All posts by Andre Salles

Spiritual Pop Overload Part Two
Daniel Amos' Instant Classic Mr. Buechner's Dream

Well, 14 hours and 40,000 slaughtered insects later, I arrived in Massachusetts for my extended vacation. The house in Indiana is huge and wondrous, and all my stuff arrived intact. Basically, I’ve been having a good week so far.

A quick housekeeping note before I jump into this week’s review:

At the start of this enterprise, I stated that I would be taking two weeks off a year, one for Christmas and one for my birthday in June. Almost none of you noticed that I delivered one on my birthday anyway (6/5), and now it’s time to collect on that. Next week I’m going to Prague.

“Oh, I’ve been to Prague. Well, I haven’t been to Prague been to Prague, but I know that thing. That stop shaving your armpits, read The Unbearable Lightness of Being, realize how bad American coffee is thing.”

Sorry. Obscure film reference.

Anyway, I’m going to Prague next week, so no column for you. Don’t take it too hard, okay? If I come back and find that any of you committed suicide because you missed me and couldn’t live without my stunning, brilliant insights, I’m going to be pissed, okay?

Okay.

Weird mail day yesterday. I got a rejection letter from the grad school I really wanted to attend, and I also got the new Daniel Amos album, Mr. Buechner’s Dream. Guess which one I enjoyed more?

Daniel Amos has been around since 1975, constantly shifting styles under the direction of one of America’s great ignored geniuses, Terry Scott Taylor. It’s amazing to me that Taylor has amassed such a huge body of superb work (26 studio albums between three bands and a solo career) and he still remains unknown. Even the most knowledgeable of music fans will often shake their heads in bewilderment when Taylor’s name is mentioned.

As a case in point, I only became aware of Taylor’s oeuvre a year and a half ago. How such a great songwriter got by me is almost as depressing as the fact that Taylor has to hold down a day job to pay the bills. This man has never written an unsatisfying song, and if some of his projects don’t stack up to some of his others, it’s only because his best work is just that good.

Named after two Old Testament prophets, Daniel Amos started in California in the early ‘70s with a heavy-handed gospel message and a sound reminiscent of the Eagles. They quickly grew out of both, Taylor turning his spiritual concerns further inward and his musical concerns further outward. By the time they arrived at their magnum opus, the four-album Alarma Chronicles, DA was a musical force to be reckoned with, one that embraced a darker spirituality filled with doubt and questioning. Post-Alarma, Taylor re-formed Daniel Amos into the fun-loving Swirling Eddies, started the Lost Dogs with three other great spiritual pop musicians (The Choir’s Derri Daugherty, the 77s’ Mike Roe and the late, great Gene Eugene) and embarked on a wildly diverse solo career.

I’m not going to delve deeply into Taylor’s history here in this column. If you’re interested, though, I have constructed a Terry Scott Taylor buyer’s guide, and you can read that by clicking here. It’s a lot of history, and all of it is worth hearing, but I’m not going to dive into it here because the new one deserves a lot of space.

Daniel Amos has been on hiatus for six years, ever since their strange concept record Songs of the Heart in ‘95. Say one thing for Terry Taylor, he knows how to come back in style. Mr. Buechner’s Dream, the soon-to-be-released 13th DA album, is a 33-song, 100-minute, two-CD set that just might be this man’s best work. If you’re a Taylor fan already, you know how good something would have to be to attain that position. Mr. Buechner’s Dream is that good.

In fact, MBD is perhaps the strongest argument yet for Terry Taylor’s induction into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. In the tradition of Blonde On Blonde, Exile on Main Street, The River and Being There, it’s a classic, timeless American double record that stands toe to toe with the great rock records of the past 30 years. If you think I’m exaggerating, you haven’t heard it. (By the way, I know the Stones are British, so don’t e-mail me. Exile on Main Street is a pretty American-sounding album, though.)

None of MBD’s 33 songs fail to satisfy in that classic, primal melody addict way. The discs are titled separately, even though the album works best in a straight shot. The first disc (called Mr. Buechner’s Dream) is pure, undiluted American rock, the kind that Wilco does so well. The melodies are sweet and perfect, the guitars sound imported right out of the classics, and Taylor’s voice has never been better. This guy just turned 50, and he hasn’t lost a note.

Highlights include the dirty “Who’s Who Here,” the lilting “Rice Paper Wings” and the Lennon-ish “Over Her Shoulder.” The acoustic “I Get to Wondering” is extraordinary, as is the psychedelic “The Staggering Gods.” The first disc is bookended by tiny piano pieces detailing Mr. Buechner’s slip into and crawl out of slumber, and it ends with the round robin “Joel,” a perfect conclusion. The first disc contains the most immediately likable Daniel Amos material since their second album, but Taylor doesn’t sacrifice quality for accessibility.

The second disc, titled And So It Goes, truly shines. It’s a bit looser in places, and a lot more menacing. Disc two takes you on a ride akin to listening to the whole DA catalog in miniature. The emotional heart of the album lies on this disc as well, exemplified by “Flash in Your Eyes,” a tribute to fellow Lost Dog Gene Eugene, who died last year. Taylor is typically real here, emotional without being sentimental: “Now you’re the catch in my throat, was I in your dreams of last goodbyes, now you’re the thorn in my heart, was I a flash in your eyes?”

It’s typical of Taylor that he can balance his heartfelt tunes with hilarious ones like “She’s a Hard Drink” and not seem incongruous. The album ends with two beauties, “Steal Away” and “And So it Goes,” songs about finding peace amidst loss and pain. There has certainly been enough of it in Taylor’s life recently. In addition to Eugene, he also lost his father early this year, and the loss permeates this surprisingly optimistic work.

Sure, there are songs I could do without on here, but unlike those from most double disc affairs, the list is surprisingly short. (Like, three.) Mr. Buechner’s Dream is a stunner that will never get the recognition it deserves. That’s never stopped Taylor before, and it won’t stop him now, I’m sure. (The fifth Lost Dogs album, Real Men Cry, hits in October and contains yet another 12 Terry Taylor songs.) MBD is a statement of maturity and artistic growth that feels like the destination point of a long, strange trip. It plays like the best of Bob Dylan, John Lennon and Leonard Cohen, all rolled into one. It’s one of the great classic rock albums of the modern age, and will remain so whether it’s recognized as such or not.

Next week, Europe for me, nothing for you. I’ll regale you with stories when I return.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Spiritual Pop Overload Part One
The Choir's Never Say Never

So I was having this terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day on Thursday. All of my potential news stories fell through, and when I went home for lunch most of my furniture was gone and the rest was packed in boxes and plastic wrap in preparation for Saturday’s move. Not a good day.

And then I opened my mailbox, and found waiting for me an autographed copy of the Choir’s box set, Never Say Never. As Cleese says in the Holy Grail, “It got better.”

I’ve been a Choir fan for more than 10 years. The first album of theirs I heard was 1990’s Circle Slide, and I wouldn’t be exaggerating if I said it changed my life. I heard it just as I was rejecting pat religion in search of deeper answers, and just as I was rejecting ’80s metal and trite pop in search of deeper music. Here, from the previously unexplored (by me, anyway) ghetto of Christian music, was an album that had everything I was looking for: real, honest, probing, and often dark spirituality couched in swirling, beautiful, unearthly soundscapes.

Incredibly, Circle Slide has grown with me. With every spin, with every passing year, I relate to it in a different way, and I find new insights hidden within it. I’ve picked up each Choir album I could find since then, and kept up with subsequent releases. While Circle Slide remains their artistic peak, every Choir record is worth owning, and most are worth cherishing. They’ve mellowed nicely with age, and they’re not spiritually searching as much as they used to be, but they remain one of the few bands that continue to have a lasting impact on my life, both personal and artistic.

The Choir has released 12 records, if you count their two live albums. The first nine of those are collected in their entirety on Never Say Never, so it’s an ideal introduction to the band. For a while, the band was including a copy of their latest studio record, Flap Your Wings, with the box set. That deal might still be going on, so after you read this, rush on over to www.thechoir.net and find out.

Never Say Never might be the most lavishly produced cheap box set I own. The Choir put this thing together on their own, and released it on sax player Dan Michaels’ new Galaxy21 Music label. Considering I was paying $60 for eight CDs and a 100-page book, I expected something less attractive. It’s a nice looking set, one that nearly conveys the beauty of the music within.

As for the music itself, well, I just took a trip through all eight CDs, and the flood of emotions is surprising, even for me. This band has existed for 20 years on the fringes, their audience never numbering more than a few thousand. Despite their ability to articulate the universal yearning for truth and grace without preaching, they’ve never managed to escape the Christian realm. I’ve tried every way I know over 10 years to get people to listen to this band. You don’t share a band like the Choir to prove how knowledgeable you are for having heard of them, you share a band like the Choir because it would be unforgivable to keep them to yourself.

The Choir started as Youth Choir in California in the early ’80s, a collaboration between the two guys most associated with the band, guitarist/vocalist Derri Daugherty and drummer Steve Hindalong. Though the lineup has changed considerably through the years, the core group of Daugherty, Hindalong, bassist Tim Chandler and sax player Dan Michaels has emerged as the soul of the band. At their best, you can hear these four distinct musical personalities pushing off of each other, and ending up with a sound like no other band out there.

Never Say Never‘s comprehensive book can give you the often humorous history of the band. I want to talk about the music.

The debut, Voices in Shadows, came out in ’85, and it sounds like it. In fact, the first three are weighted down a bit by their sometimes synthetic production. Shadows actually doesn’t suffer as much as the others, since the songs are relatively synthetic themselves. It’s a surprisingly listenable collection of Christian new-wave cliches, but you can hear Daugherty earning his wings as a singer. His glorious voice is one of the biggest draws of this band.

Shades of Gray, a five-song EP, hit less than a year later, and the difference is remarkable. Most notably, Hindalong began writing the lyrics here, hitting on a fine metaphor with “15 Doors.” The songs grew measurably in depth and scope.

Diamonds and Rain, the first under the Choir name, was another step forward, despite the interference of producer Charlie Peacock. His “Kingston Road” is a plastic speed bump in the middle of the record, which is especially grating considering the leaps Hindalong and Daugherty were taking in their own songwriting. “Render Love” remains a favorite, as does “Black Cloud.” Diamonds and Rain still fell short of the band’s vision, and was the last straw. From then on, they’d produce their own albums in their own Neverland Studio.

If you’ve ever heard an album like 1988’s Chase the Kangaroo, I want to hear about it. The Choir’s sonic palette exploded here, as Daugherty’s guitar took on monolithic, disturbing overtones drenched in reverb. The songs became landscapes, and the lyrics took darker, even murderous twists. This is an album that has the courage to point out the jagged edges without offering simplistic answers, something unheard of in mainstream Christian music, even today. Even the record’s gentler moments (“Sad Face” especially) are wise enough to hold your hand without dragging you anywhere.

Not content to stick with the new sound they’d created, the Choir then made a perfect pop record with Wide-Eyed Wonder in 1989. It’s a paean to children and families, and it manages to be sweet and honest without being trite or obvious. Coming as it does between their two darkest works, Wide-Eyed Wonder is a lovely shaft of soft-focus light that still manages to darken the corners (“Happy Fool,” “Car, Etc.”), all buoyed by the most effervescent guitar-pop in the band’s catalog.

I’ve already mentioned how I feel about their next album, Circle Slide. There’s enough sadness, joy, beauty and pain on this album to last a lifetime or three. Again, there are no easy answers, just a deep, honest search rendered in stunningly powerful words and music. The unquestionable centerpiece is “Merciful Eyes,” which carries in its four minutes a depth most artists don’t achieve even after 20 years. From first note to last, Circle Slide is one of the best records ever made.

With that in mind, where they went next was quite a surprise. Sick of the Christian rock ghetto, they dumped their record label and produced the eight-song Kissers and Killers independently. It’s a surprisingly loud morass of feedback and melody, trading the Choir’s signature clean reverb sound for distortion and power. For all that, Kissers is a pop record at its core, containing a number of indelible melodies (“Weather Girl,” “Gripped”) that shine through the fuzz. Also surprisingly, as the music took a darker, more menacing turn, the lyrics got brighter. Kissers is about love and devotion and how difficult, yet rewarding, those disciplines are.

Never Say Never includes both Kissers and the national release of the same material, called Speckled Bird. The band cleaned up seven of the Kissers songs, recorded five new ones and called it the official follow-up to Circle Slide. The differences in the recordings are pretty negligible, but each record has its own identity, and hence including both makes sense. Speckled Bird adds some musical brightness (“Spring,” “Never More True”) to the mix, ending up with a raucous pop record that balances out nicely. For me, hearing it on CD for the first time was a revelation.

The same goes for Free Flying Soul, the band’s return to dreamy soundscapes. They spent a mere six weeks on this record, and it’s more layered and atmospheric than almost anything else they’ve done. Soul is a culmination of sorts, bringing together the clean-and-reverbed and the distorted-and-grungy sounds, in service of a terrific set of songs. Soul is also the first record that hints at answers lyrically. “The Ocean” is practically a worship song, balanced nicely with “The Chicken,” its dark cousin. The final two songs, “Butterfly” and “The Warbler,” contain Daugherty’s best guitar treatments and Hindalong’s least oblique lyrics. Overall, Soul is the most difficult and challenging record the band has ever released, one that takes time to seep under your skin.

The eighth disc of Never Say Never is called Nevermind the Extras, which is a great joke referencing the line “nevermind the stars” on Chase the Kangaroo. Unlike some box sets that only give you one or two demos as incentives, the Choir has provided over an hour of rare stuff. Here’s what you get:

Two new songs lead it off, the sweet and layered “Follow Me” and the silly “Noon Till Whenever.” Both are worthy inclusions. The new stuff is followed by the first recording they ever did as a band, “It’s So Wonderful.” This and the six early demos that follow put the maturation of the group in sharp relief. You then get an acoustic reading of “Wilderness” from Speckled Bird, originally released on the Browbeat collection.

Then you get the solo material, all of which is intriguing. Hindalong contributes three, including a children’s song (“Mommy’s in the Circus”) and one of the weaker tracks from his solo record, Skinny (“Winnipesaukee”). Dan Michaels’ two pieces from his solo EP Reveal are surprising, especially the swirly title track. Finally, Daugherty checks in with a tune (“All the World to Me”) from his still-incomplete solo album, and it’s gorgeous. Still and all, the Choir works so well together that any solo material suffers in comparison.

The disc is rounded off with a Choir cover of Mark Heard’s “Tip of My Tongue” and a super-cool electronic remix of “Cherry Bomb” from the new album. Nevermind the Extras is a hodgepodge, but a cool one.

And hell, if you’ve read this far, I may as well finish the job.

Last year the Choir released Flap Your Wings, their first album in four years. It’s a mellower collection of pop tunes that plays like a less daring Free Flying Soul. It’s certainly their most traditionally beautiful record, containing lovely acoustic pieces like “Mercy Lives Here” and “Flowing Over Me.” There are still some risks here, especially on the production of “Sunny,” but the prevailing sense is that the Choir has settled into a mellow, contemplative groove. That’s not a bad thing, just a less immediately impressive one.

I also just received the band’s new live album, Live at Cornerstone 2000. It’s a powerhouse recording, even if the band loses its footing every once in a while. (That comes from only playing out once or twice a year.) That these guys can produce the sheer volume and mass of sound that they do on stage and not have it sound like mud is impressive in itself. Their previous live album, Let It Fly, holds up a little better, mostly because it was culled from a number of concerts. Live at Cornerstone is a flawed yet lovely portrait of the Choir, 20 years in, playing their hearts out.

If you’ve sloughed through this whole lengthy review, you probably know what it was like to have been around me for the last 10 years as my love for this band grew. Never Say Never is an unexpected collection, in that I never thought I’d see these recordings get their due. The Choir deserves a set like this, a full-on retrospective of a remarkable career. As I stated before, I didn’t spend 2000 words trying to share them with you just to prove how knowledgeable I am, but because not sharing a band like this would be unforgivable.

I hope it changes your life.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Twelve Strings, Four Hours, 86 Billion Little Notes
New Live Albums From Joe Satriani and Steve Vai

Short and sweet this week, because I’m in the middle of packing all my earthly belongings for my move to Hobart, Indiana. My furniture leaves tomorrow. I don’t leave until the 14th. I’m not sure how we settled on this arrangement, but as the date looms ever nearer, I find my schedule growing ever tighter.

So, short and sweet.

I found out a lot about the new Tori Amos album, Strange Little Girls, out on September 18. It turns out Jay Tucker wasn’t fucking with me – I was sure he was when he mentioned that Tori was doing a cover album. Strange Little Girls is a reworking of 12 songs by male authors, meant to bring out the female perspective and accentuate the hidden misogyny that exists within popular music. Obvious choices (conceptually, not musically) include Eminem’s “97 Bonnie and Clyde” (for real) and Slayer’s “Raining Blood,” but there are some other very interesting choices here. Songs by Joe Jackson, Neil Young, 10cc, etc. that on the surface probably wouldn’t lend themselves to the piano-and-vocal covers Tori’s done in the past.

This strikes me as something I might like more in concept than in actuality. Tori has fashioned 12 alter egos for herself from the lyrics of the songs she’s covering, and she sings each one in character. (“97 Bonnie and Clyde” ought to be terrifying.) What I don’t like about it right off the bat is that she didn’t write the material. That disappointment is tempered by her willingness to enter into the debate Eminem has started. Tori’s so far the only person who has even tried to craft a meaningful rebuttal to Em’s assertion that songs never hurt anyone. The more I think about this concept, the more it feels like it could work brilliantly.

Or, it could be a total cock-up. That’s what’s neat about taking huge creative risks.

Anyway, short and sweet.

I promised a guitar-fest this time, so here we go. I’m not sure which label rep is responsible for this, but two of the most amazing six-stringers playing today not only both signed with Epic Records at the same time, but have just released double-disc live albums simultaneously. Prior to their Epic tenure, Joe Satriani and Steve Vai couldn’t have been further apart, despite the fact that both play instrumental guitar music. Satriani perfected his melodic rock vibe with his second record, the classic Surfing With the Alien, and has in large part been riding that wave ever since. Vai, on the other hand, has never been creatively stagnant. As with his mentor Frank Zappa, you never know what you’re going to get when you pick up a Steve Vai record.

For a lot of people, guitar instrumentals are useless. They sound like extended versions of those 20-second bits in the middles of other songs where the guitar player gets to show his stuff. Joe Satriani has been railing against that particular notion for years by crafting hummable, memorable songs without words, songs that rarely slip into fretboard wankery. In large part, he’s been quite successful, especially on his earlier records. Surfing and The Extremist, especially, are the kind of guitar albums that you get stuck in your head.

It’s too bad, then, that Live in San Francisco makes so few strides away from what you’d imagine a typical guitar instrumental show would sound like. The songs are nearly exact replicas of what you hear on the studio albums, with an unfortunate injection of the aforementioned fretboard wankery. The tone and style hardly varies at all from song to song, which is mostly the fault of the selection. There are plenty of Satriani songs that make use of a more diverse tonal palette, but they’re not here.

Instead, we get rock song after rock song, and while they’re all played well, especially by Satch’s crack band of bassist Stu Hamm, drummer Jeff Campitelli and keyboardist Eric Caudieux, they get tiresome stretched one after another. Live in San Francisco drags on for two and a half hours, and while there are highlights (“Raspberry Jam Delta-v,” “Summer Song,” the closing “Rubina”), the overall effect is just wearying.

Adding to my disappointment is the fact that his last album, Engines of Creation, broke some interesting new ground for Satriani by injecting electronics and drum loops into his mix. Even though that album’s tour provided the tapes for this live album, Satch only does one song from Engines (“Borg Sex”). I’d have liked to have heard some organic band versions of the more technologically dependent tunes on that album, but alas, it’s all old stuff all the time.

Not so Steve Vai. In fact, his new Alive in an Ultra World would have been cool even if the songs weren’t magnificent, which they are. The concept (and with Vai, there’s always a concept) here was to create a live album of new tunes, each written for and incorporating the traditional music of the country in which it was recorded. This is a great idea, and Vai and his superbly talented band have carried it off, even though just getting through this project apparently took quite a toll on the musicians.

You can hear why, though, and all the blood and sweat was worth it. These songs are not quick knock-offs or excuses to solo endlessly. They’re sublimely crafted and orchestrated pieces that sound like products of months of rehearsal time. In actuality, Vai would often finish writing the pieces a day or so before the live recording session, giving his band members very little time to learn and practice. The band (bassist Philip Bynoe, drummer Mike Mangini, guitarist Dave Weiner and keyboardist Mike Keneally) is incredible throughout, no matter what style Vai is throwing at them.

And he does hop styles quite frequently here, from the crunching thud of “The Power of Bombos” to the powerful Irish lilt of “Blood and Glory” to the gorgeous acoustic orchestration of “Whispering a Prayer.” Most importantly for a guitar player’s live record, every song has its own distinct identity, and listening to Alive in an Ultra World is never a chore. Despite its overarching concept, there’s a disarming lightness to the whole proceedings, especially when Vai breaks a string two minutes into “Devil’s Food” and the band is forced to entertain the audience while he re-strings. Vai’s not so full of himself that he felt the need to edit that sort of thing out.

The concluding trilogy of tunes here cements Vai’s reputation as one of the most emotional guitar virtuosos around, especially “Brandos Costumes (Gentle Ways),” the lovely finale. This is what a guitar player’s live album ought to be, and like Frank Zappa’s live albums of new stuff, the sound reproduction is so crystal clear that this may as well be a 90-minute studio album. This is that proverbial extra mile that Satriani just didn’t walk, and it puts into sharp relief the differences between these two masters of the guitar.

Short and sweet, huh? Geez…

Next week, we launch into spiritual pop overload with the Choir’s eight-CD box set, Never Say Never.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Resistance of Memory
STP and the Importance of Being Unforgettable

You’ll have to excuse the next paragraph or so. I’m a little wound up, and I’m going to try to approximate the feeling.

Ahem.

HOLYGODDAMFUCKINGHELL!! A TORNADO!! LIKE, A REAL ONE!! LIKE, A MILE FROM HERE!! ON THE GROUND, KNOCKING OVER SIGNS AND SHIT!! HOLYMOTHEROFGOD!!

Yeah, I saw my first ever tornado. It touched the ground a few miles from the office where I work, and whoever described those things as the finger of God wasn’t far off. It took down the big sign in front of the local Burger King, it whipped up dust and dirt in a visible spiral several hundred feet off the ground, and it was accompanied by winds and hail the size of quarters. We all watched it form, hit the ground and slowly dissipate from our flimsy shelter in the pressroom. It was totally fucking cool, and I never want to do it again.

We got some great pictures, though. I’ll post some if I can.

Anyway, a little jittery today, but jacked up and ready to write this puppy. We now join your regularly scheduled column, already in progress.

***

Stone Temple Pilots are a better band than they have any right to be.

Riding the Seattle wave of the early ‘90s, this California band aped Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains so perfectly that they fit right in on the burgeoning alternative radio scene. Their debut album, Core, sold extremely well, despite ringing hollow from first note to last. If you asked me then, I’d have suspected that their only claim to fame would have been as one of the bands responsible for the three songs named “Creep” that shared the airwaves in ’92. (The other two were by Radiohead and TLC.)

In fact, if you’d postulated in 1993 that STP would outlast bands like Alice in Chains and Soungarden, you’d have been laughed right out of Lollapalooza. The grunge wave self-destructed along with its most important bands, chiefly Nirvana, but lo and behold, Stone Temple Pilots keep soldiering on, and growing artistically while they’re at it. Their fifth and best album, Shangri-La Dee Da, is playing right now, and I must confess a steadily growing respect for it.

I have to say this right up front, though, and I’d be interested to know if anyone out there has had a similar experience. The truth is, I have the album playing right now because otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to review it. Ten minutes after I shut this record off, I won’t remember a note of it, I guarantee you. STP is the only band I really like that doesn’t stick in my memory at all. I glanced at the track listing for Shangri-La Dee Da before pressing play, in fact, and I found I couldn’t hum a single one of the tunes, even though I’d heard the album six times before.

To tell you the truth, I can’t remember a single song off their last two albums, either. I remember their names (Tiny Music and No. 4), and I remember a couple of song titles, but if I were to dig them out and listen to them again, it would feel like I’d never heard them before. STP has an odd facelessness about them, one that probably comes from mimicking so many styles so well.

Let’s back up.

Round about their third record, STP expanded their range of influence, taking a little bit from Zeppelin, a little from Bowie, a little from the Beatles, and a lot from the good, solid rock of the time. They fashioned a more classic rock sound that was leaps and bounds above their first couple of efforts in composition, style and texture. Tiny Music was good, or so I wrote at the time. As I’ve said, I don’t really remember it. I do remember thinking that nearly every element had changed, especially Scott Weiland’s voice, which now seemed to fluctuate with the type of song they were emulating. Tiny Music was a mix tape with almost no identity attached.

Shangri-La Dee Da (and I have to say, I love that title) is a better mix tape, but there’s still no identifying Stone Temple Pilots sound to it. Every song, though, and I mean every song, is more melodically complex and well-crafted than you’d expect it to be. “Dumb Love” is pure rock, “Days of the Week” is Matthew Sweet-style guit-pop, “Coma” works some nifty production touches around a powerhouse melody, etc. There are standouts (the lovely “Wonderful,” the epic “Hello, It’s Late”), but there are no weak links.

In a way, though, the whole album is a weak link, and I’m not really sure why. I’m on track 12 now (“A Song for Sleeping”) and I barely remembered enough about tracks one through five to write the above paragraph. If STP played simple, disposable pop, I could perhaps explain my inability to commit their tunes to memory. They don’t, though. Shangri-La Dee Da is a decent, well-written album that wisps away like smoke the second it’s over.

I can’t for the life of me think of what the band should be doing differently. While Shangri-La Dee Da is playing, it’s borderline extraordinary. I’d explore this strange phenomenon in greater detail, except the last track just ended, and I can’t remember enough about it (or the other 12) to keep writing.

On the complete opposite end of the spectrum, there are those bands you hear once and never forget. I discovered one of those this past week. I’m randomly flipping through music video channels, right, and I come across this dark, moody-looking clip that catches my eye for a second. All of a sudden, I hear Jeff Buckley’s voice coming out of the body of Trent Reznor, and he’s singing this unbelievable song, and I just have to get this disc. Now. Tonight. Without delay.

The band is called Ours, the CD is called Distorted Lullabies, and it’s at least as good as I hoped it would be.

For all intents and purposes, Ours is one guy, and his name is Jimmy Gnecco, which explains why he didn’t use it. Sweet Christ, though, can this guy sing. He alternately sounds like Buckley, Bono and some unique combination of the two. He also writes these sweeping, dramatic songs that implant themselves in your consciousness after just one listen. The song with the moody video clip is called “Sometimes,” and you will never forget it. The rest of Distorted Lullabies is just as good.

I wasn’t too surprised to see that this record came out on DreamWorks. I don’t know where they find these artists, but as I mentioned earlier, they’ve filled their roster with true musicians, as opposed to marketable radio fodder. Nothing about Distorted Lullabies says “major label debut.” Everything about it says “labor of love,” and God bless DreamWorks for finding it and releasing it as is.

The second half of this album is among the best material released by anyone this year. I almost feel like I should be harder on Gnecco for sounding so much like Buckley, both vocally and compositionally, but here’s how I look at it: Jeff Buckley was so supernaturally talented that you’d have to be nearly that talented yourself to pull off a good imitation. Distorted Lullabies is more than a good imitation. It’s almost a reincarnation, and it packs enough originality and majesty that you’re carried away in the sweep of it all.

I hope this record isn’t a fluke, and that Gnecco gets to enjoy the long, artistically satisfying career that Jeff Buckley never had. Even if that doesn’t pan out, though, Distorted Lullabies is the musical find of the year so far.

Next week, a guitar-filled double feature with live records from Joe Satriani and Steve Vai.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

All New England, All the Time
New Ones by Motorplant and Rustic Overtones

It’s all New England all the time this week, but before we launch into that, I wanted to share some pretty cool announcements. It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of that unclassifiable group of spiritual pop rock bands that sprouted up in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. These are bands that have survived for 20 years or more in near-total obscurity, deemed “too church for radio and too radio for church,” even though none of them are as “Christian” as, say, U2 or Jars of Clay. Anyway, two of the more long-lasting bands have announced cool new projects that make it a good time to get into them, if you’ve never heard them before.

All of my friends are probably sick to death of hearing about the Choir. I’ve been raving about them for more than 10 years, and the band themselves have just come up with an ideal way for anyone to find out what I’ve been talking about. Never Say Never is an eight-CD box set that includes, oh, everything the band has ever done. All nine albums (Voices in Shadows, Shades of Gray, Diamonds and Rain, Chase the Kangaroo, Wide-Eyed Wonder, Circle Slide, Kissers and Killers, Speckled Bird and Free Flying Soul) are here in their entirety, as well as two new tunes and a disc full of rarities. It goes for the absurdly low price of $60, and if you rush to www.thechoir.net and order it, they’ll throw in a copy of their 10th album, Flap Your Wings, for nothing. This is the deal of the century, folks. You get the whole story of an amazing, overlooked band for an unbeatable price.

Daniel Amos is another long-running spiritual rock band, only they’ve been around since 1975. They’re the brainchild of Terry Scott Taylor, a prolific and ignored genius. Between DA, the Swirling Eddies, the Lost Dogs and his numerous solo projects, Taylor’s released 27 albums. For the last five years, he’s been focusing on solo works, but Daniel Amos roars back on July 3 with Mr. Buechner’s Dream, their 14th full-lengther. It’s a 33-song double-disc affair that’s being hailed as Taylor’s finest work, a claim that I find difficult to believe considering his history. Expect a full-blown analysis and retrospective when this baby hits.

Okay, time to head north.

My time at Face Magazine was, overall, a positive experience. For those unaware of Portland’s long-running music mag, Face started in 1988 under the ownership of Bennie Green. It was a bi-weekly underground paper that touted local bands and basically did everything it could to support the local music scene. I’m all for that, so I started working for Face in 1996. I was editor-in-chief by 1999, and I left under less-than-optimum circumstances in September of 2000.

During those four years, I met dozens of bands struggling for attention from the major labels, and I got a pretty revealing glimpse into the process of managing and marketing an original act. This is not an easy thing, and the more I learned about it, the more amazed I became at northern New England’s wealth of talent and perseverance. Even though there have been many worthy contenders, there hasn’t been a major label album out of Maine or New Hampshire in nine years.

Until now. But we’ll get to that in a moment.

I often wondered what else labels could be looking for that the bands I was encountering weren’t providing. An excellent case in point is New Hampshire’s Motorplant. On the surface of it, they have everything. They write great songs, they play them with energy and skill, they’ve built up a sizeable fan base all on their own, and their live shows are terrific. They’ve released two good records by themselves, Inside the Walnut and the new American Postcard. Oh, and they’re all pretty damn cute.

So what’s missing? Why the hell aren’t these guys on a major label?

I have no idea. I’ve bought several major-label records recently that aren’t as tight, polished, well-played or well-written as American Postcard. (I’m listening to one right now, in fact – Dave Navarro’s Trust No One.) They play an invigorating, no-bullshit style of melodic rock, the kind that pulls you in from the first note. It doesn’t waste any time – Postcard’s 13 tracks clock in at a lean 48 minutes – and it never wears out its welcome. It comes in, kicks your ass and goes home.

Motorplant most impresses me when they’re making inventive use of their multiple guitars. The great first single, “Awkward Girl,” spins a web of electric guitar lines, and the band keeps enough distance between each one that the song fills in the holes. Vocalist Steve Blanchard sings his ass off on this song, and in fact on the whole record. I can’t think of a single reason why pseudo-rockers like Sugar Ray and Matchbox 20 are all over the radio and this tune isn’t.

Motorplant keeps the crunching guitars and upbeat tempos throughout, and yet varies the production enough so that Postcard is never stale. “Mary,” just by itself, is a great example, slipping as it does from double-guitar and three-part harmony in the chorus to a hushed bridge section, to vocals, bass and drums in some parts. This record never slows down, though. It’s a masterful chunk of classic power pop-rock, and if you like the sound of guitars at all, you’ll dig it. The only thing that could have made it cooler is if they’d included their live version of Ratt’s “Round and Round.”

So what’s the problem here? Let’s get Motorplant on a major label. Go to www.motorplant.com and order American Postcard. If you like it, lobby your local radio station to start playing it. Then, start going to local shows and supporting local bands, because no matter where you are, there are bands like Motorplant struggling to get a major label deal.

The other side of the coin seems to be this: when these bands get major label deals, they often seem to muck it up. The major label record is nowhere near as good as the independently produced records, for some reason. As much as it saddens me, I’m talking about Portland’s golden children, Rustic Overtones.

When Rustic was signed to Arista Records in 1998, it was a big deal around the state of Maine. Finally, it seemed, two things had happened: one of the local scene’s best and brightest would get a shot at the big time, and the doors of the scene would blow wide open. Rustic Overtones landing a major deal was good for everyone.

And then the songs started leaking out. The major label record, which was at different times called Volume Up and the even more hideous This is Rock and Roll, was produced by Tony Visconti, and obviously had massive funding poured into it. All manner of embellishments were used: electronic drums, synthetic noises, David Bowie, etc. The songs, though, were pretty damn weak.

After a year and a half of delays and legalities, Arista rescinded its claim to Rustic, and the material was shelved, as were the hopes of every local act that Portland would become the new Seattle, circa 1992. But now, Rustic has landed a deal with super-cool rap label Tommy Boy, and given their major-label dreams new life. Hence the (finally!) terrific title of their Tommy Boy debut, Viva Nueva. If only the album were as good as its name.

If this is the first Rustic album you’ve tried, you should know a few things. First and foremost, they have never, ever sounded like this before. Viva Nueva is over-produced, bass-heavy and relatively tuneless. Over half of it is the Visconti sessions, mixed with five superior new recordings and two inferior re-recordings of old tunes. You’d never know it, though, because thankfully Viva Nueva flows remarkably well. The new stuff (“C’mon,” “Love Underground,” “Baby Blue,” “Combustible” and “Boys and Girls”) sounds like the Rustic of old somewhat. The Visconti sessions are an aberration.

I’d highly recommend trying their older stuff, particularly Long Division and Rooms By the Hour. Those sound like the work of a band, and make much better use of the three-piece horn section. Track ‘em down, they’re worth it.

That said, Viva Nueva is a challenging, accomplished, schizoid record that may grow on me over time, but I kind of doubt it. The band went to some new places on this disc, but they should have known that not all side paths lead to brilliance. “Gas on Skin,” for instance, strips the sound down to a repetitive bassline over an electronic drumbeat, and that gets real old real fast. “Crash Landing” sounds remarkably like Dave Matthews covering Ricky Martin. And don’t even get me started on “Sector Z,” the track featuring Bowie and lyrical references to both rejected album titles. I give them credit for trying new things, but I take that credit away for not realizing that new is not always better.

Again, if this is your first Rustic album, this may not matter to you. These guys are far better than this record, though, and it seems they’ve fallen victim to the major-label slump. I don’t know if it’s just the added pressure or the additional cash at one’s disposal, but this happens a lot to some really good bands. I hate to do it, but I have to number Rustic Overtones among them. Next time, guys…

While we’re on the subject of local bands, I got another e-mail from Broken Clown drummer Shane Kinney, who reports that his band’s badass anthem “Feelgood Hit of the Summer” is in contention for the top spot on garageband.com. You can help out by surfing over there and reviewing the tune. Last I checked, they were at #19 on the main chart, and #4 on the metal chart. Congrats, guys, now take it all the way.

As a quick aside, when Rustic Overtones announced in 2000 that the title of their album would be This is Rock and Roll, Kinney confided in me that Broken Clown would be titling their upcoming record No, THIS is Rock and Roll. That would have been too damn funny.

Next time, Stone Temple Pilots, maybe.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

My Fingers Hurt From Typing
Six Reviews, 3600 Words

I tried a little experiment the other day.

I mentioned in my review of Radiohead’s disappointing new wank-fest that the band’s last two albums (Kid A and Amnesiac), recorded simultaneously and originally planned as a double album, would work much better edited down to a strong single disc. Well, guess what. It works.

My edit runs 53 minutes, plenty short enough for a single disc and plenty long enough to be considered an album. I called it Kid Amnesia, and I’ve found myself reaching for this edit far more often than either of the records it came from. It’s still pretty weak, but it flows surprisingly well and sets the paranoid mood the group seemed to be after.

In case you’re curious, here’s my running order: “Everything in its Right Place,” “Pyramid Song,” “Optimistic,” “In Limbo,” “You and Whose Army,” “I Might Be Wrong,” “Knives Out,” “Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box,” “Idioteque,” “Morning Bell,” “Dollars and Cents” and “How to Disappear Completely.”

Radiohead fans who might want to try this are encouraged to send me their running orders, should they differ from mine. This, naturally, flies right in the face of my philosophy of listening to an artist’s work the way they intended it, and I’m working on a rationalization for this lapse as we speak. (Well, as you speak, if you’re reading this out loud.) I’ll let you know what I come up with.

I promised a long-assed column this week, and here it is. I hope to play catch-up on about half a dozen new things. I’ve broken the column up into bite-sized, digestible chunks for you if you just don’t want to commit to reading the whole thing at once. That’s just the kind of considerate guy I am. You’re welcome.

Okay, here we go.

*****

In what’s being termed the Battle of the Brit-Poppers (by someone, somewhere, I’m sure), Radiohead’s Amnesiac is being followed up one week later by Radiohead wannabes Travis’ third album. It’s no contest, really. While Radiohead have wallowed in ego for the past two releases, Travis have named their delightfully ego-free release The Invisible Band. While Radiohead were off in the stratosphere somewhere praying to the atmosphere faeries, Travis were writing songs to hang their atmospheres on. While it once may have been true that Travis at their best couldn’t outdo Radiohead at their worst, these two new releases prove that’s no longer the case.

One reason that it’s hard to knock Travis is that they’re such a nice band. Everything they do is grounded in contentment and happiness. Even when Fran Healy is bemoaning his current state of affairs, he does so with such a sunny outlook that you’re pulling for the guy to get over his minor slump. (See their big hit, “Why Does it Always Rain on Me.”) While I often wish something bad would happen to my favorite artists to inspire them artistically, I find it’s impossible to bear Healy and the boys any ill will. They’re so honestly, genuinely sweet that I feel like an ass for criticizing them.

I will, though, but only a little. Travis’ songwriting is fairly stagnant on The Invisible Band, gaining no ground from their wonderful breakthrough, The Man Who. The guitars still shimmer and shine, Healy’s voice still soars without whining, and the lyrics are (with a few exceptions) typically sunny. This album exhibits exactly zero growth.

Travis fans everywhere may breathe a sigh of relief at that. They didn’t forge ahead with some grand artistic vision, they didn’t embrace electronic beats and blips, and they certainly didn’t use their popular platform to engage the ills of the world. They’re just four blokes who like to make lighter-than-air pop music, and it shows through winningly. There’s not a moment of The Invisible Band that breaks new ground, but there’s not a moment when you’re wishing it would.

I want to say a few things about Nigel Godrich, the album’s producer. I just found out that this guy is only 27 years old. That’s my age. Godrich has, over the past few years, impressed me more than any other producer working. I’ll check something out just because he had something to do with it. (Even the last two Radiohead records sounded impeccable – the fact that the songs were lacking isn’t Godrich’s fault.) The Invisible Band is another perfect production, filled with beautiful touches that only this guy seems to bring to his work. Finding out that he’s the same age as me gives me the same feeling I got when I learned how old Orson Welles was when he made Citizen Kane. He’s too young to be this brilliant.

Godrich’s input is paramount to this record’s success. Like he did with The Man Who, Godrich has woven glorious sound tapestries out of Healy’s simple songs and elevated the whole project. What was cloying on their first record (called Good Feeling – don’t seek it out, it’s not worth it) is delightfully earnest here. Healy bases whole songs on sentiments like “let the caged bird go free” (“The Cage”) and “the grass is never greener on the other side” (“Side”). The first track is about convincing his girlfriend to sing in front of him. Really. There’s even a track called “Dear Diary,” which, like the rest of this band’s output, is totally irony-free.

What sounds sickeningly sweet on paper is refreshingly honest on record. Try not to sing along with “Flowers in the Window” or “Indefinitely,” a lighter-raiser if ever there was one. And brace yourself for “The Humpty Dumpty Love Song,” a layered epic whose chorus actually goes “You’ve got the glue, so I’m gonna give my heart to you.” I’m telling you, it works, and you won’t crack up once.

Travis does step over their own line once on this disc, in the relatively haunting “Last Train.” Over a great organ bed from Jellyfish’s Jason Falkner, Healy moans, “I’m gonna buy a gun, gonna shoot everything, everyone, and then I’m coming for you.” In context, “Last Train” is a jarring piece of work, one that might point to future artistic experimentation. In almost any other case, this might be a good thing, but a few more miserable sentiments might have cast a fatal pall over The Invisible Band. Very few groups these days sound happy to be happy, and losing one of them would be tragic.

Near the end of this record, Healy sings, “I’m gonna be here indefinitely.” For Travis fans like myself who love their silly little epics, let’s hope he means it.

*****

And on the sixth try, they got it right.

Rufus Wainwright’s second album, Poses, has blown through six release dates in the last year. Certain fans of his terrific first album wondered if the follow-up actually existed and would ever be released. Fret no more, because here it is, and man, was it worth the wait.

Rufus Wainwright sounds like no other current performer. God bless Dreamworks Records for finding this guy and setting him up with a record contract. I doubt any profitable label would have touched him with a 10-foot stock option. Dreamworks is one of those integrated companies that can indulge artistry. They make enough money on their film projects to float the recording careers of non-sellers like Eels, Creeper Lagoon and Wainwright. When one of their bands hits (like Lifehouse has), it’s cause for celebration.

I don’t see Wainwright making a similar commercial splash, but regardless, he’s made one of the best records of the year so far. Poses is several leaps above his self-titled debut, both in songwriting and production. His voice has even improved immensely, with all the minor quirks smoothed out into a soaring even tone.

Ah, it’s the songs, though, those glorious, dramatic, Broadway-ready songs. Imagine a dandily-dressed young lad sitting on a barstool center stage, with a spotlight softly illuminating him, as he sings “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk” with a bittersweet grin. “Cigarettes and chocolate milk, these are just a couple of my cravings, everything it seems I like’s a little bit stronger, a little bit thicker, a little bit harmful for me…”

Every song on Poses seems to flow forth from the mouth of a fully realized character in a well-written play. How many of these characters may be Wainwright himself we’re left to guess, as he dances his voice atop these lovely piano musings, just out of reach. His lyrics are a dance as well, skirting their subjects (and the characters who sing them) with artful grace.

Song after song, Wainwright achieves near-perfection. It’s like he’s performing a revue of the best of Cole Porter, George Gershwin and Ira Newbern, and yet they’re all originals (except for his cover of his dad Loudon’s “One Man Guy”). He even slips into Sondheim territory once with “Evil Angel.” These are lovely, dance-on-air pieces of music, filled with strings and dramatic shifts. Even when he piles on more typical pop instrumentation, like guitars and drums, he maintains that classic sense about his work.

For all its traditional leanings, Poses is a series of modern riddles, speaking obliquely through character studies on what it means to be young, gay and style-conscious. Wainwright’s point of view is one you don’t find very often in the pop music field, and that’s as refreshing as his attitude about what, exactly, constitutes pop music in the first place. His songs, if nothing else, certainly hearken back to the origins of the pop song, and drag that sound into the modern world with a dapper elegance.

The long and short of it is, Poses is terrific. Rufus Wainwright certainly didn’t need much improvement, and the fact that he did improve, immensely, makes this album a lock for the Top 10 List. I can only hope that his songs endure as long as those of his influences, because they deserve to.

*****

About a month ago, I brought a little stereo system into work, because as anyone who’s known me for more than a day or two knows, I can’t live for very long without music. I didn’t set up this CD player at my desk specifically to drive my co-workers batty, but it sure has had that effect. I listen to some weird shit, as sports writer Gale Cavness, who sits to my left, can attest.

Gale’s a dyed-in-the-wool music fan who hasn’t liked much of anything from the last few decades. He’s into Aerosmith, Paul McCartney, Led Zeppelin and the like, and of course, there’s nothing wrong with that. He just happens to have the misfortune of sitting next to the writer of a new music column. He’s been very good, all things considered, about rarely telling me to shut my damn noise off.

I told you all that to tell you this. I can remember just one time that Gale asked me to turn my music up. I can also remember just one time that he requested a certain album. It just happened to be the same album both times, and that album just happened to be Michael Roe’s Safe as Milk.

In my experience, anyone who hears Michael Roe ends up liking his stuff. As I mentioned when reviewing his live record It’s for You, Roe’s career has been long and varied. Though his solo material is wonderful (especially the aforementioned Safe as Milk), he’s best known as the voice and guitar of the 77s. That band’s career has been marked by terrific songwriting, solid albums and interminably long waits between those albums. The last one, Tom Tom Blues, was in 1995.

In true feast or famine tradition, there have been four new 77s discs over the last few months, culminating in the release of their new full-length album A Golden Field of Radioactive Crows. First came an EP (cleverly titled EP) described as a taste of the new record. Then came Radioactive Singles, a bunch of remixes of tracks off the new album. Then, after Golden Field blew its third release date, came the aptly named Late, a collection of everything from the EP, most of Radioactive Singles and a few new things. Then, finally, the album itself. Late makes the two that preceded it redundant, so that and the new album are all you need to catch up.

I’ve heard it said that the 77s have been creating a season cycle with their records, and that theory holds up. They started as a summery blues-rock band, slowly darkening their sound over their first three albums. Pray Naked from 1992 was largely as gentle and sad as an autumn rain, and the follow-up, Drowning with Land in Sight, raged like a winter storm. Spring sprung with Tom Tom Blues, a more optimistic record, and now the group has come full circle with Golden Field, the happiest, sunniest album since their debut.

Fans of Roe’s solo work will probably be surprised at how loud Golden Field is, but this band has always rocked. They became a trio with Tom Tom, and Golden Field is the sound of that trio having a grand old time. Even the slower tracks, like “There Forever,” end up swimming in electric guitars, and when they lock into a groove, like they do on “Mean Green Season,” they don’t sound anywhere near their mid-40s. Which they are, of course.

Highlights include the single “Mr. Magoo,” a fun rocker that begins with the line, “I may be Mr. Magoo but I see through you,” and “Down From You,” one of the most energetic and melodic pieces in the band’s catalog. A standout is “Related,” which sounds like nothing the band has done before. It’s all jacked-up hip hop beats and phased guitars, and it works, though nothing else on Golden Field even tries to be that modern. Roe and company save the best for last with the ironically titled closer “Begin,” a classic Roe semi-acoustic piece.

As good as Golden Field is, I have to mention my vague sense of disappointment with it. The songs are decent, but they’re not extraordinary. Roe never really cuts loose with a solo here, and I could listen to him play guitar all day and not get bored. The album is solid, quick and raucous, but it’s nowhere near as good as the 77s can get. It still ranks higher than a good 80% of what’s out there now, but I wouldn’t recommend it as an introduction to the band.

For that, you should get Late. The five songs from the EP are definitely extraordinary, especially the opener, “Unbalanced,” which contains one of Roe’s best lines: “You’re so inviting but I still can’t come.” “The Years Go Down” exists in a state of divine fury, and it’s balanced off by the sweet “Sevens.” Where Golden Field sticks to one style throughout, the EP flits from mood to mood marvelously.

The alternate takes of “Flowers in the Sand,” “Outskirts” and “You Still Love Me” from Tom Tom Blues are all superior versions, particularly “Flowers,” with its stripped-down instrumentation and terrific guitar work. The 77s’ version of Daniel Amos’ “Shotgun Angel” is note-perfect. Late closes with three outtakes from It’s for You, including a longer, better version of “Go With God, But Go.”

If you want to check out Michael Roe and the 77s, and you do, my recommendation is to snag Late first. It’s an almost-perfect document of the different styles this band does so well, and of the guitar-playing master at its helm. Last time I mentioned Roe, I couldn’t recommend a starting point. If nothing else, Late provides that, and Golden Field thankfully continues the band’s sterling output. The 77s may be the best band you’ve never heard.

*****

Speaking of bands you’ve never heard, there’s a new Starflyer 59 album. Starflyer fans are encouraged to write me, for two reasons. First, I don’t think there are that many of you out there, and second, if you dig this band, you’re probably pretty interesting.

Leave Here a Stranger is Starflyer’s sixth full-length album on tiny Tooth and Nail Records. (They’ve also released three EPs, a host of singles and a box set that collects ‘em all.) They’re a great example of mutual loyalty between company and band. Starflyer’s self-titled debut was the third album to come out on Tooth and Nail, and the new one is almost the 200th. Along the way, T&N broke MxPx big, losing them to A&M Records, and they’ve nearly done the same with a half-dozen of their other acts, but not Starflyer, even though they’d get my vote for Most Likely to Succeed. Jason Martin (the brains behind the band) is happy with Tooth and Nail, and they’re happy with him.

Plus, Martin gets to record and release deep, bizarre pop records like Leave Here a Stranger. A calliope of often-depressing lyrics and vocals atop bright, swirling accompaniment, Stranger is the group’s most fully realized effort. Perhaps that’s no surprise, considering it’s a collaboration between Martin and ignored genius producer Terry Taylor (Daniel Amos, Lost Dogs, Swirling Eddies, and a host of production credits). Taylor elevates Martin’s signature guitar lines and vintage keyboard sounds from cheese to magnificence.

Not that Martin hasn’t always been magnificent on his own. The first three Starflyer albums have some of the thickest, heaviest, slowest guitars you’ll ever find, layered atop each other in a near-infinite blanket. With album four, The Fashion Focus, Martin dropped the guitars and focused on acoustics and synths, maintaining his high melodic standard. The new Starflyer sound hasn’t really coalesced until now. Leave Here a Stranger is a quirky, soaring suite, and the only complaint Starflyer fans should have with it is the same one they’ve had all along: it’s over too quickly.

*****

I don’t usually review soundtracks, but this one’s really hooked me, largely because of the movie it accompanies. I’m talking about Baz Luhrmann’s dazzling wonderama, Moulin Rouge.

I highly recommend seeing the movie before hearing the soundtrack, but then, I highly recommend seeing the movie anyway. I can scarcely believe this thing got made at all, and I’d have liked to have sat in on the original pitch: “I want to make a modern musical that sucks up the last 100 years of popular songs and Cuisinarts them, and I’d like it to look like a drug-addled live-action cartoon with, oh, three times the regular number of cuts, and I want the actors to do all their own singing, and by the way, let’s release it opposite Pearl Harbor. What do you say?”

I say bravo, Baz. This is the type of film that makes you want to applaud after every musical number, and most of those numbers are present on the soundtrack. Most exciting to me is the inclusion of the “Elephant Love Medley,” which needs no explanation for those who’ve seen the film, and will get none from me for those who haven’t. I spent the whole scene with a wild, manic grin on my face. This movie is a music lover’s dream.

The soundtrack’s not so bad itself. The highlights are, of course, the film’s sly rewrites of classic (and not-so-classic) pop tunes, but apart from the film, the soundtrack features Bono’s great rendition of “Children of the Revolution,” Fatboy Slim’s reworking of Jim Broadbent’s lines in “Because We Can,” Beck’s terrific take on David Bowie’s “Diamond Dogs,” and the aforementioned and always brilliant Rufus Wainwright’s “Complainte de la Butte,” in which he proves that he rules in any language. (That was quite the run-on sentence, huh?)

Baz Luhrmann even adds dramatic heft to newly-written trifles like “Come What May.” If you can see the film and still dismiss this fluff as weightless, I’d be surprised. Luhrmann has tapped into what makes a popular tune work, what makes one cry at a silly love song, what makes one agree wholeheartedly with the most banal statements of passion uttered by pop singers. In so doing, he’s given new life to the most ephemeral, disposable music of the last century. The film is a heartfelt work of wonder that doesn’t, if you’ll pardon the expression, make a false note.

And the soundtrack ain’t half bad, either.

*****

Damn, huh? Could I possibly babble any more?

Next time, it’s an all New England throwdown with new releases by Motorplant and Rustic Overtones. Be there or be…not there. Um, whatever.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Forget Amnesiac
Radiohead Spaces Out on Us Again

I don’t know what’s wrong with Radiohead.

For a while there, they seemed flawless. Their first three albums are a perfect model of ascendancy, each improving on its predecessor at a breathtaking rate. Their average debut Pablo Honey offered the barest hint of the sweeping melodicism of The Bends, which in turn couldn’t have prepared anyone for the genius of OK Computer. Plus, they attained major-label acceptance and great standing with the critics. Like many artistic wunderkinds when they hit this stage of their careers, the only people who could stop Radiohead’s ascent were the members of Radiohead themselves.

And so they did.

It’s taken me a long time to like Kid A, the band’s fourth effort, and I’m still not sure I do like it. They took their creepy soundscapes just a step too far into stratospheric meandering, and the album sounds like a weak collection of b-side experiments strung together. It’s quite cohesive in its tone and style, but it still constitutes an appalling lack of effort on the compositional side. Stacked next to OK Computer, it’s a deeply painful disappointment.

I can’t say that I’m as disappointed in Amnesiac, Radiohead’s just-released fifth album, but that’s simply because its predecessor didn’t leave me with the same level of expectation. Recorded at the same time as Kid A, this new one is another impeccably produced slab of wispy, tuneless slop that evaporates before your ears.

I’ve listened to Amnesiac four times now. After the first go-round, I barely restrained the urge to tear the disc from my stereo, hurl it to the ground and step on it. After the fourth, I’m still not convinced that I shouldn’t have followed through on my impulse. Amnesiac is maddening in its inconsistency, its simplicity and its depressingly marginal quality. The only reason I keep looking to this disc (and to its predecessor) for hidden qualities that obviously aren’t there is that I believe it’s impossible to make the best album of the past 20 years by accident.

The true accomplishment of OK Computer was its creation of otherworldly atmospheres wrapped around intelligent, moving melodies. A song like “Subterranean Homesick Alien” lives up to the care and time put into its sonic architecture. A song like “Paranoid Android” or “Karma Police” has sections and movements and a deep sense of musicianship lying beneath its multicolored palette. OK Computer synthesized studio wizardry and musical artistry like few records before it, and like none since. If you’re looking for a distorted-reflection equivalent to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, well, there it is in all its shimmering dystopian glory.

Kid A and Amnesiac were rumored to have been conceived as a double album, and the stylistic similarities are certainly abundant. The tragedy of these two albums is that you could edit roughly half the tracks out and make a decent single disc out of the remainder. The real tragedy is that the best song on that resultant single disc wouldn’t even be the equal of the worst song on OK Computer. The atmospheres are all here in spades, but the songs are missing.

Amnesiac actually starts strong, which may lead to false hope for the rest of the record. “Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box” (trust me, there are no typos there) is very nearly the demo version of “Everything In Its Right Place” from Kid A. It’s based around pitter-patter electronic drums and electric piano, like so much of Kid A, but it has an instantly memorable melody. “Pyramid Song,” inexplicably the first single, sounds like a series of false starts at first until the drums kick in, cementing the piano rhythm. The tune is buoyed aloft by the string section and Thom Yorke’s vocal, in one of the few cases here that makes good use of him.

The paradox of Thom Yorke is this: when he has a melody to wrap himself around, he’s one of the best, most powerful singers working today. The man can sing the paint off a battleship. Unfortunately, when he’s given nothing to work with and must meander about melodically, he’s terribly annoying. He whines, he wails, he caterwauls, and you sometimes find yourself wishing he’d stumble across a tune or just shut up. Yorke’s not the only one given no grounding here. If you’ve ever heard this band act as one to attack a song, you’ll come away from Amnesiac wondering how they could release something in which they never once come fully together.

Like Kid A, Amnesiac contains its share of throwaway tracks. When it comes to repetitive clanging like “Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors” or tuneless interludes like “Hunting Bears,” this band needs to ask itself what purpose would be served including them on their record. Likewise “Morning Bell/Amnesiac,” a lethargic reprise of Kid A’s “Morning Bell” that’s here for no apparent thematic reason. Considering how much the rest of the disc sounds like filler, that these three stand out is impressive.

Another striking thing about Amnesiac is how defensive it is. Songs like “You and Whose Army” and “Knives Out” seem reflexive, even reactionary. Yorke intones the phrase “I’m a reasonable man, get off my case” repeatedly in “Packt Like Sardines…,” and one can’t help but wonder at whom he’s lashing out. It can’t be the critics, because as usual, they’re falling all over themselves to praise this thing. As was the case with Kid A, the emperor is still running about stark raving naked, and Rolling Stone is complimenting his designer suit.

What’s undeniably depressing about an album like Amnesiac is that Radiohead is a far better band than this. I hope this is just a phase that they’ll snap out of soon. Both Kid A and Amnesiac are ear candy, sonic wallpaper that never gets under your skin because it has no substance. There’s a mild irony in the title they’ve chosen for such a forgettable record, but irony certainly isn’t enough to excuse this slump. Even more disconcerting is that Yorke has said in interviews that the band is quite proud of this disc. If that’s true, then they may truly have lost it, and that would be a shame.

Anyway, I’m working on a big, huge, gigantic column for next time that plays catch-up on just about everything I’ve gotten recently. As a bit of a preview, though, I present my half-year Top 10 List below. This is a silly experiment that will bear no resemblance to the final list at the end of the year, I hope. If I had to rank the top 10 discs now, though, this is what they would be:

#10. The 77s, A Golden Field of Radioactive Crows.

#9. The Black Crowes, Lions.

#8. Tool, Lateralus.

#7. Jonatha Brooke, Steady Pull.

#6. Glen Phillips, Abulum.

#5. Mark Eitzel, The Invisible Man.

#4. Ani DiFranco, Revelling/Reckoning.

#3. Rufus Wainwright, Poses.

#2. R.E.M., Reveal.

#1. Duncan Sheik, Phantom Moon.

Don’t read too much into this list, because if the second half of the year is as good as the first half has been, it will change. So next time, Travis, Rufus Wainwright, the 77s, Starflyer 59 and whatever else I find lying about unreviewed.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Hang On to Your Depression
Mark Eitzel's Gloriously Sad The Invisible Man

I came to a disturbing realization the other day.

For those of you just joining the ongoing saga of my scintillating existence in this west Tennessee town, I’m the education and features reporter for the State Gazette here in Dyersburg. This means that, by and large, I cover school events. So I was lining a bunch of third-graders up for a photo the other day when it struck me that since I started in this position (three months ago), I have yet to meet anyone my own age.

At first I thought it was just a side effect of my beat, since most of my time is spent in schools and at school functions. Then I started looking about this town, trying to discern the ages of the people milling about me, and remarkably, there just aren’t any twenty-somethings here at all. I’m not sure where they all go between the ages of 19 and 30, but it’s not Dyersburg.

Yeah, I know, not very interesting, but I had fabled first-line writer’s block this time, and I needed something to start with. There you go, and piss off if you don’t like it.

Some random notes to begin:

All you Portlandites have this info already, I’m sure, but I just found out, so I thought I’d spread the good news. Portland’s own Rustic Overtones have salvaged their major-label career by signing with Tommy Boy Records, the long-running purveyor of ground-breaking hip-hop. Tommy Boy is also famous for sticking with artists through thick and thin to watch them develop. Witness De La Soul, who hit huge with their debut and haven’t had a hit since. When the trio proposed the idea of a triple album, released in stages over a year and a half, Tommy Boy went for it. Most labels would have laughed in their faces.

All of which leads me to believe that the Rustic Overtones /Tommy Boy relationship will be a long and fruitful one. If you’re not from Portland, Rustic is a long-running (like 11 years) band that mashes several styles into a horn-driven stew. They’ve gone through several stylistic shifts, which culminated in a big contract with Arista in 1999. The proposed album, This Is Rock and Roll, died on the vine, which is okay because that awful title would have haunted them to the grave. They’ve regrouped and reassembled the new album, calling the finished product Viva Nueva, which means “new life.” That’s out sometime in June, or so says the Tommy Boy website. Congrats, guys, and may this second shot be the keeper.

There are a number of artists who are contenders for my Top 10 List every time they release something, just by dint of their past excellence. Two of them have new records this year, one week apart. I’ve already reported that Tori Amos will release Strange Little Girls on September 18. A week before that, Ben Folds will unveil his solo album, his first without the Five. He’s called it Rockin’ the Suburbs. Can’t wait…

On to the review:

I’ve heard it said that everyone should own one Mark Eitzel album. The reason for this is simple, at least to me: no one does sadness like Eitzel. He is perhaps the most honestly depressing songwriter currently working. Listening to his haunted vocals alone lends the impression that this guy has never had a good day in his life, and the lyrics and arrangements of his tunes do nothing to alter that notion. Eitzel’s music is soul-deadening, numbing, powerful stuff.

Whether or not it should be mandatory to own one of his long-players, everyone should at least hear “Saved,” the highlight (or lowlight, depending on your perspective) of Eitzel’s first solo album, 60-Watt Silver Lining. It was on this tune that he abandoned the indie-rock roots of his former band, American Music Club, for a richer, more jazz-oriented sound that perfectly complemented his sad-sack voice. “Saved” has lyrics and a melody that would have been almost uplifting if sung by anyone else. In Eitzel’s hands, it’s a melancholy wonder that plays like a dialogue between singer and instrumentalists, the vocals daring the music to cheer them up.

To his credit, Eitzel has wildly varied his approach each time out. West was a jangly pop collaboration with R.E.M.’s Peter Buck that transformed the dialogue to an all-out argument, and the stripped-down Caught in a Trap and I Can’t Back Out ‘Cause I Love You Too Much, Baby showed that Eitzel could be just as chillingly effective with little or no instrumentation at all. (That album, in fact, was the product of a very strange clause in his Warner Bros. contract that allowed him to do albums for other, smaller labels if those albums evidenced “no commercial appeal.”)

And now we have number four, The Invisible Man. It’s so titled because of a lyric in the gorgeous “Shine” that reads, “The only costume prize I’ll win is if I go as the invisible man,” a typical sentiment here. Eitzel has definitely not lost his touch, even though he’s spent the last two years reportedly working on the complex production of this album. What’s cool about The Invisible Man is that it’s still an Eitzel album underneath it all.

On the surface, though, Eitzel has expanded his sonic palette greatly here. He’s incorporated subtle electronic percussion, backwards loops, strange synth noises and an overarching sense of studio wizardry. Every track is layered several times over, and it’s very easy to imagine this album as a stunning disaster. That it isn’t is a testament to the skill with which Eitzel has assembled the sonic building blocks here, never losing sense of the songs he was augmenting or of the voice that leads the whole production.

In typical Mark Eitzel fashion, The Invisible Man is undoubtedly his biggest album sonically, yet it still sounds small and intimate. Eitzel has a particular talent for making even the most optimistic songs into mournful elegies, and his lyrics are fantastic models of stream-of-consciousness observation and emotion. Take, for example, the entirety of “Christian Science Reading Room”:

“I was so high I stood for an hour outside the Christian Science Reading Room and suddenly I could not resist – I became a Christian Scientist – and I studied light and I studied sound and every question that I asked was suddenly profound – the holy martyrs of gravity, the absolute measure of being free. I was so high that I even scared the cat, and using the language of his tail he said he had a vision a thousand white flags circling around my hat and then he hid under the bed, and his eyes were as big as bells, and suddenly he could not resist and he became a Christian Scientist, and together we explored our world, and found it became more beautiful as its teeth were revealed.”

Eitzel’s worldview is represented in the words here. Everything would be funny, if it weren’t so depressing to actually laugh. He has spent a good chunk of his solo career mourning his sense of humor, and unlike most pseudo-depressives in pop music, he never dwells on death. Far worse, it seems to him, to remain alive and not be able to enjoy a single thing.

All of which makes the closing track, “Proclaim Your Joy,” such a strange revelation. It is, by far, the happiest and most irony-free piece of music to bear Eitzel’s name, and it finds him repeating in nearly giddy tones, “It is important throughout your life to proclaim your joy.” Even though the liner notes call this tune a joke, it’s impressively sincere-sounding, as if it’s taken Eitzel years to reach the point where he can make his voice dance. He simply revels in it, and from such an honest musician, it’s explosive in its pure emotional turnabout. That song alone is worth the price of admission for Eitzel fans.

If it’s true that everyone should own one Eitzel album, well, there are four of them now to choose from, and you really can’t go wrong with any of them. The Invisible Man is another idiosyncratic achievement from a true depressive, and it’s impressive both for the growth it exhibits as well as the glorious stagnation it represents. Mark Eitzel is truly one of a kind.

Next time, the long-awaited Radiohead album, the subject of more dread and anticipation than any other record this year.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Five Years is a Long, Long Time
Tool and Weezer Remind Us That They're Alive

I’ve got two reviews this time, and I thought I might size my reviews to the respective lengths of the albums in question. Shall we?

I’m not sure how Weezer has sustained their popularity. They’ve been gone for five years, following a disastrously unpopular second album (Pinkerton) that, no matter what Rivers Cuomo might say, isn’t that bad. Their just-released third album had a lot of strikes against it for me. First, it’s an obvious attempt to regain past glory – it’s self-titled, the cover art is strikingly similar to that of the first album, and they called producer Ric Ocasek back to punch up the hit potential. Plus, the thing’s only 28 minutes long.

Surprise surprise, though, Weezer is great: ten short, sharp songs that come on stage, state their business and leave without wearing out their welcome. “Photograph” is terrific pop, “Crab” will stay in your head forever, and if “Island in the Sun” isn’t the hit of the summer, it won’t be the band’s fault. Weezer(also known as the Green Album) is an old-time pop record, perfect for short attention spans. It’s the best example of spending five years on 28 minutes and making them all count.

Tool has also been missing in action for five years, but their return album, Lateralus, is nearly three times as long as Weezer’s. It needs every second of it.

There is no band in the world that sounds quite like Tool. The quartet uses the Led Zeppelin lineup of guitar-bass-drums-vocals, and in fact Presence-era Zep might have been one of their primary influences. They write twisty, progressive epics that hardly ever clock in at under six minutes, and they have a pronounced disdain for radio-fodder choruses. Their albums take time to digest. In fact, the first listen will probably leave you a little bewildered.

If Lateralus is your first Tool album, I don’t envy you. The band has been pretty good about easing their audience into their vision. Even so, their last album, Aenima, gave me more trouble as a reviewer than almost anything else that year. Listening to the 78-minute Aenima straight is quite a bit like being run over by a steamroller in slow motion. Each song pummels you at an agonizing crawl, never varying from the same three or four notes. Aenima sounds like the missing link between Helmet and Dream Theater. I found that it was best in small doses, one or two songs at a time.

Lateralus is best all at once. That may be because I’ve heard and digested Aenima, though. Lateralus builds upon the sound they created on that album, and like skipping a grade in school, if you don’t have the basic foundation, you’ll probably have no idea what the band is going for. Even for those of us familiar with the group’s sound, Lateralus doesn’t offer easy answers.

For starters, the album contains exactly two instantly memorable hooks, one in “Schism” and one in “Ticks and Leeches.” While the rest will leave you in slack-jawed silence, it purposely won’t stick in your head. The songs all shift, move and mutate beyond their original riffs. The opener, “The Grudge,” weighs in at eight minutes, and exists in a state of perpetual motion. The dynamic shifts alone are breathtaking, and when vocalist Maynard James Keenan (the not-so-secret weapon of the band) opens up full throttle, even if only for a slipped-in two-beat measure, Tool achieves a power the guitar-rock bands they’re usually lumped in with can’t match.

In fact, one of the main reasons you won’t find universal praise for Lateralus is that very alt-rock environment they’re associated with. The members of Tool have, to their credit, done everything possible to avoid that very association. They never appear in their own videos, they hardly ever print pictures of themselves in their CD jackets, and they tend to perform incognito. The foursome could walk down virtually any street in America and not be recognized. The idea is that the focus should be on the music, not the people making it.

Unfortunately, the great majority of music critics don’t have any idea how to talk about the music, so they’re forced to comment on the social and cultural environment, the moody atmosphere of the lyrics, the theatrical masks – anything but the actual musical art. Yes, Tool came to prominence during the grunge-rock era of the early ‘90s, and yes, Keenan’s lyrics have an indecipherable gloom, but the band comes from an entirely different, much more musical place than Saint Cobain and his Not-So-Merry Men. They’ve gone to every effort to make timeless music, and to distance themselves from any cultural phase they may have existed alongside.

But here I am, commenting on something other than the music.

Lateralus plays like a single thought, a 79-minute suite that builds and recedes at perfect intervals. At times, it’s difficult to believe there are only four members, the mass of sound is so huge. Paradoxically, at times it’s difficult to believe the sound wasn’t created by a single organism, the band is so tight. There are no solos, no random moments. Each song has so many sections and turns that if you’re not paying attention, you’ll miss the transitions from song to song.

On top of all that, the 22-minute trilogy that closes the album (not counting the noise sculpture “Faaip de Oiad”) is unlike anything the band has done before. It takes their trademark buildup to new levels, unfolding at a snail’s pace, and adding strange textures. “Reflection,” the middle section, soars with a shakuhachi flute melody. Keenan’s contributions are atmospheric and subtle, and they provide the only concessions to traditional songcraft.

If I’ve made Lateralus sound daunting, well, it is. Not only do you have to devote 80 minutes of your time to digesting it, you’ll have to do it three or four times at least. Unlike Aenima, it can’t be taken in chunks. It has to be swallowed whole, another admirable stance in the face of the single-oriented alt-rock revolution. If you let it, though, Lateralus will blow your mind.

To sum up, then: Weezer’s Green Album is a satisfying snack, while Tool’s album is a filling seven-course feast. It depends on what you’re hungry for. Sometimes a box of Cracker Jack will do it for you, and sometimes you need a lasagna feast with a side of garlic bread.

And sometimes a metaphor should be put out of its misery before it causes irreparable harm.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Just Like Brian Wilson Did
R.E.M.'s Pure Pop Excursion Reveal

Douglas Adams died on Friday of a sudden heart attack. He was only 49 years old.

I wanted to say a couple of words about Adams because he was one of three writers (Stephen King and Stan Lee being the other two) who inspired a slightly overimaginative grade school kid to start stringing sentences together. Before I discovered Steinbeck, Shakespeare, C.S. Lewis or Alan Moore, I believed Douglas Adams was the best writer in the world.

That’s not to say he wrote children’s books. In fact, his central work, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, gains more resonance for me as I age. While Adams was thought of primarily as a comedy writer, and the Hitchhiker’s Guide is certainly very funny, what Adams did best was to mirror the absurdity of modern life through a unique use of language. His only peer in this regard was Joseph Heller, and the similarities between the Hitchhiker’s Guide books and Catch-22 are many.

I started reading at an early age, and by fifth grade I was already somewhat bored with the books I was being given to read. Douglas Adams got me excited about the language again. His sentences were twisty, run-on affairs that had to be read twice to be fully understood. His characters and situations were original and deceptively thoughtful. Besides, if you can make a 12-year-old laugh on every page, you’ve pretty much got him hooked.

As I grew older, though, I began to really get Adams’ joke. The Hitchhiker’s Guide is an utterly ridiculous, often frustratingly clever read in which things that seem to have no rational explanation are later explained in maddeningly rational detail. Adams’ universe is strange and complex, and yet every event or circumstance has behind it a web of improbable, yet wholly explainable reasoning. The world, I’ve discovered, is actually like this. Everything is frustrating and absurd and ridiculous, but it all makes an odd sort of sense. Even the anticlimactic conclusion to the bleak final book, Mostly Harmless, seems, like the anticlimactic conclusions to all of our lives, inevitable and strangely beautiful.

Adams’ work doesn’t exactly lend itself to somber reflection on its author’s life, so I just want to say this. Mr. Adams, the 12-year-old me will be eternally grateful for your stories, and more often than you’d think, the 26-year-old me still enjoys them. Even though it’s no doubt been overused by now, I can think of no better send-off than the one you penned yourself.

So long, Mr. Adams, and thanks for all the fish.

* * * * *

Glory be, people actually voted. I got the most votes for R.E.M. (and Wally Fenderson didn‘t even vote…), so that’s what I’m going to talk about, but I want to add that this week in music made me very, very happy. The Weezer album is short, sharp and perfect pop, the Cowboy Junkies issued another wondrous slab of somnambulant melancholia, and Tool, well, Lateralus blew my fucking mind. They’re all worthy of your hard-earned cash.

If you look at the R.E.M. catalog as a whole, you can see the ebb and flow of their inspiration. The band definitely goes in cycles, letting their muse lead them to green pastures, even if they have to go through dung-strewn minefields to get there. Over a 20-year career, they’ve never sat still long enough to get sedentary. Pick any three R.E.M. albums at random and you’re guaranteed three totally different listening experiences.

I believe the band has only made three truly great albums: Murmur, Lifes Rich Pageant and Automatic for the People. Diehards could, no doubt, make a substantial case for the worthiness of all of their 13 studio albums, and I’d agree to a point. While R.E.M. has never made an album that’s not, in some way, worth owning (even Monster), the three I’ve mentioned are the only flawless works in their canon. Amazingly, they sound nothing alike, to the point that one unfamiliar with the band might not believe the same musicians produced all three. Such are the rewards of being a constantly growing artist.

I’m coming around to the idea that Reveal, the group’s 13th album, is their fourth truly great record. It’s shorter and more focused than Up, their first album without drummer Bill Berry, and the songwriting borders on the sublime in more than a few cases. It’s certainly the group’s best work since Automatic for the People in 1992.

And again, if you played this disc immediately after any of their three other great albums, you’d never think it was the same band. Reveal is big-sounding, covered in layers of texture and color that only occasionally threaten to drown out the songs themselves. The songs win out, though, because Reveal is the most tune-centric R.E.M. album to date. The melodies are sweet and satisfying, and Stipe’s tendency to lyrically roam all around his enormous consciousness has thankfully been reined in. I’ve been struggling with how to describe the sound of this album, and I’ve settled on this: it’s Brian Wilson in space. If Wilson had recorded Pet Sounds in 1983 from orbit, it might sound a bit like Reveal.

The sheer mass of sound is achieved largely without the use of electric guitars. Only sporadically does Peter Buck whip out the amplifiers, and then only to send songs like “She Just Wants to Be” into the stratosphere with a soaring lead line. Acoustic guitars, piano, synthesizers and giant string sections make up the rest of the sonic pattern, and for the most part, they sit quietly next to each other, playing nice. Buck called this album “lush” in interviews, and that might be a super-sized understatement.

The star of the show is Stipe’s voice, mixed high and clear throughout. The vocal melodies sparkle and shine, and nowhere here is there an incomplete, unsatisfying song. (R.E.M. has given us those in the past: “Hairshirt,” “The Wake-Up Bomb,” “Airportman,” etc.) “The Lifting,” which opens the record, twists and turns in lovely ways, the bridge section being my favorite. “Summer Turns to High” is glorious, as is “Disappear.” Note for note, these might be the best songs to come out of the band in 10 years.

(It’s ironic to note that just as Stipe’s vocals became clearer and his lyrics less oblique, the band began printing those lyrics on the sleeve. Guys, what we really need is a lyric sheet to Fables of the Reconstruction…)

It’s that excellent songwriting, though, that causes my biggest reservations about the production style. “Saturn Return,” for example, is a beautiful piano-vocal number, but it’s coated in bizarre sonic blips and swirls that almost obscure the heartbreaking clarity of the melody. The same can be said of “I’ll Take the Rain” and “I’ve Been High.” The latter is forced to support synths, strings, electronic drums and all kinds of little noises.

The production here makes Reveal one of those pure pop albums that’s instantly suspect. The consistent sunniness of the lyrics only adds to the impression that the band isn’t quite sincere. R.E.M. has never been a happy pop band (“Shiny Happy People” notwithstanding), and the frozen smile that faces outward at all times on Reveal feels like a lie. The preponderance of additional instruments makes sense if you’re trying to hide an inner sadness behind a sunny wall of sound. In many ways, that Brian Wilson analogy seems right on.

Suspicious intentions aside, though, Reveal is a great pop record, one that makes the last three transitional works worth it. This band has felt like a group of profoundly unhappy people for a long time now, with Monster and New Adventures in Hi-Fi opening wounds and Up salving them with melancholy. Reveal is a see-thru mask, a terrific exploration of one of pop music’s most confounding cliches – the tragic clown. There’s a lot of facepaint to wash off here, but Reveal hides itself so well that you can enjoy the show without digging deeper. If the members of R.E.M. were attempting to honor the spirit of Brian Wilson, they did it masterfully.

Next time, Tool. Uh-huh.

See you in line Tuesday morning.