his mistake in his marriage, but in song after song on Fingers Crossed, Webb doesn’t know what he’s done to make God fall silent. “Easter Eggs” is the most elegant metaphor for the unsolvable mystery of God I’ve heard in a long time, portraying God as the Easter Bunny: “When our backs are turned, he sneaks around, hides the sweetest things for us… but us kids have a thought that mom’s been making it up, so our hearts won’t break like Easter eggs…”

It’s the bridge of that song that really gets me, though: “Either this is what you wanted, or I’m not praying hard enough, in either case you can’t be trusted, so I think I’m giving up…” I would have to raise my hand and say that I’ve felt like this so many times. The mysteries remain mysteries, and I can’t possibly pray hard enough to untangle them. God stays hidden. The album’s title track finds Webb staring down infinity with the newfound thought that perhaps there is nothing to save him: “What if there’s no sin, there’s no cross, there’s no them, there is no us, there’s just you and what you do, and how you pay for what you choose…”

The song guaranteed to attract the most attention here is “The Spirit Bears the Curse,” which masquerades as an expert troll job but is actually a soul-crushing admission. It’s a worship song, with the exact cadence and language of modern church music, all early Coldplay and water metaphors: “We raise our voice, we raise an offering, would you come near and quench our thirst…” The twist, though, is that this song is about alcohol, and it plays like a joke: “I am calling out the only name that delivers me from my guilt and shame, oh alcohol…” But on repeated listens, it’s obviously heartfelt, the work of a man who used to find fulfillment in one place, and is now finding it in another. Alcohol does for him now what God used to.

For a certain segment of Webb’s audience, that’s going to be a very hard admission to deal with. I said this when I reviewed Webb’s set at AudioFeed this year: those are the people who most need to listen, particularly to those who leave the faith, about why they leave. These stories don’t end, and people are not relegated to “good” and “bad” boxes. They’re people, with stories, and if I know anything about the faith Webb used to proclaim, it’s about loving people, listening to their stories and being part of them.

Webb himself leaves some hope, however subtle, in the final song, “Goodbye, For Now.” The last two words are pointed – the song is the saddest thing here, bringing his marriage and his faith together in a forlorn farewell to both. “So either you aren’t real,” he sings to God, “or I am just not chosen, maybe I’ll never know, either way my heart is broken…” But that “for now,” repeated in each chorus, is like a faint promise, echoed in the climax of the first song: “If we can get through this we may have a shot at something even we can’t tear apart.” The album ends on an unresolved chord, the musical equivalent of “to be continued.”

I hope so. As someone who has loved Derek Webb’s work for a long, long time, Fingers Crossed is a difficult and painful listen. It’s also a brilliant one, honest and true to where he is. I expected nothing less. I don’t know how often I am going to revisit it – how often I physically can revisit it, given what it does to me – but I hope that the people who most need to hear an album like this don’t stop listening. Webb’s voice remains important, crying out in a different kind of wilderness, but speaking truth just the same.

Buy Fingers Crossed here.

Next week, Beck and a couple others. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

 

Into the Great Wide Open
Tom Petty, 1950-2017

What an emotionally exhausting week.

The entire country is reeling from the news out of Las Vegas: more than 50 people killed in the worst mass shooting in modern American history. I’ve seen footage and photographs, and it’s devastating. I admire those who are standing up in the face of tragedy to try to enact real change. I’m just not sure what that looks like anymore. I’d love it if we could agree to make preventing this kind of horror a priority, but it just doesn’t look like we’re going to. So I’m already mentally preparing for the next one. Which is unfathomably sad.

And then we lost Tom Petty. Which, I know, is not on the same scale, but for fans like myself, it added to the emotional distress of the week.

The first Tom Petty song I can remember hearing was “Don’t Come Around Here No More.” I was ten years old when it was released on Petty’s Southern Accents album, and I remember the song largely because of the creepy video. It was Alice in Wonderland meets surreal horror, with Petty as the Mad Hatter, and it ended with Alice’s body being cut into slices and served as cake to the denizens of Wonderland. I don’t remember a lot of things about being ten, but I remember the unsettled feeling that video left me with.

I know I heard “Refugee” and “The Waiting” and “Jammin’ Me” on the radio after that, but the first Petty I bought was Full Moon Fever, his first foray away from his lifelong backing band, the Heartbreakers. I never loved “Free Fallin’” like most people did – even at 14 I was gravitating away from simplicity – but I loved “I Won’t Back Down” and “Yer So Bad” and “Alright for Now.” My favorite was “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” which would go on to be an undisputed Petty classic. My friend Mike and I used that song in an animated short film about the Erie Canal we created for history class. (Yes, we were pretty nerdy.)

From then on, Petty would stay sort of peripheral to my life, but always a part of it. Into the Great Wide Open, particularly the great “Learning to Fly,” soundtracked my last year of high school. Petty was my way into the Traveling Wilburys, and I grew to love (or at least admire) each of those songwriters. I remember exactly where I was – in the kitchen of a house I shared with three guys during my junior year of college – the first time I heard Wildflowers, Petty’s best solo album. We’d watch the video for “You Don’t Know How It Feels” and lament the censorship – “let’s roll another joint” became “let’s roll another jnuuuuh,” or some other indecipherable mess. For us, this was a high crime, no pun intended.

I bought She’s the One at my favorite record store in downtown Portland, Maine, where I ended up working a few years later. I gave Echo a lukewarm review in the music magazine I worked for out of college, still in Portland. I bought The Live Anthology with money I made working as a journalist outside of Chicago, and it finally convinced me that the Heartbreakers are one of the best bands in America. I adored every second of Unchained, the Heartbreakers’ album with Johnny Cash, recorded near the end of the Man in Black’s life.

I think this is how Petty was for a lot of people. He had sort of a stealth effect on my life – I have never considered him a favorite, but when I look back, his music has made a deep impression on me for more than three decades. Of the “pure rock” songwriters I enjoy, he was quite possibly the best. He certainly knew how to make three chords and some keen observations into a smash hit that resonated with millions. They resonated with me, too, and it’s hard to believe that such a constant presence in my life is gone.

Petty died on Monday night after a heart attack earlier in the day. The conflicting news reports didn’t help, with many outlets pronouncing him dead hours before he actually passed on, causing many of us to go through the process of emotionally saying goodbye twice. Petty was only 66 years old, which I used to think was ancient. Now I can see it around the corner from me, and Petty’s death is a reminder that each day is precious. Hold on to the ones you love.

Rest in peace, Tom, and thank you for all the tunes.

* * * * *

That’s going to do it for me this week. If you’d like to read a more eloquent remembrance of Tom Petty, you can’t do better than this one from my friend John J. Thompson.

Next week, Derek Webb, speaking of emotionally devastating. I’m still not ready to write about it. I’m not sure I will be in a week, either. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Burn the Woods, Burn Them Slow
Marah in the Mainsail's Terrific Dark Fairy Tale

This week’s obituary belongs to Charles Bradley. (It seems like we get one of these a week now, doesn’t it?)

Despite singing and performing from an early age, Bradley didn’t make his name until he was discovered in the 2000s by Bosco Mann of Daptone Records. (Daptone is famous for giving us Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings.) He released his first album, No Time for Dreaming, on Daptone at the age of 62. And you could hear the weight of those years in his rich, raw voice. He served up two more albums, both swell, before succumbing to stomach cancer on Sept. 23. He was 68.

And when I finish writing this, I’m going to watch Soul of America, and let him sing to me one more time. Rest in peace, Charles.

* * * * *

Under the gun this week, and I didn’t listen to much, so I think I’m going to do one review and my Third Quarter Report and call it a day. On Saturday my laboratory held our largest public event in 20 years, and it was a bear to plan – it took more than a year – and execute. I’m pretty worn out.

But let me tell you about what’s been exciting me this week. It’s the new record from Marah in the Mainsail, and it’s out next week, but those of us who supported it on Kickstarter have it now. And it’s awesome.

Marah in the Mainsail is one of my favorite AudioFeed discoveries. They played the festival in 2014, ripping through songs from their debut EP and premiering a couple numbers from their in-progress first album, Thaumatrope. I’m not even sure how to explain Marah. They’re dark and cinematic, pulling from centuries-old folk traditions, but updating them with a tidal-wave force, like the Decemberists turned up to 11. During the band’s best moments, singer Austin Durry’s howl is barely in check, the drums are flailing and the horns blaring.

Marah uses instruments like horns to paint pictures and conjure atmospheres, usually bleak ones. Their music is about struggle, internal and external, and often uses mythical beasts as metaphors. One of their best, “Wendigo,” is about a character negotiating with the monster within, but preparing to lose. It’s fantastic stuff.

Given their widescreen sound, it’s no surprise to me that their second album, Bone Crown, is exponentially more ambitious than their first. It’s a concept record, telling a dark fairy tale over 11 songs, a story about a forest ruled by a duplicitous fox who stole the crown from the rightful king, a noble white stag, and the efforts of an all-seeing owl and a prodigal bear to restore justice. Each song is accompanied by a short chapter of the story, read by Dan Smith of Listener, and it’s packaged in some gorgeous artwork. It’s quite a package.

And the music? It’s next-level Marah. Every song here sounds like them, but it’s all bigger and more intricately arranged, and it all works together to spin this tale. Every song works in tandem, and stands alone. The powerhouse drums and horns on “Everybody Knows” stand out – hell, they kick you in the face – and the killer chorus of “Fisticuffs” is an early highlight. On “Leviathan” the band achieves something they’ve been aiming for since their first EP: a crescendo that carries the song to another plane entirely by the end. It concludes the opening salvo of this record, as strong a one-two-three-four punch as I’ve heard in some time.

The middle section of Bone Crown is lighter musically, if not lyrically – it depicts a flashback showing the violent steps the fox took to get his crown. Mariah Mercedes takes lead vocals here, and her airy voice adds an ethereal feel to the proceedings. “The Great Beyond” is a stunner, a waltz about death that plays like some strange mix of Kate Bush and Tom Waits. The horns here are mesmerizing, and the skipping coda is a black delight.

The band roars back in for the third act, in which the vicious fox burns down the forest. The title track is a killer, Durry spitting out “burn the woods, burn them slow, burn the trees down, burn the bones” as the band makes an almighty racket behind him. The bloodcurdling scream near the end will stay with you. “Black Mamba” is awesome, slithering through its catchy chorus on a great bass line. The story ends, fittingly, with “The End,” in which the bear, the sole survivor of the fire, commits himself to rebuilding. In the end, it’s a story about how we never choose the disasters around us, but we can choose to help fix them.

Seriously, it’s awesome. Bone Crown is 40 minutes long, and every time I’ve heard it, it buzzes by in what feels like half that time. But it also contains multitudes – I’m hearing new things each time through, and it feels like three albums’ worth of work went into it. I’m impressed and amazed, and grateful to have found this band. You can be grateful too, by following this link. You won’t regret it. Bone Crown is one of my favorite things in an already fantastic year, and is sure to rate highly come December.

* * * * *

Speaking of, it’s time for the Third Quarter Report. This list was more difficult than any I can remember. This year has brought so much good stuff, and everything you see below could change based on how I feel in a couple months. For now, though, here’s what my top 10 list looks like, nine months in

10. Husky, Punchbuzz.
9. Marah in the Mainsail, Bone Crown.
8. Slowdive.
7. Kesha, Rainbow.
6. Neil Finn, Out of Silence.
5. Brand New, Science Fiction.
4. Manchester Orchestra, A Black Mile to the Surface.
3. Planetarium.
2. Jonathan Coulton, Solid State.
1. Aimee Mann, Mental Illness.

Leaving Jason Isbell off this list hurts, especially since The Nashville Sound may be his best record. But these are the ten I have listened to most, and loved the most completely. As you can probably tell, I listened to the top three again, moving Planetarium down below the Mann/Coulton songwriting showcase. Nobody does it like Aimee Mann, but Coulton came awfully close.

Next week, I’m sure I will have to revise this list again when Derek Webb’s Fingers Crossed comes out. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

The Rowdiest Bands at the Old Folks Home
Rock and Roll Isn't Dead, But It Is Pretty Old

We lost Grant Hart this week.

For those old enough to remember, like me, Hart was one of the most influential musicians of his day. As the drummer and one of the creative powerhouses in Husker Du, Hart helped revitalize punk in the ‘80s and then launch a whole army of loud alternative rock bands. They were the missing link between Black Flag and R.E.M., between punk and the more hummable rock emerging from college stations around the country, and were tireless champions of both melody and fire. It’s safe to say that the ‘90s wouldn’t have happened the way they did without Husker Du.

While Bob Mould tends to get the lion’s share of the credit for Husker Du, Hart’s songs were easily the equal of Mould’s, and were often the more melodically rich ones, and his voice often the more interesting one. Following the band’s breakup, Hart worked with a new band called Nova Mob and put out some great yet forgotten solo records, including 2013’s conceptual piece The Argument. Recently, Hart joined his bandmates for the first time since the ‘80s to put together a collection of early work called Savage Young Du, which comes out next month.

Sadly, that will be the last project the three members collaborate on. Hart died on Sept. 13 after a bout with liver cancer. He was 56 years old.

* * * * *

And good lord, did I once think of 56 as old? I did. The idea of only having 13 more years to live is terrifying to me. The truth, of course, is that no one knows how long we will have. Each one of us could be taken tomorrow, or told that we have mere months, instead of the decades we imagine. (I did just start watching Breaking Bad, which might be influencing these thoughts.) I once laughed at the idea of dying young instead of growing old, but now I am firmly on the side of growing as old as possible.

Rock and roll seems to be growing old with me, which is nice in one way, but sad in another. I’m not the guy to make bold pronouncements about styles of music dying out, but if you can name a truly outstanding rock and roll band from the last 15 years, please let me know. I mean real rock, like freight-train-roaring-down-the-track-with-its-brake-lines-cut rock. I honestly can’t name any.

It’s telling, I think, that the best rock band in the world right now might be Pearl Jam, a group rapidly rounding the bases toward its 30th year. (Why yes, I am listening to their live album from Wrigley Field, why do you ask?) It’s also telling that when I suggest that Pearl Jam is the best rock band in the world right now, the one act fired back as a counter-argument is usually Foo Fighters. They formed in 1994, and Dave Grohl, their mastermind and leader, is 48.

I do find it delightful that two generations of kids now only know of Nirvana as Grohl’s old band. Foo Fighters has rightly taken center stage in Grohl’s career arc, and for all of the band’s existence, they’ve been plying the same trade – guitar-centric melodic rock, like a steak dinner with a beer to wash it down. And if their ninth album, Concrete and Gold, is any indication, that sound is wearing thin.

Everything about Concrete and Gold screams “here’s another Foo Fighters album.” They’ve long since passed the AC/DC barrier – everything they do sounds the same. If you like that sound, and find new things in it whenever it’s presented to you, you’ll probably like Concrete and Gold. There’s a sense of the epic about it, and Greg Kurstin, producer to the stars, does a fine job of gussying these songs up. The slithering riff of “Make It Right” and the expansive feel of “The Sky is a Neighborhood” are appealing, but as the record goes on, it’s clear that there aren’t too many ideas here, and Kurstin is working overtime to shape something out of this.

By the time you get to the pretty lame “Happy Ever After (Zero Hour),” the album becomes more of a chore to get through than anything else. On this evidence, it would be hard for me to consider Foo Fighters a great rock band, let alone one of the best in the world. I don’t want to suggest that Concrete and Gold is terrible. But it is pretty average, merely here to extend the life of the band, not to justify it.

But what’s an aging musician to do when the kids don’t flock to you anymore? I guess they form supergroups, like Prophets of Rage. But they really shouldn’t.

Prophets of Rage features the three instrumentalists from Rage Against the Machine – inventive guitarist Tom Morello, bassist Tim Commerford and drummer Brad Wilk – with Chuck D of Public Enemy and B-Real of Cypress Hill. Chuck D is 57 years old, Morello is 53, and the rest of the band is in their late 40s. So expecting them to recapture their glory days is perhaps a bit unfair.

That said, Prophets of Rage, the band’s debut, sounds pretty much exactly like you’d expect it to. The Rage-style one-riff rockers are firmly in place, Chuck D’s rhymes are energetic and on point, and even B-Real sounds 100 percent into this. The lyrics lash out at Trump and his America, and man, do we need some resistance music. I’m pretty fond of “Unfuck the World,” and “Hail to the Chief” is exactly as biting as you’d hope.

I just wish this didn’t all sound like 1993. Rage Against the Machine was a one-of-a-kind band, a brief burst of youthful political energy. Public Enemy’s run of records in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s are untouchable, some of the finest angry hip-hop ever made. It may not be fair to rank this album next to the finest achievements of the Prophets themselves, but they’re the reason I bought this. The band is even named after a Public Enemy classic. This should feel vital and new, like an explosive combination, and instead it sounds like a tribute to years gone by.

I certainly don’t want to make it sound like older musicians just can’t rock, and only have two choices: acoustic folk music, or the retirement home. I don’t believe that, and I have a great example that proves it: Living Colour. The band’s been around since 1984, and its four members have clocked 225 years between them. And yet, they rock like you wouldn’t believe.

If you’d like to believe it, you just need to pick up their new album, Shade. This thing is a goddamn powerhouse. It’s only their sixth in 30-plus years as a band, and it comes eight years after their last one, but they haven’t lost an ounce of their presence and force. Sometime in those eight years, they developed a love for the blues, and Shade adds a generous helping of the Delta to an already potent sound. But this is no old-school record, either – there’s a smattering of electronic percussion, and a full dose of holy-hell rock.

Can we talk for a second about how amazing Corey Glover is? His voice is still so powerful, his range so extraordinary. His vocals push Shade forward at every opportunity – they’re huge and soulful and confident. And they’d have to be, to lead a band this immense. Vernon Reid has long been one of the best rock guitarists alive, blistering yet dexterous, with a jazz edge. And nothing bad can be said about Will Calhoun and Doug Wimbish, a rhythm section many bands would kill for. They’re the whole package, and when it comes together on stunners like “Pattern in Time” and “Glass Teeth,” it’s wonderful.

The three covers on Shade show off the band’s range of influences, which they work to connect on this record. They deliver a pummeling take on Robert Johnson’s “Preachin’ Blues,” a simmering version of Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues,” and then, out of nowhere, an amazing knock-down run through Biggie’s “Who Shot Ya.” Throughout this record the band leavens in blues, soul and rap, never forgetting the pure rock foundation.

It’s been nearly 30 years since Living Colour emerged with the instant classic “Cult of Personality,” and they’ve only gotten better with age. If, by some chance, a new generation of rock bands decide to pull themselves out of the muck and carry the torch, it’s good to know that Living Colour will be here to show them how it’s done.

Next week, the Third Quarter Report, and probably a review or two. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

I Want to Believe
But Tori Amos' New Album is a Letdown

If you’d told me back in 1997 that one day, Kesha would make a better album than Tori Amos, I would have said, “Who’s Kesha?” I mean, she was seven years old then.

But the point stands. Twenty years ago, Tori Amos was one of the most vital musicians on the planet. Her third album, Boys for Pele, was messier and angrier and all-around more fascinating than her immortal first two, Little Earthquakes and Under the Pink. In 1997, Amos seemed incapable of creating music that wasn’t intensely emotional, wasn’t like listening to her soul cry out, either in anguish or exultation. Every line, every word, every sky-high note felt not only like she meant it, but like she had no choice but to play and sing it.

Those first three albums remain fast favorites. Not a year goes by when I don’t pull them out and bask in them all over again. (The recently released deluxe remasters provided a nice excuse.) They’re perfect. And I want to live in the alternate universe where she stopped there, refusing to make music that didn’t live up to that unstoppable trilogy. Unfortunately, I live in this one, where Amos kept going and going, her returns diminishing and diminishing.

There have been bright spots since. I liked most of 1999’s To Venus and Back, her deep dive into electronica. I heard traces of the old Tori fire on 2007’s American Doll Posse. I thought 2011’s orchestral experiment, Night of Hunters, was quite good. And I enjoyed much of 2014’s Unrepentant Geraldines, which I almost referred to as a return to form. But the best of these records, meaning the best songs Amos has released in 20 years, don’t hold a candle to her first three for emotional resonance. I don’t really remember much of American Doll Posse, ten years on, and I think that’s the best record she’s made since Pele.

And yet, I live in hope. I keep buying Tori Amos albums, despite the fact that I haven’t loved one in two decades. I feel like fans of a hard-luck baseball team, saying “maybe next time” over and over. But hell, the Cubs won the World Series last year after more than a century, so anything’s possible. So I pay my money and I take my chance, every time. Because I believe she can still make music that moves me.

Sadly, on the just-released Native Invader, she’s only succeeded in boring me. The title of this, her fifteenth album, led me to expect something with teeth. But Native Invader just sort of… happens, slowly and meanderingly, like the worst parts of Scarlet’s Walk stripped of any urgency. Some of it is pretty, like a portrait of flowers in a waiting room. Much of it is merely pleasant, and all of it is forgettable.

I don’t want to suggest that this isn’t a well-made record. It cuts a nice compromise between Amos’ organic and electronic music, relying mostly on her electric piano and Mark Aladdin’s guitars to ground her programmed drums and bass lines. The songs are all too long, but if you can pay attention without drifting off, some of them have nice structures. The whole thing sounds polished and fussed over, tweaked and re-tweaked over the two years she was working on it.

But it’s soulless. Amos’ vocals are mixed low and there just for utility – she sings these songs, but she doesn’t embody them, doesn’t live them. I still like what she says here. “Broken Arrow” takes aim at colonialism, “Up the Creek” (the only song with a pulse) fires at “those climate-blind,” and “Bang” delivers a “we are all stardust” message of unity. But when she sings them, over this bland and wandering music, I don’t care. I have listened to all 68 minutes of Native Invader three times now, and I just don’t care about it.

Are there things about it I like? Sure. Opener “Reindeer King” is seven minutes of Tori and her piano, and it conjures up a nicely foreboding atmosphere. The other two stripped-back songs, “Breakaway” and “Climb,” are highlights, even if they feel like they would have been b-sides back in the ‘90s. “Up the Creek” is pretty swell, its electronic bass announcing itself early. (Real strings would have made this a keeper.) I like the prog-rock excess at the end of “Bang,” and the melodic twist of the key line in “Cloud Riders.” One of the bonus tracks is a sequel to “Upside Down,” an amazing early song, and while it doesn’t measure up at all, it’s still nice. (Its hook line is seriously “we gotta turn that frown upside down,” though.)

It isn’t enough, though. Native Invader is another boring disappointment from an artist I once revered. I still admire her, and I will keep buying her music until one of us dies. And I will likely go through this same ritual every couple years, getting my hopes up and then slogging through whatever she puts out, my spirits falling with every note. Because when it comes to Tori Amos, I’m like Fox Mulder. I have no evidence that her new music will awaken that spark in me and resonate like her early work does, but man, I want to believe.

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Speaking of wanting to believe, I really want to believe that Play Dead, the eerily-titled and just-released fifth Mutemath album, will not be their last.

Even if it isn’t, Play Dead will likely be the final album from the band I’ve come to know as Mutemath over the past thirteen years. In the months before its release, both guitarist Roy Mitchell-Cardenas and drummer Darren King announced their departure from the band, leaving only pianist/singer Paul Meany from the original lineup. If you know Mutemath you know that King, especially, is central to their identity. I know many people who only recognize Mutemath as “that band with the awesome drummer,” and now he’s gone.

Play Dead, then, stands as the final testament from this incarnation of the band. Meany has brought in new musicians and is soldiering on, but I expect future albums, if there are any, to basically be Meany solo efforts. That particular chemistry between the original band members will be gone. I’m thankful, though, that it’s all over this new record. Play Dead brings together everything Mutemath does well and wraps it all up in a newfound propensity for prog-rock.

The Mutemathers have been working on Play Dead for five years. The sessions got so intense that, partway through, they took a break and recorded an entirely different album, 2015’s Vitals. I have a complex relationship with that record – I dismissed it at first as synth-laden fluff, but couldn’t put it away, and ended up adoring it. Vitals sounded little like the Mutemath I first fell in love with, but over time I fell for this new sound too, and now I consider it one of my favorites.

My appreciation for Vitals helped me grasp and enjoy Play Dead right away. This one isn’t going to need a period of adjustment – I’m into it right now. The synth-heavy sound is still in evidence, but it’s harder and heavier, and in service of songs that are trickier and meatier. I’ve been trying to think of a term to describe what the band has conjured up here. Maybe dance-prog? That fits songs like “Break the Fever,” which combines a complex, Yes-like arrangement with the hookiness of Hall and Oates.

Mostly, though, Play Dead sounds like this immensely talented band finding yet another unique new sound and exploring it to its limit. I can definitely see Vitals as a chance to blow off steam in the middle of this thing – Play Dead is massive. Opener “Hit Parade” starts with a quiet keys-and-vocals introduction, but soon explodes into a Black Keys-style riff (played on synths, of course) and a glorious sunrise of harmonies. “War” is a powerhouse, King nailing his drums over a big, almost bluesy mass. And then the strings come in. Even a quiet song like “Nuisance,” which wafts in and out on a delicate keyboard heartbeat, builds to almost towering proportions in the middle, melodies cresting like waves.

So it goes for most of this huge record, the band playing as if they’ll never get the chance again. A trifle like “Placed On Hold” erupts in its final third, the live energy practically bursting from it. “Everything’s New” shimmies confidently through its well-earned six minutes, including one of the band’s trademark instrumental interludes. Closer “Marching to the End” (and come on, this is their last record) begins as a ballad and crescendos into an anthem, much like “Remain” from Vitals.

It’s awesome, is what I’m saying, and yet it’s awesome in a totally new way for this band. It’s been quite a ride over the past decade-plus – I remember seeing Mutemath at the 2004 Cornerstone Festival and loving every second of their manic, pop-prog set, and being blown away by the Police-like first album in 2006. Every album since then has been a big step, either forward or sideways, and they’ve never let me down. (At least, not for long.) If Play Dead is the last Mutemath record, they went out doing what they do best – stepping out into the unknown and building something new. Very few bands do that well, and I’ll miss this one.

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Next week, Foo Fighters and Bruce Cockburn and a couple others. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.