All posts by Andre Salles

Words Like Violence
Tori Amos' Powerful Strange Little Girls

At one point in her new album Strange Little Girls, Tori Amos rewrites the lyrics of Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy the Silence,” singing, “Words are meaningless and unforgettable.” This is as much a mission statement as you’re likely to get for this experimental and largely effective collection. Amos has taken issue with the current idea that no one has ever been hurt by the words in a song, and has set out to prove that while we may not assign much immediate meaning to the violent and misogynist lyrics that permeate our pop music, they do have a potentially destructive effect.

Amos may very well be our most earnest and personal performer. The closest she’s ever come to acknowledging the concept of satire is “The Waitress,” a cautionary tale on her second album, Under the Pink. Otherwise, her songs are either first-person or third-person accounts of the emotional stress of life. Up to this point, she’s existed in an hermetically sealed self-absorbed musical environment, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. This has allowed her to give us some of the most honest and reflective works of the past decade, among them “Precious Things,” “Me and a Gun,” “Icicle,” “Professional Widow,” “Putting the Damage On” and, I grudgingly admit, “Jackie’s Strength.” Her fans are often privy to performances that must come from Amos’ very core. There’s just no way such powerful delivery can be faked.

This, of course, made the announcement of Strange Little Girls’ strange little concept all the more interesting. For the first time, Amos would release the floodgates and deliver a Big Statement. Could such a personal songwriter be as effective in the role of social critic, especially with other artists’ songs? Whatever the outcome, the latest chapter in Amos’ idiosyncratic career was a great risk, and in and of itself, that’s exciting.

Even more interesting is that Strange Little Girls fails in its stated purpose.

But that’s okay, because it’s stunningly successful at something even better.

Here’s the concept: Amos took 12 songs from the last 40 years, all penned and originally performed by men. She then endeavored to bring the female point of view into play, setting each of these numbers in strikingly different contexts to bring out the hidden violence in the lyrics. She even constructed alter egos for herself, women who either took part in the original songs yet had no voice in them, or women who were somehow affected by the events described. The idea seemed to be to deliver an indictment of the subtle misogyny that we hear every day and pay little attention to.

This is a great idea. Highlighting the masked destructive power of songs that exist in the cultural lexicon is an admirable notion, a marvelous strike back at the likes of Eminem, and it will probably be the basis for a great record one day. (Ideas for song selections: Billy Joel’s “Only the Good Die Young,” the Police’s “Every Breath You Take” and Matchbox 20’s “Push.”) That’s just not the record Amos made here.

Instead of taking from the national radio consciousness, Amos has mainly selected obscure cuts from marginal artists, ones you’re not likely to have had the chance to dismiss as harmless. Her alter egos, pictured and described in the CD jacket, often have nothing but the thinnest tether connecting them to the original song. (What, for instance, is gained by adding another character to the already large and heartbreaking cast of “I Don’t Like Mondays”?)

Adding to the mess is Amos’ Irony Deficiency Syndrome. The two glaring cases of IDS here are her treatments of Eminem’s “’97 Bonnie and Clyde” and 10cc’s “I’m Not in Love.” Eminem’s tune is a full-out satire, casting hip-hop violence in a frighteningly real setting and treating it as a pop single. It’s not funny, and he knows it. Should anyone take it seriously, they need only to refer to “Stan,” his masterful response to his own work, to see the truth. Similarly, only the most irony deficient would fail to recognize that the protagonist of “I’m Not in Love” actually is in love, and is trying to convince himself otherwise. Amos tackles both these numbers head-on, believing every word.

The implication here is that the record-buying public is just as irony-deficient, which I don’t believe is true. Satire does make several assumptions of its audience, however. First, it assumes familiarity with the material being satired. One needs a working knowledge of the last 10 years of gangsta rap to fully appreciate Eminem, for instance. Second, the satirist trusts his audience’s ability to discern his true intentions. Some people are, unfortunately, incapable of this. The best satire is often only effective when there are people who miss the point entirely.

While I wouldn’t go so far as to consider Amos one of those people, her work comes from a place of inviolable honesty. It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to imagine her assuming that all artists come from the same place. The unfortunate implication of delivering Eminem’s words irony-free is that all satire should be dumbed-down to the extent that even the most irony-deficient among us can understand it. Needless to say, this would kill the satirist’s art form. A side effect of good satire has always been that it can be taken seriously and out of context to extol the very thing the satirist wishes to condemn.

And Amos must be aware of this, because she’s taking Eminem’s words and claiming them as her own on this record. Should you look at Strange Little Girls as a work of satire, you’d have to admit that it makes some assumptions itself. It assumes that you’re familiar with the original works to a degree, or at least that they were all written and performed by men. In some cases, such as “I Don’t Like Mondays,” it makes the same assumption as the original – that you’re familiar with the school shooting it describes, and the answer given by the young perpetrator when asked for a reason: “I don’t like Mondays.” You’re also expected to have some knowledge of Amos and where she’s coming from.

And that’s where the true essence of the record comes out. Despite what she wants you to believe, these other points of view she’s purporting to express are all her own. Even though the CD booklet goes to great lengths to convince you that these are 12 separate experiences, each belonging to a different woman, Strange Little Girls works best as a progression of experience from one woman’s perspective. My advice, then, is to throw away the CD booklet without even looking at it, and immerse yourself in one of Tori Amos’ most effective song cycles.

One of Amos’ greatest skills is as an interpreter, placing songs we know by heart into perception-altering contexts. This album is all context. Every song reflects upon the ones surrounding it, almost as if they were meant to trace one person’s life. Much like the soundtracks to our own lives are made up of the songs we hear at certain points, these are the songs that express the effect violence has had on one woman’s life. While musically Amos’ renditions are either depressingly faithful or maddeningly unfaithful to the originals, she creates a mood and a sense of story with these songs. The result packs more emotional wallop than anything she’s done since Boys for Pele.

Lou Reed’s “New Age” sets the scene, describing what may be the protagonist’s parents in a shaky romance surrounded by lost souls. Amos begins delicately, with her electric piano shrouded in Adrian Belew’s lovely guitar swirls. As the song builds in intensity, she wails, “I’ll come running to you now, baby, if you want me.”

This somewhat hopeful serenade descends into “’97 Bonnie and Clyde,” which retains all the horror of the original. The song is a first-person account of a father killing his young daughter’s mother, all the while explaining his actions to his daughter. Amos intones the lyrics in a decidedly creepy manner, setting the tale against dramatic synth strings. The effect is like hearing the song for the first time again. If nothing else, Amos has effectively highlighted just how scary this song is.

It’s easy to imagine the daughter in “’97 Bonnie and Clyde” growing up into the “Strange Little Girl” of the Stranglers song Amos does next: “She didn’t know how to make it in a town that was rough, it didn’t take long before she’d had enough.” This deeply scarred soul spends the next few songs looking for love, and finding only a lack of communication in Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy the Silence” and a lack of emotional connection in “I’m Not in Love.” “Silence” is almost entirely piano and vocals, while “Love” is a complete departure. Amos retains the sing-song melody of the original atop a bed of spooky electronics that add a murderous edge to the song.

As obvious as it was that the protagonist of the original was secretly in love, it’s equally obvious that Amos wants us to believe the lyrics completely here. In the original, the singer refuses to give his love’s picture back, offering up the lame excuse that “it hides a nasty stain” on the wall. Considering the emphasis she places on these lines, Amos wants us to consider what that stain may be, and how it got there. This song can be seen as sung to or sung by the album’s subject, and either way, it adds to the sense of emotional collapse she goes through.

Lloyd Cole’s “Rattlesnakes” finds our girl hardened and bitter. “A girl needs a gun these days,” she sings, “on account of those rattlesnakes.” This song is one of the album’s highlights, performed on electric piano with full band backup. “Her neverborn child haunts her now as she speeds down the freeway,” Amos sings, perhaps reflecting upon her own miscarriage. Whether or not our protagonist is Amos herself, it’s easy to see why this song was selected.

The album glides nicely into the sad, perfect “Time,” originally by Tom Waits. Death is the subject here, and the glorious pain of loss permeates a sublime piano-vocal performance. In direct contrast, Amos should be flogged for her mistreatment of Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold,” the album’s one true disaster. She abandons the original melody completely, settling on a three-note stomp that gets quite old quite fast. Above this, she screeches the lyrics, highlighting perhaps the damage that has been done. Our girl is, the lyrics assure us, still searching for a heart of gold, but it’s becoming more futile and dangerous.

The album concludes with a trilogy that exponentially increases the violence we’ve seen so far. The school shooting of the Boomtown Rats’ “I Don’t Like Mondays” leads into the widespread death hinted at by the Beatles’ “Happiness is a Warm Gun,” which in turn descends into the apocalyptic horror of Slayer’s “Raining Blood.” While “Mondays” remains close to Bob Geldof’s original, the other two all but shed the definition of “cover version.” “Warm Gun” has been turned into a beats-and-bass extravaganza, while “Raining Blood” is a powerful meander on piano and fuzzed-out bass.

The centerpiece of the trilogy comes in “Warm Gun” when Amos repeats the line, “She’s not a girl who misses much.” We’re reminded in the midst of all this violent-sounding chaos that our protagonist is watching and taking it all in. Amos’ voice effectively renders the shattering effect present in the words. It’s easy to imagine “Raining Blood,” a tale of souls trapped in purgatory and of red rain seeping through “lacerated skies,” as the end destination of violence. Because of the song sequencing, it’s also horrifyingly easy to trace that destination back to the smallest of causes.

The album caps off with Joe Jackson’s “Real Men,” a perfect bookend. Jackson has long been underrated as a songwriter and a satirist. “Real Men” is a song that sticks with you even in its original version, which Amos stays faithful to. It touches on every subject covered thus far, and on the origins of interpersonal and interracial violence. It even hearkens back to the original idea: the “real men” are not necessarily men. The impact of the final four songs will leave you sad and shaken, largely because of the context suggested by placing them together.

In the final analysis, while Amos may have set out to make a Big Statement, she only succeeded in doing what she’s been best at all along. Strange Little Girls is another highly personal effort. It’s Amos watching the world, taking in all the violence inherent in our daily lives, and detailing its effect on her. In all the important ways, the protagonist of SLG is Amos herself: damaged at an early age, hardened by experience and aware of the collective consequences of giving in to the violence in her heart. This is as big a statement as we’re likely to get from her, and its resonance is undeniable.

I mentioned throughout this review that context shades meaning. The original artists provided context, which Amos reshaped, both in the way she approached the songs and the sequence in which she approached them. Similarly, the context of the tragedies of September 11 adds new meaning and depth to this album. Though it could not have been intentional, Tori Amos has delivered an examination of violence and a plea to refrain from it at a time when the country needs it most. Everything is connected, she’s saying, from the smallest act of maliciousness to the largest act of terrorism. We’ve all seen up close the tragic effects of this cycle, and as the last four songs on Strange Little Girls indicate, there is only one end to it.

So yes, Strange Little Girls is a success, but not in its original intention. As a cover album by a talented artist, it’s hit and miss. As a satire, it’s a trifle. As a real dissection of our culture’s violent tendencies, it works. As a personal statement, it shines. It takes a special kind of artist to use the songs of others to open a window to one’s soul. Amos continues to be our most honest performer, even when the sentiments are not her own.

Whew. Next week, a MUCH shorter column about the new Lost Dogs, Real Men Cry.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Rockin’ the Suburbs Indeed
Ben Folds Makes His Wining Solo Debut

Our grandkids will be asking us about this.

That’s what, in the final analysis, strikes me the most about this terrible tragedy. Thousands are dead, including a girl I went to high school with and the uncle of one of my best friends, but beyond the body count and the personal effect this has had on me, I can’t help thinking about John F. Kennedy. Or, more precisely, the fact that every member of my father’s generation can remember where they were when Kennedy was assassinated. This is our unifying, defining national nightmare, one we will be discussing for the rest of our lives. Hopefully, it won’t get any worse than this.

I’ve finally realized that the emotional shutdown I’ve been in since hearing of the attack is exactly what the terrorists wanted. If we don’t bounce back and resume our lives, then they’ve won. That’s why, despite the fact that my whole being is fighting to slip into despair, I’m going to keep writing and posting these trivial little missives. Our lives are made of these things, and ceasing to keep up with them would be, at least for me, an admission of defeat that I’m not willing to make.

Fuck ‘em. Business as usual.


One day, Ben Folds will make a truly great album.

It will be filled with all the passion, wit and sheer musical skill of which his fans (myself included) know that he is capable. While it probably won’t sell a quadrillion copies, it will stand with the greatest works of his idols: Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, Billy Joel’s The Stranger, Queen’s A Night at the Opera. Most importantly, it will be the crowning achievement in what promises to be a spectacular career.

All of which is to say that Rockin’ the Suburbs, his debut solo disc, is not that album. On the first couple of listens, in fact, Suburbs barely seems to hold its own with the three stellar records by the Ben Folds Five, his band for the last eight years. Give it time to sink in, though, and the album will emerge as what it undoubtedly is: the first in a series of lovely pop albums that will, God willing, comprise that aforementioned spectacular career. It’s a delicate promise of things to come.

That’s not to say it’s not worth picking up. Folds is a rare breed these days: an unabashedly pop songwriter. I don’t mean pop in the ‘N Sync vein, either. Folds plays and composes with a style that has been informed by the last 100 years of popular songwriters. His tunes contain big, memorable choruses, sweetly stacked harmonies and a sense of songcraft that’s missing from the majority of acts these days. Folds grew up during the age of albums, recordings that were labored over and fine-tuned to perfection. Like Jellyfish before him, Folds takes his biggest cues from the Beatles, the greatest pop band to ever walk the earth.

Folds is also the most unapologetically emotional of the volley of ironic songwriters that emerged in the ‘90s. His songs are often stories of heartbroken, lonely people reaching out in the only ways they know how, and it’s clear that he loves each of these characters. It’s never certain how much of himself he injects into this motley crew of lost souls, but he lavishes each of them with an amount of attention usually reserved for the autobiographical. All four Ben Folds albums are moving snapshots of modern life, and whether or not they represent his life is immaterial.

Eight new characters join the cast on this album, or at least eight new names are presented to us. The opener, “Annie Waits,” introduces us to a woman on the verge of changing her life: “Annie waits for the last time, just the same as the last time…” Mirroring Folds’ own transformation into a solo artist, many of these seven characters is approaching the precipice of a life-changing decision. “The Ascent of Stan” details the introspection of a one-time hippie who has embraced the establishment: “Being poor was not such a drag in hindsight, and you wondered why your father was so resigned, now you don’t wonder anymore.”

“Fred Jones Part 2” (a semi-sequel to “Cigarette” on Whatever and Ever Amen) gives us a man whose decision has been made for him: “He’s packed all his things and he’s put them in boxes, things that remind him that life has been good, Twenty-five years he’s worked at the paper, a man’s here to take him downstairs, and I’m sorry, Mr. Jones, it’s time.” Along the way, Jones lets us in on some of his insights: “Life barrels on like a runaway train, where the passengers change but they don’t change anything…”

Elsewhere we meet the title characters of “Zak and Sara,” medication-addicted teens who are invariably described as “Zak without a ‘c’” and “Sara with no ‘h’.” “Fired” gives us a woman named Lucretia who dismisses her whole staff because she wants to be alone. These stories are accompanied by Folds’ trademark piano, mostly in mournful, slow settings. (The one jarring exception is the title track, inexplicably the first single.) “Fired,” in fact, is the one song in which Folds cuts loose on the keyboards for a few exhilarating bars. While he is undoubtedly his generation’s finest balladeer, it would have been nice to hear him displaying his piano-pounding talents a la “Song for the Dumped” and “Philosophy” a bit more here.

That said, Rockin’ the Suburbs contains two absolute masterpieces. The first is “Still Fighting It,” a heart-wrenching letter from a father to his young son. This song can’t be excerpted, so here are the full lyrics:

Good morning son, I am a bird
Wearing a brown polyester shirt
You want a Coke? Maybe some fries?
The roast beef combo’s only $9.95
But it’s okay, you don’t have to pay, I’ve got all the change
Good morning son, 20 years from now
Maybe we’ll both sit down and have a few beers
And I can tell you all about today
And how I picked you up and everything changed
It was pain, sunny days and rain,
I knew you’d feel the same things
You’ll try and try
And one day you’ll fly away from me…
Everybody knows it hurts to grow up
And everybody does, so weird to be back here
Let me tell you what, the years go on
And we’re still fighting it
And you’re so much like me, I’m sorry…

This beautiful verse sits atop of one of Folds’ finest melodies, easily outdistancing any of his previous piano-and-strings ballads. The other masterpiece, “Carrying Cathy,” takes a similar tack, evolving midway through into a glorious dream that gingerly touches back down on earth for the final verse, which gets maximum impact from repeating the title phrase. Again, no excerpting allowed:

Her window was hung like a painting
She worried it might come to life, she stared for hours
So obsessed was I, and self-absorbed that I
Didn’t see that she was crying
There was always someone carrying Cathy
There were times when I would find myself saying to friends,
You don’t understand, she’s different when it’s just me and her
And I’d close the door and I’d try to hang on
As she sank into the dark, I was over my head
There was always someone carrying Cathy
We gave you everything, you could have done anything
We gave you everything, you could have been anything
But to imagine a fall with no one at all to catch you
There’d always been someone…
Then one night she climbed into the picture frame
Out into the frozen air and out of sight…
I woke up sad from this dream I’ve been having
The last couple nights or so
With her father, her brothers, we’re all at the funeral
Carrying a box through the rain
And somebody says, yeah, it’s always been this way
There was always someone carrying Cathy.

I present these in full because they are the finest sets of lyrics I’ve come across this year, and they bode well for the future of this wisecracking troubadour. Another promising sign is “The Luckiest,” the closing track and the first true autobiographical piece Folds has written. It’s an imaginatively sentimental ode to his wife, which he sings from the heart. Consider one more piece of Foldspeak before I put these lyrics away:

Next door there’s an old man who lived into his nineties
And one day passed away in his sleep
And his wife, she stayed for a couple of days and passed away
I’m sorry, I know that’s a strange way to tell you
That I know we belong
That I am the luckiest

Like the best songwriters, Folds crafts stories full of fascinating, lived-in characters that mirror his own sentiments. “The Luckiest” is the first time Folds has stepped away from his grand cast and shone the spotlight on his own emotions, and that he carries it off as well as he does shows incalculable promise for the career to come. Folds never gives in to mawkishness, the most common pitfall of the piano-based songwriter. The tunes are sentimental, but unfailingly inventive.

I’ve lavished a lot of space here on what’s most likely going to be remembered as a tentative first step in a lengthy solo career. Rockin’ the Suburbs is one of the finest records of the year, though, on every level, and if he had not prefaced it with three of the best records in my collection, I’d be hailing it as masterful. Someday, mark my words, Ben Folds is going to deliver on the promise of this album and create one of the best pop records ever made, one in which every song is as stunning as the best work on Rockin’ the Suburbs. Watching him get there will be half the fun.

Next up, Tori.

See you in line Tuesday morning, and God bless America.

I’ve Got Nothing
Except, That Is, a Weekly Deadline

Nothing to write about today.

There are a couple of reasons for this. Primarily, I’ve just bid my vacation adieu and have begun my “real life” in Hobart, Indiana. I’m still waiting (of course) for news of my rejection from Columbia College of Chicago, and I’ve yet to secure myself a job. Essentially, I’m in the midst of waking up.

Tying right into that “I have no job” thing is the sad state of my financial affairs. Sure, I have an IRA that will (hopefully) mature into megabucks by the time I’m 65 or so, but until then, I need steady income to survive. I truly miss the days when this column appeared in a magazine that was serviced by several of the major record labels and almost all of the minor ones. Reviewing music regularly when you haven’t got the cash needed to purchase said music is tricky.

Don’t worry, though. I’ve budgeted enough for the major releases this month – Ben Folds next week, Tori Amos the week after that – so more clever, insightful, witty reviews are on the horizon. And who knows, I might review them as well.

Unfortunately, none of those major releases came out this week. I’ve got nothing.

I thought about using this space to catch up on releases I’ve missed, like Cake’s invigorating Comfort Eagle. Which is a good record, by the way. It’s yet another in a long line of recent releases that barely crack half an hour in length, but the half an hour we get is quite adventurous. John McCrea still sounds like he dropped out of his M. Doughty wannabe class a few weeks early (and if you’re shaking your head at that line, you should really pick up Soul Coughing’s three excellent albums), but behind him, the band strikes out in a few new directions. Cake’s a pretty indescribable band, melding influences from rock, rap, reggae, ska, jazz and country with the occasional mariachi flourish. If you liked their first three records, this one is shorter, but better.

I also thought about going back even further to offer my thoughts on some of last year’s ignored releases. For example, there’s Peter Gabriel’s OVO, which I’ve mentioned a few times but never fully reviewed. My rationale for ignoring it was that it has yet to see a U.S. release. Sadly, it looks like there are no plans to distribute this semi-masterpiece stateside, but trust me when I say it’s worth the import price. OVO is the studio companion to Gabriel’s theatrical piece, written for the Millennium Dome in London in 1999. It tells the story of three generations of a family, which you can see in animated form in the enhanced material on the disc.

Apart from the story, though, the music is excellent, easily the best non-soundtrack work Gabriel’s done since Security. (I say non-soundtrack because Passion, his score to The Last Temptation of Christ, still stands as his finest work, in my ever-humble opinion.) The half-instrumental album combines his trademark synth beds and stunning drum army with traditional Irish reels, African chants, hip-hop and techno beats. It’s truly one world World music, and it also happens to contain some of Gabriel’s most indelible melodies. He hands the lead vocal duties over to other singers a few more times than he should have, perhaps, but that effectively recalls the theatrical roots of this disc. The closing track, the monumental “Make Tomorrow,” is everything “Secret World” wished it could be, and wraps all the melodies together with the skill of a master.

At the very least, OVO will help tide you over until Gabriel releases the long-awaited Up sometime next year. Or the year after that.

Another one I thought about discussing is Kip Winger’s Songs From the Ocean Floor, which also has yet to see a U.S. release. It’s too bad his name is actually Kip Winger, because he’s made a startling artistic transformation since fronting the band that bore his name in the early ‘90s. There’s nothing more invigorating to me than watching an artist reinvent himself, and even though one would be hard-pressed to call the author of such classics as “Can’t Get Enuff” and “Seventeen” an artist per se, he’s worked overtime to earn that appellation on his solo releases.

Songs From the Ocean Floor completes his metamorphosis, leaving behind virtually all of his hard rock past in favor of deep textures and heartfelt lyrics. Burbling synths, driving acoustic guitars and a liberal sprinkling of strings coalesce into an album that sounds like it was recorded underwater. Don’t get me wrong – the sound quality is crystal clear, but the arrangements are purposely murky and atmospheric, especially the powerful “Landslide.”

It’s the songs, though, that keep me coming back to the Ocean Floor. The melodies are tricky and not immediately accessible, the arrangements are amazing, and the lyrics, largely dealing with loss and finality (Winger lost his wife shortly before recording this), are often painfully honest. I’ve said it before and I’m sure I’ll say it again – tragedy brings out the best in any artist. With Songs From the Ocean Floor, Kip Winger has earned that title and then some. Unfortunately, it’s only available at His other two solo works, Thisconversationseemslikeadream and Down Incognito, are also recommended and available at the website.

But see? I don’t have too much to say about either of those, which still leaves me with a column to write and no topic. I also thought that perhaps I’d make mention of some newly announced releases for the next few months. There are some good ones, like the mighty Sloan’s return on October 16 with Pretty Together. After rapid-firing out their last three records, Sloan took an extended break to write and record this thing, which promises to be just as great as they always are. There’s also King’s X’s ninth album, Manic Moonlight, hitting on September 25. This follows their best album in ages, last year’s Please Come Home Mr. Bulbous. Also, Aphex Twin will be checking in with a double-disc affair called Drukqz, or some shit like that, on October 23. A week before that, Leonard Cohen delivers ten new songs on a record he’s wittily titled Ten New Songs. Finally, and most surprisingly, Billy Joel is slated to come out with his first classical recording for solo piano, Opus 1-10: Fantasies and Delusions, on October 2.

Yeah, I thought about talking about those, but I just spent a whole column doing that three weeks ago, and there’s only so many times I can use that trick to fill space before you fine folks come gunning for me. So, you’ll have to accept my apologies this time. I just couldn’t find anything worth my usual 1200 words. I’m deeply sorry, but as I said, next week, Ben Folds, and the week after that, Tori Amos. Until then, I hope you can forgive me.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Two Bjorks are Better Than One
But One Vespertine is Better Than the Other

I find myself in an interesting position this time. I’m about to attempt one review of two albums that are actually the same album.

Let me explain.

Last month, while I was in Europe, I happened across a copy of Bjork’s new album, Vespertine. I’m a huge Bjork fan, as evidenced by the fact that she’s made my Top 10 List twice, in 1998 with Homogenic and last year with Selmasongs. Hence, I jumped at the chance to hear her new one a few weeks early. I bought it, listened to it a few times, sighed audibly and prepared to deem it below average when the U.S. release hit.

Cut to yesterday. Vespertine came out in the U.S., but the version that hit stateside record stores bears only a halfway resemblance to the version I picked up across the pond. Lo and behold, with the excision of a few sub-par tracks, the addition of a few superior ones and a complete resequencing, Vespertine has sprung to magical life. It’s almost a treatise on the last-minute fix.

So now it’s down to me to figure out what was wrong with the first version I heard, and what the “corrected” version got right. The overall tone has remained pretty much the same, which constitutes in either version a far cry from her previous work. Over a stunningly diverse solo career (since leaving the Sugarcubes, who didn’t deserve her anyway), Bjork has dabbled in quirky dance music, big band revival tunes and gorgeous, flowing pop. Her Telegram all but revitalized the remix album, and then she broke astounding new ground with Homogenic, her “technorchestral” album. There she combined the pitter-patter of electronic drums and noise with a full, sweeping orchestra to dramatic effect.

She then perfected and expanded that style with Selmasongs, the soundtrack to her acting debut in Dancer in the Dark. If not for a certain blond rapper with an equally impressive musical and more impressive satirical sense, she’d have captured the top spot on my list last year with a 28-minute EP. These were show tunes deconstructed and rebuilt with warped technology, and they retained the drama inherent to their filmed origins. In other words, Selmasongs was a hard act to follow.

Bjork has decided to follow it, though, with a low-key slice of ambience bereft of the melodrama she’s brought to just about every project. The tidal waves of strings in “Joga” and “I’ve Seen it All” are pretty much gone, and in their place are beds of subtle electronics and acoustic harp. This record chimes as much as it shimmers, and the effect is sometimes creepy, often boring.

Or, at least, it was in the version I first heard. I equated that disc with Radiohead’s dismal Kid A, because she seemed to trade melody for atmosphere. Bjork’s never done an OK Computer, but she’s always had an innate sense of melody, and her sonic adventurousness has always been in service to the songs, not the other way around. Here, though, the beds of electronics seemed repetitive, and everything else helped to drift the material further into the ether. It didn’t help matters that the European version opens with three of the most aimless and atmospheric numbers. In fact, you have to wade through five meandering tunes to get to the first one with a real compositional hook, “Hidden Place.”

The U.S. version wisely finds “Hidden Place” in the leadoff spot. This is the sort of tune that made Homogenic such a keeper. Bjork’s unconventionally appealing voice whorps and whirls about a knock-em-dead chorus laced with orchestration. “Hidden Place” exemplifies what I find most admirable about Bjork: she pushes the boundaries of technology’s place in pop music without forsaking the very things that make her music pop. Unfortunately, much of Vespertine comes down on the wrong side of that equation. The five aimless pieces that open the version I first heard are all on the U.S. version, most under different names and with somewhat different mixes, and all buried deep within the album.

Those that may have picked up the European pre-release version, by the way, may want to know which songs have been re-named. In order: “Blueprint” is now “Pagan Poetry,” “New” is now “Heirloom,” “Crave” is now “An Echo, A Stain,” and “Mouth” is now “Cocoon.” They’re all considerably different-sounding on the U.S. release as well.

Truthfully, the new version isn’t a dramatic departure from the original I heard. Why, then, do I find it so much more acceptable?

For starters, despite what some people may believe about the listener’s prerogative to choose the order in which he or she hears an artist’s work, the sequencing of an album does matter. The European Vespertine saddles the weakest, most ungrounded tracks next to each other, and it becomes nearly impossible to differentiate between one harp-filled dollop of ambience and another. The U.S. version is varied and more complete, with poppier numbers interspersed between meandering ones. Original opening track “Aurora” now effectively bridges the new instrumental “Frosti” and the orchestrated ballad “An Echo, A Stain.” The new sequencing adds to the sense that Vespertine is a finished, inseparable work.

The judicious addition of terrifically melodic new tracks also comes down in the new version’s favor. The samey-sounding “Our Hands” is gone from the original release, and in its place is a lovely winner called “It’s Not Up to You.” That song is third, following “Hidden Place” and the lilting, sexually explicit “Cocoon,” making for a much more invigorating first quarter. Wading through the rest of the record suddenly seems a more attractive prospect.

All this talk of sequencing is really only interesting to audiophiles like me, though. The rest of you are probably only interested in how good the music is. Well, it’s an unfortunate step down from her last two masterpieces, in either version. The drama, the overriding sense of significance, has been bled out, and the sonic palette is a little less interesting here. Vespertine is a darker, creepier piece of work than anything she’s done, but it’s somehow not as satisfying. Still, in its new permutation, the record is much more vibrant, and a couple more spins should convince me that it’s worthy of at least the bottom half of the Top 10 List.

Vespertine does settle for atmosphere over melody a few more times than I’m comfortable with, but it never slips into space filler, and in its new sequence, the atmospheres really complement each other. While it would be far-fetched to consider it a great record, it wouldn’t be so far off the mark to call it Kid A done right. That’s kind of noteworthy right there.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Happiness is a Short Record
Built to Spill Strike Back

The Weinstein Brothers are very smart, as evidenced by the fact that I’m about to play right into their hands and do some of their work for them.

Miramax (headed by the Weinsteins) made the smart decision to sneak preview Kevin Smith’s Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back last weekend, and I caught one of the screenings. The idea of these sneak previews is to build up advance word of mouth. The producers hope that everyone who sees the flick early will like it enough to see it again opening night, and bring five or six friends along. This is an ideal situation for Smith, as his career has been built upon steadily increasing word of mouth. Being a Kevin Smith fan is like belonging to an exclusive club, albeit one that grows exponentially with each new film. His movies all have the feel of something your childhood buddies put together for a laugh.

Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back is the perfect film for one of these sneaks, for a few reasons. First, it’s the funniest film you’re likely to see this year. It’s 100 minutes of rapid-fire hilarity, some of it devilishly clever, some of it unbelievably sophomoric. You’ll have to see it twice because the audience’s laughter will drown out a good chunk of the jokes the first time.

Secondly, and more importantly, it’s the closing chapter in Smith’s View Askew-niverse films, and as such it features characters from Clerks, Mallrats, Chasing Amy and Dogma, his four previous features. The film is loaded with in-jokes, and serves as a somewhat touching goodbye and heartfelt thanks to Smith’s fans. Even so, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen a film so inclusive, so ready to let you in on its good time. Here’s what’s happening right now across the country: hardcore Smith fans who saw the sneak preview are telling their friends how funny J&SBSB is, and making them watch the first four so that they’ll be ready.

The film never makes you feel like you’ve come in at the end, even if you haven’t seen any of the previous four. If you’ve been with him all along, though, this movie is definitely something special. It’s a stupid film that knows how stupid it is, pointing out its own flaws as it goes along and thereby defanging the critics. Really, though, this movie is so good-natured and so willing to laugh with you that harping on it seems petty. It’s full-on flat-out fun from first shot to last (stay through the end credits). I’m not sure I’ve ever seen $20 million pissed away with such wild abandon, and just on that level, it’s hilarious.

Here’s where I do the Weinstens’ jobs for them: go see Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back when it opens on Friday. ‘Nuff said. Noodge.


The compact disc can hold 81 minutes of music without losing sound quality.

More than any other factor, that technological leap has dictated the longer records we’ve seen over the last 10 years. An album used to be 30 to 40 minutes long. These days, in order to make the consumers feel like they’re not being ripped off, discs have ballooned to twice that length. Often, the artists in question just don’t have that much material, and 80-minute albums end up feeling padded.

This year, though, we’ve seen the comeback of the tiny album, and the complaints have flown freely. The most egregious offender was Weezer, whose comeback record after a five-year absence clocked in at 28 minutes. Never mind that they were 28 perfect minutes, the fans expected more, and for the outrageous CD prices most people are forced to pay, how can you blame them? As a commercial product, it’s a bit of a rip-off, but as an album, Weezer is everything it should have been: tight, compact and infused with the sense that there’s more where that came from.

Built to Spill have entered the small album sweepstakes with their 39-minute Ancient Melodies of the Future, released last month. This follows their live record, imaginatively titled Live, which stretched nine songs to over an hour. As thrilling as Live was, it followed a pattern of pushing songs to their breaking points, one that has happily been broken with the new record. Ancient Melodies is the sharpest pop record Built to Spill has come out with since their second, There’s Nothing Wrong with Love.

Let’s back up, because I’ve just lost every non-BTS fan.

Built to Spill are Boise, Idaho’s most famous export, right behind the potato. Masterminded by guitarist/singer Doug Martsch, they combine the indie-rock sensibility of Sonic Youth with the pop songwriting of early Sloan. Martsch helped to pioneer the sloppy-yet-sharp style of guitar playing. He often sounds as if he’s going to slip right off the fretboard at any time, yet he delivers these lovely melodies that rise above the sludge to lodge in your head.

I hope I’m making this sound appealing.

Anyway, after three lovely independent releases, BTS signed with Warner Bros. and delivered their longest, loudest record to date, Perfect From Now On. The songs got longer and sloppier, the melodies got more sparse, and the guitar work took center stage over the songwriting. That trend culminated on Live when Martsch and his bandmates stretched a cover of Neil Young’s “Cortez the Killer” to more than 20 minutes. Martsch appeared to have lost himself in the ether somewhere.

Ancient Melodies of the Future is a bracing re-entry, its title referencing the look back and the look forward it hopefully represents. None of the songs exceed four minutes, and all of them are well-crafted and melodic. The guitars have been scaled back, and vintage-sounding keyboards have been introduced. Despite a reliance on the same chords a few times too many, Ancient Melodies recaptures the sharp pop of the band’s first few albums, albeit on a slightly grander scale. While there are precious few surprises, the record ambles along briskly, buoyed by Martsch’s nonchalantly sweet voice. “Happiness,” especially, is a hit that will never be one, propelled by a Led Zeppelin-esque slide guitar riff. Still and all, by track eight or so you feel like Martsch has exhausted his bag of tricks.

That’s when he pulls out “Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss,” the most winning piece of fluff BTS has ever put together. The song is almost a mission statement, if such a weighty title can be given to such an effervescent tune. It’s here that Martsch fully breaks free from the morass he’s surrounded himself with for three albums. His guitar flits hither and thither, surrounding a big wide grin of a melody that never lets up. Surrounded as it is by Built to Spill’s most accessible material in years, “Little Miss” hopefully signals a new direction for the band towards the kind of light, engaging pop they made it so easy to love.

After all, as Martsch himself once said, there’s nothing wrong with love.

Next, probably Bjork.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

We interrupt This Column for a Big Fat List
Two Months of Musical Excitement

I don’t feel much like doing one of these today.

When I was in the Czech Republic, I happened to wander into Europe’s largest music store, just down the block from our hotel. Actually, that’s a lie. I did everything in my limited, weak-assed power to stay away from Europe’s largest music store, because I knew that what fragile hold I had been keeping on my finances would evaporate upon contact with such a place. You know that scene in Clerks where Randal goes to the real video store and falls to his knees in worship? That was me.

Anyway, while in Europe’s largest music store, I happened across a record by Devin Townsend called Infinity. I mention this just to show the anal-retentive attention to detail I can muster when music is involved. Townsend is the sole member of Strapping Young Lad, and under that guise he produces the loudest and most spine-shattering noise you’re likely to come across. His one and only solo record under his name, however, was never released in the U.S., and finding it in Europe was a thrill. Of course, I bought it.

While checking out, I tried to convey my excitement to the poor register girl, who of course spoke no English. “Not available in the U.S.,” I said triumphantly. “I’m so happy I found this.”

The girl hit me with a look of bewildered disdain and muttered something annoyed-sounding in Czech. She then doubled her speed in the hopes of booting my sad American carcass out of her store as quickly as possible.

And that, my fine friends, is how I’ve been feeling lately, writing this column. I seem to be singularly unable to communicate my excitement about music as an expressive and beautiful art form in any real and meaningful way. When I steer clear of musical topics, the column’s a hit. When I write about one of the real passions of my life, which I love to do, I get a look of bewildered disdain and occasionally a mutter of something annoyed-sounding in some other language. So to speak.

The thing is, I really enjoy dancing about architecture. I started this column for a couple of reasons. First, I wanted an outlet for the tintinabulating din of musical thoughts that fill my skull at any given time. Second, though, and more important, I wanted a way to share and communicate the wonder, joy and heartbreak of truly great music with people. More than just a way of recommending tunes, I wanted Tuesday Morning to be a conduit for the almost unbearable excitement of new music, of the chance to discover the soundtrack to your own life.

I find myself in a bizarre position. I’ve somehow managed to sustain this excitement for new music through the years, and yet I feel I’ve become less adept at communicating it. I’ll gladly keep doing it, of course, but any sign that I’m not shouting into a vacuum here would be most appreciated. I love this stuff, and it’s my everlasting goal to get some of that love across. If by some chance a glimmer slips through the words here, let me know.


I’m going to bypass the every-four-months format of upcoming hype and insert a fifth one this year, because September and October simply rock. There’s so much great stuff coming out that it makes me wish I had a job. Here’s what to look out for in the upcoming two months:

September starts off with a new Orbital record, the long-awaited Altogether, and then kicks into high gear on the 11th with Ben Folds’ Rockin’ the Suburbs. It’s his first record without the Five, and it looks surprisingly serious in nature. None of the song titles contain that immediate Ben Folds Five sophomoric humor (“One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces,” “Your Redneck Past,” etc.). This looks like it may be (shudder) a true artistic statement. Fingers crossed so tightly that they’re turning purple.

Also on the 11th, Bob Dylan officially wins the Grammy award for Album of the Year, no matter how bad Love and Theft turns out to be. Mark my words. They Might Be Giants kick back with Mink Car, and the Verve Pipe hope for another commercial go-round with Underneath. Jude, he of the astonishing falsetto and former residence in Jamaica Plain, returns with King of Yesterday. Finally, former Tears for Fears main man Roland Orzabal sees the stateside release of his Tomcats Screaming Outside. If it’s anything like “Ticket to the World,” the first song, it’s a heavier piece of work than anything TFF.

The following week, of course, is Tori Amos’ Strange Little Girls, a cover album that lays bare the misogyny in today’s popular music. Or so the press material would have us believe. The more I think about this, though, the more I like the idea. Here’s hoping she pulled it off.

Also rocking your world on the 18th is Curve’s fourth record, Gift, and Live’s fifth, which they’ve helpfully titled V. The big expense, however, comes at the hands of Phish, who will be following Pearl Jam’s example and releasing six multi-disc live sets. In Phish’s case, though, the songs are never played the same way twice. They’re the one band I know of who could release an interesting slate of six three-disc live albums every six months and never run out of ideas. It’s no surprise, then, that that’s exactly what they’ll be doing for the foreseeable future. Phish Live is the unimaginative name of the series of consecutively numbered live records, released six at a time. Each will cover three discs and retail for 20 bucks or so, a great deal. If you dug the Hampton Comes Alive set from a few years ago, you’ll go apeshit over this.

The 25th sees Zach de la Rocha, former lead screamer for Rage Against the Machine, striking out on his own. By the way, as a side note, Chris Cornell has been tapped to replace de la Rocha in Rage, which is kind of like if the Sex Pistols asked Paul McCartney to cover for Sid. It won’t work.

Anyway, also on the 25th is a new Days of the New, a highly underrated band, and the debut record from Tenacious D, a satirical folk-rock duo that contains actor Jack Black (High Fidelity). Somebody convinced Michael Jackson that the world could use two more CDs of his crap, so we get Invincible on the 25th as well. Dream Theater will check in with a three-CD live album called Live Scenes in San Francisco. It contains the whole of their latest and greatest album, Scenes from a Memory, as well as two more discs packed to the gills with impossible musicianship. Finally, Suzanne Vega returns (after the critical darling and commercial crapnapkin Nine Objects of Desire) with Songs in Red and Gray.

October gives us (deep breath) a new double-disc Aphex Twin called Drukgz, a new and hopefully improved Bad Religion called The Process of Belief, a new John Mellencamp called Cuttin’ Heads, the third Garbage album beautifulgarbage, a new Lenny Kravitz called simply Lenny, and the debut bow from super-jam-group Oysterhead (featuring Phish’s Trey Anastasio, Primus’ Les Claypool and the Police’s Stewart Copeland) called The Grand Pecking Order. Take that, Mr. Monkeywrench.

Okay, I’m all out. I should have a real column next time discussing any of the following records: Built to Spill’s Ancient Melodies of the Future, Cake’s Comfort Eagle or Bjork’s Vespertine.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

George Lucas In Love…
With Awful Movie Titles

So I’m looking over the latest financial statement from my Individual Retirement Account when a sadistic friend who enjoys my pitched fits of misery e-mails me the just-announced title to the new Star Wars movie.

If you haven’t heard it, get ready. Here it is:

Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones.

I’ve been feeling old for a while now, what with my 10-year high school reunion coming right up and 30 staring me in the face and laughing, so this news wasn’t altogether welcome. The first film I ever saw in the theater was The Empire Strikes Back (sorry, Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back), a captivating experience for a six-year-old, and I’m afraid to go back and watch it again. There are precious few parts of my childhood that I’d like to hold on to and remember fondly, but Star Wars is one of them.

Hence, I go through every rationalization in the book for each boneheaded move George Lucas makes in his quest to permanently sully the treasure of my youth. “Jar-Jar wasn’t that bad,” I’ll say. “In fact, I kind of liked the little shit.” And deep down, I’ll pretend I believe that. Oh sure, the accent got a little grating, and I could have lived without the feces and fart jokes, and okay, it might not have been necessary to put him in every scene, infecting the film like a cancer, and shit, there’s no way I can do this anymore because oh holy Jesus, did Jar-Jar suck.

Still, it’s important to me to think well of Lucas and his work. Thus, the little pained smile comes out, and I speak drivel like, “Little Anakin was really cute,” or, “I dig the Ewoks.” Lately it’s been a bit harder to breathe through my gritted teeth, but I manage.

And then this.

If you think about it, the titles for these films have never been very good. Putting The Phantom Menace aside for a second, look at the so-called classics: The Empire Strikes Back, for example. “So there’s this Empire, right,” Lucas may have said to his incredulous staff, “and in the first movie, which is really the fourth movie, they got their collective asses handed to them by these rebels, so I was thinking that maybe in the second movie, which is really the fifth movie, I’d have the Empire strike back. What do you think?”

Even the very name Star Wars is stupid. Admit it. Say the name out loud, and try to think of it as something you just heard, as opposed to something ingrained in the cultural consciousness. Stupid, isn’t it? Star Wars. A five-year-old could have come up with it. That’s why I can cut the episode titles some slack. It’s all in the spirit of campy fun adventure serials, even if the movies aren’t so much.

But Attack of the Clones? Come fucking on.

“There’s these clones,” Lucas may have said to the same incredulous staff, “and in this film, I think they should attack. See? The clones… they attack. Attack of the Clones. Get it?”

I hate the title of this film. It’s not the mid-level distaste I had for The Phantom Menace, an awful title in its own right, but one which leaves questions and some sort of overarching sense of dread. Attack of the Clones is just downright stupid, and will only serve to make me feel more retarded when I wait in line for 20-some hours again to get into the first showing. I did the same for Menace, and even saw it seven or eight times, convincing myself that it sparked my childhood sense of wonder. I’ll no doubt do the same this time, though I’m already finding that repeating Attack of the Clones aloud is diminishing my excitement by degrees.

The fact that this is the real, actual title of the film and that no “just kidding” e-mail seems to be forthcoming may mean one of two things.

One: George Lucas is an idiot who wouldn’t know good cinema if it crept up behind him and violated him with an R2-D2 doll. There’s much evidence to support this, including a good chunk of Menace. A mythical grand vision notwithstanding, there was no need for most of that film, especially the aforementioned atrocity named Jar-Jar, and that pointless game of “I’m the Queen” that gets dragged out for an hour and a half. Still, I’d like to think that he knows what he’s doing, and that he’s purposely put together the grandest and greatest stupid adventure serial ever filmed. Besides, the concluding lightsaber battle was pretty cool.

Two: George Lucas has somehow retained his childlike sense of whimsy, and he really believes the kid in all of us will respond to a title like Attack of the Clones with exuberance. “Cool,” he thinks we’ll say. “Attacking clones.”

Believe it or not, I think this is the more likely of the two. Lucas remembers being of an age when attacking clones were an important part of any moviegoing experience, right behind murderous zombies and 50-foot-tall monkeys. What this unfortunately means for your faithful author is that I’ve grown up. While the kid in me is still psyched about the lightsaber battles I’ve heard about (including one in the rain – think about that), the adult in me is looking for depth of character, motivation and truth in his cinema. He’s unable to muster up the innocent excitement this film is going to require, and a title like Attack of the Clones is only going to make it harder for the child in me to convince him to go.

Thing is, I want to like this movie. I want to sit down in 10 years with the complete six-movie DVD set and be transported back to my early adolescence. And so, I’m probably going to practice gritting my teeth and lying to myself. “Those clones were pretty cool,” I’ll say. “Did you see them attack? Awesome.”

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Czech Your Head
Oh, I've Been to Prague

Czech Your Head: Oh, I’ve Been to Prague

When I was a junior in college, I took a trek north from Maine to Canada. Despite much evidence to the contrary, Canada continues to hold fast to the idea that it and the United States are separate countries, and so I was filled with a sense of exploration, of entering an uncharted wilderness, of breaking free of the shackles of my narrow-minded American viewpoint. That sense all but faded when, mere seconds after cresting the final hill and passing the sign that read “Welcome to Canada,” I spotted both a Wal-Mart and a McDonald’s. There’s nothing more disheartening than learning that the rest of the world wants to be like the corner of it you’ve just escaped.

I’m not a particularly geographically adventurous person. I can live basically anywhere. I feel that if my parents had told me as a youngster that the family would soon be living in Provost, or Waco, or Three Mile Island, I’d have been able to take that in stride. I’ve also never been filled with the desire to see exotic locales. One place is as good as another to me, generally. Even my sex life is a succession of nondescript bedrooms, mostly mine. My trip to Canada did little to instill wanderlust in me, and so I greeted my second opportunity to leave the USA with nonchalant acceptance. While I didn’t exactly turn up my nose at the chance to spend a week in Prague, the capital city of the Czech Republic, I didn’t jump for joy, either. I figured it would be just another place.

I’m not very good at predicting my own reactions.


My sister Emily calls the Czech Republic “Paveland,” after my mother’s boyfriend, Pavel Vodicka. Pavel is in his 40s and was born in Prague under communist rule. Ten years ago, he emigrated to the United States to become a professional ballroom dancer here, after winning several awards in his native country. He met my mother, also an aspiring dancer, and though it’s taken me some time to come around to him, he’s been very good for her. Together they’ve opened their own dance studio in Bellingham, Massachusetts. They call it Metronome.

Every year, my mother and Pavel travel to the Czech Republic to see Pavel’s parents, and this time, I was invited. I in turn invited my old roommate Gary to join us. Gary had enough visible excitement for the two of us, and I believe he had the time of his life.

Had it been just the four of us, I probably would have had nothing to complain about, which would have been so far out of character that my mother may not have recognized me. Fortunately, she invited two dental practitioners from her day job to come along, and they may have been the most unintentionally, unknowingly obnoxious people I’ve ever been stuck in a limo with.

Dr. Ed is wealthy beyond measure, and yet he dresses more slovenly than I do. He bears a passing resemblance to Dr. Who’s Tom Baker, and speaks with a fading Brooklyn accent. Lydia, his companion of 20-some years, is almost as broad as she is tall and never stops talking. She probably speaks endlessly to herself in her sleep, on the toilet and in the shower, and I often fantasized about sending her into a coma to see if that might shut her up. This pair has traveled the world, not really taking in any of it. They’re the sort that believe that just having been to a place entitles you to the last word on it.

In the final analysis, though, I’m glad they came along, because they gave me a perfect example of the noxious American tourist I didn’t want to be on this trip. We’re submerged from an early age in the jingoistic notion that America is the greatest place on earth, and I wanted to seize the opportunity to look through a different lens.

With that in mind, I tried to adopt a widescreen point of view. I would not, I resolved, refer to anything I came across in the Czech Republic as “strange,” “weird” or “wrong,” preferring instead to use words like “different,” “unfamiliar” and “fresh.” Within hours, though, I had dubbed the Czechs’ idea of beds, toilets and showers “bizarre” and “stupid.” Our hotel room was on the fourth floor, the beds were only slightly less comfortable than sleeping upon a jagged boulder, the toilets didn’t flush until the third or fourth try, and the shower came complete with free-floating head that had to be turned off before one could lather one’s hair, lest the room and all its contents resemble a bad day on a flood plane.

Other than that, though, the hotel was quite nice. Because of the six-hour time difference, we were encouraged to sleep a bit to ease into local time, advice Gary and I resoundingly ignored, preferring to shuffle through our first day in Prague like somnambulant mopes.


Prague is breathtakingly beautiful. If you plan to go, I can wholeheartedly echo the advice of one of Gary’s 735 guide books – “Look up.” All of the buildings are ancient, ornate and lovely, and even the most insignificant buildings are adorned with impressive statues and bronze work. Of course, if you choose to look down, you’ll be equally impressed by the endless, complex pattern of cobblestones that make up every square inch of the city’s surface. Walking though Prague is an exercise in sensory overload. You can’t possibly take it all in.

Historically, the Czech Republic is in an interesting place, with Prague as its cultural and political center. The city was constructed mainly in the 13th and 14th centuries, which accounts for the jeweled magnificence of its buildings, cathedrals and such. Czechoslovakia enjoyed centuries of democracy before the Germans advanced on it in 1939, occupying it. The Americans and Russians liberated the country in the early ‘40s, and the Russians simply stayed, setting up a communist government. 50 years of occupation culminated in 1989 in the Velvet Revolution, the major events of which took place a few streets up from our hotel, in Wenceslas Square. Following the ousting of the Russians, the Czechs and the Slovaks split into two separate countries, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, in what became known as the Velvet Divorce. The first and current president of the Czech Republic is Vaclav Havel, noted playwright and dissident, which would be a lot like the U.S. voting in David Mamet.

On the way to his parents’ apartment, Pavel tells us something interesting about the Square. “It’s where everyone celebrates,” he says. “Whenever Czechs beat Russians at anything, the square fills up with people, all celebrating.” I ask, and find out that “anything” extends to the smallest of sporting events – chess, arm wrestling, tiddlywinks, whatever. If the Czechs beat the Russians, it’s party time.


Pavel’s parents are the second-nicest people on earth. We would meet the nicest people on earth two days later, but for the time being, the Vodickas held the crown.

Prague is divided into 16 numbered sections, with Prague 1 being ground zero – Wenceslas Square, our hotel, etc. The further away from the center you get, the more the architecture begins to look like those depressing pictures of communist-occupied countries in your third grade history book. To promote sameness, the Russians constructed mile after mile of cookie-cutter apartment buildings, with each individual unit the same size as all the others. They’re quite small and square, and the buildings perhaps aren’t stultifying by themselves, but the cumulative effect of hundreds of them all lined up is claustrophobic.

After the Velvet Revolution, the occupants of these units were given the option to own them. Most took the government up on it, including the Vodickas, who live in a four-room apartment in Prague 5. They speak not a lick of English, except for the few words my mother has taught them over the years. Their faces are expressive enough to break the language barrier, though, and get their point across.

The Vodickas never once sat down and ate with us. Instead, they served us and cleaned up after us as if we were paying guests in a four-star restaurant. The food by itself lent to that impression even more. Between the pork and dumplings, the soup and the rich chocolate, it’s a wonder I didn’t gain 50 pounds. Even if I had, I’d have walked it off by the end of the week anyway.

Our first visit to the Vodickas’ place culminated in a lengthy, heated political discussion, in English, between Ed, Lydia, Gary and myself. I’m certain our hosts didn’t understand a word. Our second visit was punctuated by Ed’s boisterous and drunken demands for more food, in as obnoxious a voice as he could manage. Through all that, the Vodickas remained gracious and welcoming, long past the point when I’d have thrown our American asses out on the street. We tried thanking them with little gifts at the end of our stay, but they didn’t seem like quite enough.


Our second day took us all over the city, and “sensory overload” barely does the feeling justice. While the rest of us were interested in historical buildings and works of art, it quickly became obvious that Ed and Lydia were there to shop. Our procession ground to a halt numerous times while the pair stopped to gaze into another tourist trap crystal shop. Hand-crafted crystal is the chief product of the Czech Republic, or so the stores littered about would have you believe. Most of it is quite nice, but unlike cathedrals, if you’ve seen one crystal shop, you’ve pretty much seen them all.

The Charles Bridge is, impressively, one of a kind. It connects two sections of Prague 1, and it’s constructed of an intricate confluence of stones and mortar. It looks hundreds of years younger than it probably is, thanks to the incredible restoration efforts of the Czech government. Whatever the Russians left standing (which is, remarkably, just about everything) has been renovated and restored painstakingly, so that Prague is something of an old/new city.

The bridge is dotted with stunning statues, each of a religious figure, and each more than 50 feet tall. There are dozens of these, and underneath them sit booths and stands where fantastic artists peddle their works. We’re talking intricate, detailed linework drawings of the cityscape, incredible black and white photos of landmarks, and handmade ornaments. While these are just as tourist-oriented as the crystal shops, their homegrown ambience somehow sets them apart. The bridge is also home to musicians and performers, notably a man with a marionette that plays along with recordings of classical guitar music. Cliched as it may sound, everywhere one looks there’s something to see.

The Jewish quarter, Josefov, is impressive in an altogether different way. The Holocaust Museum includes the names of each Czech Jew taken to the camps, written in six-point type, and the list covers the surface of every wall of the two-story, multi-room building. Most devastating were the displays of children’s drawings from that time, when the Jewish parents were moving heaven and earth to hide the possibility of imminent death from their kids. The illustrations of train cars, guns and people struck down in the streets proved beyond a doubt that the children knew what was going on.

The Jewish cemetery is smaller than a football field, and contains thousands of bodies, some buried 12 deep, one atop the other. It was the only place, by law, that Jews were allowed to be buried. The place has a quiet, persistent horror about it, as if the cemetery itself knows what might happen if we forget this part of our history, and keeps nudging us.

Despite the presence of several signs advising against it, Lydia took several photographs and chatted loudly all the way through the burial ground. Some people learn nothing, no matter how patiently they’re taught.


The Museum of Medieval Torture Instruments is an experience.

Not only do they have several wince-inducing devices on display, but they provide helpfully graphic illustrations of these devices in use. The only lesson one can possibly take from this is that people are endlessly inventive in their cruelty. We got out of there pretty quickly.


On our third day, we rented cars and drove across the country to one of the many castles that rise forth from the otherwise flat and unremarkable landscape. Each room of this monstrosity is more opulent and extravagant than the last, with massive statues, paintings, woodcarvings and brass work strewn about in delirious fashion. I noted several intricate hanging sculptures that seemed to serve no purpose, but which each must have taken months to produce.

Our tour guide was irrepressibly cute, and she fumbled her English a few times, which only increased her cute factor. Tours were given in English, Czech and German, and so several French-speaking parents who also understood English came along on our tour, translating for their children. Naturally, this incensed Lydia, who must have said a dozen times, “Why can’t they take their own tour? This is the English-speaking tour.” I wanted to impale her on one of the many sharp metal weapons in the castle’s extensive armory and leave her dying, rotten corpse six levels underground, where future civilizations could dig her remains up and speculate on where our society as a whole went wrong.

Ed remarked that the castle reminded him of Disney World. I replied that making a statement like that is akin to listening to the Beatles and being reminded of the Monkees.


Pavel’s brother is nothing like him or his family, which is why he got the American-sounding name: Martin. Martin joins us at a gorgeous beer garden to sample Czech pride in a bottle, also known as deep, rich beer. According to Pavel, Sam Adams is the only American beer that comes close. This particular brand is only brewed in Prague and is not exported. The story is the same for the most famous Czech liquor, Becherovka. I can’t help but feel for the Czech immigrants in the U.S., forced to consume Budweiser and Zima as if it were a worthy substitute.

This is the first and last we see of Martin. He’s an electrician by trade, a gruff, hard-drinking individual who seems like he’d be fun to hang around with, if not for the insurmountable language barrier. I know Czech beer is “bivo,” which brought a smile to Martin’s face, though, so it all turned out okay.


Gary and I caught a showing of Tmavomodry Svet, also known as Dark Blue World, the closest thing the Czech Republic has ever had to a blockbuster film. It’s the story of Czech pilots who flew with the RAF during World War II, and how the Russians rounded those pilots up in camps when they took occupation, considering them a threat. Overall, it’s not bad, despite its unfortunate similarities to Pearl Harbor, but it’s infused with a palpable sense of Czech national pride. The film was written and directed by Jan Sverak, the maker of Kolya, and the foremost Czech filmmaker of the moment. As an historical document, both of the war and the current period of national identification, it’s intriguing.

Also satisfying is the traversal of the language barrier the film demands. Most of it is in Czech with English subtitles, but since a lot of it takes place in Britain, the British speak English with Czech subtitles. If that weren’t interesting enough already, the Germans speak German with both Czech and English subtitles. The movie forces you to listen and read simultaneously instead of tuning out the languages you don’t know. You’re never certain when it will switch.

At this point, I had learned about a dozen Czech words, most helpfully “prosim” (please) and “dekuji” (thank you). The language is impenetrable, however, for those of us brought up in the romance languages. Czech contains nine or so vowels, some only separated by the length of breath required to speak them. Each noun is assigned a gender, a policy which seems to have been carried out randomly. Adding to the confusion is the system of implied vowels they use. For example, “bn” is “bin,” with an implied “i.” All things considered, I think I did okay.

On the way back from the film, Gary and I were propositioned for the first time by a Czech hooker. An aging, toothless hag carelessly propped against a wall in an alley called to us in the only phrases I’d bet she knows in English: “Ah, sex? Ah, blowjob?”

“Ah, no,” I replied in a delirious mimic, discovering that perhaps sometimes I should reign in that smartass gene. “Ano,” you see, is Czech for “yes.” Whoops.


On Thursday we met the nicest people in the world, Yurislav and Mijka. Yurislav is the father of Pavel’s ex-wife, Inez, and Mijka (pronounced “Micah”) his new bride. This man, who struck me as wholly Italian, took us the secret, backwoods route to a wondrous restaurant called the Blue Rabbit. There he paid for all of our meals, which must have run in excess of 7500 crowns, or 200 bucks. (A crown is worth about one-thirty-fifth of a U.S. dollar.)

I like to have some historical or blood relation to those people who buy my meals. Here’s how I’m related to Yurislav: I’m the son of his daughter’s ex-husband’s new girlfriend. That’s to say nothing of Ed and Lydia, boisterous as always, who have no relation at all. Yurislav and Mijka were infinitely warm and open, even when we thought he might be taking us the secret mob passages in order to kill us. The next day, they presented us with gifts as well. America could use a few more like them.


Gary and I took to wandering the city at night, getting somewhat lost and finding our way back. Gary had a map of Prague 1 in his head, all of which was based around a large construction crane that could have been moved at any time and thrown us into chaos. As long as the crane stayed put, though, we could find our way back from anywhere.

One of the city’s most bizarre attractions is the astronomical clock, a huge edifice that, on the hour, puts on an animated show for the hundreds of assembled admirers. The twelve apostles come out of two large windows, look down and retreat back in. A skeleton rings a chime. At the end of it all, an obviously genetically altered rooster crows like a deranged chimpanzee, to uproarious applause from the crowd below. It’s worth seeing once.

The Charles Bridge is worth seeing over and over again, especially at night. As Gary and I were making our way to it one evening, cursing our swollen and throbbing feet, we came upon a blind, crippled old woman with the voice of a choir of angels. She stood, hunched over and leaning on her wheelchair, beneath the ratted sign of a jewel shop. Suffering through a hacking cough, the woman launched into an aria that made the stone statues around her weep. She then picked up a tattered violin and proceeded to sing through that with the same glorious quality of voice. Words cannot describe the beauty and do it justice.

When we moved on, as we had to eventually, we felt that we were stepping out of a magical zone, and that this drooping yet somehow soaring woman possessed secrets that we would never know.


I could have stayed all year.

Unfortunately, our trip was a finite one, and it ended on a rooftop restaurant near the bridge. From there, you could see the entire cityscape, wrapping around you like a 360-degree hallucination. While the others reminisced and cajoled each other, I stepped away without leaving my seat, and took one last look around. I wondered what it might have been like to grow up here, and to take all of this for granted.

Just then, a group of impetuous American teenagers pushed past me and stormed down the stairs toward the mezzanine, one screaming to the other, “Fine, we’ll just walk the whole Prague. You don’t even like it here.”

It could have been a reminder that self-imposed unhappiness exists everywhere, regardless of one’s surroundings. I suppose, had I been listening, I might have seen some of my own former disdain for the magic of places in her outburst, but I was miles above it all, looking down and committing the great city to memory, making plans to return and, above all, liking it here.

Uvidime se ve fronte v utery rano.

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?


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 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.