All posts by Andre Salles

Brought to You by the Letter F
February's Finds: Franz, Fallon, Field and Frank

I hope I can be forgiven for thinking that Franz Ferdinand was a flash in the pan.

They first burst onto the scene in 2004 with a sound that was like four glitter cannons going off at once. I described them then as Morrissey’s dance band – leader Alex Kapranos has a particularly Mozz-like voice, disaffected and droll, and Franz themselves were equal parts punk and disco, even then. It was a novel sound that I dismissed as a bit of a novelty.

But fourteen years later, here we are. Franz Ferdinand is one of the hardiest survivors of the 2000s, and they’ve proven remarkably adaptable. Over time they’ve added more and more dance elements to their style, and while they are still determinedly quirky, they’ve carved out their own niche. I think a lot of what they’ve been trying to do crystallized when they collaborated with Sparks in 2015, creating a wild record called FFS that played to both bands’ strengths. Franz is far more like Sparks than any of their peers from 2004, and hopefully will be similarly long-lived.

Their fifth album, Always Ascending, continues their streak. With the addition of programmer/producer Julian Corrie to the ranks, the band’s sound has become even more keyboard-driven, and they’ve taken on some Duran Duran overtones here and there. But they still sound like Franz Ferdinand. Kapranos still sounds like he’s commenting on the music while singing it, and the band sounds even more like a danceable Smiths in places here.

And as always, the most damning thing you can say about a Franz record is that it is too short. The songs on Always Ascending are tight and full of hooks. I’m particularly fond of “Finally,” Kapranos floating above a constantly morphing groove, celebrating having found his people. “Lazy Boy” dares you not to take it seriously – it is perhaps the one here most influenced by their time with Sparks.

“Lois Lane” seems to be an earnest tribute to Superman’s girlfriend, lauding her for her journalism career. “Huck and Jim” finds Kapranos going darker, trying his hand at half-speaking, half-rapping, and dropping this chorus: “We’re going to America, gonna tell ‘em ‘bout the NHS, and when we get there we will all hang out, sipping 40s with Huck and Jim.” The album closes with ballad “Slow Don’t Kill Me Slow,” and I always like it when Kapranos takes on these more melodic pieces – he stretches his tenor and delivers with sincerity.

Always Ascending is yet another swell little Franz Ferdinand album. I feel pretty silly for dismissing them at first. They clearly have a strong and solid idea of who they are, and now that I have a bit of a better idea of it too, I’m looking forward to hearing more as they evolve.

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About ten years ago, a friend of mine suggested I listen to The ’59 Sound, the second album by New Jersey band The Gaslight Anthem. I enjoyed it like crazy – it was like the punk version of The E Street Shuffle, raucous and hopeful and fun. I wish I’d known then that the band and its leader, Brian Fallon, didn’t have any other tricks up their sleeve, and would be riding that sound out forever.

Three Gaslight albums and two solo records later, here is Fallon with Sleepwalkers, another dozen songs he dug out of Bruce Springsteen’s dumpster. (I wish that were my joke.) I don’t hate this record, but I’m not finding a whole lot to hang my ear on either. It’s breezy and amiable, hoping to make friends wherever it goes, but it kind of sits there for me, never accomplishing too much.

I like the opening song, “If Your Prayers Don’t Get to Heaven,” well enough – it has a sharp little guitar part, and the organs are pleasant. But then “Forget Me Not” barges in, sounding exactly like Born in the USA-era Bruce, and the momentum collapses. “Come Wander With Me” could be Bryan Adams, so complete is its ‘80s anthemic sound. I like the mandolin on “Proof of Life,” even if the song leaves me cold. “Little Nightmares” works in an Elvis Costello-style guitar-and-organ riff and some swell double-time drums. That one’s probably my favorite.

Throughout this record, Fallon sings his little heart out, and his working man’s poetry is the same as always. I’m sure his heart is in the right place, and he seems invested in the characters he creates and the stories he relates. Of course, those characters and stories are right out of Springsteen, and I wish someone with Fallon’s passion and intensity had it in him to break out of his influences and give us something original.

Sleepwalkers isn’t that. It’s a very well-produced pastiche, a wasted harnessing of forces to create a mediocre copy of better work. Fallon’s singing voice is exactly what it should be, but his songwriting voice is still stuck in the same rut. I’m sure it’s working for him, sales-wise, but he’s leaving a trail of empty art behind him, and that’s a shame.

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Field Music never has that problem. They are unfailingly original, fascinating and captivating. There’s just one problem I have with them: I never remember their songs. Like, ever.

I’ve bought every Field Music album – the new one, Open Here, is their eighth, not counting their b-sides collection – and I’ve loved every one of them. Field Music is, at its core, brothers Peter and David Brewis, and they’re steeped in Supertramp-style progressive pop and English folk music. Their songs are tricky and twisty, but unfailingly melodic and catchy. The brothers Brewis clearly labor over these records, and Open Here is no exception.

I just have some kind of resistance of memory to their work. I’m listening to Open Here for the fourth time right now, and it’s like I’m discovering it again for the first time. I love it – six-minute opener “Time in Joy” is pretty much the perfect Field Music song, with a Steely Dan groove, a pure prog riff that holds the whole thing together, and an absolutely delightful full-harmony chorus. There’s even a flute. It literally could not be better. And next time I hear it, it will be like stumbling across how wonderful it is all over again.

The rest of Open Here is similarly awesome, its 39 minutes flying by in a rush. “Count It Up” sounds like Gary Numan joining 10cc and then ranting about Brexit – the brothers hail from Sunderland, England, the first town in the UK to vote for leaving the European Union, and much of Open Here takes on a renewed political focus. “Goodbye to the Country” is the angriest this band gets, and “Checking on a Message” ably captures the pins-and-needles feeling of waiting up for election results, certain that things are about to go very badly.

I’m also a big fan of “No King No Princess,” a letter to the young Brewis children about rejecting stereotypical gender roles. The horns here are classic Field Music – they almost don’t fit in with the early-XTC-style groove the band lays down. Closer “Find a Way to Keep Me” is a plaintive plea, leaving things on an uncertain note. I love the way it builds and builds, strings and woodwinds winding around it, until it delivers a final pirouette.

Open Here is a great record, just like the last seven Field Music records, and I genuinely would love to remember that it is. My inability to recall how excellent it is has nothing to do with the band or the songs. The brothers Brewis did everything right, as always. I think the key might be to listen over and over, almost obsessively, until this complex yet fully alive music settles into my brain. Wish me luck.

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For all the new music brought to you by the letter F, the thing I’ve been listening to most lately dates back 45 years.

Frank Zappa was a musician like no other, and to be in his band, you had to follow two rules: no drugs allowed, and you had to be able to keep up. He was a musical machine, creating new songs and arrangements at a stunning pace, and he only employed the best of the best to realize his visions. And one of his very best bands played with him from 1973 to 1975, creating some of his best-loved records.

One of those records is called Roxy and Elsewhere, and it features performances captured at the Roxy in Los Angeles over a weekend in December, 1973. It also features a raft of overdubs and studio tweaking, as was Zappa’s wont, and it blurs the line between a live album and a studio creation. The Zappa family has, of course, been milking that weekend of performances, issuing Roxy By Proxy (a collection of other performances not on Roxy and Elsewhere) in 2014, and Roxy the Movie and its soundtrack a year later.

And now they’ve given us the motherlode – a seven-CD box set called The Roxy Performances that includes every note played during that weekend. It’s eight hours long, and contains four full shows, a recorded rehearsal, a studio session and a filmed sound check. (Never let it be said that Zappa didn’t work his musicians.) This might feel like overkill to anyone not steeped in Zappa, but trust me when I tell you it’s not nearly enough kill. I could listen to this incredible band play this incredible material for twice this long without getting bored.

The four shows are amazing, of course. It’s great to finally hear how familiar songs like “Village of the Sun” and “Cheepnis” fit in with the overall arc of what Zappa was trying to do, and to hear them stripped of studio sweetening only emphasizes how fantastic this band is. It would be pointless to call out individual players, since they’re all so good, but I’m always amazed by percussionist Ruth Underwood. She’s flawless, and Zappa gives her some impossibly difficult material to play. Just listen to her showcase on “Don’t You Ever Wash That Thing,” presented here three times. (The 13-minute take from the second show is my favorite.)

The rehearsal is fun – it’s not some hissy-tape document, it’s a crystal clear opportunity to hear the band working out parts of this tricky material. I’m not sure what its replay value is, but I’m glad to have it. The rehearsal tapes also include a new version of “The Idiot Bastard Son” with lyrics about Tricky Dick, called “That Arrogant Dick Nixon.” It’s a technique Zappa would use to full effect on his 1988 tour, which took aim at Jimmy Swaggart and his fellow televangelists.

The studio session is interesting in the same way, as a historical document. Zappa leads the band through some of the best-known material of this era, including the full “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow” suite, and most of this is Zappa giving notes to his players and fine-tuning these pieces. The final disc contains the sound check/film shoot, recorded a day before the first show in front of a select audience. The band vamps on “Pygmy Twylyte” for 35 minutes, gives us a typically great “Echidna’s Arf (Of You),” and closes with quick run-throughs of some extremely difficult pieces (“T’Mershi Duween,” “Dog Breath” and “Uncle Meat”). There isn’t much here that isn’t represented elsewhere, but it’s great to have even more stunning performances of these songs.

There’s so much here, it’s almost impossible to absorb it all. The Roxy Performances is one of the most welcome pieces of Zappa history, finally available in a beautiful box for a decent price. I cannot recommend it highly enough. If you love hearing real musicians playing truly astounding music live, you, like me, won’t be able to get enough of this.

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That’s it for this week. Next week, Justin Timberlake meets Bill Mallonee. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Not the Usual Voices
Listener Refines and the Bad Plus Regenerates

The first time I saw Listener, I had no idea what I was witnessing.

It was at the AudioFeed Festival, of course, where I have discovered most of my new favorite bands for the past few years. Listener was a buzz band there, meaning the kids at the fest were positively giddy at the notion of seeing them play. I’d never heard of them, but had committed early on to trying as many new bands as I could over that weekend. I got maybe three songs in. I had no idea what to think.

They don’t seem that strange to me now, after years of immersion in their work. But that first exposure was something else. Listener is a rock band with a sometimes slow and abrasive edge, and they exist as a delivery method for Dan Smith’s poetry, which he spits out at a snarling, frantic pace. Honestly, there is no frontman in the world like Smith. Imagine if Craig Finn of the Hold Steady grew up on Fugazi, and you’re close, but not quite there.

One of my favorite things about Listener is that they’re already unique, but they keep growing. Each album has expanded their reach, aiming for new sounds and ideas. Their new one, Being Empty: Being Filled, is their most adventurous, and their best. Eight of its songs were released on seven-inches over the past few months, but the full album has just arrived, and if you’ve never heard Listener, I think this is a great starting point.

For one thing, if you want a basic idea of what this band does, you can’t ask for a better introduction than the first two songs here. “Pent Up Genes” is a simple rocker with some spit-fire lines from Smith and some robust horns (at one point playing “Taps”), and “Little Folded Fingers” might be the perfect Listener song – its insistent rumble reminds me of Shellac, it has a memorable chorus (which Listener songs sometimes eschew), and everything fires on all cylinders. I love how it dissipates, then comes roaring back at the end. This one’s going to kill live.

But for another, Being Empty finds the band staking out interesting new territory, and delivering the most complete vision of who they are. “There’s Money in the Walls” is a slowly unfolding undercurrent to Smith’s poetry, fired at you like bullets over the ocean. “Bloodshot/New Love” does interesting things with its vocal arrangement, finding Smith singing the choruses, speaking the verses and then shouting the bridge, while the music constantly shifts under him.

Even when they’re not innovating here, they’re delivering the best realization yet of Listener’s signature sound, as on “Shock and Value” and the immense “A Love Letter to Detroit.” This is their most polished record, and yet there’s a determined rawness to the best moments, the grooves connecting like gears made of sandpaper. While the more traditional Listener tracks are comforting, in their way, the album feels most dangerous when it steps outside that, most notably on closing track “Plague Doctor.” A true epic, this song begins with an explosion of drums from Kris Rochelle, fires some math-rock at us, then stops short, bringing in synthesizers, guitar choirs, space-y vocal effects and a whole ton of noise. It’s the most interesting song they’ve ever given us.

Your enjoyment of Listener will depend on whether you can roll with Dan Smith’s voice. The first time I heard a Listener album (the exquisite Time is a Machine), I was convinced he was yelling at me for the whole thing. It took a while to realize he was yelling with me. His lyrics are beautiful poems of encouragement, of recognition, of worth and value. Shouting along with them has become a particular pleasure of mine at AudioFeed. This is music made for shouting along with, for seeing yourself in, for feeling part of. It’s unfailingly earnest, heartfelt and powerful.

Being Empty: Being Filled would get my vote as the Listener album everyone curious about this band should hear. You can check it out at the band’s site. And you should also come to AudioFeed, where you’ll likely get the chance to see this material played live. I can’t wait.

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As any player can tell you, you don’t need to sing to have a voice. Instrumentalists have their own voices, their own telltale touches that make their sound their own. And if your instrumental band consists of, for instance, drums, bass and piano, changing the piano player can be just as wholesale a change as swapping in a new lead singer.

That’s exactly the situation the Bad Plus find themselves in, after parting ways with founding pianist Ethan Iverson in December after 17 years together. Iverson, along with drummer Dave King and bassist Reid Anderson, created a wholly individual sound for their band – not quite jazz, not quite rock, not quite prog, but with elements of all three liberally mixed together. They made their name covering rock, pop and prog tunes with instrumental flair, crafted sterling original tunes, worked up a trio take on The Rite of Spring, and worked with saxophonist Joshua Redman and vocalist Wendy Lewis.

After all that, you’d think that any one member of this group would be irreplaceable. But like everything else, the Bad Plus has made welcoming aboard a new lead player look easy. Orrin Evans is a well-respected jazz pianist, having recorded more than two dozen albums as a leader since 1994. He’s known Anderson and King for many years, and on the band’s new record, Never Stop II, he steps right in as if he’s always been there. From the title on down – it references the band’s 2010 album, their first to consist entirely of originals – this is a continuation of the Bad Plus, not a reboot of it.

That’s a good thing, in case it wasn’t clear. Never Stop II is chock full of the fascinating time signatures, memorable melodies and superb improvisation that has been this band’s trademark. Some of these songs – “Trace,” with its difficult-to-count single-note chorus, for instance, or “Safe Passage,” a beautiful, tricky, energizing thing – are classic Bad Plus. Evans contributes two songs, including “Boffadem,” on which he plays toy piano, and they sound tailor made for the Bad Plus, despite being older tunes repurposed for the band. “Commitment,” a ten-minute suite on Evans’ own Meant to Shine LP, here is a lean and languid four minutes, containing the most straight-up jazz improv section on the record.

Are there differences? Sure. Evans has a lighter, more immediately pleasing touch than Iverson, so when he plays the blockier, more prog-like tunes, they don’t sound quite as heavy. But when he improvises, his ear is more on melody than Iverson’s was. The result is more accessible without losing the edge they’ve always had. Evans is a terrific player, more than up to the challenge, and while he’s not doing an Iverson impression by any means, he slides into the Bad Plus style perfectly. Evans, steeped as he is in a hard bop style, will clearly bring a different outlook to the table, and I’m excited to hear his vision for where the band can go.

As for Never Stop II, its quick release – only 19 days after the band’s last gig with Iverson – is clearly intended to relieve those nervous about the change. It’s a terrific Bad Plus album, different in some ways but consistent in most. It begins the next chapter in this extraordinary band’s story with grace and confidence. I’m glad this next chapter exists, and I’m jazzed to read further.

Check out the Bad Plus here.

Next week, lots of options, from Franz Ferdinand to Brian Fallon to Frank Zappa. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Moving Forward and Standing Still
Tune-Yards Innovate While the Shins Stagnate

Last week I talked about They Might Be Giants, a band that is routinely dismissed as a novelty act despite decades of well-written and serious-minded music. Although they haven’t been around nearly as long, I can see the same thing happening to California’s Tune-Yards, and I hope it doesn’t. Their biggest hit so far, “Water Fountain,” might be a goofy and danceable thing, but to dismiss them as only that would be criminal.

Tune-Yards is Merrill Garbus, a certified wunderkind from Connecticut, and her partner in crime Nate Brenner. Together they make… well, music that’s nearly impossible to describe. I barely know where to begin, so let’s just start with the first track on their excellent new record, I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life. The song is called “Heart Attack,” and at first glance, it’s another catchy ditty on par with “Water Fountain.” It begins with dissonant piano, then Garbus’ insidious vocal line: “You’re giving me a heart attack-ack-ack…”

But man, listen to the places this goes. The soulful verses, made up of nothing but percussion and bass. The stunning jazzy chords under Garbus’ wordless vocals. That moment when everything else disappears except a haunting string section, as Garbus sings “I’m only human.” The awesome dance music keyboard lines, leading to a huge crescendo that explodes as Garbus sings “don’t let me lose my soul.” It’s a complete journey in three minutes and 43 seconds, and it’s only the opening salvo.

The whole of Private Life is like this. Much of it will make you move – the bass lines are particularly slinky. But every few seconds, it goes somewhere new, giving your ears little gift-wrapped presents. None of this is empty studio wizardry. The songs come first, and every bit of stunning soundcraft is in service to them. Quite a bit of this reminded me of Esperanza Spalding’s bass-driven, jazz-inflected rock, but with much more electronic goodness sprinkled throughout.

Private Life is also a much darker and more political record than Tune-Yards’ previous efforts. This one seems to have soaked up the thick, depressing atmosphere of 2017, breathing it through its lungs and processing it in only the way Garbus and Brenner can. Take a straight-up masterwork like “Now as Then,” one of several songs about white privilege and its odious effects. “I am exceptional, I am an exception, I am the exception,” Garbus intones over the clattering intro before adding “that’s for me, that’s also for me.” As the music builds, a hundred Merrill Garbuses sing out the chorus: “Don’t trust me that I won’t take all the money and run.” The solo piano that breaks through the din is chilling.

“Colonizer” is darker and even more self-critical. Its opening beat sounds like a factory machine stomping on frogs, but as the nimble bass line kicks in, Garbus sings this: “I use my white woman’s voice to tell stories of travels with African men, I comb my white woman’s hair with a comb made especially for me…” The music becomes as uncomfortable as the words, the whirring percussion and Garbus’ nearly-muted screams take over. After that, you need the full-on beat-crazy chant of “Look at Your Hands,” which serves as a perfect release of tension.

The second half gets even darker, with slower crawls like “Home” and “Hammer” hopefully dispelling any remaining notion that Tune-Yards are purveyors of silly ditties. Even a closing track called “Free” is full of tension, its halfway-jubilant vocal cascade drowned out by an overdriven bass. “I’m alive and seething and I’m coming back for you,” Garbus sings before shouting “Don’t tell me I’m free.” It’s unsettling, like itchy skin, and somehow the perfect conclusion to this tricky, fantastic little record. (As a final grace note, the last few seconds find Garbus counting in the opening of “Heart Attack,” bringing the album full circle.)

I know it’s January, and this is a ridiculous statement, but I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life is my favorite album of 2018 so far. Garbus is a one-of-a-kind wizard, and she and Brenner have made their best, most pointed, most powerful record here, one that is as easy to admire as it is to love.

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While Tune-Yards keep moving forward, the Shins seem stuck in place. And I don’t just mean because their sixth album is their fifth album all over again.

When James Mercer and his band burst out of the underground in the early 2000s, they were a breath of fresh air. Here was a delightful combination of lo-fi indie-pop and Brian Wilson grandeur, with indelible melodies to match. Even as their budgets grew and their ambitions skyrocketed, they made terrific records. 2007’s Wincing the Night Away is a highly underrated piece of work.

And then Mercer dismissed the entire original band and re-cast the Shins as a one-man show with a rotating cast of assistants, and the bottom fell out. I probably gave Mercer a lot more credit for the early Shins material than I should have, considering how boring his work since has been. His voice is still distinctive and compelling, but his songs have all but evaporated, leaving empty shells of the music he once made. Before revisiting it for this column, I could hardly remember last year’s Heartworms. I again found it typical and lazy.

So why would I be interested in a second version of that same album? I have no idea, but Mercer believes I should be. The Worm’s Heart is a “flipped” re-take of Heartworms – it features all the same songs with new arrangements, sequenced in reverse order. Press materials for the album made it sound like the fast songs had been rendered slow while the slow songs played faster, but there aren’t slow songs and fast songs. The whole album is a mid-tempo mush, and it remains that way on The Worm’s Heart.

Some of the new takes feel like they should be interesting. The title track is given an ‘80s makeover with buzzing synths and harmonies. “Dead Alive” is played with pianos and keyboard strings. “Cherry Hearts,” still the most memorable thing on the album, has a live-band, almost garage-y feel. Country stumble “Mildenhall” is here rendered as an organ-driven bit of rock and roll that is somehow more annoying than the original. My favorite part of Heartworms, the “da-da, da-da” refrain of “Rubber Ballz,” survives intact, here accompanied by acoustic guitar. Obviously a lot of thought has been put into new ways to play these tunes.

But I can’t help but think that all that effort should have been put into writing better songs. I’d care more about The Worm’s Heart if I liked the source material, and this backwards walk through it didn’t deepen my appreciation for it. Instead of a revelatory document, I now have two versions of 11 songs I don’t care about, and two versions of that garish cover. And I’m still hoping that the next Shins release will be better.

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That’ll do for this week. Next week, the new Listener, and whatever else strikes me over the next seven days. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

The Year Gets Underway
2018's First Great Records With They Might Be Giants and First Aid Kit

There are some bands that evoke a place and time in your mind, and you can never quite separate them from those memories. For me, the Cranberries were one of those.

I went to a small college in Maine, and I worked at the radio station. B-91 was unlike any other college radio station I have ever seen – its format was top 40, and it was intended as a proving ground for people studying radio as a career. During regular hours (especially drive time hours), we were only allowed to play songs from a list provided by the station managers, a list that drew from the biggest hits of the day. And we’d play those songs repeatedly, like any other top 40 radio station.

And that’s how I came to hear “Linger” by the Cranberries 10 or 12 times a week for almost my entire second semester of freshman year. There’s nothing I can do now – that song automatically triggers thoughts of snowy treks to the cafeteria and long weekends reading comic books. Since that time, the Irish quartet has been in the back of my mind. I haven’t kept up as well as perhaps I should have – I didn’t know they had an album last year, for instance – but they’ve always been on my radar.

One thing I didn’t realize about them was that they were very close to my age when they hit it big. Dolores O’Riordan, she of the powerful and distinctive voice, was only three years older than me. I know this now because O’Riordan died suddenly a week ago, of causes that have still not been made public, and she was 46. For me it was a sobering reminder of how young 46 truly is, and how we should be grateful for every day.

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What a difference a couple weeks makes.

Back on Jan. 9, I published a column called 18 Reasons to Love 2018. I worked with the information that I had at the time, of course, and while I was happy with the result, I have two more weeks of album announcements to draw from now. So here are a bunch more reasons to love 2018.

Start with the return of the Breeders on March 2 with All Nerve. I hinted at this when talking about the Belly reunion – Tanya Donnelly has reignited both of her most famous bands, and we’re getting new records from both within a couple weeks of each other. Belly’s Dove is slated for April 6. March 2 will also give us new ones from ambitious punkers Titus Andronicus and the golden-voiced Tracey Thorn.

A week later, in addition to the Ministry release, we’ll get new things from David Byrne, Editors and Of Montreal, as well as the first of a two-part album called Automata from Between the Buried and Me. I need to catch up on BTBAM’s output, since the first Automata single is a nervy, complex beast, and they’re touring with the Dear Hunter this spring. Speaking of bands I love and will see live soon, Marillion will also give us a five-disc remastered re-release of their 1994 masterpiece Brave.

On March 16 the Decemberists return with I’ll Be Your Girl, and the single piles on the synths, which is an odd move for this folksy band. Yo La Tengo returns on that date as well. One week later we get Jack White’s new solo effort, Boarding House Reach, and believe it or not, the return of Squirrel Nut Zippers with Beasts of Burgundy. I always enjoyed their work, especially as they struggled with staying outside the swing revival in the ‘90s.

What else? The Eels return on April 6 with The Deconstruction. Juliana Hatfield has apparently made an album of Olivia Newton-John covers. Gaz Coombes of Supergrass will give us a solo album called World’s Strongest Man on May 4. And in the craziest news I have heard, Derek Smalls, the bassist for Spinal Tap, is readying a solo album called (get this) Smalls Change (Meditations Upon Ageing). This is really just Harry Shearer having a ball, and I’m excited to hear it.

In the meantime, if you want to hear something that will be available quite soon, check out the new single from the Oh Hellos.  Yes, I did just review their new EP. Yes, this is from a newer one, out on Feb. 6. Life is good. It’s going to be a weird year, but by all indications, a strong one musically.

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And hey, I even have some new records to review this week. The 2018 release schedule has begun in earnest, and the pile of discs I have next to me will carry me through this week and next. We’re well and truly underway.

As I mentioned earlier, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club was first out of the gate with Wrong Creatures, their eighth album. If I say this one is of a piece with the other seven, I don’t want you to take that as a criticism. Because it is the sort of thing I am likely to say – BRMC staked out their territory early, drawing from The Jesus and Mary Chain as a primary influence, and haven’t moved too far away from it. But there’s still some gold in them thar hills, so they keep digging.

This time, they’ve focused a bit more on the dark atmosphere than on the blistering rock, and song after song in a creepy, slow tempo can feel weighty after a while. But they’re still the masters of that guitar-echoing-off-an-endless-tunnel sound, and when they bring the big noisy freak-outs, as they do at the end of “Ninth Configuration,” they really bring them.

Still, when the band shakes things up in the final third, they deliver the best stretch of the record. First they step up the rock on “Little Thing Gone Wild,” a no-brainer of a single. Then they take an odd detour to the big top on the oddly frightening waltz “Circus Bazooko,” dive deep into shoegaze on “Carried From the Start” and end things with a gigantic piano anthem called “All Rise.”

The material they fill the first two-thirds of Wrong Creatures with is their stock in trade, and it’s tough to begrudge them a slithering monster like “Haunt.” But I vastly preferred the songs here that stepped outside their comfort zone, and I admire them for taking those steps on their eighth record. BRMC have long made better Jesus and Mary Chain records than the actual Jesus and Mary Chain, and Wrong Creatures is another one. It’s worth hearing.

First out of the gate, though, doesn’t mean best. That honor is split among my next two entries, both of which hit stores this week. They couldn’t be more different, but they’re both excellent.

I say this every time, but it still bothers me that They Might Be Giants are dismissed as some kind of novelty act. John Linnell and John Flansburgh have been writing and playing songs together for more than 35 years, long after any novelty would have worn off, and the just-released I Like Fun is their 20th album. Twentieth. They’re a bona fide classic band at this point, having done only and exactly what they’ve wanted to do for more than three decades. Respect, is what I’m saying.

And if you still need convincing that TMBG is an extraordinary band, even this far into their long career, just spin I Like Fun. The title is ironic – this is one of the darkest TMBG albums ever, but as always, that darkness is wrapped up in devilishly melodic, even jaunty tunes, played with verve with their longtime bandmates, drummer Marty Beller, guitarist Dan Miller and bassist Danny Weinkauf. This is a classic TMBG rock record, with some quirky detours along the way.

Opening song “Let’s Get This Over With” is a classic, driving forward on a bouncing piano line and Linnell’s one-of-a-kind voice. The Johns have always been masters at memorable vocal melodies, and this one’s a doozy. It’s awesome. And of course it sets the tone: we’ll spend the next 45 minutes working through feelings of dread and loneliness and despair in the cleverest ways we can.

Some examples. “By the Time You Get This Note” is a missive from a past civilization to a future one, hoping that all the evils of the world have been taken care of by the time the note is read. Of course, we find out that it’s not our civilization writing the note. We’re reading it, and none of the listed evils are gone. The great “Mrs. Bluebeard” begins like this: “I want to say I learned something valuable today, alas, my murdered remains are incapable of learning anything.” “Push Back the Hands” is, of course, about slowing down time, and it starts this way: “You would give your right arm to go back to when you had a right arm.”

It’s an album in which “The Bright Side” blinds our eyes, we may or may not see the lights come on again, and, in the strange, funny and chilling interlude “The Greatest,” people are relentlessly cruel: “People call me the greatest because I’m not very good, and they’re being sarcastic.” It all leads to the apocalyptic “Last Wave,” perhaps the band’s finest ode to existential despair. The rousing chorus is a singalong, only these are the lyrics: “We die alone, we die afraid, we live in terror, we’re naked and alone.” Did I mention it rocks?

It’s hard to believe I Like Fun is the 20th They Might Be Giants album, especially since there isn’t an ounce of fatigue or sense of obligation to it. It’s another terrific set of songs only this band would write, and the result is among their finest efforts, music to play as the darkness encroaches and the world falls apart.

Swedish duo First Aid Kit hasn’t been around nearly as long – their new one, Ruins, is their fourth. But they’ve certainly made their mark in the ten years they’ve been working. First Aid Kit, a name that belies this group’s otherwise impeccable taste and judgment, consists of sisters Klara and Johanna Soderberg, but even the fact that they’re sisters doesn’t explain the magical way their voices sound together, as if they were born to harmonize with one another.

Every First Aid Kit album has centered those voices and made glorious use of them, and Ruins is no different. In fact, this one isn’t much different from their delightful 2014 effort Stay Gold. It’s a little bigger, and it makes a little more use of the studio (the album was produced by Tucker Martine, who has helmed swell records by the Decemberists, Beth Orton and Neko Case, among others), but for the most part, it’s ten more sad and lovely acoustic folk songs sung by angels.

The Soderbergs do embrace classic country more completely on this record, particularly on tracks like “Postcard,” and their voices bring out the sweet sadness. My favorites here are the more melodically surprising ones, like opener “Rebel Heart” and the superb “My Wild Sweet Love.” I adore the big, crashing choir that comes in at the end of the otherwise Patsy Cline-esque “Hem of Her Dress,” and the sisters end this album with a bona fide epic, the sweeping “Nothing Has to Be True.” It’s here that the classic country leanings perfectly balance out the studio ambitions.

But you won’t care about all that. If you choose to listen to Ruins – and you should – you’ll just be swept away by these lovely songs, and the unearthly beautiful voices singing them. I remain glad that I took a chance on a Swedish act with a funny name all those years ago. Ruins is another delight in what I hope will be a long, long line of them.

That’ll do for this week. Next week, more new stuff with Tune-Yards and the Shins. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Ghosts of 2017
Eminem, Esperanza and the Oh Hellos

We’re in that weird part of the new year that still feels like the old year.

New music has started to come out. Black Rebel Motorcycle Club has given us Wrong Creatures, their eighth album, which I will get to next week, and NPR is already offering a first listen to I Like Fun, the swell new They Might Be Giants record. But it’s not enough to really feel like 2018 is in full swing yet. Meanwhile I am still catching up with things from the end of 2017, records that slipped out in the last weeks of December and are still awaiting my attention.

So consider this the last column of 2017, even though you’re reading it in 2018. Keep in mind there are still a couple dozen albums from last year that I bought and didn’t find time to hear, and that this column is not about those. It’s about latecomers, records that made it onto store shelves while I was in my annual top 10 list cycle and couldn’t devote attention to them. Although I am happy to hear recommendations for albums I missed from last year, should you want to send them my way.

We’re going to start with Eminem, just to get it out of the way. Seventeen years ago I called The Marshall Mathers LP the best album of 2000, and it’s a decision that has weighed on me ever since. I’d like to think I’m a different person now, one who would listen to Marshall Mathers’ misogyny and violent fantasies and find them repugnant, not envelope-pushing. Eminem, when he began, was conducting a large-scale experiment on irresponsibility and audience response, gleefully lighting fuses and then dropping cop-outs and wry “who, me?” grins. His early records are dangerous, manically vile things, but crafted with a satirist’s heart and the mind of a lyrical genius.

Since then, I have applauded every step Mathers has taken away from his Slim Shady days and toward becoming a real, honest artist. And over his last two albums, he’s done that. Recovery was his first stab at apologizing for his past mistakes and trying to atone, and The Marshall Mathers LP 2 was unlike any sequel I’ve heard. It was almost a point-for-point rebuttal and update, including an apology to his mother and some genuine emotional moments.

So why do I think Revival, Em’s ninth album, is so bad? I think it’s at least partially because I’m a different person than I was when I became invested in Mathers as an artist. I hear some of his worst qualities come to the fore here, and they’re no different than similar moments on the last two records, but now I find them inexcusable. Mathers addresses his own failures of character and personality on opener “Walk on Water,” and then apparently considers that carte blanche to display them.

Which is a shame, since the best moments of Revival continue his growth as a person, if not as an artist. The opening trilogy finds him grappling with self-doubt, then overcoming it. “Bad Husband” is the rawest and most real admission of guilt he has made to his ex-wife. Several songs detail bad relationships, and whether they are stories or diary entries, the lessons learned from them are made clear.

And the closing trilogy is remarkable, reflecting on his 2007 overdose and the impact it has made on his relationship with his daughter Hailie. “Castle” takes a trip through time, starting with Hailie’s birth and detailing letters he wrote her throughout her life. He dramatizes his own overdose at the song’s end, and then on “Arise” talks about the healing process he’s undergone since then. The ending is a head-turner – he rewinds the tape, literally, and raps the last part of “Castle” again, this time flushing the drugs down the toilet and seizing his second chance at life.

All of that is well worth praising, even if the music is somewhat lackluster. I also can’t fail to mention “Like Home” and “Untouchable,” songs on which Mathers aims his considerable lyrical skill at Donald Trump and systemic racism. His heart is in the right place on these tracks, and their up-front nature should please people who were surprised and elated at his anti-Trump freestyle. But all told, I’ve just described about half the record, and had he stopped there, I would think of Revival as another step in his rehabilitation.

But he didn’t, and the other half of the material sinks the first half like a stone. I won’t go into detail, except to say that Eminem is always at his worst when he thinks he is being funny. “Remind Me” samples “I Love Rock and Roll” for a bit about how he is only interested in a woman because she reminds him of himself. “Framed” brings Slim Shady back for a murder fantasy in which Shady is accused because his lyrics match the crime.

“Heat” includes this choice rhyme, which all but negates his anti-Trump stance from earlier in the record: “Grab you by the (meow), hope it’s not a problem, in fact about the only thing I agree on with Donald is that, so when I put this palm on your cat, don’t snap, it’s supposed to get grabbed, why do you think they call it a snatch?” One track later, on “Offended,” he turns positively childish, concluding a chorus about hoping people are offended at his rhymes with a promise to make them “eat my turds.” (That one has some rape lines that make my stomach turn, too.)

OK, so I did go into detail, but not nearly enough. The tragedy is that Eminem remains one of the most lyrically interesting rappers in the game. (Here’s a line from “Heat” I quite liked: “That’s just the thoroughbred in me, ain’t a better breed, my dog thinks so too, look at my pedigree.” Pedigree, pet agree? You groaned, but you respect it.) On about half of Revival, he harnesses that power for good, and despite some lazy, downbeat music (Ed Sheeran?) and lame sample choices, this material shows how far he’s come. And then on the other half, he proves he’s still a misogynistic jerk, reveling in his least appealing qualities and spitting out shamelessly awful sex and death fantasies. I’ve given him a pass on this material before, but I just can’t anymore.

* * * * *

I spent way more time on that record than I intended to, so I’ll keep the next two short. Which is fine, because the records themselves are pretty short.

I wonder if the people who voted for Esperanza Spalding to receive the Best New Artist Grammy in 2011 knew how right they were. I hope they’ve kept up with her career as she’s driven it down amazing new roads. Spalding was always brilliant – a bass-playing musical prodigy, she understands jazz in ways I never will, and can compose stunning, complex pieces in a number of idioms. But it’s the material post-Grammy that has captivated most, from 2012’s sparking Radio Music Society to the unstoppable power of 2016’s Emily’s D+Evolution. Her early fans probably freaked out a little at the acid metal and power trio rock of that record, but her innate sense of musicality was never absent.

If people freaked at that, I can’t imagine what they thought when Spalding announced Exposure, her latest project. Over 77 hours last year, she composed and recorded her sixth album live on the internet, working feverishly with no breaks. She entered the studio with no concrete ideas, and emerged with ten songs that are remarkably intricate and enjoyable. Yes, you can tell she was up against the clock here and there – two songs have no lyrics, and the last track is a bit of a jam. But Exposure is far better than its origins would suggest, and it shows just how good Spalding is, even under pressure.

My favorites here are, of course, the more complete ones, like “Heaven in Pennies,” which features piano by Robert Glasper, and “I Am Telling You.” Spalding never sings what you expect she will, aiming for notes that shouldn’t work, but do, and ending up with what sounds like deliberately arranged scat singing. Her band is tight, her bass playing extraordinary as always. I even like her sweet little duet with Andrew Bird, “The Ways You Got the Love,” evidently written and recorded in a few hours.

Exposure was only available for a limited time from Spalding’s site, and I ponied up for it. The resulting package is a delight, with a fragment of lyric sheet glued to the front cover (she made 7,777 of these, which means she and her team glued 7,777 fragments of paper to CD wallets) and a second disc of unfinished ideas that arose during the sessions. I don’t know how often I will listen to that second disc, but it provides an interesting insight into Spalding’s process. She’s like no other artist, and I’m happy I jumped in on this experiment.

Texas collective The Oh Hellos are conducting their own experiment, releasing their new songs as a series of EPs. The band remains independent, working for themselves and releasing music to their growing legion of fans. I’m definitely one of them – the brother and sister team of Tyler and Maggie Heath write astoundingly beautiful music, and the musicians they have assembled bring it to sparkling life.

The first of these new EPs is called Notos, and it’s just as good as I was hoping it would be. There are so many perfect little moments in these 21 minutes – my current favorite is when the drums kick over to double time on the previously lilting “Constellations” – and the band never puts a foot wrong. Their harmonies are gorgeous, the string arrangements thick and powerful, the songs compact yet as wide as the sky. I’ve yet to hear a song about our national discourse that puts as fine a point on it as “Torches” does, and yet they deliver it with grace.

If you don’t know the Oh Hellos, well, you’re in good company. But if you’d like to join us, check them out here.

That’s it for this week. Next week, 2018 begins in earnest. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

18 Reasons to Love 2018
Why This Will Be the Best Year Ever

Hello! Welcome back!

I hope you all had a great break, and a happy new year. My usual trip back east was relaxing, and even though I was sick in bed for New Year’s Eve, the rest of my vacation was delightful. I’m not quite ready to go back to work, but by the time you read this, I will have gotten over that, because I will have had to. I’ve been spending the last few days of my vacation catching up on reading and listening to records I didn’t get to last year. I missed some pretty good ones.

And of course, I’m spending them writing this, the first new Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. column of the new year. This is year 18 of this silly music column. My own age doesn’t freak me out, but other people’s ages certainly do – my sister is 40, for example, which doesn’t seem possible. The fact that there are 17 years of archived weekly columns I can look at whenever I choose (which is very rarely) means that I’m much older than I feel.

But hey, this column isn’t about feeling down, it’s about looking ahead and finding joy and wonder. I usually begin the year this way, with a list of reasons that the upcoming 12 months will be awesome, music-wise. I never have any trouble making the case, even if I only have the first couple months of confirmed releases and a bunch of rumors to make it. This year is no exception. So without further ado, here are 18 reasons to love 2018.

  1. Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Wrong Creatures (Jan. 12)

The first major release of the year hits in a few days, kicking us off right. BRMC sounds like the Jesus and Mary Chain with an extra helping of biker grease, and I’m very much looking forward to this new one. I should also mention that Jan. 12 sees new ones from Joe Satriani and Ty Tabor, for all you guitar lovers out there, and from indie-rock collective Typhoon. Not a bad way to start.

  1. They Might Be Giants, I Like Fun (Jan. 19)

For me, though, this is the real start of the year. They Might Be Giants have consistently plied their unique trade for more than 30 years, and they have carved out a niche of their own. They’ve never been a novelty band, though they are wrongly lumped in with jokesters and pun merchants. Their brand of cleverness is much more askew, much more interesting. I Like Fun is John and John’s 20th, and they’ve celebrated by re-igniting Dial-a-Song, their call-in music service. Long live TMBG.

  1. Tune-Yards, I Can Feel You Creep into My Private Life (Jan. 19)

As if that weren’t enough, next week will also bring us the latest from Merrill Garbus, her follow-up to the absolutely killer Nikki Nack. Expect more quirky brilliance from this one-woman show. You can also expect new records from First Aid Kit, Glen Hansard, No Age and (if you like that kind of thing) Fall Out Boy next week, along with one other that deserves its own entry.

  1. The Shins, The Worm’s Heart (Jan. 19)

Last one from next week, but this one is so weird. The Shins have reworked their entire 2017 album, Heartworms, flipping each song – the faster ones are now more contemplative, the slower ones more hard-hitting. Heartworms was not a favorite of mine, so if this flipped version makes me appreciate these songs more, I’m all for that.

  1. Justin Timberlake, Man of the Woods (Feb. 2)

Finally we’ve moved out of January. JT will kickstart February with this fascinatingly titled new album, his follow-up to the two 20/20 Experience albums from a few years ago. The cover art and track list have me intrigued, and while the first single (“Filthy”) deflated that somewhat, I’m still down for whatever Timberlake does. Man of the Woods. For real, that’s the title. That’s fascinating.

  1. Frank Zappa, The Roxy Performances (Feb. 2)

In addition to Timberlake and new things from Field Music and Simple Minds, the second of February will bring this mammoth 7-CD box set containing every show Frank Zappa’s best-ever band performed at the Roxy in December of 1973. Some of this material has seen the light of day before, between Zappa’s 1974 opus Roxy and Elsewhere and the posthumous Roxy by Proxy and Roxy: The Movie releases, but there are literally hours of no doubt amazing performances here, all in one place. It’s worth it just to hear Ruth Underwood play mallet percussion. She’s astounding. This will be worth every penny.

  1. Franz Ferdinand, Always Ascending (Feb. 9)

I’m pretty glad that Franz Ferdinand has proven to be a survivor. Alex Kapranos and his comrades have been making danceable rock and roll for nearly 15 years at this point, and they haven’t given us a bad record, including 2015’s once-in-a-lifetime collaboration with Sparks called FFS. This new one evidently works in more electronic soundscapes, which is sort of a cliché at this point in a band’s career, but I have faith.

  1. Belle and Sebastian, How to Solve Our Human Problems (Feb. 16)

If you like the digital music that the kids are into, you can hear the first third of Belle and Sebastian’s new album right now. The long-running, venerable Scottish group is issuing their new songs as a trilogy of EPs, one a month from December to February, and collecting them on CD and vinyl on Feb. 16. It’s novel, and I hope it brings them some attention, but the bottom line is we get a new set of tunes from a band that has been at it for more than 20 years, and that’s worth celebrating all by itself.

  1. I’m with Her – See You Around (Feb. 16)

On that same day, we get this debut full-length from the trio of Sarah Jarosz, Sara Watkins and Aoife O’Donovan, and if you know your folksy singer-songwriters, you’re salivating over this right now. They’ve been touring for years, but finally we get to hear those voices intertwining over brand new songs. Can. Not. Wait.

  1. Ministry – AmeriKKKant (March 9)

At the exact opposite end of the musical spectrum, it’s the return of Al Jourgensen and his flagship industrial metal project. Ministry has died so many times now that it’s almost comical, but of course it was the election and presidency of Donald Trump that brought Uncle Al out of retirement once again. Expect a powerhouse of political rage. I should also mention that March will bring us new records from Andrew W.K., Moby and Titus Andronicus, and that’s just what we know about now.

  1. Derri Daugherty, The Color of Dreams (April)

I helped crowd-fund this first proper solo album from the lead singer and guitarist of The Choir last year, and I’m so happy to see it coming to fruition. Derri’s solo album has been a long-running joke among Choir fans – he’s technically been working on solo material for decades – but we’re mere months away from hearing what he’s come up with. And given that he was working on this record while taking care of his ailing (and now deceased) father, I expect some emotional stuff indeed. In a lot of ways, it’s a warm-up for…

  1. The Choir, Bloodshot (Summer/Fall)

…the 15th album by Daugherty’s band, one of my favorites of all time. I also helped crowd-fund this, and I’m beyond pleased to play a small part in the surprising and gratifying longevity of one of the best bands on the planet. The Choir creates widescreen atmospheric rock, and with their last few records they’ve been on a serious roll. I’m extremely excited to hear what they’ve come up with, and to (hopefully) see them live again.

  1. Belly, Dove (April 6)

Twenty-three years after their second album, Tanya Donnelly has reunited Belly to round out the trilogy. This comes along with news that her other band, the Breeders, will release new music in 2018 as well. It’s starting to feel like the ‘90s are back forever, and I’m glad Donnelly is getting in on the action. Quite looking forward to new music from her in the new year.

  1. New records from Tool and A Perfect Circle

We’re in rumor territory now, but these are some pretty strong rumors. Maynard James Keenan’s two bands have been gearing up to release new stuff for a while now, with A Perfect Circle first out of the gate with two new songs and a tour announcement, which means an album shouldn’t be too far behind. Tool is another story, of course, but they’ve been working on their (believe it or not, only) fifth album for years now, and the buzz is that it’s close to completion. Will we see it in 2018? Who knows? I hope so, though.

  1. A new My Bloody Valentine album

Another strong rumor, since Kevin Shields says there will definitely be a new MBV record in 2018. Of course, Shields says a lot of things, but since he actually came through in 2013 with the follow-up to Loveless, he has a lot more credibility. And given how good that follow-up actually was, I have high hopes for the new one. Shields has proven that he can continue My Bloody Valentine beyond the iconic Loveless, and continue to reinvent his sound in the process.

  1. Bryan Scary’s Birds

Bryan Scary is a genius. His work has never been anything less than jaw-dropping, whether he’s going it alone (as on the awesome Daffy’s Elixir) or playing as part of a team (as on all five stunning Evil Arrows EPs). That’s the main reason I’m still being as patient as possible as this project wends its way toward the three-year anniversary of its crowd-funding campaign. I have no doubt that when Birds finally comes out, it will be worth every minute of the wait. Here’s hoping the wait ends in 2018.

  1. A new Sleep album

I know this is happening, but I still feel like I need to will it into existence. Sleep was and forever will be the finest stoner metal band to walk the earth. It’s been almost 20 years since Dopesmoker, their 63-minute single-track magnum opus, still the greatest stoner metal song ever recorded. It’s been two and a half years since “The Clarity,” the first new Sleep song since Dopesmoker. I know there’s a new High on Fire coming, and Matt Pike is probably busy. But I hope this year brings us more Sleep. They’re the best there is at what they do.

  1. Jodie Whittaker as the Doctor

Not music, but I’m beyond jazzed to see Jodie Whittaker take up the mantle of the world’s most famous Time Lord this fall. I’m still not quite ready to let Peter Capaldi go – he was amazing in the role, growing and changing over three seasons into the kindest of Doctors, and he bid goodbye at Christmas with a strange little epilogue of a special. It was so anticlimactic that it still doesn’t feel like he’s gone. But at the end we got our first glimpse of Whittaker, who already feels like she owns the role. My reservations about Season 11 are all about the writing team, led by Chris Chibnall, whose Who work hasn’t been of particularly high quality. But I have no such reservations about Whittaker, a top-notch actor with an obvious enthusiasm and reverence for the role. We’ve only heard her say two words (“Aw, brilliant”), and already I’m impatient for her era to begin. In the words of a former incarnation, she’s going to be fantastic.

There’s plenty more where these came from, of course, so if I missed something you are anticipating, never fear. I probably know about it, and if not, please feel free to tell me. It’s gonna be a good year, and I’d be ever so grateful if you’d spend part of it with me, talking about the music we love. It’s one way that we’re going to shine a light in the darkness.

Year 18. Here we go. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Fifty Second Week
And Farewell to 2018

This is Fifty Second Week.

It’s the day after Christmas, and I can’t begin to thank you all enough for hanging in with me this year. This is the final Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. column of 2017, and it’s been rough getting here. I’m ending the year a big ball of stress, trying to relax and finding it difficult. And it won’t be long until we’re back at it.

So I’m ending the year surrounded by family and friends, and keeping up traditions. Midnight Mass with my friend Mike, gifts with my high school and college pals, a jaunt up to Portland, Maine to see people I only get to be around once a year. And this, Fifty Second Week. I’ve ended the TM3AM year this way since 2005, which seems almost difficult to believe.

I’m sure you all know how it works, but just in case: I have here 52 albums from the year that I heard but did not review. (That is separate from the larger pile of albums I bought but did not hear, which I am working on.) I will give myself 50 seconds to review each one, and I will rigidly time myself. Even if I’m in the middle of a sentence when that buzzer goes off, I will stop.

This has proven to be a lot of fun for me. I hope it’s fun for you. OK, let’s get rolling. This is Fifty Second Week.

A-Ha, MTV Unplugged: Summer Solstice.

I have always loved this band, and when their crystal-clear unplugged version of “Take On Me” started circulating, I knew I had to get this. It’s wonderful. The new arrangements bring out the complex beauty of these songs, and Maarten’s voice has never been more beautiful. Highly, highly recommended.

The Alarm, Viral Black.

I reviewed the first in this sequence, Blood Red, but not the second for some reason. It’s much better. Mike Peters’ songs are sharper, and his dalliances with electronic music are put to better effect. It’s darker and angrier too.

Gregg Allman, Southern Blood.

Like Glen Campbell before him, Gregg Allman’s final record is mostly made up of covers of songs he loved. His aged voice sounds heavenly through most of this, and his guitar playing hasn’t lost a note. The loss of the final Allman brother was a tough one this year, but this record is a balm.

Anathema, The Optimist.

It was a good year for Anathema leader Daniel Cavanagh, between this and his solo album. Anathema continues its transformation into Sigur Ros with this album – it’s mostly abstractions, repetitive piano-led dirges, but it earns its title by the end. It’s a hopeful piece of work.

Dan Auerbach, Waiting on a Song.

I really don’t remember much about this. I buy Auerbach’s work out of a sense of loyalty to the band the Black Keys used to be, but he’s been so predictable and so over-produced for so long now that it’s a shame. I wish I could recall whether this album broke with that trend, but the fact that I can’t seems to mean to me that it didn’t.

Barenaked Ladies, Ladies and Gentlemen: Barenaked Ladies and the Persuasions

By far the better of BNL’s two releases this year, this record finds them teaming up with classic vocal group The Persuasions to reinvent a number of the band’s best and most popular songs. Everything shines here, but I’m especially fond of the new takes on lesser hits like “Gonna Walk.”

Barenaked Ladies, Fake Nudes.

I mean, for real, guys, if this half-hearted effort is the best you can do, it’s probably time to hang it up. Kevin Hearn sings more here than he ever has, and the songs are mostly lame, with only a few glimmers of the fun band they used to be.

David Bazan, Care.

Another dark and difficult and fascinating Bazan record. He’s fully embraced his synthesizer-driven sound at this point, and his voice sounds marvelous with it. I can’t choose between this and Lo Tom for Bazan’s best moment of 2017. They’re both great.

Black Sabbath, The End.

Well, we know it isn’t, but it’s fun to pretend. This live album documents the “final” tour of Sabbath with Ozzy Osbourne, and while he sometimes sounds rough here, Tony Iommi and the band sound amazing. They invented metal, so if they want to pretend they’re done, that is their prerogative.

BNQT.

A sorta-supergroup featuring Fran Healy and Alex Kapranos and Jason Lytle and others, this is a fine, if disjointed ambient pop record. I don’t know why I didn’t review this.

Body Count, Bloodlust.

I had thoroughly lost track of Ice-T’s third-rate metal band before the release of “No Lives Matter,” the blistering first single from this record. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but this sounds like Body Count. Thudding riffs while Ice-T yells about injustice. Good for what it is, certainly.

Lindsey Buckingham and Christine McVie.

This surprise collaboration between two Fleetwood Mac stalwarts is sunny and upbeat, almost sounding like the Partridge Family in places. Buckingham is still one of the finest musicians around, and paired with McVie, he almost recaptures some of that early magic.

Cage the Elephant, Unpeeled.

They’re still a one-hit wonder, but Cage the Elephant has soldiered on, and they may even be underrated at this point. Unpeeled is a live acoustic album with subtle strings, and it showcases some of the songs they’ve delivered since “No Rest for the Wicked.” In this setting, I quite like many of them.

Daniel Cavanagh, Monochrome.

Daniel Cavanagh’s Terrific Year, part two: This solo effort from the Anathema frontman is beautiful. It’s mostly pretty songs that stand still and gaze around, but when he gets hold of an epic, he truly shines. This quiet piano-driven record is a hidden gem.

Cheap Trick, We’re All Alright.

Why I didn’t review this one is beyond me. Rockford’s finest storm back with their loudest and rowdiest work in years. Robin Zander sounds half his age, and the band follows suit. I was so surprised to find how much I liked this raucous little party record.

The Church, Man Woman Life Death Infinity.

The Church’s 87th album doesn’t pack any surprises. If you like what they do – swirling, reverbed pop songs sung in a low, half-speaking voice – then you will like this. These ten songs fall squarely in their wheelhouse.

Alice Cooper, Paranormal.

His best record in ages, Paranormal reignites the ‘70s Alice sound to swell effect. This is dramatic, creepy rock music, and as a special bonus, he reunites the classic Alice Cooper Band for a pair of songs, their first in decades. Good stuff.

William Patrick Corgan, Ogilala.

We used to call him Billy. The Smashing Pumpkins frontman goes all folk troubadour on his second album, and it’s much prettier and more interesting than it has any right to be. Nothing here will set the world on fire, vampire or no, but it’s nice stuff, nicer than you might expect.

Darlingside, Whipporwill.

I discovered this lovely folksy band two years ago, and this EP reminds me why I loved them. The hook here is a delightful cover of William Patrick Corgan’s “1979,” but all of these tunes are good, and the voices. The voices!

Death from Above, Outrage Is Now.

It took this band like 20 years to make their second record, and only a couple years to follow it up with their third. This is a short ballistic attack, ten razor-sharp tunes that will leave scars. Looking forward to the fourth.

Bob Dylan, Triplicate.

Man. I don’t know what started Dylan down this path of covering the Sinatra songbook, but now he’s gone and made a triple album of these renditions, and it’s time he stopped. His croaky voice does these tunes no favors, and if people buy a Dylan album, they’re looking for Dylan songs.

Jeremy Enigk, Ghosts.

I Kickstarted this record, and it took more than a year to arrive. But I like it a lot. Enigk is the former frontman of Sunny Day Real Estate and The Fire Theft, and here he strips down, goes acoustic for the most part and delivers a set of haunted little songs. “Victory” is one of the year’s best.

Europe, Walk the Earth.

Yes, they’re still going, and if you haven’t kept up since The Final Countdown, I think you’ll be surprised at what a quality band Europe is. This album sounds more Deep Purple than anything else, but the melodies are crisp and Joey Tempest can still sing the paint off a battleship.

Father John Misty, Pure Comedy.

With every record Josh Tillman makes under his Father John Misty guise, I am further convinced that it just isn’t for me. The ironic detachment, the sumptuous arrangements of threadbare songs, the “hysterical” cultural references, it’s all a bit of a mess.

Feist, Pleasure.

I should have reviewed this. Leslie Feist is always worth hearing, and this, her follow-up to the darker Metals, is weird and wonderful. I enjoyed every song here, even the ones that made me slightly uncomfortable. Feist has grown into a remarkable artist worth watching.

Stu Garrard, Beattitudes.

A various artists project centered on the Sermon on the Mount, this record was far better than you would expect given that description. I am especially fond of Audrey Assad’s and Propaganda’s contributions.

David Gilmour, Live at Pompeii.

A document of exactly the same show I saw in Chicago, Gilmour’s latest extravaganza finds him playing the same way he always does over songs old and new. That isn’t a complaint – no one bends notes and wrings emotion out of them quite like Gilmour.

Gogol Bordello, Seekers and Finders.

No new ground broken on Gogol’s new record either. This is another awesome punk record filtered through the multicultural lens of the band, and led by the insane shouts of Eugene Hutz. If you liked them before, you will like this too. They rule.

Haim, Something to Tell You.

The Haim sisters went a little more radio-pop on their second album, but still bring that old Fleetwood Mac sound with them. Their harmonies remain the highlight of this slight, yet enjoyable platter.

Beki Hemingway, Whins and Weather.

Always glad to hear new music from Beki, who lives not far from me. This album is classic Hemingway, and in “Is This All” she has penned the perfect song of comfort for this awful year. Worth tracking down, always.

The Horrors, V.

Another one I should have reviewed. The Horrors made the leap from gothic rockers to streamlined synth epics, and have basically been refining that sound ever since. V is a continuation, not a reinvention, but it’s a good one, and the keyboard stompers here are as good as ever.

Iron Maiden, The Book of Souls: Live Chapter.

A band as old as Iron Maiden should not be as good as Iron Maiden, particularly live. As Bruce Dickinson closes in on 60 years old, he can still scream with the best of them and hold those operatic notes for days. The new material is among the best they’ve written. I wish I’d seen this tour.

Jane’s Addiction, Ritual De Lo Habitual: Alive at Twenty-Five.

Oh my god, Ritual De Lo Habitual is 25 years old. This live run-through captures the power and unpredictability of the best Jane’s album. “Three Days” remains the best thing they’ve ever done, and live it’s a stunning thing. I don’t want new Jane’s material, but I’m happy to hear this.

The Killers, Wonderful Wonderful.

No it isn’t, no it isn’t. This new record from the Killers starts off strong, but ends up wandering in the wilderness, stuck somewhere between Bruce Springsteen and their own ineptness. Sorry, but it just isn’t very good.

Ted Leo, The Hanged Man.

Another one I should have reviewed. This is a strong and confident set of new songs from Leo, fresh off of his collaboration with Aimee Mann in The Both. I’m not sure if she rubbed off on him, but these songs are sparkling, melodic things that stick with you. Good stuff.

Lorde, Melodrama.

Good Lord(e), I should have reviewed this one. Lorde’s second record is a wild departure from her first – a conceptual piece about a difficult night out. For much of the album, Lorde doesn’t seem to care if anyone will like it, which to me is the sign of a strong artist. Keep ‘em coming.

Lost Horizons, Ojala.

Simon Raymonde of the Cocteau Twins teams up with a bevy of singers, including the terrific Karen Peris of the Innocence Mission, for an album of slightly shoegaze-y anthems and ballads. This is really enjoyable, and I’m glad I picked it up.

The Lulls in Traffic, Rabbit in the Snare.

A swell side project from Aaron Marsh of Copeland, The Lulls in Traffic is somehow even more ambient and float-y than Copeland is. The electronic touches work well, and this album, though it contains not one stick-in-your-head song, is one you’ll play over and over.

Kevin Max, Serve Somebody.

Yes, that Kevin Max from DC Talk. Here he covers Mr. Mister and Bob Dylan and the Call and several others, making for an enjoyable little visit with his influences. And of course, his voice is like none other. Looking forward to his next record of originals.

Pearl Jam, Let’s Play Two.

One of the greatest rock bands in the world playing Wrigley Field in Chicago. How can you go wrong? Well, you can’t. This is a freight train of a set, and the band is as tight and powerful as they have ever been, energized by their surroundings. I would like to see the film. The soundtrack is great.

Margo Price, All American Made.

Margo Price is the future of country music, and her second album proves it. This wickedly political slice of Americana has justly earned raves, and it should cement her place as one of the most exciting songwriters to take up the Nashville mantle in many years.

Primus, The Desaturating Seven.

Gosh, I love Primus. Based on a children’s book, this weird fairy tale is delightfully off-kilter and surprisingly serious. The original band is reunited for the first time in years, and instead of making something fun and off the wall, they chose this conceptual piece that almost feels like a classical suite.

Rostam, Half-Light.

Vampire Weekend’s keyboard player sets out on his own, and the best that I can say about this is that I am very much looking forward to the next Vampire Weekend album.

Said Fantasy, Chariot of God.

I love Ronnie Martin and will follow him anywhere. The former Joy Electric mastermind is recording under a new name, but his sound hasn’t changed much. These burbling tunes are a little weaker, a little more self-serious than I would like, and the whole thing is pretty short. But it’s new Ronnie Martin, so I rejoice.

Emily Saliers, Murmuration Nation.

I cannot for the life of me figure out why I did not review this, the first solo album from Indigo Girl Emily Saliers. It’s a gigantic surprise – a fully produced candy-colored pop album that sounds like nothing else she’s done. The songs are typically wonderful.

Sons of Apollo, Psychotic Symphony.

If I told you this supergroup included Mike Portnoy and Derek Sherinian and Billy Sheehan and Jeff Scott Soto, you probably could tell me exactly what it sounds like. And you’d be exactly right. It’s predictable, but hard to play, so…

Spock’s Beard, Snow Live.

I’m not a huge fan of the album that they play front to back here, but this is the first time that Neal Morse and his old band have shared a stage in years, and just for that, this is worth hearing. The performances are great, as always.

Squeeze, The Knowledge.

Difford and Tilbrook return with another twelve knotty, witty songs. I wish there were anything more to say here. Squeeze is perpetually underrated, and its two songwriters should be in the hall of fame. This is another in a long line of excellent Squeeze records.

The Tangent, The Slow Rust of Forgotten Machinery.

Andy Tillison is a cranky old man, and here he leads his classic prog band through a suite that takes aim at our Brexit and Trump times. There’s no subtlety here at all, but these times don’t really call for subtlety. This hammer to the head works.

Jeff Tweedy, Together at Last.

Tweedy plays a bunch of Wilco songs alone on an acoustic guitar. It’s a snooze-fest, and I bought it out of some misguided sense of completism. I just can’t quit you, Jeff Tweedy.

Various Artists, Treasure of the Broken Land: The Songs of Mark Heard.

I’m so happy this exists. The late Mark Heard was an underappreciated songwriter, and Buddy Miller put this collection together to right that wrong. There are many awesome versions here, but I am partial to Over the Rhine and Buddy himself.

Kamasi Washington, Harmony of Difference.

You’d think following up a three-hour record with a half-hour record might lead to disappointment, but this jazz suite is so strong that I don’t mind. It’s a complete work, and again sets Washington apart as a man with a particular vision.

Steven Wilson, To the Bone.

Finally, one I definitely should have reviewed. This is Wilson’s concise pop record, but he can’t resist making it a Steven Wilson album anyway, with crashing guitars and crescendos and big melodies. Wilson is prolific, but never disappointing.

And there you have it. Fifty Second Week. That brings 2017 to a close here at TM3AM. Again, I cannot thank you enough. Without you I’m nothing. I’ll be taking next week off, but will return for Year 18 on January 9. Have a happy new year, and I’ll see you on the other side.

Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

If Your Eyes Can See What’s Killing Me I’ll Need You By the End
The 2017 Top 10 List

What a year. What a long, grueling, terrible, only occasionally hopeful year.

Really, I’m just glad to say I got through it. 2017 was a painful reckoning with who we are and who we have chosen to be, and just keeping up with all the awfulness was, in itself, exhausting. I was going to say that I don’t know where I got the strength, but I do. It was the people in my life, particularly my lovely girlfriend and my still-new church family, that pulled me through it. I’ve rarely relied on people the way I did in 2017.

And I’ve rarely relied on music the way I did this year. Music is always a constant in my life, but this year’s top 10 list selections reflect the turmoil of, well, everything this year. What follows, mostly, is a top 10 list about making it through difficult things, about kicking at the darkness until it bleeds daylight, to quote Bruce Cockburn. Sometimes it works, and sometimes the darkness sticks around, thick as tar, weighing you down. I wrestled this year with my own beliefs (in God, in the political positions I hold), trying to come to some understanding.

I think it was worth it. I’m here at the end of the year, feeling like a somewhat different person. I’m trying to approach things differently, and I’m taking steps to reduce stress and concentrate on what I know I can change. If the tumultuous music of this year helped me with this, then I’m grateful. Getting through some of the records on this list was difficult, but worth it. I am all about music as a way to work through pain.

And this year served up enough of that. As a capper, just a week ago we lost Pat DiNizio. The voice and mastermind behind the Smithereens, DiNizio was a champion of melodic power pop, and his loss is a great one to anyone (like me) who loves that style. Add his name to a lengthy list of luminaries whose lights went out this year, including Tom Petty, Fats Domino, Chris Cornell, Chester Bennington, Gregg Allman, Glen Campbell and Malcolm Young, among many more.

Were there bright spots? Sure. I’m about to tell you about a few of them. But the music that follows honestly reflects a year in which the very atmosphere felt heavier, in which just getting out of bed some days was its own special challenge. To all of you who made it through with me, I salute you and thank you. And I hope you had music of your own to help. If some of the below list worked that magic for you, even better.

So here is what 2017 sounded like to me.

#10. Marah in the Mainsail, Bone Crown.

The AudioFeed Festival is always one of the most enjoyable weeks of my year. I go now for the new musical experiences as much as for the old favorites. Minneapolis band Marah in the Mainsail is one of my favorite discoveries from what has become my favorite fest. They’re a rough and powerful combo, driven by sharp horns and Austin Durry’s animal growl of a voice, and Bone Crown is their masterpiece. A concept album telling a dark fairy tale of a wicked fox king who burns the woods to the ground, Bone Crown makes every element work in its favor, rushing toward a stunning conclusion. It works best as a whole, but “Everybody Knows” and “Fisticuffs” and “Black Mamba” and “The Great Beyond” stayed in my head for months. Listen and buy here: https://marahinthemainsail.bandcamp.com.

#9. Julien Baker, Turn Out the Lights.

Believe it or not, another AudioFeed discovery. Julien Baker is only 22 years old, but she writes from the depths of her soul, laying bare every insecurity and agony with the grace of someone much older. Her second album is her first for a mid-size label, and she subtly enriches her sonic palette here, mixing in piano and strings for the first time. But her songs remain conduits to her deepest and darkest inner lives, and as you listen to her struggle with her fundamentalist upbringing and her depression, it’s like you’re there with her. When she admits that she knows nothing will be all right on “Appointments,” it’s crushing, and when she grabs on to a glimmer of hope on “Hurt Less,” it’s monumental. Turn Out the Lights is one of the most honest and painful records on this list, and if she keeps this up, Baker will soon be one of the best singer/songwriters out there.

#8. Slowdive.

Julien Baker was born the year Slowdive’s last album, Pygmalion, came out, which means this glorious English shoegaze band has been on hiatus for her entire life. I never expected a reunion album from them, and it’s hard to imagine how they could have made a better one. Slowdive picks up pretty much where they left off, with a more mature outlook and more complete sense of songcraft, but still sounding like Slowdive. If you’re a fan, you know what that means – guitars that sound like waterfalls surrounding the intertwining voices of Neil Halstead and Rachel Goswell. These eight songs stand among their best, with “Sugar for the Pill” standing just that little bit taller thanks to its sweeping melody. I couldn’t have asked for better from a band I didn’t expect to ever hear from again.

#7. Kesha, Rainbow.

I’m as surprised as you are. In a year that was all about living through difficult things, though, Kesha’s re-emergence was the most miraculous. Separating herself fully from her abusive producer Dr. Luke, the now-30-year-old Kesha made the record of her life, a rollercoaster of a pop album that veers from loud guitar rave-ups to brassy anthems to bright ballads to country shuffles to folksy novelties to a duet with Dolly Freaking Parton. It’s an album that fulfills all of her potential and then some, but better than that, it’s an album about triumphing over trauma without succumbing to bitterness. “Praying” and “Learn to Let Go” and “Rainbow,” to name three, are lovely examples of breaking through to the other side with yourself intact. I cheered for her throughout this wild little record, and I’m jazzed to hear more from her.

#6. Neil Finn, Out of Silence.

It sounded like a gimmick. Neil Finn, formerly of Split Enz and Crowded House and certainly one of the best songwriters alive, would record his new album in one marathon session and broadcast it live on the internet. It felt like a way to prop up a substandard set of songs, and I reluctantly paid my money for the CD, not expecting much. But Out of Silence is, even without the gimmick, Finn’s best work in 15 years. The songs are complex, stately things, and the players he assembled – including a full string section and a choir – pulled these difficult arrangements off perfectly. It’s a more thoughtful work – songs like “There is More Than One of You” and “Independence Day” take multiple listens to truly absorb, as does a masterpiece like “Widow’s Peak.” Finn saved the most moving for the end. “I Know Different” is the story of a relationship that almost ended, and when the sun breaks through in its final moments, it’s the most gorgeous musical moment Finn has given us, maybe ever. The year’s most welcome return to form, Out of Silence is marvelous.

#5. Manchester Orchestra, A Black Mile to the Surface.

I have always liked this band, but A Black Mile is the first of their albums I have unabashedly loved. Andy Hull and company pulled out all the stops this time, spinning a dark tale of family chasms based in and around the Homestake Mine in Lead, South Dakota. This is their richest, fullest, most complete record, from the perfection of “The Gold” to the thunderous rhythms of “The Moth” to the bare-bones agony of “The Parts.” It all works together as a whole, and feels like a long climb out of a dark and difficult place. It’s an album of details, and Hull brings his A-game to his most well-observed set of songs. This is a great leap forward for Manchester Orchestra, and I’m excited to see how far they leap next time.

#4. Planetarium.

This was my number one choice for a while, and it still claims a large piece of my 2017 heart. Planetarium is a collaboration between Sufjan Stevens, Bryce Dessner of the National, James McAlister of half of your favorite bands, and string arranger to the stars Nico Mulhy. It is ostensibly based on the planets of our solar system, but it’s really about insignificance and fear and dark emotions. The music here is complex but endlessly fascinating – I hear more each time I listen. Stevens is undoubtedly the driving force, and every song here bears his signature. He’s a one-of-a-kind musician, and here he’s given the chance to stretch out, creating programmatic orchestral works with electronic underpinnings and a healthy dose of outer space atmosphere. It sounds like it would be too heady to be affecting, but like all things Sufjan, it’s a small and human thing at its core. Once again Stevens has gifted us with an incredible piece of music. We should never take him for granted.

#3. Jonathan Coulton, Solid State.

I have known for more than a decade that Jonathan Coulton had an album like this in him, and I’m so glad he finally made it. The self-proclaimed internet superstar made his name with geeky novelty tunes (“Code Monkey,” “Re: Your Brains”), but has long been aiming for more sophistication. Solid State is his quantum leap, a concept record (with accompanying graphic novel) about how the internet will bring about the collapse of our future society, but one made up of stunning, beautifully made songs. “Brave,” an angry number about online trolls, is probably the year’s finest guitar-pop tune, but there are so many more, from “All This Time” to “Square Things” to the title track to the apocalyptic yet hopeful climax of “Sunshine.” It’s a magnificently realized pop record, vaulting Coulton to stand among the finest songwriters we have (including the one at number two). I’m so pleased by this development, and so happy to have these, Coulton’s finest and best songs.

#2. Aimee Mann, Mental Illness.

Speaking of that pantheon of great songwriters, here’s Aimee Mann, who sits at the head table. I wouldn’t call Mental Illness a comeback – her last record, 2012’s Charmer, was merely very good, not amazing. But it is the first one she’s given us in a while that plays to her strengths. Mental Illness is a sad, stark record of broken love songs and middle-aged reckonings, tiny snapshots of people trying like hell to make things work, and knowing deep inside that it’s pointless. No one wrote a more gut-wrenching song this year than “Rollercoasters,” on which she collaborated with the aforementioned Jonathan Coulton, and that’s just one stop on this magical misery tour. Mann returned to acoustic balladry here for the first time in years, and it suits these sad songs to the ground. “You Never Loved Me,” “Patient Zero,” “Good for Me,” “Poor Judge,” “Lies of Summer,” just example after example of pitch-perfect songwriting, the way only a master can do it. She’s one of the best there is, and she proves it again and again on this gem of a record.

And for a while, she was my choice to lead this list. But I decided to go with an album that meant more to me personally than any other, an album that did in my head and my heart, that explored questions I’ve been working through for years with piercing honesty. Only a few of you will agree with this, but those who do likely had a similar journey of conflicting emotions while listening, and came away similarly torn apart.

#1. Derek Webb, Fingers Crossed.

You may not know Derek Webb’s name, but if you traffic in the spiritual circles I do, you have heard his songs. He was part of Christian band Caedmon’s Call for a decade, then a prophetic voice as a solo artist for another decade after that, writing songs that pointed fingers at the church for all manner of sins, but always remembering to point four fingers back at himself. His work was amazing from a songwriter point of view, but always firmly within – and often addressed directly to – the Christian church.

And then he cheated on his wife and was found out. She divorced him, and over the past four years Webb has slowly yet surely lost his faith. Fingers Crossed is his first album since all of that, and it’s devastating for those who know his work. But even if you don’t, this album boldly and honestly tackles the weightiest of subjects, detailing the despair and anguish of these twin losses, dissecting himself and his roiling thoughts with the same unflinching gaze he has always brought to his music. It’s as powerful as it is difficult, as emotionally draining as it is therapeutic. I love it and hate it and love it.

Webb has described this album as a tale of two divorces, and he weaves them together expertly. Several of these songs are searing laments for his lost love, and if you can get through a song like “I Will” or “Love is Not a Choice” without feeling something, I envy you. I feel hollowed out by them, empty and hopeless. The songs about his lost faith are similarly powerful. “Easter Eggs” mirrors a lot of my own thoughts over the past 20+ years about God and our relationship to him, and the title track captures the existential horror of losing the thing keeping you from falling into the abyss. It’s so well-rendered, so extraordinarily well-observed. Musically as well, this album is a black hole of loneliness. Webb has been making music on his own for some time, but he has never sounded this alone.

“The Sprit Bears the Curse” stands out for its apparent novelty – it’s a typical worship song, using the language of the Nashville praise machine that feeds evangelical churches around the country. But this one is about alcohol, not Jesus, a bait-and-switch he pulls at the end. It feels like a joke at first, but slowly it becomes a powerful excoriation of worship music and a stunning confessional at the same time. This is a song of abandonment, like many of these songs – Webb feels like God has turned his back on him, and while he understands why his wife has done the same, he doesn’t understand what happened between him and God. “Either you aren’t real or I am just not chosen,” he sings, and it resonates. I’ve felt that way before, for a very long time.

Full disclosure: I started attending church again last year after a 20-year absence. I’ve found a great place to grow as a person and as someone with at least the embers of belief. The music – including Derek Webb’s music – has kept me part of this world for decades, and I’m grateful to have found a place and a church family that I love as much as I have always hoped I would. Hearing Webb make the opposite journey on Fingers Crossed hurts just that much more because of it. Not because I need him to believe anything, but because I know these feelings and this journey, and it’s painful.

Webb reserves his one bit of hopefulness for the very last second of this album. The closer, “Goodbye for Now,” is the saddest song I have heard this year, bringing the threads of abandonment together: “You left me here to document the slow unraveling of a man who burned the house down where he kept everything…” But it ends on an unresolved chord, the musical equivalent of “to be continued,” and I can’t help but think of that as a deliberate choice, a way of saying that this story isn’t over, and as painful as it has been, we keep going. We keep living. We keep trying to figure it out.

God, that resonates with me. This entire album made me feel like nothing else this year. Some days I can’t even listen to it, it’s so extraordinarily emotional for me. Webb has followed this record up with a weekly podcast called The Airing of Grief, in which he talks with people who have been moved by this album, whether they agree with it or are angered by it. It’s all part of the process, all part of healing and moving forward, whatever we leave behind.

In some ways, I can’t recommend this album at all. In other ways, I can’t recommend it enough. You can judge for yourself at https://derekwebb.com.

That does it for me. Next week is Fifty Second Week, and then we’re into 2018. I can only hope that it gets better from here. Thank you to everyone who has read and sent emails and commented on Facebook this year. I couldn’t keep doing this without all of you, and I appreciate you more than I can say. I hope everyone’s holidays are as merry and bright as they can be.

See you in line Tuesday morning… and to all a good night.

Here Comes Christmas
Hanson and Tom Chaplin Lead the Yuletide Treasures of 2017

Hard to believe, but 2017 is over.

Oh, there are still a couple weeks (and hence a couple columns) left in the year, but I’m writing those pieces at the same time I’m writing this one, so as far as I’m concerned, by the time you read this, 2017 will be over. In some ways this year crawled by, the atmosphere of fear and uncertainty so great that it felt like I couldn’t make it through another week of it. But in others, it disappeared right from under me, impervious to my attempts to hold on to it.

So here we are at the end of the year, with still so many things to talk about. I’m going to pull double duty this week, combining two columns that are usually their own beasts. The idea is to spend less time and fewer words on both of them, so let’s see how I do.

First up is my annual survey of Christmas music. Now, I love Christmas music. Love. It. In many ways, this is my favorite time of year, simply because of the beautiful music. Christmas carols, old-time holiday ballads, new Christmas-themed tunes, I love all of it. Christmas music fills me with peace and joy, reminds me of simpler and better times, transports me in ways I can’t explain. It is its own particular kind of magic, the kind with a dusting of snow on the ground, colored lights on trees with brightly wrapped presents beneath them, and midnight church services. (I’ve attended midnight Mass at a Catholic church every Christmas eve for the past 20+ years.)

Usually I have a rule. A yule rule, if you will. I will not listen to Christmas music until the day after Thanksgiving, and I will not continue listening to it past Christmas. But this year, I broke that rule like an ornament swatted off the tree. I found that I couldn’t give myself a reason not to be comforted by this magical music until the end of November. So it’s been a non-stop holiday jukebox at my house for the past month. And I don’t regret a thing. I may keep listening to Christmas tunes well past new year’s, and I expect not to regret that either.

Every year I buy a stocking-full of new Christmas tunes to hang alongside the Sufjan Stevens and Aimee Mann and Timbre and other favorites, and this year was no exception. Rockford, Illinois’ own Cheap Trick was first out of the gate with their first holiday record, Christmas Christmas, on Oct. 20. (Yes, before Halloween. In prior years, that might have bugged me, but not in this one.) It’s a blast. It continues the loud-and-proud vibe of We’re All Alright, released this summer, and includes a number of strange yet apt covers, including Joey Ramone’s “Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want to Fight Tonight),” the Kinks’ “Father Christmas,” and most awesomely, Jimmy Fallon and Horatio Sanz’ “I Wish It Was Christmas Today,” from their enduring Saturday Night Live skit. It’s just so much fun.

Speaking of fun, Hanson stepped up next with their terrific second X-mas album, Finally It’s Christmas. I love Hanson. I will probably always love Hanson. Seconds into the horn-driven title track of this album, I had a massive grin on my face. I had to listen to the song twice, I loved it so much. The rest of the album follows suit – it’s a fun romp through some expected classics (“Winter Wonderland,” “Blue Christmas,” a neat mash-up of “Joy to the World” and “Go Tell It On the Mountain”) and five winning originals, including the lovely “Peace on Earth.” Endless kudos to the Hanson brothers for ignoring the naysayers and doing their thing their way for 25 years now.

Speaking of individuality, there’s Sia. There’s really no one like her, as she proves once again on Everyday It’s Christmas. This record contains no covers, no carols, no classics. It’s ten new Sia songs with a holiday flavor. Who does that? Well, she does, and it works. This is a quirky and danceable album of synth-pop goodness, from the first note of “Santa’s Coming for Us” to the last of “Underneath the Christmas Lights.” Only Sia would write a song like “Puppies are Forever,” an enchanting and catchy reminder that puppies make for bad Christmas gifts. Everyday It’s Christmas is pure Sia (I mean, check out that cover) and quite unlike anything else I own.

Speaking of being unlike anything else I own, I will admit that my heart raced a bit when Ronnie Martin, he of Joy Electric and Said Fantasy, announced a new Christmas CD. Martin is a true original, working solely in analog synthesizers and creating magical fairy lands all on his own. Joy Electric’s one Christmas album is a delight, so I was looking forward to Said Fantasy’s first, Carols Gloria. Alas, despite being sold as a full-length, Carols Gloria turns out to be 14 minutes long, consisting of four instrumental covers and one new vocal tune. It’s fine, it’s just too short. I’m not sure why Martin stopped where he did, or why he bothered to press these keyboard squiggles to disc, but this feels like getting the cherry without the sundae. I like it, don’t get me wrong. Martin is always worth hearing. I just want more of it.

Speaking of wanting more of it, the big winner this year – much to my surprise – is Tom Chaplin. The hopefully once and future singer of Keane has given us his first holiday album, Twelve Tales of Christmas, and if you don’t know much about him (in and outside of Keane), you might be expecting a sugary crowd-pleaser. But it comes as no shock to me that what Chaplin has made instead is a melancholy pop album about the uncomfortable and sad emotions this time of year can stir up.

Twelve Tales is full of heartbreak and hope. Eight of its songs are originals, some with only a tenuous connection to Christmas (like “Say Goodbye” and “Follow My Heart”), and its four covers are delightfully off-kilter choices. I’m an enormous fan of the opening take on “Walking in the Air,” Howard Blake’s centerpiece song for the animated wonderama The Snowman. It’s astonishingly beautiful. Chaplin also takes on Joni Mitchell and the Pretenders with the voice of a snow angel.

But it’s the originals that will keep you coming back. In plain-spoken language, Chaplin lays bare his heavy heart, paying tribute to those who died this year on “We Remember You This Christmas,” trying to find hope on “Under a Million Lights” and grabbing on to any glimmer of encouragement on “For the Lost.” His finest here is “Midnight Mass,” a song so beautiful it makes me tear up every time. (I was not surprised to find that it was co-written by Aqualung’s Matt Hales.) I want this to be a fixture of every Christmas for the rest of my life. It’s that lovely. I’m so glad it exists.

Tom Chaplin has made a Christmas album that is true to the year. It’s been a rough one for me and everyone I know, and the season often leaves me sadder in ways I can’t explain. Chaplin has tapped into that, gracing these pretty and heartfelt songs with that incredible voice. As much as I want new Keane music, if his solo career continues to be this excellent, I’ll be happy. Well, sad and mournful, as fits this music. But also very happy.

* * * * *

Of course, another tradition around these parts is the year-end top 10 list. I’ll be posting mine next week. Yes, next week. Hard to believe it’s here already. But we covered that ground.

I have only a few honorable mentions this year, and I’d like to list them off for you now. But first, we need to talk about an album you won’t see here, or in next week’s list. Brand New’s Science Fiction found its way into one of my quarterly reports this year, and might have ended up on my top 10 list, if not for these stomach-churning accusations against frontman Jesse Lacey.

Lacey has not denied the allegations, and has apologized. But I can’t see clear to awarding him a spot on my list. A friend of mine (who is a bigger Brand New fan than anyone I know) put it best: since Lacey used his position in Brand New to entice these young girls, the band has been a force for harm in the world. I can’t ignore that, and I can’t reward it. Make no mistake, Science Fiction was one of my favorite things from this year. I will probably never listen to it again. I’m glad the band has canceled their tour, and I hope Lacey gets the help he needs.

The one album this year I wish I could include is Sara Groves’ Abide with Me. As a collection of old hymns, it runs afoul of my rules requiring original songs to qualify. God knows Groves can write those, and I’m looking forward to the next time she does. But this year, she chose to sing songs of comfort, songs that got her through, and the result was stunningly beautiful. Ineligible, but stunningly beautiful.

My honorable mentions began this year with Stephin Merritt, who, under his Magnetic Fields alias, gave us his 50 Song Memoir. Merritt hasn’t taken hold of a project like this since 69 Love Songs, and this one is almost as good. The box set contains one song for each of his 50 years of life, tracing his journey from childhood to now with his usual wit and whimsy.

A couple of old geezers turned in swell new projects this year. Roger Waters took on Trump and Brexit with Is This the Life We Really Want, his first new album in 25 years. It is typically dense and foreboding, but has a decidedly atypical swing toward love and hope near the end. And Robert Plant led his Sensational Space Shifters through a set of gorgeous numbers that emphasized his weathered yet magnificent voice on Carry Fire.

One of the year’s most haunting records was all about the reality of death. Mount Eerie’s A Crow Looked at Me traces the days and weeks after Phil Elverum’s wife Genevieve passed on, and finds him trying to put the pieces of his life back together. It’s naked and painful and difficult to listen to, like much of the best and most honest art is. Death hung over the final album from Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, Soul of a Woman, as well. It’s a typically excellent set of songs, only made more poignant by the fact that we will never hear more.

Kendrick Lamar’s Damn has ended up on most of the lists I have seen so far, but it isn’t on mine. It’s good – he is still the very best in the game – but it’s looser and less interesting thematically than his best work. It’s the sound of the world’s best rapper letting his hair down, and while much of it sounds generic and many of the lyrics feel like first drafts, Lamar is still worth hearing.

And now we’re at the Number Elevens, three albums that could easily have been in my list. I would never argue with anyone who considers any of these one of the year’s ten best. First up is the amazing Elbow, who hit a new high with Little Fictions. These glorious songs of hope have been fine companions this year. Jason Isbell also hit a new high with The Nashville Sound, his most consistent group of songs. (“If We Were Vampires” is one of 2017’s best.) And Australia’s Husky hit the hat trick with their awesome third record, Punchbuzz. The sound is more electronic, but the songs are just as captivating as ever.

That’ll do it for this week. Next week, the top 10 list. Be there. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Next Door to the World
Local Songwriter Greg Boerner and the Biggest Band on Earth

I’m going to start this week with my friend Greg Boerner.

I usually make my friends in the local Aurora, Illinois music scene scroll past the more widely anticipated reviews to get to their own, but this is sort of a special case, as you’ll see. I’ve known Greg for about 10 years now – he was one of the first local musicians I met, and he’s still the only one I know who makes his living by playing gigs and selling CDs. I wrote a profile piece about Greg for the local paper on the occasion of the release of his third album, World So Blue, and we’ve been friends ever since.

That’s not to say we always agree, especially about music. Greg likes what he likes – mainly guitar-driven blues, rock and soul from the early days of rock ‘n’ roll. My efforts to get him to listen to modern music without those roots have largely been in vain. If he likes something I recommend, it’s usually because it draws from the same well of inspiration he does. The man has an encyclopedic knowledge of the formative years of blues and rock, and you can hear that in his own music, which wears its influences proudly.

Over four previous records, Boerner has delivered foot-stomping (literally, if you see him live) acoustic music that hearkens back to the blues, folk and rock he loves, with his own original twist. His fourth, 2011’s Prophetstown, was a lot like his third, which was a lot like his second, etc. Greg’s such a fixture around here that I fully expected I’d keep buying similar-sounding records from him and palling around at Kiss the Sky, our favorite record store, for the next several decades.

I love it when people surprise me, and Greg threw two surprises at me recently. The first is that he’s moving to Nashville in January – he’s found love, and he’s going after it with all he has. The second is his fifth record, Solid Sender, which rips up his formula and finds new ground to stand on. It’s still a loving tribute to the roots music he holds dear, but this time he’s opened the production wide, welcoming drums and electric piano and upright bass and lots of studio magic, and strapping on an electric guitar for most of the running time. Even with all this, Solid Sender is still a Greg Boerner record, only more so.

This new effort was produced with Patrick Moynihan at his local studio, Waveform, and you can hear Moynihan’s influence right away. That’s him on the Fender Rhodes on the opening title track, with Boerner laying down a slinky electric vibe. “Price You Pay” is a blues song at its core, but the production is marvelous – Boerner plays an electric with heavy tremolo over Ed Breckenfeld’s drums and Moynihan’s bass and electric piano, while he duets with Mary Lou O’Brien, one of the finest singers in the Aurora area. Their voices intertwine beautifully on this traditional, yet thoroughly enjoyable tune.

Already he’s flipped his own script, which is why “Faith,” a classic-Coke Boerner solo acoustic tune, is a welcome addition early in the record. The rest of Solid Sender revels in its own diversity, and in the new possibilities of its full-band studio setting. I’m a fan of “Restless Sleep,” a minor-key shuffle on which Boerner lists off all the things that keep him up at night, in a slightly unsettling doubled vocal. The interplay between his guitar and Moynihan’s piano light up the instrumental passages on this record, and it’s clear that great thought went into how to catch the listener’s ear every few seconds.

O’Brien shines on the country-swing ballad “Don’t Do This to Me,” and on the whimsical cover of “Two to Tango.” But that’s not the cover that will make you take notice. Boerner’s spare, haunting rendition of Muddy Waters’ “Sick and Die” might be the best thing here. He sticks to minimal acoustic and voice for the first part of the tune, so when an army of mouth percussion and O’Brien’s soulful vocals come in, it’s a full-on wide-grin moment.

Another comes with the next track, a genuine surprise. “Allman Joy” is an instrumental, and as the title suggests, it is a tribute to the twin-guitar jams of the Allman Brothers Band. It’s unlike anything I’ve heard from Boerner, and it makes me smile. As does the final track, a love song called “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” that was written for a family wedding, but took on new significance as Boerner reconnected with the woman he’s about to move across the country for. It’s a sweet, emotional way to close out a record that is all about taking chances, changing things up, rolling the dice and seeing where they land.

Solid Sender feels like a new chapter, both in Greg’s music and his life. As much as I would have enjoyed running into Greg and seeing him play locally for the next however many years, I’m thrilled that he’s going after whatever lies ahead for him. And I’m thrilled that he made my favorite of his records before he did, and I got to tell him to his face how much I liked it. Solid Sender is the work of a confident man willing to take a risk and hope it pays off. I’ve no doubt that it will, as much as the risks he took on this record have paid off.

I’ll miss you around here, Greg. Here’s to your next chapter.

You can check out Greg Boerner’s work at his new website: https://www.gregboerner.com.

* * * * *

What else do I have to talk about? Oh, yeah, only one of the year’s most anticipated albums, and one of its biggest letdowns.

I’ve listed U2’s Songs of Experience in no fewer than three of my looking-ahead-to-the-new-year columns. It’s taken them an unbelievable three years to finish off the companion album to 2014’s Songs of Innocence, not counting the amount of time they worked on these songs before Innocence came out. For a band with a tendency to overcook their records, this was not a good sign.

Still, I held out hope, for a couple different reasons. First, there was Songs of Innocence, easily the band’s best collection in 20 years. I know it’s trendy to dislike this record, mainly because of its spontaneous appearance in iTunes accounts across the world, an act of generosity that was met with such hostility you’d think the band had personally punched people in the face. I appreciated the gesture, and even went on to buy a copy when it was officially released, because this album recaptured a fire they had forgotten. (You see what I did there?)

And second, I’m a U2 fan. It hasn’t always been easy – this is a band that tries to shoot itself in the foot over and over again, as a challenge. But I love their earnest openness, which was even evident during their ironic Zoo TV years. Bono takes a lot of grief for using his platform as one of the world’s most recognizable rock stars to improve the world, and I don’t really understand that. U2 has always tried to be a force for good, putting both their fame and their money where their mouths are. It would be hard for me not to support a band like that.

So please know that when I say Songs of Experience is perhaps their worst album, and whole songs here make me want to throw the CD in the trash, I’m saying these things as a U2 fan. I wanted to like this, more than I can tell you. I feel the motivation behind it, and I understand why Bono and company would want to create something so nakedly positive and hopeful during these turbulent times. I know that Bono approached these songs as letters to his loved ones, paring down his thoughts to only the essential things he needed to say. I get all that.

I just wish the record were better. The hopefulness that suffuses it ends up sounding as deep as a motivational poster, or a Chicken Soup for the Soul book. Some of these lyrics are downright embarrassing. You’ve heard some of the worst offenders already – “Get Out Of Your Own Way,” “You’re the Best Thing About Me” – but some of the deeper cuts are just as mortifying. “Love is Bigger Than Anything in its Way” is a real song title here. And it’s not that I don’t agree. Love really is bigger than anything in its way. As art, though, it’s a surface-deep observation, not worth building a U2 song around.

Honestly, none of this would bother me as much as it does if the music were as tight and powerful as I know this band can still be. But it isn’t. Songs of Experience somehow required nine producers, and on sheer musical grounds, I would probably have junked all but three or four of these songs. Instead, they over-baked them, aiming for radio play and worldwide hits. The impulse to remain the most famous band in the world has been ever-present in their work since The Joshua Tree, but here it takes over, leaving us with quite a few lame stabs at relevance that aren’t worthy of the band.

I’d really prefer to focus on what I like about Songs of Experience, rather than spend time ripping apart a goofy waste of time like “The Showman,” so I will. There are two tremendous songs here – so good, they sound like holdovers from the Songs of Innocence sessions. “Summer of Love” is a shimmering stunner, The Edge spinning beautiful webs of clean guitar while Bono sings about the plight of refugees. And “Red Flag Day” could have fit on War, so insistent and captivating is its classic U2 vibe. When Bono hits the “no, no, no” part of the bridge, it makes my heart soar. Here is the band I love, in full glory. Also, Adam Clayton really steps out on this album, and never more than on this song. This one’s alive, amazing, powerful. It’s everything I love about U2.

There are a few others I enjoy, too. “The Blackout” has ridiculous lyrics (“Earthquakes always happen when you’re in bed, Fred, the house shakes, maybe it was something I said, Ned…”), but musically it’s a knockout, hampered only by a production that mutes its force. “Lights of Home” features Haim on backing vocals, and it’s winsome. I’m more fond of the strings version included as a bonus track. I was dreading “The Little Things that Give You Away” after its live debut, but the version here is a slow build, kind of like a lesser “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses.”

I’m conflicted on the band’s decision to reuse material from Innocence, which they do liberally here. “American Soul” might be the worst offender – it began as a tiny bit from “Volcano,” morphed into parts of “XXX,” their collaboration with Kendrick Lamar, and now they have tried to stretch it into its own song. (Lamar shows up here as well, intoning a quick monologue that could have been delivered by anyone.) But on the other hand, I do like “13 (There Is a Light),” a rewrite of “Song for Someone” that doubles down on its spare beauty. The recycling does unite the two albums, but it also diminishes Experience as a set of songs.

Over all of this is Bono, singing his little heart out, and I want to love his work this time, but I just don’t. I’m conflicted here too, because the world does need more hope and straight-up love, but I find myself cringing more often than not when Bono voices these things. He’s right about so much here – love is all we have left, we’re in our own way, there is a light, we are rock ‘n’ roll. (Well, maybe not that last one.) I get that he wanted to be heard this time, not puzzled out. But had these words been penned by Chris Martin of Coldplay, you wouldn’t be seeing so many five-star reviews. I expect this kind of thing from Martin. Bono has proven to be deeper and more interesting, so his work this time feels surface level.

This whole record feels surface level, and that’s a shame. Songs of Innocence felt to me like a burst of energy, an explosion of ideas that hearkened back to their early days. Songs of Experience feels tired. It feels like one of the world’s best bands grasping for relevance, instead of just being who they are. I’ve been looking forward to it for three years. I wanted to like it so badly. It hurts me that I don’t.

* * * * *

A couple quick takes before I put this very long column to bed.

If you’ve been reading for a couple years now, you know how much I love The Dear Hunter. Casey Crescenzo’s project is like nothing else I know of, particularly its centerpiece experiment, a six-act story in progress. But the band has also done sterling work outside of the Acts, including the nine-EP Color Spectrum collection and their one non-Acts album, Migrant.

So now here is All Is as All Should Be, a new six-song EP that caps off an incredible run of music from Crescenzo over the last three years. As with most things he does, this one has a concept: he connected with six Dear Hunter fans, asked them what they wanted to hear him write songs about, and then decamped to each of those fans’ homes to record those songs. It’s an above-and-beyond bit of fan service that resulted in a typically excellent record.

In fact, if you’re new to the Dear Hunter, I’d recommend checking this bite-sized morsel out first. The opening two tracks (“The Right Wrong” and “Blame Paradise”) will give you a good idea of them in full-throttle mode, while the rest of the songs show off their diversity. I’m particularly fond of the deliriously poppy “Shake Me (Awake),” which rhymes “ordinary” with “mortuary,” and the grand title track. If you enjoy the scale and scope of these tunes, you will find innumerable pleasures in the Acts. Check it out.

As a final grace note, I will recommend the new four-song EP from the Innocence Mission. This long-running husband-and-wife combo has been plying their delicate, beautiful trade since the 1980s, and The Snow on Pi Day is merely the latest. These four songs are almost inhumanly pretty, with the gossamer voice of Karin Peris floating above them, and the chiming guitars of her husband Don wrapping them in snowy winds. If you know the Innocence Mission, nothing here will be a surprise. If you don’t, well, you really should.

That will definitely do it. Next week, Christmas music. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.