All posts by Andre Salles

Hold Tight for Everyday Life
Coldplay's Remarkable New Album

Why do I like Coldplay?

It’s a question I get a lot, honestly, and stating it right up front here might make this review seem defensive. But I think it’s important to explore why this is a question people feel compelled to ask. Hating on Coldplay has become an international pastime. They’re one of the biggest bands in the world, and I expect they always will be. At times they seem palpably uncomfortable with that role, but at other times they’re dueting with Rhianna and Beyonce and writing crowd-pleasing stadium-fillers. And as long as they keep doing that, I think they’ll be around for the haters to hate.

Disliking Coldplay is the expected default for someone like me with Opinions About Music, though, and I think that’s a shame. The style Coldplay is best known for is universality – they write accessible, hummable songs about vaguely emotional things, and it’s unsurprising that so many have taken those songs into their hearts. Their early hits, like “Yellow” and “The Scientist” and “Fix You,” are sweeping things with strong undercurrents, and those are harder to write than people think.

But I know I’m supposed to see through such manipulations and not be taken in by them, or so I’m told. This, first off, is nonsense – music is to be enjoyed, and if “Fix You” works for me (and it does), I’m happy to have my emotions manipulated by it. I was surprised when scanning my archives recently that I predicted “Fix You” would be a massive hit. Obvious in retrospect, but not necessarily at the time. It worked for me then, and it works for me now.

And if that were all Coldplay had to offer – lighter-worthy popular balladry – I would still feel OK liking them. I may not evangelize for them as much as I do, but I’d feel fine about it. No, I get the question at the top of this column because I seem to like Coldplay more than their best-known material would indicate that I should, and it surprises a lot of people. Almost always I can count on those people not having ventured much beyond the hits, and not having heard a Coldplay album since probably 2005.

Why do I like Coldplay? Because they’re weird. Honestly, they are. Starting with 2008’s Viva La Vida, or Death and All His Friends, they embarked on a decade-plus of artistic restlessness that left their “Yellow” sound in the dust. That restlessness has defined them, and is at the heart of their new record, Everyday Life, which I’ll talk about in a moment. But I have been greatly anticipating this new album, and if asked why, I would say the reason is the four records before it, on which this band explored so many different sounds and ideas that they became unpredictable. And there is no more joyous word for me as a music fan than unpredictable.

I don’t want to oversell them. They’re certainly not David Bowie levels of chameleonic. But they haven’t sounded like you’d expect them to for more than 10 years, and they show no signs of wanting to sound like you’d expect them to. They’re weird. And the bottom line for me is that Coldplay, as one of the biggest bands in the world, doesn’t have to be this weird. They could keep churning out the same material, or at least revisit their old sound now and again. But they don’t, and the fact that they choose to keep pushing forward like this makes them worth paying attention to.

I’ve even come to appreciate 2015’s A Head Full of Dreams, which I dismissed as their big pop move, and not a patch on its somber, surprising predecessor, Ghost Stories. This is all still true, but on Head Full of Dreams the band aims for the rafters in completely different ways than they had done before. It stands alone in their catalog, a gleaming and modern-sounding ball of positivity that is meticulously constructed and painstakingly produced. Some of the material still makes me want to hurl it against a wall, especially in the record’s treacly back half, but none of it sounds like Coldplay is supposed to, and I think that’s an interesting quality for an album so overtly interested in being massively popular.

Everyday Life has no interest in popularity. That’s the first fascinating thing about it, and I find the whole thing fascinating. This record is how an impossibly popular band makes an intimate and personal piece of work, I think, and that it is awkward and messy and unsure of how to proceed only adds to that sense. It’s being touted as a double album, even though it manifestly is not: it’s 53 minutes long and comes packaged on a single disc. Its songs are broken up into two loose suites, Sunrise and Sunset, but it works best when you listen to it as a single entity. The band appears on the cover for the first time, but they’re de-emphasized, inserted into a faded photo of guitarist Jonny Buckland’s great-grandfather’s band from 1919.

All of this feels designed to wrong-foot you, to make you uncertain of what to expect, and the album manages that same trick for its whole running time. At first Everyday Life will feel scattered, unfinished, messy. It feels like an entire album made from the interludes and stranger tracks from previous Coldplay efforts. Songs drift in and out, wrapping up before you can get a handle on them. Guest musicians – and there are dozens – take the spotlight, never staying for long, just handing you off to the next sparkling performance. The guiding principle here seems to be to never sound like Coldplay, and they pull it off, but none of these 16 tracks sound anything like any of the others either.

Everyday Life is the most restless album from a band I love specifically for their restlessness. I spent my first listen through in a state of astonishment, not only that the band would create this record, but that Coldplay Inc. would marshal its forces behind releasing it. Despite the double-album fanfare, this is one of the band’s smallest and most intimate things – it’s moody and stark, and several of these tracks seem to feature Chris Martin on his own, accompanied by one instrument as if caught practicing in the corner of the studio. There are no songs here that sound like hits, no songs that 2005 me would predict to take the world by storm.

Instead we have the sound of one of the world’s biggest bands creating something just for themselves. This is their most topical and pointed record – and you know things are bad in the world when even Coldplay is commenting on them – and the whole thing feels like a response to the wave of hatred sweeping over us. Because they are Coldplay, their response is love, but on the way there they get more specific than they ever have about what they are up against. “Trouble in Town” is a foreboding piece of work about racism, and includes a recording of Philadelphia police officer Philip Nace harassing two African-American men on the street. “Guns” doesn’t top two minutes, but it takes aim at the NRA and the proliferation of firearms, Martin proclaiming that “everyone’s gone fucking crazy.”

In that light, the album’s plethora of sounds from around the world feels like a plea for unity. There are lines in Arabic and French, chants in Zulu, and musicians and singers from all over the globe lending their skills to this. There are gospel choirs and children’s choirs, and spoken poetry from Persia and Nigeria. In the end, the message is simple: we are all human beings, and we are all children of God, whatever name you choose to give God. The spirituality here is as all-encompassing as the humanity, which is as all-encompassing as the music.

The weak link, of course, remains Martin’s lyrics, which are often frustratingly banal. “Daddy” is a prime example of a song that is both deeply touching and cringe-worthy – it’s written from the point of view of Martin’s children, missing him when he is gone, so the child-like lyrics work on one level, but are embarrassing on another. “Orphans” tackles the Syrian refugee crisis, and Martin’s stated aim was to depict these refugees as people just like us, hoping to get back to some sense of normalcy. That the best way he could come up with to capture this is “I want to know when I can go back and get drunk with my friends” is prime Chris Martin.

But most of the time, his naked sentimentality works in this record’s favor. Sparkling acoustic pieces like “Eko” and “Old Friends” fit their simple lyrics nicely. The gospel pieces “Broken” and “When I Need a Friend” feel open and vulnerable, and when the band enlists Femi Kuti’s extraordinary horn section for the astounding highlight “Arabesque,” Martin’s words about how we share the same blood seem worthy of the power behind them. (Seriously, this song, with its two-minute saxophone solo, is amazing.)

Best of all, when the band brings it all together at the end with their most Coldplay-esque material, Martin’s naked emotional writing does the trick nicely. After an album of turmoil, the title track comes gliding in like a minor classic, soaring without erupting into cheesiness. I probably shouldn’t admit how affected I am whenever Martin repeats “you got to keep dancing when the lights go out,” but man, it really works for me. The song is a marvel of restraint, keeping things quiet even when the band’s instincts might send them into orbit. Even the ending hallelujahs could have been so much bigger, and I’m grateful that they’re not. The ending is graceful instead of overpowering.

I’d never suggest that Everyday Life is a perfect record. In fact, it’s the imperfections I like most about it. For a band so polished, so methodical to deliver something so messy and personal is a gift. I never know what kind of album I’m going to get from this band, and this one was a genuine surprise, one I am still diving into. You won’t find anything like “Clocks” here, but you will find a band pushing itself to create something outside their own boundaries, something that speaks love into the world with as much boldness as they can muster. That’s Everyday Life, and I love it immensely.

So why do I like Coldplay? Listen to this record. All the reasons are here.

Next week, Beck and Leonard Cohen, and then we dive into the end-of-the-year festivities. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Hatfield, Winger and a Three-Hour Heavy Metal Opera
The 2019 WTF Awards

It’s getting close to the end of the year, which means it’s time to start thinking about the best of 2019. But it’s also time to think about the weirdest of 2019, the albums that just by their very existence would make any reasonable person say “WTF?”

That’s right, it’s time for the annual WTF Awards here at Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. This is our yearly celebration of the records that I just cannot believe are real things, but which, against all laws of God and man, actually were made and released. To be clear, receiving a WTF Award doesn’t mean that an album is bad, or that it shouldn’t exist. It’s just an acknowledgement of the utter improbability of its existence. In fact, the more improbable an album is, the harder the artist probably had to fight to bring it into being, so respect is due.

Anyway, we have three such awards to give out this time, and I’ll go in ascending order of improbability. The first one may not even seem that improbable, considering it’s the second in a series: it’s Juliana Hatfield Sings the Police. Hatfield is, of course, one of our least appreciated songwriters – her catalog, beginning in the ‘90s with the Juliana Hatfield Three and continuing through a prolific solo career, is full of gems, and her voice is instantly recognizable to ‘90s kids like me. She’s generally been pretty serious, so when she issued an album of Olivia Newton-John covers last year, it was a pleasant surprise.

With Sings the Police, she makes these covers records a going concern. (Much like The Bird and the Bee did with their Van Halen tribute this year.) I did not know to expect a second volume, but had I known, I would have guessed probably 30 or 40 other artists for her to honor before Sting and his law-enforcing compatriots. (Much like the Bird and the Bee, actually, and the more I think about it, that record also deserves a WTF Award.) I love the Police, though, and was very much looking forward to hearing this.

I only wish I loved it. Hatfield’s Newton-John record was a loving pastiche, perfectly calibrated to straddle the line between tribute and send-up. Sings the Police, in contrast, sounds like something she did in a week in her basement. She’s the only musician on most of these tracks, and she’s contented herself with demo-quality production. The Police had Stewart Copeland, one of the best drummers of his era, so I was surprised to hear that Hatfield had elected to go with extremely basic bongos-in-a-box drum patterns for most of this thing. There’s a cheap and dirty sloppiness to this effort that I can’t get past, sadly.

Some of this is fun. I do enjoy hearing Hatfield sing these songs, harmonizing with herself and easily hitting notes Sting hasn’t been able to for a while. I like what she did with “Canary in a Coalmine,” and I appreciate her selection of “Landlord,” a pretty well forgotten b-side. But she takes an axe to some of my favorites here, and it makes me sad. “Next to You” is one of the best early Police numbers, and here it’s slowed down to match a $5 drum pattern, all the energy sucked out of it. “Roxanne” is worse, those same drums propping up a bass-less electric guitar smear, and that’s followed by a depressingly basic take on “Every Breath You Take.”

Things pick up near the end when Hatfield welcomes Boston-area drummer Chris Anzalone to the mix – “Hole in My Life” actually sounds like something she put effort into – but it feels a bit late by then. I wanted to love this, since I adore both Hatfield and the Police, but only found a few tracks worth revisiting. If she’d put as much into this as she did her Newton-John album, I would have been much happier with it.

But it’s barely worthy of a raised eyebrow in comparison to my next WTF Award. For this one we need to pull in Kip Winger. You remember Kip – he was the leader of ‘80s hair-proggers Winger, immortalized forever on Beavis and Butthead. They were always better than their reputation, and Kip’s solo career has been one to watch for me – he’s revealed a true talent for composition and arrangement, producing a small yet superb catalog of progressive pop-rock that can stand with anything in the genre.

Lately, though, Kip’s been trying to branch out. He now goes by C.F. Kip Winger, the C.F. standing for Charles Frederick. In 2016 he gave us an orchestral album called Conversations with Nijinsky that was nominated for a Grammy and reached the top of the classical charts. Having basically conquered that realm, he’s now turned his eye toward Broadway. His new project is Get Jack, a legit two-hour musical, and he’s produced a full-cast concept album of the whole thing.

Yes, you read that right: Get Jack is a two-hour musical written by Kip Winger. It gets weirder. The play is about Jack the Ripper, or more accurately, about the ghosts of Jack the Ripper’s victims, who come back to life to exact revenge on him. Listening to this was such a weird experience. You cannot claim that Winger and his lyricist, Damien Gray, haven’t fully committed to this thing. Get Jack is a restless, constantly moving slab of orchestral rock, marrying Kip’s big guitars with the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra. It’s big, it’s confident, it’s complex. I’d like to see it on stage.

As a musical, this is more like Les Miserables than Dear Evan Hansen, which is to its credit. I don’t hear any pop hits here, nor do I spot anything that would betray this as the work of the guy who wrote “Seventeen.” The orchestrations are subtle, leaving much of the theatricality to Levi Kreis, who plays the Player (basically the narrator). The canonical five victims – Annie Chapman, Catherine Eddowes, Mary Jane Kelly, Mary Ann “Polly” Nichols and Elizabeth Stride – are all well cast. Winger spends the first act introducing the victims one by one in the afterlife, and the second dramatizing their vengeance, and as a structure it works really well.

I didn’t expect to like this as much as I do. The cover is cheap-looking, and the very idea of a two-hour Jack the Ripper musical written by Kip Winger seems to promise more wrong-footedness than this delivers. This is actually quite good – dark, vicious, full of twists and turns. As a former theater kid I know the rhythms of Broadway shows, and Winger has captured them. I admit I shook my head at first, not quite able to believe that Winger had devoted years to this idea, but he’s really pulled it off.

I feel the same way about our infinitely stranger final entry, Therion’s Beloved Antichrist. Therion is one of those bands I have a tough time accepting as real anyway. They’re an operatic metal band, and I don’t just mean operatic in the Judas Priest sense. I mean all of their vocalists (and there are many) are actual opera singers, and for decades they have been mining the Venn diagram overlap between Dream Theater and Wagner. I’m consistently surprised by the way mastermind Christofer Johnsson mixes those genres, showing no clear preference for either one.

Therion’s catalog is vast, so I wouldn’t suggest starting with Beloved Antichrist. But in a lot of ways, this is the record they’ve been building toward their entire career. Even more than their usual material, this is a rock opera. It’s an astonishing three hours long, divided into three acts, and it incorporates more than 20 lead singers and a full choir. It’s based on Vladimir Soloviev’s A Short Tale of the Antichrist, and over an incredible 46 songs, it creates its own universe. There is literally nothing else that sounds like this, for better or for worse. (This only works if you don’t giggle – it’s very serious, despite how monolithically silly the sound can be.)

What’s the story? Well, in a nutshell, there’s this guy who tries to kill himself because the world is terrible, and the devil appears to him, offering to make him the antichrist. He accepts and uses his powers to make the world a better place – he eliminates all suffering and brings peace to the world. But then it’s revealed that he’s the antichrist, a truth that separates the world into factions – one side wants to depose him because he’s a demon, and the other side is willing to accept a demon if their lives improve. (Sound familiar?) In the end there’s a big war and everyone dies.

Holy hell, right? This is all dramatized with operatic voices over big guitars and synth orchestrations – if you can imagine Pavarotti fronting Trans-Siberian Orchestra, you’re part of the way there. It also takes forever to get through, and you’ll feel exhausted on the other end of it. Is it worth it? I think Therion’s style is unique for a reason, but if you can buy into what they’re doing, there’s a lot to admire here. There are no throwaway songs here – everything was slaved over. There were no moments here where I felt like the band were not absolutely committed to this bizarre thing they had created.

It must be interesting to have accomplished a major achievement like this in a field of one, though. Johnsson’s only competition is himself. I have no idea who, besides me, might have even bought this thing. I can imagine working for years on this and releasing it to the vast indifference of the world must be disheartening. But then, I would think Johnsson is used to that by now, and if he were going to give up, he would have long before taking on a three-hour opera. This is what he does, and here he does it over a wider canvas than he ever has.

I don’t know whether to recommend this. If you think you would enjoy three hours of heavy metal opera (and to be clear, it is opera, not operatic metal), then you probably already have this. I can’t imagine I am increasing Therion’s audience by mentioning them here. But if three hours of this doesn’t deserve a WTF Award, I don’t know what does. It’s the kind of record these awards were made for.

Next week, the last big new music Friday of the year. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Waiting for Peace to Come
The Powerful, Painful New Album from Nick Cave

I am not emotionally prepared to talk about Nick Cave’s Ghosteen.

As a way of easing into it, I will say this. Every year I hope that there will be some kind of fourth-quarter miracle, an album that arrives late in the year and surprises me, rewriting my top 10 list in the process. I hope for this even in great years, because I love to be blindsided by brilliant music. This hasn’t been a great year, but it’s been a good one, and I would have had a perfectly respectable end-of-the-year summary even if nothing worthy happened to arrive between now and year’s end.

But here is Ghosteen, and after only a couple spins, I cannot imagine I would write a 2019 top 10 list without it. It’s a harrowing masterpiece, the kind of record spoken about in hushed whispers. I feel like it’s already revered in certain corners, already being evangelized as an extraordinarily moving experience unlike anything else this year, and it deserves every accolade it’s getting. If one of the year’s more celebrated releases can be considered underrated, though, I think Ghosteen might be.

And if it is, it’s because this is a difficult album to listen to, despite how absolutely gorgeous it is. In 2015, Cave’s teenage son Arthur fell to his death, and this entire record is about that loss. I need to gird myself before listening, because I know once the ethereal synths of “Spinning Song” begin, I will be in for the long haul, and these 68 minutes are almost impossibly heart-wrenching. I will not be able to summarize or encapsulate the grief that pours out of this thing, nor should I be able to. That grief feels larger than the known universe, heavier than the weight of the world. It’s too big for Cave to even process in these 11 songs – he picks at it until it bleeds, but he cannot find his way over it.

It’s almost as if he knew going in that he would not be able to even name this grief, let alone shape it here. Cave is a born storyteller – his career has found him relating myths and tales from various traditions, giving them new resonance. “Spinning Song” begins with a fairy tale about Elvis, one that collapses before our ears, as if to say that even stories will not heal this pain. He ends this song not with a lesson, but with a mantra, one that he repeats throughout Ghosteen: “Peace will come in time.” But it will not come easy.

From here Cave uses metaphors – a returning train, Jesus (who makes several appearances here) – to symbolize Cave’s overpowering loss and his yearning for a reunion with his son. Much of the language here, though, is remarkably straightforward, and even when Cave is describing a vision of children climbing up to the sun, as he does on the glorious “Sun Forest,” his voice shakes with emotion. This is an album screaming for connection, for simple human understanding, and even though it is richly layered, it feels stark and bare. Drums are only used sparingly – the sound is mainly conjured with airy synths and chiming guitars, filling the higher spaces above Cave’s baritone voice.

For most of this album, Cave describes his efforts to be with his son again, in his mind. “Galleon Ship” is about searching for the other side, sailing into the unknown. (The choral arrangement here is so beautiful.) One track later is “Ghosteen Speaks,” and I can’t hear this any other way than as Arthur Cave (the ghost teen) speaking to his father. “I am beside you, look for me, I am within you, you are within me…” These songs feel like dreams, like rowing out onto some imagined, endless sea, feeling helpless and alone, and if that isn’t a metaphor for grief, I don’t know what is.

Ghosteen is divided into two halves, and Cave has described the first half (eight short songs) as the children and the second half (two long songs and a spoken word piece) as their parents. It’s an interesting way to put it, especially on an album about a father and his lost son, but it’s apt. The lengthier pieces on the second disc use much of the same imagery as the songs on disc one, but they add context and depth. The title track describes the little ghost, dancing in Cave’s hand then flitting off, and he concludes that “there’s nothing wrong with loving something you can’t hold in your hand.” It’s 50/50 whether I cry whenever he sings this line. The music here is sweeping and grand, contrasting with the tiny pulsing nugget of grief at the song’s center.

“Fireflies,” the connecting piece, is similarly emotionally raw: “We are photons released from a dying star, we are fireflies a child has trapped in a jar, and everything is as distant as the stars, I am here and you are where you are…” This piece uses the vastness of the universe as a way of expressing the enormity of loss, the way that the separation of death feels like unimaginable distance. “A star is just the memory of a star,” Cave says, and it’s true: the light we see is millions of years old, and the stars that generated it may not even exist anymore, and certainly are not where we see them.

It’s powerful stuff, and nothing here is more powerful than “Hollywood,” the 14-minute closing track. This one catches Cave on a long drive, still waiting for the peace he longed for in the first song. He speaks to his son: “Your dreams were your greatest part, I carry them in my heart.” Cave has rarely been as direct as he is here, giving us a scene from his own life, and it’s like reading his diary. It’s almost a relief when he decides to end this record with a tale, a story drawn from the Buddhist tradition – it’s as if he searched the entire album for a story like this one to tell, to comfort himself.

The story is of a woman named Kisa Gotami, whose child grows deathly ill. She visits the Buddha, who tells her that he can heal her child if she brings him a mustard seed. But she must obtain this seed from a home in which no one has died. She asks at every home in the village, but cannot find one that has not been touched by death. And so her child dies. “Everybody’s losing someone,” Cave sums up, and ends the album where it began: “I’m just waiting now for peace to come.”

And I’m hollowed out. It’s the most devastating conclusion – grief is universal, everyone has experienced death and loss, and that is the only comfort. We can wait for our loved ones to return, we can steer that galleon ship into the sun looking for them, but it won’t bring them back. All we can do is ride it through and wait for peace of mind. I cannot imagine what a difficult lesson this has been for Cave to learn. Just the sliver of emotion he lets through on this album is enough to do me in.

And look, this is all dancing about architecture. I’m describing a musical depiction of grief, and not even coming close to giving you an idea what it is like to hear this album, to take it in and sit with it. It’s an incredibly difficult and soul-enriching experience. I don’t know that I would wish it on anyone, but if you believe that music can connect us even in our darkest places, this album will prove it. We’ll be talking about Ghosteen again in a few weeks, when 2019 draws to a close. It’s an extraordinary thing, an album I wish Cave never had the inspiration to make, but one that towers over much of what I have heard this year. It hurts, and it leaves you hurting, and it’s beautiful.

Next week, the 2019 WTF Awards. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Remember, Remember
These Five I Heard in November

There’s no time like early November to talk about the Early November.

TEN is a band I have never quite loved, but I have always had huge affection for. Ace Enders won my heart back in 2006 with his band’s second album, a full-on three-CD concept piece that held together a lot better than it had any right to. It also broke up the band for a bit, while Enders focused on solo projects like his I Can Make a Mess Like Nobody’s Business. For a short while I chalked this band up as a cautionary tale about burning too brightly too quickly.

But then, lo and behold, the Early November reunited in 2011 and have been going strong ever since. Their new one, Lilac, is their fourth since their return, and it continues at the same pace as the last three. That means it doesn’t nearly scale the heights of that triple-CD effort, but at this point it might be a good idea to stop comparing the more mature Ace Enders with his more ambitious younger self. What’s here is certainly delightful enough.

So what is here? Another 11 melodic rock songs delivered with sweetness and a looking-back-along-the-road perspective. Early November songs are little meditations on the distances between us, and Lilac is no exception. It’s front-loaded with winners: “Perfect Sphere (Bubble)” starts with pianos and harmonies, Enders and his bandmates singing “I will always be there, to keep you up in the air.” “My Weakness” is classic TEN, surging forward into a memorable chorus, and “Ave Maria” should please anyone who has followed this band from its early days.

Lilacdoes kind of blur together as it goes along, but Enders has grown a lot more interesting as he’s grown older, and even the deepest cuts here, like the tricky “I Dissolve,” have something to recommend them. (In this case, it’s the soaring wordless chorus.) There aren’t any bad songs here, and closer “The Lilac” is as pretty a piece as Enders has given us, even with the out-of-tune trumpet solo. I’m always glad to hear more from Ace Enders, in whatever incarnation, but there’s something special about Early November albums. I can’t really put my finger on it, but Lilac has it, whatever it is. It’s a lovely little record.

* * * * *

I can’t listen to the Early November without thinking about my friend Heather, who loves them. She’s one of those fantastic people I should keep in better contact with. I met her when she interned at the newspaper I worked for, and now she lives on the west coast and is working every day to save the world. Last time I connected with her, she let me know that her partner, Ethan Buckner, had finished and released a new EP under the name The Minnesota Child.

So I did what any friend would do: I went to Ethan’s website and listened. It took all of 30 seconds to buy the new EP, and I’ve been listening pretty obsessively ever since. The other day I found myself randomly singing the chorus of “Love is Everything” in my head, and that’s when I knew I had to write about this.

Buckner is the Minnesota Child, but Fireflies is his first EP with a band and full production. He enlisted Jeff Saltzman, who worked with the Killers during their heyday, to produce this thing, and together they’ve adorned these tunes with strings, synths, a choir and several guitar solos. It’s to their credit that it never sounds like too much. I can hear the solo acoustic origins of each of these songs, which means the focus here remains on the melodies and Buckner’s beautiful voice.

The title track kicks things off, and if you can get through the first 30 seconds of Buckner’s voice and guitar without wanting to own it, you’re better than I am. The strings kick in before long, and the song takes flight. It’s a terrific introduction to Buckner and what he does, but stick around, because “Home” is even better. Buckner sings the opening lines over a space-y organ, but by the time he’s done, he’s joined by a choir and is wailing away on lead guitar, and he’s delivered a song you want to wrap yourself in.

All five of these songs are this good, and it’s hard for me to pick a favorite. If forced to, at gunpoint, I would point people to the closer, that song I got stuck in my head. It’s hard to make a song called “Love is Everything” without it sounding trite or twee, but this one manages nicely. It’s a simple mission statement of a tune with an ascending-then-descending melody line that I just adore, and some transporting electric guitar flourishes. This whole EP is really superb, and I’m grateful to have heard it. I’ll be following Buckner’s work from now on.

You can too, here: http://theminnesotachild.com.

* * * * *

Shall we get heavier? OK.

A couple years ago I caught a pretty tremendous triple bill: headliner Between the Buried and Me, my once and future obsession The Dear Hunter, and a Norwegian band called Leprous. I’d never heard them before, but in preparation I picked up their fifth album, Malina. And I enjoyed it quite a bit, enough to track down their previous material and wait in anticipation for new stuff.

That new stuff is here – the sixth Leprous album is called Pitfalls, and it’s my favorite thing I’ve heard from them. I’m not quite sure how to describe this band. They remind me of Muse sometimes, with their heavy dance-prog edge, and with the massive (MASSIVE) vocals of leader Einar Solberg. He’s got that widescreen Jeff Buckley quality to his voice, and he never has any trouble leading the band’s sound, no matter how big it gets. At times he reminds me of Jimmy Gnecco, the highly underrated mastermind of Ours, and the band is often as dramatic as Gnecco’s too. (With a voice like that at the front, they kind of have to be.)

Pitfalls is more Solberg’s album than any other Leprous record before it. He wrote most of the songs on his own, and it’s his falsetto that takes center stage. Opener “Below” is a showcase for him, its chorus a feat of vocal acrobatics that washes over you like a tidal wave. The band steps into Radiohead territory more than once here, most notably on “Observe the Train,” but definitely kicks up the heaviness quotient enough times (like on the shimmering “By My Throne”) to keep the prog-metal tag.

The record stays in the same mode for probably too long – it’s only the passionate vocals that distinguish “At the Bottom” from the songs before it – but pulls off some magic tricks at the end. The noisy electronic shuffle “Foreigner” gives way to the 11-minute “The Sky is Red,” a true powerhouse and the best thing here. It closes Pitfalls on an ominous note, and hopefully sets the stage for more full-band explosions like it on future records. If Pitfalls has a (ahem) pitfall, it’s that it remains coiled for too long before striking. It’s a tense affair, and it will leave you in awe of Solberg’s singular talent, if nothing else.

* * * * *

Even heavier? Can do.

I will admit to you that I never heard French band Alcest before last month. I can’t get to everything, of course, but the way my friend Jeremy talked up this band and their new record, Spiritual Instinct, well, I knew I had missed something special. I’m sure this is a no-brainer for anyone familiar with them, but I loved Spiritual Instinct and I will definitely be tracking down the rest of this band’s output. (And, apparently, the hundreds of side projects associated with leader Niege.)

Let’s get this out of the way first: Alcest sing in French. You will not care. I know enough rudimentary French to figure out some of what they’re saying – titles translate to “The Garden of Midnight” and “The Island of the Dead,” among others – and it’s generally metal-sounding stuff about isolation and dark souls and truthful mirrors. Again, you won’t care. It’s the sound that will knock you over. Alcest is considered a blackgaze band, and I’m not sure I know any others – they combine heavy-as-hell black metal, screams and all, with the atmospheres of shoegaze. I love both of those things, and intertwined like this, they make Spiritual Instinct sound almost impossibly enormous.

This is the kind of heavy that feels like tons of water pressing down on you, and floating you up at the same time. “Protection” is amazing, its thick walls of sound masking what is a genuinely gorgeous melodicism. There are harmonies all over this record, drowned in gigantic guitars – like the best shoegaze, it takes a couple listens to tease out all the elements, especially the prettier ones. But if you want a master class in what this is, try the nine-minute “L’ile des Morts.” It comes screaming out of the gate, but slowly unfolds into something quite beautiful.

Spiritual Instinct is a lot shorter than I expected – 41 minutes exactly – especially since I wanted to live in its world for hours. The closest analogue I can think of is Deafheaven, but Alcest is even more concerned with beauty. This is a powerful little record, a universe contained in less time than it takes to watch an episode of television, and I’m very much looking forward to spending more time with this band.

* * * * *

Spiritual Instinct is the kind of massive, all-encompassing musical experience that you can’t really follow up with much. But lately, after its last strains have faded out, I’ve found a weird kind of solace in segueing into the new album from A Winged Victory for the Sullen.

It’s called The Undivided Five and it is only this duo’s third album in eight years. But like the last one, 2014’s Atomos, this was well worth the wait. Only Hammock makes more immersive ambient music, for my money. The Undivided Five takes its cues from Claude Debussy, particularly his piano works, and wraps its simple, big chords in strings and synthesizers, all processed and folded out of shape. This is music to float into orbit to, and it lifts my soul in ways I can’t express.

I know some people will spend the entirety of The Undivided Five (another surprisingly short record at 46 minutes) waiting for something to happen, and I understand that reaction. This is music you have to give yourself over to in order to enjoy it. You have to let the music direct your mood, not the other way around. I’m making it sound new-agey, and it’s in no way that – it’s wider than the sky, and more emotionally direct than anything you might meditate to. I’m in awe of the orchestral elements here. The strings on “Sullen Sonata” alone knock me flat.

In short, this record is beautiful, and worth the five years I waited for it. If I were able, this is the kind of music I would make all day and all night. It touches something deeper within me. It feels like a connection to something grander that I cannot describe. In a lot of ways, most music is aiming for this kind of transcendence. A Winged Victory for the Sullen gets there, every time, and my life is better for knowing and loving their work.

Next week, Nick Cave. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

We Feel It Is Our Duty
On Kanye, Marillion and the Difference Between Have To and Want To

This week is a classic case of feeling like I have to talk about one thing, but really wanting to talk about another.

There’s this weird sense of duty I still have about this column, some delusional idea that people look to tm3am to weigh in on the big records of the week. That was certainly the case when I wrote it for print, and people actually read it. I’d get actual letters and phone calls asking when I would review/opine on new records. That hasn’t happened for a long time with this online iteration, and yet I still feel like there are new albums each week I’m expected to say something about.

This week’s conversation piece is, of course, Jesus is King, Kanye West’s long-delayed gospel-rap record. And the more I thought about what to write about it, the more I realized I just don’t have anything interesting to say about it. West swears he has had an actual road-to-Damascus conversion experience, and he’s filled Jesus is King with straight-up gospel worship songs. Sonically it sounds like a Kanye record, but it’s more like an Imperials album in form and content.

Which is all fine. I enjoyed my quick spins through this record – the whole thing is only 27 minutes long, and most of the songs hover around the two-minute mark, so it’s an easy listen – but I didn’t find it revelatory. My favorite part, weirdly, is probably Kenny G’s isolated solo on “Use This Gospel,” although I am fascinated by the fact that West gets people like Pusha T to rap about faith here. West’s guests, by and large, have never expressed interest in matters of faith before, so hearing them trade rhymes about Jesus is strange.

I’ve been watching the reaction to Jesus is King, which has been more interesting than the record, but I still don’t have a lot to say about it. I have no idea if West has had a true encounter with the divine, whatever that may look like. I don’t know if Jesus is King is a publicity stunt or a genuine outpouring of faith. (I do find the verses about God showing off by giving Kanye a lot of money troublesome.) And I don’t imagine all of the long-lead think-pieces in the world will let us know what’s going on in his heart.

It also doesn’t matter a whole lot. What we have is a 27-minute foray into gospel rap, and it’s no throwaway – it’s clear West worked on this and made it the best he could. I’ve been off Kanye West for some time now, listening as he lost his way and made dreary, tossed-off records about himself. This one feels more tightly focused, as if turning to the language of gospel has taken the pressure off. Jesus is Kingis a good record, and whether it turns out to be a side-step or a new direction is something only Jesus knows.

But honestly, I don’t want to talk about Kanye. I’m really here to tell you about Marillion.

I know what you’re going to say. I talk about Marillion all the time. But it’s a very good example of what I’m trying to illustrate here. Kanye’s record is one everyone cares about, and I’m just not that interested in it. Marillion’s work captivates me completely, and almost no one I know hears what I hear in them. There’s nothing I can do about that, but I still plan to fill the final paragraphs of this column with my thoughts and impressions of their surprise new record, not because I feel like anyone’s expecting me to, but because I just can’t keep music that moves me this much to myself.

So, Marillion. I don’t know if anyone reading this needs an introduction to them – just search my archive for several instances of me waxing lyrical about them. They’re often lumped in with progressive rock bands, but that’s not really what they do. To me, Marillion conjures up magic and shapes it, and those shapes can stretch to three minutes or twenty. They’re equally adept at either one, and all sizes in between. Lately, those shapes have been more symphonic – their 18th album, Fuck Everyone and Run, was built around three extended multi-part compositions and included their first-ever collaboration with a string section.

The band has expanded that collaboration on their surprise 19th album. It shares a name with their current tour – Marillion With Friends from the Orchestra – and finds them augmenting nine of their older songs with strings, horns and flutes. This is the perfect time for such a retrospective, since their inimitable frontman Steve Hogarth is celebrating 30 years with the band. He’s 60 years old and his voice is somehow even more striking and supple now than it was in 1989. They’ve made 15 albums together, including this one, and With Friends is a lovely overview of those three decades.

And man, these new arrangements. These aren’t just decorations – the band has fully integrated the orchestral elements into these songs, so much so that the original versions are going to seem slightly lacking. Marillion has always been something of an orchestral band, with keyboardist Mark Kelly’s layers of sound widening their horizons at every turn, but here they perfectly balance their more ethereal and earthbound tendencies. The song selection is perfection, opening with one of my very favorites, the death and rebirth anthem “Estonia.” It’s a song I want played at my funeral, and now this is the version I would choose. When the strings play Kelly’s countermelody on the last chorus, I get chills.

Some of Marillion’s prettiest songs are made even more beautiful here, from the transcendent “Beyond You” to the dark, powerful “The Hollow Man.” I have always wanted to hear “Fantastic Place” with real strings – the synth strings on the original version can be overpowering, but these sound delightful, caressing the early part of the song and lifting the later part. Both “The Hollow Man” and “A Collection” are filled out from their spare original versions, and my sole complaint with this record is that the sweeter arrangement of the latter masks the creepiness of the lyrics.

But all complaints are washed away by the three massive centerpiece tunes here. I’m not sure why I wouldn’t have expected that extended workouts like “This Strange Engine” and “Ocean Cloud” would be here, but they are, and the new arrangements are utterly magnificent. “Engine” isn’t changed very much, just augmented with gorgeous strings and horns, but I will never get tired of hearing Hogarth give his all to the final minutes of this song. It’s essentially his musical autobiography in 16 minutes, and he somehow sounds even better here than he did 22 years ago when he laid down these vocals the first time.

“The Sky Above the Rain,” the emotional closer of 2012’s Sounds That Can’t be Made, benefits the most from the orchestra. The best part of this song has always been the “maybe they’ll talk” coda, and here it is completely different, fragile instead of soaring. It reframes the whole song, making it a new experience. And “Ocean Cloud,” well, I don’t even know what to say. It is my favorite Marillion song, an 18-minute masterpiece, and it’s somehow even more symphonic and powerful in this new iteration.

These are songs I know by heart, songs whose nuances live and breathe within me, and With Friends from the Orchestra somehow has me appreciating them anew, hearing them in fresh ways. This is, in 79 minutes, exactly what I love about this band, and is now the single disc I will hand out to people who are curious about them. After 38 years and 19 albums, Marillion can still surprise and delight me. That’s a rare thing, and even if no one else in my life ever loves them the way I do, they’ve enriched that life more than they will ever know. Which is why, even in the face of indifference, I can’t be silent about them.

Hear and buy at www.marillion.com.

Next week, a roundup of several new releases in several genres. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning

Delayed Gratification
Why Double Albums Should Just Stick Together

Yesterday Coldplay announced a new double album called Everyday Life.

I am, of course, girding myself for the ration of crap I will get just for admitting that I pay attention to Coldplay, let alone for being a fan. I’ve liked, to some degree, everything they’ve done, although they came closest to losing me with 2015’s pop letdown A Head Full of Dreams. But even that record had some interesting moments and choices, and you certainly can’t say that it sounds like Coldplay. Those who remember “Fix You” and “Clocks” and haven’t kept up since then will likely be surprised by the band’s last four records, should they bother to listen.

But anyway. Everyday Life is a double album, and the timing is fortuitous, because that’s exactly what I want to talk about this week. I have no idea why double albums double my interest in a band’s work, but they do. I have always been fascinated and drawn in by epics, by long works of art that require a significant investment to absorb. I have no interest in high fantasy fiction, but I have long been intrigued by Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, just because it’s so long. What would the experience of reading the whole thing be like? Could I do it? Would it be worth it?

Same with double albums. I’m always surprised and elated when they exist, when a band or artist decides that they just have too much to say to fit onto one CD. I love marathon listens – I have, several times, made my way through the entirety of the Dear Hunter’s Acts saga in one long sitting – and each one that comes along reminds me that those pundits suggesting that we live in a singles-driven download world and the album is dying on the vine are just wrong.

I can’t say I love the recent trend of breaking double albums up and releasing them as separate discs, though. That was Coldplay’s rumored plan: an “experimental” album this year and more straightforward one next year. I applaud the decision to release both halves together in one package – the discs are separately labeled as Sunrise and Sunset– and not to make us wait. I’ve noticed a lot more two-volume sets recently, issued as separate albums months apart, and while I keep buying them, the experience is not as fulfilling for me as diving through a lengthy double album all at once.

But what, I wasn’t going to buy the new Foals album the day it came out? This British quartet is one of the most exciting and interesting bands I know of, and if they wanted me to buy one half of the 79-minute Everything Not Saved Will be Lost back in March, who am I to argue? Of course I bought it, and of course I heard it on repeat for days. It’s a great piece of work on its own, from the slow burn of “Exits” to the beautifully constructed 9/8 stomp of “On the Luna” to the pretty “I’m Done with the World (And It’s Done with Me).”

The first part certainly works on its own, but now that Everything Not Saved Will be Lost Part Two is here, two things have become clear: these records work better in tandem, and it’s obvious how and why they separated them. The first part is more moody, more groove-based, more keyboard-heavy. This second part is a guitar-fueled rock-band powerhouse, and from first moment to (nearly) last, it moves like a bullet train. It follows the same format as the first – an intro, eight songs and an interlude – but its character is almost entirely different.

I hesitate to say this, given how much I love the first part, but I like the second half better. It’s just more alive, more explosive, more instantly captivating. I’ve not heard a more driving set of songs in a row this year than the ones that open this record – after the tense intro of “Red Desert” we have “The Runner,” “Wash Off” and “Black Bull,” three extraordinary 100-mile-an-hour wonders, one after another. They lead into “Like Lightning,” which only slows things down marginally – this one should be a radio hit, though it won’t be, and on the heels of the screaming “Black Bull,” it does a great job of showing the band’s more melodic side. It’s like a Black Keys song done right.

The second half of this second half is just as great, if a mite less relentless. “Into the Surf,” teased on the first half, is a gorgeous piano ballad, and it leads into “Neptune,” the ten-minute closer. As the longest song in Foals’ catalog, this one of course had to be the finale, and it’s a crash-and-recede epic that feels like an extended mantra. It creates its own little world and lives in it for as long as it wants to. Weirdly, I think it works better as the final song of a 40-minute album than as the culmination of a 79-minute one, yet another reason to split these two up.

Still, I can’t help wondering what this might have sounded like had the band ignored the stylistic separation, mixed these tracks up and delivered an 80-minute double record all at once. I’m not sure how I would arrange it, but it’s a fun thought experiment. Everything Not Saved will be Lost is a tremendous piece of work, no matter how the band organized it. But while I wouldn’t want to sacrifice the hurtling-along feel of this second part, the moodier first part could have used some of this energy. Either way, you should check out both parts of this thing, as it’s one of the best Foals albums and one of my favorites of the year.

The Magpie Salute’s High Water is not one of my favorites of the year, and it’s a better example of the issue I have with this double-album-in-pieces approach. For those who haven’t been following the post-breakup saga of the Black Crowes, while singer Chris Robinson has been turning out album after album with his new band, the Chris Robinson Brotherhood, his guitar-playing brother Rich has been a bit quieter. The Magpie Salute is his new band with a couple Crowes stalwarts and former Sixpence None the Richer mastermind Matt Slocum on keys, and though they made a quiet entrance with their self-titled record in 2017, High Water is their true coming out party.

I was honestly pretty excited to hear that Robinson had amassed enough material to fill two discs. I think he’s the underrated Robinson brother, and his solo work (four albums and counting) has been solid. I also like the looseness of this new band, with Robinson and John Hogg trading off lead vocals. There’s an anything-goes quality to it that is appealing in an Exile on Main Street kind of way.

But man, did they just not have enough strong material to make a 95-minute record. I knew this would be a problem when the first half, last year’s High Water I, petered out before the end. I would have cut four sloppy, trad-bluesy tunes from that record, and I expected that there would be at least four solid songs on High Water II that could have taken their place, turning this into a perfectly respectable single-disc affair. Turns out I was right, but just barely.

High Water II is just kinda boring. It’s very ‘70s rock, very Rolling Stones, and if you’re into that more than I am, you may enjoy and appreciate what Robinson and the band have delivered here. I like “Gimme Something” quite a bit – it takes on the gospel overtones of a lot of the Crowes’ By Your Side – and I dig the slide guitars of “Mother Storm,” but this whole thing just blends together, none of these songs announcing themselves with any distinctiveness. I was hoping that Alison Krauss would inject some life into “Lost Boy,” but she’s barely audible. None of these songs break out of their traditional shells, and even within those shells, their choruses are surprisingly weak.

The record does end strong with the urgent “Doesn’t Really Matter” and the slinky “Where Is This Place,” two songs I’d probably save for the single-CD version of this thing. High Water II is absolutely a continuation of the first volume – you can trace just when the inspiration left these guys and they kept on trudging along anyway. So in that way, I definitely wish these 24 songs had been released all at once. Instead we have a decent first half and a much weaker second half that certainly doesn’t stand on its own. Selfishly, I wish I’d only had to shell out once for this material, instead of twice over two years. High Water as a whole is a bit of a slog – it isn’t terrible, but it isn’t worth the investment of time that a truly great double album rewards.

Next week, hopefully Marillion, but if not, we’ll have a few other options. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

The New Dark Age
Elbow and Coyote Kid Soundtrack Our Turbulent Times

As we get closer to the end of the year, the new releases start to take on a different significance for me.

Good music is good music, of course, no matter when it surfaces. But when we start to get into October and November I start to think about my picture of the year in music, and what that music ended up saying. And I do this knowing full well that at any time, some new record could come along and redraw that whole picture for me.

I have a schedule of announced releases and I’ve noted the ones I’m keeping my eye on – and there aren’t that many this year – but often the best stuff ends up being a complete surprise. I didn’t see The Dear Hunter’s Act IV coming, for instance, and its appearance at the tail end of 2015 rocked my little world. It ended up at number two that year, only trailing to a pair of masterpieces so astonishingly good that they tied for first.

So I’m keeping my ear out for anything that grabs me the way Act IV did. But at the same time, I’m tracking several other records that I expect to be worthy, and two of them landed in my lap this past week. In my world, there is little more gratifying than waiting for months for a record, finally hearing it and feeling like all that time spent in anticipation was worth it. Lucky me, I got to experience that twice in the past seven days, and I’m excited to tell you about both of these albums.

First up is Elbow, and I swear this band is incapable of making a bad record. I don’t think they could do it if they tried. Granted, I don’t believe they’ve ever tried – over seven previous efforts, they’ve refined a patient and powerful sound, and now they are equally comfortable playing their clockwork style of rock, adding enormous layers of lush orchestration, or going as minimal as possible, as they did on 2017’s riveting single “Gentle Storm.” While flashier bands have fizzled out, Elbow has spent nearly 20 years quietly amassing a stunningly good body of work.

Even by their standards, the band’s eighth album Giants of All Sizes is wonderful. Lyrically it is definitely a reaction to these Brexit-Trump times – these “faith-free, hope-free, charity-free days,” as leader Guy Garvey sings – but musically the band is clearly in a confident place. Giants contains some of their prettiest melodies married to some of Garvey’s most desperate and lonely lyrics, and the sum of those parts is perhaps the finest record they’ve made.

If you thought Little Fictions was a mite subdued, you’re going to love the opener to this one. “Dexter and Sinister” brings Elbow the rock band front and center for a seven-minute stomp that brings earlier classics like “Grounds for Divorce” to mind. This one’s about loss of faith – the opening line, “I don’t know Jesus anymore,” can be read in a straightforward way or as a metaphor for a world that has passed beyond understanding – and its powerful riff matches Garvey’s pleading words. Midway through the band shifts gears into a beautiful jam, complete with soaring vocals by Jesca Hoop.

“Dexter and Sinister” certainly throws down a gauntlet – it’s my favorite Elbow opening track in years – but the album is more than ready for the challenge. “Seven Veils” is remarkable, a sweet-sounding hymn of abandonment with a gorgeous arrangement. “Empires” picks the pace back up somewhat for a tale of self-destruction: “Empires crumble all the time, you just happened to witness mine,” Garvey sings over an insistent organ line. Strings elevate the urgent “The Delayed 3:15,” which leads into “White Noise White Heat,” a patented off-kilter Elbow rocker that finds Garvey lamenting what the world has done to him: “I was born with a trust that didn’t survive the white noise of the lies, the white heat of injustice has taken my eyes…”

Garvey channels Peter Gabriel and David Bowie at times here, the latter most completely on the stripped-back “Doldrums.” It’s probably my least favorite here, but it leads into the lovely final third, all of which is excellent. “My Trouble is a perfect number about missing someone who was never good for you, the band percolating softly behind Garvey as the strings build and he sings “Come get me, guide and check me, sail and wreck me, soak me to my skin…” It’s basically the kind of song only Elbow seems to know how to write, and I’m grateful they keep on writing them. The nostalgic “On Deronda Road” and the surprisingly upbeat “Weightless” close things on a delightful note.

When I mentioned to friends that Elbow’s new album is amazing, I had several of them tell me they’d never heard of the band. (This despite my best efforts over the past 19 years.) If this is you, I envy you – this new one is the band’s eighth, and you cannot go wrong with any of them. Or all of them, which is what I would recommend. Elbow is a band quite unlike any other, and Giants of All Sizes is another knock-me-over winner from them, and probably the best thing they’ve done. It’s a great time to jump aboard and become a fan.

Speaking of bands everyone I know should listen to, there’s Coyote Kid.

I know what you’re thinking. Who on earth is Coyote Kid, and why, if we all should be listening to them, have you never mentioned them before? Well, I have mentioned them, several times, under their previous name, Marah in the Mainsail. I first heard them at AudioFeed Festival in Champaign back in 2014, and was immediately captivated. They play a sort of apocalyptic folk-rock that draws on centuries of story-songs, updated with horns and cinematic arrangements. Two years ago they delivered a dark masterpiece with Bone Crown, a fiery fairy tale that moves relentlessly from prologue to epilogue. It’s awesome.

Their new one, The Skeleton Man, is a sequel set in the same world, but the band apparently felt that they’d moved far enough from their sea-shanty origins that a name change was warranted. Full disclosure, I like the name Marah in the Mainsail a lot more than the name Coyote Kid, but the new moniker is serviceable, and it does conjure the dystopian western image they were hoping for. It’s the music that counts anyway, and The Skeleton Man is phenomenal, taking the Bone Crown template and kicking it up several notches.

It also ramps up the band’s storytelling side, so much so that it’s clearly their identity now. The Skeleton Man appears to kick off what I hope is a nice long series of concept records about the Coyote Kid, a wanderer in the post-disaster world left by the great fire at the end of Bone Crown. There’s a plague ravaging the land, and the Coyote Kid must contend with the Crow, a childhood friend who now believes she can cure the plague by bringing people back to life, Frankenstein style. Along the way the Coyote Kid becomes the embodiment of death, and faces off against monsters called prowlers and an army of the undead.

This sounds like it would be convoluted, but the songs are all immediate and instantly enjoyable. Austin Durry has a gritty voice that fits the propulsive, raucous sound perfectly, and the band’s guitar-heavy arrangements leap from the speakers. You’ll be through five of these songs before you even know what’s happening, so unrelenting is the band’s attack, and these 44 minutes fly by in a whirl of drums and ear-catching noise.

But that’s OK, because track five, “Strange Days,” is this band at its best – it ebbs and flows with a crawling menace, Durry welcoming you to the “new dark age” before a stunning sustained howl in the middle eight. If I had only one song to play you to get you into Coyote Kid, this would be it. That’s not to say that the other dozen tracks are not worth your time, because there are no bad songs on The Skeleton Man, and it all plays like a single piece. “Tough Kids” is amazing, “Destroyer of Worlds” is surprisingly funny, and when Cassandra Valentine takes on the part of the Crow on “Dark Science” and “Electric Lover,” it’s riveting.

Yeah, this is a dark story full of death and pain, and it doesn’t conclude here: the title track closes things out, and it finds the Coyote Kid, in his new guise as the Skeleton Man, heading out to find the supernatural cause of the plague. I assume this thread will be picked up next time, which is quite the vote of confidence in themselves as a band. Such a cliffhanger may have left The Skeleton Man feeling incomplete if the songs were not so full and rich. This record is a journey through a violent wasteland, led by death himself, and it ends with hope still far, far away. I hesitate to say that resonates in these turbulent times, but it does.

The Skeleton Man will be available to hear and buy next week, and I’ll share the link when it’s up. (I Kickstarted the album, so I got to hear it early.) I hope I can convince at least some of you to give this a try, because I think Coyote Kid will be your new favorite band. They’ve been one of mine for years now, whatever they choose to call themselves, and The Skeleton Man is just one more reason why.

Next week, a pair of part twos. After that, Marillion. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Under Pressure
Trying to Love Wilco and Sturgill Simpson

As much as I like to think I am my own person, beholden to no one when it comes to my personal taste in music, I have to admit that I do feel pressure to like certain things.

Most of the time I’m immune to the Pitchfork crowd and their manufactured hype, especially when it surrounds new artists. There’s literally no way that someone with just a self-released home-recorded EP under their belt has redefined what it means to be a musician in the 21st century, but pretty much every week I’m inundated with such bizarre proclamations from indie tastemakers. And mainly I just ignore them. It’s healthier that way. I tend to prefer artists with bodies of work anyway, musical journeys I can sink my teeth into.

But sometimes it does get to me. There are bands and artists I feel I should like, and those are the ones whose records I keep buying in some vain attempt to crack their code. An excellent example is the National, an act I find almost supernaturally boring. The buzz around them has never died down, and so many people I know and trust adore them that I am left feeling like something must be wrong with me. So I keep trying their new material, and it keeps leaving me cold.

I wish it were not the case, but Wilco has fit that particular bill for 15 years now. It’s especially difficult because I love their early material. The first four Wilco albums are varying shades of excellent, particularly the sprawling Being There and the still-incredible Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. But ever since the late Jay Bennett exited the band, leaving Jeff Tweedy in sole control, Wilco has bored me silly. I’ve bought every album, and even explored Tweedy’s solo work, and almost none of it has struck any kind of chord with me.

I say almost none because I enjoyed “Wilco (The Song)” and felt like The Whole Love was a stronger effort. But in the eight years since that album Tweedy hasn’t written a single song that resonates with me. That streak remains alive on Ode to Joy, the 11th Wilco record, which – despite the buzz – is just as formless and lifeless as most of the band’s post-YHF material. I want to like this. I really do. But these songs just kind of start and end without doing anything in between, and as much as I like hearing a happier Tweedy, what he’s delivered here is as lazy as ever.

I should say that there are two songs that nearly come alive. Where Tweedy sounds at least half asleep on most of this record, he wakes up a bit for “Everyone Hides,” which chugs forward on Glenn Kotche’s mildly energetic drumming. This elevates the song to the point where it is, you know, fine, which makes it the high point. And the single, “Love is Everywhere (Beware),” makes its simple strum and triumphant electric guitar arpeggio work for it. It’s still a very basic 6/8 shuffle of a thing, but at least I remember it.

That’s about it, though. The rest of Ode to Joy sounds barely alive to me, dragging its feet from song to song without any enthusiasm. I like bits – the harmonized guitar on “Hold Me Anyway,” the distorted flare-ups on “We Were Lucky” – but no whole songs. Wilco songs used to have choruses, used to stick in the mind, and lately they sound like Tweedy is angling for a participation trophy in his own band. Perhaps if I didn’t hear so often what a revered songwriter he is, I wouldn’t expect as much from him. As it is, Ode to Joy is another disappointment in an increasingly long line of them.

Another guy I’m supposed to love is Sturgill Simpson, but luckily he makes it a lot easier to be aboard his train. Ever since he struck gold with his second album, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, Simpson has been lauded as the future of twangy rock and roll. I liked Metamodern and I really liked its follow-up, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, with its horns and its Nirvana cover and its general attitude. Simpson calls himself country, but he’s impossible to pigeonhole, and even protested the country music establishment in 2017 after not receiving an invitation to their annual awards.

If that didn’t drive in the final nail in his coffin with the old guard, his new album Sound and Fury absolutely will. It’s the most unexpected left turn of the year – Simpson has created an anime film, available on Netflix, and a synth-flavored futuristic rock record as its soundtrack. Hands up if you saw any of this coming after Sailor’s Guide, because I sure didn’t.

I’ve yet to watch the film, but I’ve heard the album a few times. As you might expect, it’s ruffling the right feathers, but it’s also garnering praise from all the right corners. If you like artistic surprises, this thing is for you. It’s a convincingly stomping rock record with more than a touch of ZZ Top to it, with a healthy smattering of ‘80s keyboards. It sounds like the score to a fast-paced car chase, an impression only heightened by the technique of separating songs with static, to simulate the effect of turning a radio dial.

This thing was obviously a lot of fun to make – you can hear it in the funk bass and percolating percussion of “A Good Look,” one of the best things here. After the opening instrumental, nearly every other song boogies along like dystopian dance numbers, and Simpson’s band clearly enjoyed cutting loose. Even when it chills out, as on the synthesizer landscape of “Make Art Not Friends,” there’s a real sense of freedom here, of Simpson just doing whatever he wanted. That, as an artist, is a great position to be in.

I do feel, though, that Simpson relied too heavily on the shock of this new sound to carry this album, and it only barely does so. A lot of these songs rely on overused chord progressions and fail to truly hit home, alas. “Best Clockmaker on Mars,” for example, has a great charging riff and makes good use of Simpson’s throaty shout, but beyond its basic blues structure, it doesn’t do anything interesting. The synthesizer jumps in halfway through to save it, and that illustrates my issue with this record: I wish Simpson had spent as much time on the songs as he did on the physical sound of the thing.

Because the sound is amazing, especially given Simpson’s prior efforts. He does score with “All Said and Done,” a strong acoustic ballad, and with the closing jam, “Fastest Horse in Town.” But it’s the sound I will remember here more than the songs, and for a guy who made his name as a songwriter, that’s a bit odd. Sound and Fury is weird enough that I wish I unreservedly loved it. I do like it, though, quite a bit, and I heartily endorse the artistic impulse that led Simpson to create it. I hope he stays true to his vision from here on out, because if Sound and Fury is any indication, it should be a wild career.

That’s it for this week. Next week, I expect to wax ecstatic about Elbow and Coyote Kid. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Stepping Out
Brittany Howard and Liam Gallagher Fly Solo

Usually when an artist goes solo, there’s a sense of uncertainty.

You know the questions. Will this person be able to capture the magic of his/her band on her/his own? What if the other members of the band were really bringing the magic? How different will this solo music be from the music this person made with his/her band? Will it be too different? Will it be too much the same? When is the band getting back together?

Absolutely none of these questions have been asked about Brittany Howard, leader of the Alabama Shakes, on the occasion of her first solo record. That’s because if any artist in recent memory seemed to have the right to take the band name on as her own, it was Howard. For most people – and no offense intended to her three bandmates, though I just had to Google to see how many were in the band – she is Alabama Shakes. Her voice, her guitar playing and her jaw-dropping presence are the three main reasons to listen to her band.

In many ways, then, Jaime is the least risky solo bow I have ever seen. I think everyone assumed Jaime would be just what it is: a solid, soulful, strange and striking piece of work that centers Howard’s voice and further cements her as an artist to watch. It’s not surprising that this album is pretty great. It would have been surprising, in fact, if it were not.

But let’s be clear: Jaime doesn’t sound like Alabama Shakes. It’s a much quieter affair, with a lot on its mind and a real sense of dynamics and versatility. The album is named after and dedicated to Howard’s sister, who died as a teenager, and when she shouts “We are all brothers and sisters” on the wild dirge “13th Century Metal,” it feels both universal and personal. This album is remarkably weird, as if Howard knew exactly how far she could push her well-earned creative freedom, but it’s leavened with beautiful numbers like “Stay High” and the deeply soulful “Baby.”

“History Repeats,” the opener and first single, masters that universal personal thing right away. It’s both romantic and political, and when she sings “History repeats and we defeat ourselves” over and over, she makes her point beautifully. “Goat Head” is one of the most striking, with keyboards from Robert Glasper and a lyric about herself as a child trying to make sense of the racist south. “Who slashed my dad’s tires and put a goat head in the back,” she sings with (and this is remarkable) a tone of jaded innocence. But she juxtaposes that with a beautiful oasis of contentment on “Presence.” The whole record is like this, stabbing you and then kissing the wound.

Like that second Alabama Shakes album, Jaime may not seem to hang together at first, but every part of it is meticulously crafted and arranged. It has taken a few listens to really piece it together, but now that it’s flowing for me, I think it’s pretty terrific. Like most people, I assume, I never had any doubt that it would be, but Howard threw more than one curve ball here, especially for fans of her band, and it’s impressive how well she navigates this jazz-soul-hip-hop blend she delivers. I have no idea if Alabama Shakes will ever be a thing again, but it hardly matters: in or out of the band, she’s swell, and Jaime is another winner.

I can’t imagine a similar truckload of confidence greeting Liam Gallagher, the erstwhile singer of Oasis. He suffers from the classic lead singer dilemma: Liam’s brother Noel is widely credited with writing the songs that made Oasis what they were, and without him, there’s no real way to know what level he’ll be able to reach. He has one of the most recognizable voices to emerge from the Britpop boom of the ‘90s, but those questions above certainly applied to him, and the mediocre nature of Beady Eye, his post-Oasis band, didn’t help answer them.

It’s a truly pleasant surprise, then, how enjoyable Gallagher’s solo albums have been. 2017’s As You Were gave us a solid set of songs, particularly the mea culpa “For What It’s Worth,” and now the cheekily titled Why Me? Why Not takes another good-sized step forward. While Noel is busy issuing dance-rock singles, Liam connected with pop craftsmen like Greg Kurstin (of The Bird and the Bee) and Andrew Wyatt (of Miike Snow) and, for the second time, assembled a catchy, memorable group of short, well-written tunes.

And make no mistake, each of the 14 songs on Why Me is a potential single. The roaring guitars of “Shockwave,” the opener, have already delivered Liam his most successful solo track, and there are so many others lying in wait here that Radio One may not know what hit it. The barrelhouse piano and thunderous drums of “Halo,” for instance, are pretty terrific, as is the melody and gentle sweetness of “Now That I’ve Found You.” Kurstin and Wyatt produced, and every song sounds crisp and ready for mass consumption.

I don’t mean to suggest that this is some crassly commercial effort, though of course it is designed to become as popular as possible. It truly is a well-honed set of songs, all of which fit Gallagher’s voice quite well. It’s a more polished effort than the last few Oasis albums and miles better than Beady Eye, which makes this my favorite Liam Gallagher record in something like 20 years. That may sound like faint praise, but I mean it as a true blue compliment. Why Me? Why Not is a thoroughly enjoyable record, and I hope Liam can keep this streak going.

* * * * *

So some of you may have noticed that I skipped the second quarter report this year. I took an entire month off for the first time in this silly music column’s long history, and that month happened to be June, and so I never compiled my halfway-through-the-year list. It’s time now for the third quarter report, and I hope it’s no surprise that it doesn’t resemble the one I assembled in March at all, except for the top spot. I mean, what a lousy year it would have been if it did.

Anyway, I’m glad to be back in my weekly groove, and glad to have a third quarter report to share with you. Here’s what my top 10 list in progress looks like right now.

10. Devin Townsend, Empath.
9. Over the Rhine, Love and Revelation.
8. Pedro the Lion, Phoenix.
7. David Mead, Cobra Pumps.
6. Coyote Kid, The Skeleton Man.
5. Peter Mulvey, There Is Another World.
4. Bryan Scary, Birds.
3. Lizzo, Cuz I Love You.
2. Keane, Cause and Effect.
1. Amanda Palmer, There Will Be No Intermission.

 That album at number six will get a review shortly, I promise. There are also a few I wish I could include, like The Bird and the Bee’s amazing Van Halen tribute record. And there’s a new Marillion, With Friends From the Orchestra, on its way later this month, but it will be ineligible since it consists of new versions of older songs. But with strings! I am very much looking forward to hearing it.

That will do it for this week. Probably Wilco and Sturgill Simpson on tap for next week. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

New Golden Age
Keane's Sad, Glorious Return

I didn’t realize how much I would miss Keane until they were gone.

I can still remember just about everything about my first listen through Hopes and Fears, Keane’s 2004 debut album (and still their most commercially successful effort). I don’t recall a lot of first listens, especially to first records, but this one captivated me from first note to last. At the time Keane was a trio – singer Tom Chaplin, pianist Tim Rice-Oxley and drummer Richard Hughes – and their elegant, unfailingly melodic pop hit me exactly right.

As always with me, it was the songs I loved, from “Bend and Break” to “Everybody’s Changing” to “Sunshine” to the amazing “Bedshaped.” Sometimes when I listen to Hopes and Fears, I can still capture that initial rush of delight at finding something so beautifully realized, and at discovering a band that I knew I would follow for the rest of my days. And for the next eight years, I did just that – every two years or so, Keane would give me something new, and I would devour it. 2006’s Under the Iron Sea remains my favorite for its raw emotions and dark soundscapes, but Keane never made a record I didn’t like.

And then, after 2012’s more laid-back Strangeland, they went away. I should mention that I’d seen them live on every tour, thrilling at the fact that Chaplin can really sing like that on stage and admiring how seamlessly they integrated guitarist Jesse Quin for the Perfect Symmetry shows. Keane had been part of the fabric of my life for long enough that it truly hurt to see them fade away. It hurt even more to know that there had been more than the usual musical differences – Chaplin was working through some painful addictions that required an extended time away from music, as he detailed on his gorgeous solo album, The Wave.

I know I shouldn’t admit to loving this band quite as much as I do, but a world without Keane did take some getting used to for me. I get why people don’t like them – they’re straightforwardly and nakedly emotional, sometimes in ways that are even too much for me, and they’re the furthest thing from edgy. But to me Keane is a band constantly in search of the most beautiful thing they can create together, and part of that search is an unflinching honesty. Under the Iron Sea, for example, is made up of songs Rice-Oxley wrote about his frustrations and dark feelings toward Chaplin and his addictions, and Chaplin sings them. Any band that can survive something like that is, to me, worth championing, and worth much closer listens than most people offer them.

So of course I am over the moon that I no longer have to live in a world without Keane, and I’m absolutely in love with their fifth album, Cause and Effect. For a longtime fan like me, this album is revelatory – it is the most grown-up, world-weary record they have made, and you can feel the changes in their lives over the past seven years. It’s more than just the way Chaplin’s voice has matured, though there’s a new clear-eyed sense to his remarkably pure tone. It’s the way the band has become less adventurous, and at the same time more confident and complete. This is the most beautiful record these four guys could have made at this point in their lives, and while it’s more muted than their early work, it’s also exactly what it should be.

I’m not sure it was a choice, but Cause and Effect is almost entirely about Rice-Oxley’s 2012 divorce and its aftermath, and there’s a walk-through-the-world-alone sadness to the best material here. Some bands might have been self-conscious about leaving for seven years and returning with a sad record full of dark admissions and life lessons, but there’s no doubt every note and line here has been lived in. The wide-eyed innocence of “Somewhere Only We Know” is nowhere in evidence, but they’re the same band that wrote that song, and you can hear its echoes.

Basically, from the first electric piano notes of “You’re Not Home,” this record had me. The song is about the immediate aftermath of separation, when the person you loved is still all around you. “The click of the front door, your clothes left on the floor, bike wheels still turning where you left them on the back lawn…” Chaplin, of course, sings the hell out of this, and I can’t even tell you how grateful I am to have 11 new songs (13 with the bonus tracks) featuring his voice.

The band gets the radio singles out of the way early – both “Love Too Much” and “The Way I Feel” have that bright-music-sad-lyrics thing Keane does so well. “The Way I Feel” sounds like the Killers, as better critics than me have pointed out, and I like it, but I adore “Love Too Much.” “The purest dreams, they make us feel so high, when you’re falling down is when you feel most alive,” Chaplin sings over a lovely synth-and-piano foundation. This song is a latter-day-Keane classic, one of the best examples of their newfound clarity.

The rest of Cause and Effect slows down and aims for the heart. “Strange Room” hurts the way “Hamburg Song” hurt all those years ago. It digs deep into Rice-Oxley’s desolation: “For a moment I was dreaming we were just beginning, thought ‘finally I’ve come home, finally I’ve come home…’” It details his 2015 drunk driving arrest, and he includes a moment of lovely self-awareness as he talks to the officer: “I know what it looks like, a rich kid with a good life.” This one stays low-key, almost mantra-like, and though it builds, it never breaks open. It just breaks your heart.

“Stupid Things” is similar, full of details about Rice-Oxley’s relationship as he dissects it in his mind. “And now it’s little lies and alibis and the second phone, can’t make it home, I’m working late, you know I hate to miss the kids’ bedtime again…” This is the barest admission of his own wrongdoing, and it must be so strange for him to hear Chaplin sing it. “And I know that you know and we both just play along, just one more stupid thing that I have done…”

To me, the three-song stretch from “I’m Not Leaving” to “Chase the Night Away” is the heart of this record, and can stand with Keane’s best material. The lyrics are desperate and sad and lovely, from the dark chorus of the former (“Hold my hand, just like you used to do, I’m not leaving, throw it up, baby you’re all mixed up…”) to the brokenness of the latter, in which Rice-Oxley looks forward to a time when he can stop trying to rebuild.

But it’s “Thread” that has stayed with me the longest, and is perhaps the most honest of these songs. “All my life I won’t forget the pain in your eyes, I’m still scrubbing at the pain of this mess, wish you could understand the madness that grabbed at my throat and clung to my hands…” Of course the song itself is pretty and fragile, with a subtle string line, and Chaplin sings it like an angel. For some that will be its downfall – the songs on Cause and Effect are so lovely that they mask the anguish that pulses through them. To me that makes them sadder. Keane has moved me like few other bands, and on “Thread” they do it again. “Remember that I’m a good man, just not good enough…”

With all of this context, closer “I Need Your Love” seems more agonizing than romantic. Whether this is written to his ex-wife or to a new love, it comes across as yearning for fulfillment that Rice-Oxley will never find. “Let riches rain upon my head, these golden drugs, they’re not enough, I need your love,” Chaplin sings in his soaring voice, and if the pain of other songs here is disguised by their arrangements, this one is the epitome. It’s going to play like a Romeo and Juliet moment, a boy pleading with a girl to love him, and while it is that, it’s something more complex than that as well. It’s essentially the perfect closing song, cliched chorus and all.

In typical Keane fashion, the bonus songs are great too. “New Golden Age” should have been on the album proper. It sounds like picking yourself up and dusting yourself off, and it has one of the record’s best and most indelible choruses. “Difficult Year” isn’t quite as successful, but it as well makes for a fine conclusion: “It’s been a difficult year, I just wish we’d been together to face it…”

Yeah, this record hurts, but it also fills me with joy. I’m so glad to have this band back, especially if this is the type of honest, beautiful record their second act will bring us. In so many ways, Cause and Effect is exactly the right record for Keane to have made right now. It’s no one’s idea of a comeback record – it doesn’t storm the gates, announcing itself with bravado. Rather it patiently lets you into its darkest corners, offering up a difficult yet liberating look at brokenness. Keane’s best work has always done this, which is one reason it’s so good to hear from them again. I’m in love with Cause and Effect, and I think I will be for a long, long time.

That’s it for this week. This is my 950th column, and I’m glad I got to spend it writing about one of my favorite bands. Next week Brittany Howard’s solo debut, and a few other things. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.